the Little Red Reviewer

Guest post: Metafiction and the Demystification of the Cult of the Astronaut

Posted on: January 3, 2013

Please join me in welcoming Joachim Boaz of Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations (on twitter at @SFRuminations).  Joachim focuses mainly on science fiction from the 1940 through the 1980s. His indepth reviews often give background information about the author’s life and the social circumstances in which the book was written.   Many of us discovered Joachim’s blog because of his frequent posting of Vintage, Golden aAge, and New Wave science fiction cover art, much of it surreal and over the top.   artwork that could never be used today.  I asked Joachim to write a guest post for Vintage month, and Wow did he deliver! Even better, he writes about Barry N. Malzberg, an award winning author I’m not familiar with.  I’m sure after reading this post, you’ll be intrigued as well!  Scroll to the bottom for a list of  Joachim’s recommended titles and links to his reviews.

I also just recently learned that filming is scheduled to begin soon for Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo!

Enjoy!

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Barry N. Malzberg (1939 –): Metafiction and the Demystification of the Cult of the Astronaut

by Joachim Boaz of Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

In the World Book Encyclopedia Science Service publication The United States Astronauts and their Families: A Pictorial Presentation (1965), each astronaut is allotted a two-page spread replete with staged photos of their family life and hobbies. Otis L. Wiese, the editor of the volume, proclaims grandiosely “Man’s reach for the world of space is born of his insatiable curiosity about the unknown… his indomitable drive for accomplishment… his instinctive response to a challenge. Astronauts-Husbands-Fathers: these men are the men featured here but it’s essentially as family men that we portray them” (i).

The photographs are fascinating. Roger B. Chaffee’s wife Martha teaches him lunar geography (22), L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. sits at the helm of his speedboat Bluebonnet which is capable of reaching 80 knots (28), in another photo him and his family spend time with their German shepherd (29), Donn F. Eisele teaches his daughter “the finer points of marksmanship” (35), while Alan B. Shepard, Jr. plays piano tunes for his daughters (61) and in the facing image shakes hands with John F. Kennedy (61). Their families illustrate the epitome of the American family: the ultra-masculine man with his cars and boats, the supportive wife facilitating her husband’s heroic greatness, and a gaggle of adoring children. Many captions establish parallels between the job of being an astronaut and his family life. For example, under an image of Russell L. Schweickart playing blocks with his children it reads “Astronaut Schweickart supervises a building project at home – at the Manned Spacecraft center he works on very different “space” problems” (53). Remember, this was the age of astronaut trading cards; the age where children meticulously filled out charts of the participants in all the United States manned space flights; the age of the astronaut celebrity.

Beyond ApolloIn Barry N. Malzberg’s sci-fi visions there is nothing farther from these so-called “truths” presented by Wiese’ publication. Malzberg presents the American Space Program as a pernicious product of an encroaching mechanical age that warps its young naïve idealists who slowly go insane, become impotent, and destroy their families in frantic attempts to embody these ideals. In The United States Astronauts and their Families, the masculine ideal is further characterized by their utopian family existence. Malzberg portrays the family life of his anti-heroes as attempting to embody the ideals of the space program. But it is a dystopic family existence, a violent family existence, an existence characterized by desperate attempts to ferret out meaning…

All of Malzberg’s astronaut characters interact with their wives mainly through the experience of impotence. In The Falling Astronauts (1971), the first in a thematic trilogy of books on the space program, Colonel Richard Martin interprets a sexual experience with his wife, who may or may not be asleep, in terms docking spaceship: “he feeds into her slowly, feeling the tentative hold, the slow, circling motions of orbit, anxious to grasp, but fearful that if he does so the connection will be broken…” (7). In Malzberg’s most critically acclaimed novel, Beyond Apollo (1972), our astronaut anti-hero even dreams of the fierce sexual prowess of his Captain – who may or may not be himself depending on how you read the work’s layered metafictional turns – while in his own life his wife derives no satisfaction from his mechanical administrations and impotence.

It is important to note that although a great majority of Malzberg’s sci-fi predecessors glorified space travel and proclaimed the positives of humankind’s obsession with exploration, there are many earlier stories which discuss potential flaws, the damage it might eventually have on families, how it will manipulate young idealists: C. M. Kornbluth’s short story, ‘The Altar at Midnight’ (1952) and James Gunn’s collection Station in Space (1958) are great examples.  But Malzberg goes beyond these earlier works and suggests that the space program makes machines out of men.  This plays out in the extensive scenes between Evans and his wife in Beyond Apollo along these lines: “We have been geared for efficiency.  I begin to fuck her like a proper astronaut […]“ (27).

