Mallworld is a brilliant playground for stories. Between 1979 and ’81, S.P. Somtow published a slew of seven stories set in the titular Malllworld, a mall 30 kilometers long situated near Jupiter, floating in the void. Somtow’s vision of consumerism gone amok was simultaneously ahead of its time and forgettable. His ideas helped lay the groundwork for what would become cyberpunk (and the Mall of America): A grimy marriage of technology and class division, with extensive corporate intrigue and rebellious no-care attitude.
Mallworld’s a wonderful place, and the best moments of these stories revel in the mall’s consumerism, but many Mallworld stories are also mired in dated stereotypes and sloppy writing desperately in need of an editor. Somtow — then writing under the name Somtow Sucharitkul — moved on from Mallworld in ’81 and continued to develop his writing with quirky sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction alongside a music career, but most of his work is either self-published or out-of-print today.*
The lore of Mallworld poses a far-future where the Selespridar — tall, blue humanoids with purple hair akin to dreadlocks and who emit a pheromone attracting humans uncontrollably — have caged the human race, effecting an opaque shield just beyond the orbit of Saturn. Humanity, then, has lost access to the stars, until such a time as they prove themselves socially advanced enough to the Selespridar.
The Selespridar themselves are ridiculous, and the hammiest part of the stories. Most of their powers are more magic than sci-fi, and their alien sense of ethics is mindnumbingly backwards even by human standards. Not all of the nine stories deal with the Selespridar, thankfully, but those that do are the weakest links and are perhaps why Mallworld is largely forgotten today.
On the other hand, the stories that focus on the corporate worship of Mallworld and the grimy underworld in the mall’s forgotten corners offer endlessly creative and addictive. The Way Out Corp., a company that has bankrolled suicide into both a product and entertainment; Storkways Inc., which controls the market on genetically-modified children and has made natural births unfashionable; Copuland, a theme park-cum-brothel that works hand-in-hand with the Way Out Corp.; the Churches of Colonel Sanders, St. Martin Luther King, Jr., and St. Indiana Jones, which need no further explanation
The earliest stories and the opening frame narrative are the weakest points, focusing on the Selespridar over the mall itself. The frame narrative loosely ties the nine short stories together and is written as half the conversation between two Selespridar discussing the future of humanity. It’s bad, and adds nothing to the stories themselves. In only four pages, it features plot holes and the worst aspects of the magical aliens, who joke and jab about how dumb humanity is while saying plenty of dumb things. The nine stories are meant to be their reading nine minds within Mallworld itself, picked at random, but this never makes sense as some of the stories take place over multiple years, one the Selespridar reading minds also shows up as a character frequently, and most of the narrators are directly related to one another and from a very close-knit, small family. Either skip it, or read knowing it gets better.
The first two stories — also among the first published — are serviceable prototypes for Mallworld. ‘A Day in Mallworld’ (1979) and ‘Sing a Song of Mallworld’ (1980) offer fascinating glimpses of colorful consumerism, but they’re mostly buried under Selespridar lore — boring — or shallow characterization. The former is a tale of a Bible Belt runaway landing on Mallworld for the first time. She immediately meets a Selespridar who’s wandering among humans looking for the meaning of life. They wander the variety of churches representing the future of religion until finally realizing that books providing life with meaning. It’s a dated and cynical message swamped in naivete about technology.
The latter is more interesting, but signals a serious issue with this series’ male narrators: They’re misogynistic twerps who fall in love on sight and demand that women sleep with them. Their demand for sex often drives the plot, which makes these nothing but shallow boys’ stories. The narrator here is our introduction to the barJulians, a wealthy family that built Mallworld generations ago, and have amassed most of human wealth to splurge on whatever they desire. A bored 17-year-old virtuoso, this barJulian wanders Mallworld looking for distractions from his musical career, and stumbles upon a cult of children living in the skin of Mallworld. Instead of diving into this cult, his story is about ‘rescuing’ one of its members so she’ll sleep with him. Not cool. Also featured is a life-sized game of pinball. Cool.
