Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Barry N. Malzberg: "The Interceptor," "Agony Column" and "The Sense of the Fire"

Today we'll bid our farewell to Out from Ganymede.  Malzberg provides an introduction to the collection, dated "11 May 1973: New Jersey," in which he thanks a long list of editors, indicates he would love to write plays but there is no market for drama so his favorite medium by default is the short story, makes a joke about how writers love to drink, and admits that "Years ago I thought of myself as a writer disguised as a science-fiction writer....Now it is quite clear that I am an s-f writer."  As I told you last time, I often find Malzberg's "mainstream," non-SF, work more enjoyable than his stories full of astronauts going crazy and crazy people donning hypnohelmets, so I am ambivalent about that last statement, and harbor hopes that today's four stories will go light on the SF elements.

Squint or click to read gushing blurbs from
Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Silverberg

"Beyond Sleep" (1970)

I absentmindedly reread this one, which I blogged about in 2013 when I read it in the copy of Marvin Kaye's Masterpieces of the Unknown that I bought at BookOff, the Japanese store in midtown Manhattan.  Then I absentmindedly wrote the following superfluous description and assessment of the story.  Then I realized I had already blogged about this one, then I marveled at how succinct my blog posts used to be, then I indulged in sad memories of the days when my errands would have me walking past Japanese stores instead of driving past herds of cows and sheep, and then I selfishly decided to not delete the two paragraphs below.  Please enjoy. 

Two pages that originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Our narrator dreams that he kills his nagging wife with a shiny knife, then he dreams that he used the knife to commit (or attempt?) suicide, then there is a dream that they are just getting a divorce (I think); in some scenes he is in prison dreaming, in others in the hospital, or just at home.  What is real and what is strictly a dream?  Who knows?

The descriptions of blood and of the knife glittering in the light, as well as the narrator's frenzied dialogue in which he explains his horrifying actions to his wife, are good, so, I'm giving this one a thumbs up, though, yeah, it is basically filler.

"The Interceptor" (1972)

A man is hiding from the police in an uncomfortable hotel room in a drug-ridden slum part of town.  He has been here for weeks.  Malzberg splits the story into four main sections, each presenting a different scenario that explains why the man is hiding from the cops.  In one, his business partner was having an affair with his wife, and when she killed the partner, she framed the protagonist.  In another scenario, the wife has been killed by the business partner, etc.  In the end of the story we realize that these scenarios are all fantasies of the main character, who has murdered his wife, his business partner, his doctor, and a police inspector, and enjoys concocting these mystery fiction plots in his mind, each time slotting different characters in the various roles of victim, perpetrator, and friend.  Now he feels he needs some new characters for his little dramas, and plots to kill an employee of the seedy hotel.

Acceptable.  "The Interceptor" first appeared in an issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and this time Malzberg's name appears on the cover.  In 1979 the story was reprinted in a hardcover anthology of stories allegedly selected by Alfred Hitchcock himself as one of the director's faves.  

"Agony Column" (1971)

"Agony Column" debuted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and in 2013 was included in the famously typo-ridden The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg--Barry or somebody at Nonstop Press must have really thought it was good.

In New York City I worked for a government entity, and as such I had a lot of time on my hands, my office being unaccountable and unproductive, my direct superior rarely coming in and, when she did have something for me to do, it was usually something involving not the people's business but her personal business.  One day, having heard that there was some proposal to have additional public funds directed to the institution where I was "working," I spent time in the otherwise untenanted office writing a letter to my local government representative, saying that by no means should additional money be sent to this institution, as I knew from first hand experience that the money was not needed and would be wasted.  The response to my letter was a thank you for my support of the initiative to direct additional public funds to the entity which I had, in fact, denounced in my letter.  Obviously the people in my representative's office did not actually read the letters they received, just mechanically sent form letters in response.

I tell you this boring true life story because "Agony Column" depicts a series of just such events.  The entire story consists of correspondence, a New Yorker's letters to politicians and to magazines and the responses he receives, all of which indicate he has been ignored or misunderstood, just as happened to me.  In his later letters, the letter writer expresses the belief that the bureaucratization of our society has lead to ordinary people being unheard and losing their identity; his final letter is to the President of the United States, declaring his intention to kill him. 

OK, I guess.    

"The Sense of the Fire" (1967(?))

isfdb and Wikipedia indicate this story debuted in the January 1967 issue of the men's magazine Escapade.  But a note in my copy of Out from Ganymede says it debuted in the January 1968 issue of Escapade.  Probably that is just a typo, but, just in case, I'll illustrate my musings here about "The Sense of the Fire" with the covers of both issues of Escapade; I'm definitely not including the '68 issue with Elke Summer because it is so elegant and modern and charming in contrast to the '67 issue which is so garish and cluttered and stupid. 

"The Sense of the Fire" would later be printed in The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg (under the title "The Wooden Grenade") and rightly so--it is a better than average Malzberg story, more vivid, more psychologically authentic, more carefully crafted and more believable than most of Malzberg's often broad, farcical, and fantastical work.

"The Sense of the Fire" is about Stein, a government worker who goes into slum apartment buildings to talk to people about their government benefits and remind them of their obligations.  Stein carries with him a wooden practice grenade, which he caresses for comfort while on the job and stares at obsessively on his off hours.  We are there as he does his work, talking to people with dreadful lives, and in flashbacks to Stein's disastrous stint in the Army we witness the disturbing events that have made him obsessed with hand grenades.  The theme of the story is that all of our lives are terrible, that all of us, even the pretty office girls Stein saw from the Army recruiting station and even the contemptuous college kids Stein saw from the Army base where he is being trained, even the noncoms and officers who bossed Private Stein around, live lives of fear and suffering.  While we are equal in our suffering, we are far from united--in fact, the behavior of the characters in the story--Stein perhaps most of all--demonstrates that most people shirk responsibility and manipulate and take advantage of others. 

A good story with which to finish Out from Ganymede, and a story which buttresses my thesis that Malzberg's non-SF work is better than his SF work.  Thumbs up! 


