Saturday, October 2, 2021

Finishing off Barry Malzberg's Down Here in the Dream Quarter

In 2017 I purchased a worn out library copy of Barry N. Malzberg's 1976 hardcover collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter and wrote three blog posts about the first 120 or so pages of the book.  Now, four years later, comes the fourth and final post about this approximately 200-page volume!  "Halleluiah, the wait is over!" cries my public!

"January, 1975" (1975)

This story takes up just two pages of Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  It debuted in Analog, edited by Ben Bova, and the story takes the form of four letters to Bova (addressed, "Dear Ben") written by Malzberg (signed, "Barry.")  This is a joke story about alternate history stories and about one of Malzberg's obsessively adressed and readressed topics, the murder of John F. Kennedy.

In the letters Malzberg tries to convince Bova to buy a series of stories Malzberg will write about a universe in which John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election but was assassinated late in his term and his vice president Lyndon Baines Johnson took over the presidency.  The joke is that in the world of this Bova and Malzberg, JFK lost the election, and Malzberg is proposing to write fiction that mirrors the actual history of our world.  Bova objects that the real world you and I inhabit is depressing and not believable, that it is an impossible dystopia.  Then near the end of "January, 1975" we get clues that the Barry and Ben of the story live in a repressive state where entertainment consists of gladiatorial games and public tortures.  Just like fictional Bova thinks our world is an unlikely hellscape, we have reason to believe his world is an unlikely hellscape.  


All the stories in Down Here in the Dream Quarter are followed by lengthy afterwords.  In the afterword to "January, 1975," Barry brags he wrote this story in fifteen minutes.  He reports that Bova didn't really like it but took it anyway, and tells us that the story is a subtle attack on most everything Analog and its readers stand for--I'm guessing Malzberg means the way the story suggests that everything sucks and if Richard Nixon had become president in 1960 instead of 1968 things would suck even worse because there would be gladiatorial arenas.  That doesn't seem so subtle...maybe the real attack is too subtle for me to perceive.  Maybe I don't quite know exactly what readers of Analog in 1975 stood and technology?  The free market?  Is this story attacking those things?         

"January, 1975" would reappear in 1978's 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories and 1994's The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.

"The Destruction and Exculpation of Earth" (1976)    

This story comes to us as a document written by a murderer and terrorist, recounting his recent campaign of terror.  One of the gimmicks or devices of the story is that the narrator sometimes writes in the first person, sometimes in the third person, calling himself "The Subject."  

According to the narrator, whom we assume is insane, two aliens came to him and told him that he is the one man on Earth who can make sure Terra joins the peace-loving Galactic Federation.  (This kind of thing happens in Malzberg stories all the time.  See Day of the Burning and Dwellers of the Deep and "Closed Sicilian" for some examples.)  One of the obstacles to Earth membership in the Galactic Federation is human selfishness, which is expressed in human emotionalism and individuality.  The aliens think humans must be more like machines, an idea the narrator embraces--he loves the idea of becoming a machine, an emotionless cog in a larger enterprise.  And acting like a machine immediately yielded results!  All his life the narrator had been a loser with women, but, going to a "mixer" and acting like a machine, he quickly met a woman--a psychiatric social worker--who was delighted by him and took him to her apartment where the two of them had sex all night!  This sounds like it might be a criticism of women, but I am sure nothing was further from the mind of Malzberg, good liberal that he is, when he wrote it.  I don't need to point out to Barry's fans that much of his work offers criticisms of social workers and the welfare apparatus, and that psychiatrists and psychologists figure prominently in his oeuvre. 

The narrator also acts like a machine when he goes on a mission assigned him by the aliens--to snipe a senator from the 31st floor of a building and then cover his escape by throwing a grenade into the crowd.  Suppressing his emotions also proves useful when the social worker suspects the narrator is the assassin and he has to kill her to protect his operations from exposure, and then when the aliens return and threaten him.

This is a pretty good piece of Malzbergiana.  In his afterword Barry modestly suggests that "there are some fascinating leads in this story which in a sense probes deeper into the dark side of science fiction than anything I have ever done."  I guess Malzberg here refers to the fact that SF often glamourizes technology and the capable man (Heinlein and Anderson heroes are often capable man types) to the point of advocating inhumanity (in Barry's opinion), glorifies violence, and romanticizes underhanded elite tinkering in political systems including imperialism and violent revolution and conspiracy to defraud the public.

