How I got here: Back in November 2021, I read the Barry N. Malzberg story, “A Galaxy Called Rome”, as it is on the Recommended Reading (https://tinyurl.com/3p53m57r) List for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook. It was first published in the July 1975 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF). I thought it was one hell of a story, I did not remember ever reading any Barry N. Malzberg (I know I have never ready any of his novels. I appear to have read short fiction of his in several anthologies back in the 1970s, one in Harlan Ellison’s “Again, Dangerous Visions” and one in the Robert Elwood/Robert Silverberg “Epoch” anthology, but remember nothing of them.), and I wanted to read more.
One of my common strategies for reading more of an author in speculative fiction is to find and read a “Best Of” collection, especially if I am not that familiar with the author and I want to decide if reading more of them appeals to me. Additionally, although this is more problematic with very prolific authors, you would think that the contents of a “Best Of” collection would be somebody’s version of much of that author’s best shorter fiction. This can, of course, be constrained by factors such as availability, length, etc. I’ve used this approach numerous times in the past and it’s generally succeeded, both for authors I know pretty well and for those I don’t.
I just finished reading the 2013 Nonstop Press collection, “The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg”. I was very happy to obtain this from my regional library consortium via my city library. There are 37 stories of varying lengths, from vignette (perhaps shorter than a short short, approaching a fragment) to novelette length.
Bottom Line: I’m glad I read this, as I did discover some stories I really liked. I see on Mark R. Kelley’s “Science Fiction Awards Database” (https://www.sfadb.com/Barry_N_Malzberg) that Barry N. Malzberg has a number of short fiction stories nominated for major awards that were not included here; I’ll probably try some of those. I’ll remain open to individual story recommendations from those more familiar with his works. However, I think you’d better really like Barry N. Malzberg a lot more than I do to want to read this collection.
Details: I read, or attempted to read, all 37 stories. I assume that Barry N. Malzberg was involved in developing the table of contents, so that these choices reflect what he wanted insofar as stories were available, affordable, etc. The contents ranged in length from vignette or short short (as short as 2 pages) up to novelette. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/index.cgi), he wrote 2 novellas that were not included here.
When I read short fiction, I make a journal entry that addresses two or three basic things, including a) what was the story about, or at least enough information that I can remember what it was about, b) how I felt about it, and c) an overall, admittedly subjective rating from 1 (worst) to 5 (all time classic) of the story. I’ll also note “Best Of the Year” reprints and major awards for context. This is fairly new to me, but I find this is important for me now to be able to keep the stories straight and have intelligent conversations about them.
My overall, average rating for the stories here was a somewhat tepid 3.34/5. For an individual story, for me this would equate to “Okay, competent but not inspiring in any way”. This includes really great stories and stories that I wondered why they were in the collection.
In thinking about my overall response to this Malzberg collection, I have a few thoughts:
- Although it’s perhaps unfair to Malzberg, I really struggled with the copy-editing and punctuation and spelling here. I hope it’s not true, but quite a lot of this material read like an OCR scan with minimal review and correction. This leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance; it’s hard to be excited about a story if you are struggling to stay with the narrative and trying to figure out how the sentences and words should really read. I assume that this was not the case in the original publications, as I have not heard anything about Malzberg emulating James Joyce.
- More than a few of these stories take a lot of mental effort to figure out what is going on or what Malzberg is trying to do. Don’t get me wrong, reading speculative fiction always involves both trying to understand the world or universe presented and what the author is trying to accomplish in a story. I expect this and enjoy it. However, it seemed like the level of mental effort was very high and there were a few stories where I’m not sure I ever figured out what the hell was going on. This does not make them bad stories, but it made them unappealing to me.
- There were a number of stories that were either little more than fragments (“The Only Thing You Learn”) or just did not engage me enough to finish (“Le Croix”).
- There were a number of stories that I read, but that my reaction was “Not Best Of” material, including “Report to Headquarters”, “The Wooden Grenade”, “Hop Skip Jump”, “The Men’s Support Group”, and “The Only Thing You Learn”.
- I just don’t resonate with the style and themes/obsessions in some of these stories.
