Tag Archive for Barry N. Malzberg

Burn the Witch! Swarm Cyber-Shaming in Science Fiction

I have a tremendous amount of fondness for the science fiction community, both professionals and fans. The SF community was boundless in their generosity and support for me and my family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Dara, the boys, and I have all benefitted from the friendships we’ve formed at dozens of conventions and bookstore events over the past decade.

But I feel compelled to point out, or at least suggest, that a vocal and very cyber-visible portion of the SF pro and fan community have not been covering themselves in glory recently. In fact, they have been acting like a mob. A cyber-mob. And a mob is an ugly thing.

Unfortunately, the worst harm to the target of criticism comes not from individual critiques (which vary greatly in their quality of argument; many critiques that I’ve come across do not rely upon any familiarity with the source documents of the controversy at all, merely upon commentary derived from those documents and unsubstantiated assumptions about authorial intent). Individual critiques at least come from individuals, persons who can be responded to and perhaps even persuaded that the critique target’s intentions were not so malign/evil after all. Rather, the worst harm comes from the aggregated mass of such critiques, which tends to snowball, and which unfortunately has snowballed, from the members-only online discussion forums of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to hundreds, if not thousands, of personal blog posts, Facebook posts, and Twitter tweets, and finally to such mainstream publications as Britain’s Guardian newspaper and Slate, the online magazine, which are read by millions who most likely otherwise would have no notion whatsoever of flaring controversies inside the insular subculture of science fiction writers and fans. Once such critiques reach a critical mass and begin snowballing in this way, they become a creature out of the control of any individual actor. This is how reputations are irreparably damaged and careers are thrown off the rails, if not destroyed.

Did the original criticizers want this to happen? In an attempt to be charitable and fair, I will assume that many, if not most, did not. They wanted to make their displeasure known; some wanted to provoke changes which they felt needed to be made in SFWA and its management of the SFWA Bulletin. Some of the criticizers, however, caught up in the adrenaline rush provided by participation in a large group expression of shared moral outrage, are undoubtedly pleased at whatever lasting harm might be done to Barry N. Malzberg and Mike Resnick, the authors of the articles which prompted the online firestorm, and Jean Rabe, the former editor of the Bulletin who commissioned the articles (and who has since resigned her position under pressure).

A bit of self-disclosure: I’ve met Mike Resnick on a couple of occasions at conventions (and I bought some magazines once from him on eBay, too). During our brief conversations, he was cordial, sensible, and seemed to be paying attention to what I had to say (which was either about the writing biz or our shared friendship with Barry). Barry Malzberg, on the other hand, has been a close friend of mine for the past ten years. He has been tremendously gracious and generous during our long correspondence. I have visited him and his wife at their home in New Jersey. Most striking to me have been the reactions of other SF professionals when I’ve mentioned my friendship with Barry. A number of them have shared accounts with me of how Barry reached out to them during low points in their writing or editing careers or personal lives, and how his encouragement, support, and assistance had made a great, positive difference for them. Barry has never discussed any of this with me. But it seems as though if the field of science fiction has a secret saint, that person is Barry Malzberg.

I came late to this particular controversy. This storm has been gathering strength for the past seven months, since the distribution in November, 2012 of issue 200 of the SFWA Bulletin to about 2,000 SFWA members, subscribers, and a thousand or so readers who purchase their copies from a newsstand or bookstore. But the brouhaha truly began blowing up online in late May of this year, after distribution of issue 202 of the Bulletin. I’ve been a SFWA member for the past ten years, so I receive the Bulletin every three months as a perk of my membership. Mike and Barry have been contributing a regular column to the magazine, the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues, since 1998. The column generally consists of the two of them, both old science fiction pro writers whose careers in the field date back to the late 1960s (Barry won the first ever John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1973, and Mike was the Guest of Honor at the most recent WorldCon, Chicon 7), bantering back and forth on issues of current import to the publishing world or its science fiction and fantasy corner (such as the emergence of small presses or self-publishing), matters of writerly advice (how to best find an agent or decipher a publishing contract), or surveys of various aspects of the history of the science fiction field (such as the history of women science fiction and fantasy authors and women editors and publishers in the SF field… the stealth minefield onto which they blithely trod in issues 199 and 200 of the SFWA Bulletin). I usually make it a habit to read the newest Resnick/Malzberg Dialogue as soon as I receive my copy of the Bulletin. But starting with issue 199 (the Fall, 2012 issue), my copies of the Bulletin began accumulating on my nightstand, waiting to be read, pushed down on my reading list by big, thick Russian novels and various research books.

It wasn’t until this week that I glanced at the Locus Online website to catch up on SF news and book reviews (I’d also been neglecting both the print and online versions of Locus) and saw a link to the Guardian Online article that I reference above, entitled “Science fiction authors attack sexism in row over SFWA magazine”. Reading it, I learned that Mike and Barry were at the center of an online controversy over alleged sexism in SFWA, which focused both on several of their recent columns and the cover to issue 200 of the Bulletin, which featured an iconic image of a barbarian woman warrior/goddess in a chainmail bikini, brandishing her bloody sword over the corpse of a Frost Giant. The article provided a link to an online roundup of commentary from dozens of science fiction professionals, would-be professionals, and fans. Perusing this long selection of snippets, seventy-six of them at last count, I noted the following epithets being applied to Mike and Barry or to their words: unprofessional (the kindest of the lot), wankers, regressive, outdated, condescending, sources of “sexist douchebaggery,” “misogynistic, irrelevant dinosaurs,” “old men yelling at clouds,” “majority men in power,” “hideous, backwards, and strangely atavistic,” “blithering nincompoops,” antiquated, “deeply offensive,” “at best stupid and at worst censorious,” “sexist dippery,” gross, “never ending stream of sexism,” shitty, prehistoric, and, perhaps most colorful, “giant space dicks.” Also linked to on this list was a charming blog post entitled, “Dear Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick: Fuck You. Signed, Rachael Acks” (which, incidentally, is the #3 search result of 187,000 results when you type in the words Barry Malzberg into Google’s search bar).