There are four pages of ads in the back of Out From Ganymede. First comes a full page ad for All the President's Men complete with blurb from Dan Rather.  Then we get two pages of ads for SF books, though there are only three books plugged on the left hand page and two of them, Ron Goulart's The Gadget Man and Keith Laumer's A Trace of Memory, both appear on the right hand page as well.  I always avoid Goulart because I suspect his work consists of unfunny satires; in 2019 I read a bunch of Laumer's short stories, including some Bolo stories, and I have to admit I don't remember much about them.  The right hand page, oddly, lists Donald Wollheim's The Secret of the Ninth Planet twice; this is a book I own but have not yet read.  At the top of the list of that right hand page is Poul Anderson's The Virgin Planet, which I reviewed positively in 2017, and in the middle, between the duplicative Wollheim entries, is John Jakes' On Wheels, which Joachim Boaz awarded three of five stars in a 2017 review of his own.  Also advertised is The Best Science Fiction Stories of Clifford D. Simak, which includes "All the Traps of Earth," which I enjoyed back in 2021

The final page of Out From Ganymede advertises four mainstream books that appeal to your lust for sex and your fear of death: a "now-novel" about sex in New York; a novel about a journalist questioning his own manhood as he examines the life of an astronaut who was killed while on mankind's heroic quest for knowledge, as John W. Campbell, Jr., might put it, or wasting his time and the public dime sublimating his sexual frustration, as Barry N. Malzberg might put it; a novel about a New York Jew who becomes a titan of the organized crime world ("certain to take its place next to The Godfather"); and a book about how diet affects your psychology that tells you something about coffee that Juan Valdez won't tell you.  Hopefully your "local dealer" has these in stock, because you might start having fits if you have to wait four weeks for these blockbusters.


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Barry N. Malzberg: "Causation," "The Art of Fiction," "A Short Religious Novel," "Report of the Defense" and "Notes for a Novel About the First Ship Ever to Venus"

We here at MPorcius Fiction Log are reading Out From Ganymede, a 1974 collection of 21 or 22 stories by Barry N. Malzberg that bears the dedication "For Robert Silverberg: the best one."  Today we take on five stories; off!

"Causation" (1971)

In our last foray into Out From Ganymede we read two stories which were first printed in F&SF, and here's another one (the first of several today--F&SF has been a good market for Malzberg.)  "Causation" is one of those brief little stories that is really just an idea, with dialogue scenes that dramatize the idea and then a gonzo finish that, I guess, is supposed to amaze or amuse you.  The idea this time around, unfortunately, isn't all that great.  

Most of the tale's four pages depict a pitch meeting at a TV network.  The guy selling his idea for a TV show says that all the wars plaguing the world and the youth riots plaguing America are the result of people's sexual desires being stifled by social mores and psychological issues.  When the network execs protest that social science data indicates that people are having more sex than ever, the guy responds that the truth is that "Five percent of them are getting ninety-five percent of the sex," which sounds like one of the hypotheses of those incel guys.  Anyway, the guy's proposal for a TV show is to broadcast a couple having sex.  The execs approve the idea, the show is put on the air, and the broadcast garners a world-shattering response: a flight of USAF bombers goes rogue and bombs America into oblivion.

It is not clear if Malzberg means to endorse the cliched and banal ideas that all our problems are due to sexual repression and America has a puritanical anti-sex culture, or to lampoon those tired and boring propositions; either way, he doesn't present a persuasive case.  Neither does "Causation" have any compelling characters or surprises or arresting images or funny jokes, so thumbs down.

The same year that "Causation" was published, Malzberg also published "The Idea," another story that is about a TV network airing a groundbreaking program which it is hinted is a recording of a couple having sex.  Reduce, reuse, recycle.       

"The Art of Fiction" (1972)

"The Art of Fiction" comes to us as a series of letters that pass between an aspiring writer of crime fiction and the editors of a crime magazine, Slaughterhouse.  The plot and jokes are sort of obvious, but I still laughed, so I am giving the story a thumbs up.

In brief, a guy sells Slaughterhouse his first story, "Tear Her Open."  The main joke of "The Art of Fiction" is that the author is obviously a murderer and "Tear Her Open" is a description of a monstrous atrocity he has himself committed.  Subsidiary jokes of Malzberg's story are recursive "meta" reflections on what it is like to be a professional writer who sells stories to genre magazines, what it is like to be an editor at such magazines, and what those editors think of their readers.  The final joke, which I guess is a twist ending but is too predictable to really constitute a twist, are indications that, because the editors won't buy the murderer's second and third stories, the murderer is going to show up at the offices of Slaughterhouse and exact a horrific revenge.

Somewhat edgy black humor, told with gusto--"The Art of Fiction" is a keeper!  It first appeared in the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine Annual for 1972.  

"A Short Religious Novel" (1972)

This one doesn't even fill up two pages.  A spaceman travels all the way to the other side of the Universe to consult a giant computer called "the Answerer."  When he asks the machine if there is a God, it says no, and the man has something of a nervous breakdown.  But we readers are privy to the machine's thoughts, and learn the machine lied out of pique--there is a God, but the Answerer is sick of people asking it if there is a God and so vented his irritation on the spaceman by deceiving him.  Regretting its lie, the machine tells the man the truth, but of course the man now has no trust in the machine.  The Answerer then commits suicide, shutting itself off.

The man makes to leave, but his space ship won't start.  He thinks to ask the Answerer for some technical advice, but finds it silent, and is now stranded.

An inoffensive but sterile piece of filler.  Acceptable.  Other people seem to have admired it more than I did.  After its initial appearance, in 1972 in F&SF, in 1975 Wulf Bergner included it in a German anthology of stories from F&SF, and in 2003 it was reprinted in a special Barry Malzberg issue of F&SF.   

"Report of the Defense" (1972)

Another two-pager.  This one is very New Wavey and very absurd.  I guess its "point" is similar to that of "Causation," the idea that American participation in the war in Vietnam is the result of some kind of sublimated American sexual desire.  The story also serves as a spoof of the social sciences.  

The story's text is a report of the result of an experiment conducted on a dozen people who were shown various photographs and works of art as well as tortured; they were asked their opinions of the things shown to them, and then asked their opinions of American involvement in the war in Vietnam.  At the end of the story the scientists request more grant money in order to pursue such important areas of further study as "The relationship of the highway motel to anal fixation." 

