Paul Di Filippo reviews Barry N. Malzberg

Almost 500 short stories. Scores of novels, many written at imperishable white-heat and forged without blemish to last through the ages. (Many, of course, birthed otherwise, composed solely for a paycheck, with craftsmanship but little aspiration.) A significant body of award-winning criticism. All consummated mostly within the too-brief span from 1967 (first short story, “We’re Coming Through the Window,” in Galaxy) to 1985 (last SF novel, The Remaking of Sigmund Freud). (Not intending to minimize significant accomplishments post-’85, enough stories for a multi-chiang career.) A run longer than some other stellar names, yet of course much truncated when compared to such stalwarts as, oh, Pohl, Delany, Asimov, Sturgeon. Not that these points of comparison are intended to chart the same ideational or narrative storyspace Malzberg hewed from the void. That lurid, ecstatic, despairing, sardonic nighted realm remains his unique domain.

For readers and writers of Malzberg’s heyday, he was—and remains—a seminal figure without whom the entire shape of today’s field would be different. He might be said to occupy the same kind of USA niche that Ballard did in the UK at the same period. Published in the genre, but somewhat outside it, with a different slant of vision. But unlike Ballard in late career, Hollywood and the literary establishment did not come knocking at Malzberg’s door, and his own quasi-retirement precluded a continuing steady presence in bookstores and on award ballots. So a whole post-1985 cohort—several clades, really—have come to maturity without owning a firm sense of his accomplishments.

This injustice should be ameliorated somewhat with the publication of this fine volume, which constitutes as vital a brick in the vast edifice of fantastika as any collection in recent memory. Essential is the word. Some three dozen stories, all of them cohering into a consistent organic tapestry whose main threads are: derangement, deracination, ambition, art, war, the mediasphere, politics, the inevitably subjective pursuit of knowledge, and, most centrally, the essential stonewall limits of the universe and humanity’s reach therein. This review in its limited space cannot examine closely every one of these sterling contenders, so herewith the highlights.

Malzberg and publisher/editor Luis Ortiz smartly choose one of Malzberg’s finest, “A Galaxy Called Rome,” to kick off the book. This recursive, autobiographical, meditative “sketch of a story that becomes the story” concerns Lena, doomed starship captain falling into a gravitational well with her cargo of dead souls (cue Gogol here, as Malzberg’s stoic and melancholy umwelt resonates deeply with the Russian temperament). Turned into a novel, Galaxies, the book once sustained an entire panel discussion at Readercon, and the short version is nearly as deep.

“Final War” is Joseph Heller by way of Kafka. Published at the height of the Vietnam conflict, it instantly crystallized the whole Southeast Asian folly in jagged parable terms. Maddened soldiers surge back and forth across a meaningless patch of land, unable to escape their predicament even with knowledge of its absurdity. This theme—that even valid (self-)knowledge is often inutile in the face of karma and fate and character (a Classical sense of “hubris clobbered by nemesis,” which Brian Aldiss affirmed lay at the heart of SF)—haunts Malzberg’s fictions.

In line with the preoccupations of unindicted New Wave co-conspirator Norman Spinrad and his Bug Jack Barron, “Death to the Keeper” conflates political and media spheres of power, as we inhabit the scattershot mentality of a man intent on using television to recreate an assassination event.

“Leviticus: In the Ark” finds a future society that constrains a scapegoat figure inside the sacred precincts of a Jewish temple for devotional purposes. Affinities to the stories of Harlan Ellison crop up here, and elsewhere, and the two men often seem like cousins. Like so many of the tale in this volume, Malzberg’s examination of religion in this piece blurs the boundaries between adoration and obsession, holiness and deviltry. “Quartermain,” working along the same lines as Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, is an even more in-depth and astute dissection of belief systems.

Of course, his aficionados know that Malzberg and aliens go together like peanut butter and jelly. Perhaps only PKD conjured up better, more thematically effective ones. Using ETs as icons and mouthpieces, Malzberg still never omits their essential otherness. Psychodrama merges with Saganesque tangibility. “What I Did to Blunt the Alien Invasion,” “Blair House” and “Out from Ganymede” are just three of the top examples here.

Dealing with “The Great Matter of Science Fiction,” so to speak, Malzberg takes a derisive comment about our genre from Raymond Chandler and fashions a real story from it in “Playback.” Meanwhile, “Corridors” is the Death of a Salesman of science fiction, narrating the insults, abuses, shattered dreams and soured triumphs of its SF writer protagonist.

Malzberg’s facility with killer opening lines needs to be commented on. Many of them can stand as brilliant existential epigrams for his whole outlook. “Conditions are difficult and services are delayed.” (“Leviticus: In the Ark.”) “Ruthven used to have plans.” (“Corridors.”) The entire huge sentence-paragraph opening “The Lady Louisiana Toy,” which, by the way, finds Malzberg channeling Cordwainer Smith of all people, with insightful adoration. Along with other droll internal observations from within each story, these quotes could furnish a Little Red Book of Malzberg, a la Chairman Mao.

But I certainly don’t mean to neglect Malzberg’s acute sense of humor, black as the inside of Lena’s dark galaxy, yet still always providing that “laugh with the bubble of blood at the end.” A story like “Report to Headquarters,” with its outrageous alien glossary, is pure Woody Allen.

Malzberg’s political antennae are always vibrating to subtle currents. Besides its portrayal of aliens, “Blair House” inhabits President Harry Truman from the inside out, while “Kingfish” does the same for Huey Long. (One almost sees an affinity between Malzberg’s ventures along these lines and the alternate histories of Andy Duncan and Howard Waldrop.) This donning of the umwelts of others is also found in those stories which chart the strange destinies of various writers: “State of the Art” and “Morning Light,” among others.

Almost at the very end of the book comes “The Men Inside,” which might stand as the single piece which, if all else were destroyed in some apocalypse, could still convey Malzberg’s unduplicatable voice and vision. With its conflation of surreal ridiculousness (tiny humans shrunk in Fantastic Voyage fashion and put to work inside cancer patients), workplace angst, interpersonal traumas, societal rigidity and Hamlet-like self-awareness, the piece encapsulates all of Malzberg’s themes and tropes and voice. In fact, an observation made by the protagonist might stand for Malzberg’s own motto: “The job is a disaster in every conceivable way. But it is bad in a fashion which I did not understand; good in ways which I could not have suspected. One learns.”

And isn’t learning about the universe and one’s place in it what SF is all about?

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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