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