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.
I’ve read over a thousand science fiction short stories in the last three years and I’ve decided I have an anthology problem. This is different from the anthology problem Szymon Szott solved for me in “The SF Anthology Problem – Solved.” No, my current problem is finding anthologies with a higher percentage of great stories to read.
I and other members of our science fiction short story reading group never can find anthologies where we love all the stories. Of course, that’s asking too much from editors but we still crave 24k carat gold anthologies. Even the Gold Standard of science fiction anthologies, volume one of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame had stories I didn’t enjoy (“The Weapon Shop”) and it was created by polling science fiction writers for their all-time favorite stories.
One of our members, Austin Beeman, has a useful website that reviews science fiction anthologies. He has a nifty infographic that measures the percentage of great/good/average/poor/DNF stories. Here’s his chart for The Hugo Winners: Volume One. Austin considers it has a 94% positive rating, but then that’s for a book of all award-winning stories. Austin tends to be generous by including stories he rates Good in that figure. I wouldn’t.
Most science fiction anthologies never get anywhere near that percentage of good and great stories. Why?
I just finished reading The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. Even though I enjoyed most of the stories to varying degrees, I thought only 5 of the 13 were worth my time.
And isn’t time the essential yardstick here? I only have so much time for reading. I only have so many years left in life. And the number of books I want to read will take more time than I have left. From a different time perspective, many of these stories are supposed to be the best of one year, and often the anthologies I read are assumed to be the best of all time.
There is the problem that some stories are extremely time-worthy to some members of our group, while other members complain those same stories were a waste of their time. I’m realistic enough to know that no editor can ever satisfy every reader one hundred percent, but I believe there are stories that a good majority of readers will admire. Is it possible for editors to pick more of them?
I’ve known many people who say they don’t read science fiction magazines because they don’t find enough good stories in each issue. And I think that’s true. Magazines have the lowest hit rate. And now that most of the print magazines are bi-monthly, they are fat with stories, but instead of feeling I’m getting my money’s worth, it just makes me hesitant to start reading because I dread all the disappointing stories.
Many old-timers complain that the print magazines aren’t fairly represented at award time or in the best-of-the-year anthologies, but is that actually true? I tend to only read online stories when someone recommends a story, and that makes me avoid the filler stories. But also, if I was a writer, I think I’d prefer to have my stories online so they were easy to be read. I generally only read stories published online when they are anthologized by best-of-the-year volumes, so that makes me think online publishers have a higher hit rate. I don’t know if that’s true.
Original anthologies often do much better than magazines, probably because they pay more. You can tell their hit rate by how many of their stories get anthologized in the best-of-the-year volumes.
For the annual best-of-the-year volumes, our group has found that the success rate depends on the editor. But I also think size matters. Gardner Dozois’ giant yearly anthologies with over thirty stories often had more hits in them than his competitors with fewer pages. But his percentage of hits was probably lower.
To be honest, some of Dozois’ competitors mixed fantasy with science fiction, and for me, that automatically lowers the hit rate. Could the success rate of an anthology depend on the type of story?
Our group is currently reading the gigantic anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction and it has many stories generally loved, as well as many stories generally disliked. We were considering four other giant 21st century SF anthologies that look back on the 20th century but I doubt we’ll vote to read them as a group. Some of our members have promised to read and review them on their own and let us all know.
Again, I think size is a factor. If these giant retrospective volumes had been smaller, they might have forced their editors to be pickier about what they anthologized. I have many giant science fiction anthologies on my shelves, and I’m becoming leery of reading them. I think somewhat smaller retrospective anthologies like The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen, and Masterpieces edited by Orson Scott Card are much more solid with hits. I’m more likely to buy that size anthology in the future.
Theme anthologies are a bit different. I’m more forgiving. I still expect good stories, but I don’t expect great stories simply because I’m reading to be entertained by how an idea is used.
