A Science Fiction Odyssey

From about the age of 13 to 33, I read a lot of science fiction. Somewhere along the way, the local newspaper, where I worked in the production department, gave me a bi-monthly column to review science fiction. At that point, I became inundated with science fiction books—more than I could keep up with. Probably because I mailed in copies of my reviews to the publishers, all the sf companies sent me their books. I even got quoted on the cover of a DAW Book: The Gameplayers of Zan by M. A. Foster. Oh, fleeting fame.

Still, I had my favorites. Oh, sure, I loved Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula K. LeGuin, Harlan Ellison, Cordwainer Smith, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Sheckley, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Elizabeth Lynn, John Brunner (and the list goes on).

But the big three for me were Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg and Barry N. Malzberg. Dick for his surreal, mind-expanding plots, Silverberg for his humanity, and Malzberg for his angst. I really related to the angst. Tumbling from college into the real world—dealing with a disheartening first marriage and struggling through those early years—I could really relate to tortured fictional characters. Certainly Barry and I came from different backgrounds, but there was something about the pain in his fiction that I really related to.

I think I started with The Falling Astronauts, that early Ace Science Fiction Special. Other Malzberg books which made a big impression at the time were Herovit’s World, Beyond Apollo, Galaxies, Confessions of Westchester County, and the book I want to write about here, Underlay. Underlay, of course, isn’t science fiction. It probably has more in common with Damon Runyon than Isaac Asimov. It’s the story of a nameless guy who is called upon by the Mob to dig up his friend, Harry the Flat, who died suddenly at the Aquaduct Raceway and was buried in the back stretch as a tribute. However, said burial is now causing the Mob much stress because the body is throwing off their percentages. Profits are down, and Chaos lurks around the corner. And our hero has one day to perform his task, or the bomb implanted in his leg to emphasize the urgency of the request will go off.

At its heart, Underlay is probably as weird a story as anything from the pages of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I mean, horse racing is a rather surreal world to begin with to those of us who don’t understand the nuances of gambling on galloping quadrupeds. But like the characters in other Malzberg classics, digging up a body is only a small part of the story. As he makes his way around the track, our hero has much time to reflect on his life—his loves and lusts, success and failures—as well as the dubious betting system of Harry the Flat. And herein lies the real story, told with a deadpan zeal.

Enough said about the plot of Underlay. You get to discover the pleasures of Malzberg’s comic masterpiece yourself because Stark House has just reprinted it. And there’s something very full circle about this. Because just as Barry inspired me all those many years ago, I get to pay back the favor by reprinting his favorite novel. And how perfect is that! But this time, getting past the pain of his characters, I discovered the humor that underpins Malzberg’s fiction. I had a great time reading and re-reading Underlay. Maybe it’s time to go back to some of those old science fiction favorites, and read beyond the angst.

–Greg Shepard

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