The third story, ‘the Vampire of Mallworld,’ really picks up the pace and shows the possibilities of this world. It also, obviously, casually introduces vampires into a consumerist sci-fi vision of the future without batting an eye. A TV producer and actor working on his own reality TV show — long before reality TV — about Mallworld’s darkest secrets finds the ultimate secret: An underground suicide parlor where guests watch volunteers get slaughtered by a starving vampire. Introducing a network of barJulian family secrets, corporations selling suicide, baby wholesalers embroiled in corporate conspiracies, talking TV cameras full of snarky backtalk, and, of course, vampires, it’s easy to see the seeds that would eventually flower into cyberpunk here. ‘The Vampire of Mallworld’ is best described on simple terms: Batshit crazy.
That vampire story was one of the last Mallworld stories written in 1981, and shows how Somtow’s writing style and ideas were evolving past shallow characters and shallow messages on consumerism. The following story, ‘Rabid in Mallworld,’ is another early outing, most similar to ‘a Day in Mallworld.’ ‘Rabid’ expands on the Selespridar lore, showing the stages of their multi-century life cycles. It’s not a bad story, but it’s forgettable, and the family drama that’s meant to be at the forefront is lost behind a bulwark of sci-fi gobbledygook.
The longest story, ‘Mallworld Graffiti,’ is two stories fitted together. A reprisal of the misogyny from ‘Sing a Song’ fills up the first half, and a page-turner about social justice and dystopian realities next door the latter half. An artist tries to win the heart of a barJulian by sculpting her likeness in a massive fixture of ice orbiting Jupiter — he obsesses about her, about how much he deserves her, about how much he wants to show the world by sleeping with her. Then the narrative shifts, and instead he’s atoning and miserable, spending his days helping those in need at the mall’s ‘Graffiti,’ which is a massive collection of public messages and cries for help. Eventually another Mallworld is seen next door via a rip in reality, and he meets another him trying to escape the oppression of their world’s Selespridar overlords. If this sounds completely irrelevant to the ice sculpture, tail-chasing escapades, that’s because it is. It’s also much better.
‘The Darkside of Mallworld’ is another highlight, and another precursor to the cyberpunk movement. We follow a repo agent working for Storkways Inc., hunting down and stealing children whose parents fail to pay their monthly dues. Repossessed children are taken to used kid lots and sold to whoever’s willing to pay. This amazing scenario leads into another: Our repo’d kid escapes and we chase her into Mallworld’s darkside — floors where stores couldn’t pay their rent, long abandoned by commerce and left to slowly rot. Mallworld’s darkest corners are now ruled by competing gangs torn from butchered mythology. It’s the Mallkyries at war with the Amazons. The Mallkyries seek an honorable death in order to make it to Mallhalla, an afterworld where they can purchase all the coprokinetic sculptures their souls could want.
‘The Jaws of Mallworld’ was the original closer for the 1981 and 1984 editions of Mallworld, and it’s a weird one. The title is a reference to Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws, as a portal between the Atlantic Ocean and the floor of Copuland releases endless torrents of salt water and sea critters into Mallworld. A man-eating shark moves in, and Copuland shifts from selling sex with ‘porcupines’ — modified people with 30 or more sets of genitalia — to selling death in the jaws of the visiting shark.
With the 2000 and 2013 reprints of Mallworld, Somtow wrote two new stories set in the universe: ‘A Mall and the Gneiss Visitors’ and ‘Bug-Eyed in Mallworld.’ They’re both among the series’ best stories, and show a lot of growth in Somtow’s writing. The Pope and the bug-eyed barJulian aren’t shallow wells of sexual desires like earlier protagonists, but developed observers with developed goals.
Geology is alive in the ‘Gneiss’ story, and are visiting our solar system in order to rescue long-lost family from human abuse. The Black Stone of Kaaba arrived centuries earlier, and hides in plain sight, waiting for a chance to escape. Without rescue soon, it’s feared, the Black Stone will die alone and turn into what we think of as a normal rock. A future Pope narrates this story, a woman who was genetically-engineered to be the Pope: She’s a figurehead who stands naked and pure in a world where Catholicism has bought out and merged with Hinduism, and where Jesus returned in the 21st century to combat Mormonism. She travels with the geologic visitors to help return their lost family.