Giant anthologies are great for writers because more stories are preserved and given a chance to find readers. Yet, is such noble efforts fair to readers? Few readers want to be slush pile readers.
That suggests another possibility. I do think too many stories are being published each year, but what if it’s a theme distribution issue? Allan Kaster has switched from general best-of-the-year SF anthologies to best-of-the-year theme volumes. The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories and The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories might be the solution. This opens up a whole new avenue for editors, and maybe readers.
I guess what I want is retrospective science fiction anthologies aimed at science fiction fans who came of age in the 1960s who don’t like fantasy and who are somewhat nostalgic for 1950s science fiction. However, I am willing to try new things. Rich Horton gave our group a list of stories he liked best among the two decades of stories he reviewed for Locus Magazine. I’d buy them as an anthology, even though many of them were fantasy stories. I don’t entirely live in the past, or focus exclusively on SF. And I hope our group finds more anthologies that cover contemporary SF/F to read. I just wished they weren’t too big and had mostly great stories.
The reality is no anthology is going to be perfect, except for the editor who assembled it. Subjective tastes vary. But as readers, I think we all love it when we can find an anthology that has a high percentage of stories that wow us. And I assume editors love it when they create an anthology that gets praise for having a lot of great stories. Perfect anthologies are impossible, but I think we all hope to find them.
Isaac Asimov died on April 6, 1992. The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) was published in July 1992 and was the last volume in the series. On the last page Greenberg let us know:
I had assumed all along that Martin H. Greenberg (who died June 25, 2011) had been doing most of the editorial work for The Great SF Stories series, but felt that hunch confirmed when Isaac Asimov’s introductory comments went missing from volumes 24 and 25. I’ve now read volumes 1-18 and 25. I love this series. I read volume 25 out of order because my short story discussion group voted to group read it after Christmas.
This series has always been unique because Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating the best stories of the year with many decades of hindsight. Here are the stories they picked as the best of 1963 from 1992:
Back in 1964, Judith Merril picked these stories as her favorites for 1963:
For some reason, Merril included “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” in her 10th Annual in 1965.
After all these years, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is the obvious best SF story for 1963, and the one most remembered. Most science fiction fans discover it today in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame v1. “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To” is another favorite, but it’s mostly forgotten in 2022, as is “New Folks’ Home.” “No Truce With Kings” won the Hugo for short fiction that year but I just don’t think it holds up or is remembered, even though the ideas within it are interesting. The more remembered Poul Anderson story should be “The Man Who Came Early.” The surprise story is “Turn Off the Sky” by Ray Nelson, however, it will probably only appeal to fans of the Beat writers.
I doubt many of these stories will get reprinted in the future. It’s a shame that The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) hasn’t stayed in print. They are becoming collector items and can be a bit expensive to collect. Scans were available on the internet, but they’ve been taken down from the obvious places.
Below are my stories notes for the group discussion:
Story 01 of 13 – “Fortress Ship” by Fred Saberhagen If Magazine (January 1963) Retitled for collections as “Without a Thought” 1st story in the Berserker series
In not a very auspicious beginning to the Berserker series, “Fortress Ship” introduces us to the idea of alien intelligent robotic spaceships programmed to destroy all life in the galaxy — a doomsday weapon. This story was interesting because it proposed programming a game of checkers with boxes of colored beads and a set of cards for specific moves. The first computer checker game was in 1952. I wonder if Saberhagen knew about computers? The Berserker series is about AI minds, but I don’t know if that concept was known in 1963.
In “Fortress Ship” a Berserker ship the size of New Jersey is destroyed by three small human spaceships. I haven’t read the series, but I bet Saberhagen made it more difficult in later stories. Berserker minds understand human minds and can use our languages. I’ve read on Wikipedia that other alien species also fight the Berserkers. I’d like to read more in this series.
