“Barry Malzberg? He can’t possibly have a new book out. He died in the early 1980s.” That’s what a clerk at Bakka, a Toronto book store specializing in science fiction, confidently informed me when I asked for a copy of Malzberg’s latest essay collection Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium (Baen Books, 2007). Her mistake was, of course, entirely understandable and even predictable.
Three decades ago Malzberg was a force to be reckoned with, a large presence not just in science fiction but in the broader realm of paperbackdom. In his first decade as a writer (1967-1976) he published at least 30 books under his own name, and many more books under a wide variety of pseudonyms. As “Mike Barry”, Malzberg wrote, in the space of 2 years, 14 men’s adventure novels in the “Lone Wolf” series (a knock-off of Don Pendleton’s mafia-killing vigilante, the Executioner).
Not even Malzberg remembers all the books he wrote during this feverish period. A reasonable guess would say that they add up to about 80 or so books, probably more. As one fan recalled of this period, “back during the 1970s, it seemed as though there was a new Malzberg SF novel almost every week.” In fact the average was slightly slower: a book every two months. Most of these were without doubt hack-work, especially the porn novels he wrote under the name Mel Johnson (titles like I, Lesbian and Nympho Nurse).
But Malzberg took his craft seriously, he was deeply versed in the history of science fiction and many of the stories and novels he wrote in that mode were excellent. Like his contemporaries Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison, he brought mainstream literary values to a genre that still had its roots in the purple prose of the pulp magazines. His 1972 novel Beyond Apollo tells the story of a failed expedition to Venus as Samuel Beckett might have: a harrowing, involuted and internalized account of how the vast alienness of space could drive an astronaut mad. (The recent scandal involving astronaut Lisa Nowak seemed like a Malzberg novel come to life).
But by the end of the 1970s while still shy of his 40th birthday, Malzberg was already a burnt-out case. He had written too much, too quickly, too sloppily, with too much repetition and almost no re-writing. Always fluid and rhetorically resourceful, he must have grown sick of his own ever-glib voice. His dark vision of the future, plausible enough during the Vietnam War and Watergate, became increasingly unpopular as fans of science fiction sought relief in Star Wars style space operas. Malzberg’s central theme is that technological progress comes with a heavy price in psychic pain: an acceptable enough idea in the early 1970s but dismissed (unfairly so) as Luddite and reactionary in subsequent decades.
He repeatedly announced his intention to give up writing, resolutions that had the same half-life as a smoker’s vow to quit. By any reasonable standard he remained prolific enough, writing 150 stories in the last 3 decades; but compared to what his earlier torrential overflow of words, he had gone dry. Moreover, these newer stories, although written at a new level of care, were scattered through countless anthologies and magazines. Only a few of these stories have been gathered together in book form and these omnibus volumes were put out by small literary presses. Once a dominant writer in science fiction, Malzberg had become near invisible.
One outgrowth of his quiescent period was a collection of essays, The Engines of the Night (1982), a reflection of on the genre of science fiction using his career as a test case. Bitter and bracingly funny, Engines of the Night is perhaps the best book ever written on what it is like to be a commercial writer of fiction, someone who churns out novels by the dozen for a few thousand dollars a pop.
Here’s Malzberg’s account of how, over the course of 4 days, he turned the science fiction short story “Closed Sicilian” (about a chess game to decide the fate of the world) into the novel Tactics of Conquest: “Now you may think that you would have trouble expanding a twenty-six-hundred-word story into a fifty-five-thousand-word novel. You would be right. My oh my did I pad and overload. Sentences became pages, paragraphs became chapters. Megalomania became grandiosity with lots of examples. Whole flashback chapters were devoted to his life as a chess champion: scenes in Berne and Moscow and Philadelphia, the traveling life of the chess master. Also some sex scenes, but within good taste because this is the science fiction market. It turns out that the narrator has really had a secret homosexual relationship with his opponent for years but it is said in a subtle way.”
This honesty about the grubby facts of life on Grub Street makes Engines of the Night the best book ever written on science fiction, better than comparable critical studies by Brian Aldiss, Damon Knight, Algis Budrys, James Blish, and Thomas Disch (all working science fiction writers who have written with liveliness about their craft). Science fiction, Malzberg makes clear, is both a marketing category and a literary form. These two aspects of science fiction are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. It’s the commercial framework of the genre that makes it possible for it to exist and to find its audience. But this commercial framework also sets the limits for literary achievement in the field: if you move too far away from the expectations of the audience you risk alienation. That was the lesson that Malzberg learned in the 1970s (his peers Ellison and Silverberg were similarly chastened by that disillusioning decade).
Long out of print, Engines of the Night is now available again in an expanded form as Breakfast in the Ruins. Augmented with many fresh essays on writers like Isaac Asimov and J.G. Ballard, the book proves that, bookstore clerks to the contrary, Barry Malzberg is alive and well. That’s good news. Even better, Malzberg’s distinctive voice (mordant, morose, morbid, hyperbolic, florid, dirgic and dire) retains its hypnotic flow. Listen to this sentence: “I abandoned critical essays and reviewing not because I felt I had nothing to say – I had plenty to say, at least to myself, and there is no silencing that raving, chattering internal voice, that thread of consciousness and disputation which rambles on and on and turns some writers into alcoholics and almost all of them into obsessives of one sort or the other – but because I felt that I had said enough and the integrity of Engines of the Night seemed to hinge upon reasonable silence.” I love that sentence-within-a-sentence about “that raving, chattering, internal voice”. Has there ever been a better account of the psychic cost wrought by the writing life? And since he’s a science fiction writer, Malzberg knows that the writing life is itself an outgrowth of technology.