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My Science Fiction Rabbi

How the prolific writer Barry N. Malzberg showed me my passion was just Judaism in a spacesuit

Andrew Fox
July 20, 2020
Max Loeffler
Max Loeffler
This article is part of Tablet Profiles.
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Science fiction is just Judaism in a spacesuit.

If the statement strikes you as ridiculous, consider the evidence. Both cultures began life on the margins, the domain of small and mocked minorities who looked at the world from the outside and who survived by adhering to their own intricate traditions. Both cultures are, first and foremost, an exercise in “what if,” Judaism forever looking forward to the coming of the Messiah and having its adherents pray daily for the rebuilding of the Temple, and science fiction imagining the life that lies just at the cusp of the possible. And both cultures stand at risk of being loved out of existence, embraced mightily by the mainstream, sailing precariously between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of dilution. Any Jew looking worriedly at the rising rates of intermarriage, say, knows exactly what fans of True Quill science fiction—prose science fiction written to extrapolate technological and social trends and intelligently comment on modern society—have felt since 1977, when Star Wars burst upon the screens of the nation’s multiplexes and signaled the beginning of our genre’s co-optation by the Hollywood blockbuster machine. Yes, it’s nice to be wanted—but wasn’t yesterday wonderful, when we were happily ensconced in our little shtetls, industriously studying our sacred texts, just us?

I was inducted into both the Jewish and science fiction communities at the same age, in 1977, the Star Wars year, which also happened to be the year of my bar mitzvah. (Arguments over the precise dating and extent of the Golden Age of Science Fiction are typically settled with the following bon mot: “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12.” Thirteen, in my case.) I had no difficulty deciding how to spend my gift money: I blew it all on science fiction novels, collections, and books about science fiction. I had nibbled on the edges of science fiction before, reading the occasional H.G. Wells novel or Ray Bradbury collection, but my discovery of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series had made an acolyte of me. I deep-dove into the history of the field, biking a couple of miles to the nearest used paperbacks store a few times a week to scour its cluttered shelves for classics by Theodore Sturgeon and Alfred Bester and dozens of other luminaries. Little did I imagine that a quarter-century later the hottest actors on earth would vie for the chance to portray the characters I was reading about.

I had gathered a small group of fellow fans around me the prior year, when a community news writer from the Miami Herald had written a brief feature about my effort to start a science fiction club called the Dragon Riders (inspired by the novels of Anne McCaffrey, with whom I’d begun a trans-Atlantic correspondence, quite a heady thrill for a 12-year-old, especially in that pre-internet age, when I could anticipate the arrival of physical letters with Irish stamps affixed). The newspaper story had inspired a few boys my age with similar interests to contact me. We planned to put out our own fanzine and solicit contributions from fans around the country—perhaps even internationally! We convinced our parents to drop us off at Florida International University, site of the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts (not a sci-fi con, but a scholarly conference of professors and professional writers), where we presumptuously buttonholed acclaimed writer Gene Wolfe for an interview (he was exceedingly gracious). We rode our bikes crosstown to each others’ houses and stayed up all night doing what we called “Write-a-Thons,” drinking caffeinated beverages and writing science fiction stories until we could hardly see straight, then going on breaks outside, running up and down the quiet, pre-dawn suburban streets, pretending to be hunter-killer symbiont teams on another planet. (A ruffled observer peering out her window at the commotion outside would have seen pairs of teenaged boys, one of each pair wearing a blindfold and being verbally commanded by his partner when and where to hurl tissue-paper bundles filled with flour at members of opposing teams.) We were very fortunate to not be arrested. My friend Preston, one of the blindfolded symbionts, blindly tripped over a curb and bloodied his nose.

Science fiction is just Judaism in a spacesuit.

We read fanzines and lots and lots of used paperbacks. We read anything we could find about our beloved subculture and its holy literature. Swept up in the joyful rush of a fresh initiate, I read that it was a “lonely and proud thing to be a fan.” (About the same time, in Hebrew school, I was learning much the same about what it meant to be a Jew, although I never felt very lonely for Jewish company in North Miami Beach, then the southernmost borough of New York City.) I read fanzine debates between those who wanted to maintain the “ghetto walls” around the science fiction field, contending that the genre’s insularity gave it its unique freedom and history, and those who wanted to break down the walls between science fiction and the mainstream. I absorbed the sense that both writers and fans had of themselves as a small, embattled, ridiculed subculture, shunned by the outside world and its guardians of respectability, yet possessed of its own standards of excellence, its own intellectual rigor, and its own traditions.

Science fiction writers were our rock stars. We wrote them into our stories as characters and totems. Harlan Ellison was our Mick Jagger. Robert Silverberg our David Bowie. And Barry N. Malzberg, unknown to all but the true science fiction initiates, was our Lou Reed. (All Jewish boys, by the way—science fiction has always been much more of a Jewish field than rock ’n’ roll.) Harlan might’ve been an outrageous bad lad, known as much for his hair-trigger temper as his short fiction, and SilverBob might’ve been stylistically and thematically brilliant, but Barry possessed street cred—he was the former editor of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America who’d been canned for daring to write an editorial right after the first moon landing that was critical of NASA; he was the writer of Beyond Apollo, winner of the very first John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the controversial novel about insane astronauts that had supposedly spat in the face of everything John W. Campbell stood for; he was the author of countless jeremiads about the sad state of science fiction, articles whose tone shifted vertiginously from sulphuric condemnation of thrown away opportunities for greatness to elegiac, fond melancholy for what might have been. Perhaps he foresaw, even then, what Star Wars and its offspring would do to the field, like Jeremiah prophesizing the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon.

How I loved Barry’s story “Prose Bowl,” co-written with his frequent collaborator Bill Pronzini and later expanded into a novel. The story’s delightful, surreal conceit is that in the future pulp-fiction writing has become America’s favorite spectator sport, a gladiators-on-typewriters contest played out in the Coliseum in front of a hundred thousand spectators and a TV audience of 30 million. Barry and Bill lovingly parodied the clichés of sports fiction and films, as well as media portrayals of writers of pop fiction. Leon Culp, “The Cranker,” 57 years old, is the grizzled old pro, unbeatable in earlier Prose Bowls. Rex Sackett is the new young sensation, the competitor who none of the bookies had predicted would make it through the playoffs, much less reach the Big Game. Sackett grew up idolizing The Cranker. He wins the coin toss to take his pick of the two writing assignments; he chooses MID-TWENTIETH-CENTURY DETECTIVE, leaving FUTURISTIC LOVE-ADVENTURE for Culp. The enormous crowd cheers them both on as they pound away at their manual typewriters: “Come on Culp! Write that pulp!” “Sackett! Hack it! Hack it!” Suspense builds as the wordage lead bounces like a live ball from one writer to the other. The distant finish line is 10,000 words of prose. Both men’s swift output streams across massive Jumbotron screens. They struggle, not merely against one another, but also against the adversities of jammed typewriters, broken ribbons, and aching fingers. In the end, one of them breaks, unable to excrete another word of pulp, and collapses on-field in front of a nationwide audience. I won’t tell you which one. But I now suspect an unvoiced subtext in this tale from 1979 might have been the contest between the old pro, “True Quill,” and the brash young upstart Star Wars. The old versus the new. The changing of the guard.

Three years later, my senior year of high school, I special-ordered a copy of Barry’s new collection of essays about science fiction, The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties, from my local mall’s Waldenbooks (remember those?). It remains perhaps my favorite book of Barry’s. It is the true-life story of a tragic, yet glorious romance—the doomed romance between Barry N. Malzberg and science fiction. Barry’s love for science fiction grew out of more than just a youthful infatuation and obsessive reading habit. His love stemmed, at least in part, from heartfelt gratitude. Science fiction saved his writing career. Barry began that career with hopes of becoming an acclaimed playwright; between 1964 and 1965 he’d been awarded both the Schubert Foundation Playwriting Fellowship and the Cornelia Ward Creative Writing Fellowship, which had allowed him to attend a graduate writing program at Syracuse University. Yet after he left Syracuse he found himself unable to either get a play produced or to sell any piece of literary fiction to the slicks or to literary journals. To support himself and his wife, Joyce, he began working as an agent and a fee-reader at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, a hugely successful New York firm that represented first-rank mainstream fiction writers such as Norman Mailer, as well as some of the top science fiction writers in the business.

Barry decided to try his hand at selling science fiction. Magazine editors in the late 1960s, influenced by the new wave then causing a stir in science fiction circles in both England and America, were newly willing to take a chance on experimental prose, formerly taboo profane language and sexual content, and themes of a more political and sociological than technological bent. In this more permissive environment, Barry was able to slightly alter several of his previously rejected literary pieces, including an absurdist antiwar novelette, Final War, and sell them as science fiction.

A real-life version of The Cranker, able to push out 5,000 words of serviceable, often highly stylized prose in a single morning’s session, Barry exploited this initial breakthrough and supported himself for the next 14 years as one of the most prolific writers in America. He wrote more than 100 novels and several hundred short stories, spreading them across the genres of science fiction, mystery, suspense, mainstream, and pornography. During 1973, for example, between January and October he managed to complete 10 novels in The Lone Wolf vigilante suspense series. That same year, he wrote one of his classic science fiction novels, Herovit’s World; another science fiction novel, In the Enclosure; a movie tie-in book, Phase IV; and a martial arts adventure novel, The Way of the Tiger, the Sign of the Dragon.

While attending Syracuse University, Barry had maintained large ambitions for his literary career. He transferred those ambitions to his science fiction writing. The poignancy of the essays in Engines of the Night comes from the abyss that looms between science fiction writers’ subject matter and their personal circumstances. The men and women who crafted cosmic epics of intergalactic empires and permutations of humanity stretching millions of years into the future often lived hand-to-mouth existences in furnished rooms, subsisting on 2-cents-per-word magazine rates and $500 novel advances. Authors who hoped to influence a generation of readers with their philosophically sophisticated narratives of man’s technological hubris or innate potential for progress found their works consigned to spinner racks of disposable paperbacks sold in cigar shops and drug stores. They suffered from alcoholism, depression, drug abuse, and hypertension. Sometimes, these maladies killed them. The chasm that Barry illustrated between these writers’ aspirations and outcomes mirrored, in miniature, the shattering contrast between the Jewish people’s status as God’s chosen people and their oft-repeated brutalizations throughout their history.

One might think that reading such dismaying accounts would induce a young man such as I was to run, screaming, from any notion of writing science fiction for a living. But Engines failed to have this effect on me. Perhaps, as I’ve said, this is due to the book being a romance. The tales Barry tells are tales of crushed dreams and choked ambitions, but they are also tales of exciting intellectual adventures, friendships both literary and personal, and a fellowship of minds devoted to human progress, or at least to warning humanity away from its most base impulses and foibles. Besides, when have predictions of doom, defeat, and disappointment ever successfully dissuaded a young idealist from pursuing a career in the arts? And ambitious Jewish boys have rarely shied away from pushing boulders up mountainsides.

This notion of a man who senses himself stuck in the wrong time, who struggles to regain a sense of harmony with the universe, is a common trope in science fiction—as it is in Judaism.

And so, I followed my North Star and started writing science fiction. My career officially began in 2003, with the publication of my first book, Fat White Vampire Blues. My heyday was unexpectedly brief; it peaked a year later, the year I finally met Barry. When I learned that my idol would be a featured guest at ConDFW in Dallas, I contacted the programming manager, made plans to attend, and drove the seven hours from my home in New Orleans. I brought my favorites among my copies of Barry’s books with me, including my first edition of Engines of the Night.

As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I found Barry and another idol of mine, Robert Sheckley of 1950s Galaxy Science Fiction fame, sitting beside one another behind a table in an anteroom just off the lobby, signing books and greeting attendees. Despite his being seated, I could tell Barry was as tall as a grizzly bear and as thin as an icicle—a balding icicle wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and a shirt with unfashionably wide lapels. I got in Barry’s line, holding a stack of his hardback books beneath my arm. (Bob’s line was a good bit longer than Barry’s, a situation Barry would undoubtedly consider par for the course.) I can’t recall precisely what I said when my turn came; I’m pretty sure I babbled something about Engines being one of my all-time favorite books and I had read it at least four times and I’d never before or since experienced such a sensation of knowing a writer and I had been eager to meet him ever since my bar mitzvah. I do recall smiling with my whole body as I said it, and that I spoke in hushed tones that would likely be appropriate for a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Barry looked at me, smiled, and said in his mellifluous, surprisingly soft Brooklyn accent that, although he didn’t know it while writing it, I was exactly the audience for whom he had intended the book. He added that even if it only found a total readership in the dozens, the fact that it had found me when it had meant that writing it had been worthwhile. Listening to him, I realized his speaking voice was no different at all from the unmistakable prose voice with which I’d become so familiar.

The next day, I enjoyed what can only be described as one of the peak experiences of my life. I moderated a discussion panel titled “Forgotten Giants of Science Fiction,” featuring Barry, Bob Sheckley, and writer John Steakley. Barry astonished me. Until this panel, I had been unaware of Barry’s power of photographic memory, nor had I known of his incredible reading speed, perhaps 10 times normal, which, taken together, mean that he has read virtually all of the True Quill science fiction written prior to 1970 and most of the True Quill work written since then—and he remembers and is fluent in all of it. His abilities seemed straight out of a 1950s Astounding Science Fiction psionics tale.