Malzberg Revelations

Malzberg’s fiction is heavily inspired by the rise of postmodern metafiction in the mid to late 1960s and the New Wave movement in science fiction. Metafictional techniques –- for example, the author breaking the fourth wall by addressing the reader or referencing the cigarette add placed in the paperback and the use of unreliable narrators and experimental structure: the epistolary novels, etc.— combine in a particularly jarring yet effective way with one of Malzberg’s overarching themes, the nature and quest for truth. His characters relentless seek the “truth.” In In The Enclosure (1973) the alien main character Quir urgently desires to figure out why he has no memories of the reason for his voyage to dispense information to humankind that has resulted in their imprisonment. But, he slowly realizes that his own people most likely implant the memories that he has. His journal, the novel itself, is an attempt to physically memorialize something that is known. Quir must do this because his people are trapped in a degrading environment where their own past is unreachable. In Beyond Apollo the book itself might be the novel written by the main character, or at the very least it has many parallels. The reader actively must decipher what is “truth” and what are elaborate authorial deceptions recounted by the mentally unstable narrator. Whether the narrator even knows what truly happened or is coping with extreme trauma by telling lies is also up for debate. In Guernica Night (1975) Malzberg himself enters one of the final chapters of the narrative and a conversation he had with another author who tells him to “use artifice, use art, use masks, the manipulation of masks behind which the truth may be given, because only the masks are universal” (124). In Revelations (1972), which I would argue is one of his best novels, Malzberg invents a television program which seeks to strip away all artifice from its participants to get at their true selves: “The truth is sacred: it is high, it is deadly, it is concealed and it is often uglier than darkness…” (64). Of course, the ideals of the show might be exemplary but the result is brutal: The truths “revealed” turn out to be whatever the show’s audience wants to see and the participants are drugged in order to be less resistant.

Guernica Night

Returning to where I began, the utopian vision presented by The United States Astronauts and their Families: A Pictorial Presentation (1965) is also an elaborate artifice despite what the editor might proclaim. The photos are obviously staged, whether the astronauts even engaged in the majority of the activities is up for debate, but the American people wanted to believe that James A. Lovell, Jr. played horseshoes with his son and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., surrounded by his smiling family, fed tiny “PoPo” the marmoset monkey with a silver spoon. Malzberg’s astronauts fervently buy into these models of the heroic American family and in their quest to reach them have to deal with devastating repercussions.

Barry N. Malzberg’s corpus is literary and though provoking. The heavily utilization of metafictional techniques, explicit sexuality, anti-heroes, and gloomy tone will not appeal to all fans of science fiction.

I recommend:

Revelations (1972)

Beyond Apollo (1972)

Falling Astronauts (1971)

In the Enclosure (1973)

Guernica Night (1975)

Herovit’s World (1973)

Galaxies (1975

Learn more about Barry N. Malzberg at the ISFDB.

4 Responses to "Guest post: Metafiction and the Demystification of the Cult of the Astronaut"

Reblogged this on Bill Ectric’s Place and commented:
I especially like this part:
“Malzberg’s fiction is heavily inspired by the rise of postmodern metafiction in the mid to late 1960s and the New Wave movement in science fiction. Metafictional techniques –- for example, the author breaking the fourth wall by addressing the reader or referencing the cigarette add placed in the paperback and the use of unreliable narrators and experimental structure: the epistolary novels, etc.— combine in a particularly jarring yet effective way with one of Malzberg’s overarching themes, the nature and quest for truth.”

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Joachim Boaz does have a great site. At least once a week if not more we are treated to a new dose of some of the weirdest, wackiest and often wonderful art that graced the paperback books of yesteryear. On top of that he is a thorough, intelligent reviewer who often reads books that are not on my radar anywhere. I feel like I’m auditing a course on the classics. Very happy to follow his site.

I don’t read a lot of “weird” science fiction, and I am defining “weird” in the most broad sense. Probably the closest thing to it that I’ve read is the work of Cordwainer Smith, work that has its own lyricism that is different than much of what I’ve read and work that occasionally strays into areas where I really have to pay attention to understand what is going on. That being said, I love his work so maybe I should read more.

This is a fascinating article as I’ve certainly heard of Malzberg but knew NOTHING about him or his work. I cannot say in all honesty that the metafictional elements and dysfunctional sexuality (to my mind) makes me want to pick any of it up and read it. But I am very intrigued by the timing of the writing and the comparison of it to the literature promoting the space program. It doesn’t surprise me that the astronauts were revered in their time. Heck, there are several, myself included, who revere them today. They had a fearless courage and a passion for space flight that put them in danger but also allowed the world to travel vicariously to the moon. To the moon!!! That is still so cool to me. And the 50’s idealism may have been cracking in the mid to late 60’s but there was still enough of that perceived need to market these men as heroes that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that book was largely a fictional representation of what they wanted, and maybe needed, these men to be during this Cold War era. It also doesn’t surprise me that science fiction would exist that tests that, that pushes against it.

I personal prefer to think of them in those heroic terms, although I imagine that they were all too human in reality. Probably not surprising then that at least today, with not a lot of Malzberg’s type of literature under my belt for comparison, I prefer the 50’s stories with their sense of wonder and abundant optimism and their heroic men (and occasionally women).

Great guest article!

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Reading Malzberg feels like a throw back to the day when science-fiction wanted to examine the future, humanity, and how science was changing us, for better or worse, and it’s a contrast to much of today’s science-fiction that is more space opera than science.

Thanks for any interesting and insightful look at Malzberg.

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Joachim, thanks for the excellent guest post! You’ve become my go-to guy when it comes to 50s,60s, and 70s science fiction.

the more I think about it, the more I’m intrigued by these Malzberg titles and the concept that while the populace turns Astronauts into heroes and celebrities, their personal lives aren’t perfect. Because of what they do, we want them to be perfect people – perfect spouses, perfect parents, perfect homelife, everything picture perfect, the ultimate American dream. and it’s not just astronauts, we do it to anyone the media deems a celebrity – actors, singers, teen moms, lottery winners, politicians and their families. . . and then we come up with these completely unrealistic expectations.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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