Singularity | Commentary

The Thrill of Motion by Barry N. Malzberg

Barbara Cook in concert patter a few years ago: “People say to me, ‘Miss Cook, what was it like being part of the greatest era in Broadway history, the 1950s and early 1960s? All those great lead roles: The Music Man, Candide, She Loves Me, how did it feel?’ How could I explain to them that the true answer was, ‘I wasn’t even aware of the era, I wasn’t thinking about my place in history . . . all I knew was that I was going from job to job and trying desperately not to be unemployed.” Then she sang “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide which for 7 weeks in 1956 she had sung eight times a week, twice on Wednesday and Saturdays, and which (rumor had it) had wrecked her voice before she became Marion the Librarian.

Didn’t feel like history to Barbara Cook, felt like a continuing attempt to keep working. Didn’t feel like a literary movement to me in the late 1960s, New Wave, Old Wave, take it away (in Avram Davidson’s words in an old SFWA Forum). Couldn’t read it, could barely write it and it was all I could do to stagger to the typewriter most mornings and give it another 3000 words. I published 30 science fiction novels, other novels of various kinds, some of which were for the time pretty good, not to be famous, not to change the course of science fiction, not even to win the love and applause of fandom: I wrote them all — Beyond Apollo and Herovit’s World for Random House, Tactics of Conquest for Pyramid Books — trying desperately to get in the pages because if I delivered something, anything, the publisher would have no case to sue for return of the signature advance. I wrote Beyond Apollo in the terror that if I didn’t give Random House something, they’d demand back the $500 signature advance.

I think that, probably (I have no inside information and I am not comparing myself to the gentlemen), Mozart wrote his symphonies in pretty much the same attitude, that Michael Moorcock put his novella Behold the Man in his own magazine because he needed 25,000 words that month and had no money to pay for them. I know that John W. Campbell edited Astounding in the 1940s not in the name of a literary revolution, not toward the purpose of making science fiction great, but because he had some ideas which interested him and writers who would work willingly because he was, by far, the top-paying market at a cent a word. He knew Asimov because the kid came up to the office a lot, he knew Kuttner and Heinlein because the Californians wanted to get the top science fiction rate and were more or less willing to deliver anything on time; he published “No Woman Born” and “Clash by Night” and “The Children’s Hour” and “Killdozer” and “E for Effort” because the yarns caught his interest and Campbell was always interested in a good yarn. It was the business of James Blish and Damon Knight a decade later and a whole flock of academics a couple of decades after that to tell Campbell that he was making a revolution in what had been a dessicated, gnarly little corner of pulp.

Movements, convulsions, vast historical forces and changes turn out — at least in the so-called arts — to be the outcome of efforts of nervous, high-strung, cynical people very much like myself. Budrys would have put it another way in Galaxy: “And you, you taking out the garbage and clipping newspaper coupons and putting gas in the car; you with the shiny suit and the unpressed lapels and the food stains on your collar, you are a member of the grandest, most glorious, most brilliant population of the greatest nation in the history of the world at the peak of its technology and influence; you with your little thoughts and little dreams, your small hopes and snaffling little possibilities . . . you are the mover and shaker and creator of your time. Of course your concern now is in taping the garbage tight so that it doesn’t split and rot.” Budrys always had a fetching informality: the cold, fixated eye upon the Wedding Guest was the eye that had glimpsed vast eras in transition.

So that is the homily for the day: scratch a Movement and find a bunch of people mostly looking for an opportunity, unbutton a Revolution and find a crowd in search of the King’s pisspot. Look for the New Wave on Ladbrook Grove and find Moorcock and pals trying to get enough shillings together to get to the printer this one more time, look for Genesis and Exodus on the river and you’ll find Judith Merrill and James Blish at Milford on the Sea, passing the drinks back and forth and complaining about the Value Added Tax. Everything is less than it seems unless, of course, it is more.

I tell myself that politics — which I know less well — also works this way but I am not sure. Science fiction, peace to the truefen, is not (nor fandom) a way of life.

But Gingrich, our suddenly retired Speaker, was a stone science fiction reader and avid follower of the 1960s Analog I am told. You know the 1960s Analog, right? Its editor endorsed George Wallace.

November 1998: New York

About the Author

Copyright © 1998 by Barry N. Malzberg and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.