Saturday, January 28, 2017

Eight stories by Barry Malzberg from the period 1974-6

The time has finally come!  Today we conclude our epic journey through Barry N. Malzberg's 1976 collection, The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  It has been an exciting trip, and we still have eight stories to tackle before we can return this baby, with its terrific Robert Schulz cover and surrealistic Harlan Ellison back cover blurb, to my dusty shelves.  Let's get to it!

"Twenty Sixty-One" (1974)

In the intro to this one Malzberg tells us he has "long been a fan of schizophrenia" (remember, his uncle Benjamin was Director of Research and Statistics at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene and author of publications with titles like Migration and Mental Disease: A study of first admission to hospitals for mental disease, New York, 1939-1941.)  He jocularly suggests that schizophrenia, "the only disease that was genuinely artful...might save all of us yet."

"Twenty Sixty-One" was first printed in F&SF and was later translated into Portuguese
"Twenty Sixty-One" is set in a single room, where we find two men.  Their dialogue, and insight into their thoughts provided by the third-person narrator, makes evident that these men live in a future in which so many people are unhappy with their lives that they pay technicians to administer drugs to them that give them mental disorders like paranoia and catatonia.  The twist ending makes us wonder if this scenario is in part, or entirely, a delusion.

As we have seen as we have read The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, our buddy Barry often writes about futuristic institutions which provide strange forms of therapy, forms of therapy which often seem more like self-indulgent recreation than any kind of serious medical regimen.  One of Barry's recurring motifs in these stories is that the therapists are called "technicians," not "doctors," suggesting the mental health professionals portrayed have little compassion for their patients, and that a human being is just a machine, like an automobile perhaps, not something magical with a unique personality or soul.

Pretty good.

"Closing the Deal" (1974)

"Closing the Deal" appeared in Analog (when it was edited by Ben Bova), which gives Malzberg occasion to use his intro here to talk about John W. Campbell, the legendary SF editor.  Malzberg credits Campbell with creating the modern SF field in the 1940s, and argues that, without Campbell's guidance, SF would be a tiny moribund niche market, like westerns, and not the prominent (perhaps dominant?) cultural phenomenon it in fact had become by the 1970s.  (Malzberg here calls SF "the American literature of the last third of the century.")

"Closing the Deal" is actually a good fit for Analog; it not only deals with one of Campbell's hobby horses-- psionic powers--but, compared to much of Malzberg's body of work, it is clear and direct, and has believable characters who are not insane. At the same time it is pure Malzberg: it is cynical and depressing, it portrays an unhappy marriage and an unhappy parent-child relationship, and it deromanticizes one of the most romanticized (and most ridiculous) of SF tropes.

A man whose wife abandoned him and their little girl is in discussion with another man.  The little girl, eight years of age, is a voluble genius who has the ability to levitate; she also accuses her father of stifling her. The conversation between the father and the visitor at first sounds somewhat like those between a social worker and a single parent facing difficulties, but we soon learn that psychic powers are relatively common in this world, and the visitor is a talent scout from one of several private firms who train and manage young psychics; he and the father are negotiating a price for the father to surrender custody and "total control" of the girl to the firm.  The father gets a much lower offer than he expects, not realizing how common psychic powers really are and how limited are his daughter's (the talent scout uses the phrase "third string.")  The scout reveals that he himself has psionic abilities, powers much like the little girl's, and these have not enabled him to have any glittering career or win any fame.

In a van Vogt story or a Sturgeon story people with mental powers radically change the world or the universe, leading man to his destiny of crossing the black void between the galaxies or the gulfs between individual consciousnesses, opening up an eternity of adventure or peace.  In this Malzberg story psykers are just people trying to sell their skills on the market like the rest of us, people just as likely to be frustrated with their careers and lives as anybody else.  ("How many violinists are there for every concert master?" asks the scout.  I wonder if Malzberg, who has admitted to dreams of being a professional violinist, had his own career as a writer in mind with this stuff; he was able to make a decent living for his family with his pen and win the accolades of his fellow SF writers, but is obviously disappointed he hasn't achieved the recognition of a Roth or Nabokov.)

It is great to see Malzberg put together a good mainstream story for the most popular of SF magazines without compromising his own artistic vision.  "Closing the Deal" is a better than average example of his work, and a story I can recommend without reservation to all SF fans, not just to those who are into experimental or literary SF.

Very good.  

"What the Board Said" (1976)

In his intro Malzberg warns us that this is another story about the JFK assassination.  I think it has only ever appeared here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg--completists take note!

It is the future!  The Earth is inhabited by thirty-five billion people, and they travel around the globe via a public transportation system of teleporter gates.  Our narrator works for the government, for the "board" which "runs the world;" his in-person report to the board makes up the first part of this story.  The board is an old man, whom it is hinted may be largely a machine and who apparently plays a sort of religious role in this future world; we are told the board is kept alive by a full-time staff and the prayers of half the world's population.  The board has sent the narrator to search the Earth for the answer to some unspecified question, and he has returned to say there is no answer that human beings can understand.  Presumably the question is about the meaning of life or possibility of free will or some other weighty philosophical issue.  The board, whom the narrator considers insane, weeps upon learning that this essential question is unanswerable.

