(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)
“Here I live. Twenty up, twenty down, me in the middle with the Group. Twenty up, broken gray and movement to the distance, twenty down to the landing, farther out the arena. Gray up, landing down, me forever in the middle (1).”
Malzberg’s novella (89 pages), Conversations (1975), distills the common future dystopia tropes into an occasionally poignant but unremarkable young adult novel. By young adult I mean completely suitable for young readers interested in science fiction (Malzberg fans know his usual relentlessly dark fare often verges on crass/risque). I was unable to glean any information from the web on the work — only two or three of Malzberg’s extensive canon (late 60s-early 80s) receive any attention — so I had no idea that it was for younger readers. A shot in the dark…
The main downfall of the work is the overly simplistic setting (due to Malzberg’s refusal to expound or describe the world in anything more than a few observations by the main character). The main character is a morally upright figure (again, unlike Malzberg’s normal fare) and the streamlined form the work takes with minimal digressions has the “story one would tell to your child in the future” feel — a nice blend of allegory and nostalgia but unfortunately, rather banal.
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Dal, a twelve year old boy, lives in his Group in a large Domicile run by machines and patrolled by the Elders. He doesn’t have parents but instead is cared for by his Group. Dal meets Lothar, a fourteen year old boy deemed crazy by his Group, who possesses a scrap book filled with photos of a distant past (a family in front of a car, a swing, etc). Dal is transfixed by these images and returns to Lothar’s cubicle whenever he can despite Lothar’s predictable rages.
He begins to wonder why the Elders speak nothing of the past and refuse to answer his questions. Likewise the teaching machines seem confused. And Dal hears the continuous hum of the machines, despite claims that they are silent… Will the Elders send him into Exile?
I found the ending of the work the most interesting — there’s little action, the eventual “revolution” is a “revolution of the mind” rather than a forceful change imposed on the world. This revolution is facilitated by Dal’s unwavering desire to learn the truth and stand up against adversity. The way in which society evolved into such a “terror-less” dystopia where the past is completely unknown and people are content to live regulated lives run by machines is not touched upon. With this in mind, Conversations less of a “warning of things to come” science fiction novel and more of a futuristic moral tale.
Worthwhile for younger readers interested in science fiction.
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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Conversations, Barry N. Malzberg (1975)”
Definitely not a recommended place to start with Malzberg (who, in my opinion, is probably one of the finest prose-stylists in the genre, and one of its most insightful and intelligent critics). Fair enough review, though. Better luck with the Silverberg and Compton you’ve recently picked up (both of those are very good, the first one outstanding).
Hehe, I know. My reading method is generally a little different than regular sci-fi readers. I rather gauge the lesser known/not nearly as good works first before I move on to an author’s acknowledged masterpieces. A normal strategy for me…. I have no problem reading average works if I get a sense of the author — and I’ve read a few of his short stories first so I know what he’s capable of.
What’s your favorite of his?
I’m honestly intrigued by the cover. Malzberg has had me interested since The Last Transaction. I only have The Falling Astronauts left to read, but I would love to procure more!
Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with the work. It’s for younger readers and as a result I felt that it was banal, simplistic, and didn’t develop the world to any degree (and some young adult novels do). And it was only 80 pages…
(I’m not sure I like the cover)
Malzberg has published an incredible quantity of work, under innumerable pseudonyms, in many genres, so it’s very difficult to narrow down what his “best” is. As far as his SF goes: Beyond Apollo is, genuinely, a classic (The Falling Astronauts and On a Planet Alien explore very similar themes), as is his early novella Final War (as K.M. O’ Donnell). Guernica Night is probably his strangest/densest in terms of language/imagery, and one of my favorites. Galaxies is among his most “meta,” and was the one that got me hooked. Herovit’s World is among the funniest, and also a hoot. Overlay and Underlay are companion pieces, of sorts, concerning horseracing (Underlay is his favorite of his own novels, I believe, but isn’t really SF), and both great. The Last Transaction is also very good (as 2theD noted), as are many of his late books, which seem to be the least read of his SF (The Remaking of Sigmund Freud, The Cross of Fire, etc.). Excellent short story writer. Malzberg at Large and The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady are good starting places. As far as his non-fiction about SF goes, his essay collection Breakfast in the Ruins is outstanding. He’s not really a world building sort of SF author, by any stretch (he actually started as a playwright); his stuff is more about people, language, and ideas. Almost needless to say, that approach that doesn’t often work so well for books geared toward young readers. Anyhoo, quite an addictive author with his own very distinct style. I’ve been reading/collecting his work for well over a decade.
Thanks so much for the suggestions. Guernica Nights has been on my to buy list for quite a while. I’ll definitely work through his corpus. I’m almost finished In the Enclosure and it’s much better than Conversations. It’s still not a masterpiece but harrowing, disturbed, and unusual (qualities I enjoy in sci-fi).
Thanks again for your detailed response!
ZW> I’ve only Malzberg’s The Last Transaction but you can read the review on my blog http://sfpotpourri.blogspot.com/2011/11/1977-last-transaction-malzberg-barry-n.html – a younger but budding blog compared to Joachim’s.
And stealing all my readership 😉 tehehe
Very good. Much work covered. This will take me a while. I believe I’ve read some of your reviews on Amazon. At any rate, tried to subscribe to your blog as well, but I’m not entirely certain how it works. Hoping it updates me at my gmail account. Getting back to Malzberg: apparently there is a new “Very Best Of” coming out later this year via NonStop (a press I’m not familiar with). Supposedly will contain pieces not yet published in book form, which will be a treat. By the description, it sounds like it contains “Final War.” http://www.amazon.com/Very-Best-Barry-N-Malzberg/dp/1933065419/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1327983719&sr=8-5
You’re quite welcome. Thanks for taking the time to do the blog. I’m always pleased to see vintage SF explored and celebrated. In the Enclosure is solid. Hope you enjoy it, and manage to dig up more. Malzberg’s stuff seems to have grown a bit more difficult to find in recent years. I believe his cult following has grown (deservedly so).
Thanks for the kind words. I’ve never seen his works (I might have seen Beyond Apollo once) in used book stores. Thank goodness for the web! It’s a shame that few of his works went through multiple publications.