Harry Harrison (here in Down Here in the Dream Quarter, Malzberg calls Harrison "the most tolerant editor to whom I have sold stories") included "The Destruction and Exculpation of Earth" in Nova 3 (which was retitled The Outdated Man for U.S. paperback publication) alongside "Introduction to the Second Edition" under the group title "Dreaming and Conversions: Two Rules by Which to Live."*  As an introduction to the stories, Harrison calls Malzberg the "conscience" of science fiction, science, and maybe the world!  Wow!

*Thanks again to commenter ukjarry who, back in 2016, cleared up my confusion over Malzberg's contribution to Nova 3.

Afterword to "Transfer"

I read "Transfer" in 2016 and quite liked it.  In the afterword to "Transfer" here in Down Here in the Dream Quarter, Malzberg compares his story of Manhattan murder to Harlan Ellison's award-winning "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs."  Malzberg also seems to suggest that the individual murder of one person by another can be an act of connection and communication, unlike the impersonal technocratic and technological murder that, Malzberg seems to think, characterizes the present and future.

Afterword to "The Ballad of Slick Sid"           

I read and blogged about "The Ballad of Slick Sid" in 2015 and enjoyed it.  Here in the 1976 afterword to the 1972 story, Malzberg brags it took him 90 minutes to write the piece and moans that only a tiny minority of people reads books, a tiny minority of that group reads SF, and only a tiny minority of SF fans have read this story, which Malzberg considers "as close to being entirely successful as virtually any story published within the category of science fiction."  It takes balls to claim that your SF story that you admit almost nobody read is one of the very best SF stories of all time. 

"Notes Leading Down to the Events at Bedlam 8/18/189-" (1975)   

This story first appeared under the title "A Summary of Events Leading up to Bedlam" in the anthology Beware More Beasts.  It is a memoir written by a man in a madhouse, seeking to explain to the shrinks who manage the asylum that he, in fact, is not mad.

At 47, the narrator, a successful businessman and a virgin, married a beautiful 24-year-old, Wilhelmina, who is a genius at sex and fills their nights together with ecstasy; the narrator was "dazzled, fascinated and entrapped...very much possessed by her."  This sounds pretty awesome, but one night, five months into this thrilling marriage, our protagonist woke up in the middle of the night to find sleeping beside him a scaly beast, its "tint like no color in the universe."  Horrified, he stumbles out of bed and screams, and the monster awakes and changes back to Wilhelmina.  She admits that she has a bizarre "condition" that leads, seldomly, to the incredible transformation he witnessed, and tries to calm her shocked and stunned husband with caresses and love bites.  

The next day they act like nothing happened, but a few days later the narrator again awakes to find a monster beside him that quickly changes into his wife, and this astonishing event begins happening regularly.  Immediately after Wilhelmina returns to human form the couple has passionate desperate sex, and eventually they begin having sex while she is still in monster form, even though the monster smells "of teak and vomit."   As the narrator writes this account he realizes that he really is insane, that he desires the beast as much--even more--than his young lovely wife!

This is a very good story, Malzberg taking tried and true horror fiction forms and using them to talk about sexual dysfunction and men's ambivalence about their own desires and about women's bodies--men, obviously, desire women, but those desires can be so powerful that men fear those desires and what risky behaviors those desires might lead them to perform, and fear the women who inspire those desires and are thus in a position to crushingly reject them or to manipulate them.  Similarly, men find women's bodies beautiful and alluring, but sometimes may find some aspects of those bodies disgusting.  

Often Malzberg just writes some crazy thing in less than an hour or two that ignores traditional literary and pop culture concerns like plot and character, producing stories which many people dismiss and some people, including me, like because they are so brazenly off the wall.  But sometimes Malzberg, perhaps due to luck, perhaps because he put in a little more effort than usual, manages to fuse his particular obsessions (mentally ill narrators who are sexual failures, for example) with some semblance of traditional forms and devices, as he has here in "Notes Leading Down to the Events at Bedlam 8/18/189-", and these are among Malzberg's best stories, stories which I think "normie" SF fans can easily appreciate.  So bravo to "Notes Leading Down to the Events at Bedlam 8/18/189-."  

In his afterward Malzberg tells us that Roger Elwood, one of the editors of Beware More Beasts, loved this story and started running around telling people that Barry was "the new Lovecraft."  The comparison to Lovecraft is an obvious one, this story being a testimonial written by a person in an insane asylum about his encounter with an alien monster, though of course Lovecraft wrote little about love or sex, he apparently having little interest in sex.  But Malzberg was not happy with the comparison, as he finds "nothing enviable about his [HPL's] life, little about his career, and nothing about his personality."  Lovecraft was a snob and an elitist, a racist and an anti-Semite, so Malzberg's feelings are understandable, but I wonder what Malzberg thinks of the fact that his heroes, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, thought highly of Lovecraft and his work, as does Joyce Carol Oates, who probably has more literary street cred than any of Barry's other boosters, and who is quoted on the jacket of Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  

"Notes Leading Down to the Events at Bedlam 8/18/189-" would reappear in the monster anthology edited by Malzberg's pal Bill Pronzini, Creature!: A Chrestomathy of Monstery.

