SF Article: Barry N. Malzberg (b.1939): Metafiction and the Demystification of the Cult of the Astronaut

This was my recent guest post on Little Red Reviewer.

For those who didn’t see it I decided to post it here….


 Barry N. Malzberg (b. 1939): Metafiction and the Demystification of the Cult of the Astronaut

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In the World Book Encyclopedia Science Service publication The United States Astronauts and their Families: A Pictorial Presentation (1965), each astronaut is allotted a two-page spread replete with staged photos of their family life and hobbies.  Otis L. Wiese, the editor of the volume, proclaims grandiosely “Man’s reach for the world of space is born of his insatiable curiosity about the unknown… his indomitable drive for accomplishment… his instinctive response to a challenge. Astronauts-Husbands-Fathers: these men are the men featured here but it’s essentially as family men that we portray them” (i).

The photographs are fascinating.  Roger B. Chaffee’s wife Martha teaches him lunar geography (22), L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. sits at the helm of his speedboat Bluebonnet which is capable of reaching 80 knots (28), in another photo him and his family spend time with their German shepherd (29), Donn F. Eisele teaches his daughter “the finer points of marksmanship” (35), while Alan B. Shepard, Jr. plays piano tunes for his daughters (61) and in the facing image shakes hands with John F. Kennedy (61).

Their families illustrate the epitome of the American family: the ultra-masculine man with his cars and boats, the supportive wife facilitatingher husband’s heroic greatness, and a gaggle of adoring children.  Many captions establish parallels between the job of being an astronaut and his family life.  For example, under an image of Russell L. Schweickart playing blocks with his children it reads “Astronaut Schweickart supervises a building project at home – at the Manned Spacecraft center he works on very different “space” problems” (53).  Remember, this was the age of astronaut trading cards; the age where children meticulously filled out charts of the participants in all the United States manned space flights; the age of the astronaut celebrity.  Donn F. Eisele was almost kept off an Apollo mission because of rumors of his extra-marital affair…

In Barry N. Malzberg’s sci-fi visions there is nothing farther from these so-called “truths” presented by Wiese’ publication.  Malzberg presents the American Space Program as a pernicious product of an encroaching mechanical age that warps its young naïve idealists who slowly go insane, become impotent, and destroy their families in frantic attempts to embody these ideals. In The United States Astronauts and their Families, the masculine ideal is further characterized by their utopian family existence.  Malzberg portrays the family life of his anti-heroes as attempting to embody the ideals of the space program.  But it is a dystopic family existence, a violent family existence, an existence characterized by desperate attempts to ferret out meaning.

Many of Malzberg’s astronaut characters interact with their wives mainly through the experience of sex (often, impotence).  In The Falling Astronauts (1971), the first in a thematic trilogy of books on the space program, Colonel Richard Martin interprets a sexual experience with his wife, who may or may not be asleep, in terms of docking a spaceship: “he feeds into her slowly, feeling the tentative hold, the slow, circling motions of orbit, anxious to grasp, but fearful that if he does so the connection will be broken…” (7).  In Malzberg’s most critically acclaimed novel, Beyond Apollo (1972), our astronaut anti-hero even dreams of the fierce sexual prowess of his Captain – who may or may not be himself depending on how you read the work’s layered metafictional turns – while in his own life his wife derives no satisfaction from his mechanical administrations and impotence.

It is important to note that although a great majority of Malzberg’s sci-fi predecessors glorified space travel and proclaimed the positives of humankind’s obsession with exploration, there are many earlier stories which discuss potential flaws, the damage it might eventually have on families, how it will manipulate young idealists: C. M. Kornbluth’s short story, ‘The Altar at Midnight’ (1952) and James Gunn’s collection Station in Space (1958) are great examples.  But Malzberg goes beyond these earlier works and suggests that the space program makes machines out of men.  This plays out in the extensive scenes between Evans and his wife in Beyond Apollo along these lines: “We have been geared for efficiency.  I begin to fuck her like a proper astronaut […]“ (27).

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Malzberg’s fiction is heavily inspired by the rise of postmodern metafiction in the mid to late 1960s and the New Wave movement in science fiction.  Metafictional techniques –- for example, the author breaking the fourth wall by addressing the reader or referencing the cigarette add placed in the paperback and the use of unreliable narrators and experimental structure: the epistolary novel, etc.— combine in a particularly jarring yet effective way with one of Malzberg’s overarching themes, the nature and quest for truth.  His characters relentless seek the “truth.”