Holy bejezzus, I thought to myself as I read through this list. What did Mike and Barry do? Had they gone all Westboro Baptist Church in one of their recent columns?

I went home that night and dug my most recent four issues, all previously unread, of the Bulletin out of my “to be read” pile. And I read all four Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues in order (the Dialogue from issue 201 plays no part in the brouhaha).

Never in my forty-eight years have I witnessed such an immense chasm yawning between an inciting incident and the level of vitriol it inspired.

Let me provide a bit of background. In their fifteen years of writing Dialogues together (I’ve read about three-quarters of their columns), Mike and Barry have developed a comfortable, familiar, semi-comedic shtick, complete with complementary personas (Mike is the can-do, look-on-the-bright-side face of the duo, whereas Barry typically luxuriates in his role as the Eeyore of science fiction). Both gentlemen are in their seventies and have been around the block many, many times, so quite a few of their columns, particularly the retrospective, survey-of-the-field entries, have a “those were the days” sensibility to them. They strive to share with their readers a feel for what it might’ve been like to belly up to the bar at the 1975 WorldCon and eavesdrop on the shop talk and gossip of some of the “old pros.” I readily admit that I eat this kind of stuff up; I’m a buff for any in-depth history of the field, replete as it is with such colorful personalities and their exploits, and I’ve happily devoured Barry’s, Fred Pohl’s, Jack Williamson’s, and Damon Knight’s memoirs over the years. Mike’s and Barry’s sensibilities in their columns cannot be fully appreciated unless one understands that they were both fans before they ever became professionals. They love science fiction and its traditions, and they are passionate about it. Having both been active in the field, either as aficionados or as pros (frequently as both), for going on fifty-five years, they have a wealth of personally experienced or second-hand anecdotes to share, and they delight in doing so. When writing their surveys of the field, whether they are focusing on writers, editors, publishers, agents, or artists from the Golden Age of SF to the present day, they try to insert some colorful anecdotes about each notable they discuss, in order to flesh out the personalities of oftentimes obscure, forgotten, and/or long-dead figures. Barry, in particular, has dedicated a large chunk of his career to attempts to rescue beloved predecessors from the darkness of obscurity (see the essays in his The Engines of the Night, Breakfast in the Ruins, The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, The Science Fiction of Kris Neville, The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, and Neglected Visions). Both men enjoy gossip, the sort of stories which used to be (and maybe still are) traded back and forth at convention bars, and given the tangled, intertwined personal histories of many major figures in the field (multiple tomes have been written about the love lives and swapped spouses of the Futurians, just to cite one example), there is a lot of old gossip to share. (And in case you consider this a strike against them, please ponder the high percentage of even the highest-toned literary biography which is composed of what is actually well-sourced gossip.)

The editor of the Bulletin, Jean Rabe, asked Barry and Mike to write a column or two on the history of women in science fiction. This request resulted in two columns, published in issues 199 and 200, entitled “Literary Ladies: Part One” (focusing on writers) and “Literary Ladies: Part Two” (focusing on editors and publishers). One of the pair (I suspect it is Mike) has a longstanding weakness for alliteration; thus, the “LL” of “Literary Ladies.” In accordance with the titles of the articles, Mike and Barry frequently (but by no means exclusively) refer to their subjects as “lady writers,” “lady editors,” or “lady publishers” (there are a few “lady agents” mentioned, too).

This use of “lady” as a modifying adjective is one of the primary complaints the legions of critics online have hurled at Mike and Barry, a main plank in their contention that the pair are “reactionary, shitty, prehistoric, misogynistic, giant space dicks” (to mash up just a few of the pejoratives I’ve quoted in the list above). Now, maybe it’s just me, but I have never encountered the use of the word “lady” as a pejorative or even as having a negative connotation. At least when I was growing up, it was a compliment, a label for those of the female gender to aspire to. Is the word a bit old-fashioned? Sure. Does it have a bit of a musty smell about it? A case could certainly be made. Is it mean-spirited? Hell, no.

And that’s before we even get to the actual content of these two articles. Barry and Mike praise their pantheons of women writers, editors, and publishers to the skies! They idolize many of them. Far from giving them condescending pats on the head, they fully recognize the daunting social handicaps these women faced in the professional world of publishing prior to the 1980s and cite them as enterprising, talented, and incredibly driven pioneers. There are no snide put-downs in these articles; there are no put-downs at all. These articles were labors of love. Mike and Barry knew that some of the women they’d be discussing would be familiar to the Bulletin readership, but that many would not be (particularly the women editors of such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Fantastic from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s). Even I, a pretty well-read amateur historian of the field, found myself encountering personalities of whom I had no prior knowledge. Mike and Barry did a service for both their readership and for many otherwise forgotten notables in our field, women who they state had as big an impact on the evolution of science fiction and fantasy in America as John W. Campbell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Heinlein did. (And, as has been said about Ginger Rogers when comparing her skills to those of her partner Fred Astaire, they did it dancing backwards.)

The other sin laid upon the heads of Mike and Barry regarding their “Literary Ladies” articles is that they mentioned the physical attractiveness of some of their subjects. In sharing an second-hand anecdote about how one of the few women editors of the 1950s had prompted many women to join a previously all-male Cincinnati, Ohio fan organization, Mike mentioned the editor, briefly the only female participant in the club, had looked quite beautiful in a bikini at the hotel pool of a local convention – causing the wives of the male fans to join the club in order to keep an eye on their husbands! The original teller of the anecdote was the wife of one of those male fans, who told Mike that the editor, later a close friend, had earned the wife’s everlasting gratitude for sucking her into fandom. Reading it, I’m sure Mike intended it to be an amusing and endearing anecdote, a window into the world of SF fandom (and the larger society) of the 1950s. For many readers, apparently, it didn’t come off that way. But I’m judging the man on what I reason his intentions to have been, and I firmly believe intentions must be given weight in situations such as this one, which come down to one subjective experience versus another.

In another instance, Barry comments on the physical beauty of a woman editor from the 1920s and 1930s, a woman he only knows from her photographs and from the body of work she left behind. Again, I see his comments as an attempt to add a third dimension (I could say “flesh out” or “add skin and sinew to the bones,” but I would risk being misinterpreted, wouldn’t I?) to an otherwise dry recitation of the woman’s accomplishments in the early SF field. I have shared Barry’s experience in having surprising beauty leap out at me from a vintage photograph, beauty which could not be cloaked by the alien or frumpy (to me) clothing, makeup, and hairstyles of the era. Some people are exceptionally beautiful, and it is noteworthy, even when writing about writers (or editors). Nearly all accounts of Jack Kerouac’s career dwell upon his magnetic, athletic handsomeness as a young man, and how iconic photographs of him have helped to build his enduring mystique. Somewhat similarly, Franz Kafka’s striking appearance and demeanor, preserved in a handful of photographs and reminiscences of his contemporaries, have been grist for the mills of dozens of biographers. Kafka’s last lover, the Czech writer, editor, and social activist Milena Jesenka’, was a beautiful woman; her biographer and friend, Margarete Buber-Neumann, wrote extensively about Milena’s beauty and the effect it had upon the people (men and women) around her, and how she suffered from her beauty’s degradation in the German concentration camp where she perished.

The last set of complaints about Mike and Barry have to do with their column from issue 202 of the Bulletin, entitled “Talk Radio Redux.” This column was a response, an obviously emotional one, to the sorts of criticism (see my summary above) which had begun filtering back to them regarding their two columns on “Literary Ladies,” criticism with which revulsion of the woman warrior cover to issue 200 had gotten conflated. This set of complaints focuses on Mike’s using the words “censorship” or “attempted censorship” when referring to the feedback and actions of some of the readership and to Barry’s use of the term “liberal fascist.”

“Liberal fascist” is a term that has its origin in (or at least can trace its popularization to) Jonah Goldberg’s 2009 book, Liberal Fascism: the Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. The book is an account of the influence that certain aspects of Woodrow Wilson-era Progressivism (the ancestor of today’s Progressive movement), such as promotion of eugenics, an emphasis on the growth of state power and control of the state over key industries during times of state-declared emergency, and proto-environmentalism/nature worship, had on the various flavors of European fascism which developed and flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. The book also makes note that, in contrast with the commonly held belief that fascism was a rightwing movement, Benito Mussolini and the German and Austrian founders of the National Socialist Workers’ Party saw themselves as men of the Left, emerging from and expanding upon the Socialist tradition in a way separate from (and opposed to) Communism.

Personally, I think Barry was a little off in his use of the term “liberal fascist,” although I understand the emotion behind his use of the words. Fascists are defined in part by their intentions and efforts to use the powers of the state to silence opposing viewpoints. None of Barry’s and Mike’s critics have tried to do that (although perhaps some may fantasize about it). Similarly, Mike was imprecise when he used the word “censorship.” Censorship implies either the use of state power to silence an individual or the actions of an entity with economic power over an individual (such as the individual’s publisher) to block or change that individual’s expressions, under threat of economic penalty. Again, none of Mike’s and Barry’s critics are in a position to be censors. What they have been doing, however, does have its roots in an authoritarian tradition separate from, although related to, fascism. Mike and Barry have been mau-maued. Mau-mauing (a term popularized by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 account of the New Left of the 1960s, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers) is a form of intimidation through widespread social shaming, ostracism, confrontation, and (either implied or explicit) threats. Although it is associated with the New Left, it has its origins in the standard operating procedures of the Old Left, when Communist parties in the Soviet Union and throughout the West utilized self-criticism and group criticism sessions to enforce groupthink and to stamp out nonconforming ideas and ideologies. (Many former American Communists of the 1930s listed the 180 degree turn from “Hitler is our mortal enemy” to “Hitler is our ally” following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and their horror at the reeducation sessions which ensued as crucial to their break with the Party.) Saul Alinsky, in his Rules for Radicals, listed as Rule #12, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” an endorsement of the technique of mau-mauing. Numerous American universities, both public and private, now staffed by professors and administrators who often have ties to or have been influenced by the New Left, have instituted speech codes which explicitly define certain forms of student speech and expression as being outside the bounds of permissible activity on campus, subjecting offenders to administrative penalties up to expulsion (a move to institutionalize and bureaucratize mau-mauing, pushing it towards what could be formally defined as censorship). Coincidentally, the same years which have witnessed the emergency of speech codes on many campuses have also witnessed an accelerated symbiosis between the pro SF community and academia (in that greater numbers of SF/fantasy writers have as day jobs teaching at the post-high school level, and SF literature and film has become an increasingly respectable and popular subject of university courses).

Given the prevalence of academic jargon from Cultural Studies or other Studies departments in their comments, I imagine a goodly number of the criticizers on the SWFA discussion boards and the broader Internet are either university instructors or possessors of an advanced degree from one of those programs. For many individuals under the age of forty who have been through the university system, mau-mauing may seem normative, or at least unremarkable. They have seen it at work through divestment campaigns of various kinds (divestment from Israeli companies or U.S. companies which provide goods to Israel which might be used in security operations against Palestinians, or from companies involved in fossil fuel production, or from companies connected to certain figures active on the Right, such as the Koch brothers) and through shout-downs and other disruptions of speakers invited to campus whose backgrounds or viewpoints are contrary to those favored by student activists.

