Breakfast in the Ruins

by Barry N. Malzberg

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Publisher: Baen
Copyright: April 2007
ISBN: 1-4165-2117-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 389

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Barry Malzberg is one of those writers who seem particularly common in the history of science fiction: an incredibly prolific and well-regarded writer from an earlier age of the genre who seems to have disappeared entirely from the awareness of the current reader. I only knew about him because he won the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award (ironic, since he's not a very Campbellian writer), and I've yet to read his fiction, although I'll be fixing that. I picked up this non-fiction collection of essays about science fiction largely because Malzberg appeared as one of Alice Sheldon's correspondents in Julie Phillips's biography of her and, of the writers mentioned, was the one I knew the least about.

I was a bit puzzled to see that Breakfast in the Ruins was published by Baen. Baen is primarily a military SF publisher with a bit of epic fantasy, not particularly well-known for either criticism or the pessimistic and more sophisticated fiction Malzberg wrote. They do reprint some early SF, but it seemed an odd publishing match. But after reading it, it makes more sense: Breakfast in the Ruins is sadly mostly navel-gazing about SF as a culture of writers and publishing businesses.

I seek out critical non-fiction about science fiction, but what I'm looking for is primarily analysis of the literature. I look for book reviews, reflections on themes, historical surveys, profiles of authors from the perspective of their work, and sometimes discussions of technique. I'm primarily interested in what's on the page. There's some of that in here (the ten-best list in "The Cutting Edge," for instance, and a few bits of commentary on technique and common SF theme), but mostly Malzberg writes very short essays about the failure of SF as a genre that rewards the work of writers, SF as a business, the difficulties of the commercial side of being a writer, and his general pessimism about the genre. Anyone who has attended a few SF conventions has probably been to a panel where the panelists start talking about the commercial collapse of the genre, the lack of critical respect SF gets, and the bad editors and under-respected writers they've known rather than the topic of the panel. This is one of those panels.

There is some good stuff in here, regardless. I was particularly interested by Malzberg's profile of Mark Clifton, now virtually forgotten and, if remembered, only for a rather dreadful Hugo winner. I was also morbidly fascinated by his discussion of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. If one must devote much of the book to a discussion of the inside of the SF business, Scott Meredith and his agency make for dramatic material. The SMLA brings together both some big names of the field and some sketchy and exploitative business practices, and Malzberg worked there for many years and describes the feel of the agency effectively.

Also worth mention is Malzberg's short story "Corridors" about an SF author named Henry Martin Ruthven. This is a melodramatic tale of personal depression and angst, of deep frustration, despair, and anger with the field. If feels like a thinly disguised autobiography, but Malzberg says that instead it's based on another writer. It ends with a remarkably moving plaint for the science fiction that Ruthven imagines could be but can never reach. As a commentary on SF, it skirts with self-pitying ridiculousness, and I'm not sure it brings much to the critical plate. As a portrayal of a mid-life crisis, and of the emotional crisis that comes when one finally loses faith in something one has tried to put ones heart and soul into, however, it's surprisingly effective. I think Malzberg tests the sympathy of the reader, but despite rolling my eyes through most of it, the end of "Corridors" hit me hard and touched on emotions that I recognize. (The followup, "The Passage of the Light," is much less effective.)

But despite those highlights, I'm afraid this book is mostly not worth reading. The first half of the book, which is a reprinting of the earlier collection The Engines of the Night, is by far the strongest material, but it's still thin gruel. The later material drops significantly in quality, is full of rambling and only vaguely coherent sentences, and frequently left me unable to discern Malzberg's point. That's a real shame: among the later material is a series of profiles of authors, which is exactly the sort of thing I read these books for. But the profiles, apart from the one of Campbell, failed to hold my interest.

If you enjoy SF convention discussions of the flaws of the publishing business, the squandered potential of science fiction, griping about how the inferior fantasy genre has consumed publishing, and the difficult lives of SF writers, you may enjoy this more than I do. Personally, I've had more than my fill of that discussion and am no longer interested. And if you cut out that material, what's left of Breakfast in the Ruins isn't worth the cover price.

If you come across a copy, page through to find the essays and short story mentioned above, but I wouldn't bother with the rest of it.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-09-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21