Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #40 of 107: “2 B R 0 2 B” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I believe we should talk about context — the context of when and why we read science fiction. I became addicted to science fiction during the 7th (63/64) and 8th (64/65) grades because I went to four different junior high schools during those two years. My parents’ marriage was coming apart, and my father had a heart attack, and we just kept having to move. It was a very stressful time and reading science fiction was how I coped. If my life had been stable I’m not sure I would have read so much. I would have been more involved with the real world. My consumption of sci-fi would have been moderate, maybe even casual.

I’m reading a lot of science fiction now because that’s about all I physically feel like doing. I turn 70 this month. Being retired, and discussing science fiction on the internet is something enjoyable to do, somewhat social, letting me interact with folks with a similar reading interest.

When I read a science fiction story today it has to mean something in my current context of life. I’ve been trying to explain that context as I’ve reviewed the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction.

2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut is a famous short story that’s often taught in schools. It’s fun. It’s slick. It’s entertaining. It has a surprise ending. However, I thought the story thin and expected more from the famous Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, when this story was published it was when he was selling to the science fiction magazines, and before he disavowed being a science fiction writer to become a major literary writer. That’s a kind of context too.

In one of my recent reviews, I talk about how I enjoyed a story because I was in the right mood. I had read the story just after getting up in the morning. That’s when I’m at my best. I read “2 B R 0 2 B” while feeling uncomfortable from an overactive bladder and a cranky prostate, while feeling pains in my ass from a recent flareup of the piles, and a stuffy head from the side effects of the drugs I have to take that makes it hard to think clearly. Maybe I would have liked “2 B R 0 2 B” more if I had felt better when I read it?

However, I felt just as bad when I raced through twenty hours of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, enjoying every minute of it. That book made me forget that I felt crappy. As soon as I finished that novel I started listening to Crossroads, the new novel by Jonathan Frazen, which is twenty-six hours on audio. I’m just as delighted with it, and it helps me to forget my yucky physical situation too. However, I tried reading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, a book considered one of the funniest from the 19th century and the book that inspired Willis to write To Say Nothing of the Dog. Jerome K. Jerome didn’t work. It’s just a series of humorous sketches that aren’t that compelling as a page-turning novel.

Evidently, having an addictive plot is what I need. And Vonnegut’s little story about a man whose wife is having triplets in a world where the population is severely controlled doesn’t last very long or isn’t very diverting. But I’m not sure if the length is a necessity. “The Voices of Time” by J. G. Ballard drew me deeply into it.

There are aspects of “2 B R 0 2 B” that were more important back in the 1960s. Even before The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits of Growth (1972) science fiction magazines ran essays and stories about the dangers of overpopulation. It was a popular topic for Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and Harry Harrison wrote a vivid 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! about the problem. Vonnegut’s facetious treatment of the idea is a quick bit of satire, that really ignores the seriousness of the problem just to get a sick laugh. That’s another context. Now, almost sixty years later, overpopulation is a major factor in climate change, and it’s even more serious of an issue. Shooting people is not a very funny solution because we now live in a world where too many people are whipping out guns and shooting other people. That’s another context.

As a classic story “2 B R 0 2 B” probably desires 4-stars, but as a pleasant trifle, I feel like only giving it 3-stars. And each of those is a different context.

I’ve got 67 more stories to read and review in The Big Book of Science Fiction. The context of reading so much science fiction weighs on each story I read. After forty stories it’s getting harder and harder to impress me.

Supposedly, all the stories in the collection are exceptional. But reading them together shows something different. If I was in the 8th grade and “2 B R 0 2 B” was my only reading assignment, I would probably consider “2 B R 0 2 B” a really good story. It was easy to read and funny. It would also be easy to talk about in class, or a snap to write a paper on. In that context, I would have thought English class that day wasn’t the drag it usually is. Compared to the other 39 stories we’ve read so far, it would rank maybe 28.

But in my present context of annoying bodily sensations and having to read this story because I set my goal to review all the stories in a giant anthology, Vonnegut’s story was barely a blip.

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 11/7/21

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