Views expressed by guest or resident columnists are entirely their own.

Barry N. Malzberg is the winner of the very first Campbell Memorial Award, a multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee, twice the winner of the Locus Award for Best Non-fiction Book, and the author of more than ninety books.

Barry N. Malzberg

Calvary and Its Discontents

In 1962, still spiritually a wee lad but not without ambition, I wrote an essay intended for that special section of Swank magazine which its editor, Milton J. Shapiro, had set apart under the title "The Swinging Modern Scene".  Hip stuff which chronicled the shifting zeitgeist, Ray Bremser and some other Kerouac acolytes and, of course, poems by crusaders like Ferlinghetti. Tales from Villages East and West.

In "Rosie the Preacher in Times Square on New Year’s Eve" I indulged in a somewhat tone-deaf attempt at swinging prose to depict the scene I had witnessed wandering alone a couple of months earlier: the disheveled Rosie on her portable soapbox screaming imprecations and prayers to a packed (but always moving) substance of would-be revelers and vagrant hecklers. I stared at this juxtaposition in wonderment and tried to record it in a mélange of journalistic observation and chrome-plated rhetoric, ending the 2,000-word essay more or less as so: "What had brought the crowd to Times Square on New Year's Eve, what had caused them to first halt and scurry past Rosie, what were they seeking in the depth of horn sounds and thudding feet and dense cold which both shrouded and released them? These questions were like a prayer from my vitals, and the answer tumbled not from the sky but the sewers, none the less stunning regardless of origin: These people had been driven to Times Square and then to Rosie's screams from necessity. It was in their eyes and blasted features, it was in the snort and exhalation of police horses in the terrible cold. They were looking for a disaster so large, so irrefutable, so final, that it would, unlike Rosie truly, convert them and blast them out of having any responsibility for their lives."

Pretty good, I thought, for a 22 year old barely out of the U.S. Army and into the New York City Department of Welfare, and pretty good for a kid still floundering for a voice. But Milton J. Shapiro (who adopted the pseudonym of "M. Jonathan Starr" to edit that separate section) was not having any.

"Not quite the hip perspective I am seeking for the Scene," he wrote. "But try again." 

I did not try again. I had other tasks in mind which were another way to approach the Swinging Modern Scene. It went into the trunk and, through the course of six moves over the next eight years, was entirely lost. Just as well, I concluded much later: if Shapiro had paid me the hundred dollars (more or less) that Royal Publications was paying I might have been so entirely satisfied at this breakthrough that, having proven my point, I would have quit writing and taken my father's urgent advice and gone to night law school. But Shapiro and karma had other plans for that manuscript and for me and in consequence you are reading this essay tonight about a fortnight after a blockaded Times Square has given purchase to blockaded millions if I am betting this right.

For many, many years I ascribed that quoted sentence about sought disaster to my Syracuse mentor and friend George P. Elliott who, in his 1964 collection A Piece of Lettuce, had included an essay describing his own visit on New Year's Eve to Times Square. It was an essay which, like the author of Among the Dangs, had an enormous influence, the entire volume had influence, and I was sure that the sentence had appeared in his essay. But two months ago, re-reading yet again, I could not find the sentence. Elliott had not written it. I had. I had been haunted by my own observation for half a century and had been too modest or intimidated to take the gonfalon.

So there it was. The sentence was mine. And in the election, which for me hangs three days in the future but is old news to you, that insight has been a lens through which everything I could barely infer fifty-four years ago has become utterly central. They were looking for a disaster so large that it would remove them from any responsibility for their lives. Victor Klemperer's diaries describe Berlin and Dresden in 1945: the surviving citizenry poking their way through the ruins, blasted eyes turned upon one another with refraction of a question: How could a nation in its seeming entirety have gone inside for a dozen years? Recent events over the last year and a half have been, for some of us, a short course leading toward an answer. My early aphorism, clumsy as almost any twenty-two-year-old (I exempt Robert Sheckley and Carson McCullers from this generality as I must be the Mozart of Lucio Silla) is a beginning.

And hence, science fiction. In Galaxy’s Edge #23 I worked around the circumference of this issue: the suggestion was that science fiction had always been a literature (and a social phenomenon and a context) of self-destruction, that was at the heart from the beginning. Apocalyptic technology, wretched destruction, hubris and Colonus, Oedipus and the Machine: any part of the forest you observed, death and dishevelment seemed to lurk at the corners. From the commercial origin of the genre, from the disasters depicted over and again in Frank R. Paul covers, in David Keller's literary corkscrew, in the graveyard narrows of barren planets and lifeless galaxies ("Twilight," "Night," "He Who Shrank") science fiction seemed to be always a kind of narrative built upon destruction and ad astra was merely another name for desertion. "Desertion," in fact, is one of the chapters of Clifford D. Simak's remarkably despairing City depicting the abandonment of the planet and the evanescence of human possibility; the Kuttners (I noted this last time), with their stricken robots and weeping mutants, were deeper in the darkness of the 1940s than any of the writers (like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, John Horne Burns, Irwin Shaw) who emerged after the war with their narratives of destruction. Theodore Sturgeon's well-known letter in “Brass Tacks” in Astounding’s late 1945 issue celebrated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the truth-telling relevance of science fiction, but within only a few months he had come to repent of his delight and was writing awful chronicles of nuclear waste, burning cities, and finally, in "Thunder and Roses," the nuclear blasting of the planet. It was a wicked, powerful narrative which seemed in the early postwar years, the years of HUAC and McCarthy, to lay out a relief map of our future, and Campbell began to plead with his contributors to find narratives other than devastation.

But it was too late for the plug to be pulled on a dystopian obsession to which Horace L. Gold's Galaxy magazine was dedicated, Horace creating his remit on dreadful satire and narratives of apocalypse and its aftermath (A Canticle for Leibowitz, Fury, "Lot," "Coming Attraction") were close to dominant in the shaping of a category which seemed bent upon self-destructing as it carried that do-it-yourself kit of lost possibility all the way through to the mid-sixties. By the mid-sixties, of course, clarity of purpose had been compromised for many reasons and in the fragmentation and then loss of a common knowledge science fiction began to destroy itself in a less clearly ideological fashion.

But that is a subject for another essay: the lost clarity and shared purpose which had characterized science fiction from the beginning of Campbell's modern era to the Kennedy assassination and the blowtorch of Vietnam would had to have been lost for many reasons whose explication in earlier columns began only to suggest the True Unwritten History. These columns, from their beginning in this magazine, have been an attempt to anatomize the reasons we have reached the current circumstance, a slow and careful anatomization which for all I know have completely missed the point. But I am going to persist in that task even though the hour is late, the task overwhelming, the laborer incompetent, and twilight is approaching more rapidly than I can bear. As an 85-year-old screenwriter wrote in The New Yorker many years ago, through humility and the grace of some unknown Presidium, I have been granted some small capacity for the personal essay and the ability to extract from that capacity, piece by agonizing piece, the stumbling beginning of knowledge.

5 November 2016: New Jersey

Copyright © 2016 by Barry N. Malzberg





The Editor's Word

by Larry Hodges
by Nick DiChario

by Mercedes Lackey
by Liz Colter
by Kevin J. Anderson
and Neil Peart


by Marina J. Lostetter.

by Edward M. Lerner
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

by Fabio F. Centamore

by Paul Eckheart
by Michael Swanwick

Robert Silverberg

by Joy Ward

Double Star (Part 1)
=Heinlein's First Hugo Winner=
by Robert A. Heinlein

From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford
Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye







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