Many of the criticizers may not consciously realize that they are mau-mauing Mike and Barry, but mau-mauing is what they are engaged in. Some commentators have pointed out the criticism is not censorship. True; but in this instance, rather irrelevant. Other commentators have stated that freedom of speech does not imply a right to a paid platform (such as that enjoyed until now by Barry and Mike with their quarterly columns for the Bulletin). Again – true, but irrelevant. For what the protesters either seek to do or end up abetting is not censorship, but what can be called shunning and shaming, an application of a radioactive aura to these two men which will make not only the future editors of the Bulletin but also editors at other periodicals and publishing houses, organizers of conventions, literary prize juries, and media outlets shy away from wanting any connection with these two and their works. Remember, this story has now broken out into mainstream outlets such as Salon and the Guardian; people who previously had never heard of Mike Resnick or Barry Malzberg or any of their books will now have their initial (and most likely only) impression of them branded with a scarlet “S” for “Sexist,” as detrimental a negative label in our time as “Adulterer” was in the time of the Puritans. As Barry himself stated in the column “Talk Radio Redux,” the most potent form of censorship is self-censorship, the type that occurs in a writer’s head before he or she sets fingers to keyboard. The mau-mauers, consciously or not, are using Mike and Barry as cautionary examples – “Look what we’ve been able to do to the reputations of a WorldCon Guest of Honor and to a man who has written close to a hundred novels and over 250 short stories, several nominated for Hugo or Nebula Awards. If we could do this to them, what do you think we could do to you if you commit ThoughtCrime?”

The virtually thoughtless piling on is perhaps the most appalling. So many of the criticizers whose comments I have come across admit they haven’t even read the columns in question. Once the ball of shunning and shaming got rolling, hundreds of onlookers, alerted by social media, jumped on the bandwagon, attracted by the enticing glow of participating in shared moral outrage. Moral preening is on overload; industry professionals and would-be professionals frantically signal to each other that they are right-thinkers. According to the mau-mauers, Mike and Barry did not merely misspeak (miswrite?); they did not have decent-enough intentions which were ruined by Paleolithic habits and blinkered upbringings; they are morally suspect, malign and vicious and evil. It’s burn the witch! all over again, but this time on a pyre of blog posts and Tweets.

I mentioned before that I completely understand the vehemence of Barry’s reaction to all this. One sadly ironic aspect of this brouhaha is that Barry is a lifelong man of the Left. He was staunchly antiwar during the Vietnam era (see early stories such as “Final War”), and his dream president was (and remains) Eugene McCarthy. I fully believe, based on his writings about Alice Sheldon and Judith Merril, that Barry considers himself a feminist, and an avid one. Condemnation from one’s “own side” always burns hotter in one’s craw than condemnation from “the other guys,” which can be easily rationalized away; just as criticism (especially when viewed as unfair) from one’s own family hurts much worse than criticism from relative strangers. Forty years ago (and in all the years since), Barry was a fierce advocate of the New Wave in science fiction, whose practitioners (with the sole exception of R. A. Lafferty) were all politically aligned with the Left, as opposed to old-timers such as John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein. Now Barry must feel as though the children of the Revolution are eating their elders (as so frequently happens, it seems).

You still don’t think swarm cyber-shaming is a genuine phenomenon? Here’s a statistic for you. As of this afternoon (June 19, 2013), typing in the three words, Barry Malzberg sexist, into the Google search bar produces 807,000 results (oddly enough, far more than the 187,000 results you get in you only type in two words, Barry Malzberg). In contrast, typing in the author’s name and the title of his best known novel, Beyond Apollo, winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, produces 41,000 results.

Folks, this is insane.

I do not believe there was any conspiracy to do this to Barry and Mike. I believe this smear started on a small scale and then grew like mutant kudzu in the echo chambers of the web. Now the smear has metastasized into a Frankenstein’s monster which has escaped the control of any individual or organization; with that much mud out there, no amount of counter-narrative will ever wash it away.

One of the cruelest knives shoved into Barry’s back was the alteration of his Wikipedia entry. Now, thanks to an anonymous interloper with a baleful lack of perspective, more text is given over to this current incident (a full paragraph) than is devoted to Barry’s considerable and award-nominated nonfiction work (no mention at all). Whoever performed this small act of vandalism (also done to Mike’s entry) is a lout and a bully.

Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of swarm cyber-shaming in the science fiction community, and I fear it will not be the last (what produces results tends to get repeated). The first eruption was that which surrounded Orson Scott Card when he publicly affirmed tenets of his religion, Mormonism, concerning homosexuality. Recently, his swarmers attempted to shame/pressure DC Comics into never hiring Card again, after he did a work-for-hire story for a DC Comics anthology. “RaceFail” was the tag applied to a 2009 online dustup regarding various professionals’ comments on, and then comments on the comments, and then comments on the comments on the comments about the handling of racial issues and identity in science fiction. In 2010, we had WisCon, the renowned feminist science fiction convention, disinvite award-winning author Elizabeth Moon as their Guest of Honor due to comments she made on her blog about the surprising forbearance non-Muslim Americans have shown their Muslim fellow residents in the years since September 11, 2001 (as opposed to the myth of a rising tide of Islamophobia in the U.S.). And now we have this… Old FogeyFail? I was very disappointed to see on the list of Barry’s and Mike’s most vocal condemners a very prominent editor for a very big imprint who complained bitterly in 2009 about his unfair treatment at the hands of fans and fellow pros after he made some comments about the RaceFail affair; his wife (another prominent SF pro) got on various message boards to scold the scolds for going after her husband and contributing to his depression. Now, obviously a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, this same editor seeks to reestablish his bona fides with the mau-mauers by doing unto Barry and Mike what was done unto him. Shame on you, sir.

