Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #88 of 107: “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis

Normally, everything I’ve read by Connie Willis is enchanting, but it was a bit of a slog for me to read “Schwarzschild Radius.” The story is quite clever. Modeling the physics of a black hole against events by Germans at the Russian front in WWI. Karl Schwarzschild was a German physicist who first mathematically worked out the ideas of black holes from Einstein’s equations. The title of the story, “Schwarzschild Radius” is the actual name given by scientists to the size of an event horizon in a rotating black hole.

Schwarzschild died at the front from an autoimmune skin disease. Willis took this fact and made it into a science fiction story. She has a first-person narrator, a soldier who had served at the front, being interviewed by a biographer of Schwarzschild. The story switches from the present to flashback memories. Willis makes the conflict of the story about the soldiers’ failure to communicate outside of the front as if they were trapped inside an event horizon of a black hole. This is a neat idea intellectually, but I found it contrived and strained in the storytelling. Using a series of frustrating incidents to show the parallels to physics was just too obvious.

The details of these episodes were on the surreal side, which might have been Willis’ intention, but I found that annoying. I prefer stories that feel like realistic paintings, and this story felt like modern art.

“Schwarzschild Radius” was anthologized in The Norton Book of Science Fiction and The Big Book of Science Fiction, as well as being included in Nebula Awards 23 for being a finalist. So this story is admired. But there are stories that are admired for the clever writing that I just don’t enjoy.

First off, “Schwarzschild Radius” is overly complicated with its framing. It is another layer of modeling the event horizon, but was it really needed? Being in the German trenches on the Russian front in WWI is a perfect metaphor for being inside the Schwarzschild radius. And the idea of waiting for a letter from Einstein and understanding Schwarzschild’s disease are great elements to include in the story. But I never felt for any of the characters.

Willis seems to pattern the mood of the story from the mood in Catch-22, but I never cared for her characters like I cared for Heller’s characters. The repeated requests to get a message out reminded me of Yossarian constantly asking about Snowden. And the soldier building the motorcycle reminded me of Orr. Of course, Heller had a whole novel to develop his characters, and Willis just has a short story.

There were some vivid moments, like when the narrator feels revulsion at Schwarzschild’s skin disease, or when the explosion buries him in the trenches. But most of the action went by too quickly. We never got to settle into any scene to get into it. Personally, I believe the story would have been much more effective without the framing. The framing words could have been used to expand the heart of the story.

I wonder why the VanderMeers picked “Schwarzschild Radius” when there are so many other Willis stories to choose from? Maybe her top stories are over anthologized. I never thought a story could be over anthologized until I read a letter by Philip K. Dick asking Lee Harding editing Beyond Tomorrow to substitute “The Commuter” for “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” He did. I wonder how often this happens, and I wonder which story Connie Willis would have liked in this volume? “Schwarzschild Radius” could be her favorite, and I’m a dunderhead not to see it. I know Rich Horton loves this story.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22

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