Science Fiction

The Future, Darkly

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


The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, by Barry N. Malzberg, Nonstop Press, 307 pages, $14.95

A handful of science fiction writers have achieved canonical literary recognition—J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula Le Guin most prominently. Barry N. Malzberg has been little noted nor long remembered as an artist producing estimable, serious literary work within the genre's confines. Yet he campaigned all his life toward that goal. In 1991 Malzberg wrote of his ambition to "bring science fiction to full literary respectability, get science fiction with me at the head of it into the literary and academic canon."

He knew he'd failed, and his failure is regrettable. He has his limits, sure. Maybe he was trying too hard—perhaps the solons of literary acknowledgement could smell some flop sweat. He began his career trying to be a Serious Writer, with a graduate playwriting fellowship at Syracuse University and many failed attempts to sell mordant, stylish short fiction to literary journals and slick magazines.

His first major science-fiction success—contained in this new collection of his short fiction, The Very Best of Barry Malzberg—was the Nebula Award–nominated "Final War," a classic '60s exercise in dry, controlled, grim absurdism about war. Malzberg wrote it in 1965, before Vietnam absurdism was a huge thing, though it was not published until 1968, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, with a thin sci-fi veneer added to a story he had failed to sell to The Atlantic or Kenyon Review.

Perhaps he was too silly at times—but Kurt Vonnegut, whom he occasionally resembles in absurdist use of genre tropes, managed to get respect. (Vonnegut's millions of readers probably helped.) Perhaps Malzberg was just unlucky. Almost all his best work has been out of print since the late '70s and he never had either Hollywood or political/gender identity to help push him aboveground.

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.

His writing is studiedly interior. He's not out to recreate the way his worlds or characters look, smell, sound, or taste, only what the echoing neuroses in their minds feel like. He worked over a limited range of themes obsessively, treating science-fictional and real-world tropes like toys for a smart boy who hides his passion beneath a cold exterior to put through absurd and painful paces. They include astronauts driven mad by banal and incompetent bureaucracy (when the Mir space station crisis unfolded in the 1990s, it struck Malzberg fans like one of his novels come to life); the JFK assassination (and assassinations in general); cancer; horseracing; and the condition of the writer's life. His prose is mannered in an interestingly obvious way, as distinct as the flavor of cilantro, most prominently characterized by his persistent use of odd physical metaphors for abstractions: "crevices of mercy," "edge of purpose," "lamp of self," "bowl of circumstance," "dreadful virus hanging on the lip of reason," "impaled upon the sword of his humiliation."

Still, he remains singularly valuable. Malzberg was very prolific at the height of his career—from 1968 to 1976—with dozens of novels and hundreds of stories under his own name and various pseudonyms. He kept doing vital work even after his supposed 1976 retirement from science fiction. Giving the lie to the considered opinion (to the extent anyone has a considered opinion about the unjustly forgotten Malzberg) that he was an oddity of science fiction's New Wave and post–New Wave hangovers of the late '60s and early '70s, 26 of the 37 stories here (chosen by the author himself) are from after that retirement, and show no diminution of his energy, his wit, his obsessions, or his voice.

He's got a Nabokovian way with unreliable and mad narrators, and when you meet God in a Malzberg story, like "Leviticus: In the Ark" here, God says: "I do the best I can…you don't think any of this is easy for me either, do you?" Nothing is easy in any of Malzberg's futures; the voice of his protagonists is often whinily long-suffering, neurotic, out of place in any circumstance (a word, "circumstance," that Malzberg uses constantly and distinctly and curiously.) He's often funny, but it's usually the quiet, squinting, pained humor of failure.

He frequently relies on conclusions involving the world ending in cleansing fire; yet they don't read like a neurotic compulsion to harm others or the world. It's as if Malzberg's sensitive, acute awareness of the human condition leads him to imagine—and goddammit he may be right—that this is just another common escapist fantasy, appropriate for genre fiction. He regularly uses the tropes of science fiction—alien invasion, time cops, intergalactic heroism, shrinking—as signs of madness. To take this stuff seriously, his work suggests, is to be nuts. Yet the passion and energy and sheer volume of his writing shows that he took it very seriously indeed.

What makes his failure to be recognized by the lit crowd more curious is that his techniques seem aimed right at critics and appreciators of the clever, bizarre, and meta. Consider this collection's first story, the 1975 novelette "A Galaxy Called Rome." Its conceit is that a truly realistic science fiction is impossible; that this is not in fact the story of a starship captain falling into a black hole but a series of notes toward one. Malzberg reads himself out of the genre by writing how "fine, ironic literary despair" has no place in it.

The story's moving twist ending meshes his original ambitions of literary fiction writing and the genre where he found readers: noting that the condition of modern man in his hometown in New Jersey "would forever be as mysterious as the stars and that one could not deny infinity merely to pursue a particular that would be impenetrable until the day of one's death." The story contains aspects that made many science-fiction fans find Malzberg unforgivable: sly asides about how the starship captain job "could be done by an adolescent" and observing that his sort of fiction is all "the more depressing because it has used the largest possible canvas on which to imprint its messages that man is irretrievably dwarfed by the cosmos."

"A Galaxy Called Rome" is extraordinary, a great critique of science fiction, and a hilarious self-critique ("perhaps the dialog is a little florid here," and in Malzberg it almost always is) and at the same time an apologia for his work (cosmic despair "is the message which it would be easiest to wring out of the material; actually I have other things in mind, but how many will be able to detect them?"). A classic of postmodern science fiction, not rusted by the past 37 years.

One story here, "Police Actions," exemplifies something Malzberg wrote about his fellow neurotic SF absurdist Dick. In an introductory essay in his 1979 collection Malzberg At Large, he wrote of "the Philip K. Dick willies…that odd and horrified perception that what I was writing about a long time ago in a near-vacuum is actually being enacted in the world, that it really is that way after all."

Published in 1991, "Police Actions" is the best piece of fiction about 9/11 I've read, polemical but pained and human, metaphorical yet inescapably precise. Its narrative is hallucinatory and opaque, about what seem to be a group of Americans touring a conquered world, always wary for blowback that might come unexpectedly with '"appalling flashes of heat and light," then settling back to impose a program of well-meaning totalitarianism at home, with "confidence in our leaders. Newly elected, newly installed, departing the dock of the millennium into the strange and dangerous waters ahead, the President was our coxswain…"

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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  1. three o clock squirrelz!

    1. 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

  2. Doherty has broken the Great Ekins Polling Blockadeof ’13! Three cheers for Doherty!

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

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

      2. 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.

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

          1. 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.

            1. 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.

              1. 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.

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


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

            1. Never give up your manhood to get women. Never.

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

            1. “I don’t…believe you.”

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

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

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

    1. Cowabducta, dude!

    2. 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.

      1. clearly butchered for its meat.

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

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. I understand. I wasn’t criticizing, just noting and mentioning.

    2. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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

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  11. 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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