Young People Read Old SFF

The Snowball Effect

Katherine MacLean

Although she won a Nebula Award for The Missing Man, Katherine MacLean is hardly a household name these days. Her most productive period ran from the 1950s to the 1970s. That Nebula was won in 1971; other honours (such as being a professional guest of honor at the very first WisCon in 1977) are almost all of a similar vintage. She was admired for her ability to combine character with plot, character being an element of fiction many of her contemporaries seemed willing to do without.

In her heyday, MacLean was one of the few high-profile women working in the field. In the specific context of these reviews, she is remarkable in a different way: the first author selected who is still with us: born in 1925, she is but 91. Her birthday is January 22: join me in raising a glass to this grand figure of science fiction.

Readers interested in MacLean’s fiction can find a small sample at Project Gutenberg. Her collection The Diploids is available at Amazon.

Since I met most of my volunteers via the University of Waterloo, MacLean’s tale of academic research gone horribly right seemed apropos. But will my volunteers enjoy the story?

1: The exception was in 2003, when SFWA named her Author Emeritus. I frown at the needless assumption that she will not pick up pen again in the decades that no doubt remain to her.

Paragraph two and I already hate the narrator. As the author no doubt intends. Paragraph four and I can see where this is going. We're going to learn exactly why this department of the university is important. I wonder how many lives it'll cost, this being science fiction after all.

If only materials science equations could be applied to sociological problems. Using what sounds like it might be symbolic logic?

For someone who was convinced sociology is useless bunk a couple paragraphs ago, the narrator sure is getting into this experiment now. And I find myself not disliking him as much. Except the putting his "lips close to the ear of the pretty girl usher" part. That was a little awkward.

The story ended just when it needed to, after the punchline had been explained and without spending time spelling it all out. I like that. And I was kind of right about lots of people dying to prove the sociology professor's point. They'll just die off screen when the collapse happens in 12 years or so.


I don't really know what to think of this story. There are some things I liked about it — like how one of the main characters is a sociologist, and how it does a great job of showing pre Stanford Prison Experiment Social Sciences. (Unless there was such a thing as research ethics in the 1950s, and the only reason this "social intervention" was because of a shady backroom deal to prove that Social Sciences are effective.

This story also does something that I find frustrating beyond belief: it introduces something novel and interesting, without explaining how it works. What is the formula to get a sewing circle to take over the world? What are the inputs? What are the outputs? What are any of the variables at all? How do these things need to be applied? It's easy to come up with cool sounding stuff. It's much harder to explain how your cool sounding stuff works - like your theory of getting people to join an organization and/or cult.

Also, I'm not sure what makes this story science fiction - is it the fact that a field experiment in sociology actually happened, or that it had a widespread effect on society? Both of those are pretty unlikely scenarios.

Anyway, this story was sort of fun, a bit, and made me want to read more about the state of sociology in the 1950s. Would I read more science fiction because of it though? ...Nah.


Has it aged well?

Yes. Academic institutions with professors and staff that spend their whole careers there: they tend to be more resistant to change, so believable conversation. They talk about funding and social theory. They look down on women – a pretty common thing on university campuses. Also, there are few older female professors around in my experience, so this aspect might become anachronistic within the next few decades. It hasn’t yet.

On the other hand, it’s almost funny how horrified the narrator is about the rising organization of women. Powerful women? Oh no, quelle horreure! The ending is probably angling at the horror of gender quality, but it just ends up being comical that these two academic men inadvertently triggered a feminist wave.

The threat of reducing the department to “what student tuition pays for, which is a handful of over-crowded courses taught by an assistant lecturer”. Haha, sob. That’s what a lot of universities do. *cue all of the articles about university lecturers who live below the poverty line*

It reminds me of…

Pyramid schemes. In particular, I’m thinking of those multi-level marketing companies that change their names all the time and youth and other people with poor education and language skills.

It also reminds me of economic downturns and gullible, desperate people. Relevant today with all of the fears about work disappearing in the near future with no replacements jobs.

Other Thoughts

Wouldn’t this social scheme have the same results as any pyramid scheme? It doesn’t work well on people who would earn more benefits from their current work rather than trying to get people to join.

Also: that is the punniest epigraph I have ever seen. Go home Matt.


Meh. Positive points for being different, and not what I expected out of a story classified as sci-fi. Negative points for the point of view (distant) and timeframe (before they see any effects of the sewing circle’s new constitution). It would have been more interesting to see some of the repercussions. Either that or more details about the dreaded constitution/manifesto.



This story started by annoying me about Americans. I have a hard time grasping the idea of socialism and government being a bad thing, even though I know that’s something some Americans still believe in the present. It especially feels weird in a university setting, since to me universities are fundamentally a public institution.

But then this story picked all the right things to get me on its side. Control theory applied to people? I specialized in controls in university, and one of my profs was researching just this thing. And the description of the sewing circle isn’t that far off from the Knitter’s Guild meetings I attend, although it missed the people in the back row adding their own commentary to the proceedings.

Of course the story makes absolutely no sense. I’m skeptical of the idea that severe election rigging is necessary to get someone in power. In my experience these kinds of organizations are begging for volunteers, and roles are often acclaimed. The idea that a strong willed woman in a situation like this couldn’t figure out her own way to power without a man to suggest it is ridiculous.

There are definite problems with the mathematical modelling. I could probably make the argument that this is a feed forward system, not a feedback one, and I question how they came up with a sufficiently accurate model of a group of people to make it work. The entire idea that two men can do some math over lunch and end up accidentally engineering a sewing circle taking over the world is ridiculous, impossible, and I love it.

I do like that we see that it’s not just silly women being influenced by the educated men. There are indications that all kinds of people are being caught up in it. However, the idea that absolutely everyone is jumping on board this unspecified pyramid scheme doesn’t really stand up to close examination. There’s no way that absolutely everyone responds exactly the same way to this, and that all the groups happily merged into this organization in no time, with no drama (and trust me, craft drama can be incredible, if the number of temporarily reported dead yarn dyers is anything to go by).

I could rip this story to shreds on its logic, but it entertains me enough that I don’t really want to. I think it’s time for this control systems engineer to go off to knit night. Maybe we’ll take over the world while I’m there.