My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1963

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. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1963 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (Winner) Grade: B-
I still can’t figure out the ending, but it was an enjoyable book. Fascinating idea (Japan/Germany win WW2) that is frequently-explored in alternate history but done well here. Dick’s strength is in the way he conveys a mix of humor and horror. Most of the book feels a bit like a travelogue, though, and one that doesn’t seem nearly as foreboding or interesting as it ought to be given the compelling idea behind the plot. Dick’s obsession–like many other SFF authors of his time–with questions of sexuality and pushing whatever boundaries he thought he needed to push against isn’t overwhelming here, but it is definitely an underlying theme. Since reading the book, I’ve watched the first two seasons of the TV show, which is pretty fantastic and shows directions Dick could have gone to make the book even better. I liked the book, but wish it had been more.

The Sword of Aldones by Marion Zimmer Bradley- Grade: C
There’s way more going on here than I expected when I read that this was a sword-and-planet science fantasy work. It’s almost more of a family genre/mannerpunk book in some ways than it is a science fantasy book. Genre questions aside, Bradley offered a compelling enough world and characters, but throughout the whole book there was a lack of punch. I just kept losing interest. Maybe that was my expectations about what I was getting into, but it just felt kind of ho-hum to me. The edition I got had an introduction from 1977 from Lester del Rey (cofounder of the publishing house) that was particularly revealing when he noted that Bradley’s work kept getting categorized as juvenile fiction because of a lack of overt sex. I guess that shows what was going on in that time related to SFF and also, if true, helps explain why so many books in this earlier part of the Hugo awards seem utterly obsessed with (ironically) juvenile notions of sex and titillation.

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (My Winner)- Grade: A-
There’s something about a good sci-fi thriller mixed with hard sci-fi that I find totally irresistable. This is an earlier one of Clarke’s works, but of those I’ve read from him it is the one that seems the most human. He puts a group of people together in a skimmer on the moon (and yes, we know the moon isn’t covered with a sea of dust now, but it could be any fictional place), has disaster fall upon them, and we sit with them as search and rescue begins, seeing the action from several angles. There’s something alluring about this plot. It’s so basic, but so fascinating. It’s like the stories about getting stuck in an elevator and befriending everyone aboard–it just works, with this inherently relatable feel to it. I was absolutely absorbed by this book from the beginning to the end. The only fault is that it shows the casual sexism of the 1960s through and through, whether it’s women naturally being selected for cooking, or appealing to vanity for women to get them to do things. Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and exactly the kind of book that makes a quest like my Hugo Award reading worth doing. Clarke weaves hard sci-fi throughout as well, as he explains without too many details–never in a boring way–the science or fake science behind so many of the events. And unlike other authors of hard sci-fi who sometimes get to the point where it reads as a textbook, Clarke weaves the science into the narrative in ways that even the occasional info dump seems to make sense–it just becomes a ratcheting up of the tension. A fascinating, fantastic read. Also, that first edition cover is stunning in its simplicity.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper- Grade: B-
The titular creatures are cute, and Piper seems to have been one of the few authors to pioneer the “aliens might not be the worst” subgenre of first contact novels. The writing is a little uneven, and the characters don’t quite break out of their molds, but it is all done in a kind of vanilla fashion that doesn’t leave that much to complain about. It’s an enjoyable taste, but nothing life changing. What is clear though, is the tremendous impact this book has had on the first contact subgenre of science fiction, from the debates over sentience/sapience to the way characters make discoveries about the aliens. It’s an influential book, and a quick read.

Sylva by Jean Bruller- Grade: C
The plot is that a fox becomes a woman becomes a wife becomes a fox-human mom. It’s weird. There’s a literary quality to it that both makes it seem a bit more well-written than some early science fiction while also managing to avoid being pretentious. But really, this is a kind of strange tale. The ending is much more alarming than I expected, though not because its horror or anything of the sort. It was just a major surprise. I found it a decent book, but not one I’d return to. It is so obscure now, apparently, that searching “Sylva Bruller” on Amazon doesn’t actually bring anything up. I feel fortunate to have tracked a copy down through interlibrary loan.

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!

