Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #90 of 107: “Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis
“Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis is a clever second-person tale that draws the reader into the story.
I suppose I should say more.
“Vucuum States” is full of concepts about physics and cosmology. The only trouble is I can’t tell the real physics from the mumbo-jumbo that Landis made up.
Like many of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, I didn’t consider it a real short story, although it was. There are no constraints on what writers can call fiction. The VanderMeers like stories that feel intellectual, and this one feels like a fun lecture in physics. But as I read “Vacuum States” I was mildly annoyed that I was reading something so contrived, however, the ending put a smile on my face and redeemed my reading effort.
But why didn’t they use “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” which is also from 1988, and Asimov’s? It came in 2nd place instead of 10th in the readers’ awards that year. And it won the Nebula Award and came in 3rd in the Hugos. Maybe because the VanderMeers had already included Dirac in their giant anthology, The Time Traveler’s Almanac. I need to consider that all my whining about story choice in this volume is because the VanderMeers used the stories I would have chosen in other anthologies.
Then what about “A Walk in the Sun” from three years later? It won the Hugo and the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. It was a real story, even more so than Dirac. Of course, I have that story in three other anthologies, but could they have known that?
I doubt either of the VanderMeers are reading these reviews but if they did, they’re probably annoyed at my constant questioning of their story selection choices. But I keep wanting to know about the process and the issues to consider. Do the authors ever get a say? I see The Big Book of Science Fiction as the main anthology that young readers will know 20th science fiction short stories. Part of my grumpiness is they seldom picked the stories I remember as the best SF from the 20th century. I worry my favorites will be forgotten. But I also think about the authors. Is “Vacuum States” how we should judge Landis if we only have one story? It’s not a bad story, but there’s just not much to it.
James Wallace Harris, 2/14/22
5 thoughts on ““Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis”
I enjoy your reviews, Jim, but I find this a strange question: “Do the authors ever get a say?” Shouldn’t editorial judgement be separate from the authors’ own preferences regarding what their best stories might be?
I didn’t think of this question until recently when I read that Philip K. Dick asked an anthologist to pick a different story. I know authors refuse to let stories be anthologized, and I’ve read that some stories have limits on how often. That got me thinking.
Retrospective anthologies are the way short stories are remembered. They are also how readers discover new writers to read. To be honest, if I had only read “Vacuum States” I would never consider buying a Landis book. It’s a nice story, but it wouldn’t make me pick up a Geoffrey Landis book at the bookstore. This made me think that maybe writers would want to control which stories are anthologized because they could help their careers.
I believe it’s different for annual best-of-the-year anthologies. Any inclusion is flattery and helpful.
I see your point, although I haven’t read this particular story so I can’t comment on it directly. I can understand a writer refusing permission for an anthologist to reprint a story on the grounds that the story doesn’t show them at their best (I read that Thomas Disch once did this), but otherwise I don’t think writers can expect to control which of their stories are selected.
I just read it and generally liked it. It’s a different kind of story that strikes a different kind of mood from the usual run of SF. There’s no final part, it ends on a note. To me that’s done on purpose.
As far as the physics goes, in my (admittedly amateur) evaluation it’s all real, up until the part about the part about the machine which is going to extract the energy. No one has any idea how to extract energy from the false vacuum, if the universe is indeed in this state.
I strongly suspect the choice of this story, instead of the other two more famous ones, were the royalty fees and nothing else. This “Big” book was meant to make big money, not much else.
As an aside, we did Landis’ “Ripples In The Dirac Sea” , in the Classic Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Stories group, recently.
The story can be read here: