Friday, November 24, 2023

Barry N. Malzberg: "Police Actions," "Fugato," "Major League Triceratops," and "In the Stone House"

The career of Barry N. Malzberg is full of ironies.  Malzberg was the first recipient of the John W. Campbell, Jr. Award, even though many see Malzberg's work as a refutation of Campbell's.  In The Best of A. E. van Vogt, Malzberg claims to have a deep sympathy for van Vogt as a writer who, like Malzberg, is sui generis, a man off in a corner doing very personal and unique work quite distinct from that of his colleagues in SF, even though many see Malzberg's Herovit's World as a ruthless attack on van Vogt.  And then there is the topic of today's blog post, In the Stone House, a collection of Malzberg stories published in the year 2000 by Arkham House, the printing house founded by weirdies August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to preserve the work of the greatest weirdie of them all, H. P. Lovecraft, even though I think Malzberg doesn't like Lovecraft (see 1989's "O Thou Last and Greatest!")

We here at MPorcius Fiction Log have read the first 20 of the 24 stories in In the Stone House over five blog posts (links below), and today we finish up with the book's last four offerings, "Police Actions," "Fugato," "Major League Triceratops," and "In the Stone House."  I am reading these tales in my hardcover copy of In the Stone House, a volume which goes for over 25 bucks online; Stark House has published an omnibus paperback edition of both In the Stone House and the 1980 collection The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady that you can get for 22 bucks.  Stark House has been publishing lots of classic genre literature and they are deserving of the support of fans of the kinds of things we talk about here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Links to MPorcius Fiction Log posts on In the Stone House

"Police Actions" (1991)

Here's a story from In the Stone House that ended up in The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, a collection Brian Doherty at Reason magazine reports is full of typos.  (Sad, but all too predictable--there are plenty of annoying typographical errors here in this Arkham House book printing of "Police Actions.")  Doherty actually highlights "Police Actions," so click the link if you want an opinion of the story from a professional writer and not just some internet goofball! 

"Police Actions," I guess, is about to what extent educated middle-class people are complicit in the actions of the governments of their countries, even if they say they oppose those actions.  The nine-and-a-half-page story comes to us in two chapters, and is somewhat oblique and opaque, so anything I have to say is tentative.

In chapter I, the narrator and a bunch of people are on a tour of a country the narrator's country has recently conquered.  Malzberg doesn't come out and say this, but we are given clues that suggest the United States, in the early 21st century, has conquered France.  (The narrator meets a general of the defeated natives at a cafe and this general says stereotypically French things about America.)  I guess this is supposed to remind you of the Vietnam War and to hint that the United States is like Nazi Germany.  There is still sporadic unrest in occupied France, and the narrator and his comrades are at some risk from native resistance fighters.  The narrator insists that he and his pals are against the invasion and occupation; there is also talk that the narrator and company reject individualism and are a collective.

Chapter II is back in what I am assuming is America.  As the chapter begins the government is about to institute a program that will end class divisions--in the end of the story it turns out (I think) that class divisions are eliminated by exterminating the underclass.  The middle-class narrator and his cronies wrestle with to what extent they are complicit in this atrocity, in particular whether they sort of knew all along what the new policy would consist of but lied to each other and themselves.

Not bad, I guess.  "Police Actions" debuted in Full Spectrum 3, an anthology edited by three people whose names I don't recognize. 

"Fugato" (1993)

More classical music!  Here in "Fugato," we get Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Benjamin Britten as characters.  "Fugato" first appeared in the anthology Alternate Warriors (tagline: "This time they're not turning the other cheek...!" (why the ellipsis?, I ask)), and in its alternate universe we find that Bernstein, whom wikipedia is telling me couldn't serve in World War II because of asthma, is a member of a rifle platoon pinned down by German fire!  As the battle rages around him, Bernstein recalls how his friends and family tried to convince him to dodge the draft in deference to the fact that he was a talent and should live to create great music--it's the job of ordinary untalented schlubs to die to save the world from Naziism, not some guy who can write a symphony!  But Bernstein had insisted, in part because he didn't want to bring to life the suspicions of those gentiles who expected Bernstein as a wealthy Jew to pull strings to avoid service.  

I like this one--the issues it addresses (should we afford special privileges to superior people?; in making big life decisions, should you consider how you are representing your demographic in front of members of other demographics?) are engaging.  I also was glad to have been spurred to look up Britten online--this guy was up to the sorts of shenanigans Michael Jackson is famed for, but Britten has a phalanx of academics steadfastly defending his reputation

Thumbs up!

"Major League Triceratops" (1992) 

As anyone who follows my twitter feed knows, I love dinosaurs.  Well, here we have a Malzbergian take on that traditional SF plot, the guy who goes to hunt dinosaurs and suffers some kind of comeuppance, a take that integrates sexual dysfunction and, reminding us of "Police Actions," issues of the responsibility scientists, engineers, and other knowledge workers bear for the perhaps regrettable uses to which the products of their work are put.

"Major League Triceratops" is like 23 pages long and consists of nine little chapters.  In the first chapter we meet an unnamed  paleontologist who is looking at dinosaur skeletons in what Malzberg calls not a museum but a "gallery," I guess an effort to make the reader think of "shooting gallery."  Acting more like a child than a scientist, the man talks to his companion, a half-Japanese woman named Maria with whom he has what sounds like an unhealthy sexual relationship, about how powerful and deadly the dinosaurs were.  It seems Malzberg chose to make Maria half-Japanese in order to facilitate the introduction into the story of a haiku written by the paleontologist.  Maria declares this haiku "decadent" and adds that the "ranches" to which time travelers go to hunt dinosaurs are also decadent; the paleontologist vigorously denies he has anything to do with the ranches.

The middle seven chapters focus on a different man, Robles the disappointed scientist, currently working as a guide on a time-travelling expedition to the Cretaceous.  Through dialogue (which Malzberg refuses to set off with quotation marks) with Muffy, a fellow member of the expedition, as well as flashbacks, we learn all about Robles' disappointments.  For one thing, he is disappointed in his sexual relationship with Muffy.  Perhaps more important is the fact that Robles' theories about Triceratops have been exploded by actual observation of the famous ceratopsian's behavior in the field.  You see, Robles, for whatever crazy reason, had the theory that Triceratops was an advanced form of dinosaur that gave birth to live young and raised them lovingly, as a mammal might.  Time travellers have, however, confirmed that Triceratops, in fact, just lay eggs on the dirt and then abandon them.

A recurring theme in Malzberg's work is that the public are not interested in space and do not think the space program worthy of funding, and in this story the time-travelling dinosaur research program of which Robles is a part faces like obstacles.  So Robles came up with the idea for a publicity stunt which, he hoped, would revive interest in the dino research project.  Via underhanded methods, he lured a TV celebrity, it seems a late-night comic host sort of like David Letterman, to participate in an expedition to the past, but the joke was on Robles: the celebrity, a man with the Dickensian name of Dix, doesn't just want to film dinosaurs--he wants to stalk and shoot an adult Triceratops and bring its carcass back to the 21st century!  Robles tried to scupper the expedition, but it was too late.

In the climax of the story Dix seems to discover evidence that Triceratops may in actual fact nurse their young in nests--though as we expect in a Malzberg story, it is possible this revelation is just an hallucination.  Moments later, Dix shoots a Triceratops; the dying beast charges Dix and Robles, and as we expect when we read a story about hunting written be a liberal like Malzberg, the hunter turns out to be a coward and panics.  As the penultimate chapter of "Major League Triceratops" ends we are left not quite sure whether either of Dix and Robles survives the charge of the ceratopsian, but it certainly seems likely that Robles dies without knowing his theory has been vindicated and that Dix survives to receive the credit for proving the theory.  