A waste of time.  "Report for the Defense" first appeared in a fanzine, Eternity.

"Notes for a Novel About the First Ship Ever to Venus" (1971) 

Six pages, eleven chapters, that debuted in Terry Carr's Universe I.  This piece covers a lot of territory we have already seen explored in Malzberg's work multiple times--the space program is an unpopular mistake, the government is incompetent, your sex life is humiliating, technology will let you down.

In 1972 the space agency was the target of very destructive riots.  Since then the agency has launched a successful political and PR campaign and by 2119 it basically controls the entire government, and is the center of a sort of religion, with the masses of people believing that their lives are bound up in the success of its explorations and colonizations.  A small proportion of the elite class think this PR campaign has gone too far, fearing that if the space program faces a setback, many people will suffer a catastrophic psychological blow that will destabilize society.  They are ignored.

Having colonized near-Earth orbit and the moon, the next mission is an elaborate mission to Venus--hundreds of people will be on the ship, including many celebrities and politicians.  The chief engineer of the ship doesn't really get along with the captain, as he and the captain's wife had an affair and the engineer proved a much more able lover than her husband (the captain has had a premature ejaculation problem.)  Also on the ship is a famous musician, who also has had an affair with the captain's wife.

The chief engineer predicts the trip to Venus will fail, that the ship will go off course and fly into the sun.  He is ignored.

The entire mission is broadcast to everybody on Earth and in those colonies, so when the ship does fly into the sun, as we knew it would, every member of the human race has a front row seat to the holocaust.



A mixed bag.  Of the group, "Notes for a Novel About the First Ship Ever to Venus" is perhaps most representative of the work for which Malzberg is famous, while "Report of the Defense" fits most snugly into our ideas of a New Wave story is, but the best piece, or at least the most fun, is the non-SF story, "The Art of Fiction."  As I have said in the past, I suspect that Malzberg's best work is his non-SF work, the sex novels like Everything Happened to Susan, Confessions of Westchester County and Horizontal Woman, and the more or less mainstream novels like Screen and Underlay, and today's batch of stories perhaps buttresses this suspicion.

In our next episode we'll finish up with Out From Ganymede.   

Monday, April 25, 2022

Barry N. Malzberg: "November 22, 1963," "Still-Life," "Yearbook," "Inter Alia," "The Helmet" & "Breaking In"

I've owned a copy of the 1974 Barry Malzberg collection Out From Ganymede for many years, since before I started this blog, but have not blogged about many of the stories in it, in fact, I think I haven't even read many of them.  So today, let's explore six of them.

But first!  A list--with links!--of stories in Out From Ganymede about which I have already written here at MPorcius Fiction Log:

"November 22, 1963" (1974)

It seems this story has only ever appeared here in Out from Ganymede.  The title of course refers to the date JFK was murdered, but the celebrity the story's text seems to invoke without specifically naming is Sharon Tate, described as "a film starlet who was sensationally murdered some years ago."

A guy is living in a little Manhattan apartment; apparently he is a writer and hard at work on some book.  He is haunted by a hallucination or ghost of the starlet mentioned in the first line of the five-page story, and her constant chatter distracts him from his writing.  She suggests she is supernaturally conjoined with his apartment, and he destroys his manuscript, abandons his home, and wanders around the city thinking of suicide.  There are scenes I, as a native of New Jersey and former Manhattan resident, found interesting, the guy looking across the river to Jersey and hanging around on a fire escape, dropping paperclips down to the street.  The story ends with him on that fire escape and we are left to wonder if he really does kill himself; in the last line of the story it is revealed that before leaving his apartment for good he struck down the haunting image of the starlet, as if murdering her a second time.

This offers plenty of Malzbergian themes (famous people getting murdered; the difficult life of the writer; difficult sexual relationships; insanity and hallucinations) and I like the style and individual images and scenes, but I'm not sure it coalesces into a substantial whole.  What is that book that he is writing actually about?  Are there any connections between the Sharon Tate figure, Kennedy, and New Jersey and New York?  I'll call it acceptable.    

"Still-Life" (1972)

"Still-Life" appeared in Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's follow up to his famous anthology Dangerous Visions.  Curious to read Ellison's intro to "Still-Life," I cracked open my copy of ADV (as Ellison calls it—the never published third volume of the Dangerous Visions trilogy, which Ellison advertises here in this intro, is "TLDV.")  In his two-page introduction, Ellison explains that "Still-Life"  was going to be a chapter in Universe Day, which we read back in 2018, but Malzberg agreed to leave it out of what maybe Ellison would call UD so that all of the stories in ADV would be “never before published.”  He thanks Malzberg for this, and also tells us that “in its own special way it ["Still-Life"] is the most dangerous vision in this book.”

“Still-Life” is one of Malzberg’s stories about an astronaut who goes insane while on a mission and ends up killing people, integrating general themes we see in Malzberg’s work again and again, like sexual frustration, skepticism of technology, and the inability of the government to accomplish anything, and more space-program-specific themes like Malzberg’s belief that exploring space is pointless and that ordinary people don’t care about the space program.

“Still-Life” is essentially written in the third person, though at the end, after the climax, Malzberg pulls that gag in which the author admits the story is fiction and the main character senses that he is a fictional character and confronts his creator and author and character have a little philosophical convo.

The main character of "Still-Life" is an astronaut and as the story begins he is a few days away from a mission on which he will be piloting a rocket from Earth into Lunar orbit; while he is orbiting the moon, two other astronauts will descend from the rocket in a "module;" this is a practice mission, and the module will not actually land on Luna, just approach it.  (Malzberg is trying to make space exploration seem as tentative and unproductive as possible.)  We get scenes in which we witness how alienated the astronaut is from his comrades and his superiors and his family; to me, the scenes with the family are more interesting that the scenes with his fellow astronauts and military men.  The main character's wife doesn’t want to have sex; she thinks the space program is a waste of time and energy; she has no respect for the stresses and dangers her husband is facing—in fact, she thinks her job of managing the home and trying to keep their two boys under control is much more challenging than flying to the moon and back, even though her husband explains that on many previous missions things have gone wrong and men in his position have had to exhibit quick thinking to survive.

In the climax of the story, as we have been primed to expect, the protagonist abandons his two colleagues, leaving them to die in the detached module, flying home in the rocket without them.

