Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Universe Day by Barry N. Malzberg

"How the hell can they expect to send men out to Mercury when they can't even control a simple situation down on Earth?"

Back in 2014 internet SF mastermind Joachim Boaz recommended to me (and to others!) Barry Malzberg's Universe Day, a paperback printed by Avon in 1971, the year of my birth, and published under Malzberg's transparent pseudonym K. M. O'Donnell.  (Check out Joachim's review!)  The cover of Universe Day is pretty good, and I feel a little guilty over the fact that I dropped mine one day and put a big gouge in it.  (I'm afraid I'm not as good a custodian of these artifacts of SF history as I should be.)

Universe Day is a fix-up novel, and the indispensable isfdb lists (some?) of the stories which form the basis of the novel:

I had reason to suspect that this isfdb list is incomplete because the publication page of Universe Day under the heading "Some of this material has appeared in substantially different form in:" lists Nova 2--Nova 2 (1972) includes the Malzberg story "Two Odysseys into the Center"--and Galaxy, with the date 1971--in the March issue of that year Malzberg's "Gehenna" appeared.

Curious to compare the initial short story versions of these tales to what they look like incorporated into the novel, alongside Universe Day I read the short stories upon which it was based!  Two of those listed at isfdb I have actually read and written about before; "Pacem Est" I read last year in my copy of In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories and "Elephants" I read in 2015 in my copy of Infinity Two.  "Making Titan" and "A Triptych" and "How I Take Their Measure" I read at the internet archive, and "Conquest" in my copy of the 1973 paperback printing of New Dimensions 1"Gehenna" I read back in 2013 in a library book, and also appears in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, and has no relationship to anything in Universe Day, so why Galaxy is listed in Universe Day I do not know, maybe there is a typo in there.  You can "borrow" scans of Nova 1 and Nova 2 from the internet archive, a somewhat cumbersome process of accounts and passwords and waitlists, and I tried this but got sick of waiting and so ordered the volumes through Amazon so I could read "Two Odysseys into the Center" and "Terminus Est" while I was still middle-aged.  To my surprise "Two Odysseys into the Center" has only the most tenuous thematic connection to Universe Day 

There is a lot more material here than in my usual blog posts which cover a single novel or three to five stories, so I am putting my findings "below the fold."  If you have any interest in the results of this research project in Malzbergian studies, click to read on!

(Maybe somebody in the comments or via twitter can let me know if this "jump break" has worked as intended, because I have my doubts.)

Universe Day, which consists of about 150 pages of text (but with quite a bit of negative space between chapters), has fourteen chapters and a prologue.

Apocrypha as Prologue or: The Way We Wished it Happened

The prologue to Universe Day is nine paragraphs, one each for the non-Earth planets of our system plus one for Luna.  Like the parody passages in Herovit's World, each of these paragraphs is a caricature of Golden Age adventure SF, Malzberg mocking classic SF as racist and imperialistic and repetitive and formulaic.  Each paragraph includes a version of the phrase "fighting every step of the way" and describes Earthmen landing on the planet, exploring jungles or ruined cities or whatever, and murdering and conquering the natives, if any.  The nine paragraphs also include clues that indicate that the Earth of the next forty centuries or so will be run as a horrible tyranny.

My own readings of Golden Age SF suggest that Malzberg's caricature is very exaggerated, even unfair, as I have pointed out in my recent blog posts about Herovit's World, C. L. Moore, and Edmond Hamilton, but I suppose these nine paragraphs are sort of amusing.

Chapter I: Making Titan, 2500 (Based on "Making Titan," 1970)

This piece includes classic Malzbergian themes: the failure of the space program, the way technology (in Malzberg's view) uses up people, and sexual and relationship dysfunction.  Several spacecraft have tried to land on Titan, and all have, apparently, vanished.  People are losing faith in technology and science, so on the latest Titan mission the government sends, along with the astronaut trained to pilot the ship, an astrologer and a demonologist!  The three men all hate each other, and being stuck together on a dangerous mission, crammed into a tiny little ship, exacerbates tensions.

