Book Review: Beyond Apollo by Barry N. Malzberg

“I never had much use for science fiction… Science Fiction gave the program a bad name. It was so disreputable in the minds of most people that the program had to be as businesslike as possible in order to seem legitimate.”

BeyondApolloBeyond Apollo by Barry N. Malzberg was first published in 1972 by Random House. It was a controversial book at the time due to its unusual postmodernist structure, its explicit sex, the cynical outlook on the space program and even towards the science fiction genre itself. Nonetheless, the book received praise from authors like Harlan Ellison and won the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. After falling out of print for a few years, Beyond Apollo has been re-released by Anti-Oedipus Press.

Harry Evans was one of the two astronauts selected for a manned expedition to Venus. Upon his return, the mission had failed, the Captain (the other astronaut) is missing and Evans either refuses or is incapable of recalling what happened on the mission. While the NASA psychologist Claude Forrest tries to pull truth out of him, Evans passes the time by working on various puzzles and a novel about the mission.

In the novel I plan to write of the voyage, the Captain will be a tall, grim man with piercing eyes who has no fear of space.

This novel is a mind-bending read. Evans is the most unreliable of narrators and gives the reader no chance to get their bearings. Often, Evans will make a claim (on what happened to the Captain, for example) and then immediately contradict himself in the next paragraph. Even worse, he’ll state something, leave it hanging as something that he may actually be telling the truth about and then contradict himself several chapters later.

I don’t consider this a fault in the novel, but a big part of whether someone would enjoy this book would depend on if they found this kind of constant playing with their expectations to be entertaining or tedious.

“The truth,” I say. “That is of as much interest to me as to you. I want to know. I want to know what happened. Please tell me what happened so that then I can tell you. It is simple. It is all before us. If we can but find it.”

This novel could be read as an indictment of both the science fiction genre and the space program. But given how the book refuses to provide any answers about what’s actually happening in the plot, it’s hard to view it as a giving any answers to the questions it probes. For example, the quote at the beginning of this review, spoken by the captain during a scene that may or may not have actually happened, is immediately followed up by this.

“But then again it’s hard to say; maybe the program was put together by people who believed in science fiction and this is the way all science fiction characters acted.”

Evans’s opinion on the space program shifts as much as his memory of what happened on the mission. At times he blames the program for having destroyed his mind and views as controlled by corrupt and fickle political interests. At other times he sees himself as completely devoted to the program and hallucinates about talking with his dead uncle about man’s need for exploration.

A Short History of the Space Program: The space program was invented in 1960 for political purposes and flourished through that decade, culminating in landing upon the moon in 1969.

The questions this novel raises are especially interesting to consider in the context of the death of the shuttle program. Given that technology has made sending people back into space less necessary and interest in even going into space seems to be waning, Beyond Apollo is as relevant as it was in 1972.

The explicit sex in this novel was big part of the controversy upon its release. Malzberg was one of the authors in the “New Wave” of science fiction along with Moorcock, Delaney and Le Guin working against what was viewed as a stifling prudishness in the genre.

Evans seems incapable of viewing his wife in anything but a sexual context, that his training left him impotent for some time greatly disturbed him, he hallucinates (?) being raped by his psychologist and a couple times changes his story to say that he murdered the Captain in a fit of homosexual panic. He also often juxtaposes sex with thoughts of his mission.

The machine sighs. It thinks of the compression chamber. It thinks of the Captain. It thinks of Venus. It thinks of its own abused genitals, dangling beneath it now like wiring torn from the bulkhead. Eventually it thinks no more. It closes down. It reduces its circuit load. It sleeps.

Just as the novel seems to juxstapose the concepts of exploring both outer space and “inner space” (a common concern of New Wave science fiction), it attempts to contrast two other seeming opposites. The mechanical, rationally driven scientific exploration and the primitive, instinct-driven act of sex.

This new Anti-Oedipus Press edition also includes an interesting introduction by the writer James Reich and a list of some possible study questions and topics for professors interested in teaching this novel. It’s certainly a great novel for provoking discussion.

This novel is a definite recommendation. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly entertaining, often very funny and very thought-provoking. Much of Malzberg’s work is out of print but hopefully more will be coming back in the near future. He deserves to be named among the other greats of New Wave science fiction like J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison.


4c4iIXqDBen Arzate lives in Des Moines, Iowa. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Ugly Babies, Bizarro Central, Spoilage, The Mustache Factor, Twenty Something Press, and Keep This Bag Away From Children. He blogs at

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