Book Review: Herovit’s World, Barry N. Malzberg (1973)

(Charles Moll’s cover for the 1974 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

Note: Today is Barry N. Malzberg’s birthday!

Upon reading In the Enclosure (1973) I was immediately seduced by Barry N. Malzberg’s metafictional brand of science fiction — best illustrated by his masterpieces Beyond Apollo (1972) and Revelations (1972).  Although Herovit’s World (1973) contains many of the same metafictional trademarks of Malzberg’s best work, it should be noted that the novel is not science fiction and more a work about writing (pulp) science fiction.  In this case, the mental collapse of a pulp writer whose life may or may not contain “true” autobiographical kernels from Malzberg’s own experience in the field…

Woven into the classic Malzberg narrative framework that features in most of his works — tormented man going through a difficult time with his wife while he experiences a mental breakdown — are scathing jabs at authors of his day, notably the Scientology practitioner A. E. van Vogt.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

Jonathan Herovit “is one of the ten to fifteen most prolific science-fiction writers in the country, with an audience of somewhere between seventy to eighty thousand for the paperbacks” (4).  Under the pseudonym Kirk Poland, Jonathan has written ninety-two novels and five hundred and three pieces for magazines.  He imagines that his pseudonymous self, whom he has “visualized from the start”, is sexually potent, tall, and aware of his own inept writing abilities (something which profoundly troubles Jonathan) (6).  Jonathan even speculates that without Kirk he would have been a fine writer…

Jonathan’s, or rather Kirk Poland’s, popularity (which is not based on actual merit) within the genre is due to his Mack Miller Survey Team series (imagine early Heinlein or Silverberg juveniles).  Because few people know the true individual behind the name Poland, Jonathan has received very little actual exposure to his fans.  Those that do figure out his real name are more likely to condemn his work: “You stink, Herovit. You’ve been doing this damned crap for so long it molders, and you’d better get yourself out of science fiction before we throw you out” (2).

In true Malzbergian fashion, his main character contains three separate personas whose interaction is the focus of the work: Jonathan Herovit, who can barely tolerate his young child, despises his wife who resists his sexual advances and resorts to drink in a desperate attempt to overcome his writer’s block; Kirk Poland, the pseudonym whom he has created for his pulp SF who knows what Jonathan writes is horrid; and Mack Miller the all-action pulp hero who features in most of Jonathan’s novels.

The novel contains many selections from the current Mack Miller Survey Team installment that Jonathan is attempting to write (Malzberg take on the pulp style prose is hilarious).  In the past Jonathan has never had trouble writing — however, this particular work (which he knows is probably his single worst novel) resists all attempts to be put to paper.  It is at this moment of writers block that Jonathan’s world unravels.  His wife moves out, he visits a prostitute, sleeps with one of his fans (who actually hates science fiction), and Kirk Poland threatens to take over.

Final Thoughts

Within the narrative of Jonathan’s breakdown are satirical jabs at SF fandom, authors, and editors.  I found the observations about the field itself the most interesting sections of the novel.  For example, a comment about A. E. van Vogt: “Vivaldi was one of the senior and most drunken members of the organization although the fact of his drinking was strange because in 1951 Viviladi had converted to Process Religion — a sect which held that food, drink and narcotics of any kinds merely destroyed the brain cells — and since then had been making  a nice living on the side administering the religion[…]” (56).  In the 70s van Vogt almost stopped writing completely — the works that were published were rewrites of earlier stories — and made money through Scientology.

Long portions of the novel are jabs at the pressures exerted by the editors, the low quality of pulp science fiction, and the shoddy editorial and authorial standards of the genre.  Although Malzberg himself never wrote a multi-novel pulp series along the lines of Mark Mack Survey Team, he did use a pseudonym (K. M. O’Donnell) and did write sleaze novels early in his career (as did Jonathan Herovit).

The final product is a dark, at moments hilariously funny and sexually explicit, critique of the science fiction editors, authors, and fandom of Malzberg’s day.  The transference of Malzberg’s trademark obsessive and depressed character into the very world that Malzberg himself is operating in (whether or not Jonathan Hervot is closely modeled on himself) is a fantastic metafictional premise.  However, Herovit’s World is in no way as literary or evocative as Beyond Apollo (1972), Revelations (1972), or Guernica Night (1975).

