Friday, May 9, 2014

The Cross of Fire by Barry Malzberg

Gregory Benford "enjoyed the hell out of" Barry Malzberg's The Cross of Fire, a novel published in 1982. The Boston Phoenix claimed that Malzberg had the finest prose in science fiction and that The Cross of Fire promised to be the science fiction novel of the year!*  High praise!  I recently purchased the 1982 Ace paperback edition of the novel for a price somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 copper coins, and this week I read it.

In Thomas Disch's "Everyday Life in the Roman Empire" (1972) a middle class woman living in a near future technocratic society undergoes therapy which consists of indulging in elaborate drug-induced fantasies of being an aristocrat in the Roman Empire.  Malzberg uses a similar plot but pushes it to extremes - the protagonist of The Cross of Fire lives 200 years in the future in a even more technocratic and cold society, and in his drug- and hypnosis-driven fantasies he lives the life of Jesus Christ!

Harold (not his real name) is our narrator.  At first, playing the role of  Christ is difficult, and Harold often becomes "depersonalized" or "disassociated."  The therapy is ostensibly a study of religion, and Harold plays other roles, these more comfortably: Job, a rabbi in Brooklyn (spelled "Bruck Linn" in the 2200s), a 21st century Muslim martyr, Moses, even the Almighty Himself.  Most of the book's text is taken up with these dreams.  There are also scenes in which Harold has conversations and sexual encounters with Edna (not her real name), a woman he hooked up with through the government's computer dating service.

Halfway through the novel it becomes clear (it was foreshadowed earlier) that Harold has become obsessed with his religious dreaming, that even outside of the treatment facility he thinks he is in one of his prophet/martyr roles.  The government ceases the treatment, and confines him; poor Harold integrates this real life event into his dreams, thinking himself a Jew being persecuted during a pogrom or a 21st century Muslim prophet being arrested by the authorities.

In true literary/New Wave style the novel has no chapter divisions or headings, and is not told in strict chronological order.

At first, the view of 23rd century life is a little ambigious.  On the one hand characters commonly bemoan the fact that they live in "an unspeakable age" that is "madly technocratic" and where there is no freedom.  The very same characters also admit that the all-embracing state is "benign," and that people in the 23rd century "have more personal freedom than any citizenry in the history of the world."  Sometimes Edna speaks up for the state, saying things have improved, but she discourages Harold's therapy, saying that the treatments are not really to help him, but to "make him more stupid" so he won't threaten the status quo.

The hard evidence about quality of life and government benignity we get includes a scene in a state-run cafe with robot waiters.  An old man who starts throwing fits is immediately sucked down a trap door--the man was a "decompensate," and we learn that such people are common and are "herded to re-education" multiple times each day.  The screams of the "late afternoon detail" can be heard from outside the cafe.  (It is implied that the "decompensates" are killed and turned into food or some other valuable commodity.)  One of the mechanical waiters explodes.  Because of these disturbances, their robowaiter tells Harold and Edna that their meal is "on the state."  This scene, and a brief flashback to Harold's youth late in the book, leave little doubt as to how horrible things really are.

If there is any point to the book it seems to be that religion is a distraction, a delusion.  The sections about Job and Jonah have God breaking his promises, while the sections with Satan stress that God Himself created Satan, that Satan is a part of God's plan.  Malzberg seems to be saying that it is a waste of time worshiping or believing in God, because God will lie to you and when you are in trouble he won't help you; if anything, he has caused your trouble.  Perhaps Malzberg is drawing a parallel between the government and the God of the Bible: both are ostensibly benign and omnipotent, but neither deals with people justly or selflessly.

The Cross of Fire has many interesting elements, but it is too long.  The parts in which Harold plays the role of Biblical figures are good, because it is fun to see famous stories like Jesus raising Lazarus, or Moses parting the Red Sea, told from a different and strange angle.  (Peter, for example, comes across as a PR man trying to manage Jesus and control his public image.)  The stuff about Edna and the oppressive 23rd century state is good as well.  The dreams about fictional religious characters, however, drag; the Muslim one in particular feels repetitious, with Malzberg twice telling us a story of how the prophet's mosque is invaded and his service interrupted.  Why did Malzberg include Muslims anyway, if he wasn't going to include Mohammed?  Compared to the Jewish and Christian parts, the Islamic parts come off as half-assed; better to have left them out altogether.

I'm going to give The Cross of Fire a marginal thumbs up.  I enjoyed it, but I suspect I just liked it because I am curious about Malzberg and his work.  I would only really reccomend the novel to people who are already Malzberg fans, or who are really really interested in the Bible from a secular point of view.  The science fiction reader who is looking for an adventure story, or likable characters, or a vivid and strange world, or an extrapolation of technological or societal trends, you know, the stuff SF readers are usually looking for, is not going to find them here.


* Despite the Boston Phoenix's bold advocacy, somehow the Hugos and Nebulas for 1983 went to Isaac Asimov and Michael Bishop, while people like Robert Heinlein, Gene Wolfe, Arthur C. Clarke, and Brian Aldiss hogged all the losing nominations.


  1. Ah, one of Malzberg's last SF novels! Hmm... Some of his 80s stuff looks interesting -- this one and The Remaking of Sigmund Freud (1986) (Nebula nominated) for example...

    1. Falling Astronauts is still probably my favorite.

  2. Very intriguing review. Never heard of the novel, but it looks as though it may go overlooked on the lists of genre working with religion. Have you read Moorcock's Behold the Man? I would be curious what you compared it to Malzberg's novel...

    1. I've read most of Moorcock's Eternal Champion things, but I haven't read Behold the Man. It is the kind of thing I would have ignored in my teens when I was first reading Moorcock, but would pick up today if I saw it cheap.

  3. I picked up a copy at Dawn Treader Books in Ann Arbor, MI (best SF selection in the country that I have encountered so far). Also picked up Malzberg's On a Planet Alien, The Gamesmen, and a best of short story collection!

    1. I own the Malzberg collection I believe you refer to (_Many Worlds..._) and wrote an Amazon review of it in late 2011.

      I'll be curious to hear what you think of it.