Book Review: In The Enclosure, Barry N. Malzberg (1973)

(Davis Meltzer’s cover for the 1973 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Fresh off Malzberg’s intriguing young adult novel, Conversations (1975), I picked up a copy of the altogether more disturbing, transfixing, unnervingly prescient, and at moments, brilliant In The Enclosure (1972).  As with many of Malzberg’s oeuvre, the work is infused with a steady dose of metafiction — our hero laments (and we writhe along with him in a malaise of unease), “I will never really know” (189).  Just as Quir is unsure of his own reality, his diaristic words — which the reader is desperate to hold on to — are admittedly, “an impression, a conception, nothing more” (190).

Combining the science fiction trope of implanted memories with the literary narrative mode of the unreliable narrator creates an overwhelmingly uncomfortable gulf between reality and constructed reality.  The result, the overpowering desire to pick up a piece of pulp science fiction where the future is rosy, technology = happiness, the kids smart, where rockets sprout up in backyards, and villains are of an altogether different shape.

Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)

Here we are: in the enclosure.  It has been some two years and four months since we were placed here (I have fully assimilated a sense of their chronology) and now, past the initial riots and educative tortures, things are comfortable” (5).

 Quir is a humanoid alien who could pass for a human — In The Enclosure is his diary of his imprisonment, along with a few hundred of his kind, on Earth.  Humans imprisoned his people when they landed, tortured them, and dangled promises of eventual freedom.  The aliens have no memory of  their homeworld and why they were sent out to Earth.  They’ve also discovered that they have no ability to prevent their immense technological secrets from falling into the hands of the humans.  They conclude that they’ve been conditioned to divulge their knowledge.  But no one knows the reason.  

The paradox is brutal — mankind’s problems (overpopulation, disease, the inability to develop space travel, etc) are solved while their saviors, the aliens, remain imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to continuous questions from their “therapists.”

Quir and his people do remember the journey to Earth.  They adhered to rigorous hierarchy, they had a master of rituals which reinforced the hierarchy, but even that feels arbitrary, constructed, artificial….  That skeletal framework of a system crumbles entirely in the enclosure.  Quir, scared from the experience and the inability to remember his own pre-voyage past retreats into himself, preying on female aliens in the hallways, ruminating on the reasons for the imprisonment.

The therapist’s questions are relentless.  The life tedious — blank hallways, scraps of outside newspapers proclaiming great technological breakthroughs.  The sex momentarily meaningful but ultimately meaningless.

The plot thickens when Quir admits to his therapist that there’s been an escape planned.  It’s never really certain that there was an actually an escape planned, or an elaborate trap.  However, Quir is so torn that he resolves to escape with his people.  But their knowledge of the world is limited to the enclosure, the spaceship, nothing more.  And for many, unusual memories are slowly returning.

Final Thoughts

I found myself unable to write about In The Enclosure for a few weeks after I had finished.  I was somewhat disillusioned by the end (it couldn’t really end any other way).  And, as I mentioned in the beginning, the gulf Malzberg excavates between what is real and what is constructed is so vast will cause frustration in many readers.  That said, the prescient undercurrents of the work (unjust imprisonment without end/Guantanamo bay) makes it even more unsettling.

Malzberg’s prose is impeccable (he started off as a playwright).  Malzberg definitely prefers dialogue over detailed descriptions.  For example, the exchanges between Quir and his succession of therapists are spine-chilling.

“Do you find the meals adequate, the staff satisfactory, the circumstances comfortable?  Do you have any illnesses?”

“We never have any illnesses.”

“Yes.  I know that.”

“But you might,” the menacing alien [human] says, nodding at the others.  The others who have been standing against the wall, fondling their armaments nod.  “You might indeed.”

