“Snow” by John Crowley

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #76 of 107: “Snow” by John Crowley

We can learn quite a bit about writing from reading “Snow” by John Crowley. It’s a lovely story that most readers admire. Understanding why reveals those writing lessons. You can read/listen to the story here.

The setup is simple. Beautiful blonde Georgie marries a rich man who buys her everything, including a “wasp” that follows her filming 8,000 hours of her life. The film is destined for a funeral memorial, so it’s a rather odd gift. The rich man dies, Georgie becomes rich, marries Charlie for his looks, and eventually dies herself. Charlie loves Georgie, misses her, and after two years of grieving goes to the cemetery to see the films the wasp took. However, things don’t work out like he thought they would.

First, “Snow” zeroes in on everyone’s deep-rooted feelings for departed loved ones. This has nothing to do with science fiction. William Faulkner said in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “…problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing…” is exactly why “Snow” works.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing, he advises “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” What really makes “Snow” work as a story is all the ways the “wasp” fails to work with Charlie’s expectations. Or even to what we readers want and expect. But more than that, chasing memories causes Charlie to learn through the slow suffering of aging, desire, and looking backward.

I expected Charlie would go to the cemetery and request to see certain days that he fondly remembered being with Georgie. That’s what he expected too. But the wasp system didn’t work that way. There are two buttons: Access and Reset. The first shows one scene, randomly. Reset shows another random scene. Charlie goes to the caretaker disappointed. He learns the recording technology used by the wasp is at the molecular level so they can squeeze in 8,000 hours of film, but there is no ordering and no time/date stamps. Just momentary glimpses from the past.

Charlie keeps coming back, addicted to those random scenes, learning about himself and Georgie. Eventually, Charlie notices that the memory clips are fading over time, turning snowy. He complains to the director, who tells him an interesting story about being a film archivist in his old job for the movie studios. He tells Charlie that in the oldest film clips, people’s faces looked pinched, cars and streets looked black, and things felt wintery.

Charlie never goes back to the cemetery. The last paragraphs are about what Charlie has learned about human memory. He believes there are two kinds, one that worsens over time, and another that can grow more intense.

Charlie is a character we can root for, we can feel and empathize. That’s another of Vonnegut’s rules. His number one rule is, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” My time was not wasted. This is the second time I’ve read this story, and both times I felt a powerful sense of resonance with the John Crowley gives us. It made me think about my own life and wants. The time it took to read it produce worthwhile insights for me. “Snow” made me contemplate the nature of memory, recognizing how much our memories are like the memories collected by the wasp. Yet, what I wouldn’t give for a film library of my life.

Vonnegut also says, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Charlie wants Georgie, either in real life or in memories. This is something everyone feels, so does that make this story more powerful? More powerful than say a story about someone wanting to save Earth from alien invaders? I think it does. I think the most powerful science fiction stories are the ones that make us think about people. Remember Charlie Gordon? Or Kip Russell?

Another piece of advice from Vonnegut is, “Start as close to the end as possible.” Crowley doesn’t spend any time when Georgie was alive. He gets right to the heart of the story and only spends a bit over six thousand words in storytelling. I think that’s another plus for this story. Short, sweet, and POW! That’s why Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days” was so effective.

Finally, and this is the hardest to judge, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action,” but I believe Crowley adhered to this advice very well indeed. In the end, Charlie says, “I wanted to go, get out, not look back. I would not stay watching until there was only snow.” One for action, one to tell us all about Charlie.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/23/22

“Pots” by C. J. Cherryh

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #75 of 107: “Pots” by C. J. Cherryh

One of my favorite science-fictional settings is when explorers find a planet with an ancient long-dead civilization. This is the setting for “Pots” by C. J. Cherryh. “Pots” also deals with another favorite science-fictional theme, the generation ship.

Cherryh’s story is long and moody, but it could have been just a flash fiction gimmick because the central idea is very simple. Usually, I have spoilers in these discussions because these pieces are my response to our group reading. However, with this story, I won’t give it away.

There are lots to like about this story. The characters are very ancient. Between cloning and the time dilation of relativity, Dr. Gothon’s life spanned over a quarter of a million years. This is one generation ship story where the characters remember their mission, and some of them even remember the start of the mission.

On the other hand, the O’Henry ending of this story is both neat and a groaner. I saw it coming. I’m never happy when a writer intentionally withholds information from me. And I don’t know if the story would have been significantly different if we knew everything right from the start.

