Herovit's World

by Barry N. Malzberg
Science fiction novelists really got their mojo working in the 1960s and 1970s.
Authors ditched the formulas of the past with the fiery splendor of an Apollo
spaceship jettisoning its booster rocket. Almost everything or anything could
show up in a sci-fi book during this period, from acid trips to Joycean stream-
of-consciousness. In just the course of a century, we had gone from Jules
Verne's
Around the Moon to J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, a shift that
perhaps represented progress, but certainly signalled a brave new world in
which sci-fi writers had finally reached the final frontier. Maybe taboos and
totems still existed in society at large, but they didn't
need to limit the imagination of a science fiction author,
for whom
everything was now permitted. All systems go,
and full speed ahead….

But even by the expansive standards of the era, Barry N.
Malzberg bites off quite a mouthful in his short novel
Herovit's World. In just 160 pages, Malzberg slashes and
burns, and leaves behind plenty of scorched earth, not to
mention a few scorched planets in other solar systems.
This is a science fiction novel that offers a savage critique
of the field, with caustic assessments of sci-fi conventions,
agents, college courses, editors and writers. Parodied
passages of space opera fiction are peppered throughout
the text, and the authors of such works are presented
as exemplars of self-loathing, backstabbing, groupie-
groping and stupor-inducing drunkenness. We also get
meta-narrative, black comedy, gritty New York realism,
and not just the death of the author (always a postmodern
crowdpleaser), but also enjoy that delectable rarity, namely
the death of the author’s pseudonym.

Malzberg didn’t invent any of these techniques and concepts. I've seen characters
get into battles with their authors before, or even go on strike to protest subpar
literary working conditions. But Malzberg does offer some new twists.  His
characters come equipped with ultra-tech space age weapons, so they can
really inflict serious damage in a shoot-out with the author.  

The science-fiction-author-as-pathetic-hero at the center of this novel is Jonathan
Herovit, who perhaps once showed some modest promise and ambition, but now
has settled into middle age as an experienced hack churning out shallow astronaut
adventures for equally shallow readers.  His target market, he reluctantly admits to
himself, consists of "engineers and distrubed adolescents."

Last year, Herovit earned $11,400, not much even in 1970 dollars, and especially
embarrassing when one considers that he is "one of the ten to fifteen most prolific
science fiction authors in the country." But what can you expect for an author who
tosses off a formulaic novel in a few hours, and follows one cardinal rule: never go
back and rewrite—just submit it as it comes off the typewriter. Life imitates art:
Malzberg himself earned a reputation for fast writing during his early days in the
science fiction field.  But even Malzberg can't match his character Herovit, who
has written 92 novels and more than 500 magazine pieces.  

Most of his work focuses on a single character, astronaut Mack Miller who leads
the Survey Team—on an endlessly prolonged mission to explore (and frequently
kill) new life forms.  An audience of between 70,000 and 80,000 consumes these
made-to-order stories, but few of them even know that Herovit is their author. He
relies on the pseudonym Kirk Poland for this hack work; he once hoped to save his
real name for more serious writing.  

But that goal is now more elusive than ever. When we meet up with Herovit he is
burnt out, drinking too much and writing too little. His agent is unhappy, and his
new publisher frustrated with his inability to meet the specified deadline for the
next Survey Team novel. Herovit's wife is even more embittered, resentful of the
couple's baby daughter who demands more love and attention than either Mom
or Dad are prepared to give her. In the midst of this turmoil, Herovit encounters a
former collaborator who offers him a thread of hope—an invitation to an
academic conference where our running-on-empty protagonist can perhaps
take advantage of the growing interest at colleges and universities in science
fiction writers.  At a minimum, he hopes, he might meet some attractive coeds.

But Herovit has too few psychic and emotional resources at his command, and
events threaten to overwhelm him. As if this isn't enough, his pseudonym Kirk
Poland comes to life—perhaps a hallucination, but in the context of this novel,
who can be sure?—and wants to take charge of the situation. Herovit is tempted
to comply.  After all, he has made a mess of his life, so why not hand off
responsibility to someone else?

Malzberg, unlike Herovit, is a stellar writer, and he addresses all of these plots
and complications with stylish prose, caustic insight, and more than a little humor.  
The story never feels rushed, even though Herovit's life and career go through
tumultuous changes over the course of just a few pages. The story is compelling
on its own merits, but science fiction fans will especially enjoy the 'inside baseball'
glimpse of the inner workings of the genre publishing field. Malzberg extracts
maximum effect from the contradictions between the ostensible futuristic, grandiose
nature of sci-fi stories, and the petty squalor that produces these visionary works.

Herovit's World, like so many of Malzberg's works, is no longer in print, except as
a digital download. This novel deserves a better fate. Science fiction was growing
up in the decade leading up to this book’s publication, and Malzberg not only played
a part in the process of experimentation and maturation, but even described, in these
pages, the conflicts and crises behind this transition. Herovit's battle was, to some
extent, one that the whole genre faced.  And if the author as character failed to
surmount the obstacles, as did the pseudonym-behind-the author, Malzberg himself
triumphs in the end.  


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.  His next book, a history of
love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


Publication date: July 30, 2014
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
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The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss

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