Malzberg, in brief little subsections, offers us a character sketch of each man and a window into his  point of view, I think two subsections focusing on each of the explorers.  The astrologer is a failure with women, and envies the astronaut, who has a good sexual relationship with his wife.  (In the magazine version the astrologer is 42, but for some reason in the book version he is 23.  More understandably, in the book version the astronaut's sexual relationship with his wife is not as smooth and satisfying as in the magazine.)  The astronaut of course considers the mystics to be lunatics who can only distract him and he totally ignores their inane advice.  The demonologist despises both the astrologer and the astronaut for believing that the universe is orderly and has rules that can be discovered--he knows that the cosmos is a chaotic mess driven by the whims of amoral superior beings.

Obviously astrology and demonology are stupid, so I think we have to judge that Malzberg's real target here is science and technology and Man's fetishization of them.  Why is the government sending men to Titan, most likely to die?  In the short story version no reasonable purpose for the mission is presented to us, and it seems that the point of the mission is to simply prove that science and technology work.  Is this a purpose worthy of sacrificing brave and capable men like the astronaut?  Malzberg is suggesting that the attitudes about science and technology of mainstream thinkers, and their motivations, are just as much the irrational and emotional products of psychological problems as those of the dolts and goofballs who cast horoscopes and suffer the delusion that they can summon the Devil; "Making Titan" presents us with a scenario in which, instead of being a tool of Man that makes his life better, science is like a deity to whom Man is sacrificed.

In the book version the same theme is there, but Malzberg dilutes it by talking about how mankind is running out of room on Earth and so each planet must be investigated as a possible living space and Titan is a good place from which to observe Saturn.  This makes the mission seem a little more rational. 

This is good Malzberg.  "Making Titan" is not named on the cover of the issue of F&SF in which it appears, but the cover illustration was inspired by it.  The story was also included in a French magazine in 1972.  Vive le Malzberg!

Chapter II: Some Headlines in the Void 1968 (Based on "A Triptych," 1969)

The magazine version (F&SF again) of this piece is ten brief sections; the book version includes an eleventh section.  Like the last chapter, this chapter is about three men on a space ship who do not get along--it is narrated by one of them.  The main focus of the plot is the matter of communications with the Earth.  Public support for the space program is tenuous, so those in charge of the program impress upon all astronauts that transmissions back to Earth must be free of vulgarities and that the space craft must be kept tidy so it will look good in video transmissions.  One of the astronauts, however, Miller, keeps threatening to transmit an elaborate harangue listing his many complaints about the human race should some system on the ship malfunction and jeopardize his life.  The captain does not appreciate this.  The ship does not malfunction, so Miller need not transmit his tirade, and he admits that in a real crisis he would have been too scared to put on his threatened performance anyway.  He suggests, however, that the captain, a tougher and braver man than he, in such a dangerous situation might have himself delivered just such a bitter speech to the people back on Earth who put them in such a perilous situation.

The book version adds some spice to Miller's threats--he says he will show his genitals to the cameras if he is forced to give his recriminatory transmission--and Malzberg adds a reference to "the assassinations."  (Political murders like that of JFK are a common theme of Malzberg's work.)  In both versions Miller gives a prediction of a terrible future of riots and social breakdown, accompanied by pointless colonization of the solar system--the government will focus more on keeping the space program running than maintaining order on Earth, perhaps thinking that the distraction provided by the space program is essential to what little order is left.  In the book version the narrator adds his own prediction, that the space program will not proceed smoothly, but in fits and starts, periodically put on the shelf, even for centuries at a time, due to social unrest and revolutions, and then revived.

Not a bad psychological study.  "A Triptych" shows up in the 1969 Ace collection Final War and Other Fantasies, a copy of which I own.  In his intro to the story there Malzberg makes the grand and unfalsifiable claim that most "serious" SF writers by 1969, himself included, wrote about what technology was doing to people instead of how people could use technology.  "The terror of technology is that it is beyond our capacity to divine, let alone manipulate," warns the sage of Teaneck.

