I’ve been reading recursive science fiction lately, and one of the most famous recursive science fiction stories is Barry N. Malzberg’s “A Galaxy Called Rome.” Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction. Sometimes this is a story that mentions science fiction, sometimes it’s a story about science fiction writers, their fans, and science fiction conventions, and sometimes it’s in-jokes about the genre, other times recursive science fiction is about the writing of science fiction, and that’s the case with “A Galaxy Called Rome.”

“A Galaxy Called Rome” has been reprinted often you can find it in these anthologies and collections. I read it in the anthology Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. I highly recommend that volume if you can find it, but it was only published once by Avon. Probably the cheapest collection of Malzberg’s stories is The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg because the Kindle edition is only $4.99. However, Malzberg expanded “A Galaxy Called Rome” into a short novel, Galaxies, and it’s available for $1.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Malzberg is known for his recursive science fiction, especially since he seems to have experienced a great deal of existential angst over being a science fiction writer. NESFA even came out with a collection of his recursive SF called The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” is a novelette composed of 14 short chapters. It first appeared in the July 1975 issue of F&SF and has been anthologized a number of times. It is probably Malzberg’s most famous work of short science fiction. 

Malzberg expanded the same story into 49 chapters for a 1975 short novel version retitled Galaxies. Malzberg gained attention for a handful of science fiction novels in the first half of the 1970s. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Beyond Apollo but got a fair amount of recognition for Galaxies, The Falling Astronauts, and Herovit’s World. He went on to publish prolifically in and outside of the genre

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies are also works of what the literary world calls metafiction – fiction about fiction. I prefer the novelette version of the story because the novelette is my favorite length for science fiction. However, the longer version of the story, Galaxies, lets Malzberg dig deeper into the nature of writing science fiction.

I want to recommend this story, but with carefully considered restrictions. If you read science fiction for escape this story isn’t for you. Well, if you want to know why you read science fiction for escape, then you might want to read it. This story is for people who like to intellectually examine everything and take things apart. This story is for readers who love academic exercises in cleverness. This story is for readers who want to know how magic tricks work.

I alternated reading Galaxies with listening to Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It was an excellent contrast. Red Rising is exactly what most science fiction readers want to read. The story immediately sucks the reader into a fantasy reality. It’s designed for your mind to forget the real world and immerse yourself in a fantasy about Mars. The reader is expected to buy into its make-believe. Galaxies on the other hand constantly remind the reader of our reality while describing how a science fiction writer goes about their business of fooling the reader.

Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” or Galaxies could ruin your love of science fiction. Or it could make you appreciate escapist literature all the more. I know when I would switch to Red Rising after reading a dozen chapters of Galaxies I felt like that guy in The Matrix, Cypher, who wanted to take the blue pill and enjoy the juicy steak. And that might be a good analogy. Reading Malzberg is like taking the red pill and seeing an ugly reality. It might be philosophically enlightening to know the realness of reality, but it’s still grim and gritty.

This is probably why Malzberg never became a popular sci-fi writer, he was too hung up on reality. Most of the recursive science fiction I read in Inside the Funhouse was big fun. Recursive science fiction comes in many flavors but they can be roughly divided into two kinds. One kind celebrates our addiction, and the other makes you feel like you’re withdrawing from heroin. Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” is like learning about Santa Claus as a kid, it hurts but makes you feel grown up. Reading Galaxies can feel like the agony of soul searching before deciding on becoming an atheist.

I ended up highlighting almost ten percent of Galaxies when reading the Kindle version. I won’t show all these quotes because that would probably be a copyright violation, but I do want to show enough of them to give people a chance to understand what Malzberg is doing. Malzberg is very open and straightforward with his intentions as stated in this first section.

It’s rather interesting that Malzberg tells us how the idea of the story within a story came to him. Well, the idea for the story he’s going to use to discuss writing. In the course of reading a novel about writing a novel, we will develop a whole story with characters, setting, plot, and conflict. However, we won’t experience that story like we normally do. Imagine being served a meal and instead of enjoying eating it, we put it under scientific analysis.

One thing Malzberg doesn’t do is try to imagine what we readers think while reading all of this. We readers are also part of the process. As I read Galaxies I got the idea that Malzberg both loved and hated science fiction. I got the impression he wanted to be a respected writer of hard SF, but his sense of reality conflicted with the fantasy nature of writing escapist literature.

These early sections are quite seductive, but I must warn anyone considering buying Galaxies that the going will get tough. “A Galaxy Called Rome” is the light fluffy version to read for those who aren’t ready to climb a mountain. Even though Galaxies is only 154 pages long, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation on deconstructing science fiction novel writing.

The story within this novel is about Lena Thomas who is the only living crew member of an FTL spaceship, Skipstone, that carries a cargo of 515 dead people in cryonic suspension. The year is 3902. Like in Heinlein’s novel, The Door Into Summer, rich people with diseases invest their estates and freeze their bodies in the hopes of one day being revived and cured. Those estates pay for the development of interstellar travel. Those dead people will eventually communicate with Lena like the dead in PKD’s Ubik when Lena and the Skipstone get trapped in the black galaxy. This allows Malzberg to explore metaphysical and religious themes in writing a novel. The ship also has robots programmed with human minds that help Malzberg explore other science fictional themes. His story notes get more and more extensive while getting more and more complicated. This also allows Malzberg to show how worldbuilding and plotting are developed as a writer tells their story.

Malzberg uses all this exploration in writing a science fiction novel to also speculate about the future. He imagines our civilization collapsing and being completely forgotten and a new world civilization rising in the following nineteen centuries. Malzberg imagines we’ll face limitations we can’t overcome and wild possibilities that far exceed today’s limitations.

Much of this novel is about being a writer, and specifically a writer of science fiction. You get hints along the way that Malzberg might be jealous of famous literary writers like Cheever and Updike, at other times you might feel his resentment at not being more successful at being a science fiction writer. But Malzberg is confident of his own gifts too.

In some of the actual passages of the novel, the dialog reminds me of Sheckley or Adams, or maybe even PKD, and even then Malzberg keeps making digs at science fiction.

Over time, the conflicts Malzberg provides for Lena’s story become repetitious. He knows he’s padding this novel, and even talks about how writers do pad their novels. The second half of Lena’s story becomes one long dark night of her soul struggling to escape the black galaxy. I have to wonder if such soul searching also plagues Malzberg.

Eventually, you wonder if Malzberg can find an ending to Lena’s story. Chapter after chapter he tortures the poor woman, and we can’t imagine any possible happy ending. Yet, Malzberg gives us a very strange ending that I was quite happy to read. I guess he took pity on us.

Reading Galaxies makes me doubt reading science fiction, but then I’ve doubted my addiction to our genre for decades. As a young person back in the 1960s and 1970s I thought science fiction was a wonderful tool for thinking about all the possibilities of the future, both good and bad. But after living to the year 2022, which was a very futuristic sounding year back in 1965, I know the future is everything we never imagined.

Contrasting Galaxies with Red Rising it’s quite obvious that science fiction’s purpose is escape. And the genius of writing science fiction is creating stories set in fictional worlds that are so compelling we forget this one. By Malzberg intruding into his novel and telling us everything only shows we don’t want the author intruding into our stories. Some philosophers have speculated that God invented our reality and walked away from his creation and that’s a great thing. That knowing God’s intention would ruin his/her/its art. I always felt Heinlein destroyed his career after he started poking his nose into his stories.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies were written as the New Wave in science fiction was fading and postmodernism fiction in the literary world was becoming old hat. It was an impressive experiment of the times, but as far as I know, readers have lost interest in such experiments. The Post Moderns of our times demand wokeness in fiction but not the metafictional kind. If anything, modern SF readers want longer voyages of fictional escape with far greater feats of worldbuilding.

It would be interesting to see someone write a version of Galaxies today that reveals what today’s SF writers go through to entertain their readers in the 2020s.

James Wallace Harris, 7/23/22

15 thoughts on ““A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg

    1. Well, I went and read “Final War.” It’s a good story, and clever too. But it felt like a retelling of Catch-22. Hastings was like Yossarian. The Captain is like Major Major Major Major. And The Sergeant is somewhat like Sergeant Towser. Even the repeated parts of the plot remind me of Catch-22.

      I tend to think “A Galaxy Called Rome” is more memorable because of its gimmick.