All science fiction fans who can tolerate a profoundly dark vision should pick up a copy.  I cannot wait to track down another of Malzberg’s lesser known novels.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: In The Enclosure, Barry N. Malzberg (1973)

    • There’s some “rather coarse” sex resulting from some suspicious gender politics at play among the alien society — other than that the work is almost a masterpiece. Extremely dark / spine chilling. I have another critique but because it concerns the end I won’t voice it until you give it a read… I might have been a tad generous in my rating — but, that’s ok.

  1. Thank you for the excellent review! I find that you have produced a rather well-written and critical review of this work… one that delves deeper than the plot – into the literary structure, political and philosophical underpinnings of the work. A fine review! On that point alone, I am excited about reading this book!

    • Thanks!

      It’s quite the depressing read…. And as I pointed out in one of the comments, I have an additional critique reserved for the end — but I’d like to have your opinion first before I voice it.

  2. I really should try and read some Malzberg again… I used to like him as a teenager – well, maybe it would be more correct to say I was fascinated by him, as I suppose he’s not the kind of writer whose stuff you like – but I’ve been worried about how his stuff would hold up for me today. Only one way to find out, I guess….

    • I’m tempted to claim that you might enjoy them more than when you were a teenager — Malzberg has a delightful literary streak. His prose can be beautiful/haunting — conveying the endless imprisonment in the enclosure to perfection.

      Perhaps this isn’t the best place to re-start… I still have little exposure to his works (just In The Enclosure and Conversations) so I can’t recommend much…

      • That’s entirely possible, but on the other hand I think his bleak cynicism might have lost a large part of its appeal to my somewhat more mellow present-day self. I did get a couple of his novels from SFGateway though, and will likely give one of them a try soonish – I am still vacillating between The Fall of the Astronauts (supposed to be a classic), The Destruction of the Temple (my favourite of his back then, I think) or The Remaking of Sigmund Freud (Freud in space! this just has to be good).

      • I’m not sure what to make of Malzberg’s obsession with the Kennedy assassination (The Destruction of the Temple is on the subject, right?)– I read one of his short stories on the assassination in the collection Future City (1973) — City Lights, City Nights as K. M. O’Donnell… It was interesting for sure…

      • I’m not quite sure myself, not being American myself and not quite of the right age either, but I think back in the seventies it was a belief widely held among liberal to left-wing Americans that the history of the US took a turn for the worse when Kennedy was assassinated – that he was a figure of light whose fall led to the tragedy of the USA turning into an evil empire (i.e., Vietnam, Watergate etc.). My memory of the novel is a bit vague beyond having liked it, but I think it is that myth Malzberg was taking apart in The Destruction of the Temple.

      • I’ll definitely give it a read.

        The short story on the assassination was fascinating since it played with the “outsider” viewing the “primitive” while simultaneously using them to recreate an “authentic” past (in this case a movie) — never mind that the recreated assassination film isn’t IN Dallas but New York and the “authentic” city-dwellers aren’t “primitive” and eventually realize how they’re being manipulated….

  3. Excellent review. Makes me want to go back and re-read that one. It’s been a while. At any rate, Malzberg’s best stuff is as fresh for me now as it ever was. Although I suppose my outlook, in general, is less “bleak” than it used to be, and I have mellowed as well, that hasn’t really changed how I take his work in. His language is, indeed, always delightful, and his sense of humor is savage. Holds up remarkably. If you’re looking for more lesser-read Malzberg SF titles, you might try Scop, Day of the Burning, The Men Inside, and The Gamesman. Chorale is an amazing later one that I don’t believe ever made it to paperback, so you might not happen upon it in the old SF PB sections of your favorite bookstores. Good stuff. Thanks, as always.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I have a copy of Guernica Night waiting to be read 🙂 Oh, I actually only get a few of my sci-fi from book stores — when I visit my parents once or twice a year…. Other than that I’m resigned to one local book store with only an ok selection — the rest comes from amazon or abebooks.

      Thanks for the suggestions.

    • I liked Day of the Burning and The Men Inside, but I think Falling Astronauts is probably my favorite Malzberg. Galaxies is interesting, but even more post modern and less plot oriented than then others.

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