Ace Double Reviews, 39: Gather in the Hall of the Planets, by K. M. O'Donnell/In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, by K. M. O'Donnell (#27415, 1971, $0.75)
by Rich Horton

This Ace Double is one of those that consists of a novel backed with a story collection by the same author. Gather in the Hall of the Planets is the novel, a short one of some 33,000 words. In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories is a collection of 15 stories, mostly quite short, totaling some 29,000 words. K. M. O'Donnell published a total of four Ace Double halves in three different books.

"K. M. O'Donnell" is an open pseudonym of Barry N. Malzberg's (acknowledged as such, a bit coyly, inside this book). The name K. M. O'Donnell is apparently derived, delightfully, from "Kuttner", "Moore", and the Kuttner/Moore pseudonym "Lawrence O'Donnell". Malzberg is one of the more interesting and individual figures in SF. He came to some prominence in the 70s as rather overtly a writer of the "New Wave" (if his best work came slightly after the New Wave hit the shore): his most characteristic stories and novels used SFnal tropes to explore what J. G. Ballard in his seminal 1962 New Worlds essay called "Inner Space". Many of Malzberg's heroes were neurotic men, approaching middle age, with unhappy but often quite active sex lives, with constant worries that they were failures, and with a concomitant concern that the world was a fallen place as well. Many of his heroes were SF writers, leading him rather often to write "self-referential" stories, some collected in The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg. He famously won the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel for Beyond Apollo (1972), a fine book about neurotic astronauts. A number of writers associated with Analog, including Poul Anderson, protested this award on the grounds that Malzberg's fiction was actively anti-Campbellian.

Malzberg began publishing in 1967, and attracted considerable attention in 1968 with his Nebula nominated novelette "Final War". He was extremely prolific through the mid-70s. I seem to recall that he publicly retired from SF writing, as was then fashionable (see Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg for other examples). As with those other writers, he returned, though he has never been as prolific in the ensuing years. He has also done a great deal of critical writing, much of it displaying real love for SF mixed with despair for its artistic failures. Some of the best of this work is collected in The Engines of the Night (a Hugo nominee and Locus Award winner for Best Non-Fiction). Early in his career he was briefly editor of Amazing and Fantastic, after Ziff-Davis sold the magazines to Sol Cohen of Ultimate Publishing and as a consequence Cele Lalli relinquished the editorship. During this period a few people helmed the magazines, also including Harry Harrison and Cohen himself, and much of the fiction printed therein was reprints. Malzberg was also a fee reader for the notorious Scott Meredith Literary Agency, as described in his article from last year's Special Barry Malzberg edition of F&SF (June 2003). He is currently an agent, and still produces the occasional story.

When I first began buying SF books on my own, in 1974, I bought a lot of Malzberg's books. One reason is that they were slim and comparatively cheap: he really did publish a lot of novels. In fact his publishers (mainly Pocket Books) used to trumpet his sales on the back of his books: "Over 5 Million Copies in Print" or something like that. What I didn't realize for a while was that that number wasn't quite as impressive when divided by the many novels Malzberg had put out (and also it was somewhat inflated by one movie tie-in: Phase IV.) All that said, I really did enjoy his books. They were clever and thoughtful and effectively dour and often quite mordantly funny. (They were also somewhat repetitive.) What I liked best was the voice, a very noticeable and characteristic voice, detectable in his non-fiction as well, wry, marked by long sentences and asides and a particular rhythm.

Gather in the Hall of the Planets is about a Science Fiction writer named Sanford Kvass. He is approached by aliens who tell him that Earth is being tested: an alien will appear in disguise at the 1974 World Science Fiction Convention, and unless Kvass can unmask the alien Earth will be destroyed. Kvass is already suffering from writer's block and he owes his agent $800, so this hardly improves his mood.

The bulk of the action takes place at the Worldcon. Naturally a big part of the joke is that SF fans and writers are strange enough that there is no way you can tell if one of them is an alien. That said, I'm proud that I figured out who the actual alien was pretty quickly. (Assuming there really were any aliens -- it's possible to read things as Kvass having gone insane.) Besides Kvass's search for the alien, there are passages describing rather cynically a typical convention, with annoying fans, sex-mad quasi-groupies, and drunk pros. There are what seem to be portrayals of a few well-known SF figures: A. E. van Vogt, Sam Moskowitz, Fred Pohl, Damon Knight, John Campbell, and probably others I missed. There is also some discursion on the frustrating life of the writer. All in all, it's pretty fun, not a great book to be sure (and with signs of carelessness, such as a character born in 1945 being 25 years old -- reflecting perhaps the time of writing of the book, but not the time of the action), but enjoyable.

The stories in In the Pocket are, as mentioned, mostly pretty short. Again, they are generally enjoyable but I don't think they represent the best of Malzberg's early work (which I think ended up mostly in an earlier Ace Double half, Final War and Other Fantasies). Five of the stories are original to the collection, the others appeared in F&SF, Venture, Galaxy, If, Amazing, Fantastic, and the anthologies Nova and Infinity.

I particularly liked "The New Rappacini", about a man resurrecting his dead wife; "Gehenna", about three characters crossing paths at a party in New York City; "The Falcon and the Falconeer", about a Nativity play presented on an alien planet; "A Question of Slant", about an SF writer turning to porn; and a couple of cute time travel stories, "July 24, 1970" and "What Time was That?". In general, a lesser collection but still not bad reading.