IS SCIENCE FICTION merely escapist fare? The cur-

rent popularity of the 2 Star Wars whiz-bangery fuels a common impression that sf is largely confined to high- tech swashbuckling, tales of "The Three Musketeers in Hyperspace" or of "The Death Rays of Navarone."

For as Barry Malzberg observes in this pointed, no- nonsense, and often jaundiced look at the field, science fiction has perennially been judged by its worst examples: on one extreme, John Norman's "Gor" fantasies, their covers displaying sunripened slave-girls lashed to the prows or saddles of musclemen out of Pumping Iron; on the other, pretentious, over-written tomes such as Frank Herbert's God Emperor of Dune or Doris Lessing's Canopus series--essentially inflated tracts, filled with religious and feminist gas.

But in the course of three dozen brief essays--ranging from definitions of the genre through gripes about the publishing industry to memoirs of neglected writers like Mark Clifton--Malzberg makes persuasively clear that the best of science fiction should be valued as literature and nothing less. A story like Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit," for instance, incorporates shifts of voice, tone, and person as intricate as any in Donald Bartheleme. Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human marvelously captures the gray fuzziness in the mind of an idiot, life in a world that resembles a photographic negative; it's as accomplished, in its way, as the Benji section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Although The Engines of the Night carries the subtitle "Science Fiction in the Eighties" Malzberg devotes most of his effort to looking backwards at the past 30 or so years. He considers all the "enemies of promise" in the field--low word-rates, little book advertising, underappreciation by the sophisticated and overappreciation by the fans, the feeling that an author's best work is neglected while the tired and familiar succeeds, professional writing as hack work, the limitations and advantages of belonging to a "genre." What he says is invariably intelligent and provocative, albeit tossed off with a kind of morose Oscar Levant-like resignation: Things will never get better.

To anyone wishing an introduction to modern science fiction, Malzberg conveniently includes a number of reading lists. Among the classics he suggests trying are: Bester's The Demolished Man, Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon, and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz; also the short stories of James Tiptree Jr., Damon Knight, William Tenn, and J.G. Ballard. For guidance on the history of the genre one might add three more books: Triquarterly 49, for Budrys' historical survey "Paradise Charted," Peter Nichollh a prs' The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, a massive, but altogether delightful reference, and Malzberg's own sweet-and-sour essays on the pitfalls, possiblities and pleasures of this wonderful, and wonder-filled, branch of literature.