Book Review: Universe Day, Barry N. Malzberg (as K. M. O’Donnell) (1971)

(Uncredited—but looks like Paul Lehr—cover for the 1971 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

“…I see no reason why we shouldn’t go to Mars in 1982…” Vice President of the U.S. July, 1969

Barry N. Malzberg’s fourth SF novel Universe Day (1971) is comprised of numerous previously published short stories as well as new material.* It might be best to think of the novel as a thematically linked sequence—in what might be termed a “future history” but unlike any you have ever read—of impressions and snippets of “what really happened” paired with what we want to happen or delude ourselves into thinking happened.  All his major themes are on display, the space program as a manifestation of humankind’s delusions of grandeur, the dehumanizing power of technology, space as playground of existential nightmares, etc.

One of Malzberg’s most appealing qualities is the sheer variety of existential situations he conjures.  Yes, many of the themes are repeated story to story (and novel to novel) but the black comedy elements are so often overlooked.  The chapter/short story “Touching Venus, 1999” encapsulates Malzberg’s absurdist brilliance.  In moments of metafictional delight, he acknowledges the artifice of the array of scenarios he constructs, the performance of it all.

Highly recommended for Malzberg fans.  I also found this one of the easier introductions to his literary and rather provocative SF.  Perhaps those who have been intrigued but not convinced by my previous eleven reviews (index) of his work should go ahead and procure a copy…

*Note: For each part I have gone ahead and indicated the title of previously published material in parentheses.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

Apocrypha as Produced or: The Way We Wished it Happened:  “The way we wish it happened” is a delusion propagated by the pulps and the rhetoric of the space race, men with interchangeable names (John Golden, Golan Joathan, Gull Johnson, etc.) set off an conquer the galaxy, exterminate natives, write memoirs, return as heroes.  Jupiter is conquered in 2146 by Grant John, “fighting every step of the way,” leaving a tablet proclaiming humankind’s greatness, “Here came men from Earth, Mercury, Venus and Mars, voyaging outward through the imperishable night” (15).  Upon their return to Earth they are paraded “as a reconstruction […] of the coming of Christ” (15).  This grand narrative is the masculine thrust [innuendo intended and Malzberg approved] that propels so much space opera.  In each case, the exact pattern is replicated and the events on earth in no way improve.  The stage is set, the delusion of grandeur will be dismembered, the heroes will fragmented and demythologized…

I, Making Titan, 2500 (“Making Titan”):  Or, what really happened.  Technological progress as a dehumanizing force and the search for meaning…  Rakos (a professional demonologist), the unnamed captain who is caught up in the propaganda of the space program, and Kharsh (a scientist) are the crew on a last ditch effort to find a suitable planet for colonization.  All previous attempts have failed.  Each of their perspectives on the world, obsessions (sexual, scientific, religious, etc), and interpersonal hatred of each other reaches a boiling point as they approach Titan.

II, Some Headlines in the Void 1968 (“A Triptych”):  A speculation on how reality is translated (in Malzberg’s present) for public consumption: “Control has reminded us to avoid obscenities conscientiously along with the double-entendres while on the network and to stay properly dressed and disciplined during television interlude” (35).  Of course, the more nitty gritty of life in space, such as urination and deification, are not for public knowledge: “we are careful to void just before the television transmissions so that by no unnatural wink or glimmer of eye will we rivet audience attention to the suspicion of scatology in the void” (36).  Malzberg’s puns/innuendos/wordplay is on show–void (to take a shit) vs. void (space).

The narrator dispenses some of Malzberg’s thematic material that helps provide linkage between the disparate portions of the novel: “I foresee, rather, lapses: fitful, if not complete, social and technological reversals which will force us to begin again in space every two centuries or so, largely to the same purposes, because there is no way in which we will ever discover how to make use of it” (40).  Windows like this one in to the motivating philosophy of the stories help make sense of the novel’s repetition (for example in part one).

III, Tracking the Moons of Mars 2042:  An astronaut approaches Deimos, a moon of Mars and is assaulted with a “mad, merry monologue:” “WE DO NOT BELONG HERE, WE HAVE NO BUSINESS HERE, WE ARE TRESPASSING ON SOME UNITY WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND” (43).   His mission is resurrected by the interjection of a popular tune, a brainwashing propagandistic anthem of space and its virtues (?): “OH, WE CAN CONQUER THE FULLNESS OF SPACE/BUT NOT THE INWARD DETHS/FOR THAT, FOR THAT CAN ONL BE DONE/ BY YOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO” (44).  The similar experience of a woman astronaut approaching Phobos parallels the first.

IV, Offertory & Resolution:  This section contains a similar scenario to the one found in The Falling Astronauts (1971).  Astronauts returns to Earth and is arraigned for abandoning his comrades (he was the module pilot) on the surface of the moon.  The story takes the form of a dream, visions of the heroes welcome he would receive when he returned, the possibility of politics—the space program as some virile extension of mankind.

V, The First Colonists 2036:  A colony on Mars receives messages from the President: “Do not forget that the great writer Ray Bradbury once reminded us that inside every man is a little clock ticking, ticking him toward his destiny, saying get out, get out.  We do not yet know our destiny, of course, but we will find it if we only have the courage to voyage […]” (55).  The air on Mars is unbreathable—four colonists in some moment of madness took off their helmets and died.  No sociological extrapolation, no use of games theory, can predict the ways in which mankind will react when placed in alien environments…  A general despair and gloom pervades the colony.  But was the suicide of the colonists actually suicide?  Or rather, some complex martyrdom meant to prove that mankind can indeed survive on Mars? Will the narrator be compelled to follow this “courageous, inspired act, one o those sheer, mad thrust toward the unknown”?  (59).  Insanity reinterpreted as inspired leadership…

VI, The Conquest of Conquistadors, 2423: One of Malzberg’s favorite narrative/thematic techniques is on show: the pairing of the mundane everyday with bigger, cosmic issues.  Often, the everyday is some Freudian manifestation: the conflation of his wife with aliens, “What the hell are you doing in here looking like that?  You barely have any right to the universe, let alone our quarters, you clean yourself up this moment or we’ll throw you out and take your away your oxygen mask!” (61).  Constructed as a series of conversations between an astronaut and an alien about humankind and its place in the universe.  The entire scenario is a constructed brainwashing tool.  A programmed hallucination to test the astronaut under stress…

VII, An Interval in the Adventure, 1999: “There’s nothing really doing on the moon” (70).   Living on the Moon was a fad, now people want to live on Mars.  The Moon is no longer the new frontier, the “next barrier for tourists to crack” (71).  In this environment of malaise and abandonment, the narrator is traumatized after seeing a couple having sex (or rather, something similar but with rearranged spacesuits) out on the Moonscape.  After he confronts them they call into question the entire mission, the entire purpose of the settlement on the Moon.  His facade of control cracks and he shoots them in cold blood.  Nothing happens on the moon.

VIII, In The Hot Planet, 2117: The landing on Mercury is a success.  Although the astronauts, Coles (in the view of the narrator, a “crude, simple-minded, goes for pornographic illustrations and long raving monologues about his drinking adventures” 77) and the narrator were selected for compatibility descend into antagonism.  Because of previous space mission disasters (for example, to Venus), the astronauts are allowed more personal lenience in regards to self-expression.  Paralleling their dysfunctional interaction is the political dysfunction on Earth.  Stuck in a hot capsule with little do with contrasting personalities and views of the space program mirrors the dissolution on Earth.  The problem is they are supposed to be signs of humankind’s great space adventure and all the glories we can achieve.

IX, Fuckday Six, 2402:  “Feuer picks up the microphone, thumps it over and says, ‘All right, we’ve settled here now into a long, shallow crevice.  I would estimate it as being two miles across, maybe a couple feet deep, the ship is rocking a little but no real problems.  We’re in!  We’re into Ganymede!” (89).  Space exploration as a large erotic adventure.  A future erogenous zone, the slate onto which we must project our sexual inadequacies and fantasies….  Malzberg’s futures obsess over the lack of feeling, the lack of real connection between people.

