Barry Agonistes

June 24, 2013   •   By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg

Barry Malzberg

REMEMBER THAT OLD joke about the senior citizen driving down the freeway who gets a call from his wife warning him that some maniac is on the news driving the wrong way? In our world, the man responds that there isn’t just one such maniac going the wrong way, but hundreds, and we chuckle. In the universe of Barry Malzberg’s fiction, the joke might go something like this: after several moments of tense dialogue in which the man and woman reflect on their estrangement and lack of sexual compatibility, the driver puts down the phone while his wife is still talking, realizes that reality has somehow parallax-shifted into a world where people are indeed driving the wrong way — everyone except him — and then wonders whether, after years of untenable pressure, he hasn’t simply gone insane. Immediately thereafter he’s killed in a mordantly described head-on collision, and during his final moments of consciousness the narrative fractures into a few elliptical yet cutting ruminations on the existential meaninglessness of modern life. The joke, as this long overdue retrospective collection by Barry N. Malzberg makes painfully clear, is on us. And yet these thirty-two stories from the last four decades are crafted with such intensity, artistry, and originality that we somehow still manage to chuckle when we get to the punch line (or, in some cases, the knockout blow). 

Malzberg’s relationship with the SF field has always been contentious. Read these stories and you’ll see why. They’re full of depressed, unstable characters, often trapped in hopelessly decadent or insoluble situations that subvert the genre’s conventions or ignore them altogether. Malzberg excels at departing from and satirizing standard tropes or expectations such as the “competent hero” or the “hard SF puzzle story,” and for the unsuspecting reader that can be an upsetting experience. Andrew Butler’s recent study of 1970s science fiction, Solar Flares, characterizes Malzberg’s novels from this period (his heyday in terms of productivity) as “amphicatastrophic” — which is to say, narratives that are “neither cheering nor cathartic,” offer “neither escapism nor consolation.” This is also an accurate description of Malzberg’s short fiction.

Because Malzberg’s perspective on SF so heavily informs his approach to its composition, it’s worth discussing what that perspective is. An earlier non-fiction collection, the Hugo-nominated Breakfast in the Ruins, provides a thorough record of Malzberg’s experiences — disappointments, primarily — in SF, rendered through a series of painfully candid, often scathing essays. In the Introduction to that book, Malzberg claimed that “the history of science fiction is a history of failure,” and proceeded to acerbically flesh out that thesis for several hundred pages. In a way, his fiction furthers this same embittered view, and rarely has failure been so successfully and exquisitely wrought in fictional form — especially when Malzberg writes “recursive” pieces, stories that deconstruct the assumptions of the genre and castigate its practitioners for lack of talent, moral rectitude, and so on.

Malzberg began publishing genre short stories in the late 1960s and in 1973 gained notoriety by winning the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel Beyond Apollo, a savage critique of the manned space program. But this wasn’t the main reason that he became “the center of controversy throughout the 1970s,” notes Mike Resnick, editor of the 1994 collection The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg. Rather, observes Resnick, it was Malzberg’s fictionalized comments on SF itself that made him unpopular: “You can’t attack the dream without drawing screams of outrage, and Malzberg drew enough to last half a dozen lifetimes.”

The collection at hand includes three such recursive pieces: “A Galaxy Called Rome” from 1975 (later expanded into the novel Galaxies), “The Shores of Suitability” from 1982, and the Nebula-nominated “Corridors,” also from 1982. From the perspective purely of craft, “A Galaxy Called Rome” is admirable, for it performs the unlikely feat of both telling the far-future, conceptually dazzling story of Lena, pilot of a ship trapped in a gravitationally collapsed Black Galaxy, and simultaneously sharing with us metafictional observations on the story being penned (e.g. “This is not a novelette but a series of notes…”; “The novelette would lean heavily upon two articles by the late John Campbell…”). Besides this inherent technical accomplishment, the story also works on an aesthetic and emotional level: it manages to be evocatively gloomy, thought-provoking, moving, and quite funny.