Chapter III: Tracking the Moons of Mars 2042

This five-page chapter might be wholly original to Universe Day.  Two sensitive, creative explorers, a man who sings popular songs and a woman who submits poetry to high brow journals, lament that it is not really they who are measuring and examining Deimos and Phobos, but their machines.  Meanwhile, their commander struggles to compose a message back to Earth that will explain to his superiors that leaving Earth has been a mistake, that the further humans get from their homeworld, "the less we are."

Chapter IV: Offertory and Resolution

This four-and-a-half page chapter also appears to be all-new.

An astronaut, back on Earth after a trip to the Moon, dreams he is running for public office.  He gives a speech in which he tells the crowd that he almost quit the space program because it was "all too mechanical."  (Malzberg isn't shy about hammering away at his theme again and again.)  The astronaut turned politician says that the future belongs not to individual heroes but to teams and teamwork, and seems to be arguing for a more collectivist, authoritarian government.  In the dream he has trouble performing in bed with his wife, and his lead political handler, who writes his speeches and so on, is cuckolding him.

When the astronaut awakens from the dream we learn he is in prison because he abandoned his comrades, leaving them to die on the moon while he, insane, returned to Earth alone.  (Malzberg's body of work is full of astronauts who go insane and whose behavior leads to the deaths of others.)

Chapter V: The First Colonists 2036

Eight pages, eight separate sections.  Chapters III and IV felt a little like quickie filler or mere fragments, but this one feels meatier, more like a coherent story with what passes for a plot and characters in Malzberg's oeuvre.

Our narrator is a member of one of the first expeditions to Mars.  He and his roommate, who left a disastrous marriage back on Earth ("only knocked the stupid bitch up so we might have something left to talk about"), are game theorists whose job is to use random assignment to help organize infrastructure and design division of labor flowcharts for future colonies...or something like that--it sounds like utter nonsense!  The expedition was shaken recently by the suicide of four of its 64 members.  These four men went out onto the Martian surface (our narrator and his roommate never go out of their shelter) and removed their helmets and died from lack of oxygen.  The roommate suggests that they removed their helmets in an act meant to assert their humanity--the fact that they died indicates that mankind cannot leave Earth and maintain its humanity.

The expedition staff is supposed to be on Mars for six months, but there is social unrest on Earth that may prevent the expedition's replacements from arriving.  The eighth section is about how the narrator takes up masturbation.

Hardcover first edition of New Dimensions 1
Chapter VI: The Conquest of Conquestadores 2423 (Based on "Conquest," 1971)

The original version of this piece, which appeared in New Dimensions 1, Robert Siverberg's anthology of stories that attempt to "negotiate the difficult middle course between" traditional SF and the New Wave, is about an astronaut who has a bad relationship with his wife (it is "progressively intolerable") and his (apparent) meeting with an alien.  This dude, "Redleaf," is the Earth's emissary in a meeting with an alien, the representative of an intergalactic federation.  The meeting takes place in a room that looks just like the living room of the house Redleaf shares with his crossword-playing wife and TV-addicted kids.  The alien (who uses lots of American slang and calls our solar system a ghetto and asserts that we should focus on solving social conflicts on Earth instead of exploring space) says that the Earth can join the space federation if the human race will give up its heavy weapons--the alien seems untrustworthy, hinting that he will allow the Earth to keep some of its weapons if he is bribed, offering a kickback to Redleaf, stuff like that.  The alien also, foolishly, reveals that he is the only representative of the federation in the area.  Redleaf, confident that his duty is to maintain Earth's arsenal, whips out a gun and kills the alien.

Malzberg gives us every reason to believe that this is not a real negotiation, but either Redleaf's delusion or a training simulation the government is putting Redleaf through.  (Malzberg has used the "insane guy thinks he is negotiating to get Earth into the galactic federation" gag elsewhere, for example, in Day of the Burning and Dwellers of the Deep.)  Silverberg, in his intro to the story in New Dimensions 1, suggests it is a spoof of old time SF, calling Malzberg an
"acidulous commentator on the idiocies and follies of earlier practitioners," saying he plays a role in SF like that played by Picasso in painting and Stravinsky in music; Silverberg tells us C. M. Kornbluth played this role in SF earlier. 

