5/5 (Masterpiece — but please consider the caveats below before procuring a copy)
(This review is a product of lengthy dialogues with my girlfriend, a graduate student in English, who devoured the work with great relish and enthusiasm. Her remarkable eye peeled away levels I didn’t even know existed and heightened my appreciation for this underread classic. I owe large portions of this review to her.)
Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (1972), the third of his novels I’ve read (Conversations, In the Enclosure, Guernica Night), is generally considered his best work (he won the inaugural John Campbell Award for best Novel). In a genre infrequently blessed with literary experimentation — of course, there are a few exceptions, Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975), Russ’ And Chaos Died (1970), and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) among others — I’m always more predisposed to works which are structurally/stylistically inventive and thought-provoking. Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo more than fulfills both longings.
Beyond Apollo is a masterpiece; a multi-faceted rumination on repression; a virulent critique of the space program and America’s obsession with space; a metafictional labyrinth that can, at times, be infuriatingly undefined.
Brief Plot Summary and Discussion of the Character of Harry Evans
Beyond Apollo is not a plot driven work. A vague outline can be gathered by the ultimately cyclical 67 short chapters recounting memories, events, tellings/re-tellings/and re-tellings of re-tellings of said memories and events. Harry Evans, the only survivor of a two-man expedition to Venus, recounts his story in an endless series of re-tellings. The main crux of the novel surrounds the death of the Captain of the expedition whom Harry claims is insane (11).* Was it an accident? Was it due to some strange effect emerging from Venus? Did Harry kill him? Was it self-defense? If he did kill him, how (the trash dispenser, a brute attack)? Why (was it because of the captain’s sexual advances, was it over a game, etc)? Evans is interred in a psychiatric institution and interrogated by authorities over the voyage and the fate of the Captain.
Critics often focus their critique on the lack of resolution concerning what actually happened on the voyage. The reader speculates that Harry is the culprit but the “truth” is not obvious. However, there are many hints (discussed below) that suggest that the Captain isn’t a real person at all. Malzberg purposefully constructs the novel so that we’ll never know exactly what happened on the trip (even if one of the versions Harry describes is indeed what happened). Not only is our anti-hero the only one to return from Venus but also it is clear that he is purposefully obfuscating or does not know the truth. Perhaps he’s unconsciously obscuring his own memories or, paradoxically, trying to prove a point about the dangerous environment of the space program and has gone insane doing it. Evans has definitely been scarred either due to his experience onboard the vessel or on his disastrous previous mission to Mars. After each of his re-tellings claims that what he had previously said about Venus was a lie and that he’ll now tell the truth:
“‘Oh,” I say, “I forgot to tell you. I mean I lied to you the first time around and now I can’t bear to lie any more because I see how crucial the information is. The Captain never said anything about having nuclear devices.’” (40)
‘”I’m convinced,” I say. “I don’t want to live in a tube; I want to see the sun again, to receive a commendation from the President, and someday even to remarry. Because you will agree, I really can’t live with this particular woman any more; we never got along. So let me confess: let me tell you. Venus, it turns out, is populated by an intelligent race of malevolent green snakes.’” ( 38-39)
Two “games” are played to find out the truth. On one level Evans is interrogated by Forrest (the psychiatrist) about the “truth” of the trip. In other chapters Evans and the Captain play a game while on the voyage about the reason behind the Venus mission in the first place:
“the Truth must be absolutely; there must be no hedging of lying; and the game will continue until each of use either answers three questions satisfactorily or refuses to respond, in which case the persion who has asked the question will be the winner. If there is any suspicion of lying, the one under suspicion will have exactly thirty seconds to prove his statement or lose” (28).
There are also dream conversations between Evans and the Captain (who may or may not be a manifestation of himself); dream conversations with dead relatives; dream conversations with Forrest; an unusual history of the space program up the the Venus mission; cryptograms; and lengthy interludes describing in detail Evans’ own sex life and Evan’s imagining of the Captain’s sex life.