A bedraggled writer who hopes to become an English assistant instructor is the protagonist of “The Shores of Suitability.” He finds himself having a nightmare about an exam in which he is confronted with questions about a novel he himself wrote years earlier under awful domestic conditions. Unable to parse the academic lingo of the questions, he must accept that his hackwork, ironically canonized, is now beyond his own means of explication, and perhaps always was. “Corridors” offers a truly despairing vision of the fictional middle-aged SF writer Ruthven Agonistes, who has attained commercial success but despises himself, his work, and the genre at large, while also lamenting his broken relationships with his wife and daughters. In a piece that reads more like an extended meditation than a story (it was originally published in the Hugo-nominated essay collection The Engines of the Night, a book later incorporated into Breakfast in the Ruins), Ruthven, mired in the “slow and terrible resentment which has built within him over almost three decades of commercial writing” comes to the realization that he can hold on only by repeating the nihilistic mantra “nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing matters.” Remembering an earlier, bleaker time in his life, Ruthven recalls that he “came to speculate that science fiction writing was a form of illness which, like syphilis, might swim undetected in the blood for years but would eventually, untreated, strike to kill.”

These recursive stories alone are worth the price of admission, but fortunately for us they represent just one of the many recurring story typologies to which Malzberg returns time and again. To be sure, it’s hard to think about Malzberg’s fictional oeuvre — some seventy-five novels in and out of genre, and about three hundred and fifty short stories — without invoking this idea of typologies or sub-categories. In the Introduction to this collection, Joe Wrzos provides a few such categorizations, like the aforementioned anti-manned-space-flight fiction and recursive stories, as well as “Alternative Writers & Co.,” “Alternate Kennedys,” and “meldings of dystopian, time travel, and religious ecstasy themes.” While these often overlapping groups provide a handle as convenient as any for discussing the collection’s standout pieces, I’d like to examine some of the more unifying forces and themes instead.

Malzberg has argued that the ways in which technology “will reshape the circumstances within which it operates” should be one of SF’s central preoccupations (see his essay “On Decadence” in Breakfast in the Ruins). His own stories certainly engage this question, often making explicit technology’s ubiquitousness. For example, two epistolary stories, the desperate-cry-for-attention “Agony Column” and the customer service satire “Most Politely, Most Politely,” respectively condemn the “technocracy which allows less and less latitude for the individual to articulate his own identity and vision” and depict the escalating “technological trap which seems to have seized us.”

Malzberg’s responses to these highly technological conditions are problematic and largely pessimistic. His characters often respond by longing for oblivion. In “The Wooden Grenade,” government agent Stein strokes the titular weapon during moments of stress, dreaming that he can pull its imaginary pin and “bring the fire: the consuming virgin fire in its purity”; he later imagines that the denizens of the condemned tenements he visits are “waiting, all of them, for the clean, the pure fire that would, by common destruction of all the cubicles of the city, liberate them from their unique disaster.” In “Out From Ganymede” astronaut Walker, who has been told by a space agency in severe decline that “you are but a piece in the machinery,” dreams in the story’s final scenes that “he sees the sky turn into fire, the fire into streaks which encircle and enflame everything which he has always known.” The second-person, present-tense, C.M. Kornbluth-dedicated “The Only Thing You Learn” culminates with the onset of apocalypse: “the hundred years of fire begin.” And in “Hop Skip Jump” Frank, a terrorist inspired by Old Testament writings on the prophet Zephaniah, is an active participant in the destruction; he “wallowed in the implication, in the fire, in the lush and splendid exercise of conflagration.”

Another response to pervasive technology in the present is to search for meaning by re-enacting or visiting the past. In two religiously themed works, “Quatermain” and the Locus award-nominated novella “Le Croix,” a combination of therapy, hypnosis, and simulation are orchestrated to offer a wholly immersive, first-person recreation of the life of Jesus Christ. In both cases, technology is the enabling, and perhaps ultimately consuming, force at work:

 This is no century for ambition. The machinery, the engines of the night have overtaken us all; it is best perhaps to give one’s will to them.” (“Quatermain”)

“It is a madly technocratic age, a madly technocratic age… Take away the technology and the planet would kill us… There is no way in which we can continue to be supported without the technology and the institutions….” (“Le Croix”)

Another form of re-enactment, this time theatrical, is the conceit of the presidential assassination story “To Mark the Times We Had.” In the Locus award-nominated “Shiva,” time traveler Sperber leaps from his native “post-technological 2218” to points along the timeline where he might emend history, but only ends up manifesting his own impotence to alter events. In 1923 Paris, for instance, he fails to convince Charles de Gaulle and Pol Pot that Algerian intervention will lead to catastrophe; and in 1963 Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, Kennedy disregards Sperber’s warning of an impending Dallas assassination. “Standing Orders” invents a “simulation therapy” that sees Luke Christmas playacting that he is Secretary of Defense, President of the United States, and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare on consecutive days. “Morning Light” presents a time travel tour of dead poets such as Sylvia Plath and Delmore Schwartz. Aliens interrogate account executive Winogrand regarding the 1970s, a decade of American history they can’t seem to grasp, in “Something from the Seventies”; and they continue pressing Winogrand for answers until he finally concludes that the human tendency towards a linear understanding of history is a fallacy. In the cross-temporal meeting between Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Ezra Pound, and Leo Tolstoy of “State of the Art,” technology is responsible for it being “very difficult to make any kind of permanent change in the landscape”; technology has likewise caused “the alienation effect which progressively separates men from the consequences of their acts.”