Story 02 of 13 – “Not in the Literature” by Christopher Anvil Analog (March 1963)
Anvil imagines a world where people haven’t discovered electricity but are still trying to orbit a satellite. Not sure if the story takes place on an alternative history Earth or on another planet. But at the beginning of the story, the attack of a wasp-like creature called a drill on Alarik Kade suggested another world to me. On first reading, I thought the drill was some kind of assassin’s drone device. Rereading it makes me think it was only some kind of insect. That means it could be an alternate Earth story I suppose, where a wasp is called a drill.
I found the whole beginning of the story odd. It was a kind of slapstick physical comedy. It doesn’t match the tone in the second part of the story.
I assume Asimov and Greenberg liked this one because of the chemical-engineered world that couldn’t conceive of electricity. And that’s a neat idea. Especially trying to imagine how they could build a rocket with telemetry without electricity. On the other hand, the storytelling was disjointed at best.
Story 03 of 13 – “The Totally Rich” – John Brunner Wor
The setup for “The Totally Rich” reminded me slightly of “Vintage Season” or “Sailing to Byzantium” with Brunner imagining a class of rich people who live undetected by us ordinary folks. It reminded me of those classic stories because of the elite vacationers in time, and the elite far future citizens who party at one recreated city after another, are like the elite rich in this story, who can have nearly anything they want.
Derek Cooper is tricked by Naomi, one of the elusive rich in Brunner’s story. She’s had a whole picturesque village built with actors playing all the citizens just to fool Derek into working for her. That’s the power of her wealth. But she wants something impossible, something her money can’t even buy. She hopes Derek, given enough time and money can invent what she needs.
This is a great setup for a science fiction story. I thought it was going to be at least a 4-star story. But then, Brunner doesn’t satisfy my expectations, leaving me with a 3-star story.
I tend to think it would have taken a full novel to play out the idea Brunner began, and he didn’t want to do that. The quick tragic ending just didn’t work for me.
Story 04 of 13 – “No Truce With Kings” – Poul Anderson F&SF (June 1963) (Hugo Award – Best Short Fiction)
I was really looking forward to reading “No Truce With Kings” after enjoying Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” so much a couple weeks ago. Plus, Kings had won a Hugo, even though I find it impossible to believe it beat “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”
Unfortunately, my expectations were misplaced. “No Truce with Kings” is too long, too muddled, and just too damn political. Did Poul Anderson really believe humans were better off living under feudal societies? Did he really want to downsize the government that much?
I thought “No Truce With Kings” was murky because I never could picture the battles, or even know which side to sympathize with. I wanted to side with the aliens, the nation builders, and even the feudalists.
If anything, this story made me feel humans are too stupid to deserve to survive. It glorifies war in the worst ways.
On the other hand, there’s lots of good writing in this story.
Story 05 of 13 – “New Folks’ Home” – Clifford D. Simak Analog (July 1963)
“New Folks’ Home” is a lovely little tale that reminds me of WAY STATION, another Simak story about a human serving as a contact on Earth for an alien interstellar community. I identified with Frederick Gray because I’m seventy. It’s interesting that Simak was only 59 when he wrote this story. I guess it was his fantasy for old age.
Story 06 of 13 – “The Faces Outside” – Bruce McAllister If (July 1963)
Odd story about humans kept in a giant aquarium. As I read it I thought it would be a story that would fit in the VanderMeer anthology. Then I noticed that Merril had included it in her 9th Annual, which reinforces that thought. Not my cuppa tea.
Story 07 of 13 – “Hot Planet” – Hal Clement Galaxy (August 1963)
“Hot Planet” by Hal Clement reminded me of “Brightside Crossing” by Alan E. Nourse, another hard SF story about surviving on Mercury. Both stories have been invalidated by time and newer science, but both still present good old fashion science fiction adventure.
What was significant about “Hot Planet” was Clement’s use of women scientists.