From the website Judaism 101:

A Chasidic tale vividly illustrates the danger of improper speech: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”

I’ve warned my fellow writers and creators about too blithely plunging into online controversies, dropping their pants on social media, and wearing their political affiliations as neon tattoos. Why risk alienating half your potential audience? I also said that one must pick one’s battles carefully; issues and situations may arise which outweigh one’s potential financial/career interests, and which one can avoid engaging in only at the risk of one’s self-worth.

For me, this is such an issue. Barry Malzberg is a friend; more than that, he is a profoundly decent and kind human being. I cannot stand idle while this good man’s reputation is unjustly tarnished. The old saying is that bad speech can only be combatted with good speech. As I wrote above, I fear that in this Internet Age, the mud gets replicated so fast and so incessantly that it can never be washed away. I’ve gone on much longer than I originally intended, wanting to wash away as much mud as I can. My washcloth is small, unfortunately. But it won’t go unused.

Update on June 22, 2013: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, which brought in so many new readers. I apologize that I haven’t been able to respond to each of the comments. My main computer is in the shop, and the boys are begging me to take them swimming. If you’d like to support Barry, his most recent book of essays, Breakfast in the Ruins, is excellent, a fantastic read for anyone with an interest in the science fiction or mystery fields. Also, Mike and Barry have collected many of their Dialogue columns into a book called The Business of Science Fiction.

Update #2 on June 24, 2013: The Los Angeles Review of Books features this very detailed, incisive review of The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, which has just been released… a compendium of what Barry considers the best of his more than 350 short stories. Along with Breakfast in the Ruins and The Passage of the Light: the Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg, this new collection is an essential introduction to Barry’s huge body of work.

An Unpredictable (But Golden) Reward of Publishing

I’ve written elsewhere on this website about the personal rewards of the act of writing. Few things give me more pleasure than crafting a well-wrought metaphor or paragraph, brainstorming a delightfully appropriate plot development, watching as a character takes on a voice all his or her own and begins telling me where the book should head next, or coming to the end of a final chapter and knowing exactly what the final sentences of a book must be. I believe that if a researcher were to conduct a brain scan of me when I’m in the midst of such moments, the firing of my neurons and the hyperactivity of my serotonin would closely mimic well-documented brain activity during a “runner’s high” or following absorption of a powerful anti-depressant.

Apart from the rewards of writing, what about the rewards of publishing? I’ve also written in my blog that I believe “story” is a shared performance of at least two persons: the writer, and the reader, who must be seduced by the writer’s efforts into injecting his or her own memories, colorations, mental voices, and emotional responses into the act of story. Unless both actors, reader and writer, are giving their fullest energies to the shared performance of story, the gestalt does not achieve its full potential. Without publishing of some sort (which can be as basic as printing up extra copies for one’s workshop group to read), there are no readers, and the act of story remains incomplete. Yet publishing is often drudgery, involving tasks a writer either dislikes or feels far less competent at than the act of writing (such as marketing one’s work, either to agents or editors or directly to prospective readers; dealing with contractual or legal issues, and struggling through layers of bureaucracy to ensure one’s book doesn’t get “lost,” if working with a traditional publisher; learning the intricacies of document conversion to various e-formats and dealing with hired copy editors and cover designers, if self-publishing).

Those are the burdens of publishing. So what are the rewards of publishing? The obvious ones leap to mind. If one is fortunate enough to be chosen by an editor and publishing staff at a traditional publisher, one receives the ego boost of external validation. One may also experience the pleasures of spotting one’s books in a favorite local bookstore, or being approached at a convention by a reader asking to have his copy signed. Sometimes there are financial rewards to be had, although, in the overwhelming majority of cases, if one honestly adds up all the hours of labor spent writing, revising, and marketing one’s book, the pay received per hour comes to considerably less than the minimum wage.

However, there is another reward of publishing, a reward most often hidden from and unknown to the writer, a reward which, by its nature, is completely beyond prediction and cannot be consciously striven towards. It is a reward that may sometimes come from completing the circuit of “story,” that wondrous instance when three elements come into full confluence: the writer’s best efforts at storytelling, the reader’s best efforts at interpretation, and external circumstances which render the reader especially receptive to being drawn into a book’s enchantment.

Sometimes a book, as an act of communication, as an instance of human sharing, can provide a lifeline to someone who needs one.

When did I decide I wanted to be a writer? I began thinking about it when I discovered I could entertain my peers by writing an appealing story. But what solidified my desire was receiving the gift of a remote human touch when I truly needed such a touch, from writers such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, and Anne McCaffrey. The clincher was reading Barry N. Malzberg’s The Engines of the Night, which told me about the real-life sadnesses and struggles and failures of the minor figures of the science fiction field, men and women (mostly men) who had dreamed big, achieved some measure of success, occasionally major success, and had then been forgotten. I was a teenager when I first read Barry’s book. The stories he shared with me humanized a whole class of people – writers – whom I’d previously assumed led charmed lives. Paradoxically, reading about the writers Barry referred to as the failures of science fiction only made me want to become a science fiction writer even more. Revealing their flaws and their disappointments made me more optimistic that I could, with enough practice and diligence, at least approach their level of work. Perhaps most wonderful of all was my sense that Barry was speaking directly to me, even though we had never met. That sense of connection made me feel much less alone, at a time in my life when I was very prone to feeling terribly alone.

I thought one of the best things I could possibly do as a writer would be to provide someone else, some stranger whom I might never meet, with the same sense of companionship and connection that Barry’s work had granted me. So at that point I knew I would work towards becoming a writer, even though I was fearfully uncertain then that I would have anything worthwhile or new to say.

