Monday, November 6, 2017

Barry N. Malzberg's Down Here in the Dream Quarter: Part Three

Almost all of my books are in cardboard boxes back in Ohio while I am in Maryland preparing our foul-smelling apartment for occupancy.  Luckily, I had the foresight to bring with me to this border region between America's Crime Capital and The Belly of the Beast both my DAW paperback of Tanith Lee's Volkhavaar and my hardcover copy of Barry Malzberg's Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  We discussed the Lee novel in our last episode; today let's continue our look into the 1976 Doubleday collection by the man who brought tears to my eyes with the hilarious "Vidi Vici Veni" and the moving "Conversations at Lothar's."

"After the Great Space War" (1976)

This story has a separate entry at isfdb, but it appears to be simply a retitled version of "Before the Great Space War," which appeared in Alternities and which we read in late 2016 when we read that original anthology.  It is possible that it is a revision of that story, but with my copy of Alternities 400 miles away, I am in no position to check.

In the afterword to "After the Great Space War" Malzberg talks about how hard it was to place the story, and speculates on why Analog, Galaxy, and Ed Ferman all rejected it before it was accepted by David Gerrold for Alternities.  Malzberg also reminds us (as if we, his fans, needed reminding!) that he doesn't think the human race will ever reach "far space."  "After the Great Space War" would in 1980 appear in Space Mail, an anthology with Isaac Asimov's name on it, one which has been reprinted numerous times over the years, including in German; do the authors of the stories get a payment every time one of these anthologies gets reprinted?  For Malzberg's sake, I hope so!

"Trashing" (1973)

"Trashing" first appeared in Infinity Five, edited by Robert Hoskins.  It is a three-page story, the reminisces of an insane man who stalks and murders the President of the United States.  Our narrator, a madman and an assassin, in the way of a mentally ill person, calls the President "the madman" and his bodyguards "his assassins" and after shooting down the President expects the crowds assembled to hear the chief executive speak to thank him as a liberator.

This is a decent story, and, with its insane narrator and topic of political murder, very representative of Malzberg's body of work.  The afterword is also very Malzbergian.  Barry relates that, at the invitation of a female friend who teaches creative writing, he read the story to about one hundred of her community college students, and only one of them (1 percent!) understood the story.  Malzberg worries that his career is a waste of time because, if ordinary people can't understand this brief and straightforward story, either Malzberg himself is a poor writer, or, ordinary people are almost all dim-witted (or, as Malzberg diplomatically puts it, "incomprehension is almost absolute out there.")  Barry addresses us readers directly, expecting us to share his pain: "either way, this afterword must depress you."

Malzberg's friend, the "lovely lady" college instructor, tried to salve his feelings by telling him that the community college students were members of the "underclasses" who would "never be heard of again," which is pretty funny and of course a fair sample of how academics, even those relegated to teaching at community colleges, think of the hoi polloi.  Malzberg, ever cagey, always teasing and laying puzzles and traps for us, his loving fans, doesn't tell us his friend's name, but gives us a clue: "she is a marvelous writer who wrote a splendid novel, Living and Learning," which, he tells us, was a paperback original which received little attention.  A few minutes on and then ye olde search engine leads me to believe the lady in question is Karen Jackel.  The cover of Living and Learning describes the novel as "an extraordinary and disturbing portrait of a young woman in love," and its sole reviewer on Amazon gives it five of five stars.  This book is available for ten dollars as of this writing at Amazon and 12 bucks at abebooks --I suggest you order a copy if only to prove to yourself you are not a mere member of the underclasses but can appreciate real literature.

"Vox Populi" (1973)

This one was first published in Edge, a magazine edited by Bruce McAllister that apparently only had one issue.  "Vox Populi" appeared alongside stories by Malzberg's peers in SF's literary smart set like Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and every college professor's favorite SF writers, Stanislaw Lem and Ursula LeGuin, a bunch of other famous SF figures, and a horde of people I've never heard of.

