Friday, September 8, 2017

Three mid-70s stories by Barry N. Malzberg

Via Ebay, I recently acquired the Lake Blackshear Regional Library of Americus, Georgia's withdrawn copy of Barry N. Malzberg's 1976 hardcover collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  On the jacket are quotes from Harlan Ellison ("Barry Malzberg is...a better writer than I am") and Brian Aldiss (who sees Malzberg as "a master of sex and depression") which would be reason enough to crack yet again the severely cracked spine of this harried and tattered volume, even if I hadn't, somehow or other, slowly been evolving into some kind of Malzberg obsessive. Today, four pieces from this collection!

"Introduction: A Short One for the Boys in the Back Room" (1976)

Malzberg starts the six-and-a-half page intro, dated "New Jersey: January 1976," to Down Here in the Dream Quarter by describing how he temporarily left off using 1950s issues of Astounding as bedtime reading and absorbed nine ("or perhaps ten") biographies of literary icons ("Ross and Tom and John and Ernest and James and John again and Sinclair"--he just gives the first names, mystifying you or flattering your erudition, though in the next paragraph there are more clues--for example, the James is apparently not Joyce or Boswell but Thurber,) only to find them depressingly similar tales of unhappiness--lives of rejection, failed marriages, and alcohol abuse.

Barry then moves on to describing the start of his own career as a writer and how he got into science fiction (at the same time telling us that his SF career is over--don't believe him!)  This account is both entertaining and interesting and contains numerous memorable tidbits, e.g., "the single happiest moment" of his life was when he learned he had made his first real SF sale, "We're Coming Through the Window" to Frederick Pohl at Galaxy, and that when he wrote his breakthrough story "Final War" (original title, when he was shopping it to literary magazines and slicks like The Atlantic Monthly, Kenyon Review, Playboy and Esquire, "Shoe a Troop of Horse") he "did not have Vietnam at all in mind."  In our last episode of this here blog we saw that Malzberg identified with A. E. van Vogt as a fellow sui generis writer--in this book Malzberg identifies with J. G. Ballard because both are (he says) symbols of a certain type of writing:
I never expected to be a major science fiction writer let alone the figure I have become.  (Which if not "major" is certainly that in terms of visibility as best symbol of a certain kind of writing in my field in my country just as J. G. Ballard occupies the same role in England.)      
We'll let you decide if both these self-identifications, written within six months of each other, can be reconciled.

A valuable document for all of you (us?) students of the sage of Teaneck!

"A Galaxy Called Rome" (1975)

This famous story, the foundation of Malzberg's novel Galaxies, which I read back in 2011 in a 1998 anthology of classic novels of space travel and was my first exposure to Malzberg's work, begins by invoking seminal SF editor John W. Campbell, Jr, dead four years when "A Galaxy Called Rome" was published.  (Campbell died on July 11, 1971, within a week of your humble blogger's birth.)

The first line of "A Galaxy Called Rome" is "This is not a novelette but a series of notes," and Malzberg explains that the novelette will "lean heavily upon" two posthumously published editorials by Campbell, in which Campbell posits the existence of a "black galaxy," the product of a neutron star's collapse, a thing with such gravitational power that it is invisible and can constrain not only "light itself but space and time." The novelette Malzberg proposes writing would be about a space ship trapped in this black galaxy, named after Rome by Campbell because all roads lead to it (though none lead away.)

In note form, interspersed with draft fragments of important scenes, we get the outline of the story of ship captain and pilot Lena Thomas, who is the sole waking person on a ship that ends up in the black galaxy, and who thus lives for thousands of years, going insane.  Malzberg's "notes" are full of specific criticism of hard SF ("At this point in the story great gobs of physics, astronomical and mathematical data would have to be incorporated") as well as criticism of fiction in general ("It is to be noted that putting this conventional viewpoint in the character of a woman will give another of those necessary levels of irony with which the story must abound if it is to be anything other than a freak show...irony will give it legitimacy.")

"A Galaxy Called Rome" seems, to me, to be about the impossibility of real knowledge, as well as a reflection on the uselessness of science fiction and perhaps literature in general.  No information can leave the black galaxy, a reminder of the inability of one human being to know another, to transmit information, or to truly know anything with confidence.  Lena Thomas talks to the rest of the crew and passengers, all of whom are in suspended animation and cannot hear her--she is talking for herself, for own psychological benefit, and isn't this like the writer, who writes not knowing if his work will even be published, much less if others will read and understand it? Malzberg muses that SF's pretensions makes little sense--what is the point of speculating about what happens on other planets or in different times when what goes on in one's own town, much less the town one over, is just as unknowable?  (" occurred to me that Ridgefield Park would forever be as mysterious as the stars...." Why consider the "sound of pulsars" when "the music of the paddock area at Aqueduct racetrack" is just as, or even more, strange and exciting?  Isn't writing or reading about riding in a star ship just as interesting as writing or reading about riding in a New York City subway car?

Image from's career is plagued with typos!

"A Galaxy Called Rome" is characteristic of Malzberg--it's about being a writer, it shows respect for SF at the same time it calls SF's traditional attitudes into question, it suggests that man's problems will go with him to the stars because those problems are spiritual and psychological, it mentions Freud and the Aqueduct and frustrating sex--but it is better than average for Malzberg because it has more clever turns of phrase and more interesting images per page than most of Malzberg's work, and at about 20 pages it is a good length, neither overstaying its welcome and feeling like it is bloated with filler nor coming off like a half-baked trifle dashed off for a check.  I really recommend this one, not just to Malzberg fans (who of course need to read it) but to people curious about Malzberg who haven't tried him yet, or those who have read one or a few other Malzberg stories and been irritated or unimpressed; this is top shelf Malzberg.

