Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #41 of 107: “A Modest Genius” by Vadim Shefner

“A Modest Genius” by Vadim Shefner is another story in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I wouldn’t consider science fiction. Yes, it has an inventor of science-fictional gadgets, but those inventions are used as a fantasy writer would use them, not science fiction. “A Modest Genius” is told in a fable or parable-like style about a man and three women he’s interested in. I don’t know what to call this style, but it involves more telling than showing. We’ve seen this mode of storytelling mostly in the translated stories in this anthology. I wonder if it’s just a popular narrative approach in other countries?

Maybe this style of writing should be called the oral storytelling mode because it sounds like what you’d hear if the narrator was telling us the story out loud. Oral storytellers usually don’t have a lot of dialogs — probably because it would make them sound like they had multiple personalities. This technique is more common in fantasy stories because it conveys an old-timey feel. Unfortunately, I don’t like its use in science fiction, probably because it reminds me of 19th-century fiction, and I like to think of SF as future-oriented.

“A Modest Genius” is still a pleasant little tale but one I would never choose to anthologize. The story’s core insights are about picking the right kind of spouse for your personality. That’s hardly science-fictional. The crazy inventions just gives Sergei the patina of being an oddball, or add a bit of humor.

This disappoints me because I was looking forward to reading Soviet science fiction. I was hoping the translated stories would give us insights into the traditional themes of science fiction with unique perspectives from other cultures. All too often they’ve been about mundane topics with some science-fictional elements.

Science fiction is notoriously hard to define. Everyone has their own definition. But for me, it’s essential that the story is science-fiction at heart. “A Modest Genius” is about a lonely man trying to find the right woman. If the story had centered on his future vision gadget to solve his romance conundrum I would have considered it science fiction, but that idea was only tossed out and ignored.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/8/21

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