Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Snowball Effect

Most “hard science” sf stories extrapolate from a foundation in one of the “hard” sciences such as physics, chemistry biology, and computer technology (with all its AI ramifications). But occasionally a story extrapolates from a “softer” science.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s "A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions" was based on chaos theory. A story in Galaxy in March, 1969, called “Godel Numbers,” by J.W.Swanson, was based on prime numbers. Thomas M. Disch once had a story (whose title and location totally escape me) whose sfnal premise was based on probability.

Which brings me to a story I recently read by Katherine MacLean, entitled “The Snowball Effect.” It was originally published in Galaxy in September 1952, and reprinted in her collection The Diploid Effect and Other Flights of Fancy in 1962.

For most of its length, the story reads like a contemporary story of academia. The president of a small college is in the midst of a fiscal crisis and, in attempts to cut his budget, he insists that the head of the Sociology Department justify “what is sociology good for?” This sets off a chain of events in which the department head devises an experiment in institutional growth in which the two men find a small sewing club in an equally-small town and set up conditions by which the club’s membership will grow larger and larger until it reaches the saturation point and the club crumbles on its own unwieldy size.

The story is interesting, if less than major, but it shows absolutely no indication of being speculative in the sf sense until the very last scene, which is a combination of a Fredric Brown “shock ending” and the sudden realization by the reader that what actually happened in the story’s central experiment was much too speculative to be realistic fiction and thus passed over into the realm of pure science fiction. The ending was well-done, although honestly it was telegraphed a few pages earlier.

Not being particularly fond of the “hard” sciences, I enjoy reading an occasional sf story based on less common sciences such as mathematics (Clifton Fadiman’s Fantasia Mathematica being an entire anthology of such stories), probability, sociology, psychology, or even something as unlikely as philosophy. I look forward to finding more such stories in the future.

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