Galaxies // Barry N. Malzberg [Thoughts & Spoilers]



Author: Barry N. Malzberg

Setting: his living room

Plot: Malzberg can’t be bothered writing a novel so writes the notes for one

Subplot: Malzberg can’t stand whichever sci-fi writers he’s criticizing [Heinlein?], but sees them at conventions sometimes so doesn’t want to use their names

Sub-subplot: A ship falls into a black ‘galaxy’, where narrative descriptions are endless


The cover is good, the plot description is good, the 4 and 5 star reviews on Goodreads make good points, but the 2 star reviews are closer to how I feel about this.

Basically, the novel is a series of short chapters that function as notes on a future novel as well as Malzberg’s feelings on the state of 70’s sci-fi. Straight away this brings up two problems. 70’s sci-fi is era specific and, although some of the points remain valid [e.g. writing filler to bump up the word count, hard sci-fi writers hiding their lack of writing ability behind hard science], the era itself is long gone.

The second problem: if you’re going to write notes for a novel, you have to a] make sure the concept of that novel is interesting and complex, and b] keep your novel length down. Even at 180 odd pages, Galaxies is exhausting.

In fact, I haven’t finished the book yet.

Don’t know if I will either.

I’m on page 68, I think, and Malzberg is currently writing out potential dialogue between Lena, the main character, and another character who isn’t on the ship, it’s a flashback, a potential flashback, and I don’t really know either of these characters, I don’t care about them, and if this is the case then you better at least make the dialogue interesting.

It isn’t.

It repeats a lot.

They don’t speak like real people.

The more I think about this novel, the more I don’t like it, and I’m tired of being harsh about books. I wanted to like it, the concept is interesting, but there’s about three moments of insight in the whole book, and they’re so deeply buried in the author’s other thoughts that I can’t remember what any of them are.

Okay, I remember one.

Male sci-fi writers writing female characters as sexual furniture [without any actual sex?], and genius characters in general. Malzberg counters this by making Lena a general technician, competent, not beautiful [far as I remember]. This also leads to both a high point of the novel and the reason the thing as whole doesn’t work for me.

Lena has sex with some guy called John in a flashback while Malzberg describes how uninterested he is in having sex with her himself. It goes on for about 4-5 pages. At first, I took it at face value, but then I thought about it some more and wondered if Malzberg was using Juxtapositional irony? Juxtapositional has a red squiggle under it so that might not be a word…what I mean is, he writes the opposite of what is happening in the scene. He describes the sex vividly and makes her say how much she wants John’s dick, not John, just his dick. Then says he has no personal interest in her.

But…is it irony? Or is he honestly saying what he feels, that he himself has no attraction to her, whereas other sci-fi writers who describe how gigantic their female character’s tits are, how seductively their legs move etc are basically sex fiends writing out their fantasies?

I have no idea, cos it’s not clearly delineated.

Actually, if it is irony, if he does really fantasize about Lena but disguises it, then the whole novel is not the confessional that it sometimes wants to be. The key to a great confessional is to actually confess to something you don’t want to reveal. But Malzberg calls sci-fi writers he doesn’t like Author A, B or C, and [possibly] uses subtle irony to express something he can’t say directly i.e. he wants to sleep with his main female character.

Is Malzberg stuck in his own black galaxy?

Is the premise of the novel the ultimate layer of irony: writing a confessional without really confessing anything?

Does that make it anything other than clever?

Maybe he does directly express it later in the book, beyond page 68…but I’m not sure if I can make it that far.

Problem 3: Malzberg thinks highly of Malzberg

He writes at one point that he knows how to write, that he has no problem outside of scientific terms…


his writing is mostly dull.

And predictable.

You know he’s gonna waffle about the dead on the ship and the nature of being dead and that’s what he does.

How can 180 pages feel like a chore?

There’s a chance this is also irony. Or self-evisceration. Laying out how great and under-valued you are…then writing pages of bland writing and carefully curated thoughts to undermine yourself…but I can’t know for sure.