Nor am I happy with the explanation for the conflict. I saw no reason to suppress the truth. I think “Pots” would have been a much more effective and moving story if everyone learned the truth on page one, and then have the story unfold about how it changed the different characters. That would have eliminated an exciting action scene, but so what.

I’m disappointed when science fiction uses B-movie logic to contrive a plot. “Pots” has a lot going for it, the writing, the richness of the worldbuilding, it didn’t need a violent confrontation between two groups to move the story along.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/18/22

“New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #74 of 107: “New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson

“New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson first appeared in the July 1984 issue of Omni Magazine but was overshadowed by Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and the PKD awards for that year. Still, the “New Rose Hotel,” is a dazzling piece of writing.

Gibson’s story brings up the importance of writing style in the success of a story. “New Rose Hotel” is all style. Science fiction meets Raymond Chandler high on William Burroughs pretending to be Hunter S. Thompson. The story is not about the plot, but how the story is told.

The plot is your typical noir gangster drama of two tough guys double-crossed by an alluring woman. But instead of stealing money, they steal a brilliant bioengineer in the near future where cutting-edge science is the hottest of commodities. The story is set in Japan, which at the time was a rising economic powerhouse, but also because Gibson loved various Japanese subcultures.

The trouble with style is it can be like cotton candy, tasty but empty. I enjoyed reading “New Rose Hotel” but when I was finished the exquisitely crafted atmosphere left me immediately. I never cared about the narrator, Fox, or Sandii. And, I’m not fond of thrillers. I do like the 1940s and 1950s film noir movies, and I’m a fan of Raymond Chandler’s novels, but that’s because I love the historical details from those times. Gibson’s cyberpunk Japan used to be interesting to me, but over the decades that interest has faded.

This makes me wonder about science fiction settings. Why do some of them endure, and others fade? People love galactic empires. That setting is so well-loved that recent TV series and movies for Foundation, Dune, Star Wars, all have a similar feel. The same is true for interplanetary space operas like The Expanse. For a while, cyberpunk stories had a standard feel and settings, but the popularity of that cyberpunk atmosphere has dissipated. (Or is that just me? Does cyberpunk still have a fanbase?)

I have to admit that I’m partial to certain styles/settings that developed in 1950s science fiction, and they still work for me. Back in the 1980s cyberpunk stood out. It was extremely popular and many writers jumped on its bandwagon. And I assume there are readers who grew up with cyberpunk that still love it, but it’s lost its luster for me. On the other hand, a lot of the technical speculation that came out in the cyberpunk novels are now considered standard background ideas in modern science fiction. We’ve kept the cyber, but not the punk.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/17/22

“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” by S. N. Dyer

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #73 of 107: “Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” by S. N. Dyer

“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” by S. N. Dyer first appeared in Terry Carr’s Universe 14. Dyer’s real name is Sharon N. Farber and she has written a number of science fiction stories, but little else is known about her.

“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” is a story about using an O’Neill space colony for patients with immune-compromised diseases and conditions. To complicate the plot, Dyer has her society resent people who voluntarily undergo the rigorous preparation to live in the colony just to be with an ailing loved one. They call these faithful partners Fidos. They hate them because they could return to Earth when all the truly afflicted know they can’t ever leave the colony. Madeline is a Fido, hiding her marriage to Henri, by pretending to have Lupus with complications just so she can stay with her husband.

I’d rate this story 3-stars and give it a plus (***+) because it’s a solid piece of science fiction I enjoyed. I liked how Dyer worked up a story setting and then developed a plot to fit it. However, even though it’s a good story, it doesn’t transcend. It was a good idea story, but I never felt emotion for Madeline or Henri.

For me, there’s a definite barrier between 3-star and 4-star stories. Of course, it’s subjective, and it’s relative. Each reader resonates with stories differently, but I think we all have buttons when pushed, will kick the story up to the next level. For me, it’s the immediate awareness that I’ll want to reread the story someday. Yet, that’s a rather vague way of explaining what I mean. What makes me want to reread a story?

A totally useless way to say it is to say stories that spark magic. Boy does that sound dumbass. It sounds like I’m Marie Kondo holding up a possession, to decide to keep or throw out. Yet, it’s about as definitive as I can get. Some stories just spark joy.