This last existential question, the struggle to understand the relationship between one’s actions and their consequences, proves to be of paramount importance in Malzberg’s short fiction. If we consider two well-regarded novellas, both of them later expanded into novels, we see two diametrically opposed answers, both of which carry equally daunting implications: “Everything matters. Even here [the Black Galaxy] there is consequence, causality, a sense of humanness, one of responsibility” (“A Galaxy Called Rome”); and “Nothing matters. None of it. All lies and small entrapment, manipulated cunning in the dark” (“The Men Inside”).

Realizing that one is entangled in a web of unavoidable causal relationships or, as actor-turned-President Anderson so effectively puts it, “Nothing ever ends. It replicates. It goes on and on” (“Anderson”), a society might well evolve by training its citizens into accepting their status as victims, a literalized necessity of urban existence in the violent future of “Tap Dancing Down the Highways and Byways of Life, Etc.” Another form of refuge from implacable forces might be to delay the inevitable reckoning, as does Harry Truman in the alternate history “Blair House.”

To many readers and writers such reactions to technology — self-destruction, flight, delayed confrontation — may seem overly pessimistic, in conflict with SF’s unique potential to imaginatively engineer inspiring futures. While Malzberg’s views may be heavily imbued with cynicism, I would argue that his stories are never composed in cynicism, and represent his best attempt to grapple with the problem of technology in a serious and sensitive manner. They are valid and interesting on those grounds alone.

To place Malzberg in the context of some of the SF writers who emerged or matured at the same time, we should remember that the 1970s was the decade in which Samuel R. Delany’s highly experimental novel Dhalgren was a bona fide best seller. Anti-technological sensibilities, a willingness to experiment, and a sense of profound political and psychic unrest permeate many of the works of the writers who gained renown during the New Wave period, writers such as J.G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Charles Platt, John Sladek, Norman Spinrad, Michael Moorcock, and Samuel R. Delany. Of these only Ballard, Moorcock, and Delany have been seriously embraced by readers, publishers, and academics. Robert Sheckley and Philip K. Dick are two other SF writers who, like Malzberg, are also highly idiosyncratic. Unlike him, they too have been, for lack of a better term, canonized. (Reviewing The Best of Philip K. Dick in 1978, Malzberg wrote that “Science fiction is a crazy form of literature … and it is impossible to do creative work of any kind in this genre unless one is at least in touch with one’s potential for insanity.” I don’t doubt that some readers will believe, reading The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, that the author may have been more in touch with that potential than even he realized.)

Part of the reason for Malzberg’s lack of widespread recognition by readers of SF, besides his outright denunciations of it in his essays and recursive stories, is likely that his fiction can ultimately come across as self-defeating. Peopled by anti-social or nihilistic characters who engage in sometimes graphically-depicted sex, often with disturbing and aberrant overtones, Malzberg’s key works convey a strong transgressive flavor. Then too, his fiction can hardly be accused of containing an abundance of strong female characters (Lena in “A Galaxy Called Rome” and Constanza in “Hop Skip Jump” are two of the present collection’s few exceptions). These elements may combine to simply make Malzberg’s stories too unpalatable for more than a select cadre of devoted readers and a handful of writers — like Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon — who have loudly championed his work over the years.

Outside of SF, Malzberg has fared even worse. Though in the New York Times Book Review he was described as “one of science fiction’s lost literate and erudite writers” by critic Gerald Jonas, and in a different issue of that same publication Joyce Carol Oates called his novel Guernica Night “poetic and philosophical,” his work has been largely ignored.

Malzberg has often included irreverent references to non-SF writers in his work (when he hasn’t brought them back to life outright). His novel Galaxies, for example, directly addresses John Cheever, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Oates. A few readers have found similarities or nods to these writers — and others such as Robert Coover and John Hawkes — in Malzberg’s novels. A recent Master’s thesis by Jeffrey Canino explores connections between the recursive texts of New Wave SF, primarily Malzberg’s, and the works of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. In my own view, the absurdism inherent in his 1968 story “Final War,” in which a company of soldiers, locked into perpetual combat with an enemy force on an enormous estate, advances on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Tuesdays and retreats on Fridays, Sundays, and Wednesdays, recalls the stalemate claustrophobia of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. In a few cases characters’ ersatz realities and disintegrating psyches also recall Dick’s work, with a little Kafkaesque bureaucratic red tape thrown in for good measure. But, on the whole, most such comparisons have escaped contemporary criticism.

All of which is truly a shame, because The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg is an indispensable collection by one of the field’s most original practitioners.

And, since Malzberg selected the stories, it’s also of interest as a statement of his perceptions about his work. An earlier collection from 1976, The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, contained only stories from the early-to-mid 1970s. (To be fair, Malzberg has written that this book was issued with “this dangerous title far too early”). By contrast, the earliest offering of the new collection, “The Wooden Grenade,” is from 1967, and the most recent, “The Men’s Support Group,” from 2003.

This broader chronological range invites us to seek out trends. It makes it easy to notice, for instance, that a representative fraction of Malzberg’s stories are, and always have been, only liminally SF (the two mentioned in the previous paragraph, for example). His point-of-view characters also tend to share similar broad characteristics, regardless of when a story was written. In an essay on Malzberg’s novels published in 1991 in Science Fiction Studies, David A. Layton noted that “protagonists in Malzberg’s fiction are usually unable to handle the problems that face them; often they are unable to handle even the most basic problems of day-to-day living.” This interior struggle usually takes center stage and, perhaps more predominantly in stories from the 1990s onward, causes the framing speculative elements to recede into the background or fade from view completely. Throughout this collection we repeatedly encounter characters who are “insane,” “megalomaniac,” suffer from “neurasthenia,” “psychosis,” “arithmomania,” “estrangement,” “paralysis,” and so on. All these unstable mindscapes provide fecund territory for technical devices, which Malzberg uses with relish. For example, he adroitly switches between first-person and third-person to convey the phenomenon of depersonalization; his overly formalized dialogues mockingly leave the characters that speak them bereft of the very seriousness to which they aspire; and his handling of reported speech is masterful. In the earlier work, especially, he overtly pokes fun at Freudian interpretations of human behavior, sexual or otherwise, as for example in “As Between Generations,” when a son and father take turns at “running” one another, or regarding the Black Galaxy of “A Galaxy Called Rome,” which Malzberg’s authorial persona warns will be described as “some ultimate vaginal symbol of absorption whose Freudian overcast will not be ignored in the imagery of this story.” Perhaps there’s a greater tendency in recent works to adopt a more poetic, obliquely descriptive style, and to revel in greater narrative compression and subtlety. As he gets older Malzberg seems to be clamoring a little less. Also, stories from the two most recent decades appear less heavily autobiographical in concern and sensibility, more fanciful in their posited futures.

Still, ignoring my general caveats about Malzberg’s fiction, this collection isn’t quite perfect. As exciting as it is to see included lesser-known items such as “The Men’s Support Group” and “Morning Light,” it’s puzzling that some of the better-known, critically-respected stories have been omitted. “In the Stone House,” the lead of a previous eponymous collection, and “Understanding Entropy,” were both Hugo nominees, the latter also a Nebula nominee, and seem significant enough to have been included here even though they are available elsewhere; the same may be said of “Gehenna,” reprinted in numerous anthologies, and “Uncoupling,” included in volume 4 of James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction; “Ship Full of Jews” and “Hitler at Nuremberg” were both Locus Award nominees; and “Heavy Metal,” a compelling alternate Kennedy story, is one that Malzberg considered among his finest in the late 1990s. The order of the stories seems a bit haphazard. The Introduction praises a few stories not included in the collection. And there are no accompanying autobiographical notes (for which, I’m sure, some readers will be thankful).

And yet there’s no question that this collection rattles the bones. The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg does exactly what I hoped it would: it summons up the very worst apocalyptic nightmares, terrifying satirical visions, and anguish-ridden characters that SF readers are ever likely to encounter, in a myriad of consistently paranoid, often deeply funny, and technically audacious stories. About ten years ago, with his characteristic joie de vivre, Malzberg wrote: “I can see my own career as nothing so much as a 35 year affliction.” Now, at last, we can partake in that affliction.