Book Review: Scop, Barry N. Malzberg (1976)


(Stephen Fabian’s cover for the 1976 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

A TANTALIZING FRAGMENT/THE CONCEPTUAL CORE: “‘Don’t you understand what is going on here? [Scop] said, “Don’t you realize that we are living not in a present but in a dream of waste, an extension of all the terrors of the past; don’t you realize that we live awash in blood?” (105).

WHOSE BLOOD?/THE HISTORICAL JUNCTION: John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22nd, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald. Abraham Zapruder, a private citizen, films the death from the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza, Dallas.  Jack Ruby kills Oswald, who was awaiting trial, on November 24th.  James Earl Ray assassinates Martin Luther Jing, Jr. on April 4th, 1968.  Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan on June 5th, 1968.

Scop wants all three to never have happened.

THE RESULTING FUTURE:  The Kennedy assassinations feature heavily in Malzberg’s fiction.  What is this “dream of waste” (105) the extends from this historical juncture?  They embody a loss of American innocence, a moment where all was changed and violent spectacle prevailed as entertainment and the reality of the world.    A regimented future…  A future replete with “slaughter games,” where the uncivilized mob watches in glee–“creatures so brutalized and broken by the poverty of their lives”—and pantomime the violence and revel in fits of lust (51).

ENTER SCOP, A BITTER MAN/CYPHER AND HIS DELUSIONS: Scop, a “bitter man” (7), journeys illegally into the past to prevent the assassinations from occurring.  He cannot simply seize the assassins and remove them from the area for that “would leave a void in time which would be filled by even more diastrous events” (38).  Rather, he must convince them via their own violation to change their plans.  But, people in the past do not seem to have volition: “possibly the rumors are true; all of them are hypnotized into doing it” (36).

Scop daydreams about how the Masters will agree completely with his time-traveling aims: “Scop laughs also, the two of them laugh hopelessly in the dim clamp of the enclosure where joy fills Scop’s head for he knows that he has made his case to the Master and all will be changed” (14).  Of course, even in the delusion the hopelessness seeps through.  The pieces in this world are immobile: Scop trying to alter has merely reinforced the future (26).  In a typically beautiful turn of phrase Malzberg has Scop proclaim: “One man may change the course of history, may change the nature of the rooms in which we inhabit” (39).  This bearer of “truth” is alone in the world—truth is even embodied in his name, Scop is short for scopolamine, a truth serum.

But there are more layers.  One of the women he encounters in the past near the JFK assassination, Elaine Kozciouskos, is one of Scop’s prior lovers (disguised in her journeys into the past) and has her own agenda.  And then Scop dreams…  And we learn of Scop’s past in the regimented future of brutal games.  We learn the true extent of this future as a “dream of waste” (105).

FINAL THOUGHTS—IS THERE REDEMPTION IN THIS NIHILISTIC CYCLICALITY?  Without doubt Scop (1976) should be read by fans of Malzberg.  But, this not the place to start as only in the last third—the dreams of Oswald, the ramblings of a bureaucrat—does his sheer originality transfix.  This is my twelfth Malzberg novel and I place it in the bottom third or so.  It is not as inventive as Beyond Apollo (1972) or Revelations (1972) nor does it have the sheer beauty of Guernica Night (1975) or the condensed and painful (but brilliantly wrought) emptiness of The Gamesman (1975).  In Scop there is a certain tiredness permeating the first half, it lacks the relentlessness that defines so much of his work—until the viewpoints shift between characters…

As with all of Malzberg’s novels, the nihilistic scenario where truth is doomed from the beginning is seen through a lens of black comedy embodied by the first line: “Scop. (1995-?) A bitter man with bitter eyes and a bitter mouth set bitterly underneath a bitter forehead that leaked bitterness […]” (7).  The faster one understands the black comedy elements of Malzberg’s affective “tonescapes” the true craft of these visions emerge.

That aside, Scop fits nicely into the paranoid assassination films of the 70s that both contributed and fed off of the JFK obsession–for example, the remarkable underrated gem, The Parallax View (1974) and the even lesser known Executive Action (1973).  One cannot help but suspect that the release of the entire Zapruder film in 1975 inspired Malzberg to render Scop’s obsessions.

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28 thoughts on “Book Review: Scop, Barry N. Malzberg (1976)

  1. It sounds dissapointing in a way that you thought this one was inferior to “Beyond Apollo”,if that’s what mean.That one is the only Malzberg novel I’ve read,and you might remember me saying,that I wasn’t that impressed.

    The earlier part of your review made it sound impressive,as if it could be better than BA,and I might have gone for it otherwise.It seems that Malzberg is not an author I can get on with.

    • Beyond Apollo is brilliant. That is all 😉

      Most of the SF Malzberg wrote is impressive — this included. But, it is not at the heights of his other work and is definitely for his fans…

      If you want to give Malzberg another shot I recommend the rather different Universe Day (1971) — but, view it more as a short fiction collection than a cohesive novel.

      • Whatever you think is alright,if that’s what you really like.I think if I’m to read any more of his stuff,I should probably go for one of his short story collections next.I don’t know.

        We can’t all like the same books it appears.I think that Ballard,Silverberg,LeGuin and perhaps Dick,are the authors we share equal enthusiasm for.Malzberg though is the author I pretty much know you regard as above all others,and can’t argue with such a script choice as that.

      • Above all others? No. But yes, he is in my pantheon of elite figures!

