Barry Malzberg is not well-represented by the world of in-print things and I'm not even sure how well-know he is by the current generation of SF readers. Most of his best novels ("Herovit's World", "Beyond Apollo" and I have a soft spot for "Galaxies") were written in the seventies and take some tracking down to find, although none are difficult to find or expensive, for those so inclined. He was then, and continues to be now, a bit of an anomaly in the world of SF, a satirist flush with ideas, both hilariously funny and savagely downbeat. His novels often take a situation that was becoming a fairly common SF cliche and destroys it with a thousand cuts, inverting it while taking it to offbeat extremes. Most of this requires characters who are mentally unbalanced or somewhat unreliable, giving it the dual perspective of both critique and commentary, along with a fair shade of depressing nuttiness. He's worth rediscovering, if only to see where the current crop of satirists probably learned their craft.
With that said, having three of his novels in one place at least gives the reader a chance to figure out whether his style is worth the hunt. None of these are his best work (for one, all of them are marred by so-so endings, but we'll get to that) but it gives you a good cross-section of what he's capable of, all of which seem to have a theme of people not succeeding, even while they're pretty sure they are succeeding. Spoiler alert: they don't succeed.
Of the three, "Scop" is the one that goes over the most familiar ground, a short novel where the title character spends his time attempting to stop terrible assassinations of the twentieth century, and repeatedly fails. Most of the assassinations were ones that were recent for the time (both Kennedys, MLK) but Malzberg attacks them from unfamiliar angles (a brief scene with RFK dying in the hospital is particularly affecting) and while he gets some initial mileage out of the depressing hilarity of a time traveller failing again and again, but in different ways, Scop's determination eventually becomes somewhere between crazy and noble, a desperate attempt to prevent his own future and what he sees is a history built entirely on murder. Less SF than commentary on the twentieth century and the mess it eventually became, he sees the people becoming less people than abstractions representing ideas as the gap of history keeps putting us further and further away from the events themselves, and in some ways the only way to stop them is to cause them all over again. He packs a lot into a scant number of pages, switching perspectives and locations frequently and if the story more ends than finishes, that could be commentary itself or just Malzberg tacitly admitting he painted himself into a corner. Fair enough. I probably couldn't have done any better.
For me, "In the Enclosure" has the best central premise, even if it was probably more radical when the story was first written. A ship of aliens crash-lands on Earth and are immediately captured and stuck inside an enclosed camp while therapists and scientists pump them for every last stray bit of information about their technology. Every day. For years. The problem is that the aliens don't remember their own world and are aware their memories have been deliberately erased, even while they are compelled to relay whatever information is needed. That's the central mystery here but from another perspective Malzberg does a neat thing and turns the typical curiosity of the human race that you normally see in SF into something much darker. The aliens are kept in a prison with no hope of escape, bribed with treats and perks and made to work against each other to keep everyone in line, all so the humans can strip-mine them of knowledge and use it for their own purposes, all the while claiming its for the good of the human race. He grasps the tediousness of prison, the mundane routines, the decisions between being comfortable and being free, and that little bit of Stockholm Syndrome that starts to creep in when you look at your captor and think maybe he isn't so bad, maybe he's just doing his job, maybe all this information can really help them so you're doing a good thing after all. When he's capturing those shifting mentalities, the book really comes alive as it attacks the notion that we're always the good guys and we always have the best interests of everyone at heart. It doesn't turn the humans into total aliens, but it does turn us into total jerks.
As the notions of escape and the mystery of why the aliens have been sent start to take over the narrative, it becomes that much more important for the novel to give us a really interesting twist and while I thought I had some pretty decent theories (they're tricking the earth into softening the planet for an invasion, they're from the future and trying to make sure its brought about) the end result winds up being strangely straightforward, not that far away from something Kurt Vonnegut would have done, a build-up to an absurd whimper but a bit of a "let's kick him while he's down" thrown in. It winds up not being as revelatory as you hope, but there's a charm (if that's the word) in the desperation of getting there.
The title story is probably the most cracked, as Commander Folsom and his small crew land on another world to integrate it into the Federation, their mission to communicate with the local aliens and educate them, get them ready to deal with Earth. Except things have already gone wrong, or maybe they haven't, the crew is acting strange, or maybe the Commander is just seeing them as strange, and Earth isn't being helpful at all, sending back odder and odder messages (my favorite being: "Is something seriously wrong with you" in response to a rather mundane question). The natives are somewhere between learning and being taught, or maybe they're teaching the crew. Oh, and there's a magic rock. This one comes the closest to being Malzberg in his prime, with a narrator who is quite possibly out of his mind and with everything filtered through that perspective you either have to go with it or puzzle out what is really going on. Which, given you're on alien world in the future, means you have about zero frame of reference. The Commander is convinced the weird stuff is all perfectly normal and the normal stuff is the mission going off the rails, and with the tensions rising between the crew and the natives and him you realize that none of this is going anywhere good. The fact that Malzberg makes this readable is his insistence on keeping everything from Folsom's perspective and winding the crazy tighter and tighter so that by the time things go really nuts you're already so immersed that its both familiar and inevitable. It's like being psychedelic without the drugs so you don't get the benefit of being high while everything goes bizarre around you. Space makes you crazy, Malzberg seems to suggest, but you'll be the last one to recognize it. The ending muffs it slightly, bringing in a twist that is sort of telegraphed but actually seems normal compared to all the wackiness that preceded it.
It seems odd to recommend something that isn't the author's finest work, but even second-tier Malzberg is worth reading, especially with the scarcity of his in-print material. But there's a focus here on the underside of SF, not just the seamy, gritty end of things but the flip side of the shadows created by the bright ideas and the boundless optimism. In his world, other planets are okay and the future, too, as long as you're adjusted to it. But the only way to really adjust is to become unhinged. If any of that sounds appealing, then he's for you. He's one of SF's most distinctive voices, influential in one of those ways that few people get to achieve: you reach a point where everyone sounds like him, and no one sounds like him.