Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review of Beyond Apollo by Barry Malzberg

Knowing what a fan of Barry Malzberg Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations is, seeing a copy of Beyond Apollo (1972) on the Polish version of ebay I decided to pick it up and have a go.  All the more intriguing is that the novel is—at least many claim—Malzberg’s most well known.  A thin book at 173 pages (but with 67 chapters), it is a quick but powerful read.  Dense, allusive, cutting yet indirect in its commentary, the novel is a prime example of New Wave science fiction that transcends the genre.

Beyond Apollo, contrary to the overwhelming majority of science fiction, is not, in fact a traditional story.  Fiction, yes, but the structure of the book is a collage of perspectives not all of which, if any, amalgamate coherently.  Granulated to say the least, the story of Harry Evans, the only person to return from NASA’s first two-man mission to Venus, is spread out like puzzle pieces on a table.  Ostensibly insane, Evans has been institutionalized by the space program in an attempt to draw from him the truth about what went wrong on the mission.  What happened to Captain Josephson?  Was he murdered?  Did he commit suicide?  How did events transpire?  What brought about Evans’ state?  With Evans fully willing to speak his mind, the problem is winnowing the truth from his thoughts.

Beyond Apollo is a light shone through a crystal.  The reader never gets to see the crystal or the light, only the resulting refraction.  Appearing in all colors and luminosities, Evans account of the Venus trip is anything but linear or concrete, and is something the reader must be prepared for.  Political, social, and human issues the focus, Evans’ dialogues with himself, the Captain, and the psychologist in the institution are the voices for these concerns, but are presented in such non-linear fashion as to defy immediate coherence.  Certainly off-putting to most mainstream genre readers, it requires an inquisitive mind to absorb the voices, perspectives, and perceptions and ponder how they fit together to form possible realities.  (For a better overview of the varying literary elements, see Joachim’s review on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations here.)

An artistic novel, Malzberg paints a literary picture of the space program in cynical, mercurial hues.  Not a criticism of NASA’s mission statement (as so many often assume and the controversy resulting from the novel’s publishing was predicated upon*), Beyond Apollo is more a critical cautionary.  The moon the extent of humanity’s reach based on existent technology, the only place to go next is Mars or Venus, which Malzberg unequivocally states mankind is not yet ready for.  Evans the symbol of what Malzberg imagines a trip to Venus to mean for a human, he punishes the character physically (sexually) and psychologically (near schizophrenia)—drives him to insanity in fact—as a result of the mission.  The possibility of mankind in the solar system not in question, the novel is a commentary on the times it was written, specifically the economic, technological, and mindset of NASA.  Interestingly, it has proven itself prescient in some ways in the decades since; NASA has steadily faded.  I would dare say this is some relief to Malzberg—not to be correct in his assumptions, but that humanity wasn’t put at risk on a dangerous mission simply to be the one to take that next step.  (The title does, after all, have significance.)

In the end, Beyond Apollo is a very satisfying work of post-modern science fiction.  The opposite of an A-B-C space opera narrative, Malzberg gives the reader a spread of perspectives to ponder while reading, and indeed, re-reading.  Puzzle pieces that fit together in a variety of ways, from meta-fiction to fiction, the resulting fragmentation is for those who enjoy literary, sophisticated genre.  (Ballard and Disch come immediately to mind as contemporaries.)  Though indeed critical of NASA, one shouldn’t take this statement at face value without reading the novel to understand the specifics.

Side note: Though mostly online reviews, I am sometimes reading about a book on Wikipedia to get the “objective” view.  Normally I do not copy anything from the site, but as a post script to this review, I can’t help but do so given what is there.  Joanna Russ, one of the leading figures of feminist science fiction, and Harlan Ellison, one of the most controversial yet talented writers in the field, praise Beyond Apollo to varying degrees.  Each a dominant New Wave writer, their positive opinion of the novel is offset by Bob Shaw’s (a hard science fiction writer if ever there were one): "Malzberg's Beyond Apollo is, to me, the epitome of everything that has gone wrong with sf in the last ten years or so". A clash of hard with literary sf, it’s fair to say no other genre of literature has anything close to the same internal issues.


  1. If there is a novel that deserves -- above all others that have been passed over so far -- a spot on the Gollancz masterwork list it's Beyond Apollo....


    Do you think he even went on a mission? Or, perhaps, his previous mission resulted in a breakdown and this novel is a construct (which he his writing) and a strange attempt to get over (which he can't) his psychological state.

    1. Before listening to an interview with Malzberg (link below), I wouldn't know how to answer your question - and even after, I'm still not confident. But I'll try.

      I think the astronaut really was on a Venus mission, returned crazy, and the resulting narrative is fragmented along the lines of his now multiple perceptions of reality. I say this because NASA's pre-flight training regiment pushes Evans to the extreme-extreme, not to mention the "debriefing" by NASA's psychologists is unconcerned with his humanity, rather the 'truth' regarding the mission. NASA's disregard for Evans' physical and mental well-being while remaining focused on what's next after the moon seems to be the point at which Malzberg is aiming his critical guns, and no better a tragic figure could exemplify that than a crazy Evans. Then again, it could be just the fictionally artful diatribe of space program dissenter...

      See here for that interview: