Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Six more from The Best of Barry N. Malzberg

Back cover of my copy
After a short break it is back to The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, published in 1976 and containing 38 stories, all published in the 1970s, as well as lots of fascinating discussion of SF and the (genre) literary life.

Intro to "Revolution"

Back in 2011 Joachim Boaz and I both read "Revolution" in Future City so I am skipping it today.  You can read our efforts to figure it out at the link; much of the discussion is in the comments.

In the intro to "Revolution" in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg the author talks about and engages in SF criticism.  He praises Damon Knight, James Blish and Algis Budrys for their criticism, and laments that most SF readers don't take the genre seriously and don't care about criticism.  (It is not just SF readers who think criticism is a load of crap; flipping through T. S. Eliot's letters recently I found a 1922 quote from George Santayana in the footnotes to a letter from Eliot to Norbert Wiener dated 6 January 1915: "Criticism is something purely incidental--talk about talk--and to my mind has no serious value, except perhaps as an expression of the philosophy of the critic.")  Contra Santayana, Malzberg thinks that SF will stagnate without serious criticism.

Malzberg then lists whom he thinks are the best "modern" SF writers, splitting them into two categories.  Category 1 is "modern SF," and he crowns Robert Silverberg as the absolute best "modern writer of modern S-F."  "Running close behind" Silverberg are Thomas Disch, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, and Fred Pohl.  Category 2 is "non-modern" SF, which he assures us is "not necessarily an inferior form."  The best "modern writer of non-modern S-F" is James H. Schmitz, with Poul Anderson a "close second."  What Malzberg means by "modern" in the two contexts in which he uses the word is not exactly clear.

I, and most readers of this blog, could probably spend hours disputing or defending these lists and puzzling over how Malzberg arrived at these rankings; readers should feel free to voice their opinions in the comments, but I don't have the energy to attack this thorny issue in this blog post today.

"Ups and Downs" (1973)

"Ups and Downs" was first published in Eros in Orbit, an anthology of SF stories about sex.  Malzberg jocularly mentions that there were two anthologies of science fiction stories about sex published in 1973; maybe he means Strange Bedfellows, which was published in late 1972?  (There is an ad for Strange Bedfellows in my copy of the April 1973 issue of F&SF.)

The year is 1996 and Jules Fishman is the sole astronaut on the first manned (or, as the feminists say, staffed) flight to Mars!  (Always down on the space program, Malzberg hints that the trip is an election year stunt meant to protect the incumbent.  Maybe in 2020 we'll be seeing a rocket of deplorables lifting off for the red planet.)  Jules unexpectedly finds a beautiful young woman is also aboard the rocket; this chick is incredibly horny and they have sex several times a day.  Jules begins neglecting his important duties, he is so busy engaging in what we like to call "horizontal refreshment."

Jules figures some kindly bureaucrat secretly requisitioned a woman for inclusion on the flight, to make the month-long (and that's just one way!) journey to Mars more comfortable.  Of course, we readers just assume Jules is going bonkers and hallucinating this woman.  Jules is sex-obsessed; in a funny flashback when he learns the trip will last two-and-a-half months total he worries that he won't be able to handle such a long period of abstinence--he is accustomed to having sex four or five times a week!
"What about masturbation?" I wanted to ask.  "Is this a plausible activity, or will the sensors pick up the notations of energy, the raised heartbeat, the flutterings of eyelids, the sudden congestion of my organ and beam all of it back to Earth to be decoded to a stain of guilt." 
I was a little disappointed that this one petered out at the end; Jules doesn't crash the rocket into Mars or Chicago or even Deimos or Phobos, which he thinks are artificial satellites built by a lost high-tech Martian civilization.  The real climax of the story is when he tries to develop a real human relationship with the woman on the ship, asking her her name, what her childhood was like and about her dreams and so forth, and she refuses to tell him anything.  Is Malzberg doing that Proust thing (you can never really know another person) or that feminist thing (men only care about women as sex objects and treat them as mere commodities)?  Maybe both?  Either way, "Ups and Downs" is pretty good.

"Bearing Witness" (1973)

In his intro Malzberg compares "Bearing Witness," first published in Flame Tree Planet and Other Stories, to "Track Two," which appears later in this volume and which I read and blogged about in February of 2015.

