"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
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)
"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.
"As Between Generations" (1970)
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.
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)
"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.
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!