Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #21 of 107: “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean first appeared in the September 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s not a great story, but it’s not bad either. I believe other people must like it far more than I do because it’s been reprinted quite often.

This story has a problem that’s quite common in science fiction stories. Writers get a neat idea first, and then they invent a story to present their idea. Quite often the story is never as good as the idea. Superior science fiction stories have a great story with neat ideas that only decorate the story.

In this case MacLean wonders, what if we had a mathematically formula that could explain how an organization could grow at an exponential rate. What she imagines is a Ponzi scheme designed by a sociologist, and has two professors test it on a women’s sewing club. You can probably guess the ending. But can you guess how MacLean will dramatize this story with plot and characters?

If you’ve read much science fiction you might know where I’m going. Science fiction is full of stories that begin with two people talking about an idea, then we see the idea implemented in a cursory way, and finally, we have some kind of surprise ending. When done poorly, the story usually begins with two characters infodumping on the reader, and that’s the case here. Often such stories involves a contrived setup. In this case, an administrator is putting the screws to a sociology professor to justify his department’s existence. That’s still a relevant real-world problem in universities today, and not just for sociology departments. It’s actually a genuinely interesting problem that we should care about as readers – how do academic programs pay their way? Does society need their graduates? Is the program worth the cost to the university, state, and students? What does the discipline do for the community? I was hooked by this idea as a story problem, and I was anxious to read on.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t pleased with MacLean’s answer. She came up with a good setup, but she doesn’t have anything to say. I don’t mean a Western Union message. Good short stories elevate us with insights. At this point I’m expecting a dramatic story that shows me the value of sociology – something I can understand. We don’t get that. We neither get a true short story, or an understanding of sociology. What we get is a mildly pleasant joke.

Science fiction has produced countless stories like this. A pleasant setup to present a nifty idea. When I was younger being amused by an idea was enough, but I’m older and I don’t have much time left to live. I only want to read 5-star stories, or at least top-notch 4-star stories. “The Snowball Effect” is only a 3-star story. I believe it was perfectly fine for the September 1952 issue of Galaxy, but I’m surprised it was ever reprinted.

Maybe I can explain my harsh attitude with an analogy. I think of anthologies like a generation spaceship designed to save people from a dying Earth. Best-of-the-year annuals are constructed to rescue the best stories of the year. Retrospective anthologies are designed to save stories from specific periods. I believe the VanderMeers have a somewhat different approach. To them anthologies are like the starship Enterprise exploring the galaxy, looking for neat planets and interesting phenomena happening around the Milky Way. They want to make a wide survey that reveals the diversity of what’s going on. From my perspective only a few stories can be saved, so why not the best? For them, lets check out some interesting possibilities.

There’s a great SF story I can use here, “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh. It first appeared in the February 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The setup has the world coming to an end and there’s only enough rockets to save one in three hundred people. Each rocket is assigned a person to pick those that will be saved. Bill Easson must decide who in his small town will go. He knows there are many personality factors to consider and he will make mistakes by picking people who won’t survive the mission, but he still has to pick.

For me, it’s important to pick science fiction stories that can survive the harsh climate of future readers. Like Bill picking people he feels has what it takes to survive on the new planet, anthologists pick stories that have qualities that make them survivalists. All the stories we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction are still readable, I’m just that asshole we see in war movies that tell a squad member they don’t think they’ll make it.

I doubt many 20th-century science fiction stories will be loved by readers in the 22nd-century. I don’t believe “The Snowball Effect” will make it. It’s only marginal in 2021. What bothers me are the stories I believe have a better chance to survive the long haul that wasn’t pick by this anthology. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe I know any better than the VanderMeers. Nobody can predict the future – but we all keep trying.

