Breakfast in the Ruins by Maltzberg, Barry, 2007

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Having been described in the past as one of the United States' best unrecognized authors, Barry Maltzberg has always occupied an ambiguous place in my mind, as well as in the minds of many critics. Maltzberg is an award winning author of some pretty interesting SF, most notably Herovit's World and Beyond Apollo, though he has written scores of other novels and hundreds of short stories, both in and out of the SF genre. Breakfast in the Ruins, published originally in much shorter form in the early eighties as The Engines of the Night, is a collection of Maltzberg's observations of the highs and lows of SF since the founding of the modern American institution in 1926, but mostly concentrating on the developments in writing and publishing within SF from the 1950's through the early-ish eighties. It is a very personal approach to the meta-problems of the whole genre from an author who acknowledges his own failure to help make SF something bigger and better than it was when he came to it. I have always respected Maltzberg, especially after finishing Beyond Apollo. I now have a great deal of respect for him, not because I commiserate with him, but because I think I understand where he is coming from. Fair warning though: Some of you will probably hate this man after reading this book. He has a tendency to ramble, and to some he will come off as an insufferable whiner. Many of his complaints have to do with "the unfairness of it all," to paraphrase, but to me, in the end, once I had waded through all that crap, I found a few kernels of truth, or at least bits of logical wisdom.

Maltzberg's opinion of the current state of SF is not easily summed up. Personally, I find that a lot of his attitudes about SF are reflected in the fiction that he has written in the past. In short, Maltzberg is perturbed by the limiting nature of SF canon, the conservative approach of the editors, the pigeonholing phenomena of awards, and the ridiculous functions and procedures at the business end of things, which has the effect of driving out good and/or experimental writers; all this despite the generally accepted (yet repudiated by Maltzberg) "all of time and space" back drop of the SF canvas. However, what it seemed to boil down to in the end was nothing more than the contradictory nature of reality and idealism, which was a major theme in Beyond Apollo. And in case you have not yet figured it out, Maltzberg is the idealist here.

Through it all Maltzberg concentrated on events in history and their effect on the genre. Specifically: WWII, the development of TV, the assassinations, Apollo, the effects of market problems in SF, and personality conflicts. Not strictly chronological in structure, Maltzberg presents the inner workings of his mind organized by personal epiphany rather than year, with the social developments outside of SF shown as catalysts; or rather the first steps on Maltzberg's path to enlightenment. Of course there is a certain linear logic to the arrangement, but Maltzberg does jump around a lot. It is very probable that Maltzberg entered his career in SF at 28 years old with some delusions of grandeur; at least that is what I took away from my reading of his book. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing; I did the same thing as a law student, and although I wish I could go back fifteen years and slap some sense into myself, that idealism works fine for the author. Maltzberg seemed similarly to dream of single-handedly redefining the artistic acceptance of SF, but he grew increasingly crestfallen over editorial practices, agent schemes to bilk writers and funnel them into certain spaces, the reprehensible compensation rates offered to authors by the editors, a near-complete lack of recognition outside of SF, and (possibly) the Jewish publishing cabal he ranted about in two different sections of the book. There is a sub-tale here as well, one practically left unstated about alcoholism, estrangement from loved ones and a general sense of failure about things other than SF, but despite all of that Maltzberg has managed not only to put out an enviable body of original SF, but also this book. It's intense and personal, overstated and high-minded, yet somewhat apologetic with integrity.

Book I essentially, we are led to believe, is a reprinting of The Engines of the Night and is as solid, tightly written and interesting as most other good genre criticism out there. It's almost on an even level with In Search of Wonder and The Issues at Hand, though Maltzberg seems to acknowledge to the reader that he wishes it were as good as those two. I think he might give himself too little credit though, as one of his character flaws seems to be self-effacement at the wrong time (i.e., when it's not funny). Book I is tight, and Maltzberg states his opinions in a very readable form. I opened the book the day I received it from the publisher, fully intending on seeing only what it was about broadly, then sticking it into my pile of books awaiting review. No go. Maltzberg drew me in with his gallows humor and sarcasm pretty quickly, and kept me there with his enlightened and capably explained analyses of the problems with SF, some of which had never even occurred to me before.

In the second book, which is basically an update to Engines, Maltzberg seems a little less sure of himself and of the reasons for the failure of SF. In book II he seems to want to blame the failures of technology as opposed to the factors noted above (here think of Challenger vs. Sputnik; both frightening, but for different reasons), as well as the infusion of "fans" who began attending conventions because of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. About the latter I think that he is absolutely right, though I think that I should note that I was one of them back in 1982. With the introduction of these artifacts the genre changed from an entirely closed universe of fans and writers to a mass marketable, semi-closed opportunity for part-time fans to geek out a few times per year. In other words, whatever artistic integrity Maltzberg thought that he and his buddies could bring to the genre not only just took a giant step backwards on the stage of life, but the economic activities (read: profit driven and artistically-phobic) that the editors had devised became further ingrained in the institution. Not an uncommon problem in Post WWII United States, to be sure. The artist frequently loses on integrity issues once product becomes commercialized, and I trust that most of us here can agree that even when the artist complies willingly, whether to share in the wealth or to smooth the road he or she must travel, the product suffers similarly.