I this story is good, even though I take Malzberg’s tragic view of sexual life and family life much more seriously than I do his unwarranted skepticism of mankind’s ability to accomplish great things and his somewhat tiresome fear of technology.  One problem with the story is that the action of abandoning the two other astronauts isn't really all that closely linked to the main character's problems.  If we think back to Malzberg's JFK story "All Assassins," which we read recently, we see that the protagonist f that story, JFK's appointment secretary, loses his mind and commits his crime--killing Kennedy--because he feels betrayed by Kennedy.  It is insane, but it makes some logical sense.  In "Still-Life" the main character's gripe is more with his family and the American public than with his fellow astronauts, or so it seems to me.  

Another problem with "Still-Life" that applies to me and maybe not to other people is that I have already read several astronaut-goes-crazy-and-kills-people Malzberg stories, so it does not feel fresh; if this was the very first Malzberg story I had read, no doubt it would have had a bigger impact on me. 

On the right, British edition

“Yearbook” (1971)

This is a story about unrequited love and how our lives are a meaningless jumble of events and we will never be satisfied with them.  The narrator is a college student, attending a protest because there are lots of hot girls there.  The students are protesting policies that limit their ability to drink and have sex in the dorms.

The narrator has a series of daydreams or visions or whatever about what his life will be like in ten years, when he is married to some woman who bores him.  As a married man he tries to engineer events that will fulfill the desires he had as a student, like taking his wife, who is flabbergasted by such behavior, to the college make out spot instead of just having sex with her in bed at home.  While in bed or at home with this boring wife he has dreams and fantasies of a woman he fell I love with in college, but with whom he was totally unable to develop a relationship.  But even in his fantasies the girl of his dreams rejects his clumsy advances.

At the end of the story the protest has turned apocalyptic, with the students burning down many campus buildings and dramatically murdering the Dean of Men and the chancellor.  Is this revolutionary violence really happening, or just another dream, perhaps even a dream within a dream?

Acceptable.  "Yearbook" debuted in F&SF.

"Inter Alia" (1972)

Handler is in an insane asylum.  He was perhaps a Colonel in military intelligence, though that may merely be a delusion.  He delusions that the Earth was visited by powerful aliens who wanted to disarm the United States, and that he was chosen to help them by pointing out the location of missile sites.  He suspects that these aliens are not real, but a trick of the Soviet Union to disarm the US, but his efforts to protect America’s defense capabilities are not successful.

This one feels like mere filler—there is no poignant human relationship element, as there is in “Still-Life” and “Yearbook.”  Maybe this is supposed to be a satire of “Cold War paranoia,” a catchphrase people who apparently think the Soviet Union was harmless or admirable throw around all the time.  I'm giving the one-dimensional "Inter Alia," which first appeared in Infinity Three, a copy of which I own (I read the included Simak story some time ago), a thumbs down. 

"The Helmet" (1973)

"The Helmet" has been something of a success, translated into several European languages and reprinted in an anthology edited by Poul and Karen Anderson after its debut in F&SF.  

Aliens have taken over Earth and they run it as some sort of dictatorship; humans are obligated to obey the orders of any alien who addresses them, no matter how arbitrary.  Our narrator finds the aliens themselves and the new society they have built on Earth disgustingly ugly and depressing.  The aliens provide him a helmet to wear around that affects his brain, making things appear less ugly to him and easing his unhappiness.  But the helmet taxes his nervous system, and he has to take it off periodically to rest, at least until his body has become fully acclimated to it.  But one day an alien scolds him for having the helmet off, not realizing or not caring about the prescription that he rest a few hours every day, and this alien issues a horrible punishment—the narrator may never wear the helmet again. 

Like "Inter Alia," "The Helmet" feels like filler, but it is closer to being a fully developed story, with an actual plot with a beginning, middle and end, and with a human relationship subplot--the narrator has a friend, a guy who actually likes the circumscribed (but apparently comfortable in a cradle-to-grave welfare state way) world the aliens have constructed for mankind, and this guy tries to help our narrator, to his peril.  Acceptable.

"Breaking In" (1972)

"Breaking In" has a central plot gimmick that bears some similarity to the one in "The Helmet."  The narrator is a kind of emissary or diplomat or scout, alone in a city on an alien planet.  His mission is to make contact with the natives and explain to them that they have to learn to love, to "care for one another," to "bind yourselves to the planet" and other hippie goop.  I guess we are supposed to wonder if the narrator is a Terran on some other planet or if he is an alien come to Earth to tell us how to live--maybe we are supposed to think he is like Jesus...or like some European missionary in some colony, spreading Christianity.  Whatever the case, whether we are supposed to sympathize with or deplore the narrator of this three-page story and his mission, he finds the natives so shocking that being among them threatens to drive him insane.

The natives in turn find him scary, and have little if any interest in his warnings.  They capture him and pump him full of drugs; this treatment alters his mind, making the natives and their behavior appear normal, even beautiful to him--he is going to become one with them and abandon his mission.

I kind of like this one.  "Breaking In" debuted in Fantastic.


Well, I thought most of these were enjoyable.  More stories from Out From Ganymede in our next episode!  

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Barry N. Malzberg: "Something From the Seventies," "The High Purpose," "All Assassins," and "Understanding Entropy"

So far I have read eight stories from my copy of the Arkham House collection of Barry Malzberg stories published in 2000, In the Stone House, blogging about them here and here.  Today we read four more.

"Something From the Seventies" (1993)

Not a good start to today's operations!  "Something From the Seventies," which debuted in F&SF and has been reprinted in a 1994 Italian anthology and in 2013's The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, is not good! 

Aliens have conquered the Earth, and alien historians or journalists or intelligence agents are interrogating people, trying to learn about the 20th-century history of the United States.  The story consists of a guy giving capsule assessments of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and impressionistic "takes" on the 1960s and the 1970s; for example, he characterizes the 1970s as a time in which the world was run via blackmail ("Everybody had something on everybody else.")  

There is no plot or character to this story, bad enough, but there are also no jokes or interesting insights--Malzberg's opinions seem pretty conventional, and it is not like this is a scholarly paper with citations of primary sources or a literature review that synthesizes and critiques secondary sources, it is just a guy rambling like we could all ramble about the decades in which we lived as adults.   

