The first rule of Short Story Club is that you must talk about Short Story Club…
So, the Short Story Club run by Niall Harrison over at Torque Control is finished, and Niall’s asking for concluding thoughts. I meant to write this up last night, but SteelyKid had a major meltdown just before bedtime, so everything got scrambled.
A perennial topic of discussion in science fiction and fantasy fandom is “the death of the magazines,” with lots of hand-wringing about how nobody reads short fiction any more, and short fiction is where the novelists of tomorrow hone their craft, etc. This never fails to make me feel like I’m part of the precipitate, as the old chemistry joke has it– I’m a fan of the genre, but I don’t subscribe to any of the magazines, and rarely if ever read any of the stories. When Hugo nomination season rolls around, I generally leave the short fiction categories blank, so the only short fiction I end up reading in a typical year is the stuff from the final Hugo ballot. Which doesn’t stop me from bitching about the awful crap that gets nominated (*cough* Mike Resnick *cough* *cough*)…
The core problem is that I just don’t find the rate of return on short fiction– here meaning the fraction of stories read that I enjoy– to be all that good, certainly not good enough to justify paying for one of the magazines. It doesn’t seem quite right that the return on novels should be higher, but I think I’m just more selective about which novels I start reading, because I’m paying more for them. It may also be that the greater length increases the chance that some sub-part of a novel will be entertaining to me, while short fiction is an all-or-nothing deal.
Anyway, the Short Story Club idea seemed like a good possible solution. the stories selected weren’t from the really top magazines, because they wanted stories that were freely available online, but on the other hand, the stories were selected by fans who think carefully about the genre, which ought to balance out the loss of prestige in the sources. So, how did it turn out?
There were 13 stories in this edition of Short Story Club. Of those, there were two that I really liked, enough that I might put them on my Hugo nominating ballot, those being “Elegy for a Young Elk” and “My Father’s Singularity”. There was only one that I really actively disliked, The Heart of a Mouse”, “actively disliked” here meaning “If it somehow lands on the Hugo ballot, it’s going below No Award.”
The other 10 were… meh. They ranged from sort of charming (“No Time Like the Present”) to “it’s hard to read this story while rolling my eyes” (“The Things”, “Miguel and the Viatura”). A lot of them were pretty forgettable, as demonstrated by the fact that I needed to click on Niall’s links to remind myself what they were about in the first place.
How is that as a success rate? Maybe a bit better than the Hugo ballot, which in recent years has managed one or two stories that were good in a memorable way (as opposed to “Oh, God, make it go away!” awful, such as “Spar” from this past year, or Mike Resnick’s godawful crying robot story from a few years back, which has become shorthand in Chateau Steelypips for a certain brand of awfulness). This isn’t a huge sample size, though, so the statistics aren’t great. Call it about the same as the Hugo ballot.
Outside of the stories themselves, I found participating in the Short Story Club to be enjoyable. It was generally kind of reassuring– most of the other people writing reviews for the Club had opinions that were fairly similar to mine about most of the stories, and in the cases where we diverged, there were obvious reasons for that. It’s nice to know that my opinions of these short stories aren’t wildly at odds with those of this particular thoughtful segment of fandom.
If Niall or somebody else puts something similar together again, I’ll probably participate again, unless work or family issues make that impractical.