Saturday, April 22, 2017

Seven stories by Barry Malzberg from the period 1969-72

The backside of Ace Double 27415 presented to the SF fan of 1971, the year of my birth, In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, a collection of fifteen tales by New Jersey's own Barry N. Malzberg.  Three of these stories I am skipping: "In the Pocket" because I am assuming it is material later integrated into the novel The Men Inside, which I read and wrote about in 2011; "Gehenna," which I read and wrote about in 2013; and "The Idea," which I read and wrote about in January of last year.  That leaves us with a dozen stories, six today (plus a special free bonus!), six in our next episode.

"Ah, Fair Uranus" (1971)

This is a very typical Malzberg story, and I think it only ever appeared here in this Ace Double and in an Italian translation of In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories in 1974.

It is the early 24th century!  Hostile aliens are setting up bases around the solar system, and, according to Earth's authoritarian government, they are plotting an attack on humanity!  So an astronaut by the name of Needleman (I'm guessing his name and the title of the story are a sort of childish joke or even a reminder of The Men Inside) is sent to Uranus in a one-man craft to deploy some super bombs.  Along the way Needleman starts sympathizing with the aliens, and then is contacted by the aliens, who suggest he use the super bombs to blow up the Earth.  We readers have no idea if the alien threat is real or a government lie, if Needleman is really talking to aliens or just hallucinating, and whether or not Needleman blows up the Earth.

This story bears similarities with Malzberg's 1973 "A Reckoning," and 1972 "Making it Through," both of which I read in October of last year; all three are about astronauts who may be insane approaching one of the outer planets and coming to believe they have been contacted by aliens, and the grave peril to the human race that insanity and/or close encounter represents.  "Ah, Fair Uranus" also reminded me of 1972's "Out From Ganymede," which I read years ago, and which I decided to read again this week to refresh my memory!

"Out From Ganymede" (1972)  

"Out From Ganymede" was first published in Robert Silverberg's anthology New Dimensions II.  I read it in my copy of Out From Ganymede, a 1974 collection put out by Warner.  It also appears in the 2013 collection The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.

1974 paperback edition of
New Dimensions II
It is the future!  An Earth wracked by international disputes and racial tensions sends a one-man space ship to orbit Ganymede.  The sole crewmember of the craft, Walker, spends much of the flight in unhappy reminiscences of his failed relationship with his estranged wife.  Once in orbit around Ganymede he is visited by Ganymedean natives.  When mission control back on Earth is forced (by riots or some similar issue) to abort the mission and direct the craft to return, the aliens, perhaps by hypnotism, convince Walker to destroy the Earth with the ship's arsenal of super weapons.  Whether the aliens are real and manipulating Walker, or simply hallucinations, the product of Walker's pent-up frustrations about his wife and the stress of the trip, the reader is left unsure of.

This story, while very similar to "Ah, Fair Uranus," is superior because of its focus on Walker's relationship with his wife.  I think "Out From Ganymede" also better presents the theme of mankind looking to space for salvation or escape from its problems, only to be frustrated because mankind's problems are psychological or sociological and carried with him wherever he may go.  (Malzberg challenges the idea of those SF writers--Ray Bradbury is coming to mind--who argue that travel to other planets is essential because it will make mankind immortal.)

"Notes Just Prior to the Fall" (1970)

OK, back to Ace Double 27415.

"Notes Just Prior to the Fall" first appeared in an anniversary "All-Star" issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and stars Simmons the horseplayer and takes place at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.  (No doubt you remember that Malzberg's mainstream novel Underlay was set largely at the Aqueduct.)  Our narrator is some kind of alien or supernatural creature who can observe while remaining invisible, read horses' thoughts and manipulate people's brains.  He appears to Simmons, gives Simmons bad advice on what horse to bet on, then observes the poor man, who loses his money and questions his own sanity.

Entertaining.

"As Between Generations" (1970)

This brief (four pages) story, first seen in Fantastic, is an allegory of the tensions inherent in the relationships between fathers and sons, including Oedipal tensions.  On Sundays in the town in which the story is set, adult sons ritualistically ride carts pulled by their aged fathers, whipping them as assembled spectators watch.  In the first part of the tale we get the son's point of view: dad humiliated him in front of a girlfriend, cut his allowance, etc., and this weird ritual is the son's chance to punish the father.  In the second part, the father's point of view: junior embarrassed him and disappointed him with his low morals, never appreciated all of his financial sacrifices, etc., and the point of the ritual is to humiliatingly expose to the people of the community the son's ingratitude.

A good "fantastic" literary story, a metaphor of one of the many sadnesses of our lives.

"The Falcon and the Falconeer" (1969)

Like "Notes Just Prior to the Fall," "The Falcon and the Falconeer" first appeared in F&SF.  In it Malzberg has characters explicitly state the themes we saw in "Out From Ganymede," that going into space is not going to solve humanity's problems, because man will bring his real problems, which are psychological and sociological (a religious person might say "spiritual") with him:
"...we learned only to play out our madness and insufficiency on a larger canvas; that space drive and the colonization of the galaxy only meant that the uncontrollable had larger implications."
"...men tend to get crazy on these expeditions anyway....this is what is going to happen inevitably when you set out to colonize the universe: men have to occupy it, and men are going to bring what they are along with them."
This perspective is one of the things that makes Malzberg and his work distinctive and valuable, the contrast it provides to the confidence in mankind we see in so much SF, perhaps archetypally in Robert Heinlein (Damon Knight finishes his intro to the collection of Heinlein's future history stories, The Past Through Tomorrow, thusly: "Heinlein's money is on Man, and I think the next century will prove him right.")  I hurry to point out that I think Malzberg's pessimism is a complement, not a refutation, of Heinlein-style optimism; the sweep of history and our daily lives may be full of human actions and artifacts that are ugly and terrible, but they are also full of human creations and achievements that are beautiful and heroic, from a Greek vase or a Japanese garden to the Empire State Building or the landing on the Moon.