In his Afterword Malzberg tells us he wrote the story for an anthology called Faster Than Light and that it was rejected by the editors, whom he does not name (they are George Zebrowski and Jack Dann.)  Malzberg, who usually says sympathetic things about editors and often expresses his gratitude to them (in fact, Down Here in the Dream Quarter is dedicated to a list of eleven editors) tells us that he is still angry about this rejection; I think Malzberg realizes this is some of his best work.  "A Galaxy Called Rome" first appeared, then, in F&SF, and it has been reprinted many many times, often in books with titles that include the word "Best" or "Top" or "Favorite" or "Great."  (Zebrowski and Dann blew it on this one, but I suppose they made amends in 1998--they were editors, along with Pamela Sargent, of that three book anthology that contains Galaxies!)

"Thirty-Seven Northwest" (1976)

This story, if isfdb is to be believed, has only ever appeared in this book, so you are just going to have to go buy a copy, aren't you?

Our narrator, who is also named Thomas, is an explorer walking around on the surface of Jupiter, in a massively heavy suit which allows him to survive and move in the tremendous gravity of that planet.  He does whatever the people back at base tell him to do, setting up cameras, looking this way and that, etc.  This is all pretty well written in hard SF style, interspersed with Malzbergian descriptions of the narrator's fears about the deadly planet and his worries that stem from the fact that he was supposed to be merely one component of a three-member team, and his comrades, for some reason, have not accompanied him.

At the end of the seven-page story the people at base order him to remove his helmet; when he protests that he will die they threaten to leave him on Jupiter forever.  Then we learn the shocking truth: everybody on this mission is a child!  Why or how this happened is not explored.

A decent piece of work.

In his Afterword to this tale Malzberg compares it to Golding's Lord of the Flies.  He also says that "What all post-technological cultures share is the absolute brutality with which they treat their children, all their children.  (I don't think most other cultures were or are any better but it is this one I know well enough to generalize.)"  This is puzzling. First of all, do people normally think of 1976 USA as "post-technological?"  Does Malzberg mean "post-industrial?"  Secondly, it seems obvious that, compared to most other places and times, that post-World War II America, and the West broadly, coddles and pampers kids.  What "absolute brutality" is he talking about?

Malzberg also uses the afterword to promote Kris Neville, whom he considers "underrated," and to list stories of Neville's which he believes "articulate" the alleged brutality of which Malzberg speaks "with visionary skill."  The Neville stories he lists are "Betty-ann," "From the Government Printing Office," and "Overture;" I have read some Neville but none of these.  Joachim Boaz read the fix-up novel of which "Betty-ann" and "Overture" are a part, and wrote about it in 2015--check his thoughts out at the link.

"Sedan Deville" (1974)

Here's something you maybe didn't know about our pal Barry--he loves cars!  Cadillacs, in fact!  I'm always a little surprised to learn that a smart and/or educated person loves cars or sports, but I hear it all the time, so maybe I should stop being surprised by it.

"Sedan Deville," which first saw light of day in F&SF, consists of letters written to a literary agent by Karl Delvecchio, New Jersey auto mechanic!  Delvecchio writes ungrammatically and refers to himself in the third person with regularity, but he is a published writer, having sold stories to a failing SF magazine, Terrific Science Fiction.  I know you are disappointed about this grease monkey's name, but dry your eyes--the editor of Terrific Science Fiction is named Mr. Walter Thomas!

Anyway, the letters reveal that Delvecchio's stories are all about Cadillacs; in fact, he claims that he is simply the messenger of the Cadillacs, who tell him their stories as he works on them.  He is contacting the agent because Terrific has folded and he desires help finding new markets, but the agent's demands for reading fees and criticism of his stories (the agent suggests he show range by writing about some other make of car) anger him.  The letters conclude with Delvecchio's assertion that the energy crisis is a plot to murder the Cadillacs!

I laughed at some of the jokes in this story, so it gets a thumbs up.  Maybe nowadays the story would be pilloried because it could be interpreted as making fun of a choleric working-class ethnic who may be an immigrant.  It would have been safer to name the mechanic "Thomas," Barry, and reserve "Delvecchio" for the kind but doomed editor of Terrific!

In the Afterword Malzberg talks about the Cadillacs he has owned and describes how each died on him in dramatic circumstances.  (Every day brings new reasons to be glad I drive a Toyota.)  He also points out that when some unnamed "commentator" learned he drove a Cadillac this "enraged" individual listed Malzberg "near the top of the Exploiting Class"--a foreshadowing of the feminist attack on Malzberg in 2013?  No matter how leftist you may be, there's always another leftist ready to slide the knife into you for the least infraction of their ever-shifting creed.


Worthwhile stuff!

When Brian Doherty of Reason magazine reviewed the 2013 Malzberg collection The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg he noted that it had typos on every page.  Down Here in the Dream Quarter is not nearly as bad as that, but poor Barry was not well-served by the editors at Doubleday back in the '70s.  When he cites the Neville stories, "From the Government Printing Office" is listed as "In the Government Printing Office" and even though the book's title is printed correctly on the title page, the header on every page that has one reads, nonsensically, "DOWN HERE IN THE DREAM QUARTERS." Sad!

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