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

"The High Purpose" (1985)

This story is a collaboration with Carter Scholz, and appeared in an issue of F&SF in which Harlan Ellison complains about how (in his view) the Hollywood studios sabotaged the releases of Dune and Return to Oz and Algis Budrys examines Gene Wolfe's Free Live Free, which I will have to reread one of these days.  Back in 2016 I read Scholz's story "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" and I liked it, so a good omen.

In our last blog post we read Malzberg stories that expected you to know about Shakespeare, Bizet and Leroux, and "The High Purpose" expects you to be very familiar with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett--it is full of references to their lives and work, references I really was unequipped to get.

The plot consists of the two mystery writers driving cross country, from California to New York, because one has suggested "getting away" from their work for a while.  Somewhere along the way two professional hitmen started following the authors; the story proper covers the stretch of driving from Ohio to Gotham.  Who are the killers and why do they want to kill Chandler and Hammett?  I don't know; one of my theories is that they resent the writers for giving the world a false image of underworld life, another is that they are characters from mystery novels, figures who were created by Chandler and/or Hammett or their imitators, and want revenge for the crappy lives their creators gave them.  Anyway, at the last moment, right before crossing the George Washington Bridge, the killers pull up behind C & H as they wait at the toll booth--the killers are in position to blow away the writers, but they can't bring themselves to do it, and let their quarry escape.  Why?  I don't know.

A lot of the text of "The High Purpose," as I have already suggested, is about Chandler and Hammett's relationship with each other--what each thinks of the other's writing and career and character--and about each man's relationship with the women in his life.  Maybe experts on Chandler and Hammett's lives will enjoy being reminded of all this stuff, but I never heard about any of it before, so I don't know what to make of it.

The spirit or tone of the story is bleak; "The High Purpose" suggests that life is inexplicable and that the most important thing about life is the inevitability of death, and reminds us how very little we really know about lifer and death even though we think about them all the time.  At least that is what I am getting out of it; of course, maybe I am just projecting a lot of that.  There is also a lot about how difficult the writer's life is, you know, the envy of other writers, the influence of other writers, frustration that you were trying to write something important ("literature") and it is treated like disposable entertainment ("genre"), how writers drink hard and act like jerks, etc.

It seems unfair for me to give this story a thumbs down, seeing I am not its audience--fans of Chandler and Hammett are its audience--but I can't say I enjoyed it, so my hands are tied.  Now, I know I gave "Time-Trackers" a thumbs up in my last blog post, even though I know little about Carmen and The Phantom of the Opera, but that story had interesting SF ideas and scenes of violence and danger that sparked some kind of feeling in me; the corresponding scenes of driving and of people bickering here in "The High Purpose" did nothing for me.

"All Assassins" (1989)

"All Assassins" made its debut in Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg's anthology of alternate history stories, Alternate Empires, which has appeared in a number of different editions.  Alternate history is one of my least favorite SF subgenres, but you never know, maybe I'll like this one.

Ah, Malzberg never seems to tire of writing about the Kennedys.  “All Assassins” is written in the voice of Lee Harvey Oswald in an alternate universe in which Nixon won the presidential election in 1960 but in 1964 was succeeded by Johnson, who won a second term in 1968.  All this time John F. Kennedy has been a senator, and Oswald has been his appointment secretary; among Oswald’s jobs are placating the senator’s irascible father Joe, driving the senator around, and procuring sluts for the senator to bang.  Oswald doesn’t fit in with the randy boozy chummy Kennedy and his friends, guys who are always cracking jokes about “pussy” and Oswald’s apparent celibacy, and from the inside, Oswald, an idealist and a commie (or maybe just a pinko), sees how vulgar and corrupt the Kennedys and their henchman are--Oswald really wants to end American involvement in the war in Vietnam, but Kennedy and the other Democratic big wigs care more about ass and booze than government policy. 

The 1972 election is coming up, and Kennedy is probably going to be the Democrats' nominee.  When Oswald learns the senator is going to give a speech in Dallas which he implies he is not going to work to abandon the war, even though Oswald has been lead to believe he is the “antiwar candidate,” Oswald snaps and plots to murder Kennedy while the senator is giving a speech, using the “old point-thirty-eight Smith & Wesson” he got from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.     

Acceptable...maybe a marginal positive score.  While I don’t know enough about Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler’s relationships with women and with other mystery novelists to get any emotional or intellectual juice out of “The High Purpose,” I know at least something about American politics and foreign policy in the postwar era and have my own opinions about it and so the events depicted in “All Assassins” engage me and I am willing to grapple with the task of figuring out whatever Malzberg is trying to say in this story.  I can also identify with the experience of being stuck among a bunch of people with whom one really doesn’t fit, of being the odd man out of a group, the group’s court jester or foil, and I think Malzberg does a good job with his alternate Oswald’s psychology here.

“Understanding Entropy” (1994)

This little story has an odd and interesting publication history, and seems to have been embraced by the SF community, or at least to have been strongly supported by some members of that community.  “Understanding Entropy,” four pages in In the Stone House, first appeared in an issue of the magazine Science Fiction Age which features an essay by David Brin titled “Only Science Fiction can solve the perplexing problem of gun control.”  A year later the story was reprinted in Locus as a paid advertisement by the publishers of Science Fiction Age.  A year after that, “Understanding Entropy” appeared in Nebula Awards 30, edited by our new friend Pamela Sargent.  Two years later, in 1998, it was included in the Readercon 10 Souvenir Book.  In 2007, seven years after resurfacing in In the Stone House, “Understanding Entropy” was included by Michael Bishop in A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-Five Imaginative Tales about the Christ.  In that Bishop anthology, Malzberg provides a very brief afterword, saying the story was written in memory of a close friend who was also Malzberg's lawyer.