‘Bug-Eyed’ tells of a corporate takeover, of an elaborate ruse set off by smarter species — cetaceans and the Selespridar. Curly the whale gives our narrating barJulian the keys to the shield enclosing our solar system around Saturn’s orbit, and shortly after Mallworld’s suffered a corporate takeover. His credentials barred from traveling within Mallworld, he buys a new body — that of an ancient race of giant insects that doubled, we mythologize, as detectives. Born anew as a giant preying mantis in an overcoat, our barJulian travels to a new department store literally devouring all of Mallworld with promises of savings and sales. He has to choose between saving himself and all of humankind.
These two stories seem immediately more complex than the older ones, and, along with ‘Vampire’ and ‘Darkside,’ are the most fun to read. The closing of the frame narrative is about as dumb as its opening, unfortunately.
Mallworld‘s stories all exude charm and creativity like no other, but it’s impossible to say most of them are actually any good. Characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, and plotlines are as self-involved and shallow as the concept of Mallworld demands. Stories like ‘a Day in Mallworld’ and ‘Sing a Song for Mallworld’ are immediately forgettable slogs, but then ‘the Darkside of Mallworld’ and ‘the Vampire of Mallworld’ are classic, goofy tales of cyberpunk, required reading for fans of the genre.
Somtow’s stories are worthwhile for sheer creativity, and the writing comes second. Even when they fall flat, Mallworld gets by on sheer coolness. Given the growth in Somtow’s writing between the 1979 and 2000 stories, I hope he returns to Mallworld once again: A new collection or a novel devoted to the best parts of Mallworld — its dark underbelly, the corporate intrigue, and other human elements — could kick a little life into cyberpunk and open lots of younger readers to this forgotten gem of the genre.
7 / 10
* Mallworld itself was republished as an ultimate edition in 2000, with two brand-new stories added to the original seven. This edition also quickly went out of print, and in 2013 a new ‘Ultimate, Ultimate, Ultimate’ edition was published with the original artwork from Karl Kofoed† added once again.
† Googling Karl Kofoed led to some surprises. His artwork has a small cult following, small enough that arrests of him and his wife in 2011 for child pornography make no mention of his art background. Wow.
|Barry N. Malzberg|
|Born||(1939-07-24) July 24, 1939 (age 78)|
New York City
|Pen name||Nathan Herbert, K. M. O'Donnell,|
|Genre||Recursive science fiction|
Barry Nathaniel Malzberg (born July 24, 1939) is an American writer and editor, most often of science fiction and fantasy.
Malzberg graduated from Syracuse University in 1960. He worked as an investigator for the New York City Department of Welfare in 1961–1962 and 1963-1964. In 1963, he was employed as a reimbursement agent for the New York State Department of Mental Health. He married Joyce Zelnick in 1964.
Malzberg initially sought to establish himself as a playwright as well as a prose-fiction writer. In 1964, he returned to Syracuse University for graduate study in creative writing. Although he was awarded a Schubert Foundation Playwriting Fellowship (1964-1965) and the Cornelia Ward Creative Writing Fellowship (1965), he was unable to sell his work to any of the literary magazines of the era. Resolving not to be an "unpublished assistant professor of English," he left the program in 1965 to pursue a career as a freelance writer and agent for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Malzberg would intermittently continue with SMLA through the next several decades, being one of its last caretakers.
His first published story was “The Bed” under the pseudonym “Nathan Herbert” in the men’s magazine Wildcat. His first science fiction story (“We're Coming Through the Window”) was published in the August 1967 issue of Galaxy. Malzberg frequently repurposed existing stories for his science fiction sales. He first found commercial and critical success with publication of his surreal novelette "Final War" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the name K. M. O'Donnell in 1968.
He had been writing erotic novels using the pseudonym “Mel Johnson” but began writing erotic novels under his under his own name in 1968 for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press. Many of his science short stories and novels in the late 1960s were published under the pseudonym "K. M. O'Donnell", derived from the surnames of Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, and their joint pseudonym "Lawrence O'Donnell."
He was an editor at Escapade, a men’s magazine in early 1968. In the latter half of 1968 he edited Amazing Stories and Fantastic science fiction and fantasy-fiction magazines. He was the editor of the Science Writers of America Bulletin in 1969 until he was asked to resign because of a critical editorial he wrote about the NASA space program.