In the final little chapter we are back with half-Japanese Maria, get to hear her boyfriend's haiku again, and are reminded of the way that the death of Robles and/or Dix was foreshadowed in the first chapter.

There is a lot going on in "Major League Triceratops."  Besides the timeworn plot in which a hunter is made a fool of on an expedition to hunt dinosaurs, a plot famously used by Ray Bradbury and L. Sprague de Camp and less famously by David Gerrold, Malzberg addresses traditional SF concerns that time travellers who tinker with the past will change the future from which they came and to which they hope to return.  There are also pretty traditional snide attacks on business.  More unusual and distracting is how Malzberg talks about dinosaurs; the idea that Triceratops might have suckled their young, and the way Malzberg again and again suggests Triceratops are like rhinoceroses, is disconcerting and makes you wonder if Malzberg knows anything about dinosaurs (this reminded me of the off-putting way Malzberg talked about an assassin's rifle in "Here, For Just a While.")  I'm also not sure if the whole haiku business adds to the story, though I suppose Maria and her relationship with the paleontologist may be there to strike feminist notes.

Longer and addressing a higher volume of diverse themes than a lot of Malzberg's short stories, "Major League Triceratops" isn't quite satisfying because half of the material feels old, and the other half seems out of place.  Still, not a bad story.

"Major League Triceratops" debuted in The Ultimate Dinosaur, a volume promoted as being penned by "The World's Leading Scientists and Visionaries."  Here in In the Stone House, Malzberg's wife Joyce is credited as a co-author.  This is Joyce Malzberg's only fiction credit at isfdb, though her isfdb entry also lists an essay about Maurice Sendak.

"In the Stone House" (1992)

Here we have an even longer story, like 28 pages, on a topic I am less keen on than dinosaurs--America's royal family, the Kennedys!  Luckily, this is a decent Malzberg Kennedy story, superior because Malzberg actually develops some characters and relationships, and because it is largely about a Kennedy we don't hear about all the time, JFK and RFK's older brother, Joe Jr!

In real life, Joe Jr. was a naval aviator killed in action operating an experimental weapons system during World War II.  In this story, Joe survived the war and his domineering father Joe Sr. browbeat him into becoming a Senator, then a Governor, and finally President between 1952 and 1956!  But then Daddy forced Joe to drop out of the 1956 presidential race to make way for his brother John F. Kennedy!  And as the story begins, it is 1963 and Joe Jr. is in the book depository with an M-1 Garand, waiting for the president's motorcade to roll into view so he can snipe his own brother!

The lion's share of the story tells how Joe Jr. got to this point, how his father manipulated him and his brothers and the American political system to get Joe Jr into and then Jack into the White House, something Joe Jr. and JFK never really wanted.  Pivotal scenes include Joe Jr with a short term lover, Rhoda; Rhoda knows Joe Jr. isn't interested in politics and she strives, unsuccessfully, to get him to defy Joe Sr. and create his own life, perhaps with her.  Directly related to that scene is that in which we learn why and how Joe Sr. forced Joe Jr. to drop out of politics--Joe Sr. wants Tail-Gunner Joe McCarthy to remain Secretary of State, and Joe Jr refuses to retain the services of that firebrand anti-communist alcoholic homosexual for fear his ranting and raving against the Reds will trigger an international catastrophe!  As punishment for this disobedience, Dad forces his firstborn to drop out of politics by threatening to murder Rhoda!  

JFK took Joe Jr's place as President, but then JFK betrayed Joe Sr!  His apostasy: refusing to support RFK for president and instead throwing his support to Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson!  Since departing the Oval Office, Joe Jr, has become more or less insane and basically reconciled with his father, realizing Dad was always right about everything, even McCarthy!  So Joe Jr decides to murder JFK, which will (he supposes) pave the way for the realization of Dad's dream of Bobby following Jack and Joe Jr as president.

In addition to being more character- and relationship-driven than some of Malzberg's stories, "In The Stone House," even though there are no quotation marks and the story is told largely out of chronological order, is a lot easier to understand than many Malzbergs.  The characters all act in ways that are tragically believable, even sympathetic, Malzberg relying less than usual on his characteristic strategy of portraying his characters as delusional victims of hallucinations.  

I didn't expect to find myself typing these words when I embarked on my reading of the story and saw the Kennedy name in its first line, but thumbs up for "In the Stone House!"


In the Stone House ends on a high note, with stories that mine particularly compelling raw material and are more ambitious and easier to follow than much of Malzberg's work--even if I find fault with them, these four stories were worth my time.  Let's hope the next batch of Malzberg stories we read, stories from earlier in the Sage of Teaneck's career, are as rewarding as has been this tranche.   

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis

'I'm appealing to you.'  Kitty had got into her stride by now.  'It's all I can do.  I've nothing to fight with, no bribe to offer.  I can only ask you to realize the unhappiness you'll be bringing four people who've never hurt you.'

'Which are they?'

'Roy's two children, our own child, and myself.'

'You aren't including him, then.'

'That's not for me to say.'

'No, that's right.  Well, from the way he talks about his life at home, I can't see he gives a sod for any of you, so I don't see why I should.'

Let's check out another novel by Kingsley Amis, this one Girl, 20, first published in 1971, the year of my birth.  I have a 1973 Bantam paperback which a previous owner contrived to keep in one piece with packing tape; a good job, too, as the book is still intact even after a week of bouncing around in my shoulder bag as I walked hither and yon in our nation's capital and in the back seat of the Toyota Corolla as I drove up and down the East Coast.

Smart people love classical music and know all about it, and lament its decline (we just read a story by Barry N. Malzberg that is like a sad love letter to classical music.)  So I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the narrator of Girl, 20 is a newspaper critic who writes about classical music and expresses contempt for pop music and jazz.  This guy, Douglas Yandell, 33, for some time in the past served as secretary to prominent conductor and composer Sir Roy Vandervane, a man in his fifties, and they are still pals.  Both unmarried Douglas, and Roy, who is on his second wife, Kitty, and is father to a twenty-something son, Christopher, a daughter of 20, Penny, and a son of six, Ashley, are womanizers.  Roy regularly cheats on his wife, going from one young woman to the next, and he does a quite poor job of concealing these affairs.

Girl, 20 is full of politics, starting from page 1.  Douglas tells people he has no interest in politics, but the people around him are obsessed with the topic.  The editor of his newspaper, Harold Meers, is a hardcore anti-communist who doesn't want Douglas to write an article about a talented East German pianist because he fears it will serve as propaganda for the tyrannical GDR.  Among those living at the Vandervane estate is a West Indian, Gilbert Alexander, a writer who is, somewhat informally, a kind of tutor for Ashley, chauffer for Roy and Kitty, and boyfriend (or maybe just sex partner) to Penny.  Gilbert calls every white person he meets a racist fascist imperialist and complains about white supremacy.  Wealthy Roy (Kitty says to the narrator, "'You know, Douglas, it's quite frightening how much Roy earns now,'") is a socialist who has adorned his rooms with pictures of Che Guevara and a bust of Mao Zedong.  Amis suggests that both Gilbert and Roy's politics are merely performative, what we today might call "virtue signaling." In one scene Roy jumps to help a blind man cross the street, only to be disappointed, even angered, upon learning the man is not blind at all, but simply wearing dark glasses.  Signaling his separation from true working-class people, we get a scene in which a bus driver who recognizes the famous Roy tells the composer to move to Russia if he thinks England is so bad. 

