Sunday, October 30, 2016

Six more early '70s tales from New Jersey's own Barry Malzberg


After an interlude in which we travelled to the future, to the past, and to another planet to engage in brutal hand to hand combat with both man and beast, it's time to return to science fiction's master of pessimism, mental illness and sexual frustration, Barry N. Malzberg.  These six stories were found in my copy of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, a 1976 paperback from Pocket whose front bears a fine Robert Schulz cover illo and whose back trumpets the bold claim that:


"Introduction to the Second Edition" (1973)

In his intro to this piece Malzberg notes that the murder mystery genre is "crazier" and "dumber" than SF, but due to superior PR has a much higher class of reader.  When I was quite young my mother, who loves those old mystery stories like Rex Stout and Miss Marple, tried to get me to read one of her Agatha Christie paperbacks.  I couldn't get past a sentence without my eyes glazing over, and Mom was pretty disappointed. "You won't read anything that doesn't have a dragon on the cover, will you!!!???"

"Introduction to the Second Edition" is yet another of Malzberg's stories in which a guy receives psychiatric therapy via a hypnodream helmet which allows him to experience antisocial and illegal activities again and again.  (See "At the Institute," "On Ice," and "Tapping Out.")  In this story the narrator acts out a fantasy of murdering his mother ("My whole attitudes toward sex were entirely warped for thirty-eight years by your pointless moralizing" he tells her before using a knife to "part her like a fish") and being murdered by his father ("this is for ruining your mother's figure," says Dad before pulling the trigger.)  The narrator also plays out a scenario in which he murders a former girlfriend, but when he tries to rape the collapsed victim the attendants turn off the machine--he has not paid for that particular fantasy, they admonish him.

I think there are some
boobs in there somewhere 
As in other of these stories, the patient is not cured by this bizarre treatment; instead, he uses it as entertainment, and becomes addicted to it, and the therapists are as happy as your local crack dealer to take his money.

"Introduction to the Second Edition" presents some mysteries.  Whose idea was it to include so many of these hypnodream stories in one collection?  Secondly, the publication page in my copy of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg states that "Introduction to the Second Edition" first appeared in Nova 3, but isfdb lists the Malzberg story in Nova 3 as "Dreaming and Conversions: Two Rules by Which to Live."  Presumably a title change and perhaps a revision not recognized yet by isfdb.  Too bad neither I nor the Columbus Metropolitan Library own a copy of Nova 3. I'll have to keep an eye out for Nova 3 at the used bookstores so I can resolve this mystery the way the son of a Nero Wolfe fan should.  [UPDATE November 5, 2016:  Make sure to checkout the comments below, where inspector ukjarry solves the mystery of Nova 3!]

"The Trial of the Blood" (1974)

In his intro to this baby (one of the reasons The Best of Barry N. Malzberg is a must buy for us Malz-heads is that every story has a long digressive intro) Malzberg tells us this story, which first appeared in the anthology The Berserkers, is meant to be something like Count Dracula's diary.  The character who narrates the tale is really not much like the Transylvanian vampire we all know and love--he doesn't seem to have any supernatural powers or vulnerabilities, for example--but the story is still a pretty good piece of horror fiction, the diary of a maniac who kills women and children and is driven  not only by a lust to drink human blood, but by a desire to be understood by a callous world.  Unlike so many of Malzberg's stories, this one succeeds when judged by conventional measures of what readers expect out of fiction: plot, character, human feeling, etc.  This success is reflected in the fact that, as the author himself reports, it is one of the few of Malzberg's works about which Publishers Weekly ("a journal which has not seen eyeball-to-eyeball with me on many occasions") had something nice to say.


"Getting Around" (1973)

"Getting Around" first appeared in Frontiers 1: Tomorrow's Alternatives under the K. M. O'Donnell pseudonym.  Malzberg relates that editor Roger Elwood requested "the ultimate story about perverse sexuality" and Barry delivered this tale, which, through the medium of letters, recorded conversations, and outline notes for an academic lecture, describes a society in which the government discourages monogamy and compels participation in regular group sex sessions organized by government officials.  This system of sexual relations, called "Intermix," is a response to the high productivity of late 20th century Western society; in the past world of scarcity people admired self-denial, and romanticized the exclusive love of two individuals for each other.  To make modern society run smoothly, the authorities believe, both indiscriminate consumerism on the part of the plebs and systemic control from above are necessary.

The meat of the story is unsent love letters and a suicide note written by a man who has broken the new society's taboos by falling in love with a woman and suffers the forbidden vice of jealousy. "Going Around" also includes a joke dialogue sequence about a man who is mostly, or perhaps entirely, artificial:
...You mean you were born without arms, legs and vocal cords?
--Yes.
--You must have had a very unhappy childhood.
--Oh, no.  You see, I didn't have a brain, either.
--Now I'm excited.  I'm
really excited.
--Let's go to the bedroom.  
Malzberg used the same sort of idea in "Culture Lock," which appeared in Roger Elwood's Future City, but in that story the government was pushing homosexuality; the tyranny in "Getting Around" experimented with homosexuality and bestiality, then settled on enforcing strict heterosexual norms.  It also reminded me of 1984, in which the government tries to crush normal sex drives and the institution of the family, seeing love and loyalty to other individuals as a rival to love and loyalty to state.

