Science fiction got it right

Last night I finished rereading a science fiction novel from the late 1960s, one that I first read when I was a boy, about twelve years old. The novel is oddly prophetic of some aspects of our current political situation.

I have always been a voracious reader. My mother used to say that she taught me how to read when I was four so she had time to do housework and other tasks instead of always reading to me. The public library was not far from our house; I could walk there and back without crossing any streets, which was a blessing, since I often read while walking home from the library. I regularly won the summer reading competitions sponsored by the library for children; some of my friends tried to keep up with me by checking out books and returning them unread, but my proximity to the library kept me ahead of their pace. By the time I was twelve, I had exhausted the children’s section of the library and was exploring the larger collection. My attention was drawn to a display of paperback science fiction novels. I met the great science fiction writers there: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. I also read books that had no hope of becoming classics. Three books in particular were favorites; in the last five years, I have managed to acquire copies of all three—one because it is back in print, one that I found in a used book sale, and one that my daughter the librarian tracked down for me even though I could not remember the name of the author or the title of the book.

Bug Jack Barron, by Norman Spinrad, is the book I finished last night—the one that is back in print. Frankly, I’m surprised that I was allowed to read that book at that age—my parents must have trusted the library staff; either the library staff trusted my parents to oversee my reading, or they did not know what some of their novels contained. Bug Jack Barron has pages that would make Henry Miller blush. (When I, as an adult, read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I wondered at first what the fuss was about, since I had read dirtier work in my younger and more impressionable years.) Because of those selections, I cannot recommend the book to most readers. Still, the plot and characters remained vivid in my mind over all these years, so the book contains some literary value.

Bug Jack Barron is copyright 1969, but it clearly was written a year or two earlier. It is set in a near future—no year is specified. Telephone communication largely includes video as well as audio material. Marijuana has been legalized and is commercially available. A third political party, the Social Justice Coalition, has formed out the Civil Rights Movement. Although the SJC has elected some African Americans to state offices and into Congress, it has not resolved the larger racial inequalities in American society.

The title character, Jack Barron, is a television personality. He has a call-in show: viewers call to “bug” him with their problems, and he uses his prominence and celebrity to help solve those problems. At this time, the Democratic Party has a stranglehold on Congress and the White House. At one point, Barron comments on that fact that, over the course of many years, the Republicans had nominated only two men capable of claiming the presidency: Eisenhower and Reagan. But now a coalition of SJC and Republican leaders wants to nominate Jack Barron, knowing that his television personality is popular enough to defeat any likely Democratic candidate.

The bulk of the story revolves around a multi-billionaire whose medical researchers are unlocking the secrets of human immortality; much of his funding comes from people whose bodies are frozen at death and stored until their fatal conditions can be medically cured in the future. All of Spinrad’s characters have a deep fear, even revulsion, toward death; no mention of religious hope or comfort ever appears in the novel.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is Barron’s realization that he can control his opponents through his television show, editing what they say to show them at their worst while enhancing his heroic stance. On his own, Barron has discovered what we now call “fake news,” and with that tool he plans to seize and hold power. I wonder how Mr. Spinard is reacting to our politics of 2020. J.

The war on information

Ray Bradbury wrote a number of science fiction stories in which a totalitarian government attempted to forbid the preservation of literature and history. The government tried to maintain control over the population by restricting information available to that population, often by forbidding and burning books. In one of his stories, though, Bradbury imagined the government controlling citizens by using the opposite extreme. The government flooded the market with information, producing so much material that no one could receive it all and comprehend it all. Important matters were lost in the flood of information, and the citizens were unable to resist control from the government under that condition.

Contemporary society has, perhaps, reached the point that Bradbury envisioned. The ordinary laws of supply and demand—and not a malevolent government—have overwhelmed people of our time with information of every kind. We have at our fingertips news and history, medical information, the results of scientific research, access to all the fine arts, and many more sources of education and of entertainment.

People use this abundance and freedom in strange ways. Instead of viewing the plays of Shakespeare, or listening to the symphonies of Beethoven, or enjoying the artwork of the Italian Renaissance, the largest number of people has turned to scripted shows that are called, ironically, “Reality TV.” News about current events and about historic events is increasingly being presented in entertainment formats rather than researched documentaries. Satirical news has grown in popularity, in part because many people cannot discern the difference between satire and real news.

From the Baroque era into the twentieth century, modern philosophers assumed that information could be received objectively and communicated objectively. Postmodern thinkers assume that all research and all communication is biased. As a result, contemporary people choose among a variety of news media, selecting those that match the biases already formed within their minds. Some trust The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Others prefer the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Breitbart. Each group accuses the others of trusting biased and distorted sources of information while failing to acknowledge that their own sources are also biased.

Some news stories are covered across the spectrum, although they are addressed and described differently in different places. Others are reported only by one side or only by the other. In controversial matters—for example, climate change—contrary studies are presented by different news sources as authoritative. Contrary reports also reveal mistakes or deliberate distortions in some studies, undermining the authority of the other side’s evidence for its position.

In the midst of all this contrary information, a growing segment of the population doubts everything that it hears as news. One day coffee is good for a person and red wine is dangerous; the next day red wine is beneficial but coffee should be avoided. Conspiracy theories prosper precisely because they seem more believable than the news that is being reported.

As to conspiracy theories, they began to flourish in the days of Watergate and because of revelations about conspiracies and crime within the White House and also in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Watergate actually revealed how government conspiracies really work: they are subject to incompetent agents, selfishness of individuals, and a lack of trust within any organization. Human people are fallible; they will not succeed with conspiracies that require large-scale participation, continuing deception, or a possible reward for the first conspirator who tells the truth about what really happened.

The danger in our current condition, this war on information, is that people who believe nothing inevitably begin believing anything. Satirical news frequently is repeated as if it were reliable information. Pity the poor elected leader a few years ago who, on the floor of the state senate, called for regulation to ban or at least limit the use of a certain chemical because it was directly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. (The chemical was water.) Because truth sometimes is stranger than fiction, many strange fictions are accepted as truth.

Doubt any report that relies upon the assumption that all the people of a large group with one common characteristic are working together for a common goal. All politicians, all leaders of big business, all entertainers, all homosexuals, all Christians, all Muslims—none of these groups are united enough to be working together to try to control the world.

Doubt any report that depicts a large number of people keeping grand secrets. Doubt any report that describes some massive hidden technology that is behind some unexplained event. Doubt any report that claims that a hidden group of people (especially one that hides in public with web sites and scheduled meetings) is secretly running the world. Doubt any report that a widely witnessed event never happened but was faked by some group for nefarious purposes.

Fake news existed in ancient times and will continue to exist beyond our lifetimes. What used to be labeled “rumor” is now spread by technology that gives it an added layer of credibility. We can survive the war on information by using a little common sense, checking sources when possible, and remembering to think for ourselves rather than allowing others to do our thinking for us.