It’s just there are stories I want to see saved, and to do that they need to be anthologized several more times before the year 2100. Every ship they miss reduces their chance to make it. To make matters more emotional for me, is the 1950s is my favorite decade for science fiction. The VanderMeers have chosen 20 stories from the 1950s, so they like that period too, unfortunately we only agree on two stories at the most. But I have to say I haven’t read all their selections so that number might go up. Four of those twenty stories were from 1952. Here are the 1950s SF stories from The Big Book of Science Fiction:

  • September 2005: The Martian • (1951) • short story by Ray Bradbury
  • Baby HP • short story by Juan José Arreola (trans. of Baby H. P. 1952)
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • Beyond Lies the Wub • (1952) • short story by Philip K. Dick
  • The Snowball Effect • (1952) • short story by Katherine MacLean
  • Prott • (1953) • short story by Margaret St. Clair
  • The Liberation of Earth • (1953) • short story by William Tenn
  • Let Me Live in a House • (1954) • novelette by Chad Oliver
  • The Star • (1955) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Grandpa • (1955) • novelette by James H. Schmitz
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon • (1955) • short story by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger Station • (1956) • novelette by Damon Knight
  • Sector General • (1957) • novelette by James White
  • The Visitors • novelette as by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
  • Pelt • (1958) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
  • The Monster • (1965) • short story by Gérard Klein? (trans. of Le monstre 1958)
  • The Man Who Lost the Sea • (1959) • short story by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Waves • short story by Silvina Ocampo (trans. of Las ondas 1959)
  • Plenitude • (1959) • short story by Will Mohler

Here are 18 SF stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list from the 1950s. These stories were selected because they were most cited by a meta-list system. The number at the end is the total citations the story received. The bolded stories are those that overlap with The Big Book of Science Fiction. By the way, the BBofSF was one of the citation sources.

  • Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber (1950) 11
  • The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth (1950) 8
  • Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith (1950) 9
  • There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury (1950) 8
  • The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (1951) 9
  • Surface Tension by James Blish (1952) 9
  • The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) 12
  • Second Variety by Philip K. Dick (1953) 8
  • The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin (1954) 12
  • Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester (1954) 13
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1955) 14
  • The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) 16
  • The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) 11
  • The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956) 8

This list is closer to my tastes, but probably far from my final list. Below are the 1950s stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One that the SFWA membership remembered. Notice only one story, “Surface Tension” is remembered on all three lists. It would probably be on mine too.

  • Scanners Live in Vain • (1950) • novelette by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Little Black Bag • (1950) • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth
  • Born of Man and Woman • (1950) • short story by Richard Matheson
  • Coming Attraction • (1950) • short story by Fritz Leiber
  • The Quest for Saint Aquin • (1951) • novelette by Anthony Boucher
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • (1953) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • It’s a Good Life • (1953) • short story by Jerome Bixby
  • The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin
  • Fondly Fahrenheit • (1954) • novelette by Alfred Bester
  • The Country of the Kind • (1956) • short story by Damon Knight
  • Flowers for Algernon • (1959) • novelette by Daniel Keyes

These Hall of Fame stories are much closer in agreement with the CSFquery list.

I’m not ready to compose my list of favorite 1950s science fiction stories. I’m still reading. But there is one problem with my focus on the 1950s. I’m discovering stories that I love that currently aren’t well remembered. That’s a bad sign for the survivability. There’s a good chance I could pick 20 stories that few people would even enjoy reading today, much less in 79 years.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/28/21

4 thoughts on ““The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

  1. I didn’t like this story, and I decided to discontinue reading the anthology sequentially at that point. https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2017/06/04/the-snowball-effect-•-1952-•-sf-short-story-by-katherine-maclean/

    As for idea-driven SF, I often like it. Yes, there needs to be a balance with other story drivers, but I‘m far more willing to accept a prominent idea in the case of a short story – in contrast to novellas or novels. Clarke‘s stories „Nine million names for God“ comes to mind, but also a lot of stories from Ted Chiang and Ken Liu (I’m a fan of these two).

    Like

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