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.