BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Astronaut Harry Evans returns from a disastrous Venus Mission and schizophrenically recounts the mission details.
PROS: The story is presented as a challenging jigsaw puzzle, doling out pieces that may or may not fit together.
CONS: The fun puzzle of figuring out what really happened never culminates into any definable resolution.
BOTTOM LINE: An interestingly crafted book.
At the start of Barry N. Malzberg’s 1972 novel, Beyond Apollo, we know that Harry Evans is the sole survivor of a failed mission to Venus. What follows is a non-linear narrative in which Harry attempts to recount the details of the mission and lay the whole story out for the reader. But here’s the rub: Harry is in no mental state for any of this information to be reliable. In fact, several versions of the story are eventually told and it’s hard to tell which parts are true, and which parts are hallucinations. (Adding to Harry’s schizophrenia, he switches speaking between first- and third-person, sometimes within the same sentence.
Here’s what we do know: the narrative flips between several scenes, for example:
- Harry’s pre-flight training – in which Harry is subjected to rigorous training after being accepted as one of the two-man crew. He meets and befriends the Captain of the mission – a man who may or may not be crazy.
- Harry’s pre-flight relationship with his wife, Helen – basically a series of graphic sex scenes in which we learn that Harry may not love his wife at all.
- The flight itself – in which the Captain engages Harry in a guessing game as to the true nature of the mission.
- The encounters at Venus – in which the Venusians “speak” to Harry’s through mind control (or not) and ask Harry to change the ship’s course or risk Earth’s destruction (or not).
- The aftermath – in which Harry returns from the mission alone and is hospitalized and subjected to psychological examinations. Harry is mum about what happened on the disastrous voyage, and the agency enlists Helen to coerce the information from him.
Harry’s story emerges through a 67 short chapters (remember that number) and they do not all coincide. In one version, the Captain (whose name alternates between Joseph Jackson and Jack Josephson) is mad; in another, he commits suicide; in yet another, the Venusians used mind powers to drive Harry to murder. This schizophrenic telling of events echoes Philip K. Dick and his reality bending stories like A Scanner Darkly, though for what it’s worth, I found Beyond Apollo to be significantly more enjoyable. It was intriguing trying to put together the jigsaw puzzle pieces to see the big picture. But in the end, there’s really no telling what the true version is. I mean, I can come up with a version that makes sense, and I can assume that that’s what really happened, but am I sure? Not at all. And that’s unfortunate, because the fun puzzle of the book never culminates into any definable resolution.
And figuring out the truth is really the crux of enjoying the book. Malzberg says as much through a side story in which Harry promises to write down the events under a pen name in a book with – you guessed it – 67 short chapters:
…I believe that what happened can be indicated only in small flashes of light, tiny apertures which, like periscopes, will illuminate some speck of an overall situation so large that none of us can comprehend it. Parts of it will be true and some of it will be only as I conceive it, but in totality it will make the final statement about the Venus program and about myself.
Indeed later, when talking again about this meta-fiction, narrator Harry goes on to say that the proposed novel, though from his own point of view, will be anything but personal. Maybe because the personal aspects are what the story’s really about. Harry not only talks graphically about his marital sex life (the c-word is used a lot) and the effects that space program training has had on it, he also professes a love for the captain. Venus and the theme of sexuality is not new to science fiction novels by any means, but the puzzling architecture of this particular story makes it intriguing. Did Harry’s homosexual desires play into the Captain’s demise?
Ultimately, reading Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo is like building a jigsaw puzzle. It’s fun to do (if you like puzzles, of course) but it unfortunately never completes a definite picture. I get the feeling that this story is pure genius, but like many a Gene Wolfe story, it escapes me. You can read Beyond Apollo for free at Wowio. Let me know if you figure out what really happened.