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        1. I wonder if Malzberg actually used Catch-22 as a model?

          I still can’t believe that story is just a novelette. It went on forever. I was sure it was a novella, but ISFDB says no.

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  1. As you know, I’m a huge fan of Malzberg. While I haven’t read this one yet, I already know I’ll love it…

    One reason I’ve always enjoyed his fiction is his use of artifice (a highly artificial construct or existential nightmare or, in this case, analysis of a SF novel) as it places human experiences into harsh relief. I think the best example of this strategy is The Gamesman (1975) in which he creates a controlled world of the game and the “real” external world. http://sciencefictionruminations.com/2014/07/09/book-review-the-gamesman-barry-n-malzberg-1975/

    He’s relentlessly inventive creating nightmarish stages for black comedy — men injected into the bodies of other men (The Men Inside) to excise cancer or the Jerry Springer-esque talk show that forms the core of Revelations (a novel comprised entirely from papers and transcripts found inside of a drawer). Both are reviewed on my site. I won’t clog the post with links (all easily to find in my index) if you wish.

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    1. Isn’t it rather fascinating that we’re part of a small group of readers/fans that are rereading selective years of the genre’s past? I lived and read through these years the first time around, but I love that I’m going back and discovering works that I missed. I have my lived view of 1951-1980, and now my reevaluating view. It’s a shame I didn’t know then what I know now.

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      1. Maybe you shouldn’t think of it as a sham that you didn’t know then what you know now. I try not to view my reading progression through that lens — part of your appreciation of particular authors and themes now comes from what you read before and knowledge of what you read before… While I might think that I “wasted” most of my teens reading gigantic bloated fantasy series (Jordan, Tad Williams, Tolkein, Stephen Donaldson) when I could have been reading James Tiptree, Jr., it was still an important developmental moment in my life and I enjoyed it immensely.

        By what I read and enjoy and write about comes from my history training and background — that’s what’s made those decades pop out to me (and of course all the more subversive/deconstructive takes on genre like Malzberg).

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        1. No, I didn’t mean I’d want to give up the SF I read when young. I meant I wanted to have spent even more time with the SF magazines. I would have had to cut out other pop cultural interests, like TV. I felt I was a C+ student of science fiction growing up, but I was an A- student of TV. I was a B- student of rock music. I was also an A+ student of sexual fantasies. Looking back, I would have watched less TV and spent far less time thinking about the girls who didn’t talk to me and spent more time reading SF magazines and listening to rock music.

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        2. Well, I lived in the woods in rural Virginia (near close to 1k acres that I could explore without supervision) and went to a Montessori school… so… not much pop culture and lots of time for reading and exploring the woods. But I didn’t read much SF then as I said.

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  2. “A Galaxy Called Rome” is a very good story. Or perhaps we should rather say, like Malzberg himself said of Robert Silverberg’s “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame”, that it is ‘less a work of fiction than of literary criticism’ (in Malzberg’s essay, “The Science Fiction of Science Fiction” in his collection ‘Engines of the Night’–highly recommended by the way). Indeed, to my thinking Malzberg is unquestionably influenced by this Silverberg piece, if we consider alone his high opinion of the latter and the fact that it appeared two years before Malzberg’s story. Which is certainly not to say that Malzberg was propelled in this direction by Silverberg, only rather to note that the fuzzy boundary between literature and criticism was cracking open in the early 1970s.

    It is this “cracking open” that I find perhaps even more of interest than the various cracks of which it is made up. That is, why did such a *turn* happen at this point in SF (i.e., during the high point of the New Wave and its wake)? Reading Malzberg is like having a ringside seat at the collapse of SF. Joanna Russ, in her essay ‘The Wearing out of Genre Materials’ (another recommend) speaks of literary ‘decadence’ to describe such experimental turns in SF, a term Malzberg takes up. And whereas I agree that it is something along these lines, her account tends to emphasize the purely literary reasons for such ‘decadence’ at the expense of a more full bodied reckoning with the broader, social and historical context.

    Personally, I feel that the more self-conscious “postmoderns” that really come after Malzberg’s high period are less interesting, insofar as their experiments mark a retreat into a purely literary or textual form of experimentation. Malzberg and other New Wavers, even at their navel gazing worst, I find more of interest because of their sometimes explicit reference to the social upheavals and movements of the 1960s and 70s.