This story didn’t. It’s sparked, “That’s pretty cool.” And that’s often good enough. Most stories will never be ones we put in our “To Keep” piles. The mathematics behind that is realistic. I’ve read thousands of short stories, but it’s only practical to keep so many in my memory and heart. I often wonder about that number. Right now, it’s between 100 and 200, but I feel as I get older, it will fall below 100, and then 50, then 25, and finally, and if I’m lucky, I might remember a handful of favorites during my last days.

James Wallace Harris, 1/15/22

“Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #72 of 107: “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler

I’ve been waiting months for us to get to “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler. It’s the #1 story on our Classics of Short Science Fiction list. It has 18 citations that remember it over the last 35+ years. I’ve read “Bloodchild” three times now, and it is a great story. But I keep asking, “Why is it great?” What ingredients did Butler use to cook up such a tale?

The first time I read “Bloodchild” I assumed it was about slavery. I partly assumed that because Butler is African-American, but Butler herself assures us it’s not in her afterward to the story in her collection Bloodchild and Other Stories.

IT AMAZES ME THAT some people have seen “Bloodchild” as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things, though. On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. 

On a third level, “Bloodchild” is my pregnant man story. I’ve always wanted to explore what it might be like for a man to be put into that most unlikely of all positions. Could I write a story in which a man chose to become pregnant not through some sort of misplaced competitiveness to prove that a man could do anything a woman could do, not because he was forced to, not even out of curiosity? I wanted to see whether I could write a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties. 

Also, “Bloodchild” was my effort to ease an old fear of mine. I was going to travel to the Peruvian Amazon to do research for my Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), and I worried about my possible reactions to some of the insect life of the area. In particular, I worried about the botfly—an insect with, what seemed to me then, horror-movie habits. There was no shortage of botflies in the part of Peru that I intended to visit.

Butler, Octavia E.. Bloodchild: And Other Stories (p. 30). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

This morning, as I reread the story, I tried to observe myself reading it. First of all, it succeeds because it’s compelling. “Bloodchild” draws us in immediately. It has page-turning power. Partly, that’s the vivid writing, but partly it’s the horrifying details. We’re watching a trainwreck we can’t turn away from. I’ve commented quite often how the VanderMeers keep picking science fiction horror stories, and this is another one. How many readers find the horrific a stimulus to keep reading?

I don’t like horror as a genre, but I have to admit that many of the stories I love involve elements of the gross, the ugly, the terrifying, the depressing, etc. Reading “Bloodchild” again makes me ask myself: “What makes me love science fiction?” Always before, the quick answer was science fiction was about things I wanted from the future. There is no path in “Bloodchild” I’d want to follow. Then, why do I admire it so much?

The setting of the story is another world, and I love stories about humans colonizing alien planets. I also love stories about aliens. However, these aliens are pretty damn strange. They are three meters long and insect-like. They lay their eggs in host animals, but at the time the humans arrive at their planet, their eggs, are beginning to fail in the local host animals. Humans then develop a symbiotic relationship with the Tlic, becoming the new hosts. The Tlic prefer human males, thus allowing human females to focus on producing more humans.

Gan, a teen boy, is our point-of-view character, and as the story progresses, we learn about his future as a host, and what it means to become a host. This is why when I first read the story I thought it was symbolic of slavery, but it’s not. It’s about a new kind of relationship, a new kind of love, a new kind of obligation.

Men have always wondered how women could choose to become mothers knowing all the pain they will suffer. Like Butler says, this is her pregnant man story. She is giving us a story that answers the question, “Why would you give birth knowing the pain involve?” The story is even more complicated than that. On a science-fictional level, it asks, “What would you do to survive on another planet?” and “How far would you go to develop a relationship with another intelligent alien species?”

As a kid growing up I read science fiction because I wanted to become a Mars colonist. In 1964 I didn’t expect that to be much of a sacrifice. But in 2022, I know living on Mars would involve a tremendous price in suffering. Maybe “Bloodchild” is a symbolic lesson in the cost of our SF dreams? Or maybe, it’s merely Butler imagining a very exotic situation.

One of the most important aspects of a great work of science fiction is imagining something very strange and different. That involves creating a lot of details to paint such a picture. “Bloodchild” is dense with such details.

This leaves me wondering. Are my favorite stories about characters living lives I envy, or just living fascinating lives? As a teen in the 1960s, I loved Heinlein’s juveniles because I wanted to trade my mundane existence with his characters leading exciting science-fictional lives. Can I say I’d never want to exchange places with Gan? The only story I can remember from those we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I think I’d like to jump into is “The Martian Odyssey.”