The text of "The Falcon and the Falconeer" consists of transcripts of interviews of members of an expedition to Rigel XIV; the expedition suffered a disaster, and as we read the story's seventeen pages we piece together just what happened. What happened?  Bored and homesick, as Christmas approached the crew of the expedition decided to hold a Christmas pageant, reenacting the first Christmas, with crew members (all adult men) playing Mary, the newborn Jesus, the three wise men, etc.  Playing the animals were the native Rigelians, who "look like asses."  Malzberg encourages us to consider all the multiple meanings of "ass" by having various crew members say the Rigelians are dim-witted and by having the expedition's psychologist report that the expedition commander is "anal-retentive" and a "latent homosexual."  There is evidence that the Rigelians were smarter than they appeared and used telepathy to inspire in the humans the desire for a Christmas pageant, but the psychologist insists it was all just "mass hysteria."  During the performance the crewman playing Jesus began throwing fits, and the rest of the expedition fled the planet, leaving him behind.

This one is pretty good.  We have reason to believe that Malzberg himself is particularity proud of "The Falcon and the Falconeer"--it appears in the 1973 anthology SF: Author's Choice 3, a cover description of which reads, "Thirteen Science Fiction Masters Present, With Commentary, Their Own Favorite Stories."  I would certainly like to read Malzberg's commentary on the story.  (Of course, readers of Charles Platt's Dream Makers know that by 1979 Malzberg's favorite story of his own was "Uncoupling.")

[UPDATE 4/23/2017:  In the comments ukjarry gives us a summary of the Malzberg commentary on "The Falcon and the Falconeer" from SF: Author's Choice 3, providing valuable insight into the creation of this tale and Malzberg's work process!]

"June 24, 1970" (1969)

This two page story is a letter from an editor to a SF writer with Malzberg's famous pseudonym of O'Donnell.  At the same time that it is a satire of the time travel story in which a guy might kill his ancestors, it is itself just such a time travel story, as well as a series of jokes revealing the sad truths of a career as an SF editor or SF writer.  Such a story runs the risk of being self-pitying or self-indulgent, but "June 24, 1970" is actually pretty clever, and people into "meta" and "recursive" SF will, I suspect, love it.

"June 24, 1970" first appeared in an issue of Venture with a striking but incomprehensible cover.

"Pacem Est" (1970) (co-written with Kris Neville)

This story, which first appeared in Infinity One, was co-written with Kris Neville; as we have discussed here at MPorcius Fiction Log before, Neville's pessimism about space flight presages Malzberg's own, and Malzberg has been one of Neville's biggest fans.

Unsurprisingly, this is a pessimistic story, about a space war which might lead to the destruction of the human race.  It is also full of symbolism (for example, the aliens look just like human beings) and histrionic melodrama.  Hawkins is an officer in a reconnaissance unit fighting on an alien planet, participating in ground combat that is perhaps supposed to remind you of World War One (there is poison gas and daily patrols beyond the barbed wire.)  A group of nuns who think that Armageddon is nigh are on the planet, tending to the soldiers. and one gets too close to No Man's Land, to the edge of the wire, where she breathes in alien poison gas and dies.  She lays there dead for a few days, until Hawkins, who passes her twice a day, departing on and returning from patrols, arranges to have her body retrieved.  He finds that the nuns have put up a wooden marker where she died.  After a talk with the nuns Hawkins lays down on the marker and awaits the enemy poison gas as a way of committing suicide.

I don't know if I am missing something, or if I am just supposed to be moved by the images of death and the decision of the main character to commit suicide rather than continue participating in the madness of the war.  Like all of us, I've experienced lots and lots of anti-war fiction, so for yet another anti-war story to have an effect on me it has to do something new or do something very well, and this story doesn't quite cut it. There is also the religion angle; the story begins and ends with italicized lines claiming that God was lonely and so he invented religion.  Is this some kind of indictment of religion for causing wars or of religious people for being selfish or a criticism of the depiction of God found in the Bible?

This story is acceptable, but I am not sure it succeeds in its aims.

*********

This crop of stories is rather good; not only do they touch on many of Malzberg's characteristic themes, but I think "As Between Generations," "The Falcon and the Falconeer," and "June 24, 1973," are better than average for Malzberg, more concise, better structured, and more entertaining than is usual for him.  Sometimes his work comes across as rushed or derivative of his earlier work, but the three stories just mentioned feel carefully crafted.  Let's hope the rest of the stories in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, which we'll look at in our next episode, will meet this admirable standard!

2 comments:

  1. Malzberg’s afterword to “ "The Falcon and the Falconeer" is about a page and a half long. Ed Ferman, editor of F&SF, asked Malzberg for a Christmas story, and Malzberg produced this plot for Ferman in about 30 seconds. “I was then faced with the problem of going back and writing it, a problem now magnified because 95% of the work I have published was written in such a way and at such a speed that I literally did not know from sentence to sentence what was coming next.” – which also validates your criticism of his work sometimes being too rushed. “I think immodestly that I am helping to push this field to a level of literacy it deserves”.

    - matthew davis

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