Usually in the case of self-evisceration, you would list your naked flaws, your doubts…if it’s a confessional…whereas if it’s a straight-forward novel with flawed characters, you could make them delusional and bitter and juxtapose it against how the rest of the world sees them. Confederacy of Dunces is a good example of this.

Is Malzberg trying to portray himself as arrogant and slightly bitter?


But it doesn’t seem petty enough to me…and not convincing as something the author believes to be an untruth.

That’s a weird sentence.

I’m reading it back to try and understand what I meant, but I can’t get it…but I know when I wrote it that it meant something…

Untruth is…that the author is not actually that great at writing and he’s playing up his own arrogance/ego intentionally…to criticize himself.

I think that’s it.

If you want to use irony, don’t do a confessional novel? It misses the point, and makes the reader miss it too.

Unless this is supposed to be a light satirical essay?

Feel like I need to give a better example of what I’m saying. To me, if you’re writing a confessional, it should be all over the place, a wrestling match between your control centre and your ID/ego. You or your character is basically trying to make sense of yourself.

So, if you wanted to show that you think your own writing is great, yet you’re not validated by the world, you would write it in a petty, angry way…e.g. I’m better than him, he knows it, he reads my book and he fucking knows it, he won’t say it, but I know he knows it.

I don’t think it should be lyrical or poetic, or a basic statement like ‘I know I can write, that’s not the problem.’ It needs more emotion attached it than that, more rage.

Or perhaps I’m just talking about my preferred approach? I don’t know. I just feel that the thought itself i.e. I’m a superior writer comes from a negative, bitter place, so it’s portrayal should be the same.

If it’s a character in a regular novel, a lyrical or basic statement of fact is okay.

But Galaxies’ is the author talking and it all seems very curated, like an essay.

I was probably hoping for something all over the place.

But not Beckett or Joyce.

Problem 4: I don’t like anything anymore, what’s wrong with me?

Babel-17 is another example. I like the premise, I like learning languages, but I can’t read more than a few pages before getting bored. Why?

I can’t be mentally finished at 39.

Blake’s 7 is good.

So is old Trek [most of it].

But then I see people like Alex Kurtzman writing new Trek and I think of the Russian Communists in the Brezhnev era, the continuation of a system just cos it’s the system and they know the system well so let’s continue the system and


This book is not awful.

There are a few moments of insight.

As the chapters are generally quite short, I keep going back into it.

[NEGATIVITY INSERT: But if a chapter is more than 4 pages, I hesitate.]

The idea of space/hard sci-fi making characters sexually barren is interesting…but jarring too, as didn’t old school hard sci-fi writers make their female characters walking sex dolls [that never have sex]? Isn’t that what Malzberg was criticising earlier in the novel? I have no idea.

My dislike may come from not being a sci-fi author in the 70’s. I have no connection to that period, I don’t know which novels exactly Malzberg is railing against. The novels/authors I know of – Phil K Dick, Le Guin, Gateway included sex and seemed to be the opposite of what he was saying.

I don’t seem to like many books. Or can’t seem to get through many. Could be me.

Not sure what else to write.

As a post-modern, literary piece of writing, Galaxies has its moments, but is overall quite average. Maybe that’s where the author’s frustration comes from. He couldn’t stand out as a literary writer, but couldn’t do much in science fiction either cos he was weak at science and they didn’t reward ‘better writing’.

To me, he comes across as a guy who likes expressing his thoughts, but doesn’t want people to know about his actual thinking, the process of it, which is weird when you choose to write a novel like this, a series of notes on a novel where the author is revealing himself, but not really.

Where’s the doubt and confusion?

Fossilized in irony?


I really liked the idea of Lena being an average, proficient technician. Reminded me of Lister in ‘Red Dwarf’, though he’s even more relatable as he’s a third rank technician.

I like the idea of this novel.

Cover’s good.

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