I like this one; I am a sucker for unrequited love stories and stories about radical governments trying to reshape human nature and society.

Intro to "Track Two"

I read "Track Two" back in early 2015 in an old copy of Fantastic and wrote about it then.  I now realize that "Track Two" is sort of like "Trial of the Blood": both are journals of immortal figures famed for having supernatural powers, but in Barry's version of their stories they have no such powers and are beset by many doubts, doubts which are not part of the canonical accounts of their lives.

In the intro to this appearance of "Track Two" Malzberg praises down market magazines like Fantastic, Amazing, Thrilling Wonder and Startling for publishing more innovative and exciting work than more prestigious, more popular and better-paying periodicals.  He claims that the stories he was offered when editing Amazing (in 1968 and 1969) were better than stories published in that period in Analog and Playboy.  This reminded me of Michael Moorcock's assertion, in his essay on Leigh Brackett, "Queen of the Martian Mysteries," that the sort of SF stories he liked were more likely to appear in Planet Stories and Startling Stories than Astounding.  It is fun, and useful, to see major figures in the field go against the conventional wisdom this way--it endorses the natural inclinations of the lowly individual reader to follow his own inclinations, to think for himself.  (Though, of course, today's rebels almost inevitably found the stifling orthodoxy of tomorrow.)

"The Battered-Earth Syndrome" (1973)

Barry tells us that Virginia Kidd asked him to fashion a story out of this title.  I guess Kidd liked these kinds of goofy pun titles--she once wrote a story about aliens that look like kangaroos and titled it "Kangaroo Court."  ("Kangaroo Court" was later reprinted under the title "The Flowering Season.")  Malzberg tells us Kidd is a good agent, writer and editor, but I have to admit that, when I read  "The Flowering Season" and another Kidd story, "Balls: A Meditation at the Graveside," I found them quite poor.  Malzberg always seems generous with praise for his editors, and in fact dedicated this volume to them:


Anyway, "The Battered Earth Syndrome" appeared in an anthology of environmentalist stories edited by Kidd and Roger Elwood and entitled Saving Worlds in hardcover and The Wounded Planet in paperback.  (Maybe this is another Kidd hallmark, changing titles of her productions to try to snare the unwary.)  Ecological hysteria is probably my least favorite subgenre of SF, so I was nodding along when Barry admitted that he "cannot imagine how" a book of stories and poems "written with that grim earnestness characteristic of science fiction when it is determined to Save the World" could "be commercially viable."


I spent the first twenty-something years of my life in Northern New Jersey, and so spent many hours in automobiles on Route 46, riding east to Nana's or New York City or west to Hackettstown, and so when I found that 46 was prominently featured in this story (Malzberg has lived in Northern New Jersey himself for decades) it was like meeting an old friend!  Then when I realized this was yet another of Malzberg's hypnohelmet dream therapy stories it was like running into an acquaintance who tells you the same old anecdotes every time you see him.

Actually, Malzberg mixes it up a little this time, to suit the environmentalist topic of Kidd's anthology.  Two men, the narrator and his buddy Nick, are repeatedly put into dream simulations of driving around New Jersey and New York City, getting into car accidents, seeing the Hudson River choked with trash, shooting guard dogs at an abandoned site whose sign promises urban renewal.  It is space aliens, we learn, who are providing Nick and our hero this therapy, in hopes that these Earthmen will face up to how mankind's incorrect attitudes despoiled their planet.  ("Don't you realize? The environment is not discreet; it is bound to you.....You are your world.")  Nick and the narrator resist this indoctrination (the protagonist calls it "babbling") and the aliens eliminate Nick, and we have to assume the narrator's days are numbered.  On the last page of the story it is suggested that Nick and the narrator are not quite real, that they are just simulations or resurrected consciousnesses or something like that.

(This story reminded me of A. E. van Vogt's 1948 "Resurrection," AKA "The Monster," in which aliens come to a desolated Earth and resurrect a human in hopes of learning about the disaster which befell our world.  In Van's story the human outwits the aliens and goes on to conquer the universe--van Vogt has the kind of optimism which many critics see Malzberg's career as a response to and/or a refutation of.)

So, "The Battered Earth Syndrome" is one of those SF stories about how the human race is a basket of irredeemable deplorables and we would be better off if some irresistible nannies from outer space arrived to push us around or maybe just get rid of us. This is another subgenre of SF which I don't favor, and I will admit to cheering for Nick and our narrator when they refused to knuckle under to the "enlightenment" offered by the aliens.  As far as I am concerned, the ambiguity of Malzberg's story, its brevity, and the fact that it has served me as an excuse to reminisce about my NJ-NYC life, put it in the upper ranks of green stories and anti-human/pro-alien stories.