        He definitely considered himself primarily a short story author. And many of his novels are formed around ideas first conceived of in his short stories — one gets the impression that it was more financially feasible to turn them into novels.

  2. Ok then.I’ll keep that one in mind.I have to say,I thought Anna Kavan’s “Ice” was brilliant and far superior to “Beyond Apollo”,even if your opinions about it are right .That’s another one we agree on though,but our tastes appear to diverge.

  3. Well,I think that because “Ice” isn’t and wasn’t published as a generic book,is probably why I prefer it to BA.Perhaps that’s why the two shouldn’t,as you say,be compared.You probably won’t agree,but I think there’s also a difference in craftsmanship between the two however.

    That’s also why I like so much of Ballard’s and Dick’s stuff I think,because it’s so different to what generic stuff is supposed to be like.They defied what was considered politic within genre confines,and wrote fiction that was indefinable,but I suppose you’ll say that about Malzberg.

    It’s not always the case though.For instance,I really don’t like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaiden’s Tale”,but prefer much of which is published within genre sf.

    • Richard, I don’t expect you to run out and grab all the Malzberg you can. But, having read only ONE of his novels I find it strange that you can argue about his “craft” as his prose is evocative, strangely brittle… No one does black comedy like Malzberg (Sladek perhaps, but he’s more slapstick). And as for BA, it is one of the most tightly conceived visions I’ve encountered — the commentary on writing SF, interspersed with the delusions of grandeur, the multiple retellings — it is a fully integrated work, he is in control of his vision.

      Likewise, Revelations is an amazingly “crafted” work — it is comprised entirely from the contents of a drawer, yet it works! A consummate craftsman through and through…

      • No,it’s ok.I think you misunderstand.I was only making my preferance and the probable reason for it.I thought perhaps it was pertinent,because we both liked it equally.It was definately less actually generic outwardly than BA,but as I said,I don’t always prefer such books.Books from both sides,strike you in different ways.

        Actually,I thought BA was quite smoothly written and eminently readable,but the trouble was,I got lost in the plot later in the book,and got confused.I found it vague.

        • Plot? What plot? That’s the point, layers of variation, as the astronaut (if he went on a mission at all) is insane! It’s more a commentary on the dehumanization of the space travel, of this encroaching mechanical age. And yes, fragmentation of narrative and psyche are all results — hence the narrative structure. But, simultaneously, it is a commentary on writing SF — and how SF presents a delusion of what we wish the future will be. And how the astronaut himself is a demonstration of the truth of it all, what really will happen. We might search for a “truth” in the entire fragmented spectrum of tellings but the “truth” is not what he says but what he demonstrates by telling.

          As Malzberg grew up on the pulp magazines his homage and critique is simultaneously loving, and adoring, yet, there’s a bitterness of betrayal seeping through the pages.

          Great stuff.

          • Alright then,not the plot,but I got lost in the maze,if you can call it that,of the candid confusion you allude to.I’m sure it’s all there what you say,but couldn’t penetrate it,probably because of it’s denseness.I just have a greater preference for “Ice”,probably because of it’s more linear line of thread.

            If it’s your favourite one,that’s alright.

    • As it is essentially a short story collection framed as a novel for purely financial reasons, you will be getting another side of Malzberg… But, who knows.

      I really enjoy the first story especially — I think his critique of pulp comes through in almost Spinrad à la The Iron Dream fashion. But, in a more easily digested length…

      • I’m hoping that he works better in the short story format.As a sort of fix-up,assuming I can call it that,I might find it more amenable.

        It sounds like Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”,and it worked there.Trying to compare the two authors though is another matter!

  4. Considering that I have In The Enclosure creeping to the top of my to-read list (probably mid-November), this just heightens my anticipation for Malzberg’s nihilistic goodness 🙂 Great review. I especially liked the headers, I assume Malzbergian stylistic choices…

  5. They embody a loss of American innocence, a moment where all was changed and violent spectacle prevailed as entertainment and the reality of the world. A regimented future… A future replete with “slaughter games,” where the uncivilized mob watches in glee–“creatures so brutalized and broken by the poverty of their lives”—and pantomime the violence and revel in fits of lust (51)

    Enticing as a concept. And true in some ways – ‘violent spectacle as entertainment’ has indeed become the order of the day (particularly in the U.S.). I’ve often pondered the expression ‘loss of American innocence’ as it refers to the Kennedy assassination. This is perhaps the best explanation of it that I’ve come across.

    The ‘slaughter games’ concept reminds of the oh-so-popular ‘Hunger Games’ – I wonder if this novel might have been the inspiration for that.

    • I suspect there is a LOT of history scholarship about the impact of the JFK assassination et al. on the American psyche and the perceived “loss of innocence” — in 70s film, in fiction, in perceptions of the political system, etc. If you’re in the mood for some scholarly history reading (fun fun fun!) then let me know and I’ll ask some of my colleagues for recommendations… I am not an Americanist historian myself.

      • Oh! Thanks so much for the offer of help. I have read a lot on the subject, it’s just that that phrase, loss of innocence, has rarely been adequately defined to me. It’s almost as if each person who uses it refers to his/her own interpretation of what it meant/means. Maltzburg’s use of the phrase somehow rings as more profound than most. That’s really what I meant when I referred to it.

        • Ah, well, there’s a lot of Malzberg for you to explore that examines this notion… But then again, the entire worldscape conveyed by Malzberg’s novels/stories seems to be derived from this interpretation of JKF’s assassination etc.

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