Future Media Short Story Review: Barry N. Malzberg’s “The Idea” (1971) (as K. M. O’Donnell)

Today I’ve reviewed the thirteenth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. Here, I finally return to the nightmarish embrace of Barry N. Malzberg.

Previously: Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” in Light Years and Dark: Science Fiction and Fantasy of and for Our Time, ed. Michael Bishop (1984). You can read it online here.

Up Next: Walter F. Moudy’s “The Survivor” in the May 1965 issue of Amazing Stories, ed. Cele Lalli (Goldsmith). You can read it online here.

3.5/5 (Good)

Barry N. Malzberg’s “The Idea” first appeared in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories (1971) (as K. M. O’Donnell). I cannot find the story online. Please contact me if you do not own a copy and want a PDF of the story. I recommend you procure the fantastic anthology TV: 2000, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh (1982) which “The Idea” also appears in. I’ll be returning to this volume in coming weeks for this series.

Reading a Barry N. Malzberg story is like returning to a familiar embrace–an embrace of the blackest satire conveyed via terrifying existential traps. Ever since I read his masterpiece Beyond Apollo (1972), a metafictional destruction of America’s obsession with space exploration, Malzberg joined the pantheon of my favorite authors.

“The Idea” is a crystalline manifestation of Malzberg’s recurrent theme of media’s double-bladed role as a revealer of truths and constructor of obfuscating narratives that take on a life of their own. These visions often parallel Abraham Zapruder’s accidental 1963 short film that simultaneously revealed the nature of JFK’s assassination but also helped spawn countless conspiracy theories.

Howard, somewhere within the mid-level bureaucratic ranks of a TV network, conceives of an idea for the screen. The nature of the idea isn’t entirely clear. It’s “educational” Howard proclaims to his boss Miller, “one of the desperate men in their upper forties who remind” him that he is mortal (127). Like an organizational man of the 50s (to steal William H. Whyte. Jr.’s phrase), Howard feels the bureaucratic pull that keeps him in his place and threatens his virility–“I function poorly under pressure, an old predicament” (127) he confesses (knowing Malzberg, the sexual innuendo entirely intended). But his idea, if the executives hear it, will take him to the top. And so he plots action.

The idea glides through network approval. The executives with their hair pieces adore it (129). Miller has a mild heart heart attack and Howard gains complete control over the idea. And on pilot day, his family gathers around the television, an act replicated across America. And there’s a strange power in the screen with its “closeness, the compression” (131). When the show’s over, his wife takes the children and leaves him. And Howard begins to drink in the kitchen. And at the third drink, the phone calls pour in, laden with grief (131). The idea lays bare the emptiness that resides somewhere in all of our hearts. It slices through the “accretion of knowledge in this highly technologized age” (132). For a moment Howard’s now the man “who almost destroyed America” (132). But a new narrative will be constructed and soon all will say “it never happened” and continue to “blame the Communists or the drinking water” for kicks (132).

“The Idea” is one of many Malzberg fictions that ruminate on the power of the media landscape of the future (I provided a list below of recommended nightmares). In Revelations (1972), a brutal TV show attempts to provide a “stunning look into ourselves” by abusing its guests, seduced by the show’s message and desire for notoriety. In Screen (1968), a depressed worker for the Department of Welfare is able to project himself into a film and make love to Brigitte Bardot and other film stars. And in “After the Unfortunate Accident” (1975), the arena of the movie theater becomes a perverse manifestation of hell in which the audience watches reel after reel of their past lives. In each instance, the medium of the screen proclaims itself the oracle of truth yet the forcible extraction and reinterpretation of “truth” transforms it into another mechanized artifice pandering to our obsession with dark spectacle.

There are no extra words. It’s concise and punchy and suggests just enough.

Recommended for fans of Malzberg.

Other recommended Malzberg stories on the media landscape of the future:

“After the Unfortunate Accident” (1975)

“Death to the Keeper” (1968)

The Falling Astronauts (1971)

“Notes for a Novel About the First Ship Ever to Venus” (1971)

Revelations (1972)

Screen (1968)


For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

8 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Barry N. Malzberg’s “The Idea” (1971) (as K. M. O’Donnell)

    • Thank you. Have you read any of his work? Do you enjoy it? I would classify him as an acquired taste… and definitely one for me!

      I think the most extreme of his media visions has to be Revelations (1972) which I linked in the review. I see “The Idea” as thematically similar but Malzberg narrows in on the method that will tear into the heart of things but also simultaneously pander to our basest desire to see others destroyed through our screens,

      • I have not read any of his work yet. Your review is the first time I have confronted it, and it’s now on my list. Which one is better to read first, Revelations or The Idea?

        • Revelations is the far superior work. It’s a masterpiece in my view. Note: it’s intense, brutal, explicit, metafictional, etc. You gotta be in the mood! Often readers start with Beyond Apollo.

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