"Seeking Assistance" (1976)

This is a three-page story, with thirteen chapters, a first-person narrative from a failed writer.  Besides writing literary stories which get rejected, he spends time writing angry letters to talk radio hosts, newspaper editorialists, and other people who express opinions that offend him.  In person he confronts people whose actions irritate him, like a school principal whose subordinate didn't let the narrator's elder daughter use the toilet, or the "car-pool lady" who forgot to pick up the narrator's younger daughter.

In the background of the story are crises like political corruption and the war in Vietnam, in the foreground are a fight between the daughters and the refusal of the narrator's wife to have sex with him.  The narrator starts an affair with the car-pool lady; when he considers ending the affair, the car-pool lady threatens to kill herself.  The narrator begins hallucinating that his left hand has disappeared.  The last line of the story is about how, in contrast to the narrator's angry letters, which people ignore, the President, on TV, shows off all the letters of support he has received.

This story is kind of funny--thumbs up!

In his afterward to "Seeking Assistance" Malzberg admits this is a self-indulgent story reflecting his own unhappiness with his career.  He tells us that he is leaving the SF field.  (Don't worry--he'll be back.)  

"Seeking Assistance" was first published in F&SF; Malzberg suggests that the published version is shorter than the original.  A quick look at the scan of the April 1976 issue of F&SF suggests to me that the version here in Down in the Dream Quarter is the same as the magazine version.  "Seeking Assistance" was translated into French--no doubt our snail-eating comrades over there were totally down with that affair-with-the-car-pool-lady business.  (They must have car pools over there--isn't a litre of petrol like a billion francs?)

"Redundancy" (1976)

This is a satire of three pages in five chapters that, I guess, addresses specific 1970s concerns (or maybe general concerns that were more intense in the Me Decade than previously) like fear of advertising, distrust of politicians, politicians acting like celebrities, fear of crime, fear of urban revolutionaries, and the springing up of controversial activist organizations--the Guardian Angels comes to mind, but I see that this story was printed three years before the Guardian Angels was founded, so either there were other anti-crime groups Malzberg is satirizing which I don't know as much about (Jewish Defense League, perhaps, founded in 1968?) or Malzberg was sort of predicting such groups.

Chapter I: A TV commercial in which the President of the USA endorses Ford motor cars.

Chapter II: The narrator dreams he is masturbating and wakes up to find his wife is having sex with him.  But then he wakes up again--that was also a dream.  He calls his mistress to make a date.  

Chapter III (the longest and most interesting and amusing chapter): A beggar mugs the narrator, explaining as he does that he is a member of a revolutionary organization.  As he turns to leave with the narrator's money the narrator draws a gun and explains he is a member of "Victims United," an organization of growing popularity founded in a church basement, and then guns down the mugger.  Then the police arrive; they are members of the organization Authorities Unlimited (italics in original) and beat the hell out of the narrator in the back seat of their car, which the narrator notes is "surprisingly roomy." 

Chapter IV: The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declare they are oppressed and will no longer stand for it and unleash the US military on domestic organizations, killing five million people with what Malzberg calls "tanks, armaments, bombs and twenty-ton howitzers."  Now there's a sentence an editor should have tweaked a little.  More effective than his writing about military equipment is Malzberg's portrayal of Pentagon leaders employing therapeutic psychobabble to justify their rampage: "do their own thing," "repressions," "identity-crisis."  

Chapter V: A TV commercial in which the President of the USA endorses Pontiac automobiles.  How can the Prez advertise for both Ford and Pontiac?  Can it be we can't trust the President?

This story has its fun moments, and I guess is an interesting time capsule.  It first appeared in Swank, "The Magazine of Consenting Adults," the cover of which I am reluctantly censoring because God knows what content rules Google is enforcing today and will be enforcing tomorrow.  I know, there go my already questionable libertarian bona fides.   

In his afterward here Malzberg says he wrote "Redundancy" in 1972 and tried to sell it to Esquire without success.  Then he talks a little about the collapse of the short story market and says nice things about Donald Barthelme, a man I never heard of.  I know, there go my already questionable bona fides as an educated person.