The original version of the piece presumably takes place in the 20th century, but the version in Universe Day takes place in 2423, so Malzberg changes "crossword puzzle" to "code-puzzle" and "ghetto" to "depressed area" and "Mars" to "Titan."  Remember how, for the book version of Chapter II, Malzberg added to "A Triptych" a section on how Earth's exploration of space will work in fits and starts?  Well Malzberg adds a similar section to "Conquest" as part of his process of turning it into Chapter VI.

Malzberg also has the alien in the Universe Day version call Earth a "shithole," which resonates in a humorous way with 2018 current events.  More significantly, the alien is more clearly corrupt, Redleaf's relationship with his wife is even worse (he calls her a bitch), and there is no doubt that this negotiation is not real, but merely a hypnosis simulation.  (Hypnosis simulations are common in Malzberg's body of work.)

(A note here about "Two Odysseys into the Center," which appears in 1972's Nova 2.  "Two Odysseys into the Center,"as its title hints, is two short stories, and one, "The Conquest of Mars," has the same plot as "Conquest"--an astronaut has an absurd negotiation with an alien that we at first think is a hallucination but turns out to be a simulation--but "The Conquest of Mars" is far inferior to "Conquest," less fleshed out and less deep, with no reference to family life or sex or a galactic federation.  If you are curious about Nova 2, check out tarbandu's review.)

Chapter VI presents a case in which the original story is better than the longer version altered to fit the fix-up novel.  "Conquest" was chosen by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss as one of the best SF stories of 1971, and in 1978 appeared in German.   A hit among the cognoscenti!

Chapter VII (Based on "Terminus Est," 1970)

Chapter VII doesn't have a title, just the Roman numeral.  This is one of the best pieces in the book, a first person narrative from the guy who commands the shuttle that, in the late 1990s, travels between the Earth and the Moon twice every week (three times a week in the original short story), carrying the mail and the supplies the lunar colonists require and bringing back to Earth any moon residents who happen to die--the government has forbidden human burial on Luna.

My copy of Nova 1 was once in the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Science Fiction Society Library,
which is kind of fun
The first section of the seven-page chapter lets us in on the fact that there is no reason to live on the Moon, because there is nothing there, and all the money spent by the taxpayers to get people there and all the sacrifices made by explorers were wasted.  For a little while in the 1970s there was a craze for lunar tourism, but that fad has long since ended and now only weirdos live on the moon, either under the government dome or out among the craters, maintaining their lives in some mysterious unspecified fashion.  The narrator calls the people under the dome "bohemians" and says they have feuds with each other which regularly result in fatalities.

The narrator says he doesn't even get out of his ship when he lands on the moon any more, and explains why in the second section of the story.  While walking around the Dome he came upon a couple engaging in what the sex manuals call a "69."  The bohemians ceased their amorous play and an argument and fight ensued--the narrator shot the bohemians dead and then burned their corpses to ash with his laser (in the short story he just leaves their dead bodies there) and neglected to report this tragic incident to his superiors.  He describes for us what happened in detail, but can we trust his version of events?  Even in his version, he doesn't come out appearing very innocent!

This is a story which hits all of Malzberg's themes, but it feels fresh, it has dramatic power, and presents to us a memorable character and setting.  I feel like in this piece Malzberg is either submitting a little to traditional fictional conventions or stretching himself a little or both, and the result is to be commended. 

The original short story, which appeared in Nova 1, and the version that makes up Chapter VII are very similar, though with numerous niggling changes like additional paragraph breaks, semi-colons replaced with periods, and a different name for the space ship, changes made for reasons I am not sure I understand.  I guess in the aggregate these changes make the story a little longer?

Chapter VIII

Chapters VII through XIII all lack titles and are simply represented by Roman numerals.  This chapter is a first-person narrative, told in a single ten-page section titled "In the Hot Planet, 2117."

