Sunday, December 14, 2014

Three Barry Malzberg stories from the early 1980s

Followers of my twitter feed will know that I recently purchased a pile of old SF magazines at the Des Moines Flea Market.  (They will also be aware that I drink a lot of Rich Chocolate Ovaltine, which is perhaps even more exciting.)  For my first foray into these digest-sized volumes I decided to read some stories by Barry N. Malzberg that I hadn't read before.  These three all appeared in 1980 or 1981, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

"Fascination" by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg (1980)

This story also appears in the collection of Pronzini-Malzberg collaborations entitled On Account of Darkness.  Readers may remember my merciless reviews of three Pronzini solo stories of the "short-short" variety.

"Fascination" is a game played in a Times Square gaming parlor, in which you try to roll balls into pockets; sinking a ball in a pocket illuminates one of a number of light bulbs above the gaming table, and your goal is to activate five bulbs that lay in a straight line. Our narrator thinks the game is absolutely random, and/or fixed.  He also thinks that the New York area is suffering an epidemically high number of alien abductions.  He accosts another player of Fascination, an old man who insists that the game is winnable (if a goofball who believes in aliens is not distracting you) and that there are no aliens.  By the end of the story the aliens have abducted the narrator... or at least that is what he thinks; the old man cannot see the alien.

This story covers territory our man Barry has covered elsewhere: the (probably insane) protagonist who sees aliens that are (probably) not really there, games, New York, etc. There is even mention of the Oval Office.  Presumably the game is an allegory for life, and our conflicting beliefs that we are masters of our own fates and suspicions that life is determined by random forces or controlled by mysterious figures behind the scenes.

An acceptable entertainment, but nothing special.      

"The Twentieth Century Murder Case" by Barry N. Malzberg (1980)

This is where I exhort all you Malzberg completists to hunt down the December 1980 issue of F&SF on ebay and abebooks because "The Twentieth Century Murder Case"'s only appearance in our dear English language, the language of Samuel Clemens and Samuel Johnson, of Danielle Steel and Dan Brown, is within its moldering pages.  Of course, if you can sling the italiano you can just pick up a copy of Urania #903.

This story is a lame allegory.  The Twentieth Century has been killed, and our narrator is the gumshoe trying to solve the case.  He uncovers the conspiracy to murder the century: it twas advertising agencies, fast food restaurants, and TV networks that done the deed!

You have to wonder what a guy is thinking when he suggests the worst things that happened in the century of the Somme, Auschwitz, and the Rape of Nanking are the Big Mac and I Love Lucy, and that the worst people of the century of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao are Ray Kroc and Alan Wagner.  I get that sophisticated people are supposed to hate TV and fast food and advertising, but this seems a little over the top.

The story's half-baked ideology is only part of its problem.  The metaphor doesn't make much sense-- what happens when the century dies?  You just move the calendar forward?  That is what it seems like.  The metaphor is also mixed; sometimes you think "killing the century" with TV commercials and preservatives is a symbol about the populace's physical and psychological health, other times the story is very literal, with "sniper fire" and "a bear trap" employed to "murder the century" like the century is a guy just walking down the street.  The story also lacks any plot, characters, or laughs.

Maybe it sounds better in a romance language?

"There the Lovelies Bleeding" by Barry N. Malzberg (1981)

Add the September 1981 F&SF to your shopping list!  "There the Lovelies Bleeding" appears here, and nowhere else, in any language!  Your italiano isn't going to help you this time, bucko!

This story is short, less than three pages, and I immediately recognized the interesting elements of it.  Who could forget a couple sitting in a restaurant with robot waiters who witness one waiter explode, an insane person sucked away through a trap door, and people in the outside corridors being herded off to some horrible fate?  But where had I read this stuff before, if this is the tale's only appearance?

A little research reveals that this story was adapted for inclusion in Malzberg's 1982 novel The Cross of Fire.  I even described the relevant scene on this here blog back in May of this year.  Weird!

Anyway, "There the Lovelies Bleeding" depicts a dystopic future of terrorism, mass insanity, cannibalism, and cold loveless promiscuity.  Still, the female component of the couple is sure things have been improving over the last few decades, while the male narrator begins to believe he may have finally found love in this, his 54th relationship.  Sometimes Malzberg does give you a happy ending!

Not bad.


Malzberg also has the"Books" column in the September '81 issue of F&SF.  He looks at Charles Platt's Dream Makers, a collection of interviews and observations about SF writers, and declares that SF writers are all "suffering" because writing SF is a "terribly painful and enervating pursuit," and, as a result, SF writers all employ various "defense mechanisms" and wear "masks of self-delusion." He lists a bunch of SF authors and what appear to be their "personae": Asimov wants to be seen as a "working man," Farmer as a "proletarian," Disch as a "litterateur," and so forth.  Malzberg isn't brave enough to slot Harlan Ellison's self-delusions into a single category, he says Ellison wants to be seen as "many things."  Malzberg tells us Dream Makers, for him, is "fearfully upsetting and unsettling."

Malzberg also talks about Fantastic Lives, a collection of autobiographical essays by SF writers, which sounds very interesting (R. A. Lafferty's contribution is said to be very bitter) but which Malzberg seems to think is not very good. Finally, he praises Jack Dann as a top rank writer who will produce much great work in the future.  (I enjoyed Dann's 1981 collaboration with Malzberg, "Parables of Art," and his 1982 collaboration with Gardner Dozois, "Down Among the Dead Men.")

Am I a jerk if I say I enjoyed this "Books" column more than I did the three short stories?


I'm going to call this an interesting excursion into the career of an intriguing SF writer and critic.  And promise more Malzberg and more of my flea market haul in our next episode.

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