"Vox Populi" is two pages long, a lame bit of 1970s angst based on Malzberg's encounter on the street with congressman Leonard Farbstein, who was running for reelection, challenged by Bella Abzug.  (Malzberg tells us all this in the afterword; though I am flattered that you thought I figured it out by myself!)  On the first page of the story the narrator, a political and demographics junkie, is among a crowd of people shaking his congressman's hand, and then a few blocks away sees students rioting against American participation in the Vietnam War.  On the second page the narrator has a dream (ugh) about "members of the underclass" rioting and murdering people, including the congressman, at a campaign event.  The point of the story is that politicians just promise whatever constituents want--the congressman in the story blindly follows public opinion, for example supporting or opposing U. S. intervention in foreign wars not based on strategic or moral principles, but based on what will help win election.

The war business takes up more words, but the most interesting part of the story is the Jewish angle.  The congressional district in the story is largely Jewish, and the congressman (in the dream) while on a campaign stop trumpets his support of Israel and even plays the Israeli national anthem as a way to woo local voters.  (This wooing doesn't work on the "members of the underclass," who presumably are gentiles.)  I feel like nowadays only people on the very fringes of acceptable political opinion broach the topic of U.S. Congress members' support for Israel, so this element of the story struck me.  Presumably Malzberg is suggesting that the congressman's talk about Israel is insincere opportunism, but those passages in the story sound a lot like the kind of satire you might expect from anti-Semites or supporters of the Palestinians who think Israel has too much influence on Washington's foreign policy. 

In the afterward Malzberg reiterates his complaint about "liberal Democrats" (the scare quotes are used by Malzberg himself) who just cowardly chase votes and also complains that the country is "going down," saying "our life is being sucked away from us."  I hate vague political rhetoric like "going down" and "our life is being sucked away from us"--it is essentially meaningless, the kind of complaint any person who pays any attention to politics or culture at all and has any kind of ideology or attitude could voice:

Free market type:  "There are so many regulations and so many taxes there is no point in expanding my business and hiring more workers--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Government employee:  "They are cutting taxes and easing regulations, I'll be out of my cushy job and lose my monumental pension and the soft drink companies will sell arsenic soda--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Welfare recipient:  "They are cutting my food and housing benefits so I will starve in the gutter--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Union member (and factory owner):  "They are allowing too many foreign imports so nobody is buying our crummy overpriced MADE IN THE USA products--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Religious person:  "Thanks to the attacks on religion and traditional values from academia and Hollyweird nobody goes to church anymore and our social fabric is collapsing--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Luddite:  "All these computers and machines are taking our jobs and diminishing social interactions-- our life is being sucked away from us!"
Identity politics activist:  "The words people use and the way they look or don't look at my identity group are hurting our feelings--our life is being sucked away from us!"
Free speech advocate: "People can't speak their minds or even attend talks at college campuses without being shouted down or physically assaulted by these entitled snowflakes--our life is being sucked away from us!"

I think you get the picture.  Either Malzberg's amorphous complaint is evidence that he is driven not by serious reflection on political and social issues but an unspecific and visceral sense of unease about change, or, he is just too scared of diminishing his audience by specifying his gripes about the political and social issues of the day.  Either way, it results in vapid and irritating writing--it is much better when Malzberg makes clear his complaints, that the space program is a distracting waste of money or that machines are stealing our humanity or whatever.  Gotta give "Vox Populi" and its afterword a thumbs down.

"Fireday and Firenight" (1974)
"Fireday and Firenight" appeared first in one of Roger Elwood's anthologies, The Far Side of Time: Thirteen Original StoriesAs I have noted on this blog before, Elwood gets a lot of flak from some people who hate his anthologies or think they ruined the SF economy or something, but The Far Side of Time includes new stories from pillars of the SF community like Fritz Leiber, Robert Silverberg and Ben Bova, and a story from genius Gene Wolfe, so it is hard to take such criticisms of Elwood very seriously--don't SF readers want more stories from Leiber, Silverberg, Bova and Wolfe?