A man, not a Catholic himself, thinks he has detected signs that Judgment Day and the Second Coming are imminent, so he tries to get an audience with Catholic authorities, hoping for advice.  The priesthood and Catholic administrative apparatus, whom Malzberg depicts as more interested in bread and butter politics than the spiritual world, try to ignore and avoid the narrator.  On the last page of this three-page story the narrator climbs atop an automobile and addresses a crowd of people in the street, believing himself to be the risen Christ.

I'm bored with stories that offer shallow criticisms of Christianity, and this story felt like a trifle to me.  (I am an atheist, and as a youth I took the line that religion was a menace because it filled people's minds with a lot of nonsense.  Then I went to college and realized that people eagerly fill their minds with any kind of nonsense that comes to hand, and of all the nonsense available in the 20th and 21st centuries, Christianity and Judaism are among the most benign.  As I get older and older I find myself more and more in the position of what you might call a Christian sympathizer.)  Acceptable, but perhaps the weakest yet story in this collection.

Intro to "At the Institute"

I'm skipping "At the Institute" because I read it in 2015 (the same day I read "Track Two," it appears.  Reading that old blog post is fun because in it I express my fervent hope of owning a copy of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, and now, over a year later, I do.  Dreams can come true, kids!) 

In his intro to "At the Institute" Malzberg talks a little about these stories of his in which people get therapy by having a machine facilitate the experience of vivid and crazy dreams, and how such devices are very plausible, considering recent scientific developments.  He cites SF writer Peter Phillips as being one of the first people (in the 1948 Astounding story "Dreams are Sacred") to use this literary conceit.

"Making it Through" (1972)

In the intro to this one Malzberg commends his friend, editor Roger Elwood, and his uncle, Dr. Benjamin Malzberg, author of such works as Mental Disease among Jews in Canada and The Mental Health of the Negro.  For decades Dr. Malzberg was Director of Research and Statistics at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.

In case you were wondering, I have an uncle who worked in a machine shop.  I worked in a machine shop myself for a little while; I didn't find all that noise and all those dangerous blades and drills very congenial.

"Making it Through" appeared in Elwood's And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire and Other Science Fiction Stories and brought to mind Malzberg's "Out of Ganymede," which I should probably reread.  Our narrator is the second-in-command of the crew of a two-man mission to Jupiter.  Jupiter is inhabited by arthropods who emit a ray which drives humans insane; they have already driven batty the crews of three ships.  The Earth wants to take over Jupiter, and so the narrator and his Captain are flying a specially shielded ship loaded with atomic bombs--their mission is to exterminate the arthropods.  The Captain goes insane and wants to turn back and use the nuclear weapons on his fellow humans; when the narrator ties him up, the Captain claims they are on a mission to merely study the arthropods, that the weapons are just a last ditch self-defense measure; the Captain insists it is not he but our narrator who is insane!

The narrator nukes Jupiter, and then wonders if perhaps the entire human race might be insane, and the ray of the Jovian arthropods their charitable effort to cure us!  

I like it.
"Tapping Out" (1973)

"Tapping Out" first appeared in Future Quest, an anthology aimed at kids.  In his intro to the story Barry muses that "juvenile" SF may actually have a bigger audience and influence than "adult" SF, and, citing "the phenomenal works by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1950s," considers the possibility that the best SF has been written in the juvenile category.

This story has almost the same plot as "On Ice," but with less rape and incest.  (Nota bene: "Less" does not mean "zero.")  A 17-year old boy has a mental problem, so his parents pay a packet of money to get their kid hypnodream therapy.  In the therapy sessions he murders his father and his therapist and "has his way" with a girl.  The therapist says that, since he is using the sessions as recreation rather than therapy, that hypnotherapy treatment will be ceased and the narrator sent to a conventional hospital.

This story is alright, but lacks the layers of meaning and the extreme sex and violence that make "On Ice" so remarkable.  It's like "On Ice" with training wheels!

"Closed Sicilian" (1973)

Whoa, Barry got the cover illo!
In his intro to this story, which first appeared in F&SF, Malzberg talks about fiction about chess.  He praises Nabokov's The Luzhin Defense (the edition I read was just called The Defense) as a "great work of literature."  He also admits that he'd rather be a professional chess player or symphony violinist than a writer, reminding me of the section on Malzberg in Charles Platt's Dream Makers, in which Platt experiences Malzberg's poor chess playing and painful violin scraping.