Living one’s life and taking the gut punches that experience tends to dole out eventually provide a person with something to say; rarely new, but worth the telling (the best stories, after all, can be repeated again and again without losing any of their power). When I was thirty-two, I experienced a double blow that literally left me gasping on the ground. I broke my left ankle in two places during my first attempt at rollerblading, and my wife of four years announced she wanted a divorce. I’ll never forget the book I was reading at the time: Robert Silverberg’s novel, Hot Sky at Midnight. Not one of Silverberg’s classic works, but it was still Robert Silverberg – and I had read and loved enough of Robert Silverberg’s prose to cling to his familiar voice like I would the edge of a lifeboat. For several weeks after my wife’s announcement, I couldn’t fall asleep without talk radio turned on, without some voices (talking about the stock market or home repairs or whatever) to distract me from the voices in my own head. And I couldn’t remain sanely awake in the empty apartment, a cast on my leg, without having Robert Silverberg’s book open on my lap.

The third book I wrote, and the first I was able to get published, Fat White Vampire Blues, grew directly out of that experience. I took my feelings of abandonment, betrayal, yearning, and loss and my resentment at having to move to a new home, put them to words, and made them funny by voicing them through a 450 pound vampire. It was a form of self-therapy, probably one of the most positive things (apart from rehabbing my leg by swimming at the Loyola University gym) that I did for myself. As soon as I finished them, I mailed chapters to my best friend from high school, Maury, who had recently moved from New Orleans to Upstate New York. Maury was going through a rough emotional patch himself, and he told me that my bumbling, hard-luck vampire, Jules, had become a welcome companion, someone who regularly cheered him up, almost as good as having me in the apartment with him.

Recently, I attended CONtraflow in Gretna, Louisiana, the first fan-run science fiction convention to be held in the New Orleans area since just before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the hallway outside the dealers’ room, a trio of volunteers from Biloxi’s Coast Con manned a table to advertise their upcoming convention. I hadn’t met any of the three, but I’d attended many Coast Cons, and I stopped by the table to ask them to do a favor for me. A group of Gulf Coast fans, all connected with Coast Con, had tracked me and my family down while we’d been sheltering in Florida after Katrina and had mailed us several care packages. This had touched me very deeply, because I knew the people who had assembled the care packages had most likely been personally devastated by the storm (Katrina came ashore between Gulfport and Bay St. Louis, smashing and inundating most of the Mississippi coast prior to breaking the levees in New Orleans) – yet they had taken the time away from their own troubles to do this for my family and me. I had mentioned this in an Afterword to my most recently published novel, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 , and I wanted as many Gulf Coast fans as possible to know how much I had appreciated and would always appreciate what they had done. Knowing I’d likely be unable to attend the next Coast Con in the spring, I asked the three fans at the table to help spread the word for me.

One of the three, a young woman, seemed very eager to talk. She told me she had read Fat White Vampire Blues. She said she had read it a few years ago during an extended hospital stay, when she had been seriously ill. Reading my book had helped her get through her physical and emotional ordeal. It had made her laugh. Reading it and laughing had given her something to look forward to each day she’d been in the hospital. She’d come to think of Jules the vampire as a buddy, someone she happily anticipated spending time with.

I thought back to what Maury had told me years ago, before the book had been published. Being able to provide a modicum of entertainment, diversion, and emotional relief for my best friend, welcome and wonderful as that was, was not too unexpected. But to be able to do the same for a complete stranger, a person I had never had any direct contact with… that was another thing entirely. That almost seemed like a form of magic. Or a blessing. I had sent my book out into the world, a message in a bottle, not knowing how the message would be received, nor who would receive it. And here I was, a thousand miles away from my home, talking with a stranger, only to learn that my effort at storytelling had achieved something well beyond my modest ambitions for it. It had helped shepherd a fellow human being through a harrowing ordeal.

In moments of frustration, disappointment, and self-pity, I sometimes think of myself as a “garbage can novelist,” a writer who had his shot at commercial success, came close but missed, and whose manuscripts now get endlessly circulated around the publishing world, generating rejection after rejection. But I’ll have a much harder time considering myself a failed writer now. My various agents have told me that comedy is a hard sell, risky in the marketplace, because humor is so subjective. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to that. But now I know I made someone laugh when they really, really needed to laugh.

And how can anyone consider himself a failure when he has done for someone else what the heroes of his younger days did for him?

The Foxes Head North

Levi and Asher in the clutches of King Kong!

This past week, the Fox Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia headed north — not stopping in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but looting and pillaging all the way into New Jersey and the southern portions of New York. Food vendors all along the Delaware and New Jersey Turnpikes were terrorizied by small boys running rampant (after having been cooped up in a station wagon for hours). Yankee children in various parks and playgrounds were accosted by their rambunctious Southern cousins, and motel beds groaned under the weight of boys joyfully using them as trampolenes while watching normally forbidden Adult Swim episodes on Cartoon Network.

This was our first Official Family Vacation since moving to Manassas two years ago. Having lived on Long Island from 1987 to 1990, I have many good friends there, and since then I’ve gained new business associates in New York City and had some of my New Orleans friends relocate there following Hurricane Katrina. It was time to renew all those connections, and I was eager to share my family with my friends and share New York, both the City and Long Island, with my boys.

Charlie Pellegrino, a.k.a. El Frenetico (with kung-fu sidekick Go-Girl)


We stayed in an America’s Best Value Inn in Smithtown on Long Island, so the boys got to eat donuts for breakfast four mornings in a row. No complaints there, at least not from the boys! Wednesday night we stopped in Northport before heading to our motel. We met Charlie and Ann Marie Pellegrino and their two sons, Christian and Joseph, for dinner at the Venus Greek Restaurant on Fort Salonga Road (yes, I know Venus was a Roman goddess, not a Greek goddess; but if they’d called it the Aphrodite Greek Restaurant, they would’ve had to have spent a lot more money on the sign). I used to eat all the time at the Venus back when I was a young bachelor and it was located about a half mile west. Used to walk through foot-deep snow to get there, mainly for the egg lemon soup (and the pretty young Greek waitresses). They still serve excellent vegetarian grape leaves and egg lemon soup. I first met Charlie at the Northport Public Library, where we both attended a lecture on Sylvia Plath’s poetry (and were the only two males in attendance, as well as the only two attendees under the age of 70). He then introduced me to the rest of my Northport friends, and later went on to star as the washed-up Mexican wrestler-superhero El Frenetico in a trio of “El Frenetico and Go-Girl” short movies — which are a hoot! (And which are available on Amazon, but only in VHS, and currently only at collectors’ prices, unfortunately.)

