Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #68 of 107: “Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji

“Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji is a slight story about newlyweds and a unique wedding gift. The special gift is a universe in a box, a cube of forty centimeters on each end, showing astronomical vistas. Reiko, the neglected wife becomes obsessed with the universe in a box, inspiring her to study astronomy, giving her something to fill in her lonely hours while her new husband works long hours as a company man in Japan.

I love science fiction stories about futuristic educational toys. That made this story somewhat charming, but the cliched marital issues were unimaginative. I know that VanderMeers wanted to expand the scope of the traditional science fiction anthology by including science fiction stories from around the world. That’s an admirable ambition. Unfortunately, the translated stories on average haven’t been that good. This subverts their purpose because it makes me think other countries never developed sophisticated science fiction.

Offhand, I quickly recall two science fiction stories dealing with educational toys, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, and “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. In both cases, the toys were integrated into rich multilayered tales with complex characters. Sure, these stories had the advantage of length, but my point still counts.

Shinji should have made Reiko something more than a stereotypical lonely housewife, and come up with a resolution that wasn’t so nihilistic. Science fiction readers want a sense of wonder that invokes awe. “Reiko’s Universe Box” is too mundane, even with a wondrous gadget. Reiko and her husband Ikutarō come across as dreary losers.

The characters in “The Star Pit” are losers too, but dramatically fascinating losers. And more importantly, Vyme ultimately transcends his many failures, with the ecologarium being essential to his story. Shinji might have intended Reiko to have a positive experience with the last line telling us, “With a joyful shriek, she dived after her husband,” but what’s the point of chasing her abusive cheating husband into a black hole?

Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is making me think hard about the value of old science fiction stories. The anthology remembers stories from across the 20th century, but most of the time it remembers stories I don’t consider memorable. Now, I fully admit, these stories are memorable to the VanderMeers, and readers who share their tastes, but I don’t think they are memorable to the average science fiction reader of my generation.

What’s an average science fiction reader anyhow? Here again, I have to admit that’s changing. In our Facebook group that focuses on science fiction short stories, it appears to be mostly older guys. In the much larger Facebook group devoted to science fiction novels, the group is split between older readers and younger ones, males and females. I’m guessing fans of science fiction changed in the 1990s as the readership became more diverse. Reading the comments in the novel group often reveals a shift in tastes.

For us old guys, the ones who grew up reading Astounding, Analog, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, Amazing, Fantastic, New Worlds, Science Fantasy, and even the newer magazines like Asimov’s and Omni, we have a sense of what science fiction used to be. Many of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction aren’t that kind of science fiction story.

When I bought The Big Book of Science Fiction I hoped it would be a giant book of my kind of science fiction, including more stories from around the world, and with more stories by women writers — but still my kind of science fiction. I thought the young editors would preserve a past I loved.

Instead, they found a different view of the past that fits their modern taste in science fiction. And that’s cool. Times change, and all that. Before reading this anthology I assumed the science fiction I loved would be preserved in the future because I believed it had inherent qualities that made it enduring. I’m now wondering if those admired qualities might depend on readers of certain generations and won’t be visible to later generations.

When generations die off, most of the pop culture they loved will die with them. That’s just another thing I’m learning from getting old. The science fiction of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells survived the 19th century, but how many works of science fiction from that century didn’t?

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22

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