Tag Archives: Barry Malzberg

Barry N. Malzberg’s Galaxies

Barry N. Malzberg, Galaxies (1976, Carrol & Graf 1989)

A while back the Art Student and I went to the Gleebooks launch of a book called something like The Brain, at which the author spoke entertainingly about hypergraphia, or perhaps graphomania, which he said was a biologically-based disorder suffered by, among others, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Cervantes. We came away knowing little about the book, but the fantasy that a deformed hypothalamus or whatever was responsible for the creation of Raskolnikov, Hamlet and Sancho Panza has a certain lasting, sick appeal. If such a condition existed, Barry N. Malzberg would be one of the few recorded sufferers to have recovered. He wrote a phenomenal number of books in his 20s and 30s and then, apparently, pretty much stopped.

Galaxies is a multifaceted, challenging, joyous, anguished outpouring (or perhaps, though I doubt it, carefully crafted facsimile of an outpouring). It begins, ‘To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one.’ The writer, referred to throughout in the third person, is a hack writer of science fiction and other genre, as Malzberg was, and there’s plenty of complaining about the pay levels and other drawbacks of the life. In the novel, a spacecraft carrying a cargo of 515 cryogenically preserved dead people, falls into a ‘black galaxy’ and its sole crew member lives seven thousand lives, converses with a trio of mechanical Job’s comforters, and finally makes a decision. But there are also the notes, which shoot off in all directions – lampooning the conventions of science fiction, canvassing the relationship between it and literary fiction, between it and science, discussing the craft of writing, all with tremendous energy and reflexive irony.

What he has to say about science fiction may be dated. I don’t know enough to say. I imagine a knowledgeable reader would enjoy this even more than I did – certainly I got a kick out of the references I did spot. For example, talking about the kinds of fate that science fiction hacks can expect, he gives examples whom he calls A, B and C. It was fairly clear to me that the first two of those innocent sounding letters actually stood for Asimov and Ballard. Later in the same paragraph he refers to himself as M, confirming the suspicion and capping the joke.

The book is funny and serious and pained and exuberant. On almost every page there are paragraphs that cry out to be quoted. I finally weakened towards the end of the book and folded down a page on this:

Success teaches nothing; failure presents limits, gives us the tragic sense without which understanding is impossible. Successes are composed of a thousand failures like the way the photographs in newspapers reduce on inspection to myriad scattered dots, each expressionless, all comprising vision.

Beyond Apollo

Barry N Malzberg, Beyond Apollo (1972, Pocket Books 1974)

In the real world, the Apollo moon program lasted from 1962 to 1972. Beyond Apollo, first published in 1972, tells what happened next: a failed attempt to land men on Mars in 1976, and then the Venus project in 1981. The immediate aftermath of the latter is the book’s present moment.  Malzberg’s future is our past. If he had been aiming for accurate prediction, he failed miserably. But this isn’t that kind of book.

James Tiptree Jr said of Barry Malzberg: ‘Everybody and everything hurts, for no known reason.’ She could have been giving us an abstract of this book. The main character, Harry Evans, has returned to earth after failing to land on Venus. His fellow-traveller, the Captain, died out there. Evans is probably deranged by whatever happened out there, although possibly his derangement out there led to whatever happened. He gives his debriefers – and us – about ten different versions of events, none of them cheery. Some are obvious fantasy, some probably lies, none is obviously true. He remembers (or fantasises) a lot of unpleasant sex with his wife, and possibly with the Captain. Actually, I probably approached this books thinking I should have read it when I was 14 – science fiction’s ideal reader is supposed to be a 14 year old boy, right? Well, no! I would strongly discourage any 14 year old boy, and a fortiori any 14 year old girl, from reading this. I read the horrible marital rape scenes as somehow parallelling the  mechanistic, soulless nature of the Venus project (Venus//sex, OK?), but they sure weren’t fun to read.

This is probably a very good book. Though there are aliens (possibly invented by Evans, possibly real, who is to know?), the book is not the romp with sexy aliens promised by the lurid cover. Nor is it an easy read. Everybody hurts, including the reader.

Herovit’s bygone world (with addition)

Barry N Malzberg, Herovit’s World (Pocket 1974)

HerovitI picked this out from my huge Science-Fiction-Books-To-Be-Read cache because it’s very thin, and because James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon mentioned Malzberg as one of her favourites (though she did characterise him somewhat deterringly as a writer ‘in overt pain’, so that ‘Everybody and everything hurts, for no known reason’).

This is almost certainly not a book that Barry Malzberg reputation rests on. It’s hardly science fiction at all, in fact, rather a grimly comic tale of a hack sf writer’s disintegration after writing 92 novels and 51 pages, plus innumerable magazine stories in little more than 22 years. It’s a prolonged self-hating in-joke, or possibly a prolonged in-joke about self-hatred. After much anguish, the writer, Jonathan Herovit allows his much more practical pseudonym to take over his own life, but when the latter fails miserably to deal with the real world, he is replaced by the even more man-of-action but even less cluey main character from Herovit/Poland’s SF series. It’s a book that has dated severely, as the science fiction world it satirises is (I imagine) no longer with us, and because its sexual politics are repulsive. Even allowing for irony, the portrayal of sex/sexism is strikingly unreconstructed. Herovit rapes his sleeping wife at one point; waking up, she makes it clear that she’s not a willing participant and that he’s hurting her. No one ever calls it rape: it seems to be just one of a series of terrible sexual experiences all round. A couple of days later Herovit’s wife leaves him. It’s not the rape that was the final straw, however, but an episode of impotence. Clearly, for the staunchly feminist Tiptree to have seen Malzberg as a favourite, his writing elsewhere must offer something extraordinary to offset this horror. It’s true, though, that in this book everybody and everything hurts, including the reader.

There is a lighter note. I’m notorious for failing to respect books as physical objects (Hi Judy!). But considered as an artifact, this cheap US paperback from the early 1970s is a thing that even I could appreciate. Look at this spread:


The narrow margins suggest that the publishers really want to give you maximum wordage for your dollar, and then the ad takes even less of the burden of cost from the reader’s shoulders. I’m grateful that there are only two ads altogether, both for the same brand of cigarettes. This one is clearly for the romantic, the one on the reverse page features an elegant model steam train, clearly for the man’s man.

Added later by request, the other ad: