Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Malzberg, Barry N

Entry updated 29 January 2024. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1939-    ) US author. For about seven years he was extremely prolific in the sf field, very quickly producing some twenty sf novels and over 100 short stories, and much other work; his sf output slowed dramatically towards the end of the 1970s, when he became disenchanted with the genre for reasons explained in his collection of essays The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties (coll 1982; much exp vt Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium 2007); the revision won a Locus Award in 2008. He has also written numerous non-sf works, including several notable erotic novels, and four excellent thrillers in collaboration with Bill Pronzini, including Night Screams (1979), which makes use of ESP. His early sf appeared under the name K M O'Donnell, apparently derived from the initial letters of the surnames of Henry Kuttner and C L Moore plus the surname of one of their joint pseudonyms. Other pseudonyms, used on non-sf works, include Mike Barry, Claudine Dumas, Mel Johnson, Lee W Mason and Gerrold Watkins. His first sf story was "We're Coming through the Window" as by O'Donnell in Galaxy for August 1967, which was quickly followed by the bitter novelette "Final War" (April 1968 F&SF) also as by O'Donnell, about an unwilling soldier trapped in a never-ending Wargame. Books under the O'Donnell name were the short-story collections Final War and Other Fantasies (coll 1969 dos) and In the Pocket and Other Science Fiction Stories (coll 1971 dos), the novels The Empty People (1969) and Universe Day (fixup 1971), and two Recursive farcical Satires featuring sf fans and writers in confrontation with Aliens: Dwellers of the Deep (1970 dos) and Gather in the Hall of the Planets (1971 dos).

The first sf novels to appear under Malzberg's own name were sceptical commentaries on the Apollo programme: The Falling Astronauts (1971), Revelations (1972) and Beyond Apollo (1972). The third caused some controversy when it won the John W Campbell Memorial Award despite its sarcastic and negative attitude to Space Flight. The three novels feature astronauts as archetypes of alienated contemporary humanity, struggling to make sense of an incomprehensible world and unable to account for their failure. All Malzberg's central characters are caught in such existential traps, and the measure of his versatility is the large number of such situations which he was able to construct in a half-decade of intense productivity using the vocabularies of ideas typical of sf and erotic fantasy. In Screen (1968) the protagonist can obtain sexual satisfaction only by projecting himself into fantasies evoked by the cinema, while in Confessions of Westchester County (1971) a prolific seducer obtains satisfaction not from the sexual act but from the confessions of loneliness and desperation which follow it. The situation of the racetrack punter, unable to win against the odds by any conceivable strategy, becomes the model of alienation in Overlay (1972), in which aliens take an actual part in the process of frustration, and in the non-sf novel Underlay (1974). Aliens threaten the Earth, and set absurd tasks to decide its fate, in The Day of the Burning (1974) and Tactics of Conquest (1974). The underlying truth exposed in On a Planet Alien (1974) may be that the grotesquely threatening wilderness that faces the colonist protagonist may be a fever dream of the nightmare of the American West, hence the Western topoi lurking beneath the surface of the tale. In Galaxies (July 1975 F&SF as "A Galaxy Called Rome"; 1975) the central character is in command of a corpse-laden ship which falls into a Black Hole. The protagonist of Scop (1976) is a time-traveller (see Time Travel) trying desperately to change the history that has created his intolerable world. Even the situation of the sf writer, struggling to cope with real life and the pressures of the market, becomes in Herovit's World (1973) a metaphor for general alienation. In this novel, Galaxies and the introductions to some of his collections, Malzberg offers a scathing critique of the market forces shaping contemporary sf.

Malzberg's writing is unparalleled in its intensity and in its apocalyptic sensibility. His detractors consider him bleakly monotonous and despairing, but he is a master of black Humour, and is one of the few writers to have used sf's vocabulary of ideas extensively as apparatus in psychological landscapes, dramatizing relationships between the human mind and its social environment in an sf theatre of the absurd. The few novels which he has published since 1976 include three fine novels featuring real historical characters. The hero of the black comedy Chorale (1978) becomes Beethoven, while that of the remarkably intense The Cross of Fire (1982) becomes Jesus Christ; both are in search of a better psychological balance but find their quests frustrating. The Remaking of Sigmund Freud (fixup 1985) has the father of psychoanalysis failing miserably to master his own difficulties while trying to assist Emily Dickinson, and subsequently – following his technological Reincarnation – coming apart while failing to solve the problems involved in Communication with Aliens; the disparagement implied in this rendering of Sigmund Freud may more seem to address latter-day fragilities in the practice of psychoanalysis than it does the man himself. Malzberg's later short fiction – fully as intense and accomplished as his work of the 1970s – has been widely published; some of these stories have been assembled as In the Stone House (coll 2000). [BS]

see also: Amazing Stories; Arts; Chess; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Entropy; Fantastic Voyages; Fantasy; Future War; Games and Sports; Great and Small; Icons; Media Landscape; Messiahs; Music; Paranoia; Perception; Psychology; Religion; Sex; Time Paradoxes.

Barry Nathaniel Malzberg

born New York: 24 July 1939


as by K M O'Donnell


as Barry N Malzberg


works as editor


about the author


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies