Saturday, 25 April 2015

Barry N. Malzberg - Galaxies (1975)

"The novel itself cannot be written, at least by this writer, nor can it be encompassed by any techniques currently available, because it partakes of its time and that time is of the fortieth century, a time unimaginably distant... and it could be perceived only through the idiom and devices of that era which, to be sure, will not exist for more than eighteen hundred years.
   "Nor - continuing to be straightforward - will that idiom or those devices ever exist because science fiction is not a series of working models for the future but merely a sub-genre of romantic fiction which employs the future as historicals would use the past, as Westerns would use the West, as pornography would use fornication - in short as a convention, which is the focus of their appeal. By virtue of these reasons then, not to say others which are more personal - but which will be revealed - these fifty-five thousand words are little more than a set of constructions toward a construction even less substantial. It, as the writer himself, will not be finished in this world."

'Galaxies' is a bold, post modernist science fiction novel that deals explicitly with the nature of science fiction itself. Set out as the notes for the author's unwritten novel, also entitled 'Galaxies', Barry N. Malzberg uses the book's meta-narrative to unravel the impossibilities of writing science fiction and to comment on the many failings of the genre. However along the way the story the author is trying to write, about a space pilot trying to escape from a black galaxy caused by a collapsing neutron star, and his struggle to write it, wind up echoing each other and highlighting the metaphysical concepts and questions the author is intending to explore in the finished novel. The end result is both a compelling story in its own right and some of the sharpest criticism I've ever read of the SF genre. 
   In his earlier work, 'Herovit's World', Malzberg had satirised the poor writing found in much golden age SF using meta techniques and a narrative about a pathetic, struggling SF writer who understands human nature almost as poorly as his badly written space opera protagonist. However the structure of 'Herovit's World' was still that of a straightforward novel. The meta techniques in 'Galaxies' are much more sophisticated, with the framing device being that the text is the author's notes describing a science fiction novel which he has intentionally not completed. Thus the author becomes the main character as much as Lena Thomas, the captain of the Skipstone in the unfinished story 'Galaxies'. The story is ultimately recursive. The author's struggle to write 'Galaxies', as he engages with and attempts to subvert the expectations and demands of what is essentially a commercial genre in order to make a profound piece of art, as he writes himself into a hole he can't get out of, as he attempts techniques and reaches for affects that are beyond his skills as a writer, are metaphorically echoed in Lena's impossible attempt to escape from the gravitational field of the collapsing neutron star, and ultimately the author's preferred ending to the story has these two struggles converge, with Lena perhaps becoming the author and the writing of 'Galaxies' becoming the metaphor for her trials in the black galaxy.
   'Galaxies' is left as a series of notes in deference to the fact that if science fiction really were the medium of the future, it would need to be expressed in the idiom of the future, which of course does not exists yet. From this initial confession, and the observation that science fiction frequently simply uses its futuristic setting as an exotic backdrop rather than even attempting to engage with current modes of expression such as post-modernism, let a lone future modes of expression, or to engage with genuine scientific premises, the book engages with many of the genre's failings. Malzberg's criticism from the genre comes from both a genuine fascination with science fiction - its unique potential to engage with interesting scientific theories, its ability to tackle deep metaphysical ideas, its unparalleled scope - and his disappointment with a genre that he sees as frequently formulaic and subject to the conformity of market specifications as dull and all-encompassing as the manipulative Bureau which controls space travel in Lena's future. Much of the black humour in 'Galaxies' comes from Malzberg's cynical understanding of the demands of the science fiction market, which manifests in the author's notes as he talks about where he could pad out the story into a series of novels in order to make money, or about where he might add gratuitous sex scenes to keep the reader's interest.
   Throughout, Malzberg deftly uses the author's voice to betray the author's personality; the writer of 'Galaxies' is prolix, self-important and self-pitying, frequently going off on amusing tangents to complain about the difficulty of his life as a writer or to bitch about his professional rivals. However it is these failings that make the author ring true as a character in his own right, and it is clearly meant to be part of the joke. There are sections where the author criticizes Lena for having many of the characteristics that he has, utterly unaware that he is doing this. This also helps to foreshadow the ending. Making sure the reader is aware of the humanity, the failings of the book's two central characters helps the book sell its metaphysical aspects, as the author himself points out. And 'Galaxies' does succeed on a philosophical level, as well as a biting piece of satire. The author underlines the religious imagery involved in the central concept of the story 'Galaxies', with Lena as Job being tested by the author, and the cyborg advisers playing the role of the consolers. Lena's journey to achieving her own agency in defiance of the rigid control of the Bureau, even at the possible price of destroying the entire universe and all of existence, and hence the author's decision to write, or not write, 'Galaxies' as he sees artistically fit, is genuinely powerful and moving. It is in this integration of story and ambitious meta-narrative construction that 'Galaxies' is such a success.

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