Update: My short article on the topic of “All About the Backlist” for SF Signal’s Mind Meld

I was kindly asked by Andrea over at The Little Red Reviewer to submit an article for SF Signal’s Mind Meld feature (she is also one of their editors).  Along with a cross section of other bloggers/authors and the like, I discussed the range and variety an author’s less famous backlist might have and how it can be a minefield of unrealized potential and financial obligations (think of what John Brunner was writing in the same year as Stand on Zanzibar!).  I wrote about Barry N. Malzberg [original link here]—I am the last contributor.

For those who do not visit SF Signal I have decided to put it on my site as well.

I would love to hear your thoughts.


Tim White’s cover for the 1979 edition

Backlists can be unnerving places. Like the vibrations of residual sounds that gather across the urban landscape in Ballard’s “The Sound-Sweep” (1960), the lists themselves resonate both discordant and dulcet—a deluge of aborted passions, financial desires, experimental tendencies not yet crystalline. Although Clifford D. Simak might produce a Cosmic Engineers (1950), he also invoked a most extraordinary allegorical worldscape in Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967) where the promise of immortality (undelivered) causes irrevocable transformations—the living live through life without living waiting for a resurrection where they can finally live. Robert Silverberg might shift entirely, as if on whim, from old-fashioned SF adventure where young Heinlein-esque space boys look for those “cool artifacts that do great things” in Across a Billion Years (1969) to The Man in the Maze (1969), a restless and uneasy rumination on pariahism and filled with delusions of self-martyrdom and all those other uncomfortable emotions we try so desperately to hide. Backlists are contradictory places.

Don Maitz’s cover for the 1979 edition

In the last two years there is not an author I have read and enjoyed more than Barry N. Malzberg. He fears the encroaching mechanical age. It is a future where the newly insane will stumble into a priapic wilderness where meaningful connections are dulled, where our passions are now perfunctory monstrosities. His work plays with us, with storytelling. Each novel, each short story is a carefully wrought existential trap. There is something profoundly daunting about opening a book, Guernica Night (1974), where the spectacle begins with JFK, now a plastic manikin in Disney Land/Disney World, stumbling across a stage delivering fragments of his famous addresses. The same thing goes with confronting the metafictional labyrinth of his most widely read novel Beyond Apollo (1972) whose 67 chapters could be the ramblings of an insane astronaut, or a deliberate novelistic construct of said astronaut, or… There is humor here among the implanted memories, deconstructions, and proclamations of artifice, I promise. But where to begin?

Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1971 edition

At first Barry N. Malzberg had other pretensions of course, under his own name. K. M. O’Donnell was the name under which his first SF experiments took form. From his backlist I present Universe Day (1971). As with many of his novels, it was cobbled together from both previously published and new material.   It begins, quite adeptly, with “Apocrypha as Prologue or: The Way We Wish It Happened.” The delusion is laid bare for all to see. Universe Day is future history Malzberg-style where the entire range of nightmares are experienced: the scatological realities of space life, the moment after a totem proclaiming humankind’s achievement sinks into the Venusian mud, and the sadness that sets in—as all the parades and parties wind to a close—when broken heroes are interviewed not by the adoring public but the welfare office… Backlists are remarkable places.

24 thoughts on “Update: My short article on the topic of “All About the Backlist” for SF Signal’s Mind Meld

  1. I just finished reading another one of your recommendations,”Ice” by Anna Kavan.I won’t discuss at length yet,until you publish your promised review.I will say though,quite honestly,I thought it was twice as good as “Beyond Apollo”.Much clearer and more coherent.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! Ice should definitely feature on more best of the 60s lists. I will put it on a Top 10 list of the 60s if I were to remake my old one.

      But yes, I have too much on my plate now to tackle a review of that book! Eventually.

        • I’m not so sure. Firstly, she was was probably writing the novel when Ballard’s work was published. She was also a novelist not in SF and might not have been aware of Ballard’s earlier efforts — it should be noted that he hadn’t exactly entered the mainstream yet either.

  2. Except for the article about Bradbury, and your inclusion of Simak and Silverberg, all of the contributors dealt only with authors who established their reputations after 1970. Most of them after 1980. Is it just the publishers who aren’t interested in the past? We’re certainly long past the days when Ace or Ballantine would reissue three of four titles from an author’s backlist, and all with matching cover art. Or is it today’s readers who aren’t interested in the past – who are only interested in what feels current? I started reading SF in the 1960s, but have always had an interest in SF of the ’50s, ’40s, and ’30s. Heck, I still enjoy H.G. Wells. Old stories are like two-way time machines, taking me back to the years when they were written as well forward to the futures they imagined. A mention of Bakelite, slide rules, or vacuum tubes doesn’t bother me in the least. Ah well.