The narrator (Willis) and one other dude, the crude, fat, booze- and porn-loving Coles, are the crew of a ship that just landed on Mercury.  In this story Malzberg stresses the fact that the government is essentially catering to technology instead of the public, and that the government uses the space program (incompetently) as a means of social control.  In response to rioting on Earth and threats by rebels to destroy the equipment that keeps Earth in communication with the Mercury expedition, the government asks Willis and Coles to make a broadcast to the people of Earth asking them to act reasonably.  The drunken and irascible Coles, who has no patience for the government or the rioters, makes a speech that had me laughing out loud.  The end of this chapter is foreshadowed in Chapter V.

A good one.       

Chapter IX

This chapter has only one ten-page section entitled "Fuckday Six, 2402."  There are subsections, however!  Over the course of the four subsections we learn that Fuckday is an intermittently held, government-mandated holiday on which people are required to have sex and prostitutes are forbidden to charge their clients; Fuckdays are held on days when space missions achieve success as a sort of celebration.

In the first subsection a man ("Sanders") is in bed with a whore (or as we say nowadays, a "sex worker,") and having trouble performing.  It is implied that many men nowadays are unable to perform.

Italian edition of Universe Day
The second subsection is about a two-man expedition that just landed on Ganymede--this Fuckday is in honor of this very mission.  The pilot ("Feuer") has old-fashioned morality (a "puritan background") and is a virgin, and the second member of the crew ("Green") is sick, in a coma, perhaps dangerously ill; even if a woman was on the mission this Fuckday would not have benefited these two men.

In the third subsection, set on Mars, a guy ("Eddie") is trying to convince a woman, a virgin, to have sex with him in his "sandcar."  The woman (we never learn the names of any of the women in the chapter; Eddie thinks of this virgin as "the bitch") refuses to fulfill her Fuckday duties; she is willing to do "anything above the waist" but does not want to have sexual intercourse.  Eddie considers raping her, or murdering her by throwing her out of the car onto the Martian wastes, but refrains.

In the last subsection we find the President of the United States in bed with his mistress and on the phone with the Ganymede expedition.  It is implied that the Ganymede mission is a total waste of time and demonstrated that the President has no knowledge whatever about the space program or astronomy.  Then we return to our first couple; the client has succeeded in performing sexually, and is grateful for the holiday that the success of the Ganymede landing has lead to.  For him, and presumably millions of other men, the whole point of the space program is the opportunity it provides men to have sex.

I guess this is a Freudian story--the space program (according to Malzberg) has no economic or scientific value, so we can explain it as a sublimation of sexual desire or a strategy for attracting women, for getting them to submit to male lust.  It may also be a feminist story that shows that there is no limit to what men will do to get women to surrender to their desires, and that men see women as mere sex objects, without individual natures (Sanders thinks all whores are the same), or even names, and unworthy of just treatment (the President enjoys the idea of hurting his wife's feelings by revealing his infidelities to her.)

Not bad.  (Fuckday probably should have been the title of this book--I don't recall the phrase "Universe Day" being used anywhere in the text.)
Chapter X (Based on "Pacem Est," 1970 )

This one's single section is titled "The Martian Campaign, 2124."  Co-written with Kris Neville, it appeared first in Infinity One as "Pacem Est," and was considered by Harrison and Aldiss one of the best SF stories of 1970.

I summarized and voiced my opinion about "Pacem Est" back in 2017.  The Universe Day version takes place on Mars (in the original the planet is unnamed) and strongly suggests that there is no enemy, that the war is a sham, a trick played by the government on the people (in the original the protagonist sees what is purportedly an enemy prisoner.)  The idea that God is lonely and created religion to assuage his loneliness is, like the prisoner, absent here in Universe Day.  Otherwise it is quite similar.

I found the original version opaque, and I feel the same way about this version; neither particularly clear nor very entertaining, Chapter X is one of the least effective chapters of the book.

Chapter XI 

Nine pages in one section entitled "Touching Venus, 1999."  In this one we have a lone astronaut, called "A-O" as part of the space program's deliberate depersonalization policy, landing on Venus; as with so many of our other astronauts the focus of the chapter is on transmissions back to Earth, including admonitions not to swear and a talk with the president.  The explorer in this story keeps interrupting the president and tells him that the mission is a waste of time and money and that anybody could man the mission because it is all handled by machines.  One of the people back on Earth tells the president that A-O is just stressed out from isolation, and then tells A-O directly that his poor transmissions are going to get him imprisoned when he returns to Earth.  A-O declares that he is going to stay on Venus--he has no need to return to Earth because he doesn't like his wife, anyway!   

