Barry N. Malzberg’s most famous work, Beyond Apollo, has an air of controversy to it. When it won the first ever John W. Campbell award in 1973, some considered it an insult to Campbell, as Beyond Apollo lacks the positivity and wonder associated with Campbell’s strain of space exploring SF. It also features a huge amount of sex, a protagonist with mental health issues and a plot that is unresolved.
All that still is enough for some contemporary Goodreads reviewers to express their disgust with all the “mechanical sex, misogyny and closet-homosexuality”. They simply pan the novel as just random “nonsense”, “bizarre” and probably fueled by “LSD”.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Beyond Apollo is short, only 138 pages, but it packs a walloping punch. A punch right in the gut of truth and modernism’s optimism.
Yes, by all accounts this is a textbook example of postmodern literature: there’s an unreliable narrator who doesn’t seem to know what happened himself, the protagonist is institutionalized in the loony bin and wants to write a book – the manuscript of which we may or may not be reading, there are shifts in the narrative voice – often within the same paragraph, and even at the end the reader doesn’t know what actually happened.
Be advised: this is not a puzzle to be solved, there’s no clues to be found between the lines. Readers seeking the truth about the story will not find it.
That story is rather thin: set in 1981, it’s about the first manned mission to Venus. The mission failed, the commander is missing and the survivor, Harry Evans, went insane. Evans and his wardens try to reconstruct what happened, and lots of version are presented.
While the true plot is impossible to find, Malzberg manages to pack lots of other truths. Truths on the mechanical nature of biology, and the mechanical nature of humans: yes, we are moist robots. Truths about bureaucracy and political administrations. Hard truths about relationships, sex and love.
There’s also a truth about space exploration being impossible, crazy. What sane human would survive confinement to small quarters floating in the absolute blackness of ethereal nothingness for a long period of time, unharmed? Seen in that light, this is a direct predecessor of KSR’s brilliant 2015 book Aurora.
Malzberg is in supreme command of the narrative: just as the novel starts to drag in its predictable “here we get yet another possible version of events” he cranks up the comedy and the sex. This might be a bleak book, but it also a funny one. It reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut more than once, both in tone, as in themes.
As Vonnegut, Malzberg is a nihilist: there is no greater Truth, no redeeming reason – except for the how.
When confronted with life’s great questions – especially when faced with perceived injustices like murder, cancer or other forms violent death – humans tend to pose the big question: Why? Why me? Why did it have to be mom? Why does that hypocritical bastard have all the luck in the world, while I’m shoveling shit?
The universe doesn’t care, and justice is a human conception useful to regulate societies, but it falls short to tame the brutality of overall existence. The only valid explanations we’re able to give to whatever why question always is an answer to that why question rephrased as a how question.
“Because of a blind series of events,” I say to the Captain, only slightly disconcerted after the Fourth Great Venusian Disturbance. “All of it is coincidence, causality, blind alleys, the manufacturing of explanations after the fact for any one of an infinite series of possibilities which have no origin whatsoever. (…) So it falls to us to invent, post facto, an explanation which will seem credible; we will tie the meaning to the event, as it were, rather than the event to the meaning, because that is the kind of people we are. (…)”
Ultimately, Beyond Apollo is about ourselves, and space an obvious metaphor for our inner self. Do we except that we are biological creatures whose lives are governed by mechanical coincidence, set for death?
Under this theory, the rationalization for space exploration became preposterous. One would have been better off accepting from the beginning the internal truth of oneself or, failing that, seeking competent care in an institution where for relaxation cryptograms, hairgrayers, puzzles, and sexual biography would serve the essential purposes while keeping allotted time free for introspection and consideration of inner space.
There is no greater meaning, no greater cause, and we are left with ourselves.
At the end of all the machinery, the training, the instructions, and the pain would come this moment at the end of the tube when, still and vacant, I would confront the dead panels of the console and understand that somehow, anyhow, I had to work it out for myself.
It is no surprise that a book that is essentially anti-explanation, anti-narrative and anti-idealism still manages to irritate certain readers in the 21st century.
Not everybody has the stamina of the active nihilist, and authors that pop our fluffy dreams are much easier to accuse of being crazy, nonsensical druggies than to take serious, and see the truth in their art.
Now, who is going to write that 15-page paper on the significance of the Nietzschean Apollonian-Dionysian dynamic to the tragedy Beyond Apollo is?