    • I want to echo your sentiment about how reading old stories provides an insight into the attitudes and life of the past. When you read a book written in the days before you were born, you are exploring a world you never had an opportunity to experience, and in a more direct way than you do when reading or watching a “period piece” produced by people who weren’t even alive during the time period they are depicting.

    • Gollancz masterworks does a good job introducing older classics to the newer audience. Although, that doesn’t mean that people read them.

      SF Signal is predominately about newer authors so it really doesn’t surprise me that most of the people selected would have blogs and interests focusing on stuff post-80s.

      Perhaps it’s the historian in me but I am fascinated by the contexts that produced these works. And of course the stories themselves… Nothing technological in terms of “datedness” bothers me.

      • Though our tastes differ (only somewhat – we’d probably agree on Ballard), I think you’re one of the good guys, keeping interest in old SF alive.
        Gollancz primarily serves readers across the pond, at least as far as ink-and-paper books go. I’ve never seen a Gollancz volume in a bookstore here. (When I wanted a hardcover copy of Bob Shaw’s SHADOW OF HEAVEN for my library, my local second-hand bookstore had to order it from the UK.)
        I’ve often wondered why contemporary American readers and publishers have so little interest in the genre’s past. (An exception might be the SFBC.) The conclusion I’ve come to is that SF went mainstream with STAR WARS in 1977, and mainstream American culture always focuses on what’s hot right now. Before 1977, interest in SF literature was largely confined to a subculture; it was a literature of outsiders (and I include the editors who handled the SF lists at the publishing houses). Outsider subcultures are strongly interested in their own history, because it serves to validate them. Mainstream culture, not so much.
        (Not that I blame STAR WARS alone for the changes in SF after 1977. But it’s interesting to peruse issues of the SF magazines from 1977-78. Review columns and reader letters almost unanimously despised the movie, and concern was expressed about the impression of SF it would give to the general public. Well, little did they realize how much the genre would be changed by mainstreaming – by the fact that there was money to be made now, and new writers and old publishers wanted a piece of it. I guess the upside was that more people could actually make a living from SF post-1977 … okay, I’m done rambling now.)

      • Haha, thanks Tom. I dunno, I’ve seen plenty of used copies of SF Masterwork books on the shelves of the various used book stores I’ve perused — especially PKD. I would suspect that there is a growing interested in “vintage” (I really hate that word) SF.

        I have a paperback copy of Shadow of Heaven–unread–but, boy, the cover is atrocious.

        I dunno what to think about Star Wars. As a film I freaking LOVED it as a kid. Although I never wanted any light sabers etc and preferred Star Trek: The Next Generation… Well, Data…. But, as science fiction it’s everything I dislike about the genre. Good vs. Evil, lack of social content, space opera at its most simplistic, I could go on.

    • If I were pushed, I might argue that authors who produced the bulk of their work after 1980 can’t have a “backlist.” Technically of course any writer can have a backlist. What I’m referring to is its freshness in the genre’s memory. Like Tom, looking through the list of authors on SF Signal details leaves me disappointed. Neil Gaiman? He’s still hitting bestseller lists. Iain Banks? His last novel was published in 2013. Jim Butcher? Are you kidding? He’s churning out pulp as we write. Kate Elliot? She represents many things that are wrong with the current publishing ideal. But, I digress. I’ve said too much. Suffice to say, glad to see you represented, Joachim.

      • Jesse, I’m not going to lie but I’m sort of confused by the people they asked…. I seem to be one of the few interested in SSF pre-1980 on that list. If I had known I might have discussed someone rather less challenging/off-putting for a lot of general SF readers — perhaps focused on Silverberg’s lesser known but brilliant works, or even Kate Wilhelm’s…

      • I dunno, Jesse. Back when Ace and Ballantine would re-release backlist titles (often repeatedly throughout the 1960s and early ’70s), many of those authors were still publishing new works. They were still fresh in the genre’s memory. But perhaps the situation was really the same back then as it is now? That is, readers were only interested in the SF they grew up with, as well as the SF that came after. (Altogether, only SF that was current.) Well, Ace had some success publishing pre-Golden Age stuff – titles originally published before the readers of the 1960s and early ’70s were born. Burroughs, of course. But also Ray Cummings, Ralph Milne Farley, and Otis Adelbert Kline. Airmont kept Stanton Coblentz and others in print. Ballantine began their “Best of” series with Stanley Weinbaum. And I don’t know how many editions Pyramid put out, back then, of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s books. So the situation really was different. Old authors were still part of the SF lists from large publishers; they weren’t relegated to limited editions from small presses. And I’m sticking to my theory that the mainstreaming of SF, post-1977, accounts for the difference. 🙂

        • Tom (and anyone else), you are welcome to go to SF Signal and propose a Mind Meld Topic (there’s a link in every entry) + people to write mini-articles on said topic. They are a MAJOR fanzine (as you probably know) and have won the Hugo (for their podcast and fanzine proper) and received quite a few nominations.

