The Future, Darkly

Science fiction author Barry Malzberg's failed but brilliant attempts to win literary glory.

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It's a cri de coeur against U.S. foreign policy, declaring that America's "latter days I now suspect are going to be filled with such difficulty." It ends with one character from the small group who narrate the tale being written off by her friends because she starts telling them "we're all killers, we set this up," only to have them rebuff her: "We are decent, we are good, we are sensible people." The story ends as they conclude that their former friend, after spouting her nonsense, "was almost impossible to tolerate, and no matter how great our ingestion of palliatives, she still appeared ugly."

Malzberg often plays with authority, bureaucracy, and the machine—literally and metaphorically--driving men crazy. One story here, "The Wooden Grenade," seems clearly derived from his days as a social worker in New York City in the late '60s. The theme of state and citizen, authority and the ruled, each thinking the other mad, dances through many of his stories. In one of two stories in this book about a future man using technology to recapitulate Jesus' life, 1980's "Le Croix," the malcontent protagonist is told by a well-meaning bureaucrat that "you can't make the state the repository of all your difficulties, the rationalizing force for your inadequacies. The state is a positive force in all your lives and you have more personal freedom than any citizenry at any time in the history of the world." This is a system that literally leaves this malcontent to die and rot on the cross.

For more hint of the flavors of this very rewarding book, there are samples of alternate political history, including Truman facing an alien invasion ("Blair House") and one that answers the burning question, what if Huey Long fought Adolf Hitler? ("Kingfish," a tale narrated by John Nance Garner.) Writers in the post-cyberpunk era have stepped up their game with hallucinatorially detailed futures that try to present nano-, bio, and supercomputerized lives and worlds spanning galaxies with more verve, well-considered detail, and apparent realism than anyone of Malzberg's era. The book's final story, a brain-busting galaxy- and century-spanning mock epic called "Lady Louisiana Toy" reads like nothing he's ever done and seems a reaction to that newest new wave of science fiction, one that seems to say: nice try, fellas, but still...

Given how perceptively and bitingly he's written of the desperate state of the writer in the marketplace, it is a bitterly appropriate Malzbergian joke that this book, the only collection of his stories in print, suffers incompetent scanning and proofing, with eye-stopping errors nearly every page, often multiple mistakes per page. Malzberg could write a darkly funny essay about it, ringing changes on "the circumstance and totality of the writer's grim position, striving against the engines of scanning, crushed by the savage heart of proofreading."

I've been in love with his work since my early adolescence; my first published book review was of his essay collection on the science fiction writer's life, The Engines of the Night. I was 14; the review was quoted on the paperback. But reading the new-to-me stories, re-reading the ones I read as a teen, Malzberg has lost nothing (or perhaps I've gained nothing): he's still incisive, heartbreaking, wildly imaginative, and darkly hilarious, and no one like him has come along. 

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  • sarcasmic||

    three o clock squirrelz!

  • canuhuv||

    This is actually the best job Ive had. I work at Home with Google. I've made $64,000 so far this year working online and I'm a full time student. Moreover, My Uncle Carson got a stunning gold Porsche Cayenne Hybrid only from working part time off a pc. Official website www.Pow6.com

  • Scarcity||

    Doherty has broken the Great Ekins Polling Blockadeof '13! Three cheers for Doherty!

  • Ted S.||

    Yeah, but it's an article about sci-fi.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Sure, there's no interest in science fiction among libertarians. I don't know why they'd post such a thing.

  • Killazontherun||

    For some of science fiction life stylers, this site is sometimes up to being a viable alternative to the PC and too often pop culture orientation of io9.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I find your criticism of io9 to be remarkably tepid and restrained. I invoke the name of Episiarch to properly trash that site.

  • Killazontherun||

    I don't visit often enough, close to never, to really hate them to the extent they deserve it. And, I'm trying to learn restraint. It doesn't feel quite right to me, but it is kind of an interesting experience.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I still read io9, but I find it's only the headlines, 90% of the time. Each click within the blog makes the pain worse--reading the article, accidentally reading a comment. Egad. It's like all science fiction distorted through some weird feminist, pop-culture lens.

  • Killazontherun||

    Feminist rhetoric has morphed into a bizarre dronespeak. What is it with its dominance of late? They don't sound smart, they sound insipid and rude. Clearly the upcoming generation will need to be wiped out if it isn't contained, otherwise the human race is going to need a fresh start to get back on track.

