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Beyond Apollo by Barry N Malzberg

Beyond Apollo by Barry Malzberg

I’m reviewing this book in response to comments made by one of the site’s “followers” when I confessed to not having read any of the novels or short stories by Barry N Malzberg (although I now realise I had read some of his work under a pseudonym). This title was offered as one of the best by the author. To understand this book, I have to return to the early 1960s when, narrowly avoiding conscription, I was safely ensconced in university. In literary circles, this was a time of great experimentation when young(ish) authors decided to tear up the rule book and do their own thing. This meant the idea of paragraphs or chapters was rejected. Even sentence forms became optional in some cases. Switching between first and third person at random, and mangling the tenses became standard. And the idea of a coherent narrative? Well, that was strictly gone, man. The approach was not so much to search for quality in the story told, but to be seen to be slaying sacred cows and clasming icons. Think the cut-up and fold-in approaches popularised by William S Burroughs and you have the context in which Barry Malzberg sat down to write Beyond Apollo. A brief glance at the format shows us sixty-seven short chapters, a very unreliable author, some metafiction, and some explicit sex — a real witches brew for a book published in 1972.

In science fiction, there was a general reaction against the pulp plots of the Golden Age. Although the same ideas might be addressed, the authors deliberately chose to come at them from a different direction. So this book may be seen as a completely standard trope. Both in books and the B-movie industry, a small crew of American astronauts is sent off to Mars or Venus. On the planet’s surface, they may not find anything that looks particularly interesting. But the moment they seal the hatches and set off back to Earth, it becomes apparent they have a monster aboard. Now the trick is to kill the monster and for the maximum number of humans to get back to Earth. Except, of course, there’s the problem of what the survivors might say to Mission Control when they land. “Well, you see, there was this monster. . .” does not, perhaps, have quite the right ring of plausibility. So here we have a story about human destiny. Just like the salmon swimming upstream to spawn, man has always moved forward to the next challenge. That’s how the Europeans moved across the Atlantic and colonised the eastern seaboard of America, and then moved across to the West, down into Mexico, and so on. There are always new barriers to break through.

Barry N Malzberg in 1972

Barry N Malzberg in 1972

There’s just one problem. A small percentage of people are heroes and they do a great job of trail-blazing out into wildnernesses, coming back with maps and encouragement for others to follow them. But the mass of people are lazy. Many are corrupt. As humanity has grown in size, the percentage of lazy and corrupt people has become a drag on progress. So although leaders may make grandiose calls like, “Let’s go to the Moon this decade!” or “Let’s conquer the planets before the end of the century.” it’s left to the bureaucracy to implement these lofty goals and, for the most part, the civil servants end up sabotaging the efforts of the heroes. To that extent, this book is somewhat satirical, highlighting the various ways in which the pencil-pushers fail. Indeed, one of the responses to this book would be to question what the point would be of going to another planet. There’s no particular glory in it, particularly if said planet turns out to be vacant rock without enough buried geological treasure to make commercial sense in planning a mining operation there. This is not a book that promotes a spirit of optimism about the value of space flight. It’s just an expensive way of spending resources that would be better spent on relieving poverty on Earth.

At various points, the one astronaut who made it back to Earth from the flight to Venus, is able to outface all the planetside generals and professional psychiatrists. He was a hero. That’s why they picked him from the thousands who applied. He does not acknowledge their right to question him now. Indeed, one of the themes of the book is this astronaut’s desire to write a book about his experiences (not have some hack ghostwriter do it for him). He thinks about how he will write it and engages in general metafictional discourse. So what’s going into this book? Well, it all has to start and, in a way, finish with the relationship between the returning astronaut and the Captain who disappeared. How do we relate to authority figures? Perhaps we depend on them or do we perversely reject their right to command and rebel? Perhaps it’s the same with a spouse. We should sacrifice some of our freedom to make a partnership between equals work. But if we become obsessed with the competition to go on an interplanetary flight and invest all our time and energy in that, the marriage will likely fail. Indeed, if the testing causes impotence or less active interest in sex, the end of the relationship will be hastened.

Of course, all this assumes there really was a flight to Venus. It may all be in the mind of this man who hallucinates the journey, the Captain and the Venusians who would rather the people of Earth left them alone. If that’s the case, perhaps the man Forest, a psychotherapist, really is trying to help this delusional man recover some sense of the reality surrounding him. That the patient believes he was going to Venus represents his desire to find love, whether with his wife or a male authority figure. From this uncertainty, you’ll realise it’s interesting to speculate on precisely what the book is actually about. Indeed, for those who enjoy books that provoke them into thought, this is a doozy (a word much loved by serious reviewers). This leaves me grateful my “follower” prevailed on me to acquire a copy of Beyond Apollo. It’s a prime example of everything that was good or bad about the explosion of experimentation in the sixties and seventies. Alternatively, if you prefer books to be obviously about something, you’ll probably hate this.

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  1. August 19, 2014 at 1:34 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

    Yes, Malzberg is definitely inspired by the post-modern authors of the 60s — novels such as Mumbo Jumbo, and authors such as Burroughs, etc.

    The fragmentation is of course a Freudian idea — the main character has been so destroyed by the mechanized future that he has actually fragmented…

    Cool/different stuff.

    • August 19, 2014 at 2:20 am

      I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it back in the 70s but it certainly provided a few hours of genuine interest now I’m older (and wiser). Thanks for the recommendation.

  1. August 18, 2014 at 10:01 pm

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