Squint or click to read enthusiastic blurbs from my copy

The plot.  Roy is having an affair with 17-year-old Sylvia, a girl whom, when Douglas meets her, is stoned and acts in an outrageously cruel and callous manner.  Roy is attracted to Sylvia for her youth; as a leftist he is simpatico with the rebellious youth culture of drugs and rock music (he tells pop-music hater Douglas not to judge rock music on the basis of acts like Herman's Hermits, but rather good bands like Led Zeppelin) and the thing that sexually arouses him nowadays is the breaking of laws and the defying of social mores--he's been with many women over the years and he is no longer aroused by prosaic sex, but needs a little depravity to get turned on.  Amis/Douglas gives us multiple clues that suggest that Roy is attracted to Sylvia because she looks like his daughter Penny.  (Gross!)

Sylvia is no longer content with getting banged in private--she wants to go out in public with her famous lover.  Roy has the idea that he and Sylvia can go out on the town if they bring Penny with them, camouflaging their affair behind the story that Sylvia is Penny's friend and just tagging along.  (In fact, Penny has never met Sylvia.)  Roy figures that this cover story will be buttressed if Douglas accompanies them in the role of Penny's boyfriend.  Douglas resists, but Penny, whom he finds attractive (she has very high and firm breasts) implores him and he agrees, setting the stage for the uncomfortable evening out during which Sylvia, who acts like an absolute jerk, and Penny meet.

Roy isn't the only member of the Vandervane household to ask Douglas for a favor.  When it looks like Roy is actually going to leave Kitty for Sylvia, Kitty and Penny each independently beg Douglas to try to convince Roy to break things off with the teenaged girl and save the Vandervane family from total destruction.  When this doesn't work, Douglas accompanies Kitty when she goes to Sylvia's flat to beg the girl to show mercy on Roy's family, a confrontation that goes disastrously.  

In the Sylvia-Kitty confrontation scene, and a scene in which Roy explains his behavior to Douglas, Amis illustrates in broad strokes his theory that socialists and other rebels against society are not principled ideologues who are fighting for a better world but selfish libertines who have absolutely no concern for others.  Roy admits that everything he is doing--like cheating on his wife and championing the fashionable causes of the young--is in the shallow pursuit of pleasure.  He composes music for rock musicians and goes on TV to argue in favor of left-wing causes because it makes teenaged and 20-something girls want to have sex with him and boys of that age admire him, and he enjoys being the object of attention he compares to "hero-worship."  Seeing that Roy doesn't care about his family, Douglas takes a different tack, arguing that by immersing himself in pop music, leftist politics and sexual license--mere ephemera!--Roy is failing to live up to his potential as a musician, is sacrificing his opportunity to truly make the world a better place by contributing to the eternal project that is high culture.  Roy is not convinced, and Douglas turns to more desperate measures still, measures quite underhanded! 

Gilbert also has a favor to ask Douglas; Gilbert is fond of Penny and sees how living in her collapsing home is hurting her, and asks Douglas to help him convince Penny to move out of the Vandervane estate and and run away with him (Gilbert.)  We readers have to wonder about Gilbert's feelings about Penny, however, when Gilbert offers to Douglas as an inducement the opportunity to have sex with Penny!

In the final quarter of the novel Roy and Sylvia's relationship comes under assault from another direction.  Sylvia, in one of those it's-a-small-world coincidences fiction is replete with, turns out to be the daughter of the editor of Douglas' paper, right-winger Harold Meers!  Meers has been doing research on Roy, and has interviewed Roy's son Christopher, and threatens to publish the interview, in which Christopher brutally attacks his father, if Roy doesn't leave Sylvia.  

In the final fifth or so of the 245-page novel, we get various climactic scenes.  Douglas meets the father of a woman he sleeps with on the regular, Vivienne Copes--Mr. Copes is a religious man who reads science fiction and suspects the moral character of the British people is in such dire straits that the United Kingdom would benefit from dictatorial rule.  Also, the best thing that could happen to the people of Africa is if the British conquered and administered the dark continent again.  This character is, on the one hand, a goofball, but on the other, his commitment to the world around him, and the world that Christians and SF fans feel must be beyond this one, casts into relief how shallow is Douglas, how our narrator is a man who only cares about music and sex, a man who is not interested in building a family or preparing for the future.

Roy, on violin, accompanies a rock band on stage in their performance of a pop song of his own composition; the crowd does not appreciate the performance and on their way out of the venue Roy and Douglas are assaulted by thugs and Roy's Stradivarius is destroyed.  But Roy remains committed to pop music and youth rebellion, and to marrying Sylvia, outwitting Sylvia's father and rebuffing Douglas' efforts.

At the end of the story we find that all of Douglas's efforts to accomplish anything have been met with failure.  He couldn't stop Roy from leaving his family.  He couldn't stop Roy from wrecking his career in serious music.  Douglas gets fired from his job at the newspaper, and Vivienne ends their casual sex relationship.  But Amis makes clear that Douglas' sin is not that he gets defeated every time he launches an enterprise--his sin is not launching enough enterprises, not engaging enough in life.  Vivienne is cutting Douglas off because she is getting engaged to Gilbert Alexander--where the cool Douglas was content with a mere physical relationship, because he didn't care deeply about Vivienne and had imbibed the current feminist thinking about how men and women are equals, Gilbert has fallen in love with Vivienne the person, and, as a West Indian, has older ideas about sexual relations, and has been acting like a "masterful man" with Vivienne.  Gilbert's telling her what clothes and jewelry to wear (when Douglas didn't care that she had bad taste and looked sloppy), for example, Vivienne interprets as evidence Gilbert truly cares about her--Douglas' open-minded, laissez-faire attitude she sees as proof he doesn't really care about her.

The final scene leaves things up in the air for Douglas and Penny.  Penny, shattered by the collapse of her family, has, it appears, turned to heroin!  Douglas is attracted to her, and in theory he could follow Gilbert's example and take up the role of the masterful man and take Penny in hand, save her from the doom that is addiction to H and with her build a worthwhile life based on traditional gender roles, but does he care enough about her to do so?  The ironic final words of the novel are "We're all free now," Amis suggesting that the freedom brought by the sexual revolution and society's embrace of drugs is a trap, that this kind of freedom leads to destruction and a kind of slavery, that true freedom can only thrive within the guard rails of traditional rules and hierarchies.   

Girl, 20 is a competent mainstream novel.  Many of its ideas--e.g., that socialists are generally selfish hypocritical jerks and people who have lots of sex get jaded and lose the ability to get aroused by conventional sex and so pursue increasingly bizarre fetishistic sex--are ideas I basically agree with, and the others--e.g., that the liberations associated with the 1960s have made life worse rather than better--I find intriguing if not wholly convincing.  However, these are all ideas I have been exposed to many many times; from my perspective these ideas are conventional wisdom rather than new and exciting revelations.  The novel's jokes--for example, Douglas is tall and hits his head on things--are not bad, but only once did I literally laugh.  Amis' characters are believable, but I didn't find them terribly sympathetic or engaging, while Amis' tone is sort of understated, putting emotional distance between the reader and what is going on.    

One of the appealing things about the novel--and other of Amis' novels I have read--is that he is obviously interested in things I am interested in, like science fiction (and genre fiction in general) and military history--Douglas refers to Dracula and Frankenstein and many of the book's little jokes involve martial metaphors and references.  Hinting at how Roy and Kitty's lackadaisical parenting style has turned little Ashley into a hellion, we get this exchange between Kitty and our hero:

'We've got a new system [of persuading Ashley to attend school.]  Every day he goes, he gets a surprise when he comes home.'

'What sort of surprise?'

'Something nice, of course.  Something it's fun for him to play with.'

'You mean like a trench mortar or a flame-thrower or a--'

'There are no militaristic toys in this house, Douglas.'