In his cagey allusive way, Malzberg doesn’t use the words “AIDS” or “gay” or “Jesus” in the story, but it is clear that “Understanding Entropy” is about a man, Martin Donner, who leaves his wife for a man and contracts AIDS and then dies in the hospital, his body wrecked by numerous illnesses.  The narrator is Jesus, who contacts Donner at various points in his life (Donner thinks these contacts are dreams or hallucinations) to ask him if satisfying his need to live his authentic life--that of a gay man--is worth the price of self-destruction and the betrayal of his family.  Donner offers different answers at different points in his life; the idea that living a life that does not express your true nature is like dying young and in agony is a central metaphor of the story, and the question is, is it worth experiencing one of these deaths to avoid the other?  Another metaphor is the idea that Donner is like Jesus, his death the result of being his true self, like that of Christ's on the cross. 

The story works, and it is easy to see why people would like it; it is short and economical, addresses not only timely topical concerns, but timeless concerns about how we balance duties we might have to ourselves and to others as well as how we assess the risks attendant with the pursuit of our desires.  Like "All Assassins," at the center of "Understanding Entropy" is a tragic figure one is expected to sympathize with, but Malzberg doesn't just let this sympathetic figure off the hook--JFK and Martin Donner have agency and responsibility, and we don't necessarily have to approve of all the risky and antisocial actions they took just because in the end something unfortunate happened to them.

Today's climate, in which "cultural appropriation" can be a topic of heated discussion, perhaps provides another lens through which to view this story and another way in which it might be viewed as controversial; I don't believe Malzberg is a Christian or a homosexual, but he doesn't let that stop him from putting words in the mouth of Jesus Christ in a story about the choices and sufferings of a gay man and his family.

I'm glad I can finish up this blog post with a story that is provocative and compelling after starting off with some clunkers that I couldn't really get into. 


We'll be spending more time with our cheerful friend Barry in our next episode.  See you then!

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Barry N. Malzberg: "The Wonderful All-Purpose Transmogrifier," "Chained," and "Time-Tracker"

As you know, we here at MPorcius Fiction Log are fascinated by the work and career and views of Barry N. Malzberg.  As I sift through isfdb and the internet archive, looking at the tables of contents of anthologies and magazines, I often come across stories by Malzberg that have yet to be included in a Malzberg collection, stories I have forgotten about or never heard of.  Today let's read three such stories that you can readily access at the internet archive, stories from the 1970s and '80s.

"The Wonderful All-Purpose Transmogrifier" (1974)

"The Wonderful All-Purpose Transmogrifier" made its debut in Final Stage, an anthology Malzberg edited with Ed Ferman and which has a crazy history.  Basically, a woman at the publisher thought the stories poorly written and heavily edited some of them for hardcover publication; when the paperback came out it was with texts restored to match the original conceptions of the authors.  I own a paperback copy of Final Stage, and back in 2016 I blogged about the included stories by Poul Anderson, Brian Aldiss, Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison.  For whatever reason I didn't get around to reading the Malzberg story, and today I make good that gap in my knowledge of the Malzbergian canon.

Malzberg has written quite a few stories in which a guy puts on a hypnohelmet and experiences virtual reality; as with mind-altering drugs, while such interactive dreams are prescribed by those in authority as a therapy, patients do run some risk of becoming dangerously addicted, while some people seek to access the  treatments as mere recreation.  (I've blogged about several such stories: "Battered-Earth Syndrome," an environmentalist one; "At the Institute," one about murder; "Tapping Out," more murder; "Going Down," murder plus incest, and "On Ice," still more murder and more incest.)

"The Wonderful All-Purpose Transmogrifier" is another of these stories.  In this one a major theme is that the government permits use of the hypnohelmet interactive dream system, available for purchase by private citizens for use in the home, as a means of keeping passive the populace, what we might call an "opiate of the masses."

Haverford hates his wife Ruth and finds her unattractive; they live in an overpopulated world in which there is so much pollution it is unsafe to even leave the apartment.  To escape all this he employs the hypno dream device, in this story called the transmogrifier.  In virtual reality Haverford finds Ruth attractive, and he dominates her, winning arguments against her and raping her.  But he uses the device too frequently, more than recommended by the manufacturer and despite his wife's desperate advice, and it begins damaging his brain.

The twist ending is that the narrative we have just read, of Haverford overusing the device to experience a relationship with his wife in which he is the master and as a result suffering brain damage, may not be real, but a virtual reality simulation played out by Ruth in the role of Haverford!  Ruth, it seems, enjoys being in her husband's shoes as he lives out his (alleged?) desires to dominate her and then suffers a humiliating comeuppance (suffering the delusion that he has been turned into a duck!) for his addiction.  We have to wonder about Ruth's own strange desires if she enjoys raping herself and/or experiencing her husband's (likely fictional?) mental illness from the inside. 

Not bad.

Final Stage was translated into Italian and German, and "The Wonderful All-Purpose Transmogrifier" also appeared as the cover story of the Croat magazine Sirius in 1984, in an issue with a cover illustration from 1959 by Virgil Finlay.  

"Chained" (1982)

"Chained" first appeared in the anthology Specters!, edited by Malzberg's friend and oft-time collaborator Bill Pronzini.  It later would be included in 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Terry Carr and Martin H. Greenberg.

"Chained" is written in the voice of Hamlet's father, and we listen to him as he rehashes the plot of Hamlet and comments upon it.  In the end of the story he is reunited with his treacherous brother and wife after they die, and we are given the idea that they are going to enjoy themselves, interacting with other supernatural characters from other Shakespeare plays.

A gimmicky waste of time; if you are unfamiliar with the plot of Hamlet you won't know what is going on, and, if you are familiar with Hamlet, this story, mostly a summary of that play that contributes little, offers you little.

"Time-Tracker" (1989)   

"Time-Tracker" has only ever appeared in the paperback anthology Phantoms edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Rosalind M. Greenberg.  

I have read Hamlet multiple times, but I have limited familiarity with The Phantom of the Opera and almost none with Carmen, so I'm afraid "Time-Tracker" is largely lost on me.  (Remember when Gilligan and the rest of the castaways staged a musical version of Hamlet with music based on that from Carmen?  TV used to be fun!)

Some guy, a failed actor or singer or something, is hiding in secret rooms and passages in the opera house of Paris.  A policeman is after him, and after years of searching, has finally figured out his quarry is in the opera house.  On the evening in which the cop begins searching the opera house, as Carmen is performed on the stage, a young woman blunders into the phantom guy's secret room, and the phantom guy moves to rape her.  She screams and another woman enters the room to save her, and a moment later the cop comes in and thus ends the main plot of the story.