Barry declined my invitation to take him to dinner, but I made sure to have coffee with him the next morning. I anxiously asked whether he planned to attend any upcoming conventions where I might see him again. He said he didn’t think so; he rarely attended out-of-town conventions anymore, and he’d only come to this one because of his desire to visit Dallas, thanks to his enduring fascination with the Kennedy assassination (he’d written four science fiction novels concerning either the assassination itself or its future virtual recreations). I felt a stab of deep sadness, fearing this might be the only opportunity I’d ever have to see or talk with him. I asked if it might be possible for us to exchange email addresses. He quickly wrote his out for me on a scrap of paper. As I wrote mine for him, he said, “I’ll tell you what, Andy, let’s simply act as though we’ve been friends for 30 years, since the time you first read Engines of the Night.”

Barry proved to be the best correspondent one could wish for. I came to learn that for decades he has maintained correspondences with hundreds of fellow writers and fans. I exchanged emails with him during my family’s exile in New Mexico and Florida following Hurricane Katrina, when my third son was born, when I moved my clan from New Orleans to Northern Virginia in search of work. I kept him fully informed of my publishing travails. Although I continued pumping out novels at a steady clip, sometimes two a year, none of them, with the exception of one, The Good Humor Man, found happy (or even unhappy) publishing homes.

One of my novels, Ghostlands, lingered for a long while with a senior editor at the country’s biggest publisher of science fiction. Finally, the editor passed. He liked my writing, comparing me to one of my idols, Philip José Farmer. And he loved the book’s theme, a meditation on fathers and fatherhood. But whereas in the early 1980s, when he would have enjoyed the authority and independence to put my book out as a paperback original, since then, all the mainstream publishing houses had been acquired by multinational corporations, and the corporate accountants, not the editors, now made the publishing decisions, he said. My book was not what the accountants wanted. Science fiction, the editor said, once a playground for small-time dreamers with big ideas, had become a cog of big business.

I realized with a jolt that I had become one of the misérables described in Barry’s essays, a man out of phase with his time. I had arrived at the party just as the crowd had begun to disperse, old enough to passively enjoy the Golden Age of Science Fiction Paperback Originals but born too late to participate in it. This notion of a man who senses himself stuck in the wrong time, who struggles to regain a sense of harmony with the universe, is a common trope in science fiction—as it is in Judaism. What I felt was a distant echo of the pain of a kohen, a priest, born a generation after the destruction of the Second Temple, a priest with no sanctuary within which to offer burnt sacrifices. So much of Jewish history concerns a people looking backward with an ache in their hearts, praying daily to return not only to a promised land but also to a point in time in which Jews were independent and free. Yet they also looked forward in time, with hope for the coming of the Messiah. And so I kept on writing novels, not due to any expectation of getting published, but in recognition that I would not be fully me without this work, and that my striving toward ever more refined expression was valuable and precious in and of itself.

This sense of duality—of regret and determination; of failure and hope; of understanding that one’s aspirations can be simultaneously futile and absolutely necessary—runs through all of Barry’s essays. I’ve made it a habit to reread Engines about every five years. Its chapters have provided me fresh insights as I’ve reached successive stages of life. I’ll be due for another reading in a few years. What will Engines tell me then? Perhaps something about the inevitability of change, an inevitability that should be evident to a science fiction writer like me, but so often is not. In my home town, both the synagogues and the newsstands packed with paperbacks I remember are long gone. The science fiction community changes; the Jewish community changes. With assimilation, what was once the treasure of a despised minority now belongs to the masses. What they will do with those treasures, who can say? For those of us lacking Barry’s photographic memory, we must rely on the written word to preserve, in some form, that which we cannot bear to let go.

Barry and I have now been friends for more than 15 years, enough time for me to have reread The Engines of the Night three times. I’ve told him I study his book the way we’re meant to study Torah. When he reached his 80th birthday not too long ago and he asked me not to make a fuss over him, I told him, “Barry, you’re my science fiction rabbi—who wouldn’t want to help their beloved rabbi celebrate his 80th birthday?”

He remains, somewhat famously, the Eeyore of science fiction. And so he put me off, fretting over my inconvenience, until other events, like my mother’s death and my youngest son’s bar mitzvah, got in the way of my plans to make a pilgrimage to Teaneck to take him out for a celebratory dinner. And now COVID-19 has rendered all travel plans moot, at least for the nonce.

But I haven’t forgotten what I owe him, my teacher, whom I love. So I’ve written this piece in his honor. I think maybe it wouldn’t feel out of place as a chapter in The Engines of the Night. Another bit of commentary. And as we Jews know, to the writing of commentary there is no end.

Andrew Fox is the author of, among other titles, Fat White Vampire Blues.

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