The novel I’m listening to when I’m not reading these stories is Bewilderment by Richard Powers. It’s about a father struggling with an emotionally disturbed nine-year-old son. The boy keeps having meltdowns because he worries about all the doom and gloom in our future. One technique the father uses to calm his son is to tell stories from his collection of 2,000 paperback science fiction books.

You know what’s scarier than “Bloodchild?” Our future. At what point in our timeline will kids consider “Bloodchild” a positive escape? Is that why we read science fiction now? Is any world better than this one? Even Gan’s world?

Update: 1/10/22

My comment to the group:

Whenever I read this story I'm horrified by what Gan and the other males have to go through. It's pretty awful. But then I've been thinking, is it any worse than what women have to go through when having a baby? I've been thinking about that ever since I read that Butler called this her pregnant man story. When I first read "Bloodchild" years ago I tried to interpret it in terms of slavery. But Butler said it's not about that. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if Butler isn't just giving us a metaphor for women and birth. Then do the Tlic represent men?

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/22

“Blood Music” by Greg Bear

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #71 of 107: “Blood Music” by Greg Bear

I can’t criticize the choice of “Blood Music” by Greg Bear for this anthology. It’s tied for 3rd place on our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. In fact, The Big Book of Science Fiction contains all five of the top stories listed below. (It uses 20 of the 101 stories on our list, and 5 of the 27 stories from the 1980s.)

“Blood Music” had a total of 15 citations, which is quite significant.

Rereading “Blood Music” reminded me of how exciting science fiction used to be when it came to imagining far-out concepts. I’m currently listening to Bewilderment by Richard Powers, and at one point the narrator, the father, says he has 2,000 paperback science fiction novels laying around the house that he steals ideas from when he wants to tell his autistic son a story. That’s how I remember science fiction too, mentally indexed by ideas.

“Blood Music” is one of the best examples of the gray goo threat in fiction. Greg Bear’s particular take on Gray Goo is brilliant. Again, it’s horror science fiction, but one I enjoyed. I beginning to think the VanderMeers are actually horror fans. The next story, “Bloodchild” is another horror science fiction story. I should have kept a tally.

This novelette version of “Blood Music” first appeared in the June 1983 issue of Analog. I believe I first read it in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection in 1984, but I also read the 1985 novel version in 1987. That’s what I vaguely remembered while reading this short version again. I need to go back and reread the novel because my vague memories recall lots of padding that made the story even better.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/8/22

“Mondocane” by Jacques Barbéri

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #70 of 107: “Mondocane” by Jacques Barbéri

“Mondocane” by Jacques Barbéri is another one of those entries that felt like a fictional essay rather than a story. All I can say is this story reminded me of a wordy version of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” I just don’t consider this kind of work science fiction. Sure parts of it can sound science-fictional, but my quibble is it sounds like an art form from an alternate reality where science fiction’s intent was strangely different.

The hives of homunculi were born out of necessity. The occupants of the nuclear bunkers were found, for the most part, buried under hundreds of meters of sand. Initially, the women, crushed by a powerful lethargy, saw their volume increase considerably; their limbs atrophied, and only their head remained, at the tip of a gigantic flaccid body. Inversely, the men decreased in volume and started to live in the folds of flesh of the female bodies. 

But it was a matter of becoming animal only in appearance, cerebral functions diminishing not at all. Except the social instinct, of collective life, was intensified. The first eggs were tended in doubt and fear. Then the first larvae made their appearance. And, supplied with burrowing snouts, they set about fighting their way towards the surface. The desert is now a gigantic network of tunnels and reproduction chambers. The hives presently stage the form of life that is the most evolved, most adapted, of the planet. All things considered, the homunculi would prefer to remain underground, and come out only very rarely, mainly to hunt.
 

I felt this story descends from Poe rather than Verne or Wells.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/7/22

“Swarm” by Bruce Sterling

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #69 of 107: “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling

Well, I can’t complain about not getting good old fashion science fiction with “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling? It has a proper pedigree, being first published in the April 1982 issue of F&SF, my favorite SF magazine, and then reprinted by my two favorite best-of-the-year anthologists at the time (Carr and Wollheim). And it’s part of a well-imagined science fiction series, the Shaper/Mechanist universe.

What makes “Swarm” good old fashion science fiction? First, it thinks big. Really big. It imagines humanity dividing into two species, the Shapers, who use genetics to become posthuman, and the Mechanists, who use cybernetics as their path to evolving. Making “Swarm” even more exciting is meeting aliens who have chosen a third way, of symbiosis with multiple organisms.