  • SugarFree||

    this site is sometimes up to being a viable alternative to the PC and too often pop culture orientation of io9.

    HOW DARE YOU NOT WORSHIP DR. WHO!

  • Rasilio||

    Cause I've been appointed high priest in the church of Dr Horrible and that gives me better access to chicks.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Never give up your manhood to get women. Never.

  • Killazontherun||

    I thought a lengthy quote from Farscape yesterday would clear me from being considered a splitter for at least a week.

  • db||

    "I don't...believe you."

  • Ska||

    Lesbian Hipster Glasses and Lightning Bugs is one of his greatest short stories.

  • Goldwin Smith||

    I'm more interested in the social, scientific, bioethicist, ecological and cultural implications of breaking the warp barriers and turning into giant horny salamanders.

  • Pro Libertate||

    It would be fun to take that episode seriously, except that it would be abhorrent to do so.

  • Bardas Phocas||

  • db||

    Cowabducta, dude!

  • Killazontherun||

    A neighbor found a cow carcass in a gully in the woods adjacent to his property a few months back and it was clearly butchered for it meat. Likely came from the ranch a mile up from him and the poachers hauled it to the most remote spot around. Aliens tend to do that.

  • Killazontherun||

    clearly butchered for its meat.

  • Robert||

    They got steak houses in outer space? Or just burger joints? Are they scarfing up potatoes & mushrooms too?

  • Bill||

    Poke fun if you want, but when their experiments on the animal flesh are successful, you won't be laughing.

  • Killazontherun||

    Malzberg may not have been the best of them, but he is my favorite. He combines a deep appreciation of the genre with a critical eye to its defects and absurdities, and a command of voices and attitudes such that he will remind readers at times of non-genre authors from Cheever to Nabokov, from Barthelme to Pynchon, while remaining unique.

    Every now and then, you inject a word choice, a past tense usage, that makes me think he might be dead. I checked his wikipedia entry, no expiration date listed.

  • mracidglee||

    I came across Malzberg's stories a number of times in various "Best SF" collections, and I don't remember making it all the way through any of them. They always seemed impenetrable and/or not relevant to my interests. True, my interests were spaceships, mutants, and blasters, but I've hacked my way through some Pynchon.

    Looking at the beginning of Beyond Apollo on Google Books, I see more cursing and references to sex and excrement than exposition. I think in 1970 there were a lot of editors who looked at Lenny Bruce and "lit'ry" books and thought that was the path to SF intellectual acceptance, and that's what led to Barry and James Tiptree Jr. and a few others getting published.

    Because on the idea and writing fronts, I don't think he rates.

  • PapayaSF||

    Interesting piece. Perhaps space considerations precluded a mention of the recent "sexism" shitstorm he and Mike Resnick set off. The second link includes scans of their response in the SFWA Bulletin. Short version: in writing about women in science fiction, they mentioned that one '50s female editor was beautiful and how that induced worried wives to join the local science fiction club. Plus, there was a scantily-clad warrior woman on the cover. The ensuing uproar produced lots of hot air and several resignations.

    It's all one more sad story about the continuing encroachment of politically-correct thinking into everything.

  • Brian Doherty||

    Actually Papaya, it was "jesus fuck it's depressing that that bullshit is going to be all anyone googling him for the next decade finds" and its irrelevance to this book that made me not bother mentioning the latest Malzbergkreis.

  • PapayaSF||

    I understand. I wasn't criticizing, just noting and mentioning.

  • JeremyR||

    Now Mike Resnick, he's a truly great SF writer.

    But then, he never had any literary pretensions AFAIK. I think he probably achieved it with some of his novels, but for the most part he wrote adventure novels in space.

  • JeremyR||

    To me, he's mostly famous for writing a novelization for a movie that was on MST3K. Phase IV.

    His own work just wasn't that great, imho.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    I've always hated Malzberg. His stories range from pretentious and metaphor-laden at best, to incomprehensible at worst. I rank him even below Thomas M Disch in the list of insufferable literary science-fiction writers.

  • powerdoggames||

    Science fiction will always lead readers into infinite imagination, and the plot would become a reality one day .

    more free online games at www.powerdoggames.com

  • PH2050||

    If this guy's stuff is as insane as John C. Wright's Golden Age trilogy I may need to check him out.

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