Malzberg’s Metafictional Techniques
Malzberg’s fiction is heavily inspired by the rise of postmodernism in the mid to late 1960s (Borges, Beckett, Burroughs, Calvino, etc). Many of the 67 fragmented chapters are about the novel that Harry Evans writes about his expedition to Venus. The implication is that this 67 chaptered novel is indeed the version that Harry Evans wrote about the expedition of Venus.
“In the novel I plan to write of the voyage, the Captain will be a fall, grim man with piercing eyes who has no fear of space. “Onward!” I will hear him shout. “Fuck the bastards. Fuck control base; they’re only a bunch of pimps for the politicians anyway. We’ll make the green planet yet or plunge into the sun. Venus forever! To Venus! Shut off all the receivers now. Take no messages. Listen to nothing they have to say; they only want to lie about us to keep the administrators content. Venus or death! (11)”
The entire work is thus what Harry Evans presents about the expedition. In a novel that is obsessive about characters seeking the truth Malzberg layers the narrative with truth obscuring meta-narrative techniques. There are multiple points where Malzberg has Evans explain the technique regarding assessing the truth that should be used to approach the novel. Evans points out that novel he will write “will be able to apprehend the truth because throughout the whole sweep and scope of the book there will not be a single moment, a passage so precise and detailed that I will have to come to grips with myself and my true relation to the Captain” (110). Yet earlier, Evans explained that “what happened can be indicated only in small flashes of light, tiny apertures which, like periscopes, will illuminate some speck of an overall situation so large that none of us can comprehend it” (47). Thus, the scenes themselves are not specific or concrete enough to indicate exactly what happened between Evans and the Captain but does indicate the larger truth of the experience. But, the very fact that we are reading a novel written by the character in the novel about his own experience calls even this broad statement into question.
There are distinct moments in the narrative that feel “true” as with every novel with autobiographical inspiration. For example, a few lines in conversations with Forrest which aren’t in Evan’s dreams suggest a kernel of truth. Three such scenes imply that the Captain and Evans are the same person. First, Evans knows about nuclear devices on the spaceship that only the Captain knew (40). Of course, after Evans claims that the vessel had nuclear weapons that only the Captain knew about he claims that he “made up the part about his saying we have explosives. I made up all of it” (40). Later in the novel Forrest asks, “‘your latest and your last chance, Colonel,” he says, “to tell us what happens.” When he [Evans] hears the world colonel used for the first time in their relationship Evans twitches slightly but regains control of himself (61).” A colonel in the army and air force is the same rank as a Captain in the navy. The fact that the rank has such an effect on Evans suggests that he might indeed be the Captain. Likewise, in one of Evan’s many anagrams — (44). As with many of aspects of the novel, it is not entirely obvious that this is the “truth.”
Beyond Apollo is also a gendered critique on the hypermasculinity of the space program. Even though a great majority of sci-fi writers glorify the program and proclaim the positives of our obsession with exploration, there are many stories which discuss its flaws, the damage it has on families, how it manipulates young idealists: C. M. Kornbluth’s short story, ‘The Altar at Midnight’ (1952), James Gunn’s Station on Space (1958) are great examples. Malzberg’s goes beyond these earlier works and suggests that the space program makes hypermasculine machines out of men. This plays out in the extensive scenes between Evans and his wife: “We have been geared for efficiency. I begin to fuck her like a proper astronaut […]” (27).
For many sci-fi readers, this lack of concrete narrative and thus the necessary footing in order to glean “what is true/what actually happened”, will be off-putting. Added to his devious brew created by an unreliable narrator recounting for his interviewer the events of the voyage is a heavy dose of metafictional techniques and explicit (purposefully shocking) sexuality. Unless you are comfortable with this trifecta (and other postmodernist elements), I suggest avoiding his substantial corpus. For the braver readers out there who enjoy sci-fi with a literary, experimental, nihilistic turn, Malzberg’s ouvre is a veritable treasure trove.
A challenging and literary masterpiece…