Book Review: The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, Barry N. Malzberg (2013)

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Not My Cup of Future Tea

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I’m a bit of a newcomer to science fiction – only in the last year have I discovered the likes of Joanna Russ, Suzette Haden Elgin, and Anne McCaffrey – and, having never heard of Barry N. Malzberg, I was unsure what to expect from this anthology.

The collection starts off on a strong note with “A Galaxy Called Rome,” a short story that’s ostensibly not a short story at all, but is rather presented as the author’s notes on how to write a short piece of science fiction. Accompanied only by a ship full of corpses (in cold storage for the day when their respective illnesses can be cured; until then, the bodies are stacked helpfully about the ship in order to absorb gamma rays), Lena is piloting the exploratory ship The Skipstone when it tumbles into a black galaxy. Here, time ceases to have meaning; Lena progresses through a thousand different lives, slowly building toward the day when she can find a way out of her predicament. Though not exactly an easy read, “A Galaxy Called Rome” is nonetheless an enjoyable piece of existential scifi, questioning what it means to be human in an infinite world.

After “A Galaxy Called Rome” – which is on the quirky side – the stories found in The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg grow increasingly weird and esoteric. Wikipedia describes Malzberg’s style as “distinctive, with frequently long, elaborate though carefully constructed sentences and under-use of commas.” Further, Malzberg “uses metafiction techniques to subject the heroic conventions and literary limitations of space opera to biting satire.” Indeed, his beginnings as a playwright and prose fiction writer are evident in these stories. The result feels vaguely Orwellian, but much less readable.

(More below the fold…)