(Jokes about violins always make me think of Jack Benny, of course, and the portion of Casanova's memoirs in which Casanova is a violinist--Volume 2, Chapters VI and VII, in the Trask translation covers this period, I think late 1745.  This is also the period of Casanova's life in which he suffers and perpetrates many outrageous practical jokes; in Chapter X, in 1747, Casanova even digs up a corpse as part of a joke.)

I read "Closed Sicilian" in my copy of The Many Worlds of Barry Malzberg back in 2011 and wrote two lines about it in my Amazon review of that collection.  I thought it was one of the better pieces in that collection, and in his intro Barry suggests it is one of his most successful stories, so I decided to reread it today.  

It really is one of Malzberg's better stories, tight and with real human feeling. Professional chess players, former childhood friends, are engaged in an important match before a large audience.  Through flashbacks we learn of the narrator's life, his relationship with his opponent and how, over the years, his obsession with chess lost him his humanity and apparently his sanity--he believes that this big match will determine the outcome of a war between the human race and evil aliens, and that his friend is a traitor to Earth, playing for the aliens.

"Closed Sicilian" would be expanded into the novel Tactics of Conquest.

"Linkage" (1973)

In his intro to "Linkage" Malzberg discusses the fact that (he says) literary critics dismiss science fiction as merely the "grandiose versions of the fantasies of disturbed juveniles;" while SF claims to be investigating possible human futures it is in fact childish "power fantasies."  Barry offers a very tepid defense of SF, admitting that (in his opinion) most SF is severely lacking in "literacy and technique," even if much SF does present valid ideas.

"Linkage," first presented to the public in the anthology Demonkind, is four pages long and feels like a response to such stories as Jerome Bixby's famous "It's a Good Life" and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore stories like "Absalom" and "When the Bough Breaks," stories about children with super powers who represent the next stage of human development and may very well be a menace to us poor homo sapiens.  The narrator of "Linkage" is an 8-year-old kid who has been put into an insane asylum because he claims to have psychic abilities that allow him to do anything (like the kid in "It's a Good Life") and to have been visited by people from the future who tell him he is the first of a new human species, homo superior, (like in "When the Bough Breaks.")  Of course, this being a Malzberg story, the narrator is obviously insane and obviously has no superpowers.

"Linkage" has what I am considering a shock twist ending--I think it is one of the very few Malzberg stories which may actually have a happy ending!  In the last paragraph we receive hints that the narrator is going to start cooperating with his therapist and abandon his delusions about future aliens and mental powers!  Of course, the waters are a little muddy, with Malzberg leaving open the possibility that the kid is going to pretend he is cured simply to escape the asylum and have sex and start propagating the superior race of whom he is the first, but I think I am going with the happy ending interpretation, because it is such a surprising departure for Malzberg.

Not bad, but not as fun and exciting as the apparent source material, the three stories I cited by Bixby and Kuttner and Moore.  So much of the culture of my lifetime is mockingly or dismissively derivative--South Park and The Simpsons lift memorable elements or entire plots from other works in order to goof on them, classic legends and iconic pop culture stories are retold with a diversity reshuffling of the main characters--but the new work rarely matches the power of the original, and often feels petulant or lazy.


I respect Malzberg and enjoy his work, but there is a limit to how many stories narrated by insane people I can take in a short period of time, especially since Malzberg isn't the kind of writer who writes in different voices or tones; there is a sameness to his work that can become monotonous.  So, time for an extended break. The next few episodes of MPorcius Fiction Log will cover adventure capers which (I hope) feature dinosaurs and people fighting with swords.  But don't worry, Malzberg fans, barring sudden death on the road we'll get back to The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.   

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, thanks for the effort of covering this brilliant writer who should be better known & respected. I really like your use of the original magazines the stories were published in.

    I've read all his 'speculative fiction', 10 of the Mike Barry series & several of the erotic (!well) novels ...& the kung fu one..all superb in different,yet similar ways.

    You are wise to not read too many of his short stories in one go for the reasons you state. Treat them like a rich desert & use sparingly for maximum satisfaction.