Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Three stories by Barry Malzberg

I am a fan of Barry Malzberg’s, but I have two big reservations. 1) Malzberg came up with a genius plot and theme, the psychologically unstable astronaut who goes insane while out in space and kills his comrades and/or the entire Earth, but then he wrote that same story again and again. 2) Malzberg, like many people, is obsessed with the JFK murder, which I am sick of hearing about. So, last night when I sat down with three different anthologies to read three Malzberg stories, I had my fingers crossed in hopes that they would not touch on these two themes.
“Shiva” (1999) I read this in David Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 5.  

This is a parody of time travel stories, especially the ones in which somebody goes back in time and tries to, or fears he will, change history.  The main character is from 2218, and goes back to the 20th century to try to prevent the Algeria crisis and the Vietnam wars by talking to young Charles De Gaulle and Pol Pot.  He also meets JFK and tries to warn him away from going to Dallas where he will be assassinated.  The joke is that these talks and warnings have no chance of succeeding.  Not only are there nonsensical rules for time travelers that make the job hard (you aren’t allowed to bring future documents to the past, for example) but the time traveler is totally incompetent: he doesn’t really want the job of being a trouble shooting time traveler, is not even a college graduate, and has a bad memory.  Trying to convince Kennedy to not go to Dallas is something many apprentice time travelers do as a sort of training mission, so Kennedy has seen many people pop into existence, warn him not to go to Dallas, and then vanish; by the time the main character shows up Kennedy thinks these people are simply hallucinations.

In the story’s eight pages the traveler also meets Einstein and Oppenheimer (it is from Oppenheimer’s famous quote that the story’s title comes), in an effort to prevent the development of the atomic bomb.  There is a hint that the story is about responsibility, how people refuse to take responsibility for the world they create, and also the fact that how much responsibility we really have in a deterministic universe is questionable; Kennedy talks of fate, and everyone in the time travel program knows that these trips to the past are doomed to failure.

This story is brief, inoffensive, mildly amusing.  Besides the JFK angle, a common Malzberg theme that shows up is how the time travel program is routinely incompetent, and sends a psychologically unprepared person on a mission- this also describes the space program in many Malzberg stories.

“Leviticus: In the Ark” (1975) I read this in Epoch, the ambitious anthology of all original stories edited by Elwood and Silverberg.

This story takes place in a postapocalyptic, theocratic world where people live in “complexes.”  The rulers of this world (which apparently has a population of 20 billion people) believe the apocalypse (which in the story is called “the holocaust” or abbreviated to capital “H”) was the result of the collapse of traditional religion, and they are determined that this will not happen again.  To this end religion is now very serious business, and everyone must take part.  In one of the Orthodox Jewish complexes one of the rituals is the confinement of a man in the ark in the synagogue with the holy books; during services when the rabbi opens the ark to get the Torah scrolls the congregants can see the confined man in there.

The protagonist of the story, a man named Leviticus, is chosen for confinement in the ark.  He is unwilling, but unable to escape this duty, and, while in the ark, he (perhaps) goes insane.  During the service, when a rabbi opens the ark, Leviticus assails him and starts a brawl in the middle of the temple.  This brawl is the climax of the story, and Malzberg suggests that the brawl is the metaphorical, or even actual, start of another “H.”

Having little knowledge of any religion, and in particular of Jewish ritual and theology, myself, I am probably missing nuances and allusions in this story.  Malzberg seems to be making a point about the social purpose of religion, and how this purpose is not linked to the specifics or truths of any particular religion.  “Belief is nothing,” say the elders as they force Leviticus into the ark and lock him inside.  It is also hard not to see the story as having a similar structure to Mazlberg’s stories about astronauts who, once locked in their space capsules, go insane and then wreak havoc on the world.

This story is interesting and thought-provoking, so I like it.

“Gehenna” (1971) I read this four-page tale in The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Silverberg and Greenberg. 
Here we have the story of three young sensitive middle-class New York City inhabitants who each attend the same party in Greenwich Village.  We hear their story three times; each time the focus is on a different character, each time the story is a little different, but each time at least one of them commits suicide.  By the third story I was laughing out loud, though I’m not sure if this was Malzberg’s intent.  Is Malzberg seriously examining the vacuity of modern life and relationships, or is he spoofing the typical New-York-artist/intellectual-unhappy-with-bourgeois-life story?

Not only is the story itself funny, but it is funny to find it in a book of “science fiction masterpieces.”  Excepting the possibility that the story is portraying alternate universes, or maybe the suffering of the damned in hell, the story lacks any SF elements, and has many of the traditional elements of mainstream literary fiction.  (Of course, Malzberg, though an SF fan and in fact one of the most erudite experts on the field, is a frustrated mainstream literary author.) 

An amusing puzzle; I like it.


So, three stories, all strange, all worthwhile, and by a happy coincidence the first was the least and the last the most fun.  In Epoch almost 40 years ago Malzberg wrote that he had written 70 novels and 150 stories, so there is no doubt that I will be reading more Malzberg in the future.                  


  1. Fantastic review. I have his collection Out From Ganymede -- tried to read it a few weeks ago, the first story's first paragraph was almost exactly like the first paragraph of Falling Astronauts....

    That said, Revelations and Beyond Apollo are two of my favorite SF books of all time. He is brilliant, I just wish there was more variety in what he wrote...

  2. Thanks for the compliment.

    I also have Out From Ganymede, and, yeah, the title story is like an inferior version of Falling Astronauts. I loved Falling Astronauts, have not read Beyond Apollo yet.

    I have, I think, five reviews of Malzberg SF things on Amazon I will eventually paste on here. I am curious to read some of his non-SF novels, but have not done so yet.

    I think I have pestered you before about your need to read Galaxies, so I won't do it again. It is quite different from Falling Astronauts, so don't worry!

    1. Have you read In the Enclosure (1973)? I found it distinctly different than his normal fare -- first of all, the main characters are aliens imprisoned by humans.

    2. I haven't read that one yet. I'll keep it in mind.