In In The Enclosure (1973) the alien main character Quir urgently desires to figure out why he has no memories of the reason for his voyage to dispense information to humankind that has resulted in their imprisonment.  But, he slowly realizes that his own people most likely implanted the memories that he has.  His journal, the novel itself, is an attempt to physically memorialize something that is known.  Quir must do this because his people are trapped in a degrading environment where their own past is unreachable.

In Beyond Apollo the book itself might be the novel written by the main character, or at the very least it has many parallels.  The reader actively must decipher what is “truth” and what are elaborate authorial deceptions recounted by the mentally unstable narrator.  Whether the narrator even knows what truly happened or is coping with extreme trauma by telling lies is also up for debate.

Guernica Night (1975) has a fascinating passage where Malzberg himself enters in one of the final chapters of the narrative and recounts a conversation he had with another author who tells him to “use artifice, use art, use masks, the manipulation of masks behind which the truth may be given, because only the masks are universal” (124).

While in Revelations (1972), which I would argue is one of his best novels, Malzberg invents a television program which seeks to strip away all artifice from its participants to get at their true selves: “The truth is sacred: it is high, it is deadly, it is concealed and it is often uglier than darkness…” (64).  Of course, the ideals of the show might be exemplary but the result is brutal: The truths “revealed” turn out to be whatever the show’s audience wants to see and the participants are drugged in order to be less resistant.

Returning to where I began, the utopian vision presented by The United States Astronauts and their Families: A Pictorial Presentation (1965) is also an elaborate artifice despite what the editor might proclaim.  The photos are obviously staged, whether the astronauts even engaged in the majority of the activities is up for debate, but the American people wanted to believe that James A. Lovell, Jr. played horseshoes with his son and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., surrounded by his smiling family, fed tiny “PoPo” the marmoset monkey with a silver spoon.  Malzberg’s astronauts fervently buy into these models of the heroic American family and in their quest to reach them have to deal with devastating repercussions.

Barry N. Malzberg’s corpus is often literary and thought-provoking.  The heavy utilization of metafictional techniques, explicit sexuality, anti-heroes, and gloomy tone will not appeal to all fans of science fiction.

I recommend — with links to those I’ve reviewed.

Revelations (1972)

Beyond Apollo (1972)

The Falling Astronauts (1971)

In the Enclosure (1973)

Guernica Night (1975)

Herovit’s World (1973)

Galaxies (1975)

10 thoughts on “SF Article: Barry N. Malzberg (b.1939): Metafiction and the Demystification of the Cult of the Astronaut

  1. Good stuff, will check out the other reviews you`done of his work. To me Malzberg was one step away from the romance of the space age beyond even J.G.Ballard. While Ballard, to me, finds the wonder and awe of the space age metaphors elsewhere–in what going OUT does to the interior of the human mind, and in turn what THAT creates, be it the detritus of the launches or strange, growing metal sculptures–Malzberg is kind of a dead-end in that his books seem to be saying nothing good can come of all this. If Ballard is saying `You`re missing the point of what all this does to a man` Malzberg seems to be saying `There IS no point, it`s all a waste of time, and you just end up still needing to take a dump and pay the rent, and eventually you go bald and can`t get it up anymore.` Malzberg is a signpost for one`s seriousness about literature, to me–you can acknowledge what he`s saying and incorporate that into your ongoing explorations, or you can call him names and run back to Star Trek. But he`s hard to ignore.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I enjoy both types of science fiction — very pro spaceflight and exploration and the more negative ones. For me, none of his condemnation bothers me in anyway — he’s very explicitly reacting against a sort of ideal man media propagated vision of the astronaut instead of real humans, with real problems, of course to make this point Malzberg goes to extremes.

  2. Joachim, Malzberg`s attitude as expressed in the books doesn`t bother me, either; it is a great alternative to the mass of writing about space exploration that is uninformed by anything but TV coverage and propaganda [small `p`]. As is the case with Ballard he approaches these issues from a unique position in the SF field–99.9% of writing about space exploration is completely about surface issues, adventure, and using spaceflight as a metaphoric illustration. Only a few writers really seem to wonder `What does this stuff mean to the real people who are and will actually go into space?` in the way mainstream social commentators wonder about our work lives. Another example from a different p.o.v. would be Frederick Pohl`s MAN PLUS.

  3. Thanks. I’ve only read his short story A Galaxy Called Rome. Your reviews and articles on Malzberg have been very interesting and intriguing. I remember looking at the covers of his books as a kid in bookstores in the 70s and 80s and finding something deeply unsettling there. I never read them then, they looked way too “adult” and i suppose they were. Not sure how I missed Malzberg as a young adult reading a lot of new wave sf and other avant-garde stuff amongst other things. Beyond Apollo is on the pile not sure why i haven’t started. Scared maybe…

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