In Chapter VIII Willis mentioned the "Venus disaster" and the changes to space program procedures that it inspired, clearly foreshadowing this chapter.   

Chapter XII

In Chapter III it was suggested that Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, might be artificial satellites launched by a now lost Martian civilization.  In this chapter, a single section of eight pages entitled "The Message on Deimos, 2309," we learn that both moons are in fact just such artifacts.  Mars in 2309, it is suggested, is inhabited by people who left Earth because of a death wish.  On Phobos, Hays, a man who left Earth after four failed marriages, discovered a tablet of writing which has become the center of various religious and philosophical movements on Earth.  In the course of finding the tablets Hays got poisoned, and on his death bed he told the narrator of Chapter XII that he suspects that the entire Martian civilization wanted to die, but that other people will not interpret the tablets in that way.

The narrator and his girlfriend, employees of the government installation on Mars, go to Phobos themselves, before the Earth tourists and cultists have a chance to get there.  They find evidence that Hays found no tablets, that they are a hoax he concocted.  Instead of exposing Hays, they decide to protect his secret and become rich off the tourists and by writing books about Hays and their friendship with him.  (Many characters in Universe Day have the idea of getting rich by writing their memoirs--Malzberg jocularly reflecting on his own profession and/or portraying the space program as driven by greed instead of a desire for knowledge and adventure?)  Maybe they will be able to leave Mars and live normal lives on Earth.

A problem with this chapter is that, after goofing on the idea of finding alien ruins in the Prologue and telling us again and again there is nothing worth finding beyond the Earth's atmosphere, Malzberg depicts huge alien space stations full of high tech machinery which, of course, would have tremendous value to archaeologists and engineers and scientists.  Now, of course, our pessimistic buddy Barry portrays people failing to take this treasure trove seriously and instead falling for a bogus religion, but, still, it weakens his main thrust a little--there really is cool stuff out there in space!

Chapter XIII (Based on "Elephants," 1971)

I read "Elephants" back in 2015, in my copy of Infinity Two, which has an overwrought and ridiculous introduction by Robert Hoskins about how humanity sucks and is doomed.  (You can read Hoskin's over-the-top harangue at the internet archive, maybe use some of its lines to pick up chicks at the next Earth Day event you attend.  Sample pick up lines: "Man is a waster...unnecessary consumption of energy is a crime against life...primitive man may well have known a form of planetary paradise....")

"Elephants" is one of the more pretentious and less amusing, more opaque and less interesting, Malzberg stories.  The version here in Universe Day (a single section titled "After Titan, 2500+, " is rewritten, but in a way that just moves the sentences and words around without changing the meaning at all.  This story doesn't do anything for me, and I don't think it fits in with Universe Day's themes--there is nothing about the space program or failed sexual relationships or the evils of technology.  It is the end of the world, the last circus performers are giving their last performance, and, I guess, we are to see that the circus performers are scam artists that take advantage of those weaker and less clever than themselves, perhaps like elites throughout human history--those in government, business leaders, priests, etc.  The magician, putting on his last vanishing act, cajoles a young boy into volunteering to enter a dark box with white spots painted on its insides--maybe this is supposed to be an allegory of how the government or scientists or somebody tricks people into becoming astronauts and taking the risk of going out into space.

A low point in the book.

Chapter XIV: The Revolt on Ganymede 2471 (Based in part on "How I Take Their Measure," 1969)           

This chapter is like 32 pages and is made up of a dozen titled sections; the first ten sections are about the Ganymedean caper referred to in the chapter title.

Ganymede is ruled by a three-man council; our narrator is one of three, and calls himself the representative of the "basic liberal forces;" the others are Davis and President Wilson.  Wilson was elected on an "essentially libertarian platform" but has "forgotten his campaign promises" and is currently pursuing a policy of "fundamental radicalism" and as the chapter opens the President and Davis vote to give Prez Willis additional powers to fight against seditionists--they don't provide our narrator any evidence that these seditionists actually exist.