This dialogue also makes one of Amis' points, that left-wingers misdiagnose the world's problems and make them worse with their misguided prescriptions--Roy and Kitty simplemindedly think that it is playing with toy soldiers that makes people violent, while actually doing the very thing that is in fact turning their kid into a troublemaker--depriving him of discipline.

(One of the minor themes of Girl, 20 is how children and parents disappoint each other--in the novel the conservative or right-wing parents have kids who are sluts while the offspring of left-wing parents turn on their progenitors, denouncing their indulgent and self-indulgent ways or actually engaging in physical violence.  At the end of the book, however, it does look like Mr. Copes, the most right-wing of the parents, may live to see his daughter in a stable healthy marriage.)

Girl, 20 is a success--the book is well-paced and well-structured and all that, and Amis appears to accomplish his goals--so I guess on a technical level it is good, but its ordinary plot and ordinary point of view did not thrill me or challenge me.  Like a guy who has banged so many chicks he has to break the law to get aroused, it seems like I have read so much fiction I can only get really excited by a story if there are monsters or aliens or space ships or sorceries in it.  I guess I can give a mild recommendation to Girl, 20, and a stronger rec to feminists and BLM activists who are looking to fuel their rage. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Barry Malzberg: "Hitler at Nuremberg," "Concerto Academico," "The Intransigents," "Hieratic Realignment" and "The Only Thing You Learn"

In our last episode, we read some 1970s stories by Barry N. Malzberg, tireless critic, editor and writer of genre literature and a particular favorite of ours here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  Now let's wrestle with some 1990s Malzberg, four stories from the 2000 collection In the Stone House, a copy of which I bought some time ago and from which I have already read fifteen stories, as proven by the blog posts you can access at these four links:

Today we address five stories, the contents of pages 142 to 187 of my hardcover First Edition copy of In the Stone House.

"Hitler at Nuremberg" (1994)

In these five pages of text Malzberg tries to get into the mind of Adolf Hitler, speculating on what sort of defense the leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party might have mounted if, instead of committing suicide in his bunker, he had been captured by the Soviets and subsequently put on trial at Nuremberg alongside such figures as Herman Goering, Heinrich Himmler and Julius Streicher.  Malzberg also offers allusive descriptions of Hitler's relationships with those figures--in particular Streicher--as well as Eva Braun, Rudolf Hess and Josef Stalin.  

I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that in this story Malzberg is offering a possibly controversial argument--that our conventional depiction of Hitler as uniquely evil, the very personification of evil, is something of a defense mechanism, an effort to distract ourselves from the horrible truth that we are all capable of evil.  Hitler's defense at trial is that he didn't order and didn't desire the extermination of the Jews, that in fact the genocidal program was an initiative of underlings that the Fuhrer didn't quite know about, he being so busy looking at the big picture of international relations and world war; Hitler goes so far as to claim that he had lost control of the German government and had even attempted (through Hess) to make peace with the Western Allies.  The repetitive last lines of "Hitler at Nuremberg" are "It could have been any of you, any of you.  Any of you."

The story covers an interesting topic and has a provocative thesis, and all the little relationships and personalities it economically sketches out ring true; this is a pretty good one.

It looks like "Hitler at Nuremberg" appeared in the anthology By Any Other Fame and in the magazine Pulphouse the same year. 

"Concerto Academico" (1992)

"Concerto Academico" made its debut in the dragon anthology Dragon Fantastic and in 2010 reemerged in the dragon anthology Wings of Fire.  This story has the endorsement of the dracophile community!  

"Concerto Academico" starts as a cutesy absurdist story about how a dragon walks into a Westchester County orchestra's daytime rehearsal and sparks allegedly funny reactions from the players, who see the dragon, and the conductor, whose back is to the orchestra and so does not see the monster.  Malzberg suggests that the members of the orchestra have all suffered disappointments in life (among them are refugees from the Warsaw Pact states, for example, as well as people who retired from stressful business careers or are enduring unhappy marriages) and so the appearance of a mythical monster does not really faze them--they are grizzled veterans of failure and have bigger problems to worry about than a tremendous reptile.  When the conductor finally sees the monster he flees, but most of the orchestra members remain, and the story evolves into a heartfelt celebration of the power of art and imagination to offer comfort to the afflicted (who of course include most of us--even if the god-damned commies didn't drive you out of your beloved homeland, some girl probably broke your heart, right?)  The dragon turns out to be friendly, even a sort of manifestation of the beauty and wonder of classical music (in particular, the ability of classical music to paint a vivid picture in the mind of the educated listener), and the story's main character, a sexagenarian hopelessly in love with a thirty-something married member of the strings section, takes over the role of conductor and, it seems, has the finest and most beautiful experience of his life.      

Malzberg has a deep knowledge of classical music, and shows it off here; people who know about Sir Adrian Boult and Ralph Vaughan Williams will probably get more out of this story than I did.  "Concerto Academico" is the kind of story that I can respect as a successful endeavor--Malzberg has set out to accomplish a goal and seems to have achieved his aim--but I am not in a position to really appreciate, in this case because I am not crazy about absurdist stuff and I don't know anything about classical music.

Good, but not really for me.

"The Intransigents" (1993)

This is a somewhat oblique retelling of conspiracy theories about Marilyn Monroe and those two saints of America's decadent and degenerate royal family, JFK and RFK.  (I've been hearing rumors that the royal family is trying to stage a comeback--heavens forfend!)  Monroe, the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover are never explicitly named; instead Monroe is "the actress," Hoover is "the Director," and John and Robert Kennedy (or Jack and Bobby as their swooning worshipers call them) are given the first names "Jeptha" and "Rifka" and no last name.  (The Kennedy stand-ins' first names made me think maybe this story depicts an alternate universe in which the Kennedy analogs are Jewish, but later in the story the Director derides them as "Catholic boys," putting a big hole in that theory.)

Our lead character is Rifka, head of the Justice department; his brother, Jeptha, is a politician.  The opening scenes of the story depict a conversation between Rifka and the Director; it seems the famous actress Rifka and Jeptha have been boning ("He had had the actress in a hundred ways after Jeptha had gotten rid of her and there had been moments so pure, so vaulting, so pornographic and yet spiritual in their content that he had gasped") is going to expose her affairs with the brothers to Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell!  (Unlike the four main characters, Hopper, Winchell, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Daley, and Adlai Stevenson bear their real life names.)  The "Director," who has some level of control over the brothers because of his vast collection of "files" of compromising info, is apparently going to have the actress murdered before she can spill the beans; Rifka is uncomfortable being a party to this atrocity, but Jeptha seems to cold-bloodedly support the idea.

The second part of the story takes place over a year later, while the third and final is later still; these scenes concern the murders of Jeptha and then Rifka, which occur in essentially the same fashion as the real life murders of JFK and RFK, with the additional suggestion that the Director is behind the assassinations.

One has to wonder what the point is of just regurgitating in garbled form shopworn rumors and theories about historical events as Malzberg does here.  Well, "The Intransigents" first appeared in the anthology Solved, which bears the description "Wherein great mystery writers crack classic unsolved crimes;" I guess Malzberg just wrote this story to fit the book's theme.  Can't blame a guy for trying to make a buck, but you don't have to pretend that work produced under such conditions is of high merit if it isn't.

The Hitler story we talked about today seemed to have a provocative point to make, and to explore some relationships I don't hear about constantly, but as far as I can see, Malzberg here in "The Intransigents" has nothing interesting or new to say about the Kennedys, Monroe or Hoover, people we hear about all the time--Barry just says stuff we've heard already; the dubious value he adds is making it all a little harder to understand via such strategies as leaving out famous names and refusing to put quotation marks around the dialogue.  I admit that I still find Hitler sort of interesting and am sick to death of hearing about the Kennedys, so maybe I am biased, but I feel justified in giving "The Intransigents" a thumbs down, regardless.