The narrator leaves the broken-hearted board to join a line at one of the teleporters. There is a long queue because the teleporter system, like the board, is in severe decline, breaking down under the pressure of overpopulation and deficient maintenance.  A fat man in line behind the narrator begins complaining, and even proposes confronting the board.  The narrator considers this man insane (the narrator tells us that modern technology has driven many people insane) and tries to stop him; the fat man calls the narrator insane and leads an angry crowd back to the board's room, knocking over the narrator in the process.  The last line of the story reveals that all this has happened in Dallas and suggests that a violent revolution is about to take place.

I really don't see the connection between what happens in this story and the murder of JFK.  Was Kennedy assassinated in response to a severe deficiency of his government or general decline in American society due to overpopulation and technological change?  Did a popular revolution result from his murder? What happens in this story seems more akin to the French Revolution or the murder of Archduke Ferdinand or the Bolshevik Revolution or the fall of the Weimar Republic or something like that. Maybe the murder of Kennedy felt like such a cataclysm to his more ardent fans?  If it wasn't for that last line, and Malzberg telling us the story is about JFK in the intro, the reader would have little reason to link the story to JFK at all.

This story is alright; I think the last line is in fact distracting, and I would probably like it more if that last line was absent or modified; instead of feeling like a story inspired by the tragic death of JFK, it feels like the author wrote a story and then tried to cheaply take advantage of the reader's presumed deep feelings about the assassination to make his story seem more profound.

"Uncoupling" (1976)

In Charles Platt's very entertaining profile of Malzberg in Dream Makers, our pal Barry tells Platt that his favorite of his own stories is "Uncoupling."  In his intro to "Uncoupling" here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, the author tells us it is a tribute to and a "shameless pastiche" of Alfred Bester, whom Malzberg considers the "best stylist" in the "history of the field."  Malzberg's exact words are "The best stylist pound-for-pound (I'd make him a light heavyweight) in the history of this field is probably Alfred Bester..." but I don't really know what he means by that "pound-for-pound" business; maybe it's just a joke?  Does Malzberg have a list of SF writers in his head, each ranked according to sales or influence or critical acclaim, with (one guesses) Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke the top heavyweights?  What weight class does Malzberg reckon he himself belongs in?

"Uncoupling" first appeared in Dystopian Visions and later in The Road to Science Fiction #4
In the overpopulated future in which the government runs everything and enforces its rules with an army of tentacled robot cops, a self-described fascist goes to the government-run brothel to enjoy his government-authorized monthly act of sexual intercourse.  Bad news--his allotment has been reduced from ten minutes to five!

Being a good fascist the narrator accepts this diminution of his sex ration: "I will not dispute the Government in any area."  But before the story ends we will learn that there are people in this totalitarian world who rebel against the government's control of their intimate relationships, however futilely.

I was expecting more from Malzberg's own fave story (I thought Malzberg's favorite of his novels was really good, the most enjoyable Malzberg novel I've ever read), but I certainly liked "Uncoupling," and it is probably better than average for him, and probably more approachable than average.  It also has what may be considered shocking or salacious elements: the government brothel caters not only to those who favor traditional sexual practices, but every fetish imaginable, and as the narrator is escorted to the "HETEROSEX" wing he passes by the "SADO-MASOCHISM,"
"BESTIALITY" and "NECROPHILIA" sectors, hearing various shrieks, squeals and moos as he does so.

"Over the Line" (1974)

In his intro to this one Malzberg claims he wrote it in an hour, during a break in an argument with his wife!  He also claims that "the writer" is "essentially" a "blue-collar worker."  I find it irritating when college-educated people who sit at desks reading and typing for a living try to don the mantle of the working classes; being a professional creative writer is certainly work and certainly comes with its own psychological challenges, but it is not like toiling in a mine or a factory or driving deliveries or scrubbing floors or whatever.

"Over the Line" first alerted us to the
pointlessness of our lives in
Roger Elwood's Future Kin
Whether or not he really wrote it in 60 minutes, "Over the Line" is quite good.  A generation ship has been crossing the cosmos for generations, so long that the ship's computer is breaking down.  At sixteen years of age inhabitants of the ship go ask the computer a question; this is a rite of passage that marks the line between childhood and adulthood on the ship.  Most of this story consists of our narrator describing his meeting with the computer during his own rite of passage.  He asks when the ship will finally reach its destination, and the computer admits that the files with the ship's destination have been lost--the ship is just going to travel on forever until it crashes or suffers catastrophic technical failure; the ship's voyage and the lives of the space travellers are pointless.  

An allegory for our lives!  And an allegory for (a cynical/practical view of) religion: when the narrator returns to his father he lies, telling Dad that the computer assured him that Mom, who disappeared eight years ago, is "at peace."  Religion is the lies we tell each other to make life endurable.

