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 1967 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. I included a brief overview discussion of the year’s nominees at the beginning.
1967- I think this year’s nominees were one of the best so far. Whether we’re talking about the absolutely heart-rending Flowers for Algernon or the familiar-yet-otherworldly Day of the Minotaur, this was a great year. Even The Witches of Karres at least has value as understanding where later ideas developed from. Babel-17 made me realize I should go back and re-read some Delany novels, perhaps finding more enjoyment the second go-round. I liked Babel so much that I’m convinced I may have missed something. Somehow Heinlein gets another year of eligibility for The Moon… and wins? I don’t understand. It’s a fine novel, but I don’t think it needed to be brought in to compete with the others this year, and certainly some of the competition was better. Which did you like?
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: A
Babel-17 is through-and-through a concept novel. I don’t know if that’s a real term, but its how I refer to books that have an idea that they’re about more than characters or a main plot. To be fair, Delany makes some interesting characters in this book, but they’re not what it’s about. What it’s about is language and how it may shape the way we think and act. Indeed, if we have no word for something like a computer or any of its components, how could we even begin to understand it? More abstractly, what if something like “nationalism” was an unknown term or concept? How would we relate to others and the space in which we live? These are some of the types of questions Delany asks in this fascinating piece of science fiction. I liked it enough I may actually go back for another try at his alleged magnum opus, Dhalgren, which I initially abandoned fairly early on. This is first rate idea-driven sci-fi.
Day of the Minotaur by Thomas Burnett Swann- Grade: B
Impressive for its prose, especially for its time, this novel is one of the earliest attempts (I read a few places it might be the earliest) to re-tell Greek myth for the modern audience. The downside to the novel is found in the times when a few anachronisms from the time in which it was written sneak in–yes, there are a few clear “flower child” type scenes, as well as a few cringe-worthy comments about women. On the flip side, it seems Thomas Burnett Swann was trying to subvert some of the latter through the narrative, which has women acting independently and with authority at times. Day of the Minotaur is also nearly lyrical in its prose, something that was not often attempted, to my knowledge, at the time. It’s a quick read that’s worth looking into for readers interested in mythical re-tellings.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (My Winner)- Grade: A
Heart-rending and poignant, Keyes has created an enduring masterpiece. Yes, some aspects of it haven’t aged well (such as outdated psychological theories), but it’s the kind of science fiction that could be set in the past as something that has happened, so that doesn’t matter. It’s got one of the best aspects of science fiction storytelling, namely that it asks us to look at ourselves as humans and see what we are more fully. I readily admit I did not think I’d enjoy this one going in. It had all the makings of one of those books that is more literary than it is plot, but it is not that at all. I wept bitterly at more than one point in this haunting work. It’s a beautiful book.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner)- Grade: B-
I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It was enjoyable, but the style dragged it down somewhat. It felt very matter-of-fact about even the most intense moments of the book. It’s not as beautiful as Stranger in a Strange Land nor as challenging as Starship Troopers. It’s still enjoyable, but the whole plot felt predictable. It lacked the excitement that comes with many other science fiction books. Not bad, certainly, but neither is it spectacular. Also, apparently it was eligible both in 1966 and in 1967?
The Witches of Karres by James M. Schmitz- Grade: C
How do you fairly evaluate a novel that seems like a possible precursor for many other ideas? The Witches of Karres has many of the elements later space operas would absorb, and the breadth of some of it is surprising. But it’s also… not very good. The ideas are there, but the execution is not. It reads about like what you would expect from an antiquated sci-fi adventure trying to grow beyond the bonds of the usual simplistic narrative. It’s admirable that the concept was developed here, but reading it for reasons other than history is not highly recommended.
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The most compelling retelling of Greek Myth (at least in SF) that I’ve encountered is Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze (1969) from a few years later. Reviewed on my site. I have yet to read anything by Swann… count me intrigued!
As for Heinlein, I am no longer a fan of his work (I’ve read a good 25 of his novels, etc. back in my late teens and early twenties). That said, if I were to told to pick the best of the bunch, I’d probably say The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
As for Delany, Babel-17 is his first good novel in my book. I recently struggled through The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965). It’s reviewed on my site.
I’d forgotten that I’d read all of the Hugo nominations for this year, other than the Schmitz, prior to the awards, which were given out at Nycon 3, which I attended. I read the Schmitz the next year.
My winner would be Babel-17, but the Keyes and the Swann were both excellent. I remember kinda enjoying the Schmitz when it was reissued as an Ace Science Fiction Special (all of which I bought and read on release), but it really shows the date of its source material, which was a Schmitz 1949 novella from Astounding. It’s very John W. Campbell, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. I am not fond of the Heinlein, which I found politically too didactic & contentious. I was already very left wing by this point.
The Swann had originally been serialized in 1964 in the UK magazine Science Fantasy, which was edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli of Mordecai fame. He later wrote 2 prequels, to make the Minotaur Trilogy.
We seem to have very similar taste! My own taste continues to develop away from Heinlein. I was blown away by Stranger… when I first read it but suspect now I wouldn’t enjoy it very much. Anyway, I may have to check out the prequels to Minotaur–have you read them? I gave the nod to Algernon because I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the depth of tragedy as much as when I read that book. So brutally sad.
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