Peter Rubie with Levi, Asher, and me


On Thursday, following a minor mishap with Dara’s cell phone’s GPS (which led us to Port Jefferson, rather than to the Smithtown railroad station), the family took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan to have lunch with Peter Rubie of the Fine Print Literary Agency (my relatively new agent, and the man whose efforts you should all cheer on if you ever want to see any more of my books reach print), my old high school buddy Maury Feinsilber (who has recently been lighting up publications like The Missouri Review with his short fiction), and Maggie Zellner, Dara’s best friend from NOCA, the New Orleans Creative Arts high school, whom she hadn’t seen in twenty-six years. The boys behaved themselves surprisingly well, allowing us adults to catch up and even talk a little business. Peter was an absolute prince; he couldn’t have been more warm to the family. Best line of the afternoon, via Dara: “Maggie, I went from picking up boys in Georgetown to picking up after boys in Manassas!”

Judah looking like a real city kid


After letting the trio of youngsters burn off some of their steam in a pair of Manhattan playgrounds, I took them to the 86th floor observatory of the Empire State Building (expensive, but worth it if you only get into Manhattan once every decade or so). My own dad took me there when I was five; I’m sure it was a lot less expensive then (but they didn’t have nearly as many King Kong tchotches on sale back in 1970). What helped make it worth the price of admission was a guy in a gargantuan King Kong outfit who posed for photos with the kids. My youngest, Judah, got too scared at the last minute and clung to my leg while his brothers embraced the big ape. Then we went outside to oogle the Chrysler Building, the U.N. Building, and the Hudson and East Rivers.

me and Maury Feinsilber at the beach


On Friday we picked Maury up at the Huntington train station and ate lunch at the Shipwreck Diner in Northport, then headed over to the beach at Sunken Meadow State Park (which had just reopened the day before, after having been closed down by Hurricane Irene). I’ve been spoiled by the fine, sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast and South Florida, so the rocky shoreline of Long Island Sound caused a bit of “ook”-ing and “ouch!”-ing (didn’t bring flip-flops with me), but the bluffs ringing the beach are gorgeous, and we all loved the various types of gulls that flocked to Dara’s offerings of leftover french fries and stale cookies. It was great to get to hang out with Maury. I just wish we could do it more often. You never run out of things to talk about with someone who was your best friend in high school.

Laura Joh and Marty Rowland


Friday night we headed west to Garden City, to have dinner with Marty and Laura Joh Rowland. We knew Marty and Laura from New Orleans, where Laura had been a founding member of George Alec Effinger’s monthly writing critique group that I learned so much from between 1994 and 2009. Marty and Laura relocated to Queens a few years after rebuilding their home in Old Gentilly in New Orleans, flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Laura has continued writing her mystery series set in seventeenth century Japan which began with Shinju and Bundori; her latest is The Ronin’s Mistress, due out on September 13, just a few days from now. Levi, my little future engineer, spent most of dinner talking about building bridges and neighborhoods with Marty, who works as an environmental engineer with the City of New York; we had to do a bit of hydrological engineering when Levi accidentally spilled a glass of water all over himself. Not the worst of all possible disasters, but the restaurant was perhaps a bit too “posh” for my boys (Denny’s is generally about as upscale as Dara and I dare go). I’m really happy to see Laura and Marty thriving in New York.

Saturday we went beachcombing on Centerport’s town beach, where the kids collected smelly clam shells, oyster shells, and various body parts of deceased horseshoe crabs. Judah found a crab tail, which he immediately pronounced was his “claw,” and he told his brothers he was now Wolverine. Then we got together with the multitalented Jon Sanborne, poet, plant tender, singer in punk rock band Satan’s Cheerleaders, outlandish villain in various El Frenetico movies, and alumnus of the Smoke Stack group of writers, which briefly thrived on Long Island in 1990. Jon was kind enough to repair Judah’s crab tail with a strip of Scotch tape after my son cracked it in half (and was immediately inconsolable about the loss).

Chris Limbach, the young reincarnation of Frank Sinatra, and Jon Sanborne


After hooking up with Jon, we all headed for the Pellegrinos’ house for a pool party and barbeque. Charlie and Ann Marie were gracious hosts, and many of the guests they invited also brought little boys of various shapes and sizes, so mine had plenty of playmates. Dara and I basked in an unusual atmosphere of relaxation; we both realized this was the first party we’d ever attended where we’d felt secure just letting the boys go off by themselves and play with their peers. The Pellegrinos’ basement and dens were already brimming with toys and games and clutter; most of the things that could be broken had already been broken long ago by the Pellegrino boys themselves, so my sons had few opportunities to add more destruction or mess. So Dara and I were free to enjoy our friends. And so many friends! Charlie rounded up virtually the whole gang from my last year in Northport — Chris Limbach, another alumnus of the Smoke Stack group, and his two young sons (one of which was very natty in a Sinatra-like hat); Jon; Jim and Deb Robertson; and photographer Cliff Gardiner and his wife Marie and their son. The passage of time could not be better illustrated by the fact that the bunch of us, all lonely and moderately miserable bachelors back in 1990, were now, for the most part, married and carting around little crews of between one and three young boys apiece. We stayed as long as we could, considering we had to get the kids to bed so we could wake up early the next morning and get back on the road. Would we could have stayed longer.

Joyce and Barry Malzberg in front of their home


Sunday morning we said “so long” to our temporary home in Smithtown, after having made friends with an insurance adjuster up from Tennessee, in New York to assist with recovery from Hurricane Irene. Then we headed off to Teaneck, New Jersey and the home of Barry and Joyce Malzberg. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Barry twice before, once at a SF convention in Dallas and once at the Newark Airport, but this was my first time meeting Joyce. As my pal Maury would say, “What a doll!” She treated my boys like they were her own grandsons and made us all feel extremely welcome in her home. We all walked the boys over to a neighborhood playground, then walked another few blocks to a pizza parlor for lunch. Barry and I swapped stories of Noreascon II, the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, which we both attended (although we didn’t bump into each other during the con). Back then, Barry was working on the essays which would come to make up his classic collection, The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties, and I was a fifteen year-old fanboy, carrying around a stack of fanzines to sell (gave them all away), and a box of corn flakes and a tin of raisins so I wouldn’t have to spend any of my money on food but could spend it all on books in the dealers’ room. All too often, we lack an opportunity to tell our heroes how much they mean to us, or we let those opportunities slip past. I made sure not to let this opportunity get away. And Joyce, if you would like to be Levi’s, Asher’s, and Judah’s honorary grandma, the job is yours!

All in all, a wonderful trip (despite the fighting and the tumult in the car during the long drive home; the boys arrived back in Manassas duly chastised). Friendships can wither if they aren’t occasionally watered. I’m very happy we took time to sprinkle some water around New York and New Jersey.

“Diaper Astronaut” Gets “Other Than Honorable” Discharge from Navy


Just a little follow-up from my earlier post, “The End of the Space Age as We Know It.”

Lisa Nowak, who seemed to spring fully grown from the brow of science fiction writer Barry N. Malzberg, has retired from the U.S. Navy with an “other than honorable” discharge and a demotion, following a Navy board of inquiry. She was the member of the astronaut corps who stalked a fellow military officer, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, after Nowak learned Shipman had been romantically involved with a paramour of Nowak’s, former space shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein. Nowak was sentenced to a year’s probation after being convicted of burglary and was expelled from NASA’s astronaut corps.

The most sensationalistic and tabloid-ready aspect of the saga was that Nowak had driven non-stop from Houston to the Orlando Airport in pursuit of Shipman while wearing adult diapers. Oddly enough, according to the Fox News story, Nowak denied wearing the diapers, which were found in her car. The story doesn’t mention her denying any other aspect of the bizarre set of circumstances. I guess it’s okay to stalk an Air Force captain and shoot pepper spray in her face in a parking lot. But wearing diapers…? Well, that just crosses the line.

An officer and a gentlewoman has her honor to uphold, after all.

Glad to read that we’re no longer paying Lisa Nowak’s salary, and that her pension will be reduced. Although I kind of appreciated her purely unintentional, out-of-left-field shout-out to my good friend Barry, a writer who deserves to be read more.

Farewell to the Space Age As We Knew It


_________________________________________________________________________

It’s over.

With the final launch of the last of the space shuttles today, we are witnessing the end of “NASA Classic,” manned missions into space aboard vehicles designed and built by the government-space-industrial complex. An age that began in 1960, four years before I was born, is coming to a close.

That’s not to say that Americans will never again travel into space, or that they will only do so as passengers on rockets built by other nations. But whenever Americans eventually return to space, it will be thanks to a mode of development and procurement far different from the top-down, heavily bureaucratic, NASA-centric model we’ve been familiar with up till now.

It’s odd for me to think that the last moon voyage is as historically distant to my boys as the final years of the Herbert Hoover Administration were to me when I was their age. They haven’t yet thought to ask me why we stopped going to the moon; not even Levi, my oldest, who has shown a strong interest in astronomy and the planets. Whenever they get around to asking, I suppose I’ll answer, “We stopped going because we’d done it already. We brought back our moon rocks. Just like the shirt says — ‘My parents went to the moon, and all I got was these dumb rocks and bragging rights to beating the Soviet Union.'”

I’ll tell them we’ll go back to the moon when we have a real reason to go back. Meaning, whenever someone figures out how to make money from going there and doing things there.

In the meantime, we have J. G. Ballard and Barry N. Malzberg to read.

Younger SF fans may not realize this (nor particularly care), but there was a time when both those authors were regarded by many “traditional” SF readers, those who venerated Campbell’s Astounding and Heinlein and Van Vogt, as heretics, traitors to the true faith of science fiction. Because they didn’t believe the hype of the Space Age. Because they, unlike most of their peers, predicted it would be a transitory phase, that the public and the sponsoring governments would grow bored of it, and that it would ultimately prove to be far more expensive than we were willing to pay, given the limited goals set forth. They also anticipated that organizational and personal pathologies would be among the factors to grind the Space Age to a halt.

Ballard, great fan of the Surrealists, left us painterly images of the ruins of the Space Age, stories set in a Cape Kennedy as abandoned and desolate as Chernobyl. Gary Westfahl has a perceptive essay on this.

Ballard, unfortunately, did not live long enough to watch the final Space Shuttle flight lift off today. Barry Malzberg, however, is still very much with us. His trio of early 1970s novels on the collapse of the space program, Beyond Apollo, The Falling Astronauts, and Revelations, focused on how the intersections of the bureaucratic rigidities of NASA, the psychological vulnerabilities of the astronauts, and the unforeseen terrors of the extraterrestrial environment would lead to personal and organizational disaster and decay. Barry’s biggest “I-told-you-so” moment came in 2007, when NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak drove cross country wearing a diaper and packing a BB gun to assault her rival for the affections of a fellow astronaut. If Hollywood ever makes a bio pic based on Lisa Marie Nowak’s story, Barry should get an acknowledgement in the credits.

Barry, in observance of the day, I raise a glass of Tang in your honor!

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