Sunday, 10 March 2013

Barry N. Malzberg: the science-fiction of inner space

Barry N. Malzberg
                It’s standard practice when considering the literary claims of ‘genre’ fiction to point out that some of the canonical works of Eng. Lit. could easily be so ghettoised if they hadn’t long since been accepted as ‘proper’ literature. Where science-fiction is concerned, this usually involves the invocation of Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the collected works of JG Ballard. So consider this done. As Oscar Wilde nearly-but-not-quite said:  “There is no such thing as genre fiction or literary fiction, only good books and bad books.”

                Barry Nathaniel Malzberg has written some very good books. Between 1970 and 1985 he was almost bewilderingly prolific. More than 30 novels on a SF theme appeared in that time, of which the best-known is probably Beyond Apollo (1972), winner of the 1973 John W. Campbell book award. Described by one commentator as “2001: a Space Odyssey written by Samuel Beckett”, it is a series of short, obsessive monologues by one Evans, an astronaut confined in some kind of psychiatric institution,  attempting to piece together a coherent narrative of an abortive space mission during which his crewmate, The Captain, mysteriously disappeared. His accounts to himself and his interrogators are hallucinatory, fragmented, and contradictory. Did he murder the other man ? Was it suicide ? What was the precise nature of their relationship ? Why were they sent into space at all ? 

Typically garish 70s SF cover nevertheless hints at something more than space-opera

Evans’s accounts are highly sexualised, both in terms of his homoerotic attraction to the missing man and memories of his failing marriage. This sexuality is swamped by technological metaphor, highly reminiscent of Ballard (particularly Crash, which Apollo predates by a year), counterpointed ironically by the mission’s putative destination, Venus. The mystery unfolded through Evans’s ravings is never resolved, but the real question is not what happened to The Captain as an individual, but what has happened to the human race since we began to apprehend the true vastness of space and our inability to understand it definitively: “Everything is blind chance, happenstance, occurrence; in an infinite universe anything can happen. After the fact we find reasons.”

                The identity of outer space with an existential ‘inner space’ is further explored in On A Planet Alien (1974): “Lying on the bleak earth of this blasted planet, listening to the wind filter through the trees, it is possible for one moment in the clinging darkness to believe that it is not impossibly removed, that it is not at the far edge of the universe but that it is Earth itself and this has not been a voyage outward but a voyage in, to some other aspect of familiar terrain…” 

Folsom, leader of an ostensibly peaceful embassy to a distant, tribal society, is another narrator whose grip on reality is rapidly loosening. The ‘natives’ do not react with the expected compliance, and appear to have more sophisticated philosophical ideas than they should. The paranoia this engenders in Folsom rapidly develops into megalomania, and is then turned murderously on his supposedly treacherous colleagues, possibly on the whole planet.  Given the date of composition, I don’t think it is fanciful to see this as Malzberg’s Vietnam novel, and it certainly has relevant political content. As Folsom recalls one bureaucrat saying :  “Some of the opposition of course were referring to the program not as one of amalgamation but of ‘conquest,’ the brutalisation of innocent worlds to bring them into the hands of the Federation, render their natives hostage, their resources as plunder. Although everyone connected with the Bureau knew that this was untrue… [A]ll that the Federation was trying to do was make the universe a safe and agreeable place in which all of the races could live equably and without fear…”  We have heard this throughout the history of colonial exploitation.

Still from 1974 movie of "Phase IV", so far the only BNM novel to have been filmed.

 Malzberg is extremely interested in contemporary phenomena and the ways in which they might play out in the future. Like Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition (1970), The Destruction of the Temple (1974) explores continuing public fascination with the John F. Kennedy assassination (with walk-on parts for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), positing a repetitive, obsessive reconstruction of the event against the background of a decayed New York City – whose nomadic, semi-feral inhabitants also strangely recall those of Ballard’s later High Rise (1975.)

TNew York in a more recognisable form is the backdrop for two other novels. Overlay (1972) is a blackly comic account of the attempt by an alien interloper to precipitate Armageddon by manipulating the human tendency to irrational belief: “We have to approach them from the edges, concentrate on mysticism, spirituality, the occult… That’s the only way to topple them.”  His choice of a social group to influence is neither ideological nor religious, but a ragbag of small-time compulsive horseracing gamblers – although the combination of illogical metaphysics, all-consuming resentment and a final scene of suicidal terrorism make this tale seem strangely prescient and familiar.

Herovit’s World (1973) satirises the science-fiction milieu itself, the protagonist Jonathan Herovit a hack writer increasingly frustrated not only by the disjuncture between his own chaotic life and the heroism of his creations, but also envious of the character and lifestyle he has attributed to his own pseudonym, ‘Kirk Poland’: “Kirk was a good first name. Nothing insoluble could happen to a man named Kirk once he put his mind to things.” There are no conventional SF elements in this novel, although there are various Malzberg trademarks – emotional and psychological disintegration, sexual anxiety, strange voices. I have no idea if there is anything autobiographical here, but some of the characters – Herovit himself and his monstrously egotistical colleague Mitchell Wilk, for example  – are vividly grotesque.

It is also extremely funny, and illustrates brilliantly the range of Malzberg’s  abilities, both thematic and stylistic. His lack of general recognition in the UK is probably not helped by his books – in their garish, inappropriately spaceship-festooned covers – having been out of print for years. Is it too much to hope that a recently-announced film adaptation of Beyond Apollo might change this ?

This article was originally written in June 2012 for the online magazine "Big Eyes".