Malzberg's writing style is distinctive, frequently employing long, elaborate sentences with few commas. Most of his science fiction books are short, present-tense narratives concerned exclusively with the consciousness of a single obsessive character. His themes, particularly in the novels Beyond Apollo (1972) and The Falling Astronauts (1971) about the US space exploration programme, include the dehumanisation effects of bureaucracy and technology; his treatment of these themes sometimes exhibits strong resemblances to Franz Kafka, accompanied by unreliable narrator techniques. In novels like Galaxies (1975) and Herovit's World (1973), Malzberg uses metafiction techniques to subject the heroic conventions and literary limitations of space opera to biting satire.
He has edited numerous anthologies such as Final Stage (with Edward L. Ferman), several of which in collaboration with Bill Pronzini and others. In interviews and memoirs he details how many of his novels have been written within weeks or even days: for example, at the beginning of 1973 he was commissioned to write the series of novels “The Lone Wolf”, ten of which he completed by October 1973. Aside from fantastic fiction, he has been a prolific writer of crime fiction and other genres, under his own name, as O'Donnell, and as Mike Barry and under other pseudonyms. He has also often written in collaboration with Pronzini, Kathe Koja, and others. He wrote the novelization of the Saul Bass-directed 1974 film Phase IV. At the end of 1975 he made numerous public statements that he was retiring from science fiction 
A devotee of classical music, he is also a violinist, and performed in the premiere performance of work by Somtow Sucharitkul; he has also been nominated several times for the Hugo Award, and won the Locus Award for his collection of historical and critical essays, The Engines of the Night (1982).
Malzberg's work has been widely praised by critics, while being attacked by proponents of hard science fiction for its pessimistic, anti-Campbellian tenor. The dystopian and metafictional elements of Malzberg's work have led to numerous parodies inside science fiction, including Paul Di Filippo, whose first published story, "Falling Expectations", was a parody of Malzberg. Theodore Sturgeon said of Malzberg in 1973, "I look forward eagerly to his byline, snatch joyfully at it when I see it and he has never let me down."
For years, Malzberg has collaborated with friend and fellow science fiction writer Mike Resnick on a series of more than 50 advice columns for writers in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's quarterly magazine SFWA Bulletin. They have been collected as The Business of Science Fiction.
Malzberg was a regular contributor to the SFWA Bulletin published by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In 2013, articles he wrote for the Bulletin with Mike Resnick triggered a controversy about sexism among members of the association. Female authors strongly objected to comments by Resnick and Malzberg such as references to "lady editors" and "lady writers" who were "beauty pageant beautiful" or a "knock out." Bulletin editor Jean Rabe resigned her post in the course of the controversy.
He has been a resident of Teaneck, New Jersey for many years.
Main article: Barry N. Malzberg bibliography
- ^Charles Platt. ‘Barry Malzberg’ in The Dream Makers. Berkley, 1980. pp77-86.
- ^Debut Science Fiction and Fantasy
- ^Barry Malzberg, ‘Repentance, Desire, and Natalie Wood’, eI22 -- October 2005
- ^Barry Malzberg’s entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia
- ^Barry Malzberg. ‘In The Hall of the Mountain King’, Amazing Stories, 4 February 2013
- ^Barry Malzberg,'Is the Most Speculative Form of Fiction Afraid to Gamble Anymore . . . ?', Amazing, Stories, July 1981
- ^Barry Malzberg. ‘Some Notes on the Lone Wolf’, Breakfast in the Ruins, Baen Books, 2007. Pp296-298
- ^collected in Barry Malzberg, ‘…And a Chaser’, in Fantastic Lives edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Southern Illinois University Press, 1981. pp102-117.
- ^"Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1973, p.103
- ^Anders, Charlie Jane (6 June 2013). "The editor of SFWA's bulletin resigns over sexist articles". io9. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
- ^Page, Jeffrey. "RAMPAGING COMPUTERS", The Record (Bergen County), March 1, 1993. Accessed September 10, 2009. "Malzberg, of Teaneck, opened the mail and found a warrant had been issued for his arrest because, the computer's microchips insisted, he had failed to pay a parking ticket 9½ years ago."