Science fiction has taken a long journey to get where it is today. From the pioneering days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the 19th century to the introduction of the pulps in the early 20th, from the blossoming of full, quality novels in the mid-20 th to the anything-goes milieu of the late 20th and early 21st century, we have seen a wide variety of sf. But there is one very meaningful bump/explosion/event that occurred along the way: the New Wave. The point in any artistic movement when it achieves the complexity of self-awareness and can therefore explore itself along lines from intra to meta, for a few years in the genre’s history works of unparalleled artistry appeared. Utilizing a never before seen variety of techniques, New Wave writers took disregarded genre norms and struck out in many complex literary directions. One was metafiction, and there may be no greater example of such a science fiction text than Barry Malzberg’s 1975 masterpiece Galaxies. It just ain’t your grandpappy’s sf.
“To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one. Nevertheless pay attention.” So states Malzberg at the opening of Galaxies. Simultaneously a story and self-consciousness of the story, the reader is taken on a trip through the philosophies and ideologies underpinning science fiction and the experiences of Lena, captain of a starship loaded with cryosleep corpses, as she pilots toward a black hole. The cover capturing more of the pulp sentimentality than the novel’s New Wav(iness), the image at least leaves the door open enough to let in the wider implications beyond Lena’s ‘story’.
Galaxies is like science fiction’s version of the anatomically correct skeleton in your high school classroom: the genre laid bare (the cover hints at this with the "empty" spacesuit). Incisive, dour, honest, engaging, insightful, satirical, challenging, ambitious, deadpan—all these ideas and more begin to describe its import. Pondering the state of science fiction as of 1975, Malzberg dissects sf’s utilization of psychoanalysis, religion, sex, cyborg/AI intelligence, end of the universe schemes, hard sf, FTL, death, free will, and other major tropes, looking for a meaning beyond. Lena’s story the specimen being dissected, Malzberg reveals its bones one at a time, all the while building a segue into the next scene/trope. This interplay—the oscillation—between these two levels makes for truly fascinating genre reading experience.
The final result is an intelligent and entertaining deconstruction of traditional science fiction. Pulp, mainstream, hard sf, and otherwise dismantled one fictional and metafictional piece at a time, Malzberg shows himself in complete control of the form in terms of the underlying motivators of those forms of fiction, the writing process itself, as well as storytelling. His prose sharp and cutting, the book should be a must-read for any fan of science fiction, but would probably go over the heads of most mainstream readers.
Thus, a while I ago when I went on a tirade about the mealy-mush (sometimes relaxingly enjoyable mealy-much) consistency of pulp speculative fiction, it appears my effort was for naught. Malzberg had already deconstructed the ‘classic science fiction novel’ in far more philosophical and erudite terms. Galaxies defining the meaning of meta-fiction, it is a masterpiece of the genre that should be required reading at its entrance.