- Finally, there were no story introductions or overall introduction by Barry N. Malzberg. Although not obligatory for a “Best Of” collection, this can be a big plus for enjoyment and understanding of the stories, although they need to avoid spoilers.
My favorite story is the first story in the collection, the novelette “A Galaxy Called Rome”, followed by the last story in the collection, “The Lady Louisiana Toy”. I also loved “Corridors”, “Kingfish”, “Most Politely, Most Politely”, “The Men Inside”, and “Final War”.
DETAILED STORY REVIEWS/COMMENTS – SPOILERS FOLLOW: My favorite story is the first story in the collection, the novelette “A Galaxy Called Rome”. My comments were:
Our Recommended Reading List includes Barry Malzberg’s “A GALAXY CALLED ROME”, F&SF July 1975. I was about to read “The Santa Claus Compromise” by Thomas M. Disch in the Harrison/Aldiss “Year’s Best Science Fiction, No. 9”, and I found this story. I really loved it and it’s knowing deconstruction of SF themes and the writing of fiction. It is about a starship Captain’s 14,000 year struggle to escape a black galaxy (not unlike a black hole). I am not a fan of literary science fiction, but Malzberg did a wonderful job of pulling me in and keeping my attention. Certainly the title alludes to the saying that all roads lead to Rome, and here all paths lead into the black galaxy. The story subtitle is noted as “In Memory of John Campbell”. The first sentence reads, “This is not a novelette but a series of notes”. It was a Locus and Nebula finalist. I ranked it a very outstanding 4.1/5. I don’t know if I’ve ever read any other of Malzberg’s fiction.
My other favorites are:
“The Lady Louisiana Toy”, a short story first published in “More Whodunits”, a 1993 anthology edited by Mike Resnick (DAW). Wow. What a great finish to “The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg”, with my favorites this story and “A Galaxy Called Rome.” An unimaginable beauty and powerful telepath is kidnapped, and only a detective with no interior life can get her back. This story reminded me of Cordwainer Smith and Alfred Bester in terms of style and themes. I rated this 4/5.
“Corridors”, a short story first published in “The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties” (Doubleday, 1982), mostly comprised of Malzberg essays. I loved this story, all an internal narrative of an aging science writer. After decades of toil and struggle, he has finally succeeded with a second rate book. He has considered and drafted 4 chapters and then shelved a book titled “The Lies of Science Fiction”. He is guest of honor at a Cincinnati World Convention. He gets 32 minutes into his GOH speech, goes off his prepared remarks, admits it’s all pointless, and breaks down crying. I rated this 3.9/5.
“Kingfish”, a short story first published in “Alternate Presidents”, a 1992 anthology edited by Mike Resnick. John Nance Garner, the VP for FDR, switches parties and runs Independent with a Huey Long that survives. Huey Long has Hitler assassinated. Great alternate history story, perhaps forking at survival of Huey Long. I rated this 3.9/5. (Amusingly enough, I appear to have read this before, as this anthology shows up as a “Great, fun anthology” in my book database)
“Most Politely, Most Politely”, a short story first published in “Universe II”, a 1993 anthology edited by Robert Silverberg & Karen Haber. I love this future advice columnist, with great questions and responses. I rated this 3.9/5.
“The Men Inside”, a novelette first published in “New Dimensions II”, a 1972 anthology edited by Robert Silverberg. A very good, even great story of a Messenger. The Messengers are recruited from Downside, where the less fortunate live. After training, they are reduced dramatically in size similar to “Fantastic Voyage” to fight cancer for the wealthy upper classes. Treatment consists of multiple rounds of reduction, entry into the body, cancer fighting, and exit and restoration to full size. They are needed yet despised. The protagonist dreams of killing people; he may have done it. I rated this 3.9/5.
“Final War”, a novelette first published in F&SF April 1968. A sharp, satirical look at war, with a Rashomon-like view of the same war from three different perspectives, Private Hastings, the First Sergeant, and the Captain. For no apparent reason, two sides take turns defending and attempting to take the same small area in a limited war. There is never any progress, and it’s not clear there is any point. It ends badly for all of them. This reminded me a bit of Mack Reynolds’ “Frigid Fracas” series on private, limited wars, only with no point. I rated this 3.8/5.