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.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Shards of Honor” by Lois McMaster Bujold

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vorkosigan Saga is a series that had been on my radar for a while. A few years ago I found a nearby library that had the whole series and binged the heck out of the whole series front to back. I couldn’t stop. Now, I decided to embark on a re-read of the series, and my wife has joined me for her own first read-through of the series as well. It was a lot of fun to introduce her to the world Bujold created, as it is one I enjoy immensely. We’re going to read it in chronological order–something I normally don’t do, preferring publication order, but the first time I read through it was chronological and it made sense.

Shards of Honor is an unexpected book. If I told you that there was a military science fiction novel with some romance thrown into the mix, I doubt you’d come up with a book anywhere near the plot Bujold made. For one thing, the characters are old. No, not actually old, but it’s a far cry from series in which every main character is 18-20 years old and everyone is finding love in their late teens, early twenties. Here, our main characters are in their 30s, as I recall, which makes it feel a little more real in some of their actions, their status as commanders, and the way they fall in love. This could almost be classed as a romance novel, to an extent, though there is little explicit in the book. But romance is a driving force in the novel, and its refreshing to read a science fiction novel that does this and does it quite well.

Additionally, the way Cordelia and Aral discover more about the culture of the other is delightful. There are many scenes where as a reader you get to see how naturally the two characters intermesh. I recall one scene, and I’ll probably mangle it, but Cordelia is trying to describe Aral to her parents (I think?) and they’re like “He’s a murderer!” and she responds “No–I mean, he’s killed several people, but it made sense! Or something.” It’s humorous, yes, but it is also absolutely believable that people would respond to each other in that way.

The plot of Shards is absolutely character-driven, but you can already tell there are portents of a wider world and more possible conflicts happening. Bujold manages to intermesh subtlety of setting with a “Just the action, please” narrative style. Many people say the series just gets better after this book, but frankly Shards of Honor is one of the more unique science fiction novels out there in terms of narrative style and characterization. I’d recommend it very highly, and then to go read the rest of the series immediately.

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!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

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.

Babylon 5: Season 1- Signs and Portents

Don’t mind us, just making an incredibly addicting space opera TV show.

Babylon 5 has been recommended to me a number of times by other science fiction fans. It came out when I was young enough that it probably would have been well beyond me. So, it’s taken a while for me to get into it since I didn’t grow up on it and, let’s be honest, the special effects haven’t aged well at all. It makes the show seem very cheesy at times, and it’s also clear at points that it is over-acted. The CG is extremely out of date. So I wasn’t sure if I could get into it. But, when a flash sale happened on Amazon and I had some Christmas money, I grabbed the whole series at a bargain price and decided to finally check it out. I need to talk about season one, now. There will be spoilers for this season only. Please DO NOT SPOIL any later seasons!

Signs and Portents

I did not expect, at all, the total mixture of feelings that this show has made me feel. I laughed, I cried… I got involved. It’s fantastic television of the absolute highest order. I just finished season 1 and let me tell you, I have feelings about it. The characters are fascinating (though I gotta say, I’m still not 100% sold on the casting of Garibaldi–the guy just doesn’t look the part they try to have him play as a relentlessly tough guy). I absolutely love Ambassador Mollari, for example. He’s a walking trope, but what a way to play it! They flesh him out so that you don’t mind him, and his humor is just spot on.  The music is just phenomenal, by the way.

Also, can we talk about how this is basically just a space opera novel series as a TV show? I mean seriously how is this show not even more revered than it is?

I want to talk about some of the episodes, too. First, “Believers.” What the hell, Babylon 5? Why you gotta do me like that? Just thinking about that episode pains me. It seems like a not-so-subtle look at Jehovah’s Witness beliefs about blood transfusions and refusing care based on that, but they somehow make it almost sympathetic by having the doctor be so damned uncaring about other people’s beliefs. Then, they gotta turn around and plunge the knife in and twist it. I was not ready for that! Not at all!

“Deathwalker” was another great episode. “You are not ready for immortality” – Ambassador Kosh, laying down the law on humans. Or should I saw the Law? I don’t know. It was awesome.

“Born to the Purple” was fantastic character development for Ambassador Mollari, but holy crap was I not ready, again, for the feels I’d have when Garibaldi finally tracked down what was going on with Ivanova. It made Ivanova much more interesting–she had initially seemed very one dimensional to me, but now she’s a hardass with heart and I love it.

“Soul Hunter” was awesome for its turnabout on the villain narrative. Just a fantastic bit of storytelling there.

Also what the hell is going on here?

And all throughout this season, there are, yes, “Signs and Portents” that show something bigger is happening. The finale is just fantastic. Now it’s time for me to go watch more of this fantastic series!

SDG.

 

“The Mechanical” – Ian Tregillis’s Steampunk Epic

I first read The Mechanical after I saw it at a bookstore. The premise immediately struck me as something I’d be interested in, so I gave it a try. I was completely enamored at once with its compelling cast of characters and extremely high octane drama and intensity. I want to commend it to my readers here, so I’ve written up a short review. There will be some minor SPOILERS here so if you want to avoid that, just go read the book, it’s great.

The Mechanical

There are many things that make this book great. First, the setting. It’s set in the early 1900s in an alternative world in which the Dutch have mastered a kind of magical clockwork that allows them to animate robots to do their bidding. This has led to the Dutch dominating much of the world. Meanwhile, readers are also treated to following the attempts of New France to become a power again, using their chemical know-how to fight the mechanicals of the Dutch. Throughout all of this is woven a heaping helping of religious strife, with the Dutch Protestants and French Catholics being at odds against each other on almost every level.

Another aspect of the series is its fantastic characters. Ian Tregillis writes not just one, but three extremely compelling characters that were sympathetic almost from the start. On the flip side, it’s not always clear who is “good” or “bad” in many of the scenarios presented. Because much of the conflict is over both religious and economic war, it is difficult to find a right side, and that certainly reflects the real world. But tied into this is a third fantastic part of the series, which is the deep philosophical questions raised about free will and religion that come with it. Jax, a mechanical and one of the protagonists, is immediately sympathetic as one who seemingly has free will thwarted by clockwork. Meanwhile, other characters must deal with almost opposite effects. It is all fascinating.

Yet all of these wonderful details are tied into a plot with an absolutely roaring pace that never lets up. Whether it’s spy drama, nefarious evil, or warfare, there is an enormous amount of action in this book, and it never lets off the gas. It is a thrill ride that has much deeper elements than one might expect.

I have read the rest of the series, back when it first came out, and it is all very good. I will be re-reading it on audiobooks now as I continue. I recommend this series to you, dear readers. Check it out! Read The Mechanical now! And come back and discuss it with me!

Links

“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis- A Steampunk Delight– Like Steampunk? Be sure to also read Robyn Bennis’s fantastic “The Guns Above.”

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.

 

 

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2020- Review and Retrospective

January was #VintageSciFiMonth, a month in which readers are encouraged to read vintage science fiction. I took to it with gusto, clearing out a slate for reading a bunch of older science fiction works that I’ve been wanting to dive into for a while. I also followed the hashtag and account on Twitter and picked up some recommendations for others. What defines a novel as vintage sci-fi? The working rule is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to give that wiggle room if you want! I decided to write out the list of vintage sci-fi I read for January and give them some brief ratings and reviews. I’d love to know what you read/enjoyed, as well. I’m always looking for more reads!

I also wrote some longer reviews in January for some of the works, and you can read those by clicking here and scrolling through.

My list of Reads and brief ratings

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold- I read this one with my wife this go-round, having convinced her to join in on the vintage sci-fi fun. I listened to it for this re-read, and I adored it even more than I did the first time. Bujold has an excellent writing style and characters that are very true to life. We both enjoyed it greatly. Grade: A

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson- Not the first time I’ve tried to read this one, I decided to tackle it at a slower pace and really pay attention to everything along the way this time. I enjoyed it even less than the first time I tried it. Anderson seems much more interested in telling us about the character’s sex lives than developing them as characters. The main plot didn’t draw me in at all, either. Grade: D+

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- I adored this book as a kid but definitely did not understand it. As an adult, I found it a fascinating, even subversive take on numerous modern (for its time) problems. Having it set around a real chess game somehow didn’t turn it all into a gimmick, either. It’s fantastic. Grade: A

The Skylark Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith– I enjoyed Smith’s Lensman series for what it was, but Skylark didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting. I forced myself through the series for completion’s sake, because that’s how I do things, but I did not enjoy it at almost any point. It’s dated, and it definitely shows… a lot. Grade: D

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprising take on what seemed initially to be generic military sci-fi. Zahn deals with trauma, PTSD, what to do with soldiers when they come home, colonialism, and more all while moving the plot along at an absolutely breakneck speed. Grade: A-

Thorns by Robert Silverberg- I found this one to be enthralling and haunting by turns. It is the kind of book that sticks with you for weeks afterwards as you can’t stop thinking about it. Silverberg really started off his “serious” sci-fi with a bang in this one. It’s nearly flawless. Grade: A+

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury- What if I told you there were a book about cannibals in the future worshiping an orbiting spaceship and somehow all their extremely weird acts and creepy, sometimes disgusting rituals actually make sense? It’s a weird, almost horrible book. But it made it all so sensible! Definitely recommended. Grade: A

A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak- The central plot isn’t fantastic, but I loved Simak’s lengthy monologues and explorations of the human, alien, and robot psyches. Not his best work, but still top-notch overall. I was surprised by how not-terribly he dealt with questions about colonialism as well. Grade: A-

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance- It’s a pulpy sci-fi adventure that shares themes and ideas with the Barsoom series (John Carter). It’s just not as fun as the Barsoom series, and so it was difficult for me to get into it. Served with a heaping helping of outdated gender norms, as well. Grade: C-

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny- A re-read for me. I’m still blown away by Zelazny’s stylistic prose here, which reads just like some translations of religious works I’ve read. It’s a fascinating sci-fi retelling of the rise of Buddhism from Hinduism and the colonization/import of Christianity as well. I loved it. Grade: A+

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton- A recommendation from another vintage sci-fi month reader, I grabbed it when they said fans of Star Trek would like it. I then spent about 85% of the book baffled by that comparison, but then I understood towards the end. It has all the trappings of some of my favorite sci-fi- ancient relics, linguistics, and adventure with huge themes. It’s serious and pulpy all at once and I loved it. Grade: A-

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov thought of some fantastic concepts and characters, finally, but then spent the last 1/3 or so of the book dumping it all down the drain with somewhat ironic inverse deus ex machinas and his own apparent view of a utopic planet. I don’t know, it was weird and stupid by turns, but the core ideas were good enough to keep me going. Grade: B-

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- I can’t really say enough about this one, which was my first Lafferty read ever. It’s deeply thoughtful, and the more you peel back its layers, the more you find. It has fascinating characters, and imports Thomas More (the guy who wrote Utopia) into the future in strangely believable and fantastic ways. I loved every second of this book, and every page had me thinking and delving more deeply into it. Grade: A+

Project Pope by Clifford Simak- Every aspect of Simak’s thought is present here, from robots that are re-skins of humans to deep religious questioning to fascinating pastoral scenes. It’s almost like comfort food, until Simak hits you upside the head with a big idea that challenges how you think about some aspect of reality and faith. I adored it. Grade: A

Links

SDG.

The Best Biographies I read in 2019

I read a lot of books. In 2019 I read almost 500 books, not counting the many, many, many picture books I read to my kids. We like reading. It’s a thing. I get asked a lot about what biographies I recommend. I think this is kind of funny, because I remember as recently as 5 years ago, I would have thought biographies are totally boring–why would anyone read one? Now they’ve become one of my go-to genres of reading. Real life, as they say, is often stranger than fiction. That may not be true, but real life usually does have a more enduring impact on our lives than fiction does, and that’s part of the allure of biographies for me. I read 20+ biographies in 2019, and I have here selected four that I think were the best. They give a range of recommendations for readers interested in different things. For good measure, I also included one I read in 2018 because it’s awesome.

The Big Fella by Jane Leavy

When I was in elementary school, Babe Ruth was still legendary. I don’t know if elementary school kids who obsess over baseball are still talking about “The Babe,” but I think that there is still probably some sheen of legend that covers the name Babe Ruth. Jane Leavy’s biography, The Big Fella, has a stated goal as an attempt to peel back some of that legend and get at the “real man” as well as true stories about his life.

I’m not entirely convinced Leavy totally succeeded at her goal, but that is also not really her fault. Peeling away the layers of legend is like peeling the layers of an onion, and there are multiple points (notably, how Ruth met his agent) that the Babe himself obscured with so many different “true” stories that getting at the truth seems an impossible task. Whether intentional or not, this meant that Babe Ruth will continue to have a legend built around him forever, because we can’t truly unmask every aspect of his life.

The structure of the biography is occasionally confusing, but this comes from someone who prefers a linear progression throughout a subject’s life.

What makes this biography so great is Leavy’s style and tone. It reads as though you, the reader, are getting a true look at the subject. You relate to the Babe in ways you might not have expected. His audacious feats, his glories, and his failures all seem to come to life and jump of the page. The Big Fella is a fascinating look at one of the most legendary figures in U.S. History.

Grant by Ron Chernow

I read Grant as part of my journey to read (at least) one biography per President in the history of the United States. Going in, I knew Grant as  a Civil War general who won the war, paying the butcher’s bill required to do so. I knew him as an ineffective President with a drinking problem. Coming out, I found that very few of the things I thought I knew about Grant were true. Chernow doesn’t set out to rehabilitate Grant, per se; instead, he sets out to find the truth of Ulysses S. Grant’s life, which turns out to be far more interesting and complex than received history has painted him.

Grant turned me into a defender of his Presidential legacy. It made me appreciate the man, even while acknowledging his faults. Chernow creates a stunning portrait that demands to be considered for those with any interest in U.S. history. More than that, he creates a sympathetic biography that makes readers think along the lines of decision-making the man himself may have traveled. It’s very, very well done.

My post outlining Grant’s life and accomplishments can be read here.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

Blight has created one of the most fascinating, monumental biographies I’ve ever read. Frederick Douglass is an absolute giant of American history, whether one is talking about moral, religious, or activist leadership. Time and again, I stopped reading in the middle of a page to reflect upon the powerful words of the subject, or upon his life choices and the way he challenged perceptions and received opinions. Blight weaves a narrative that both integrates Douglass’s own autobiographical content and also offers correctives and amplifications where needed. It is not just a great biography, it’s a great book, regardless of one’s tastes.

A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism by Kristin Kolbes Dumez

Katharine Bushnell is a woman who continues to influence modern theologians with her publications. A missionary, advocate for women, and astute thinker, her life story is told by Kristin Kolbes Dumez in this challenging narrative. I say it’s challenging because it touches upon the things we hold most dear. Regardless of one’s theological–or atheological–background, Bushnell’s life and thought will force readers to think about it. Have they really thought through their conclusions about men and women? Have they explored the biblical text as fully as they thought? Have they assumed that feminism and Christianity were complete opposites? Bushnell’s life will make readers think on these questions. And that, I think, is what great biographies ought to do: make us consider our own lives.

 Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

I read this biography at the end of 2018 and I frankly think it was cheated out of the best related work Hugo Award in the voting this year. Alec Nevala-Lee’s work here is a biography and history of four of the biggest names in early science fiction as well as a look at the “Golden Age” of the same. It is, in a word, astounding (I had to). As a science fiction fan, this was a must-read, and I was delighted by how enthralling the contents were.

There is no question that each of the subjects is profoundly problematic. Campbell’s racism, Asimov’s casual sexism combined with assaults, Heinlein’s… everything, and Hubbard’s myriad faults all have the light shown upon them. These men were not moral paragons. The fact that modern science fiction owes so much to them shouldn’t lead readers to reject science fiction, but it should lead them to think about what they’re consuming. Can we separate the fiction from the fact of the author? Is that even a question we should wonder about?

Alongside this tough look at sci-fi’s heroes, Nevala-Lee provides a hands-on look at the history of science fiction and how the ideas behind it were shaped through magazines, editors, and the like. This is an absolute must-read for any fan of science fiction, but I’d also recommend it to those interested in the intellectual history of the United States. Really, I just want more people to read and love 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.