X, The Martian Campaign, 2124  (“Pacem Est” with Kris Neville, rewritten for this chapter): Later in his career Malzberg frequently co-wrote short fiction/novels.  However, this is one of the few examples from this period.  It is hard to tell Kris Neville’s writing from Malzberg’s and I would need to do a comparison as this was rewritten (by Malzberg) for this volume.  “The dead nun lay under the barbed wire in a cole luminescence that seemed to be candlelight” (97).  An endless war, an unseen enemy, a gloom that pervades all… Are their aliens at all?  Or, are the casualties simply those that have seen the senselessness of it all?

XI, Touching Venus, 1999:  Easily my favorite existential nightmare of the collection—the black comedy mixed with pure absurdist strokes is hilariously grim.  An explorer lands on Venus, repeats a canned speech about how wonderful it is to conquer another planet.  Later he recounts what Venus looks like, “It’s kind of like a muddy, gaseous swamp, spread out as far as the eyes can see” (105).  More alarming is the fact that the columns transported to Venus—in order to “claim” the planet—carved with verse by the greatest poets commemorating man have slowly started sinking into the mud.  And as they are consumed by the planet the astronaut starts to question the words about freedom, and liberty exposed by the President in his personal congratulations.  And the astronauts decides that there really is something beautiful about the planet and its mires and perhaps real “freedom” exists away from the rest of mankind…. until the brainwashing sinks in and he is recalled to Earth.

XII, The Message on Deimos, 2309: Supposedly previous explorers on Phobos found tablets from some ancient race, cults spring up inspired by the writings accessible only in published form.  But soon the tourists will come to see the real site.

XIII, After Titan, 2500+ (“Elephants”):  The strangest fragment of them all…  The far future, a collection of children transfixed by a juggler, cryptic moments hint at societal transformation: “Applause is forbidden, of course” (122).  The Magician lectures the audience, “I am a professional.  This is a performance.  The last one, but a performance nevertheless.  Show some common respect for artifice, for the devices of manipulation!” (126).  Similar metafictional moments abound in later novels such as Guernica Night (1975)—a caution not to take him too seriously?  These are all scenarios, playing out similar scenes, a performance.

XIV, The Revolt on Ganymede, 2471:  The second best story of the novel: “Things are breaking down” (128).  Three men on Ganymede have convinced themselves that they have been elected by the wills of the colonists to positions of power.  In reality, they are the only colonists on Ganymede.  The three men go through all the motions of representation, election, and political dealings.  Cast in the strokes of an epic political breakdown and revolt, “The Crisis Builds” (132), “Thickening of the Situation, an Emergency Impends” (136), the “revolt” in reality in simply the endless machinations of the three insane men as power shifts from one to another.

XV (not labeled), Interview with an Astronaut, 2008 (part of this chapter was published as “How I Take Their Measure”): The conclusion is perfect.  The interview with an astronaut is an interview between a welfare officer and an astronaut.  After all the ticker tape parades, and promises of memoirs and fame and fortune, it all boils down to this: “‘I’m demoralized,’ he said” (148).

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Universe Day, Barry N. Malzberg (as K. M. O’Donnell) (1971)

    • I look forward to your review! I could NOT make this one concise… I had way too much to say — and it felt like a short story collection rather than novel (so I needed to say things about each section).

  1. So then Joachim,I’ve finally read what is by your own elavation it seems,a much acclaimed book.I would say it contains excellent and subversive themes for a spicy cocktail of excitement and intrigue.Malzberg also possesses a light,literate style that is highly readable.It is clear and doesn’t ramble,unlike what I thought of “Beyond Apollo”.I thought it was reasonable,but that was all though,and rather flat in tone.

    “Beyond Apollo” was much more intense and visionary.It was also very readable.If it had been written in the clear and precise manner of UD,it would have found it a far better book than that one and a far better book.

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