Graven Images, Malzberg tells us in the introduction to the anthology, has as its theme the arts. Malzberg claims that before 1950 or so science fiction was too focused on technology to discuss the arts, and suggests that, while there have been some good SF stories about the arts since then, this anthology is something new, a precedent.
"Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" by Richard Frede
Richard Frede has only four credits at isfdb, and no wikipedia page. Apparently he wrote a novel about the medical profession that was made into a TV show starring that hero of kaiju movies Nick Adams and sexy sexy Suzy Parker. In his intro to "Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" Malzberg lists Frede's novels (up to 1977, I guess) and says the man has published three mystery novels under a pen name.
For like 30 or 35 pages of its 42 pages, "Oh, Lovlee Appearance of the Lass from the North Countree" is a competent conventional mainstream story. An Air Force colonel on maneuvers flies his jet fighter over a storm front, and finds the colors of the clouds as they filter the light of the setting sun to be quite beautiful. His wife is rich, so when she hears him talk about it she commissions a landscape painter to paint this image for him.
The painter, Clarence, is our main character. He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife and four-year-old daughter. He is bored of his wife and often fantasizes of having other women. The Colonel wants him to fly with him over a storm front at sunset so he can get an idea of what to paint, and we follow Clarence as he spends long days at military bases receiving safety training and then just waiting for his flight with the Colonel. There is so much detail about the training and the experience of flying in a jet fighter that the story feels like a journalistic account, which maybe it sort of is, as Frede (Malzberg tells us in the intro) flew with a U. S. A. F. officer doing research for a novel, The Pilots. (The cover blurb of the paperback calls it "A scorching new heart-stopping drama.")
Anyway, when Clarence is up in the F-106 seated behind the Colonel he accidentally activates his ejector seat. He lands safely, and goes to a house. Then the story takes a fantastical turn, as he meets an attractive woman who claims he is a knight who won her heart her years ago but, when she refused to give him her maidenhood, instead had sex with her sister. After the knight left, the woman put her sister in an ice cave where she froze and still lies, perfectly preserved. The woman forces Clarence into the cave, where he falls asleep. When he wakes up he escapes the house and is rescued by an Air Force helicopter responding to the signal from his survival kit. Clarence has a long beard, and it soon becomes evident, to the amazement of everybody, that Clarence was lost for seven years. The Air Force looks for the house of the woman, which the chopper pilot saw, but the house has vanished. Clarence learns his wife has had him declared legally dead, remarried, and moved to California. The End.
Acceptable. The mysterious woman says things that may be allusions to some piece of literature I am not familiar with. I was totally surprised when Clarence activated the ejector seat due to a boneheaded mistake, which is a plus--I always appreciate when a writer can surprise me without making me feel like I was blindsided, and Clarence's dumb mistake is totally logical. Even the crazy medieval fairytale scenario he finds himself in is foreshadowed, so it doesn't feel too much like it came out of left field.
I guess a noteworthy thing about the story is the respect shown to the Air Force personnel; there is nothing cynical or sarcastic about the story's treatment of the U.S. military. Two nonwhite servicemembers are portrayed in a way that foregrounds the military's openness to diversity.
This story hasn't been reprinted anywhere.
"A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" by Charles L. Grant
It is the future! Humans live on the moon and Mars; Philadelphia and New York are just two ends of one colossal metropolis, Philayork. Gordon Anderson, as a child, fell in love with the theatre and the cinema, and so became an actor. But the entertainment industry is going through a period of decline and there isn't much work for actors. As the story begins (after a vague and gushy speech written by Anderson which serves as a kind of prologue) we find Anderson performing in a sort of vignette about surviving a disaster--he is attacked by a robot tiger and nearly drowned in a special effects flood. Anderson's improvisational antics are being recorded for "dream-tapes for children," a new means of teaching kids life lessons about being brave and having perseverance and so on that doesn't put the kids at any real risk, a sort of short cut to adulthood. The point of these scenes is, I suppose, to show how directors and "the industry" treat actors like shit--the robot tiger draws blood and the artificial flood almost kills Anderson, and none of the crew seem to care.
Anderson hates directors, and seems to put a lot of blame on them for the poor state of the entertainment industry. In fact, he lives in fear that the police will catch up to him and he'll be imprisoned for, just a week and a half ago, hunting down and assaulting three directors. When he hears the news reports about the attacks he is surprised to learn all three of his victims have survived.
Anderson has two friends, fellow actors, a fat guy Phillip and his attractive girlfriend Helena. Anderson steals Helena from the fatso, and Anderson and his new inamorata try to figure out the big picture--why aren't people going to the theatre anymore? One possibility is that plays are all improvised now; they don't have scripts. In fact, when Helena tells Anderson she has some scripts by Shakespeare, Miller, and Chekov, she talks about them as if they are rare artifacts.
Phillip figures out Anderson beat up those three producers and contacts the police; Anderson and Helena fight their way through a police cordon and drive out of the megalopolis to live as fugitives in the countryside. They start a traveling theatre troupe and become popular. When the police finally catch up to them they are, in a way that struck this reader as unconvincing, pardoned for their crimes, which include shooting a cop with his own weapon. The ending of the story is supposed to be sad, as Anderson tells us Helena died at age eighty and says he'll always remember her because he has a toy unicorn she gave him which she found in an abandoned house while they were on the run--it is not sad because Anderson and Helena are not interesting or even likable characters, and a toy unicorn is laughably saccharine.
