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Barry Malzberg's breakthrough science fiction novel Beyond Apollo (1972) was the first ever winner of the prestigious Campbell award. Not everyone liked the book's experimental approach, though. Expect sex, madness, and a completely unreliable narrator in this brief tour of one of the most controversial SF books of the 1970s.
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Before 1972, American author Barry Malzberg had written a handful of science fiction novels and over a dozen works of erotic fiction, mostly under psuedonyms. His breakthrough came with Beyond Apollo, which won the first ever John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1973. It received a mixture of rapturous praise and scathing criticism. What made this slim volume one of the most divisive and controversial SF books of the 1970s?
Beyond Apollo is set in the 1980s and concerns a disastrous first manned mission to Venus. The main character is astronaut Harry M. Evans, the lone survivor of the two-man crew. Upon his return to Earth, Evans relates what went wrong. What could be a straightforward SF plot is complicated by the fact that Evans is a broken man who has completely lost his mind. Confined to an institution, he presents a succession of accounts of the mission, all of which are surreal and contradictory. His shattered mind ranges back and forth in time, and in this fractured narrative there is little, if anything, that is “true”.
Malzberg deploys a range of experimental methods in Beyond Apollo. It is non-linear, has a completely unreliable narrator, and possesses an almost cyclical structure. It has strong meta elements: the book is framed as a novel written by Evans, and refers to its own structure and even page count. From the first page, it is clear that Malzberg has thrown convention out of the window altogether, and this goes a long way to explaining the deeply mixed response to the book. American author Joanna Russ called it a “fine, completely realised work”, but writer Bob Shaw from Northern Ireland called it “the epitome of everything that has gone wrong with sf in the last ten years or so”.
The novel’s refusal to state anything definitively, or to offer any kind of real conclusion, is one of its most crucial features. It is also one which has, and will continue to, provoke a range of responses. In his account, Evans shifts between referring to himself in the first and third person, which heightens the sense of madness and dislocation. He fails to recall his wife’s name until deep into the narrative, and struggles to remember the name of his Captain. The plot, such as it is, is so fractured and unreliable that it invites numerous interpretations. The Captain may have killed himself, or have been murdered by Evans, or may never have existed. The Captain may even be a kind of alter ego for Evans himself. Perhaps the whole mission was just a simulation, part of a gruelling training process that has ruined Evans’ psyche?
The novel’s 67 numbered chapters can be divided into a few main types. Some are set before the mission, and relate to Evans’ training or to graphic sexual encounters with his wife. Some focus on the mission to Venus itself, the fate of the Captain, and possibly imagined communications with reclusive aliens. Still other chapters centre on Evans’ time in confinement back on Earth, and the obsessive effort by officials there to wring some kind of plausible truth from him about the mission.
The sexual content of the pre-mission chapters is another understandable source of controversy about Beyond Apollo. Science fiction has traditionally been a fairly chaste genre, and Malzberg’s blunt descriptions must have shocked many readers in 1972. These passages clearly aren’t meant to titillate, though - they are much too surreal and unsettling. Presumably Malzberg was drawing on his experience writing erotic books, but as Joachim Boaz argues the scenes also serve as part of a “gendered critique on the hypermasculinity of the space program”.
Malzberg’s deep scepticism about the United States space programme, NASA, and the Apollo missions is a key driving force behind the novel. When the book was published, the Apollo programme was very near its end; the last mission, Apollo 17, took place in December of 1972. Malzberg’s book is often taken as a statement that humans were deeply unprepared for any further “giant leaps” into space. Beyond Apollo is one of a number of SF novels which seems in some ways more relevant and poignant after the two Space Shuttle disasters - Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
Beyond Apollo reflects the growing influence of postmodern literary techniques into science fiction at the time. It radically rejects the usual tropes of an SF adventure, and so has the potential to confuse or annoy readers looking for one. For those more open to experimentalism, though, Malzberg’s work is a demonstration of what science fiction is capable of, and one that still impresses today.