My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1959

I have no idea who thought this was a good cover for this book, but here we are.

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time. Each year, I will show which novel won the Hugo, as well as my own choice from the bunch of which should have won. They aren’t always the same!

We Have Fed Our Sea AKA The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson- Grade: C
It’s a kind of space adventure that this period is particularly known for, but I couldn’t honestly see anything distinguishing or interesting about this particular book. It’s an inoffensive, at times entertaining romp in a thoroughly 1950s style science fiction setting. If you like that, read it. If not, it’s probably skippable.

Who? by Algis Budrys- Grade: C
A man shows up and claims to be a lost scientist, but here’s the catch: the Soviets have had him under their power for a time. Is he really who he claims to be? Can he be programmed as a spy? Yep, there’s a lot of Red Scare in this one, and the characterization and pacing isn’t all that great, but the idea of it is interesting enough. How do you know someone is someone? What makes you you? Those are the kind of questions that are explored, with however blunt an instrument, in this book.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish (Winner)- Grade: B
I find Blish’s writing style to be a bit impenetrable for my taste. It’s like reading something through a fog. I don’t know how else to describe it. In this work, we have one of the few forays into religious questions found in this era of science fiction. How can an alien race without religion be moral? The Jesuit priest in this book asks that question and ultimately doesn’t really get an answer, leading to some spectacular difficulties in the process. Reading the book, though, is like wading through mud. I enjoyed the ideas, but had difficulty understanding the writing.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein- Grade: C
Younger Heinlein is in top form here, which means you get his action with much less of his preaching at you about how we should all have sex all the time. Unfortunately, this early Heinlein is not as talented as some of the later Heinlein turned out to be, though I think Heinlein’s works are kind of a roller-coaster of quality. Anyhow, this one is basically just a coming of age story with a spacesuit. If that sounds interesting, you’ll probably like it well enough.

Time Killer AKA Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley (My Winner)- Grade: B+
The premise initially seemed pretty standard–a man gets sucked into the future without any knowledge of what’s happening to him. But as the story developed, the intricacies Sheckley adds, layer by layer, to the plot and premise makes the book feel more and more special. Exploring what would happen if there were a scientifically verifiable afterlife was an unexpected pleasure, as was the way Sheckley deftly danced around questions of the mind-body problem, religion, and more. None of it seemed heavy-handed, which is what I was expecting once I got a feel for what was happening in the book. Instead, it was a unique look at one of sci-fi’s tropes- transhumanism/immortality. It also had a couple compelling characters, which isn’t always the case in some of the classic sci-fi. I recommend this one, folks.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos- Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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Presidential Biographies: Millard Fillmore #13

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman

Millard Fillmore’s story may be seen in a number of ways: his story was a truly “American” story where someone rises from absolute poverty (his parents were tenant farmers) to the highest office in the United States; or perhaps the narrative is of one who sought above all else to preserve Union in a time when pressure was increasing to split it; perhaps, instead, the narrative is of one who, having Southern interests at heart, pursued them with all his strength. Regardless of one’s thoughts on his life, it is clear Fillmore left a mark upon our country, for better or ill.

Fillmore’s story is interesting because he did seemingly pull himself up by his bootstraps (again, the traditional narrative of what people say happens in the United States, but rarely does), educating himself and becoming a lawyer. He got involved in politics in Buffalo, New York, and became a Representative.

Millard Fillmore’s ascent to the Presidency was unexpected, to be sure. He was the second “Accidental President” to happen, upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Added to the ticket as the Vice President, the Whig Fillmore was expected to help carry some of the Southern vote, and he did. However, he was not expected to become President in a time where the Vice President was largely a placeholder office. Yet when Taylor died, the nation was in the throes of some enormous sectional battles, particular among them that “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Millard Fillmore expended an enormous amount of energy to defend slavery. Though he decried it repeatedly as an evil–or at least morally wrong–he used both federal resources and his own power as President to pursue the ends of slaveholders throughout the United States. The Compromise of 1850–something that may have been vetoed under Taylor–was rubber stamped and pushed by Fillmore, who spent the rest of his Presidency eagerly pursuing the cause of the expanded Fugitive Slave Act. He repeatedly used federal soldiers to aid in forcing people back into slavery and allowed interpretations of the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the kidnapping and forced entry into slavery of any number of black people. His Presidency was shaped by this constant use of federal power to impinge upon states’ rights. Of course, the false narrative of “States’ Rights” that persists to our time regarding what divided the North and South is shown here in stark relief. Southerners weren’t out in the streets demanding states’ rights when federal troops marched into major cities in the North to assist in the kidnapping of black people. Fillmore endorsed and pushed these events forward, and states’ rights were trampled.