This is a good one; I like that the computer was programmed to feel emotions, in order to better identify with and serve the passengers, but that this has resulted in a computer that is depressed and miserable, scared of its own death and liable to short-tempered outbursts and self-pity.      

"Try Again" (1974)

"Try Again" and "An Oversight" share an intro.  In the intro Malzberg tells us that, while he is Jewish  ("guilt-stricken and intermittently disbelieving Reform") himself, he has written little influenced by Judaism, but quite a bit of work referring to the New Testament, and these two stories are examples of such fiction.

Both "Try Again" and "An Oversight"
first appeared in Strange Gods.  One
wonders if any of the stories is a
sword and sorcery adventure, as the
color illustration suggests.
The world has ended and the text of "Try Again" is that of the journal of a survivor, Steve the mediocre small town sportswriter, who is in a bomb shelter with his wife Eva and his father-in-law Bill, a fundamentalist minister.  (That's our  Barry, putting a woman named Eva in a bunker and suggesting she may be the only woman in the world, getting two allusions for the price of one!)  Bill has been preparing for the end of the world all his life, studying and preaching about the Book of Daniel incessantly for years--Eva, who hates her father, thinks he is happy that the world has ended!  Steve, we readers are given reason to believe, may also welcome the end of the world as a release from a disappointing life in which he never strove to do his best, but instead coasted--if the world was going to end during his lifetime anyway, his taking the easy path and settling for less all these years was justified!

Malzberg's work is often so short and crazy and experimental that he doesn't devote much energy to delineating characters, but in "Try Again" he effectively presents us with people with interesting personalities and motivations, people (in particular, the narrator) who are quite believable.  Malzberg often talks about psychology in his stories, but in an abstract or clinical way, throwing around Freudian terms and portraying characters who are totally bonkers.  In "Try Again" I felt like he was doing the more traditional literary thing, showing us the psychology of a more or less normal person, and I liked it.

Of course, this is still a Malzberg story, so there are some bizarre off the wall twists: can it be that the world hasn't ended after all? And what is up with this friendly tentacled alien who says he is a researcher and has been living in the bomb shelter since long before Steve and Bill and Eva arrived?

Fun and engaging, with a protagonist with whom an ordinary person can easily identify!

"An Oversight" (1974)

This brief story is a wacky trifle.  Our narrator, the head of some tiny apocalyptic Muslim sect with a mosque in the US (I guess in New York), thinks that "the Saviour" is on the Earth, travelling in various disguises.  He chases the Saviour around the world, spotting Him disguised as a hotdog-gobbling sports fan at a football game in St. Louis, as an Armenian Jew on a bus in Israel, as an old woman in Moscow.  Our narrator thinks if he can seize the Saviour that the Apocalypse can begin, but He keeps getting away, so much so that his followers are grumbling and making fewer and fewer donations to the cause.  Finally, on a plane bound for Alaska, the narrator realizes that the sexy stewardess is the Saviour in disguise!  He grabs her, and the "thousand years of war and judgement" begin.

This story is sort of amusing; the apparent preoccupation of the Saviour with money (our narrator suspects He disguised Himself as a stewardess so He could fly for free!) made me laugh.  Malzberg also hints that the narrator's theory that he can start the Apocalypse by grappling with the Saviour, who disguises himself in many ways, may be an excuse to sexually molest strangers.

Not bad, but slight.

"And Still in the Darkness" (1976)

Here it is, the last story in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg!  In his intro Barry tells us that, at age 35, he has made the "irrevocable decision to write no more science fiction."  Say it ain't so!

Malzberg explains that he loves the science-fiction field, but is convinced that even the best SF writers run out of ideas and just repeat themselves after seven or ten years. This fate he does not want to suffer.  (Malzberg's theory, that science fiction "seems to impose a definite time limit upon the creative working life of its practitioners" challenges those of us who are SF fans to look over the oeuvre of our favorite writers and try to figure out if, after the ten year mark, any of them wrote something fresh and different from what came before.  I also think it is fair to consider how much this discovery about SF--if true--matters to readers.  I am willing to admit that The Master Mind of Mars (1927) and Synthetic Men of Mars (1940) are not radically different from A Princess of Mars (1917; magazine version 1912) and Gods of Mars (1918; magazine version 1913), but I remember enjoying all four immensely!)

"And Still in the Darkness," which apparently only ever appeared in this essential volume for all of us SF scholars, bears considerable similarities to "Over the Line."  As a rite of passage a teenage boy has to go talk to the old computer that runs his society: the point of the encounter is to have it explained to him that life is "pain and darkness," that human life, compared to the vast size and scope of the universe, is insignificant.

Inferior to "Over the Line" because it lacks the family dynamics of "Over the Line" and the interesting idea of an emotional computer, so just OK.


The Best of Barry N. Malzberg has been a great ride.  Many of these stories are good, and I love Malzberg's intros about his life as a writer and about the SF field.  This is an absolute must have for fans of Malzberg, and I also reccomend it to anybody interested in "literary" SF, the New Wave, and 20th-century SF criticism.

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