"A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" is cheap, sappy, and sort of tedious; Grant expended too much energy on failed efforts to make the individual sentences feel poetic or literary and too little effort on making us care about the characters and such lame symbols as a toy unicorn or even making clear exactly what was causing the decline in interest in the theatre and what Anderson and Helena, out in the country, did to get people excited about theatre again.
So why did this mediocrity win a Nebula? Remember, Nebulas are awarded by professional writers; presumably Grant's trying-too-hard prose, his grandiose vision of the importance of writers and his self-pitying and self-aggrandizing depiction of the plight of the creative class struck a chord with the Nebula voters, flattering their self-importance and powerful sense that they don't get the respect they deserve.
"Choral" by Barry N. Malzberg
In the intro to his own novella, Malzberg admits that he enjoys playing the violin far more than he ever has enjoyed any aspect of his career as a writer, and discusses his admiration for Beethoven. The Ninth, he tells us, is in his opinion the greatest piece of music ever written.
(As an aside, I want to note that some of the plot elements of "Choral" are uncannily similar to those of another 1977 story, which I read in 2016, Carter Scholz's "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs.")
It is the 23rd century. In the 22nd century time travel was invented, and a mentally unstable genius, the physicist Karl Kemper, came up with the theory that history was malleable, that the past had been curated by time travelers to create the present. People of influence and power found this theory persuasive, and a government project--the Department of Reconstruction--was founded to make sure that formative events of the past proceeded as the history books said they did. The Department trains and sends Travelers, disguised as important personages--for example, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and Adolf Hitler--back in time to play out the critical events that created the modern world and ensure they go off as expected, lest the rug be pulled out from under everybody living in the present.
Our protagonist Reuter is one of these Travelers, a relatively young man who has been on a few relatively minor missions as various politicians, but who is now in the middle of a big assignment: Beethoven. Reuter must make sure Beethoven's monumentally influential works are created in the first place, and that they match the versions known to the 23rd century. His masters transmit him from Department HQ in Buenos Aires to various critical moments in the life of ol' Ludwig van, points when his career might have gone off course or his work altered. For example, we see Reuter at a rehearsal in 1808 when a conductor and some musicians object to the first four notes of the Fifth and implore Beethoven to change them--Reuter ferociously overrules their objections. Between each trip, back in Buenos Aires, Reuter's handlers change his clothes to match the milieu of his next mission and his superiors debrief him.
Malzberg's body work is full of depictions of government agencies, like the space program in his famous SF work and public welfare agencies in his putatively erotic work like Everything Happened to Susan and Horizontal Woman, as institutions that are absolutely inefficient, incompetent and corrupt, and from the very start of "Choral" Mazlberg gives us clues that the Department of Reconstruction is very bad at its job and that its job is unnecessary or even inimical. Reuter's interactions in the early nineteenth century are absurd, and he commits many blunders, and doesn't even seem up to the job (he doesn't care about music, for example.) The Department is controversial and has detractors in government and amid the public. And then there is the fact that the world you and I live in (the one with Thomas Alva Edison) is apparently not the world in which Reuter lives (in which there is an important figure by the name Thomas Alva Guinzaburg.)
Of course, the whole matter of whether these Travelers are "reconstructing" the past in order to preserve the present or are actually creating the past is hopelessly blurred--if the Department sends a man back in time with instructions to play Beethoven as a man with psychological issues, because the history books say he had such issues, isn't it possible, probable, or even certain that the reason that Beethoven is said to have psychological problems is because the man sent back to play him was told to exhibit those problems, or actually suffered from them himself? This is the kind of time paradox we see often in SF, with people having sex in the past and becoming their own ancestors, for example.
Traveling is a psychologically trying task, and Beethoven, who has a simple personality, is an unsatisfying role for Reuter to play, and his superiors at the Department of Reconstruction in Buenos Aires suspect he is burning out. Reuter begins to doubt the value, the necessity, of his work, and then Malzberg does something he rarely does--he holds out to us the possibility that the story has a happy ending! After discussions with the mad physicist Kemper, who died over a century ago, about whether or not we have free will and whether or not life is meaningless, Reuter turns renegade, seizing control of the time travel system and transporting himself wherever he wants and, instead of following the script, doing whatever the hell he wants as Beethoven. Instead of having an unhappy life Beethoven has a happy life, and all of history and the whole world are changed. Of course, it is likely this campaign of rebellion is just Reuter's delusion--after all, how could he take over control of the time travel apparatus?
A pretty good piece of Malzberg. In particular, all the stuff about Karl Kemper, like how he put all the important stuff in the footnotes and committed suicide by inhaling seventeen thimbles, is fun. Thumbs up for "Choral;" maybe someday I'll read Chorale.
The critically acclaimed "A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn's Eye" appears elsewhere, so it is hard for me to recommend Graven Images to anybody but Malzberg fans (like myself) and Richard Frede fans, if such people actually exist. (If you are a Richard Frede fan, write the poor guy a wikipedia page!)