Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #18 of 107: “Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola
“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola is a short piece of satire on household products, but it’s not really a short story. Arreola imagines a device for children to wear that converts their kinetic energy into stored electricity for later household use. I’m terribly sorry that the VanderMeers have included all these historical curiosities at the beginning of their anthology because I worry it will turn off readers from finishing the book. I swear, there are really good stories to come. I’ve talked a lot of people into buying this book, and I fear many of them are thinking, “Harris, you owe me $25 plus tax.”
“Baby HP” was mildly interesting filler but only for a lesser literary magazine that couldn’t acquire better content. “Baby HP” represents a science fictional idea without a story. It’s like the kind of thing writers hate when they meet fans who tell them, “I’ve got a great idea for a story, you write it and we’ll split the money 50-50.” An idea for a story is not a story. Let me illustrate what I mean:
The Algernon Corporation offers a unique product to American consumers. Have you ever wanted to do something significant with your life but lacked the intelligence and talent? Here’s your chance to write that bestselling sci-fi novel, invent that new gadget everyone thinks they need but don't, or maybe finally discover a cure for overactive bladders, or even compose the last great rock album, or work on any other dream ambition that takes the intense concentration and vast intelligence you don't have. We offer a series of treatments that will triple your IQ within one year. You’ll have three years to burn bright, before returning to your normal self in the fifth year. We feel so confident that you'll succeed that the only cost for this treatment is the promise of sharing the proceeds of your success 50-50 with us.
If you compare the above to Daniel Keyes brilliant novelette, “Flowers for Algernon,” you’ll know what I mean when I say “Baby HP” isn’t a real short story. Clever ideas and philosophical insights don’t make good short fiction. Readers want short stories to have the impact of a novel in a quick read. Not a summary. Short stories run in size from flash fiction to novellas, but for each length there is an appropriate amount of dramatic action required. Stories need to evoke emotions, from the silliest comedy to gut wrenching tragedy. It’s possible to do without human characters, but readers really love characters to care about. All the best short stories capture a moment when someone evolves and the reader shares that insight. You can’t just tell the reader. The short story is a trigger that causes readers to resonate emotionally. The very best stories will fill you eyes with tears, either from laughing or crying.
What Makes a Great Science Fiction Retrospective Anthology?
The membership in our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction, has been getting a bit restless with The Big Book of Science Fiction. Participation has fallen off. I don’t know if that’s because people don’t like the stories, or because the relentless pace of reading a short story every other day is wearing them out. Also, I sense many of our members might not enjoy older SF. I hope enthusiasm picks back up as we get further into the anthology, and into modern times. I know there are some truly great short stories to come.
This makes me ask: What makes a great science fiction retrospective anthology?
The group has read many anthologies together in the past year, and some books have succeeded better than others. A few have even stood out, and I’d say that’s because they had a higher concentration of popular stories. We vote on stories when we finish a book. If only a handful of stories get a majority of votes, we usually see more complaints about the number of disappointing stories. But if the votes are scattered over half the table of contents, the generally feeling is the anthology was a good one.
How readers rate an anthology is very subjective. For me, a handful of great stories can leave an overall positive reaction to the anthology. On the other hand, too many bad stories can taint my whole impression.
I tend to think the group is partial to newer SF, and prefer longer stories, since novelettes and sometimes novellas are the stories that get the most votes. However, a long story that doesn’t work well generates lots of negative comments. My guess is the novelette length is optimal if the content is good or better. It seems it takes exceptional content to make a short story or novella work. Often a short story doesn’t have the length of runway to take off, to catch the readers minds on fire. And frequently a novella stretches an idea too thin, thus provoking boredom.
My hunch is our membership prefers stories from the 1980s on because that’s what they’ve grown up with, and stylistically, stories within the past 40-50 years feel modern. Anything older is often tainted with quaintness, too much simplicity, or sometimes dated by changes in social consciousness.
This puts an anthology like The Big Book of Science Fiction at a disadvantage because it’s mostly filled with shorter works, and a lot of the content is older. It is a challenge for any editor to cover short science fiction over the entire 20th century.
Another factor that makes readers love an anthology is when it contains stories they’ve previously read and loved. There is a feeling of affinity with the editor for sharing an admiration for a favorite story. An editor put themselves at risk if they go out of their way to find obscure, rare, and unknown stories, unless those stories convince the reader they’ve found undiscovered gems. Anthology readers love finding buried treasure. But that’s getting exceedingly hard to do. The territory has been covered countless times, and time is eroding older stories faster and faster.
Not many science fiction fans love short stories, it’s a specialized reading audience that’s fading away. Our SF short story club on Facebook has 566 members, whereas the SF book club has 8,800 members. And only a tiny fraction of our membership actively participate in any particular group reading.
At one time, SF anthologies were very popular, but their popularity has waned along with the SF magazine reader. Original anthologies are still somewhat popular, and annual best-of-the-year anthologies remain somewhat popular. I think this is true because they publish current work. But theme and retrospective anthologies aren’t very common anymore. I wonder if that’s because readers have been burned by too many anthologies that had too many duds? I’ve had friends that told me they tried the SF magazines but didn’t renew because they seldom found enough good stories in each issue. That might be true of theme/retrospective anthologies.
Thus a great retrospective SF anthology is one with a high percentage of impressive stories. But what is that percentage? For me, 25% has to be 5-star stories, and another 25% of 4-star stories. The rest can be 3-stars. But reading too many stories that felt like a waste of time can ruin the whole vibe of an anthology. Of course, this is just me, but from the comments we see, I don’t think I’m alone. By the way, I rate stories I believe worthy of several readings over lifetime as 5-star stories. And any story I read and immediately feel I’m looking forward to rereading it is a 4-star story. 3-star stories are good solid stories I feel no need to reread.
I require less for an annual anthology or original anthology to like them. I’d say only one to four 5-star SF stories come out each year. Thus I only expect to see one or maybe two in any annual anthology. The odds are against even one to appear in an original anthology.
By my reckoning, I felt there are three 5-star stories in the first 20 stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction: “A Martian Odyssey,” “Desertion,” and “Surface Tension.” That’s low for a retrospective anthology claiming to be the ultimate collection. We’ll be voting on the first 20 stories soon, so I’ll see how the others feel. I’ve already seen reviews by some of the younger readers who only gave “A Martian Odyssey” and “Desertion” three stars. That’s another piece of evidence that members prefer newer stories.
I really enjoy older SF, and I was hoping the VanderMeers would have found more older gems I hadn’t read. My guess, as time goes buy, it’s going to get harder and harder to assemble retrospective SF anthologies that cover the entire 20th century because there are fewer old farts like myself that enjoy SF from the entire century.
James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21