Beyond Apollo by Barry Malzberg
(Random House, 1972)
Reviewed by Robert W. Bly, founder, ScienceFictionPrediction.com
Barry Malzberg is a talented SF writer who is recognized within the field while virtually unknown outside it. He seems to make a living at writing, though the best-seller list (which tends to favor thick sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels over serious SF) eludes him.
In Bergen county, NJ, where I live, Howard Rose, the owner of a used bookstore I frequent, tells me that Barry Malzberg occasionally comes into the store. But I have never met him there or anywhere else, even though he's a local.
Now on to the book: In the 1960s, Doubleday and a few other major NYC publishers published a lot of serious SF novels in hardcover, and they look and feel much like this original hardcover edition of Beyond Apollo, which I bought in the used book section of the Paramus NJ Barnes & Noble.
Unlike today's massive fantasy sagas, the SF novels of the 1960s and 1970s were short "idea" novels. Beyond Apollo is a slim, quick-reading 138 pages, the reading made even quicker by the author's short chapters, short paragraphs, and crisp, clean style.
The idea and plot are simple: man is exploring space. Moon missions have proven successful. In 1976, a manned mission to Mars failed - for reasons unknown, since there were no survivors.
Now a manned mission to Venus has also failed. The rocket ship approached but did not land on Venus. The rocket returned to Earth, with the captain dead and the only other crew member, Harry Evans, surviving but mentally unstable.
Harry is the protagonist and narrator of the story. He is being held prisoner and interrogated by government employees. Their job is to find out what really happened with the Venus mission, and they believe Harry is being deliberately uncooperative.
And with good reason: Harry relays multiple versions of the mission, each with a different cause of failure. For instance, the captain attacked him and he was forced to kill him in self defense. The captain committed suicide. The Venusians threatened to destroy the Earthmen, attacked the ship, and would not let them land.
Woven throughout is a bizarre relationship between the deceased captain and Evans, with undertones of violence, bullying, and homosexuality. The latter seems extraneous, unnecessary, and adds little to the book for me as a reader, though the author obviously felt it had meaning.
Evans also has heterosexual and relationship problems with his wife: he doesn't perform well in bed, and the marriage is essentially loveless.
Whenever I read a Malzberg short story of novel I enjoy it, even though I do not enjoy SF novels with explicit and gratuitous sex in them. Despite the sex, I would recommend Beyond Apollo to SF fans who enjoy either a good outer space story or a good people story, as Apollo is both.
The jacket copy for Beyond Apollo states that the novel is about what happens to man in outer space. The key question it wrestles with, according to the jacket blurb writer, is what happens to men in space who encounter situations with which they cannot deal?
Space travel is a metaphor for life in this book, which is really about what happens to people who, as we all do, face adversities in our lives that are more than we can bear. As Evans says to his government interrogators: "One must consider the conditions. The conditions were intolerable."