"Hieratic Realignment" (1999)

The cover of the issue of Amazing Stories in which "Hieratic Realignment" made its debut inspired laughter here at MPorcius HQ, what with its efforts to attract the attention of those browsing the magazine rack with the logos for Star Wars and the computer game StarCraft, and the promise of some sort of celebration of, of all people, Hillary Rodham Clinton!  I certainly don't want to read "fiction set in the StarCraft universe" or speculations about the universe in which "our First Lady followed her earliest dreams" (Awwwwww.....) or a review of The Phantom Menace penned by a guy who "has been professionally involved with the Star Wars universe since 1986" (gee, I wonder if he'll tell us we should go see it?)  But maybe Barry's story is good and means this issue of Amazing wasn't just a steaming pile.

(I'll note here that in Amazing "hieratic" is spelled correctly while in In the Stone House it is misspelled in two different ways.  And I found two additional typos in the book version that are not in the magazine version.  Advantage, Amazing!  Come on, Arkham House!)

Today's Malzberg stories are written with the expectation that the reader brings to them some knowledge about, say, the Nazi party and World War II or the Kennedy brothers and their relationships with Marilyn Monroe and J. Edgar Hoover, and in this story it probably helps the reader to know a little about Lubavitch AKA Chabad.  Luckily, nowadays, wikipedia and google are right there if you don't. 

The leader of a New York City-based sect of ultra-orthodox Jews with subsidiary branches all around the world, an elderly rabbi considered by some of his followers to be the messiah, dies.  Before he expires he issues a prophecy that some members of the faction-ridden sect consider mere senile ramblings, that his successor will be an outsider, the man whom they will least expect to become their new leader.  A few years later, Blake, "a plucky guy," appears and talks his way into the vacant position.          

Installed as Rabbi and Messiah, Blake gets religion!  Has he been inhabited by the spirit of the dead rabbi, his predecessor?  And Blake is to be no mere timeserver as top Rabbi, but a reformer, a revolutionary!  He calls a meeting of all the faithful, and, on the spur of the moment, driven by his own life-long preoccupations, institutes his big reform--breaking down the barriers between the sexes that characterizes life in the sect and encouraging greater sexual activity!

"Hieratic Realignment" (AKA "Hieractic Realignment" AKA "Hierartic Realignment") is entertaining enough, but its ending is something of a letdown.  Throughout the story a miracle is foreshadowed--what will this miracle be?  The miracle that occurs is pretty small bore.  We today live in a sex-positive and feminist society, in which pornography is ubiquitous, readily available antibiotics, contraceptives, abortion, divorce and food stamps mean people who exercise no sexual restraint face little risk, the government has a special flag and a special month set aside to celebrate sexual minorities and puts its hand on the scale in favor of women when doing hiring, and encomia of women and vindication of all their choices is de rigueur.  So, making the ultra-orthodox sect in the story abandon its adherence to strict gender roles and sexual modesty is not much of a miracle--they are just conforming with the mainstream.  A real miracle, and a much more provocative climax and a real paradigm shift ending, would be if Blake's miracle was to force the rest of the world to abide by the ultra-orthodox Jews' version of sexual morality!

"The Only Thing You Learn" (1994)

"The Only Thing You Learn" is dedicated to Cyril M. Kornbluth.  Kornbluth has a high reputation, but I have very limited tolerance for left-wing satires, and so generally avoid Kornbluth's work, though in 2014 I did reread and blog about Kornbluth's most famous solo production, "The Marching Morons," attacking it on ideological and artistic grounds.

"The Only Thing You Learn" is a brief little vignette that draws on detective and espionage fiction for its style and atmosphere and is apparently set in a universe wracked by conflict between space empires, a struggle characterized by the interactions of secret agents who teleport between planets and time periods.  Written in the second person and the present tense, full of dialogue but bereft of quotation marks, the plot follows "you" as, following the detailed instructions of your masters, you enter a bar and meet a guy, I guess some kind of double agent or traitor or something, as well as some enemy aliens in disguise.  You leave an esoteric device with these jokers, and sprint away, thinking to teleport safely off this world, but as the device begins to work, triggering a holocaust ("the hundred years of fire"), you realize your masters have double crossed you and will not teleport you off the planet.

I guess "The Only Thing You Learn" is that you are at the mercy of the powerful who consider you nothing more than an expendable tool.

A mere trifle; OK, I guess.  "The Only Thing You Learn" made its debut in Universe 3, and was selected for inclusion in 2013's The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.   


A hostile critic might look at these five stories and point out that they are all derivative, each of them a reworking or just rehashing of real life events, or an effort to recreate the feeling generated by other art forms or genres of popular literature through absurdity or pastiche.  In Malzberg's defense, we champions of the man can argue that all art is derivative in this way at some level, and of these five 1990s stories only "The Intransigents" is actually bad, because Malzberg does so little to add to or transform the material, while "Hitler at Nuremberg" is challenging and offers engaging speculations and characters, "Concerto Academico" charmingly evinces Malzberg's sincere love of a dying art form, and "Hieratic Realignment" and "The Only Thing You Learn" are sort of entertaining.              
More Malzberg in our future, but we'll be doing something different next time.  See you then!

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Barry N. Malzberg: "On the Air," "Here, for Just a While," "In the Stocks" and "The Man Who Married a Beagle"

In our last episode we read a sex novel by Barry N. Malzberg that is a satire of both mid-century middle-class people's lives and academics' bogus efforts to interpret such lives, 1971's In My Parents' Bedroom.  After that I reread Horizontal Woman (1972), a sex novel that is a satire of the public welfare system and liberals' attitudes about the poor and ethnic minorities* that includes unflattering portraits of an Hassidic Jew, a teenaged African-American thief, an unemployed Latino, a Holocaust survivor who is a slumlord, an African-American civil servant who sexually harasses his subordinate, and a novice social worker with a head full of psychological theories whose campaign to buoy the self-esteem of men on the dole revolves around letting them have sex with her.  Horizontal Woman is a lot better than In My Parents' Bedroom, a brisk fun read with an actual climax and a main character who evolves that confronts the reader on almost every page with a line that will take him aback.

*"Elizabeth reminds herself of what she should always have been aware; that Willie really has the mind of a twelve-year-old.  That is all he is, all that most of them are: not only sick but retarded."

I'm going to continue this Malzberg mini-marathon with some short stories drawn from the 1980 collection The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady.  As an inveterate cheapo, I am reading the scan of the first hardcover edition available at the internet archive, but all you moneybags out there should know that the good people at Stark House in 2021 published in paperback an omnibus edition of The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady and 2000's In the Stone House.  (MPorcius superfans are well aware that I own a hardcover copy of In The Stone House and have slowly been working my way through its stories--check out my blog posts about its first half or so at these links: one  two  three  four.)

Today we attack the first four stories in The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, all of which debuted in the late 1970s, when your humble blogger was just a mere wee lad.

"On the Air" (1976)

"On the Air," which doesn't mention Mozo, first appeared in Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions 6, and Silverberg liked it enough to include it in The Best of New Dimensions in 1979.

"On the Air" is told in the present tense, has some stream of consciousness elements and starts in the second person but shifts to first person.  The story has odd punctuation and no capital letters, and on this score Malzberg pulls some ambiguous "meta" recursive comedy on us--the narrator of the story explains that his typewriter is broken so he can't use capital letters and that we readers shouldn't assume the lack of them is an ambitious artistic choice, an effort "to reproduce typographically the feeling of anonymity of the caller in live-show radio and how oppressed and small they feel...."

