Book Review: The Empty People, Barry N. Malzberg (as K. M. O’Donnell) (1969)


(Howard Winters’ cover for the 1969 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

“Inspecting a few she found that they were about what she had expected: the science-fiction books seemed to be full of nonsense about extraterrestrials or flights into space, the damnedest silliest stuff imaginable, and the sex part was sheer filth.  There was no question about it; there was no other way to describe those books” (12).

Science fiction as delusion.  More specifically, chapters replete with SF plots with evil aliens with interchangeable names and megalomaniacal claims to power culled straight from the pulps are delusions.  Imagined (perhaps?) by an average American man with “metastases” (14) growing in his brain while a concerned, albeit cheating, normal American housewife waits at his bedside.  The Empty People (1969) is considered Barry N. Malzberg’s (writing at K. M. O’Donnell) first SF novel.  However in the vein of his more famous Herovit’s World (1973), the most convincing interpretation of the novel suggests that the SF elements (purposefully clichéd and vaguely explained) are mere manifestations and torments of a diseased mind.

Originally Malzberg had aspirations to become a playwright and was even awarded multiple university playwright fellowships but was unable to break into the literary market.  Thus, he tried his hand at science fiction in the late 60s with some success (his most famous work would be published in the early 70s).  I would suggest that Malzberg’s palpable frustration writing SF can be found throughout the novel.  In The Empty People pulp science fiction plots, in their most general formulations, serve as instruments of repression and control.  The American family is not liberated by science fiction delusions but further repressed.  Personally, I find his critical stance delightfully at odds with the SF of the time. Likewise, although his early novels are no way as powerful or poignant as what he produced in the 70s, they contain all the stylistic and thematic kernels that would inform his best work.

The Empty People is the ninth Barry N. Malzberg novel I have read (consult the INDEX for their reviews) and I recommend it only for his fans.  Readers new to his bizarre literary brand of metafiction, harrowing paranoia, and Freudian explorations of sexuality and repression should start with the masterpiece Beyond Apollo (1972) or perhaps The Falling Astronauts (1971) before delving into his more esoteric (but often wonderful) back catalog.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

Chapters labeled “THE OUTSIDE”: James Archer is stricken with cancerous growths in his brain.  The prognosis explains his mental breakdown and uncharacteristically violent treatment of Della, his wife. James, frustrated with his empty life laments “it wasn’t fair that his complex breakdown be tied into a single lump within his skull.  It nullified all significance” (15). Della implores for a controversial surgeon to travel to the US and treat James with a controversial new treatment—the never before tested treatment, which even the surgeon admits is probably hopeless, involves removing a portion of James’ brain.  While James lays comatose in bed with little chance of survival Della gives in to the family doctor’s sexual advances…

Chapters labeled “THE INSIDE”: The mind of the comatose James Archer fractures into numerous personas.  First, there’s the poet.  The poet lives in a prison attempting to write poetry to please mysterious energy (perhaps?) beings named The Keepers.  The poet believes that everyone else is dead or live, without memories, for the entertainment of the aliens.  He is plagued with unknowing: “What if this was an invasion of earth and he was the last survivor, being kept in a cell without a memory to amuse them?  Or, even worse than that, what if all two or three billion of them or whatever the hell the number was […] were all in individual cells, somewhere, each with books or foods or whatever, and they were individually amusing the keepers to the best of their abilities [.]” (22).  He spends his time attempting to write poetry.  And then the Keepers have a plan for him involving a woman named Della (whom he does not remember is his wive), but all he wants is to stay in his cell.

Della is also manifested within the delusion.  How this is the case is never fully explained.  Is James creating this version of his wife?  Or, is James’ mind actually a “battleground” (159) for alien entities?  It is via Della’s character that the most intriguing metafictional elements are introduced.  She imagines the alien invasion exactly how it is portrayed in so many pulps: the X’Ching swoop from the skies, abduct her into their flying saucers.  Della, the repressed housewife, is interrogated by the X’Ching who claim to be “purely telepathic” and are interested in human sexual relations (9).  When asked how humans have sex, Della can only answer “we enter one another” (9).

She is placed in a room filled with SF novels: “Invader From The Skies or The Robot’s Message  or Pleasure PalaceSin with Me, Spaceship To Venus, Spaceship To The Thighs, Flesh Farm, Alien Farm, and so on” (12).  In her confinement, she reminisces about her earlier life and reads the SF novels.  In a delightful Malzbergian touch, Invader From The Skies has the exact plot of Della’s own experience (which she does not realize of course)!  To Della, it “seemed ridiculous” that “people picked up off the streets or from their beds and thrown into confinement would have nothing better to do than to think about their whole lives up to the point that this had happened” (13).  If there is a single line that forms the thematic core of the novel it’s Della lamenting in her captivity, “The banality of it, she muttered again, as it was the only thing which made sense, which connected her to herself” (13).  Despite the crazy X’Ching, her abduction, unusual means of additional confinement and displacement, the only thing that seems real through her mental haze is how banal it all is.  How empty her life is.

The second fragment of James’ mind is Roger.  Roger is megalomanic who believes that he is “the only begotten son of the Maker” (28).  His torment—“Rogers shouted for a thousand years, shouted his agony as he was nestled in sheets as cold as fire”—does little weaken these self-deceptions.  His alien “Mentor” asks vague questions that Rogers cannot answer in any solid way—he knows too little about what is happening.  The agony of not knowing.  Soon Rogers, “wherever he was” (74) becomes the object of interest for crowds of aliens who bring him gifts.  The “only begotten son of the Maker” is little more than a tourist attraction.

Eventually the Della and poet plot lines are orchestrated to intersect by the X’Ching, the Keepers, whatever they might be.  In a harrowing and unsettling chase sequence across a New York populated by human protheses that regrow their heads and limbs when they are blasted off, James (as the poet) is forced to chase Della.

But what will the culmination of this spectacle for James lies comatose, cancerous, immobile on his hospital bed?

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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