Story 08 of 13 – “The Pain Peddlers” – Robert Silverberg Galaxy (August 1963) (2nd story from this issue)
Silverberg’s writing in “The Pain Peddlers” is what I consider great hack writing. He’s obviously mastered the technique of writing short stories for the pulp/digest markets. This isn’t a great story, but it’s very readable and competently entertaining, and a solid addition to the magazine, even a worthy entry for an anthology, but to be honest, not one that will be remembered.
Story 09 of 13 – “Turn Off the Sky” – Ray Nelson F&SF (August 1963)
Wikipedia says Nelson was the guy who invented the propeller beany as a symbol for science fiction fans. It also says he gave LSD to Philip K. Dick. The F&SF intro said he was working on a book about beatniks in Chicago. I’d like to read that.
“Turn Off the Sky” was quite an interesting read, especially if it was written four years before it was published. Mainly for the satire on radicals and beatniks. It appears to be pro-capitalist, but I’m not sure. I thought it funny with its quip about arguing over Marx and Robert Heinlein.
The story was readable and fun, but it was more impressive in its dealing with the 1950s subculture, especially, anticipating a lot of stuff that happened in the 1960s counter-culture. It even has a sitar being played years before George Harrison made it famous.
Story 10 of 13 – “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” by Alfred Bester F&SF (October 1963)
Linda Nielsen thinks she’s the last person on Earth. Like Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL, Linda is fixing up her apartment by taking whatever she wants from a deserted New York City. I mention this movie because it’s a favorite movie and I pictured it as I read “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To.” I love the last person on Earth stories. My all-time favorite novel is this type is EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart.
However, I’ve always thought it would be neat if the last person on Earth was actually the last person, but in these stories, someone else always shows up. In the movie, it was Sarah Crandall, played by Ingar Stevens. Since Bester describes Linda as Nordic, I wondered if he saw the movie with the Nordic Stevens and decided to just start with a blonde. Also, in the last people on Earth stories, the second person is generally of the opposite sex, so the plot develops sexual tension. In a number of these stories, a third person shows up. Usually, it’s two males fighting over one female. Another movie example of this is THE QUIET EARTH (1985).
Bester brings about an interesting twist in the end that finally convinces Jim Mayo and Linda Nielsen to get it on. This satisfies us readers who have been waiting for that action, but it wraps up the story too quickly, at least for me.
However, the ending reminds me of another last Adam and Eve story, “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne. It’s in THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN. Read it here:
Story 11 of 13 – “Bernie the Faust” – William Tenn Playboy (November 1963)
“Bernie the Faust” captures a certain time and place in New York City that I’ve only learned about indirectly from plays, movies, and books. It reminds me of stories about Seventh Avenue such as I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, and makes me wonder if Willian Tenn was intentionally trying to create Jewish humor science fiction?
“Bernie the Faust” has a kind of funniness that needs to be acted out in a play or episode of the old TWILIGHT ZONE, or at least heard in an audiobook.
My favorite book by Tenn is OF MEN AND MONSTERS, which isn’t humorous. It’s a wonderful adventure tale that if you haven’t read, please don’t read about, not even the blurbs on the book cover. Everyone gives too much away.
Story 12 of 13 – “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny F&SF (November 1963)
I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve read “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” over the past fifty years. I wish I could find the words to explain how much I admire this tale. This time as I read the story, I was noticing how effective Zelazny was using short and medium-length sentences to convey information but imply a great deal more. My own prose is too verbose. Zelazny isn’t Shakespeare, or even particularly literary, but he moves the story along without wasting words.
Story 13 of 13 – “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” – Philip K. Dick Galaxy (December 1963)
As I read this story, I marveled that Philip K. Dick even imagined this story. What a creative mind. Earth has been through an atomic war. Human colonists from Mars have returned to rebuild civilization, but their work is interrupted by another faction of human colonists from Proxima Centauri returning to Earth to rebuild civilization. There is political strife between the two groups. A neat invention in this story is a kind of AI that produces The New York Times. It seems to know everything going on in the world and influences the rebuilding of civilization.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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?