Afterword to "Leviticus: In the Ark"        

I read "Leviticus in the Ark" in my copy of Epoch at the dawn of this blog's fiery journey across the firmament.  In his afterward to the 1975 story here, Malzberg calls The Confessions of Westchester County one of his best novels (I read it relatively recently), noting that it is "seated of all things upon a scholastic Catholicism."  He also says that "Leviticus: In the Ark" was unconsciously based on Robert Heinlein's Double Star and goes on to talk about how good a writer Heinlein was during the 1940s and 1950s and how RAH's work may outlast that of all other SF writers.


Two essays finish out Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  "Rage, Pain, Alienation and Other Aspects of the Writing of Science Fiction" is an essay about Malzberg's career, summarizing its course: Malzberg wanted to be a literary writer, but there were no markets open to him, so he built a career in SF, which he was able to do because he was an expert on SF from reading it as a kid and because SF was a field that gave writers latitude to experiment and to express their own idiosyncratic ideas.  Malzberg loves SF and considers that it saved him, gave him a chance, and he thanks the editors and readers, but now he must leave SF!  What will he do?  Maybe work in a factory, he jokes.

Malzberg pegs this autobiography to Richard Kostelanetz's 1974 book The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America; "Rage, Pain, Alienation and Other Aspects of the Writing of Science Fiction" is sort of like a book review.  Kostelanetz's book, as Malzberg describes it, argues and complains that a small cabal of intellectuals has limited the opportunities of new writers to succeed in the genre of serious literature.  Malzberg, while skeptical or hostile to some details of Kostelanetz's claims, is more or less in sympathy with the man's thesis.

"Rage, Pain, Alienation and Other Aspects of the Writing of Science Fiction," which appeared in F&SF alongside "Seeking Assistance," is a useful essay because it introduces you to a more or less forgotten book with an interesting thesis and because it offers you yet another opportunity to hear Malzberg moan about his career (Malzberg is a fun and compelling character.)  Unfortunately, the final essay of the book, the title essay, is less useful and entertaining.  

"Down Here in the Dream Quarter" is a history of SF written in the form of a book of the Bible or a sermon, full of exhortations to remember this or that writer, to praise the founders and shapers of SF like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr., and so on.  (The essay first appeared in the 50th anniversary issue of Amazing in 1976, edited by Malzberg's friend Ted White, and so is pretty thick with references to Amazing and Gernsback.)  Malzberg tries to root SF in classic American literature of the fantastic and of adventure like the work of Washington Irving and Mark Twain, and to establish a relationship between the course of SF's development and such historical events as the use of atomic bombs in World War II and the moon landing.  

This is a passionate and ambitious piece, Malzberg expressing his love for SF and its practitioners and trying to infect us with that love, or more likely remind us why we came to love SF--what person who didn't already care about SF would ever read such an odd essay?  Unfortunately, the essay, which is largely just a list of names, like the catalog of ships at the start of the Iliad or the begats of the Bible, is sort of a SF in-joke, or, rather than a joke perhaps, an instance of preaching to the converted.  People like me, who already know who "tragic Henry Kuttner and beautiful Catherine Moore" are, will nod along, but not learn much new from this essay, while people who never heard of them before won't learn why they should care about them.  I admire and sympathize with much of Malzberg's attitude here, but don't really think the essay has much to teach readers.  But I'm a cold fish--maybe other readers, especially back in the mid-70s, were moved by it...or offended by its tragic instead of hopeful or triumphal tone.  ("...the literature of technology and its effects upon man must at the heart be pessimistic..." sayeth Barry.)   

On the good side, Malzberg offers some perhaps controversial, perhaps incomprehensible, opinions that might give SF fans something to puzzle over.  "Kate Wilhelm...wrote stories that could have appeared in Dubliners."  Stanley Weinbaum "was the best in his own time."  "van Vogt...knew that at the center of the century lurked a thing without a face that killed for profit...."  Horace Gold was "perhaps the greatest editor in the history of all fields for the first half of his tenure...[and] saw history as spite."  Robert Silverberg "was the best writer of science fiction in terms of technical mastery who had ever lived...."  Chew on those, if you wish.


Down Here in the Dream Quarter is a great book for Malzberg fans, and easy to check out at the internet archive free of charge.  

Interestingly, in none of those lists in "Down Here in the Dream Quarter," does Malzberg mention Ray Bradbury.  (Though Malzberg does include Bradbury in a silly poem also printed in the Fiftieth Anniversary issue of Amazing.)  Well, in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log we'll be reading some Bradbury, so stay tuned.

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