“Insoluble Problems”

Review: “Insoluble Problems: Barry Malzberg’s Career in Science Fiction”, Brian Stableford, 1977, 1995.

This essay has a 1979 postscript concerning Malzberg’s then new novel Chorale

Malzberg once thought that only science fiction could save literature. But he also came to think that sf let 98% of its ideas and their implications on the table. (Malzberg expanded on this in his essay “Thus Our Words Unspoken” in the September 1992 issue of Amazing Stories.) 

To Malzberg the future is to sf what “fornication” is to porn, the Old West to the western, and the past to historical fiction: it’s just a convention against which the main story plays out. (Isn’t the fornication in porn the story?)

Malzberg came to resent having to compete against other types of sf.

Malzberg didn’t want to write stories about problem-solving (i.e. “hard SF”). He wanted to use sf to write about the anxieties of living in the modern age and about the resulting alienation. (I’m not sure whether Malzberg’s theme of alienation explains Robert Silverberg’s interest in him or whether it’s just friendship). Problems aren’t always solved in Malzberg’s fiction. Maybe they can’t be solved or only partially solved with a compromise.

Malzberg uses a “symbolic vocabulary” from sf but for very different things than the usual brand of sf. And Stableford contends “mass-produced fiction” is a brand, an ad and product in one. Using the Scott Meredith literary agency’s evaluation criteria for story analysis can be used on television commercials too. 

Malzberg is particularly interested in the deleterious effects of technology on our lives. Malzberg is also concerned with the inadequacy of certain rules in a given context and the element of randomness. (The younger Stableford liked horse racing, a subject that comes up in Malzberg’s Underlay.)  

All these place Malzberg outside the main themes, characters, and aspirations of sf. 

Stableford also looks at Malzberg’s non-sf works. I find the Malzberg short stories I’ve read frustrating about half the time; however, I must say, after reading this, I’m more interested in reading Malzberg and approaching him in the right context and spirit.

2 thoughts on ““Insoluble Problems”

  1. George Kelley July 18, 2020 / 4:48 pm

    Like you, I’ve had issues with Barry Malzberg’s work. But, there’s no denying Malzberg’s approaches to writing SF are unique. His fascination with obsession and paranoia power many of this best stories.

    I reviewed two of Malzberg’s early novels here: http://georgekelley.org/fridays-forgotten-books-598/

    • marzaat July 18, 2020 / 5:00 pm

      Thanks. I saw the link to that over at M Porcius. I have never read any of his novels. I’ve liked the few of his “From the Heart’s Basement” columns for Galaxy’s Edge that I’ve read.

      I see from my notes I’ve liked the following Malzberg stories:

      “All Assassin”
      “In the Stone House”
      “Understanding Entropy”
      “Prose Bowl” (with Bill Pronzini)
      “Literary Lives” (with Kathe Koja)

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