Malzberg employs a number of gags in this story.  All the characters have the initials O. P.  He uses the words "sinister" and "bitter" again and again as some kind of joke or allusion.  There is a deja vu and alternate universes element to the story, the suggestion that the characters have been involved in an adventure like this before, and will be involved in such an adventure again, but their roles will be mixed up--sometimes the man who now is the cop will be the crook and the man who is currently the policeman will be the criminal.  I guess this is all a reference to how actors perform in the same plays again and again but sometimes as different characters.  A related theme in "Time-Tracker" is how art is so often derivative; we are reminded multiple times of how operas are often based on earlier dramas.  Another theme, one that adds an additional note of sadness and anger to the tone of this unhappy story, is artists and art lovers who are forced to work on and/or intimately experience art they hate, or as the text puts it "loathe;" one of several examples is a singer (who, I will point out as an aside, has a scar on her face she hides by wearing a mask, like the title character of The Phantom of the Opera) who "loathes" Carmen and has to perform in it as a member of the chorus.

There is a lot going on in this story, though I fear my ignorance of various cultural touchstones is hampering my appreciation of it.  I like it and I'm giving it a thumbs up, but maybe the 130 million people whom wikipedia is telling me saw Andrew Lloyd Weber's stage musical of The Phantom of the Opera since its 1986 debut would get more out if it than I have.


After drafting the above I got out my copy of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg and reread the aforementioned "Going Down" and "On Ice" and was pleased to find I still really enjoyed them.  These two stories have a lot going for them: the in-your-face disgustingness and outrageous humor of the violence and twisted sex may be the most prominent and thus attractive or repulsive thing about them, but there is also their critique of things like Kennedy worship, the drug culture, the role of the medical establishment and the role of the state in our lives, our views of money and freedom, and our relationships with family members and sex partners.  I recommended "Going Down" and "On Ice" to you back in 2016, and in 2022 I recommend them to you again. 

I have not yet satisfied my current urge to grimace at the horror and guffaw at the humor of Malzberg's crazy visions, so more Malzberg in our next episode!

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Protostars (1971): A Laurance, R E Margroff, A J Offutt & P Wyal

Alright, here it is, the final installment of our exhaustive treatment of Protostars, the 1971 anthology of sixteen all-new SF stories edited by David Gerrold, author of Deathbeast and Space Skimmer, and Stephen Goldin, author of A World Called Solitude and Assault on the Gods.

"Chances Are" by Alice Laurance

Gerrold's introduction to "Chances Are" is a long discussion of the New Wave and how New Wave stories differ from "traditional" stories.  In brief, "old wave" SF stories (says Gerrold) are optimistic adventure tales that focus on story-telling and creating characters in which a hero triumphs over obstacles, in which he masters the environment, while a New Wave story is pessimistic and "arty," focusing on technique rather than plot or character, and shows how individuals cannot change the environment in which they find themselves.  Gerrold whips out his Hegel and suggests that the old SF is the thesis and the New Wave the antithesis, and wonders what the soon to come synthesis will look like, and suggests it may look like Don Quixote

Alice Laurence's "Chances Are" is about the afterlife.  A twenty-something woman has just died, and is standing on a road between unscalable sand dunes.  As she follows the road, and chooses which way to go at intersections, she reminisces about her life and wonders if God is real and if people have free will.  She was a musician who lacked the talent or drive to make a living as a performer or composer, and when she tried to become a mother her child died in the womb.  At the end of the story she comes to a door; there is no way to pass around the door, so she opens it, triggering the total loss of her identity and the rebirth of her soul as that of a baby boy.

Each individual sentence and paragraph of "Chances Are" is fine, but the story as a whole is a big nothing.  The passages about God and free will are inconclusive things we've heard before.  The character makes no decisions (when she chooses between paths she does so at random, as there are no clues as to what lies beyond the next sand dune, no evidence on which to base a rational choice between one fork or another.)  Laurance doesn't seem to be trying to make any interesting point with this story (maybe she's saying that you should be decisive but if you aren't you'll be given a chance to try again?), and doesn't engage the reader's emotions.

I'm giving this story a thumbs down, but it only just slips below the "barely acceptable" category; "Chances Are" is not offensively bad, but it accomplishes nothing.

A Belgian publisher would reprint "Chances Are" in French in a 1973 anthology that also includes Pamela Sargent's "Oasis" and Stephen Goldin's "The Last Ghost," and in 1975 Laurance's story would appear in a McGraw-Hill anthology, Heaven and Hell, again alongside Goldin's "The Last Ghost."

"The Naked and the Unashamed" by Robert E. Margroff

In his intro to this one, Gerrold says that Margroff has figured out college campus riots, and come up with a way of preventing them.

"The Naked and the Unashamed" is a series of childish jokes, I guess a satire of the vacuousness of the political protests in which middle-class young people engage--college kids protest because it is a fun social activity that brings excitement and (an illusory) meaning to their easy lives, not because they have any deeply felt or carefully considered views about the way the world works.

In the future, there is no war or crime.  And college kids protest the lack of these exciting events--they have been denied the chance to participate in, or at least witness, essential aspects of human life.  When they start throwing dirt and shit at the college dean, the police break up the riot by spraying the kids with an aphrodisiac; the horde of protestors fall to the ground and engage in an enthusiastic orgy.  Some of the cops and journalists covering the event participate in the fucking.

Thumbs down for this waste of time.

"The Naked and the Unashamed" was reprinted in three different European anthologies.  I'll keep this in mind when somebody tells me how sophisticated Europeans are.

"My Country, Right or Wrong" by Andrew J. Offutt

Here at MPoricus Fiction Log we generally think of Andrew Offutt as the guy who writes sword and sorcery novels, sword and planet novels, and planetary romances with covers by Boris Vallejo, Rowena Morrill, and Jeff Jones.  But there is a pretentious Andrew Offutt who insists his name be spelled without capital letters, and it this incarnation of Offutt, I mean offutt, who contributes to Protostars.  In his introduction to "My Country, Right or Wrong," Gerrold says great stories all have an element of truth, and that he thinks offutt's tale here has that element of truth.

