When readers think of wildest classic science fiction writer, they are likely to go to Philip K. Dick or maybe J.G. Ballard. Perhaps a more knowledgeable fan might suggest Norman Spinrad. Harlan Ellison would be a likely candidate.

For me, no writer was as experimental, as confounding, or as brilliant as Barry Malzberg. Malzberg broke all the rules, and he did so within the bounds of conventional SF publishing. Until 1975 when he walked away in exasperation at the constraints that came upon the market. He returned the the genre a number of years later, but his greatest successes in were in the early seventies.

There was a brief time when SF was bold and experimental. Writers were going in all kinds of uncharted areas, and editors were buying their work. Rather than a trashy ghetto, the field was producing some of the very best fiction on the planet. It was a kind of golden period: post New Wave, pre-Star Wars.

The most hoary axiom of science fiction was the so-called sense of wonder. A sixth sense of imagination that soared to the stars and throughout time. By the late sixties that sort of predictable, cliched material was out of fashion. The new way had been paved by Ellison, Farmer, Bester, Disch, and a host of others. These writers delved into the recesses of the subconscious. Madness, paranoia, drugs, and mysticism ruled over rocketships and ray guns.

If the sense of wonder wasn't dead yet, Barry Malzberg surely drove a stake into its heart in 1973 with Herovit's World.

Herovit's World is a meta novel. A mainstream book that happened to take place in the mind of a down-on-his luck SF writer.

Jonathan Herovit has written over ninety books in a ridiculous series about a heroic galactic surveyor named Mack Miller. I think Malzberg was inspired by the endless Perry Rodan books that were mostly read by Star Trek fans. There were literally thousands of them published.

Herovit is stuck in his latest book. He can't seem to produce coherent prose. His drinking is out of control. He suspects treachery from everyone around him. The science fiction community has ostracized him. His mind is slipping into schizophrenic madness.

This is really grim stuff, folks. There are laughs in Herovit's World, but they are uncomfortable ones. Herovit's mind, his world, is under siege from his own demons. He begins to lose his own identity in disassociative madness as Herovit's pseudonym and the Mack Miller character take over his mind.

Science Fiction is depicted as a dead end enterprise that brings about mental and financial ruin to its practitioners. Malzberg portrays the community as destructive and severely unbalanced. Gone are the notions of larger-than-life genre writers, as many of us young fans pictured the grand old big names. The very few have successful careers, while most succumb to despair. Suicide is all-too-common.

Herovit's World was published in the same year as Breakfast of Champions. The plots of these books are vaguely similar. Vonnegut is known for his cynicism, but Barry Malzberg makes his work look like a Saturday Morning Cartoon. Malzberg was never destined for widespread fame or the bestseller's lists. At his best, Kurt Vonnegut was uproariously funny. Herovit's World is enough to make you sick.

Hervot's World is a nasty piece of work that reveals a genre in collapse. The young guys are doing all right. For now. Too many of the old writers, legends to fans, have nightmarish lives.

This is, as far as I am concerned, a horror novel, but it's associated with Science Fiction. Malzberg couldn't have sold it to an editor a few years later. Star Wars changed everything, and for serious fans of the genre, not for the better.

I hadn't read Barry Malzberg for a long time before I recently found a copy of Herovit's World for a buck or two. I first read the novel when I was nineteen or twenty. It hit me hard then. It hit me harder now. Herovit's World crash-landed all my youthful spacefaring illusions. Now it confirms my pessimistic notions of genre conformity.

There is a lot of Malzberg out there that I have not read. Science Fiction as well as other kinds of books. I can't bring myself to call the non-SF books mainstream, because what I've read of it is almost preposterously noncommercial.

Barry Malzberg is one of the most important figures in Science Fiction history, but his name is known to far too few young readers. It's shame. The field owes him so much.

I owe him a lot, too. His collaborative work introduced me to one of my very, very favorite writers: Bill Pronzini. Malzberg also co-wrote with horror favorite Kathe Koja.

To the uninitiated, Herovit's World is as good a place as any to start. If you don't like this book, there's no point in going any further.

Written by Mark Sieber

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