Barry N. Malzberg Essay - Critical Essays

Malzberg, Barry N.

Malzberg, Barry N. 1939–

Malzberg, an award-winning American novelist and short story writer, is best known for his science fiction, for which he has occasionally used the pseudonym K. M. O'Donnell. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

[Whatever] else you do, look for Barry Malzberg. (If in the process you run across K. M. O'Donnell, grab it too: same man.) Malzberg is the angriest writer now writing. There is little arrogance in his anger; unlike the purveyors of spleen one usually encounters, Malzberg seems, somehow, to have escaped completely the personal or caste elevation that seems intrinsic in all the others. "My anger bespeaks the fact that I/we are better (or know more) than you. You are unjust to your superiors," they seem to say; while Malzberg's protagonists [in The Falling Astronauts] express his anger by being bumbling, fearful, perplexed and complicated—yet unremittingly driven by this mountainous anger of his. And so it is that he hates the space effort (but not exactly) and astronauts (but not precisely) and the NASA hierarchy (or perhaps what it represents, or what it has therefore become). (pp. 535-36)

Malzberg's preoccupation—nay, obsession—in this book is that of the third man in an Apollo crew, the one who orbits the moon while the others put their footprints in the pumice and the history books, and his temptation to say the hell with it and leave them there. Malzberg/O'Donnell has written many short stories and novelettes about this and its furthest extrapolations, but The Falling Astronauts is a close-knit and unsparing study-in-depth of such a man. (p. 536)

Theodore Sturgeon, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1972; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), May 12, 1972.

[Though Herovit's World] is by a science fiction writer, and though it is being reviewed in a science fiction magazine, and though it bears some of the outward appearances of a science fiction novel, it is not a science fiction novel. Like Bradbury and Vonnegut and Daniel Keyes before him, Barry Malzberg is wisely attempting to remove the frequently commercially crippling words "sci-fi author" from the space in front of his byline. (p. 26)

Having paid his dues in sf—pulp magazine stories, Ace "Doubles," Lancer originals, internecine warfare in SFWA—he has, at last, confronted his core desires. He wants to be famous, he wants to be wealthy, he wants to be widely read, he wants to be free to write all the wonders within him. And so, to this end, he has assiduously pursued a policy of having his new books packaged and marketed simply as novels, not as science fiction novels.

Because what he proffers to the genre is far beyond the petty gifts of many writers who cling to the neologism for fear emergence into the larger arena would destroy them. Malzberg, a big frog in the biggest pond, continues to grow and grow in richness of ideas, excellence of prose, daringness of themes and ability to set down the harsh truths of the world he sees (admittedly a paranoid world, but then, when was the last time you heard a click! on your telephone line?) in novels that keep bending the traditionalists so far out of shape that they have wrested from me the hard-earned title of AntiChrist and conferred it on Malzberg.

(Proof: Malzberg's winning the John W. Campbell Award for the best sf novel of 1972 with Beyond Apollo has caused such shrieks of pain throughout the field, one can only assume the judges possessed a group death-wish, and that their choice was not only a correct one, but a very courageous one.)

Which brings me, at last, to Herovit's World, not a science fiction novel … merely a book that will cause teeth-gnashing in our little world guaranteed to register eight points on the Richter scale. (p. 28)

[Herovit] is a portrait, etched in blood and vitriol, guaranteed to send shudders through every professional in or out of the sf field. He, like all of us, is a doomed soul, driving himself madder by the moment.

And because of the loathesome accuracy of Malzberg's invention, this tragic creature called Herovit, it is a truth few sf writers will be able to accept, even to acknowledge. It is certainly a portrait that fans who idolize writers will condemn and attempt to dismiss.

They will be unable to do so. Herovit lives!

He is a hack science fiction writer,… the author of ninety-two pulp paperback novels…. He is a lousy writer.

Further, he is a non-confronter, a whiner, a self-pityer, a rationalizer, a phony, an adulterer, a martinet, an overage adolescent … and those are his positive qualities. (pp. 28-9)

Jonathan Herovit is not coping. He is not muddling through, hanging in there, toughing it out, struggling to make ends meet, maintaining his equilibrium or even swinging with the punches. He is drowning. Messily. (p. 29)

[Science fiction heroes have always] raced through the universal vastness sans sex organs, sans human weakness, sans emotional conflicts to which the average reader can relate. These stories bore what the [establishment] gurus beatifically called "the sense of wonder." In one respect, and I do not mean it as a compliment, those heroes certainly did instill a sense of wonder…. But it wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, literature of a lasting sort.

To my mind—and clearly to Malzberg's—literature (and that includes sf) should relate to what Faulkner called "… the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat."

And the gurus, as well as the fans who grew up on the sexless heroes, will see in Herovit's World a denial and denigration of all they worshipped. I do not think it coincidence, incidentally, that Malzberg has called his flawed and tragic novelist Herovit.

But in boldly wreaking his vengeance on the heretofore uncodified chicanery, travail and shallowness of our field … its bad writers … its venal publishers … its vampiric fans … its dead ends … Malzberg has given a valuable gift to the genre and all connected with it. He has taken us one step further out of the shadows of the ghetto, and despite the squeals of the gurus and fans who see in what Mazlberg has done, and in sf's general acceptance by the larger literary world, a wresting from their grubby paws of their personal toy, it is a step toward maturity we desperately needed to take.

Malzberg, unlike Jonathan Herovit, is a true hero. And his novel is a smashingly important book for all of us. (p. 30)

Harlan Ellison, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1974 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), May, 1974.

Malzberg plays around with hoary s.f. clichés, explains nothing, and slaps the reader in the face with "style." Many consider him one of the most talented writers in the field.

His approach is unabashedly "literary." "The Day of the Burning" is about a social worker who has to "verify the eligibility" of a particularly obnoxious welfare client within 12 hours, or the world will be destroyed. Given a plot like that, a "clear glass" style would hardly be appropriate. But Malzberg's "stained glass" effects are often not much help either: "I am hovering over Dolores in the dim and light-spotted surfaces of my bed, huddled under various religious motifs on the walls fortunately shrouded by the darkness, wedging myself into her at last with power and authority, small birdlike cries, either hers or mine floating wingless."

Malzberg shares one attribute with previous generations of s.f. writers; he is prolific. At the age of 35, he has already published more than 20 volumes of fiction. In a world where mainstream writers sometimes spend 12 years writing a novel, such industry is commendable. But there are pitfalls too. It can be argued that even if Asimov had taken the time to rewrite a sentence here and there, his stories would not have been appreciably improved, since the excitement was never in the language. But people like Malzberg, by their pretensions if not their achievements, have raised the literary standards of speculative fiction. S.f. writers can no longer expect to be acclaimed as stylists simply for writing better than Niven and Pournelle. Now they must write better than Malzberg. To begin with, they might write slower. (p. 33)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.