Beyond Apollo by Maltzberg, Barry, 1972

Beyond Apollo by Maltzberg, Barry

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Of all the SF authors that I like and whose books I will seek out, Barry Maltzberg may be one of the most difficult to read. His books therefore occupy a zone outside the planesphere of the novels I truly love. Beyond Apollo is a prime example of his that has many of the style elements that I sometimes love and sometimes hate. Maltzberg is a master of the written word, there is no doubt. I think that he is on par with Fritz Leiber and Johanna Russ. And his use of SF concepts may not be genius, but it is not far from it. In the end of this book though, Maltzberg really answers no questions at all, and also manages to keep a pretty good flow of contradictory information coming your way. Galaxies, the only other Maltzberg book in my collection, is pretty much the same way. Beyond Apollo gets 3 out of 5 stars.

Like many other books Ive reviewed here, Beyond Apollo is an alternate reality novel of sorts, with the point of divergence from our world coming in the mid 1970's, with a manned mission to Mars. That mission ends in tragic and unexplained failure, as the Mars capsule and its three astronauts are completely destroyed while around the far side of its target planet. The shocking loss of this mission's men scare the Americans, who are already growing tired of the space program's budget, and who are besieged by Nixon's attempts to kill Kennedy's baby. The American public lost all hope and heart of pushing the program further. NASA however, despite the literal overnight reduction in its budget, managed to put together a manned mission to Venus that left for the inner planet in 1981. That is the story told in this book. Sort of, anyway. Keep in mind that as I go on here, everything I write is open to interpretation. Like I said, Matlzberg is really not interested in giving answers.

Somewhere on the trip from Earth to Venus, second in command Harry Evans goes bat-shit crazy. The book is essentially the reworking of a diary that Evans kept on his way to Venus, and is told in very short chapters that show Evans to be the kind of nuts that nobody ever really comes back from. Im talking Manson crazy here. There are quite a few other theories presented in the book, though, including the possibility that Evans was nuts before the craft even left Earth, and that everything that happens was really just dreamed up by Evans as the plot to a SF novel that he wanted to write, and in the end of the story actually managed to sell. What exactly drove him to this place is anyone's guess. Evans seems to think that it was psychic messages sent to him by the Venusians, warning him to stay away and threatening him with death if he got any closer. Somewhere in the long journey to Venus the Captain of the mission was evacuated from the capsule's refuse shoot, but we never really learn if the Captain killed himself out of fear, if he was driven to it by the Venusians, if it was an accident, or if Evans killed him and evacuated his corpse. Whatever the reason, Maltzberg gives us mutually exlcusive chapters describing each occurrence. He totally leaves it to us to ponder exactly what happened. And that is where this novel's brilliance shows through. Its a short one, at 138 pages, but Maltzberg really gave us enough side story to support each possibility so that even after a weighted analysis, you are left completely clueless. How he managed to do it is completely beyond me. Ive never really been left with so much wonderment after reading a book. Even where the author is trying to be evasive, some little bit usually gets stuck in my craw, and I am able to satisfy and resolve whatever cognitive dissonance remains. Not here. And that is why sometimes I hate this book too.

Perhaps the most shocking element of this book is its anti-technological message. One of the theories discussed (in very roundabout ways) is that mankind is not capable of leaving the Earth without going insane. With the destruction of the Mars mission for reasons that very well could have been sabotage, and with Evans probably killing his captain and then returning to Earth nuts, Maltzberg suggests that all our efforts to leave an overpopulated planet may be in vain. Some of the most powerful characters in this book (other than Evans' wardens at the rubber roomed facility) are the politicians that clamor and cry for the total dismantlement of the space program. This certainly isn't a new idea, though in that regard, it is one of those rare SF novel that essentially cry out for Luddite notions.

em>Beyond Apollo is really not for everyone. Those with scientific, linear minds probably will not get too much out of it, I would think. The Evans character is also truly insane, and makes very little sense. Sometimes that can be maddening, but at the same time, Maltzberg's prose is really masterful. As I read more and more of Evans, images of Gary Gilmore (from Mailer's Executioner's Song), the aforementioned Manson, and Jeffrey Goines from Twelve Monkeys comes to my mind. Sometimes I really hate going into the mind of insanity like this book demands of its readers, but I also find that it can be interesting as well. I'd advise reading this one much much later in your journeys through SF, first because its a very mature novel and the reader should have some years behind him or her, and because as classics go, its near the bottom of that particular well.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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