Despite the eye-grabbing absence of uppercase letters, this story is not particularly pretentious or groundbreaking.  In fact, "My Country, Right or Wrong," is a traditional sort of SF story that speculates about the future, engages in alternate history speculations, illustrates the law of unintended consequences, advocates limited government and denounces ethnic chauvinism.

Jeff Bellamy is a guy in 1978, a patriot who loves America but thinks the government is too oppressive, too many taxes and so on.  He sneaks into a time machine some other guy built and finds himself in 2078.  2078 is a kind of libertarian utopia, with limited government and high technology and all that.  But Jeff is shocked and disgusted when he learns how this world of freedom came to pass.  You see, in 1980, the Soviet Union conquered the United States!  But eventually the shortcomings of socialism became so obvious that reforms were instituted that lead to the current regime which is more capitalistic and democratic than that of America in 1978.

Instead of accepting that everything has turned out alright in the end, Jeff, who thinks America would arrive at this libertarian utopia without suffering the indignity of being conquered by the USSR, goes back in time to murder a young Lenin.  But history is very complicated, and somehow killing Lenin causes the Nazis to conquer America, so Jeff goes back in time again, this time to kill Hitler, but this causes a Czarist Russia to take over America.  Jeff eventually figures it all out, though it entails time paradoxes and some heavy personal sacrifice.

This story is OK, no big deal.  Offutt includes lots of details about life in the future, like what clothes people wear and the way social mores have evolved, as well as political discussions, that are probably superfluous, but they aren't that terribly annoying.  Perhaps lefties will find Offutt's championing of the market society and slagging of socialism irritating, as I found David Bunch's broad satire of our market society in "Holdholtzer's Box" tiresome.

Like so many stories in Protostars, "My Country Right or Wrong" has never been printed again.  

"Side Effect" by Pg Wyal

We approach the end of our journey.   But we've still got a big push ahead of us--"Side Effect" is over 30 pages long!  In his intro, Gerrold tells us this is one of the best stories in Protostars.  Well, let's see if I agree.

I do not agree!  "Side Effect," which has a subtitle that appears in parentheses, "(the monster that devoured Los Angeles)," is a ridiculous farce, a rapid-fire barrage of obvious jokes--many of them ethnic jokes and many of them sex jokes--as well as a satire of SF, though more a satire of the SF of the silver screen, like King Kong, the Godzilla films, and 1950s B-movies, than SF literature.  Jokes are made about greedy clannish Jews and predatory homosexuals and how women smell like dead fish, but also about Ronald Reagan and anti-communists, and the story, which gets crazier and crazier as it proceeds, eventually evolves into a bizarre attack on white racism, so maybe the politically correct will cut Wyal some slack?

Art Noone ("Side Effect" is full of joke names for people and places, like "Judge Glans" and "Cunnilingus City") is a 35-year-old law clerk.  When he reads in the paper that an immortality drug is being tested, he is eager to be an early adopter and calls up his Jewish doctor who pulls some strings and acquires a dose.  The injection makes Art feels like he is 18 again, and he quits his job and hitchhikes across this great land of ours to Los Angeles.  Along the way Wyal makes obvious jokes about what we now call "flyover country" and Art runs afoul of the law and is imprisoned but escapes.

In La La Land, Art finds that he is growing.  As he grows, his skin gets darker.  Eventually he is like 18 feet tall and his enemies take to calling him "N-word Noone;" well, they don't actually say "N-word," they say the "N-word"--you know what I mean.  Art becomes violent, and in the long climax of the story Art leads the black residents of Los Angeles in an attempted revolution against the white establishment.  The racist mayor of L.A. transforms himself into a giant monster, and leads the resistance to the revolution and the counterattack of the white military.  The black rebels are almost entirely wiped out, and N-word Noone and the mayor climb to the top of City Hall for a final showdown.  The mayor is slain by Art, but then aircraft kill N-word Noone.

As I was reading the first 25 or so pages of "Side Effect," I was thinking I would judge it "barely acceptable."  But the ending fight is so long and repetitive and the jokes so broad and silly (e. g., the Los Angeles Police Department has a squadron of World War II Messerschmitts) that the story slipped down into "Thumbs down" territory.

Like quite a number of stories lately that I have been telling you are not very good, "Side Effect" may have value as an historical document that provides insight into the concerns and attitudes of people alive when it was written.  It was yet another story from Protostars to be included in the French Univers series of anthologies, the only place you will find it besides Protostars.


And so our exploration of Protostars comes to a close.  Sixteen stories have appeared under the pitiless MPorcius microscope, and I've already told you which stories I think are good, acceptable and bad; now I'll go out on a limb, and, below, make a preliminary stab at the sterile and quixotic exercise of ranking them within those three categories.  I'm already regretting doing this, as I feel like I graded Bradfield and Goldin on a curve, offering unwarranted charity to the former and punishing the latter unfairly because his second story is in an inappropriate venue, but I'm not going to work on this any more, and I am also not going to just erase the list after spending so much time on it.  

Before we sign off, I should point out that several of David Gerrold's introductions to the stories are useful to the student of late 1960s/early 1970s SF because they offer the informed opinions of Gerrold, a successful novelist, editor, and screenwriter in the SF field, about the New Wave and about the working lives and psychologies of people with careers in the SF world in that period.




1.  "In a Sky of Daemons" by L. Yep
2.  "Oasis" by Pamela Sargent
3.  "And Watch the Smog Roll In..." by Barry Weissman
4.  "The Last Ghost" by Stephen Goldin


5.  "Eyes of Onyx" by Edward Bryant
6.  "My Country, Right or Wrong" by andrew j. offutt
7.  "I'll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool is Empty" by James Tiptree, Jr.   
8.  "Holdholtzer's Box" by David R. Bunch
9.  "What Makes a Cage, Jamie Knows" by Scott Bradfield


10. "Chances Are" by Alice Laurance 
11. "The World Where Wishes Worked" by Stephen Goldin
12.  "Side Effect" by Pg Wyal
13.  "Cold, the Fire of the Phoenix" by Leo P. Kelley
14.  "The Naked and the Unashamed" by Robert E. Margroff
15.  "Afternoon With a Dead Bus" by David Gerrold
16.  "The Five-Dimensional Sugar Cube" by Roger Deeley