We've seen a number of Malzberg stories in which the government takes control of family structure and sexual life, such as "Culture Lock" and "Getting Around," and "Fireday and Firenight" is another.  In the future the story depicts, the family has been replaced by "the unit;" the narrator's unit consists of seven people who "go together everywhere under statute."  The units are set up by "the Protectors," and each member has an assigned role; for example, each unit includes a learned individual, "the pedagogue," who explains everything to the rest of the unit.  The narrator would like to have some alone time with the female member of the unit with whom he has been "sex-paired," but this is impossible.  (Since there are seven people in a unit, one of them is doomed to celibacy; this person's role is that of "the antagonist," and he is very unhappy and caustic, always casting doubt on everything.  Each unit is supposed to be a microcosm of the old society, which of course included skeptics, rebels, conservatives, etc., who challenged beliefs, institutions, and new ideas, creating friction, and the role of the antagonist is to remind everyone of the problems of the past called by such dissension.)

The plot of the story concerns the annual Day of Burning, when the units all go to the Arena to watch actors and robots reenact such historical phenomena as 18th-century pistol duels and World War II terror bombings--the point of the Day of Burning is to remind the people of how horrible life was before the unit system was imposed.  The end of the story hints that the unit society is just as horrible as the societies that went before it.

In his afterword Malzberg describes his abortive attempt to expand "Fireday and Firenight" into a novel, which he says would have been a useless, even disastrous, rehash of the innumerable SF novels already published about rebels overthrowing an oppressive robotic government.  He also tells us that the story is a "satirical rejoinder" to Theodore Sturgeon's many sentimental stories romanticizing or advocating collective consciousness and corporate identity, showing such collectivism's "dark side."  Malzberg doesn't use simple words like collective" and "corporate," though, but instead challenges our little minds with "syzygy" and "the gestalt effect in human relationships."  Oy!  Now whose acting the pedagogue?

"Making the Connections" (1975)

Here is another piece first published in a Roger Elwood anthology, Continuum 4.  isfdb indicates that this story was the fourth and final installment in a collaborative cycle whose earlier parts were produced by Dean Koontz, Gail Kimberly, and Pamela Sargent with George Zebrowski.  (The idea behind the Continuum series was that it presented serial fiction.)

Malzberg often presents us with first-person narrators who are insane and suffer from hallucinations, but he mixes things up this time by giving us an insane narrator who is a robot!  It is the post-cataclysm future, and the world is run by a powerful computer named Central.  Central is trying to exterminate the human race, and to that end has an army of robots patrolling the world, one of which is our narrator.  Our narrator has been killing lots of humans lately, many more than were expected, and he suspects that his old and worn out sensors are providing false data, that he is not crushing and lasering real people, but hallucinations.  Central has problems of its own, and must deny our narrator's many requests for repair.

Our narrator hits on the idea that he could build a comparatively simple robot to do his work of hunting down the remnants of humanity for him.  (It is a little hard to believe that building another robot is easier than just repairing yourself or shooting defenseless people yourself, but we'll have to overlook this.  Anyway, this robot is insane and who knows what is really going on?)  In the final scene the narrator totally breaks down and has a comforting dream (!) that his creation comes to put him out of his misery and then continues his mission of wiping out the human race.  Presumably the narrator's career as creator of a simulacra is supposed to parallel humanity's own history of making machines to do our work for us and finding they have the power to murder and replace us.

Zoinks!  This thing goes
 for 21 bucks online!
In his afterword Malzberg tells us baldly that he thinks that the human race is now the creature of technology instead of vice versa, and that it was doomed to be thus, that nothing could or can be done to halt this process.  (I personally find this attitude totally ridiculous.  Would Malzberg really be happier in a world with no typewriter, no telephone, no recorded music, no printing press, no automobile, no skyscraper, etc?  The guy has chosen to spend his whole life in New York City and Northern New Jersey as a writer!)  Then he praises David R. Bunch's Moderan stories, and laments that they have been "almost completely ignored."  (Well, Joachim Boaz has not ignored them!)   


"Vox Populi" is self-indulgent and anemic, but "Making the Connections" and "Fireday and Firenight" are the real Malzberg stuff, worth the time of us Malzberg fans and people interested in the New Wave and the odder precincts of the SF world.  And Malzberg's afterwords discussing the commercial writer's life and indulging in literary criticism are always interesting.  I'm glad I kept my copy of Down Here in the Dream Quarter close to my heart and didn't trust it to those movers!

1 comment:

  1. I wonder what Malzberg would think of the publishing world today where most of his former markets--SF magazine, original paperback anthologies, and printed book publishers--have disappeared or morphed.