          I have a handful of ideas that would be fun to read — for example, “Favorite pre-Le Guin woman SF author,” or “Women of the pulp magazines,” “Desperately should be read books from the 50s” or “Metafiction in SF” (most of those would be about Scalzi’s Redshirts, alas), “most intriguing 60s/70s SF work on Vietnam”, etc etc etc.

  3. I have to echo the above sentiments. Yours is an excellent, unique contribution to the mind meld series. How awesome to see you pop up over there!

  4. I think you might be right Joachim concerning Ballard and Kavan.I think she probably read some books published within the sf genre,but as you say,she could have been already writing “Ice” when “The Crystal World” was published,and was unaware of it.It seems much more likely I think,that it’s just parallel development,probably due to similar literary influences.

    Writing outside of the sf genre,was to Kavan’s advantage,unlike Ballard,whose eventual rise to mainstream greatness,was a slow but steady climb.

    • Yeah, exemplified by Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), literary/ruminative meditations on end times were definitely appealing for readers and authors at the time. I think hers is distinct, not only is she MUCH older than authors such as Ballard but also inspired by her own experiences (all the discussions of overbearing mothers etc in Ice is related to her experiences with her own mother + Ice itself is often seen as a metaphor of heroin addiction). She died quite soon after the book was published. Also, the serious feminist tone of the book—the male character cannot help but fixate on the woman’s bodily harm, she is an object to be harmed/possessed, is very distinct from other SF authors writing on similar subjects.

      • The ecological disaster theme of TDW,plunges the world into a prehistoric tropical climate that arouses powerful atavistic feelings buried deep within the characters.The effects are cerebral,as it is in TCW.The connection between the new ice age and the often hallucinatory but brilliantly depicted vistas experienced by the main character in “Ice”,are not readily apparent,but the girl,who herself,is cold and crystalline,like a sort of ice nymph,could obviously represent her predicament and the encroaching world climate.There was no obvious reference to drugs in the novel either,but the inward and outward situations,seem to conjure a state of mind that could produce similar experiences of those taking such toxic substances.

        There was obviously subject matter in her book that would not have been tolerated by those publishing books within the sf genre at the time,but “Dangerous Visions” I think,published in 1967,changed the attitude and themes of those inside sf.Kavan’s remarkable stuff could fairly be called speculative fiction,as can Ballard,including those in DV and others,who approached themes of generic sf.

  5. The Mind Meld topic I’d propose is pre-1977 SF that’s more relevant today than when it was originally published. Some recently read stories that leap to mind: Henry Kuttner’s YEAR DAY (1953), about a society oppressed by omnipresent advertising; Isaac Asimov’s THE DEAD PAST (1956), which is a neat twist on our fears of a surveillance society; James Blish’s NO JOKES ON MARS (1965), about the extinction of an extraterrestrial animal because there’s a market that – for highly questionable reasons – values its parts. Which leads to another possible topic: how the novel (especially the overly long novel) now dominates SF, whereas most of the best stuff pre-1977 was to be found in the short story, novelette, and novella forms.

    • I’m not sure how much has changed in publishing within the sf genre,but of course it was usual for authors to begin there sf writing careers with short stories in the magazines.There were exceptions,such as Sam Delaney and John Crowley,who began with novels.

      This trend has continued I assume,and probably explains why the novel has come to dominate sf since the 1970s.

  6. Yes,Ray Bradbury did,whose series of short stories were linked to form the successful “The Martian Chronicles”.His other novel,”Dandelion Wine” was excellent too however.Robert Sheckley later did well with novels too.Both of course showed particular strength with the short story form.

    Philip K.Dick,who started by writing short stories,and could produce excellent pieces in this form,found greater freedom and scope for his genius in novels.

    Actual genre sf started in the old pulp magazines,which required authors to churn out short tales at a rapid rate,leaving no time to write anything of book length.A “science fiction” novel at that time,would have been published as a book without the label of course.

    The origins of genre sf as a short form,should be obvious then I assume.

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