The narrator relates how he telephoned a late night radio talk show and claimed to be able to fly to Venus and other planets, and offers theories about what his story might symbolize, theories he dismisses.  In his little afterword, Malzberg explains the genesis of the story, brags he wrote it in one hour, and offers an additional theory on what the story is "about," which he treats almost as dismissively as his narrator treats the theories proposed within the text; Malzberg also offers some clues about his relationship with Silverberg.


"Here, for Just a While" (1978)

This one was first printed in Fantastic, where on page 116 its title appears as "Here for Just a While," no comma, though the comma is included on the table of contents page.  (Copyediting is hard.)  (Incidentally, page 51 is a full page ad for a Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set that includes geomorphs, something classic TSR fans may want to check out.)  In his afterword to the story, Malzberg tells us that he has revised the story for book publication here in The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, and admits to being proud of it, suggesting it is the best of all his many assassination stories.

"Here, for Just a While," consists of six little chapters.  Half concern the second-person protagonist, who is apparently Jewish and has left behind a failed marriage and a failed career.  He is having a casual affair with a married woman who it is hinted looks like Jackie Onassis; the narrator wishes this relationship was put on to a firmer and more regular basis, but Jackie won't have it.  Chapters One, Three and Six take place in a little bedroom in which hangs prominently a painting of the crucified Christ and where "you" has sex with the woman.  When "you" realizes his lover has other men in her life, he draws a revolver.  Does he shoot her?  It is not really clear.

Chapters Two, Four and Five take place in a medium-sized town in Indiana where there is a parade being held for three astronauts who have returned from a mission to Mars.  Jackie's psychopathic husband, a serial killer, is perched on a rooftop, waiting for the astronauts' car to roll into view so he can murder them with his "hand rifle."  "Hand rifle" is an odd locution, but I guess Malzberg didn't want us to think the maniac was going to try to assassinate the spacemen with a 16-inch gun like those on an Iowa-class battleship.  (In Fantastic, the weapon is a "hand-rifle," with an extra little dash or hyphen.)  Will the killer succeed in murdering the astronauts and getting publicity for his unspecified political ideas?

This story is OK, a sort of jumble of many recurring Malzberg themes: the murder of JFK; unfulfilling erotic relationships; the impossibility of successful space exploration (it is made clear the astronauts were pressed to the limit psychologically by their trip to Mars); whether life is futile or people can accomplish things; an invisible and perhaps illusory being who talks to a character who is insane; the Jewish and Christian religions.  Malzberg doesn't actually have much to say about these themes here, and there is not much that is conclusive, surprising or funny about the story.  Malzberg seems to think this is one of his best stories because "it is all feeling," but I'm finding it merely acceptable.      

"In the Stocks" (1977)

Here we have a better story than its two predecessors, one with a real plot, a character who evolves, and even an interesting image, a story that takes standard Malzberg themes of sexual dysfunction, an invisible and likely illusory interlocutor and oppressive society/government and actually does something with them instead of just pro forma presenting them the way Malzbergian hobby horses are just paraded in front of you in "Here, for Just a While."

The narrator lives in an industrial city that is a colony of homosexuals with a sort of authoritarian or totalitarian government.  The narrator is repeatedly visited by an attractive woman named Georgina who tries to seduce him and spur him to perform sexually with her: "I am going to convert you to the pleasures of heterosexuality."  Georgina, the narrator supposes, is an agent from "the Capitol" sent to disrupt the gay colony.  The narrator becomes depressed and confused--is he horrified and disgusted by Georgina, or fascinated and aroused?--and unable to function sexually with the man who is his "selected partner," Kenny.  Brought before "the Group," he is told Georgina and "the Capitol" are not real, and exiled to a subterranean region.  To what extent is the narrator insane, and to what extent the victim of the political machinations and lies of the gay colony's rulers and the (perhaps nonexistent) Capitol?       

In his afterword, Malzberg talks about the publication history of "In the Stocks," its place in his body of work, and also about the controversial Roger Elwood, who commissioned the story, but didn't end up publishing it.  The story itself is better than average, and this afterword has more valuable information than most of Malzberg's afterwords.  

Thumbs up for "In the Stocks."

"In the Stocks" ended up being published in Silverberg's New Dimensions 7 and, in my opinion, should have been in the Best of instead of "On the Air."  

"The Man Who Married a Beagle" (1977)

This one is written in a pretty straightforward conventional style, and has many of the plot elements of conventional mainstream fiction about divorce (we even get the phrase "the death of feeling in the suburban middle class"), something Malzberg more or less admits (the narrator relates that while explaining his divorce to his sons he suspected that "I was becoming every male character in every story and film about divorce with children that I had ever been exposed to.")  The wacky unconventional element of the story is right there in the title--the 41-year-old narrator abandons his wife and children and moves to Manhattan in order to spend more time with the dog he is secretly having sex with, and eventually finds a woman cleric who was ordained through the mail by some cult in California to pronounce him and the canine "man and wife."

The punchline is that after a while the narrator gets sick of the dog and plots to abandon it as callously as he abandoned his human wife.

In his afterword Malzberg tells us he thinks this is one of his ten best short stories, and relates how he tried to sell it to The New Yorker (they told him the joke was old); in the event it appeared in Fantastic

"The Man Who Married a Beagle" is not bad, and is easier to understand than most of Malzberg's productions, but it isn't terribly funny or surprising.  Acceptable.    


"In the Stocks" is the big winner here, but there are no actual failures.  More short stories by the sage of Teaneck in the next exciting episode of MPorcius Fiction Log. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

In My Parents' Bedroom by Barry N. Malzberg

The idea of fucking in the bedroom of my parents has seized me with such tenacity that I can barely keep my tread straight, although at the same time I know now that Joanne is evil and that she is out to destroy me.

Here we have a novel written in 1969 by the great Barry N. Malzberg, the sage of Teaneck, in its 2021 Stark House paperback edition, in which it appears with Malzberg's 1968 Oracle of the Thousand Hands.  (We read an excerpt of Oracle of the Thousand Hands back in 2020, when we discussed--at times with shock and dismay--erotica by major speculative fiction writers including Samuel R. Delany, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Silverberg.)  My Stark House edition includes afterwords by Malzberg that may be of interest to students of Malzberg's work and genre literature in general, with their revelation that In My Parents' Bedroom has autobiographical elements and Malzberg's offhand remarks about other components of his large corpus and about other SF writers like Robert Heinlein and Laurence Janifer.

Both In My Parents' Bedroom and Oracle of the Thousand Hands were first published by Olympia Press, In My Parents' Bedroom in 1971, and are ostensibly sex novels, marketed to people looking for erotica.  There are some sex scenes in In My Parents' Bedroom, and one of the novel's themes is the difficulty and disappointment attendant on sexual relationships, but the book is not particularly titillating or stimulating--it has bigger fish to fry, being a satire of mid-century middle-class family life, but (to my mind, at least) more importantly a satire of academics, their view of the past, and their self-important and ultimately sterile "work," as well as a rumination on the impossibility of anybody truly understanding the past or other people.  The scholars in the novel are obsessed with inconsequential minutiae and argue passionately about unknowable details, including the states of mind of people they have never met, basing their assertions on the flimsiest of evidence; their claims and questionable insights expose more about themselves than about their purported subjects.  In My Parents' Bedroom also has some science fictional elements; near its end we get a "meta" passage about science fiction, and the entire novel paints a faint and oblique portrait of an "enlightened" and "liberated" future society through the expedient of revealing the future people's own prejudices and attitudes in how they talk about the middle of the 20th century, as well as allusive but mysterious references to "ruins."   

"At this time, however, she was a virgin which added, as you can imagine, not only to her guilt, but to that uneasy feeling of excitement which she interpreted as a distant warmth working through her thighs and toes and even parching the nipples of her invisible breasts, which were well concealed under several layers of the dress of that period."

