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Barry N. Malzberg is a great writer.
His fiction is not necessarily pleasant, certainly not soothing or predictable, and never upbeat. But life isnít necessarily any of these things. Malzberg's writing is dark and, at the same time, funny. Malzberg is able to manipulate dramatic tensions within his work expertly, often allowing the reader to experience deeply deluded, confused, paranoid, or crazy human beings by delving into their psychologies (and more often than not, their psychoses too).
Malzberg has produced a vast body of work, not only in SF, which is completely overlooked by modern readers (and possibly writers as well). His productivity reached its height in the 1970s, a period which saw him become extremely prolific, producing novels by the dozens and short stories in even greater numbers. Towards the end of the 1970s, after becoming disenchanted with the sf-market and probably the sf-community at large (towards which I think he has ambivalent feelings) he basically quit writing novels. Now he focuses entirely on short stories, and still publishes a few every year (most years, that is). The early 90s saw a resurgence of his work in the field of short stories.
Malzberg has published 75 novels, none of which are in print today (though Galaxies appears as part of a trilogy reprint). His stories number in the hundreds, yet not one of his collections is in print today (with the arguable exception of a 1994 reprint collection). The taste of the masses rules the markets, and it is clear that the masses arenít very good at dealing with extremely sophisticated, intelligent, sharp, experimental, fundamentally dark writing that challenges their notions on just about everything. Malzberg has pushed the frontiers of science fiction, molded it, used it. Your average SF-media-fan won't know what to do with his postmodern, boundary-pushing work.
Malbergís writings are almost incomparable to those of any other writer. He has his own undeniable voice, unmistakable once you start reading something by him but difficult to describe, to reduce from the level of experience to the level of reference. Two qualities abundantly clear in his writing are (1) obsession with certain thematic elements (2) a deeper recursiveness of certain situations and story structures. If you read 3 novels by Malzberg and you donít like any of them, chances are you should just move on to another writer. Or perhaps turn on your TV set.
All of his books and stories inhabit the same "calcined, solipsistic universe". Some of his works can be classified as recursive farcical satires (e.g. Dwellers of the Deep, Gather in the Hall of Planets, Overlay). Three of his novels deal with the Apollo space programme in a very sceptical, painful fashion: their protagonists are astronauts that represent "archetypes of alienated contemporary humanity, struggling to make sense of an incomprehensible world and unable to account for their failure." All Malzberg characters face such angst-ridden situations, and this provides his writing with a sense of philosophical continuity and epistemological scepticism not present in many other's writers works (there are some exceptions, like Robert Silverberg, whose writing has clearly influenced Malzberg's). This scepticism is not developed in a phildickian manner, which generally involves a more concerted attack on what we experience as reality, but in terms of fragmentation, paranoia, obsession, recursiveness.
The protagonist of Herovit's World (which, from what I've read of his so far, I consider his best novel) is a burnt-out science-fiction hack, suffering an impossible predicament. Malzberg fearlessly uses this situation as a metaphor for general alienation, and further emphasizes the inherent alienation that ails all science-fiction writers and readers, perhaps paradoxically more so than others because of their chosen field, their attempts - on one level at least - to escape reality through sf.
In the SF-encyclopedia Brian Stableford writes that "BNM's writing is unparalleled in its intensity and in its apocalyptic sensibility".