Some have read Fillmore’s pursuit of the Fugitive Slave Act and other parts of his Presidency as showing his unflinching commitment to preservation of the Union. On this scheme, Fillmore was enforcing a law that, if left alone, would led to the secession of the South. This narrative, though it paints Fillmore in a more positive light, seems to go against the thrust of his Presidency, which was filled with explicitly racial bias and intentional thwarting of the rights even of American citizens in favor of Fillmore’s favored people.

Another example of this played out in foreign policy, as Fillmore’s pursuit of a treaty with the Swiss included compromising the rights of Jewish Americans. His pursuit of economic success of those whose interests he protected superseded his commitment to defending all Americans abroad. The Swiss treaty included provisions for allowing citizens of both Switzerland and the United States to travel freely between the countries, but it allowed for the Swiss cantons to prohibit Jews (including Jewish Americans) from conducting business in or visiting specific juridictions. Fillmore, commenting on this treaty, said he found “nothing to object to,” even after concerns were raised on the floor of the Senate. On the other side of the world, Fillmore pursued an America-first policy that eventually (under Pierce) forcibly opened Japanese ports to American trade. Though this certainly benefited some portions of the United States financially, it was an imperialist, expansionist move that was well in line with Fillmore’s apparent policy of putting white American interests above all else.

After his Presidency, Fillmore joined the Know-Nothing party and helped push their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nonsense on the national stage. It was as though the clear white-first ideals he demonstrated in office weren’t explicit enough: he simply made them clear in further actions.

Finkelman’s summary of Fillmore’s legacy is on point:

[O]n the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse. He opened the West to slavery and destroyed the Missouri Compromise line. The total appeasement of the South only encouraged new demands for more land for slavery… He ran for president on a ticket that openly attacked foreigners, immigrants, and Catholics. In reteriment, Fillmore opposed emancipation and campaigned for a peace that would have left millions of African Americans in chains. In the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues of the age: immigration, religious toleration, equality, and, most of all, slavery. (137)

Fillmore was a terrible President.

Millard Fillmore’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Millard Fillmore (13th President- Original Ranking: 13)- Fillmore put into practice those horrors that Jackson set up, for the same reasoning. He protected the interests of those he cared about: nativist racist whites. He allowed for the stripping of Jewish American rights abroad. He pursued the Fugitive Slave Act with the vigor of one who saw it as the highest good. He used federal resources time and again in defense of slavery. After his Presidency, he joined the Know-Nothings so that he could let his nativism truly shine, with their anti-Catholic, anti-immigration rhetoric that spread fear in order to pass policies that favored wealthy white protestants. He was a tool of slaveowners and, when he had power, he used it to full effect in ways that demonstrably did not assist all Americans. He was a terrible President whose only interests were those of expanding the influence and economic success of the narrow sphere of people he felt deserved it.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

A Stunning Epic – “Empire of Silence” by Christopher Ruocchio

A friend recommended I read Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio. I’m a sucker for science fiction, and I knew this friend had great taste, so I went and got it almost immediately. I was blown away as I devoured it over the next four days. I’ll avoid SPOILERS in what follows, because I just want to encourage you, dear readers, to go grab this book ASAP and read it.

The novel is told by Hadrian Marlowe looking back on his own life. It’s a kind of memoir/autobiographical storytelling style that I personally find captivating. It goes beyond a simple first person perspective by inserting “historical” notes into the text as you’re reading, casually dropping bits of world-building and storytelling into the main narrative. In this regard it reminds me of Fitzpatrick’s War by Theodore Judson, though that overlooked masterpiece probably won’t ring many bells. Anyway, the first person style is usually offputting to me, though I have enjoyed my share of first person perspective novels. For those who enjoy their sci-fi/fantasy in epic style, the first person narrative here doesn’t take away from that in any way.

Again, I’m really hesitant to spoil anything, so to introduce the plot I’ll just tell you what Hadrian himself tells you at the beginning. Hadrian is a man that would be reviled for killing a sun, and all those around it. He is writing from a point well in the future of where this novel begins, telling we readers the “real story” of what actually happened to get him to the reviled hero he is. Along the way, we learn much of Hadrian’s life, motivations, and meet many, many characters, each with unique personalities and contributions to Hadrian’s capacities and actions.

There’s a wealth of sci-fi greats I could see as inspiring Ruocchio’s book. The world building and writing style made me think of Iain M. Banks. The epic scale of the universe could only recall Dune. There’s a splash of Star Wars there, too, though only in the sense of the rise of a hero (anti-hero?) character. I’d be remiss to mention some aspects of the film Gladiator getting mixed in, too. And, for what it’s worth, I really got strong vibes from Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series mixed in, too.