“Swarm” takes place in an alien hive world fashioned out of an asteroid. Two humans, Simon Afriel and Galina Mirny survive there naked, coexisting in the hive ecology of many symbiotic species. Their clothes were consumed right off their bodies by various unintelligent alien critters who serve the hive organism. They eat what the symbiotes regurgitate.

Visually, this reminds me of The Forgotten Planet, by Murray Leinster, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, and “Surface Tension” by James Blish. It also makes me think of the film Fantastic Voyage but imagining Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd without suits floating in the inner space of the human body. Simon and Galina float in weightlessness instead of fluids.

“Swarm” would make a fascinating film because of its tremendously alien setting, however, it needs a plot and an ending that doesn’t spring out of a hidey-hole at the last minute. How the story wraps up is rather impressive, but there was no buildup to it at all. We’re told Galina and Simon each have their assignments from the Shapers, but those tasks don’t drive the story. “Swarm” is full of dazzling ideas, but they all feel tacked on like Christmas tree decorations.

“Swarm” got 11 citations, making it on our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. That’s impressive, revealing a lot of people loved this story when it came out, and it’s well remembered by two fan polls.

I’m afraid it’s only an average good story for me because I never felt anything for Simon or Galina. “Swarm” tied for 7th place with nine stories. “Fire Watch” beat “Swarm” for both the Hugo and Nebula awards that year. I liked all of the other stories below much more but felt if “Swarm” had been more emotional I would have liked it much more than the others. If we had felt a sense of posthuman difference in Simon and Galina, if the ending had been built up to so we felt the tragedies of both characters, then this story would have been at the top of the group with me. It thought big but moved little.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22

“Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji

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

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” by Josephine Saxton

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #67 of 107: “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” by Josephine Saxton

The VanderMeers present yet another horror science fiction story, although the horror in “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” is very different from the recent stories we’ve been reading. The story I read did not feel like the story they promised in the introduction:

Roz Kaveney, editor of Saxton’s The Power of Time, described Saxton’s work as “a combination of surrealism, occultism, feminism and a sort of bloody-minded Midlands Englishness, and quite wonderful.” John Crowley was inspired by Saxton’s work to write a love story (“Exogamy”) with speculative elements—influenced in particular by The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith. 

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” (1981) is classic Saxton: a take-no-prisoners examination of biotech experimentation and the follies of capitalist societies in the grips of decadent extremes. It is sharp, incisive, darkly inventive, and an excellent example of the capabilities of this brilliant but underrated writer.

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” didn’t deal with feminism. The woman protagonist, Marvene, is evil and deranged, but then so are the other two main characters. Nor did I feel it was an attack on capitalistic societies in the grips of decadence. It might have been a bit surreal, but not really, and there was no occultism that I noticed, but that comment could have applied to other stories in the collection.

The story was dark. The setting is a future dystopia ruled by elites, that use scientists to control the unwanted population. The story is about three scientists, Selly, the lead researcher, and two assistants, Marvene and Janos. Those two schemes to dethrone Selly in his lab. This group invents ways to control the mass of humanity that is no longer needed by the elites. These three scientists hope their inventions will make them famous and wealthy. However, if you can imagine the inventions Donald Trump would come up with in this situation, then you’ve got the feel of this story. Their most brilliant gadget makes people act like animals, which they turn on each other. Selly becomes a cat, Janos a mouse, and Marvene, our main point-of-view character, a snake.

At first, I rooted for Marvene. I like a character I can root for, but before long she became so disgusting that I rooted for her demise instead. Not to spoil the ending, but I get my wish. Saxton does a good job developing these bad characters and does a satisfying job of storytelling, but “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” just left a nasty feeling in my head. I’m getting over Covid, and I associate how I feel physically with how the story made me feel emotionally. Why would someone write such a story?

I have to assume Saxton disliked 1981 England and America, although neither are mentioned. She also disliked science and scientists. And she disliked academic politics and competition. Young readers today love dystopian tales because their protagonists take a stand against the status quo. We love those characters because of their blows against the empire. In this story, Marvene basically wants to be the Joseph Mengele of her society, and become rich and famous for her cruel inventions.

By the way, I never got the Chomsky reference. I assume it’s just a 1981 version of clickbait.

James Wallace Harris, 1/1/22