But about the former, the idea that SF in the modern era has somehow failed because of our jaded views of technology and its utility, I think Maltzberg may have missed the possibility that SF in-and-of-itself developed as a pressure valve for those concerns. Never once did I see Maltzberg consider that SF is itself a release for industrial/technology fears. Only that industrial/technological fears killed any interest in examining that facet of the human condition, or that those situations created so much fear that the transformational nature of SF was compromised completely. Consider this: Even if things turn out bad in the story, doesn’t the idea of finality and resolution relieve some level of cognitive dissonance? Even if those stories do not resolve the ultimate death fears, I think that they do provide some sort of relief to the reader. That notion touches on an idea that was mentioned by Maltzberg, which was one originally proposed by Panshin: That is that SF serves as a practice-session of sorts. In other words, if we go through the motions in literature, we will have a better idea of what not to do, or possibly what to do, when the situation arises in reality. Maltzberg also argues elsewhere in the book that editors had an economic disincentive to allow exploration of any issues that were not an established part of genre canon by the time he came along. That may be the case too, and I'm certain that Maltzberg made a valid point, but to the extent that he does not allow for any alternative use of SF he may be putting the chicken before the egg.

From Book I, essay entitled Number of the Beast:

At the center, science fiction is a dangerous literature. It represents the beast born in the era of enlightenment to snarl at the heart of all intellectual and technological advance. As the technology becomes more sophisticated and intrusive, as our lives in the post-industrial twentieth century came to be dominated in every way by technology, science fiction became more cunning in its template. We know not what we do; the engines can eat us up - this is what science fiction has been saying (among other things) for a long time now. It may be preaching only to the converted, but the objective truth, the inner beast, will not go away and so neither - despite hostility of the culture, the ineptitude of many of its practitioners, the loathing of most of its editors, the corruption of most of its readers - neither will science fiction. If, if no given writer, will persist; will run, with the engines, the full disastrous course.

The obvious questions readers will be left with at the end of this long book are, "why didn't Maltzberg realize all of this much earlier, and if what he really wanted was happiness, why didn't he just conform?" These are questions that people have been asking artists for hundreds and hundreds of years, I suppose; and I think that artistic intent is a primary assumption that needs to be made with this author. Maltzberg is an artist with artistic sensibilities, including an artist's stereotypical unwavering dedication to his craft. Thankfully most readers can get a pretty good understanding of what that sense is by reading just a few of his books, but this work makes it crystal clear: He appreciates non-linear story telling, he is moved by the individual's unfiltered impressions of stimuli and occurrence, his approach to sexual themes is deep-seated in its intensity but subtle and almost hidden in the execution, and the importance of saying something novel is probably of paramount importance. He also has a blasé attitude about transformation, and to him technology is not a panacea: It is a source of friction. Maltzberg is intelligent, opinionated and probably a bit crazy. As I read this book I sympathized whole-heartedly with the misery of exclusion and the hopelessness of a categorically unfair system. I thought "why couldn't this guy have gotten what he wanted?" and, "what's wrong with me that I didn't love Beyond Apollo?" I have a new found respect for the man and the subtleties he tried to work into his books. I also feel like the other shoe has been dropped; the mate to that one dropped by Fredrick Pohl in The Way the Future Was. Anyway, he's obviously too damn smart for his own good. Damn, I wish I knew him.

There is, of course, much, much more to this book. In a trade-paper format of approximately 400 pages wherein the author almost fails utterly to discuss any aspects of his personal life, there must be more, shouldn't there? Maltzberg's book is also a homage to his own literary heroes, including Dick, Disch (who tore a pretty large hole in Engines of the Night when it was originally published), Mark Clifton (whose They'd Rather Be Right I will be reviewing shortly, and whose short fiction I have now ordered, based entirely on Maltzberg's recommendations), Damon Knight, Silverberg, Daniel Keyes, Frederic Brown, J.G. Ballard (about whose essay is only barely intelligible) and many others. There are also essays on Campbell (who, to put it lightly, vexed Maltzberg), Asimov (who had it easy) and others. He gives a great list of masterpieces, both short and long too. There is some great commentary in here about the subjective nature of SF; about SF being an underdog so long, then becoming a fabulous money maker that the conservative, don't-rock-the-boat approach has become ingrained, first out of protectionism for the work in general, then out of protectionism for the money, and how this conservatism led to an ignorance of issues outside that normal canon, such as sexuality and anti-war themes.

I dare you to read this book and try, just try to pretend that Maltzberg isn't a patient stretched out on a couch in front of you.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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