We get several pages describing the political crisis on Ganymede over the course of which it becomes increasingly clear that there are only three men on Ganymede and so all the political maneuvering and voting that takes place is nothing more than an absurd game.  Another note of absurdity is that the narrator is a sociologist tasked with researching whether there ever was any civilization on Jupiter, but he seems mostly focused on his stamp collection.  Malzberg gives us one of his good understated jokes when the narrator describes collating his collection as "nerve-wracking."  Things turn very violent, with somebody ruining the life support systems of the little colony.  Like so many people in this book Wilson commits suicide by going outside without a helmet.  Davis tries to murder the narrator while he sleeps, but the philatelic sociologist outfights him, slays him.  With no help forthcoming, the narrator, the last President of Ganymede, is doomed, and he resolves to blow up the entire colony (even his stamp collection!) rather than die of loss of oxygen.

The ten-page eleventh section of the fourteenth chapter of Universe Day is based on the story "How I Take Their Measure," which appeared in F&SF and has been reprinted quite a few times, including in Final War and Other Fantasies and German, French and Italian volumes.  The magazine version starts with a jocular epigraph about the welfare system--Malzberg, in the intro to the story in Final War, reminds us that he worked for the New York City welfare department in the early 1960s.  (I'll remind you that a few years ago I read two of Malzberg's sex novels about New York social workers, Everything Happened to Susan, which I found was hilarious and suspect is an attack on the sexual revolution, and The Horizontal Woman, which I found amusing and suspect is an attack on liberal pieties about race, class, and government intervention into the lives of the poor.  These books, along with Underlay, make me suspect--I'm a very suspicious person--that Malzberg really is a better mainstream writer than he is a SF writer.)

The magazine version of the piece is written in the voice of a 21st-century employee of the welfare system, a guy who goes to the homes of those who have applied for government cash assistance and interviews them.  This guy has contempt for the welfare recipients and enjoys pushing them around psychologically.  The applicant he interviews in the story is a sociologist, who for years worked on a bogus federal government make-work project researching genealogies.  The Congress finally shut down this pointless project, throwing the sociologist (for whose skills there is no demand in the private market) out of work.  The jocular epigraph and the text of the story strongly imply that the US economy is in a mess, with most people either receiving welfare or working for the government.

This is a decent story that gives you a good idea of what the people in government who are supposed to help needy citizens really think of the beneficiaries of "their" largesse, and of what those beneficiaries think of their benefactors.
The version in Universe Day, titled "Interview with an Astronaut, 2008," makes the narrator (the welfare investigator) more malicious, and makes the recipient an astronaut instead of a sociologist.  In this version of the story it is the space program that is a pointless project cooked up to provide bogus jobs for overeducated types.  Malzberg makes good use of this change--the astronaut not only condemns the narrator for using his government position to push inferiors around, but, as a former government employee with power himself, identifies with the welfare investigator.  "I used to be the same."  The welfare applicant in this version of the piece is thus more rounded, ambiguous, and interesting than the recipient in the magazine version.  Following up the themes of the entire book, Malzberg lengthens the story with talk about how the space program was a failure and the public hates astronauts and the astronaut's wife hated the space program, etc.

I actually think the version of "How I Take Their Measure" here in the novel is an improvement over the magazine version.  Bravo!

The last four pages of Universe Day are a section titled "Return to the Moon, 2311."  The Moon has been abandoned by the human race, but some tourists still visit to look at the ruins of the colony.  A young man has just graduated college, and his graduation present is a one-man trip to the Moon.  He has wanted to visit Luna all his life, but when he gets there he realizes there is nothing there to do, nothing worth seeing, so he sits in the space ship and waits for it to return to Earth.  As he waits, he day dreams about marriage--we readers, I presume, are expected to sadly realize that men's hopes of finding happiness in marriage are as futile as mankind's hopes of finding happiness by conquering space.

A solid ending to the book.