If this seems like a grab-bag of awesome things, I’d like to downplay that a bit. Ruocchio has undoubtedly created his own style and carved out his section of the sci-fi universe. If it is reminiscent of all of these other awesome novels, that’s not because it is derivative. The richness of the narrative cannot really be overstated here. There are times the scale seems incredibly huge, but the reader is never left adrift because the narrative ties us down to Hadrian’s life and perspective, giving us a way to navigate the huge universe. As even more elements pile onto the plot–notably linguistics and archaeology coming into play–Ruocchio manages to balance all these elements and weave them into a deeply personal narrative that turns Hadrian into a fascinating, real character.

Perhaps most importantly for a novel like this–a near 600 page epic–is that although it is part of a larger series (according to a Tweet from the author after I asked him, it will span 4 books along with potential side stories), it has a satisfying ending. Readers won’t feel cheated or baited by the end. Instead, they’ll be lining up to get the next book, knowing how excellent this one was. Hadrian’s concluding lines in the book help to make it feel, truly, like the first volume of an immense memoir.

Without a doubt, Christopher Ruocchio has created a fantastic universe to explore. Empire of Silence is a superb space opera on an epic scale. I recommend it very, very highly. What we are seeing with this book is, I think–as does my friend who recommend it–the rise of a new genre master.

Links

“Space Unicorn Blues” and “The Stars Now Unclaimed” – Two Recent Debut Science Fiction Novels Worth Noting– Come read about two exciting science fiction debuts that couldn’t be more different. Space unicorn wha?

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels– Do you like first contact sci-fi? Here are a couple novels to look at if you like a helping of humor to go alongside it.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Reading through the [Alleged] Top 100 Science Fiction Books- #66-70

I’m a huge science fiction fan, but realized I haven’t read a lot of those works considered classics or greats. I decided to remedy that, and found a list online of the Top 100 Science Fiction Books. The list is determined by vote from sci-fi fans online, so it may change over time. I am going off the order of the list as it was when I first saw it. Each book will receive a grade between F and A+ as well as very brief comments. I’m interested to read what you think about these books as well. There will be very minor spoilers in some of these.

66. Sphere by Michael Crichton (1987) Grade: C-
Apparently I can’t count and in my last post, going 5 at a time, I included this one. Oops, now it gets to be here twice.
“It’s not nearly as polished as The Andromeda Strain, and its core premise isn’t as strong as Jurassic Park‘s. What’s left is an interesting idea that seemed to me to get less and less entertaining as it went along. I had higher hopes for this one, to be honest. The payoff at the end is fairly low compared to Crichton’s other works, and because of this some of the flaws in his writing style are more distracting. Let’s not forget an over-defensive caricature of a female scientist, which may have been a rather poor attempt at introducing a pro-woman narrative into the plot (it didn’t work out). The biggest problem with the book is that it seems to get progressively less wonder-filled and devolve into a rather simple thriller. Not what I have come to expect from Crichton.”

67. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) Grade: A-
“I thought I had the whole book figured out fairly early on, but Bester got me big on this one at a number of points. I didn’t figure out the ‘truth’ at the center of the novel until the very last pages. I am the kind of person who doesn’t really try to figure things out because I enjoy the development, so that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a masterful manipulation of the plot, but I think it speaks well of the strength of Bester’s storytelling. Does he rely on some pretty outdated psychology? Absolutely, but that doesn’t take much away from the overall enjoyment of the work. Reading this list has clearly taught me that science fiction + mystery = awesome.”

68. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (2000) Grade: A
“Reynolds has managed to construct one of those rare books that manages to truly convey the scale of a space opera while not losing itself. The disparate plots come together in a satisfying way, and the sheer bigness of it is delicious. Throw in a healthy dose of alien archaeology and this is a book I will remember for a while. In fact, some time ago I read just the opening scene at a book store, but couldn’t remember what book it was from until I picked this one up from the library for this list. That openig scene, with its hidden archaeological secrets, had stuck with me for perhaps a decade or more. Now that I’ve read the whole novel, I’m pleased to say it stands up well.”

69. The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein (1956) Grade: C+
“It doesn’t reach the greatness of some of his other works, nor does it hit the depths of some of his misses. It’s a competent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek story about time travel and corporate baddies. I enjoyed it not so much for the end product as for the clear fun that was had on the journey. It’s silly, but not so silly as to put you off. A worthy read, but not a great one.”

70. The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (1961) Grade: B+
“A classic campy adventure novel, The Stainless Steel Rat hits on just about all the points one expects from its time period and genre. It is clearly referential to the time in which it was written, and has some backward views represented therein. It is also a constant stream of action and adventure that left me feeling almost exhausted afterwards. A fun read.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books– Check out more posts in this series as I continue.

SDG.