I’m a huge science fiction fan, and, having read a list of what are alleged to be the top 200 science fiction novels, I decided to next tackle a read-through of all the Hugo Award winners and nominees for best novel. Let me know your thoughts and favorites. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees. I’ve also dropped a short reflection on the year’s Hugo list at the end.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A+
Ursula K. Le Guin sketches out a remarkably detailed anarchist society, while pitting its pseudo-utopian problems alongside problems with capitalism and socialism. It’s really well done and incredibly deep. At no point does it seem like the society is merely a foil, except perhaps at times when questions of sexual relations is concerned. Even there, though, Le Guin has in-universe reasons for what is happening and ties it all into her detailed world-building. She also explores the question of how much our upbringing can cloud our thoughts regarding being self-critical and analyzing our own views. Why not the highest possible score? Because other than the main character, an intriguing scientist with a good amount of depth, every other character is exactly what you might expect. They’re created purely for the sake of the plot, but the plot is so intriguing that you don’t end up minding it as much as you probably should. So even the somewhat uneven characterization doesn’t take away from the glory of this novel. It certainly must stand as among the best science fiction novels ever written.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick- Grade: C-
Can there please, please be one Philip K. Dick novel where the answer to everything is not “drugs did it”? [Yes, I know there is more than one. But come on.] I saw the “twists” in this novel coming from miles away. I saw the main reveal coming from the beginning of the book. Dick was capable of creating mind-bending plot threads, and this one was no different. Waking up going from famous to a nobody isn’t the most original idea, but Dick’s writing is capable at even the worst, and he had me hooked fairly early on. However, delving deeper and deeper into the book made me think, “Wow, I hope this doesn’t end up as another ‘The answer is drugs’ when the big reveal hits.” Well, sure enough, it is. And that basically sucked all of my enjoyment from the novel. It’s fine. I guess.
The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle Grade: A-
The authors created a unique first-contact story that I enjoyed immensely. Plenty of twists and strangeness mixed in. It conveys a sense of the strangeness of the alien that isn’t always found in first contact books. They truly do feel ‘other’ in a way that authors don’t always manage to capture with aliens. That’s probably the greatest strength of this novel, and the one that kept me coming back. The aliens are just so much fun to figure out, and the way the humans slowly find out more about them is written such that it is rewarding to keep peeling back the layers. The central conflict surrounding how to deal with the different alien types and the revelations that come with that are intriguing. Quite well done.
Inverted World by Christopher Priest Grade: A
When I write book reviews, I try to avoid words that I think get overutilized in book blurbs or endorsements. One of those words is “engrossing.” But I have to say, Inverted World could best be described as “engrossing.” From start to finish, it is a spellbinding tale that adds complexity nearly every time you turn a page. I thought at multiple points I had figured out the twist for the novel, only to have another puzzle thrown at me that I could not explain. Ultimately, Inverted World is about how we perceive–or refuse to perceive–the world around us. Will we be like Helward, refusing to see reality even as it is shown to us? Or will we be open-minded enough to allow our perceptions to be mistaken? Or do our perceptions confine us to reality in ways we might not anticipate? Priest made me think of all these possibilities while captivating me with his world-building. If there is a flaw in the novel, it’s that almost no one besides Helward is of any interest. Even Eliabeth, introduced late in the novel, has little to offer by way of development. But this is a book that forces you to think about the world after reading it, and I tend to think those are the best kind of novel to read.
Fire Time by Poul Anderson Grade: C-
My overall impression of Poul Anderson is that he comes up with great ideas but doesn’t flesh them out or execute them as well as I’d like. Fire Time is a prime example of that. The premise has a hard sci-fi bend: a planet’s interaction with its three stars cause a “Fire Time,” which is an incredibly hot time every thousand years as the planet approaches one star in particular. Of course, tons of mythos has sprung up around this time, and adding humans into the mix of aliens causes additional avenues for conflict. The conflict itself could be an analogue for a real world conflict, as well. Somehow this promising premise gets reduced to a few vignettes of characters who aren’t terribly interesting. After the first 10% or so, it quickly becomes a tedious read that rides its premise along for the latter portions without any other reason to continue. At no point did any of the characters grab me and bring me along. I just kept hoping for more.
1975- As a follow up to a somewhat disappointing 1974, this year was fantastic. The winner, The Dispossessed, is unquestionably one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written. It stands up under multiple re-reads and continues to find depths to explore each time. The obligatory PKD and Anderson books are there, and if you’re fan of their styles, you probably will like them more than I did. PKD, in particular, is very hit or miss for me. Rounding out the year are two other fantastic reads that are radically different. Inverted World is an absolute mind-bender of a novel from the magnificent Christopher Priest, while The Mote… is a fabulous first contact novel. It’s just a great year for the Hugos with a superb collection of works.
Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.
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!