Well, I’ve probed each individual part of Universe Day, now some final words on the book as a whole.  First off, it is even less like a real novel than those van Vogt fix-ups like War Against the Rull which at least include a guy with the same name in every chapter. This is more like a collection of stories on the same theme than a novel.  Of course, I like short stories so I don’t really care, but I can imagine how disappointed anybody who bought Universe Day thinking it was an adventurous narrative about a space crew must have been. The covers of SF books routinely deceive the customer in every possible way—is this true for other genres, say, mysteries or romance novels?

I've already dismissed the criticism of Golden Age SF we see in the prologue and in Chapter VI, the idea that SF of the old days was formulaic monotone xenophobic imperialistic violence.  (No doubt Malzberg's criticism holds for individual stories and maybe individual authors, but not, in my view, for SF as a whole or for the more important stories and authors.)  One of the ironic notes of this type of criticism is that Malzberg is just as guilty of repetition--of rehashing plots and themes--as Golden Age adventure scribes like Burroughs, Hamilton and Brackett, who will write story after story about a guy sword fighting on Mars or defending the Solar System from enemy space navies.* Malzberg writes again and again throughout his career about guys who have sexual problems and go insane, and again and again in Universe Day tells us the space program is doomed and we are losing our humanity to technology.

* (You know I love all four of these writers, so this is more an observation than a criticism.)

Beyond the oblique literary criticism of earlier SF authors, I feel there are three big themes in Universe Day.  The simplest and least interesting of them, to my mind, at least, is Malzberg’s idea that technology is devouring us or crushing us or whatever.  I don't take this very seriously, and yes I have heard about Johnathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff's recent research suggesting that social media is driving kids insane.

German edition of Universe Day
More interesting is Malzberg's view of human ability, of Man’s capacity.  I recently told you that the real “character” in Clifford Simak’s Cosmic Engineers was the human race, and that Simak was presenting the human race in a positive light, as capable of vast learning, terrific imagination and tremendous courage—in Simak’s space opera the human race is destined to rule the galaxy, like Virgil’s Romans to, as John Dryden renders it, "tame the proud, [and] the fetter'd slave to free."  I think we can say that humanity is also the real character of Universe Day, but instead of glorifying our race and predicting our just dominion of the universe, Malzberg suggests we are incompetent and corrupt, not fit to colonize Mars, much less rule a sea of sparkling galaxies.  Perhaps as a result of Malzberg's experience working for government, or just a reflection of his witnessing American life during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Man's incompetence and corruption in Universe Day are represented largely (though not wholly) by government. 

The idea that sexual relationships in particular, and human relationships in general, are not satisfying is a theme we see in some of the most enduring and challenging works of modern literature—I’m thinking of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Eliot’s The Waste Land here—and it is a theme we see in Malzberg’s Universe Day. I find this theme more compelling and believable than his anti-technology and people-are-not-up-to-the-challenge-of-space themes; I think it self-evident that technology has improved our lives and that humanity is capable of great things. But while Proust suggests that satisfaction can be achieved through a relationship with the self and/or the creation of art, and Eliot through a relationship with God, I don’t think that Malzberg here in Universe Day presents us with any solution to the dilemma of our lonely lives. Whether this evidences a paucity of vision on the part of our sad pal Barry, or a cold-eyed realism, I’m not sure. It is at least a more democratic vision than Proust’s or Eliot’s—their solutions seem open only to artists and saints, while we all have an equal opportunity to be miserable, go insane and commit suicide like a Malzberg character!

I am a committed fan of Malzberg's work, so I definitely enjoyed reading Universe Day and investigating his process of turning short stories into components of this "novel."  After deciding to conduct this project, but before actually starting it, I feared I would find reading the same story twice in the space of an hour or two tedious, but this was only the case with "Elephants," the other stories were good enough that reading them was no chore and finding little differences was sort of exciting.

No doubt there will be more Malzberg in my future!

1 comment:

  1. I fell into this exact scenario! I was trying to figure out what Universe Day was comprised of -- and forgot that you had written this great piece doing the work for me... I miss you Malzberg analyses immensely!