Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On A Planet Alien by Barry Malzberg

My copy's front cover
Recently, up in Mankato, Minnesota, at a used bookstore decorated with hand-scrawled signs demanding that you not use your cell phone on the premises, I purchased a 1974 paperback edition of New Jersey-based author and critic Barry Malzberg's On a Planet Alien.  Perhaps even more remarkable than the cover illustration, with its panoply of girls' boobs and phallic symbols, are the extravagant blurbs praising Malzberg.  Harlan Ellison claims that Malzberg's work is so good that the work of other SF writers looks like a crime by comparison.  Somebody at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction proclaims Malzberg "a true hero!"  A note from the publisher calmly reports that Malzberg's sales now total over 5 million.  (This lead me to mental calculations beginning, "If Malzberg got one penny/nickel/dime for each sale....")  

The praise from FSF and Ellison is expanded upon on the first page, and Robert Silverberg joins the mix.  Silverberg is quoted as saying, "One of the most terrifying visions ever to come out of science fiction."  Not only is this a fragment, but it is not clear if old Silverbob was referring to On a Planet Alien or some other Malzberg work or Malzberg's entire body of work.  The accolades from Ellison and FSF are even more cryptic: FSF calls Malzberg "a big frog in the biggest pond" and Ellison says the effect on him of reading The Destruction of the Temple "can only be described in terms of the Rape of the Sabine Women...."

It is appropriate that the advertising blurbs be mysterious, as On a Planet Alien is a pretty mysterious novel.  In the 25th century all the space faring races have joined together in a Federation.  This Federation searches the universe for habitable planets with pre-technological societies; when such civilizations are discovered representatives of the Federation are sent to contact them, to provide them with science and technology and guide their development in a peaceful direction, so they can one day join the Federation themselves.

My copy's back cover
On a Planet Alien is the story of one such team, which consists of two couples, Hans Folsom, the commander, and his "mate," Nina, a linguist, and a pair of homosexual lovers, Stark, a sociologist, and Closter, a geologist.  The four travel to a planet 3712 light years from Earth and there meet primitive aliens with an unusually advanced religion.  They capture one of the aliens' "Elders" and teach him English (or whatever language people speak in the 25th century.)  A strange artifact with runes on it, suggesting that the planet has either been visited by spacefaring aliens or once was home to a now vanished technological civilization, is also found.  Before any more of the natives can be taught English, Folsom goes insane and murders his crew, and in a series of flashbacks we get clues as to why he lost his mind.  Folsom gives the Anglophone alien a ray pistol and a pile of documents that should jump start the rise of a technological civilization on the planet, and then commits suicide by blowing up the ship.   

The novel is full of unresolved mysteries and discrepancies in the text.  Some of the characters doubt that the Federation's missions are benevolent, and suspect the Federation wants to make slaves of the primitives.  The very existence of a Federation is doubted by some.  The runes on the artifact are never deciphered.  It is suggested that Folsom's ship may have actually flown through a time warp, and landed not on an alien planet, but the Earth at the dawn of mankind.

A German edition
Much of the novel is a first person narrative in Folsom's voice, but other parts are written in the third person.  The narrative at least once switches from third to first person inside a single paragraph (page 71.)  Scenes late in the novel suggest that scenes earlier in the novel were in fact delusions.  For example, at the very start of the book we are told that the gay couple, Stark and Closter, slept "disgustingly intertwined" (as Folsom puts it) in the same suspended animation vat during the space voyage.  At the very end of the book we are told that each crew member had his or her own suspended animation tank on the ship.  There are scenes in which Folsom shows the rune-inscribed artifact to the other humans, and his feelings are hurt when they dismiss his discovery as unimportant.  In a later scene Folsom shows thre artifact to Nina and both act like she never saw it before.  It is not impossible that some of these discrepancies are errors on the part of Malzberg, who is known to have written some of his books in a mad rush.  

A British edition
As in much of his other writing, Malzberg questions whether human beings have the psychological capacity to travel through space and/or confront alien worlds.  The focus of the novel is Folsom's mental state, and almost every paragraph, whether it is in the first or third person, is about his erratically changing feelings, shifting beliefs, or unstable sanity.  Folsom questions his own sanity, and soon after arriving on the planet Nina, the other crew members, and even HQ (called "the Bureau") all suspect Folsom is crazy.  (In the book's best joke Folsom sends a text message to the Bureau, asking them to clarify an earlier message he does not understand, and, instead of clarifying, the Bureau responds "IS SOMETHING SERIOUSLY WRONG WITH YOU?") 

Malzberg is skeptical not only of the ability of people to explore other worlds, but of the value of doing so. Folsom claims that, despite having travelled billions and billions of miles to meet an alien culture, he feels like he has lived his whole life in a series of small rooms.  Exploring space has not improved his life, and he doesn't see how meeting Federation members and joining the Federation can possibly improve the aliens' lives.   Folsom even doubts that any technology, even the most rudimentary, has improved human life; when the alien Elder is reluctant to take custody of the papers which bear the secrets of the wheel, electricity, steam power, gunpowder and the rest, Folsom says, "...we didn't want it either, did we?...We would have been just as well without it...." 

Malzberg's pessimistic attitude is, of course, a radical contrast to some of the science fiction novels I have read recently, like Heinlein's The Rolling Stones and Brackett's Alpha Centauri or Die!  In those novels space exploration is an heroic expression of mankind's love of freedom and ability to overcome obstacles, and space is full of opportunities to make friends and secure valuable resources.  In Malzberg's universe space travel drives you crazy, and the only opportunity it provides is the opportunity to expand the scope of human depravity.  In On a Planet Alien Malzberg also seems to be satirizing Heinlein's oft addressed theme of the need to respect the captain of a ship.  Even though I am more sympathetic to Heinlein's and Brackett's points of view, I find Malzberg's attitude amusing and a fun change of pace.

I enjoyed this one more than I did Mazlberg's Cross of Fire and The Men Inside, though perhaps not as much as The Falling Astronauts.  Malzberg fans should really appreciate it, and I think it may be a good example of what Malzberg is all about, and so a good place to start for SF fans who haven't yet experienced Malzberg's brand of extreme pessimism and literary experimentation.     

5 comments:

  1. Can't wait to read this one! Have it on the shelf... I also want a copy of The Destruction of the Temple.

    Great review. I'll review it soon as well.

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  2. Thanks. I'll look forward to your review.

    As for The Destruction of the Temple, I'm sick of hearing about JFK, not just from Malzberg, but from everybody over the course of my entire life. The Freud stuff sounds more interesting to me.

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  3. What about Malzberg tackling time travel? i.e. Scop (1976)?

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    1. ....but then again, I think Scop concerns JFK as well. Alas.

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    2. I sure hope the Freud stories don't consist of a computer simulation of Freud psychoanalyzing a computer simulation of Lee Harvey Oswald.

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