Malzberg fans will not be surprised to learn that this novel is told in the present tense by an unreliable narrator.  Our narrator this time around is Michael Westfield, and he is on a guided tour of a meticulously preserved/rebuilt American one-family house of the middle of the 20th century.  Michael is suffering some severe memory loss--for example, he is accompanied on the tour by his girlfriend, but as the novel begins he can't remember her name, how they met, or the contours of their relationship.  One thing he does know, something that he strives to keep from his girlfriend, the other tourists in the group, and especially the tour guide--the house they are touring is his own childhood home, where he grew up with his parents and sister, and which he hasn't seen in twenty years or so.  As the novel progresses Michael regains some of his memory (his girlfriend's name, Joanne; he and his sister's incestuous sex play) but we also are offered reasons to doubt Michael is who he says he is and that the narrative describes anything beyond the hallucinations or dreams of an unhappily married man.

"Oh, why did we take this tour Michael?  It's so depressing!  These people lived so horribly.  How could people live like this and not kill themselves?"

In My Parents' Bedroom is meant to be funny, and on the tour are some wacky characters.  There is a screaming albino child who is painfully bored by the tour, to which his fat mother and skinny father have dragged him.

"I don't understand this," the albino child says suddenly in a high, whining, rather dreadful voice.  "I don't understand any of this and I don't like it; it has nothing to do with me, why did we come here?  I'm bored, it's all too terrible, let's go somewhere and get an ice cream cone or something else."

(One wonders if this albino child represents the rational response of the ordinary person to being subjected to government-approved history lessons from arrogant and absurd taxpayer-subsidized intellectuals, lessons which do not enrich your life or understanding but just waste your time and make you feel bad.) 

"The tenants in this 'living' room were not so much 'living' as merely 'existing,'" the guide says, running a small hand over the gate, "and indeed some of the eminent philosophers and writers of their time took this one step further to say that actually this was not the case either but that they were in all likelihood 'dying.'"

There is a homosexual couple ("two teenagers in Edwardian dress,") one of whom is a grad student ("the scholar" or "the Ph.D candidate") whose area of study is the sex life of Michael's father and who gets in totally pointless but quite heated arguments with the tour guide, an old man who is repeatedly described as a "civil servant," an opportunity for Malzberg--former employee of the New York welfare department--to poke fun at one of his conventional targets: government workers.  

"Come now," the scholar is saying, "there is absolutely no question of anal fixation whatsoever.  I find it crude, base and completely uninformed of you to make those suggestions.  People of that generation had a far less restricted attitude toward the bathroom function than do you or I, that is all.  They performed their needs simply."

There is not much plot to In My Parents' Bedroom.  The tour proceeds through the house.  Joanne and Michael twice sneak off to have sex in Michael's parents' bed; Joanne initiates these couplings, but is not satisfied by them.  Joanne goes off with an employee of the museum, and in the climax of the novel it is suggested she may have had sex with this other guy.  In this climax Michael's true identity is revealed to the other people on the tour, but then we are given the idea that the whole thing is moot.

I'm a Malzberg fan, but I am going to have to call In My Parents' Bedroom one of his lesser works.  I started it with the hope that it would be as fun and funny as Underlay or The Horizontal Woman or Everything Happened to Susan (AKA Cinema), but found it somewhat tedious and quickly got bogged down and kept putting it aside to focus on my other hobbies, like working on my model trains or reading NSFW comics about the challenging emotional lives of Japanese high school girls.  The jokes are not bad, but they aren't great, there is almost no plot and almost no dramatic tension, and, word-for-word, quite little ideological or philosophical content.  (Compare to a novel like Herovit's World, which had a surfeit of literary criticism and human relationship stuff for me to sink my teeth into.)   

To be fair to Malzberg, it does seem like after 1000 blog posts (!) that my interest in reading fiction and blogging about it has waned a bit.  ("It's not you, Barry--it's me.")  Also, looking back on the novel having read it, trying to process what it was all about and flipping through its 110 or so pages looking for quotes to buttress my claims, is proving to be more fun and intriguing than was actually reading it front to back.  

I'm going to grade this novel "acceptable" and warn prospective readers that In My Parents' Bedroom is real modern-type literature, consisting of dirty jokes, long descriptions of psychological states and bootless philosophical argumentation, all of it unreliable, contradictory and ambiguous--a big theme of the novel is human inability to really know anything--and very little plot development or action.  It really threatens to become the kind of boring and depressing experience it seems to be satirizing.  Not bad, but there are over a dozen superior Malzberg novels out there, running the gamut from SF to horror to mainstream so I would steer readers to them and only recommend In My Parents' Bedroom to grizzled Malzberg veterans interested in exploring every nook and cranny of our hero's vast body of work.          

"I don't think your question makes any sense," the Ph.D. candidate says, flicking some imagined dust off a sleeve.  "Of course she enjoyed it.  In those unfortunate times women were objects and those responses which were expected were elicited.  Rather we should concern ourselves--"

"Some Coke with ice," the albino says, "and let's go for a walk.  It's so boring!  It doesn't have anything to do with anyone!"

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Fantastic Story, Fall 1951: Hamilton, Gallun, Oliver, & Reynolds

A few days ago, a knowledgeable SF fan, in a comment to one of my blog posts about Edmond Hamilton, pointed out a bunch of SF stories by important writers which share plot elements with Hamilton's "Fassenden's Worlds," a story we read in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen.  One of these stories was another Hamilton, 1935's "The Cosmic Pantograph."  Sam Merwin, Jr. reprinted "The Cosmic Pantograph" in 1951 in Fantastic Story, alongside new stories by three men we sometimes read here at MPorcius Fiction Log, Raymond Z. Gallun, Chad Oliver, and Mack Reynolds.  So, let's take a little trip to 1951 and read these four stories.  This is a suspenseful blog post, as I often--but not always!--find Oliver and Reynolds' work to be offensive as ideology and/or deplorable as literature.

"The Cosmic Pantograph" by Edmond Hamilton (1935)

"The Cosmic Pantograph" was the cover story for an issue of Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories, and it is a fun sense-of-wonder speculative piece conceived on the grandest of scales.

A few years ago Felton was a college student; one of his professors, Robine, had a habit of lecturing on the nature of the universe, reminding his students that one day the sun would grow cold, that eventually the entire universe will grow cold as all the stars die, and that mankind would thus be doomed.  Felton, the optimist, insisted that ever-innovative mankind would figure out a way to endure any such challenge.

Today, Robine has summoned Felton to his mansion with the promise that his former will pupil will be able to see the end of the human race!  Robine's huge basement contains a tremendous and complex machine--a machine which can detect the vibrations of every single atom in the universe, catalog them, and then reproduce them in tiny size inside a big metal sphere.  In this sphere, the machine can create another universe identical to the real universe, but much smaller!  Endorsing the determinist philosophies of such men as Spinoza and d'Holbach, Robine says that since the duplicate universe is identical to the real universe, its history will follow exactly the same course as the real universe.  Critically, because it is so much smaller, time moves more quickly in the duplicate universe, millions of years passing in one minute.  This means that Felton and Robine can observe the duplicate universe through electromicroscopes and watch the inevitable future unfold!  Will the natural decay of the stars lead to the extinction of mankind, or will Man triumph over this cosmic adversity and endure? 

Thumbs up for this effort to blow your mind and teach you various philosophical and astronomical principles.  "The Cosmic Pantograph" doesn't seem to have been printed a third time in the language of William Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson, but our friends over in Germany recognized its merit and republished it in a magazine in 1959 and in an anthology with a Frank Frazetta cover in 1974.

