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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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