(David Bergen’s cover for the 1976 edition)

(C. A. M. Thole’s cover for the 1977 German edition)

(Franco Bombilla’s cover fort he 2012 Italian edition)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Herovit’s World, Barry N. Malzberg (1973)

  1. How appropriate that the art for the original edition was by Charles Moll – who produced the most aesthetically wretched SF paperback covers of the 1970s (Beyond Apollo, The Gods Themselves, etc.). Which is what I thought at the time, not just now.

  2. I bought the first edition you posted at a Visiting Nurse’s Used Book Sale in 1975 and have been hooked on Malzberg ever since.

    Malzberg’s opinion about SF fandom and publishing is, I would guess, probably even more negative lately, after being attacked by the SF fan/new writerTweeterverse for being “sexist,” based on some innocent off-hand comments he recently made in the pages of the SFWA journal. (Essentially, referring to a female editor whom he admired as a professional as a “lady editor” and referring to her as having been attractive. Jeez…)

    Re some of Malzberg’s pseudonymously published work, I just recently read that he wrote the first three (or two?) novelizations for David Carradine’s “Kung Fu” TV series in the mid-1970s (as by “Howard Lee”) which were (as he said) straight-from-the-shooting-script novels that wound up being the best-selling works he ever published…

    • Yeah, I heard about the uproar — whatever his intention, I don’t think it should detract from how original/fascinating his 70s sci-fi is….

      Either those or his novelization of Phase IV (1973) were his best selling works — it’s shocking really. Perhaps the Phase IV novelization was the best selling book under his real name.

  3. Joachim, While I admire Malzberg`s deconstruction of a genre that is even more cliche-fuelled today than when he wrote his best-known works, eventually I just tired of his beating that horse. There are only so many times one can take his bitter hammering of the cliches of an entertainment form. And the guy who wrote THE SODDOM AND GOMORRAH BUSINESS criticizing bad writing surely has a pair. 😉 Having said that, HEROVIT`S WORLD, BEYOND APOLLO and GALAXIES together are high-octane Malzberg and should be required reading by sf fans who want to clear their heads and get some perspective. He is a necessary writer if one thinks sf can be more than what it is 9 times out of 10. But god DAMN those covers are ug-leee.

    • I agree to a certain extend — I’d expand your list of “acceptable” Malzberg and add In The Enclose (it’s different than his normal insane astronaut premise) and The Men Inside (1973).

      To the insane astronaut group of novels/stories, I’d add his very early example of the trope — > Universe Day (1971)

  4. Any loving for THE REMAKING OF SIGMUND FREUD, his last novel and oft acclaimed as his best?

    And, apropos of nothing in particular, but I once reviewed Robert Silverberg’s DYING INSIDE

    • I have yet to read The Remaking of Sigmund Freud — but I’d be hard press to say that anything I’ve read of his so far is better than Beyond Apollo and Revelations.

      And, did you like Dying Inside? I thought it was brilliant and really wish I could gather the courage to review it.

  5. and came to the conclusion that if I wanted a book that went after science fiction, I wanted one that did it in a more honest way, like HEROVIT’S WORLD.

    • Confused by the comment — is this one meant to be linked to the previous one? Did Dying Inside go after SF? Perhaps in a more indirect way as in it’s a very untraditional approach to telepathy.

      • Sorry for the confusion, as my fat fingers hit the wrong keys and broke up my comment.

        As for DYING INSIDE, I was uncomfortable with its depiction of telepathy and what I felt was an analogy with science fiction (and fandom) itself as something that retards one’s social development and which is better to be rid. I may be sensitized by the NY Times blurb that sits on most editions, “Perfect science fiction novel for people who don’t like science fiction”, a comment that I take literally, as the novel really won’t make them like science fiction as much as confirm their prejudices against it, I think.

          • I suspect that publishers would like the “Perfect novel” blurb to be read both ways, positive and negative, to attract readers all over the spectrum. (I am minded of Mr. Moorcock’s infamous “As good as Tolkien!” blurb technique.) I just found DYING INSIDE too negative, probably due to its lack as a science fiction work (no real theory of mind in the depiction of telepathy, for example). But YMMV.

            • Well marketing could be distinct from Silverberg’s product….. Even if there is an overt attempt to poke holes at SF tropes and fans, Silverberg is an amorphous character, his writing follows the times — he shifted again to far more straight laced visions in the 80s. Dying Inside functions as a brilliant product of that iconoclastic moment.

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