(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)
“Here I live. Twenty up, twenty down, me in the middle with the Group. Twenty up, broken gray and movement to the distance, twenty down to the landing, farther out the arena. Gray up, landing down, me forever in the middle (1).”
Malzberg’s novella (89 pages), Conversations (1975), distills the common future dystopia tropes into an occasionally poignant but unremarkable young adult novel. By young adult I mean completely suitable for young readers interested in science fiction (Malzberg fans know his usual relentlessly dark fare often verges on crass/risque). I was unable to glean any information from the web on the work — only two or three of Malzberg’s extensive canon (late 60s-early 80s) receive any attention — so I had no idea that it was for younger readers. A shot in the dark…
The main downfall of the work is the overly simplistic setting (due to Malzberg’s refusal to expound or describe the world in anything more than a few observations by the main character). The main character is a morally upright figure (again, unlike Malzberg’s normal fare) and the streamlined form the work takes with minimal digressions has the “story one would tell to your child in the future” feel — a nice blend of allegory and nostalgia but unfortunately, rather banal.
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Dal, a twelve year old boy, lives in his Group in a large Domicile run by machines and patrolled by the Elders. He doesn’t have parents but instead is cared for by his Group. Dal meets Lothar, a fourteen year old boy deemed crazy by his Group, who possesses a scrap book filled with photos of a distant past (a family in front of a car, a swing, etc). Dal is transfixed by these images and returns to Lothar’s cubicle whenever he can despite Lothar’s predictable rages.
He begins to wonder why the Elders speak nothing of the past and refuse to answer his questions. Likewise the teaching machines seem confused. And Dal hears the continuous hum of the machines, despite claims that they are silent… Will the Elders send him into Exile?
I found the ending of the work the most interesting — there’s little action, the eventual “revolution” is a “revolution of the mind” rather than a forceful change imposed on the world. This revolution is facilitated by Dal’s unwavering desire to learn the truth and stand up against adversity. The way in which society evolved into such a “terror-less” dystopia where the past is completely unknown and people are content to live regulated lives run by machines is not touched upon. With this in mind, Conversations less of a “warning of things to come” science fiction novel and more of a futuristic moral tale.
Worthwhile for younger readers interested in science fiction.
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