    Further, I would also argue that one cannot “do” what Malzberg did in the 1970s today, simply because his and other New Wave experiments mark the end of SF’s first phase (roughly, 1926-75), of which contemporary SF can be said to be only one of its descendants. Today, the decadence is widespread in literary and other culture, and if people still retreat into more formally conservative fictional works, they do so in a world in which the decadence cannot be stuffed back into the bottle, so to speak. Thus there will be no more ‘New Waves’, short of–perhaps–the end of literature itself!

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    1. After reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” I went and read “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” by Silverberg, and Malzberg’s essay in The Engines of the Night. I wanted to discuss on that in my post, but things were getting too long. Since I’m going to do a series of posts about recursive science fiction I’ll get to them later.

      I need to track down the Joanna Russ essay. I didn’t feel the New Wave experimentation was decadent. It fit the times, or maybe trailed the literary Post Moderns. My theory has been the influence of writing schools on science fiction, and in particular MFA programs.

      And like you said, a lot of the New Wave was just part of the 1960s social upheavals.

      How do you define decadence? I see SF going through several phases during the years 1926-1975. 1926-1938 was the first, and even it could be divided into two parts. 1939-1945 – and even that could be divided into 1939-1941 and the war years. But I felt there were many phases after that 1946-1949, 1950-1956, 1957-1961, 1962-1965, 1966-1972, 1973-1975. Those are just rough guesses.

      I agree, I doubt will see another New Wave, but the current Woke phase of science fiction is quite interesting.

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      1. I’m certainly looking forward to your future posts on recursive sf.

        I agree that we can break down sf into several phases. However, I feel that it is both legitimate and illuminating to conceive of sf constituting a unity of sorts over the period from 1926 to 1975 (though I am willing to admit the fuzziness of the last figure).
        That way we can try and understand how the successive phases are attempts to criticise and “go beyond” the previous ones. For instance, Campbell’s critique and “going beyond” of Gernsback. Boucher, McComas and Gold’s attempt to criticise Campbell-Gernsback sf and “go beyond” it (or at least go in another direction). And the New Wave’s attempt to go beyond all of these. I realise this is an exceedingly schematic structure and requires more nuancing. However, I feel it makes sense too. It draws upon what I consider the intuitive sense that there was a broad scene called sf that was founded in 1926 and continued though changes and transformation in a relatively unbroken way up until the 1960s. For want of a better term, I call this ‘Anglo-American SF’, which also points to the singular dominance of Anglo-American SF in the formation and shaping of SF (for better or worse).

        I accept that ‘decadence’ is a loaded term. I also like the words ‘decomposition’ and ‘decay’ in the sense the situationists give them—equally loaded! Briefly, I use these terms to speak of how the experiments in form and content lead to a sort of collapse of the genre, insofar as so much of the form and content is called into question (note that this is more of a literary collapse rather than a commercial one). Joanna Russ’s talk of ‘decadence’ is somewhat different, but similarly points out the way elements of a genre like sf begin to become ‘shop worn’, and themselves become objects of fictional speculation (again, think of the way Malzberg plays around with the tropes of sf that is markedly different to those who play with them in a purely fictional, “in world” fashion).

        I consider that Anglo-American SF ends in the 1970s. This is probably my most controversial claim, because patently SF continues to be written and enjoyed by Anglo-Americans! But my broad point is that a cycle that begins with Gernsback and Campbell comes to an end. This is for me the ‘truth’ of the New Wave, and the somewhat ambiguous results of its experimentation. Whatever it is that is rebuilt or re-founded amidst the ruins and wake of the New Wave, it is *not* Anglo-American SF in the sense in I use the term. World SF perhaps?

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  3. Many thanks, Jim! I haven’t yet read Malzberg. I see what you mean about “escapist” not being pejorative, but I wonder if any work of SFF worth reading can be purely escapist. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to his 1952 anthology “Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow,” wrote that “fantasy is rarely good fantasy if it wants to be fantasy alone. Unless it adheres some way, by a literary osmosis, to life, in which realities may pass back and forth and be recognized, then it becomes mere pointless day-dreaming.”

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