"Trail Blazer" by Raymond Z. Gallun (1951)   

We've been reading Raymond Z. Gallun since late 2013, and looking at the archives I see ten blog posts with the tag "Gallun" that cover 14 (or 15, I guess*) stories:

*Yes, without realizing it I read two slightly different versions of "Dav(e)y Jones' Ambassador," in 2013 the original 1935 magazine version and in 2022 a 1999 anthology version, a testimony to my poor memory.

I liked almost all of these stories, and Andre Norton chose to include "Trail Blazer" in her anthology Space Pioneers, so we have every reason to expect I will like "Trail Blazer."

"Trail Blazer" is a good adventure story, and also provides grist for the mills of all you people out there interested in identity politics, decolonization, subaltern studies, and all that, because at the center of the story Gallun places a sympathetic Native American character.  Joe Whiteskunk is more or less the hero of the story, but his halting English and subordinate status may rankle the sensibilities of the more  advanced 21st-century readers, and I cannot deny that Joe is portrayed as a strange and inscrutable "other" who has access to knowledge and abilities out of reach of white people.

Our narrator is Dave the engineer, a recent college graduate; his twin brother Frank has also recently secured an engineering degree.  Their father has recently died, leaving the twins the family's southwestern ranch, from which they can see the rockets taking off that are carrying adventurous young men to the new lunar colony.  Frank and the narrator are eager to join the space colonization effort, but what to do about Joe Whiteskunk, the beloved farmhand who taught them how to shoot and to ride, but is sixty-five years old and maybe a little dimwitted, or at least perplexed by modern life?  Joe wants to come with the boys into space, but of course that is impossible--or is it?

Like something in a kid's adventure story, or on the news when the United States abandons its friends in Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban, Joe takes the dangerous expedient of stowing away in the unheated cargo hold of the rocket that carries Dave and Frank to the Moon.  Somehow the Indian survives this ordeal--it is implied that, as a primitive man in touch with the natural world, he has instinctual wisdom that saved him.  Anyway, Joe Whiteskunk, unlettered senior-citizen Indian, is on the moon among all the college grads, scientists and soldiers.  At first the brass wants to send him back home, but when they realize Joe is an expert tracker, they enlist him in the effort to investigate some mysterious marks on the lunar surface that Joe calls "devil tracks."  

Joe leads the brothers and a military officer around the lunar surface, following the tracks, and they discover physical evidence that thousands of years ago the Moon was a battleground fought over by Martians and the natives of the asteroid belt, then an intact planet.  Gallun presents this ancient war which lead to the destruction of the planet between Mars and Jupiter as a cautionary tale for readers living through tensions between the Western democracies and the communist tyrannies of the East.*  

Joe recovers all manner of technological and cultural treasures left on Luna by the Martians and Asteroidians, and then, on a solo mission, disappears.  Months later Dave and Frank are selected for the crew of a joint US-Soviet mission to Mars; there is an accident and it looks like they will die on Mars.  But then Joe Whiteskunk shows up to save them!  The cause of Joe's disappearance was his discovery, and then accidental activation, of a Martian spaceship!  The ship's automatic systems brought him from the Moon to the Red Planet where his fieldcraft, and use of ancient Martian technology, enabled him to survive, and proves to be the salvation of the twins and their comrades.

The story ends on a positive note as the West and the Reds work together to colonize Mars and Dave has hopes Earthmen will succeed in exploring the galaxy peacefully and avoiding the catastrophic fate of the warring Martians and Asteroidians.

Thumbs up! 

*Gallun never uses words like "communism" or "the Soviet Union" but makes it clear who he means.  

"The Reporter" by Chad Oliver

I've read quite a few stories by Oliver over this blog's life, and many times Oliver has made me groan with his denunciations of modern life and romanticizing of life as a stone age savage.  (Links to sample groans: "Rite of Passage;" "The Marginal Man.")  Well, Oliver is making me groan again, this time because "The Reporter" is a lame "meta," "recursive" joke story.  Thumbs down!

George Hartley is a journalist on Mars.  When Terrans first explored and colonized Mars, there were plenty of stories for Hartley to write about, but it turned out that the native Martian civilization was extinct and there is now no excitement, so Hartley hates his job, wishes he was on Venus where there are lots of monsters and intelligent natives to write about, and spends his time in a booze hall smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey.

Another journalist, a photographer, introduces himself to Hartley and they drink and smoke together and moan about how hard it is to be a journalist.  Hartley tells a long story, paraphrasing another reporter's final dispatch before losing his job.  Oliver makes it explicit that the story this third journalist filed and which ruined his career is a parody of a traditional SF adventure story; Hartley suggests the disgraced reporter made up the story, basing it on old SF magazines.  The story was about how the reporter discovered that the Martians were not in fact extinct at all, but, because they are peaceful types unable to kill, were hiding from the human colonizers in an underground city; the reporter was shown around their subterranean metropolis and in his story wrote at length about their technology.

The obvious central joke of "The Reporter" is that the disgraced reporter's story was all true, and the man who introduced himself to Hartley as a photographer is in fact a Martian reporter who has come to the surface to collect material for an article of his own.  

A waste of time--at least Oliver's stories about how we would be happier with no books and no industry push some kind of controversial ethos that readers can engage with; this story is just a feeble in-joke for SF fans.  "The Reporter," understandably, has never been reprinted.    

"Displaced Person" by Mack Reynolds (1951)

Reynolds is a leftist among whose claims to fame are the facts that he based much of his science fiction on speculations about political economy and that he was very widely travelled and wrote travel articles for men's magazines.  To me, his writing generally seems pretty lame, but he was a success, often appearing in Astounding and even coming in first in some kind of survey of readers of Galaxy and If.  (Sample my attacks on Reynolds' work and my jocular commentary on his wild and crazy career at these links: Commune 2000 A.D., "Revolution," "Freedom," "Subversive," and "Pacifist," "Compounded Interest," "The Business, As Usual," "Your Soul Comes C.O.D.," and "Fad.")  Like Oliver's "The Reporter," it seems that "Displaced Person" has never escaped the confines of the Fall 1951 issue of Fantastic Story, so again we find ourselves at MPorcius Fiction Log sampling the deep cuts!

"Displaced Person" doesn't have anything to do with utopias or socialism or economic systems, so is perhaps a rarity in Reynolds' body of work.  Instead, it is a competent filler story with a predictable twist ending.

Four veterans of wartime service in the space navy, pilots, are sitting around drinking.  There are actually only a small number of pilots in the space navy, so it is noteworthy that three of the men have never met the fourth.  The fourth explains why, telling what amounts to a little bit of military fiction.  

Flying a one-man patrol ship, he detected and was pursued into deep space, far from Earth, by the enemy.  He used up all his conventional fuel and all his food in the long chase, so he was basically doomed when the enemy gave up the chase--he had no safe way of getting back to a Terran base before he starved.  The only thing he could do was push the ship's warp drive to forbidden limits, so that he would exceed the speed of light, an act that is practically suicidal.

As was foreshadowed in discussions of this warp drive and the speed of light earlier in the story, the final twist is that this pilot, by exceeding the speed of light, propelled himself into another space-time continuum, the universe of the three other pilots, which is quite similar to his home universe.

Acceptable filler; better than a lot of Reynolds' work!


Hamilton and Gallun deliver good stories that speculate about the nature of human history and are full of science; Oliver and Reynolds just try to produce entertaining stories, and Reynolds at least doesn't embarrass himself.  

I think this is our sixth blog post in a row to focus on SF short stories.  Our next blog post will mix things up a bit, as we read a novel which I suspect will lack such conventional SF elements as space travel, black magic, the living dead, aliens and speculations on what the future will be like.  Stay tuned!