Intro to "Network"

I read "Network" in an old issue of Fantastic back in late 2014, along with a bunch of other stories from that magazine, which was edited by Ted White, author of  The Spawn of the Death Machine.   

In his intro to "Network" for The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, Malzberg talks about the bright side of the "so-called energy crunch."  Malzberg suggests that high fuel prices will end the flight of the middle classes from urban centers, will keep kids from wasting time "cruising" and neglecting their studies, and will give people who don't like their extended families an excuse for not driving over to visit.

Perhaps more intriguingly, Malzberg tells us "Network" is, in part, a tribute to Harlan Ellison, whom he calls a "remarkable (if remarkably uneven) writer."  This set off a bell in my head: when I read it, I thought "Network" had a stronger traditional plot and more adventure elements than most of Malzberg's work, and am now wondering if perhaps "Network" should be compared to Ellison's famous 1969 "A Boy and His Dog."

"A Delightful Comedic Premise" (1974)

In the intro to "A Delightful Comedic Premise" Malzberg strongly recommends a writer I never heard of (I spent a long period of my life watching TV and playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, so when it comes to high culture I am an ignoramus), Wilfrid Sheed, telling us Sheed's The Hack, one of the "most valuable works of the decade," served as inspiration for Malzberg's own Herovit's World.  I haven't read Herovit's World myself, but Joachim Boaz has.  

This one has been more widely published than many of Malzberg's stories, first appearing in F&SF and most recently being included in 2006's This is My Funniest: Leading Science Fiction Writers Present Their Funniest Stories Ever.  It was also included in 1994's The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg, Space Mail II, and Antigrav: Cosmic Comedies by SF Masters; these titles provide us clues as to what to expect.  

This has to be one of the most recursive or "meta" SF stories of all time, consisting of letters between Malzberg and editor Ed Ferman that mention Jack Finney and Ron Walotsky, all real people.  Ferman asks Malzberg to write a humorous story instead of his usual heavy depressing stuff, and Malzberg responds with story outlines and ideas that Ferman is forced to reject because they are, in fact, also quite depressing, and he has plenty of dark pessimistic stories already from Malzberg and others.  ("We are heavily inventoried, as I have already said, on the despairing stuff....")   The rejected ideas are actually not bad--a guy can time travel as a spectator (not a participant) to the 1950s, and even bring people along with him, but can only witness unhappy events, not pleasant ones; and, a guy can read the minds of race horses, but finds there is no correlation between a horse's mood and whether it will be successful in a race or not.  (Shades of Underlay, Malzberg's laugh-out-loud masterpiece!)

"A Delightful Comedic Premise" is one of Malzberg's better stories.  I can heartily recommend to general SF readers as well as Malzberg's fans, who will get extra enjoyment out of how the story plays off Malzberg's reputation.

"Geraniums" (1973) (with Valerie King)

"Geraniums" first appeared in the anthology Omega (another Roger Elwood production--I get the feeling Malzberg and Elwood were essential buttresses of each other's careers) and was co-written with a Valerie King; Malzberg says the story is mostly King's own work and is the best piece in Omega.  Malzberg compares her to Dory Previn, a songwriter I've never heard of.  King has only one other credit at isfdb.

This is a very literary, mainstream story, with all kinds of symbolism ("The world was a greenhouse") and criticism of the Catholic Church uttered by someone outside that tradition (a character who is presumably Orthodox and/or very secular); the reader is not sure how seriously to take his criticism, which seems pretty hyperbolic and smacks of ingratitude.  The critic is a Russian, Dmitri, who is working as a gardener at a Catholic Church (in North America, I assume) and is very annoyed at how passersby will reach between the bars of the fence to steal geraniums.  He has cultivated a beautiful rose, The Empress of Russia.  He also has dreams of fat women in black dresses who provide incomprehensible advice.  In an effort to drown a gopher he rams a hose into a hole and turns it on full blast (a sex metaphor?)  When a "small dark thing" comes out of the hole, he faints...I think maybe he dies.

It is difficult to find any of this amusing or interesting.  It didn't generate the level of interest required for me to try to figure out if King is trying to say something about parenthood or religion or the Russian Revolution.  Gotta give this one a "no" vote.        

**********

I'm making real progress in my journey through The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, and really enjoyed this leg of the trip.  We'll be taking a break from our pal Barry in our next episode, however, for what I hope will be some action-packed SF adventures.

2 comments:

  1. Nova 3 published “The Destructiona dn Exculpation of Earth” and “Introduction to the Second Edition” under the group title of “Dreaming and Conversions: Two Rules to Live By”. When Malzberg sold stories to anthologies, editors often took a couple and printed them under one title since individually they were little larger than “short shorts”.

    - matthew davis

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very cool! Thanks for solving this mystery!

      Delete