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. There may be SPOILERS for the books discussed.
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (Winner)- Grade: A+
Just about every aspect of this novel is spectacular. It had so many things that I love in science fiction. But what truly struck me the most was how very different and unique it was in what issues it addressed. For example, how often do we run into -anything- about men having difficulties with sex in science fiction? Especially when those difficulties are not something like “He’s ugly so he can’t get with a hot woman”? I mean, I was absolutely blown away by the discussion of Gabriel’s difficulty with control, whether it was meant as a possible euphemism for something more explicit or not. Just having that part of the story exist made it wonderfully unique, and, frankly, intimate in a way that I have rarely experienced in a book. As a reader, I hugely appreciated Snake’s handling of the situation as well as the way it all played out.
Then, there’s the story right alongside that with Melissa, which not only addresses another serious issue but also does it in a way that provides a child with genuine agency. After Snake rescues Melissa, they have a rather lengthy conversation about what happens next. And Snake actually listens to the 12-year-old child and grants that this child might have reasons for wanting something. I cannot say how huge that is for me to encounter in science fiction. Children are generally either prodigies with near (or actual) divine powers or essentially props for adults. Here, Melissa is granted space to have agency.
Really, this made me think of the book in strongly feminist terms, which apparently is not unwarranted given McIntyre’s history so far as I can tell on Wiki. It’s not only adult women given autonomy and action in this world. It’s girls whose opinions are valued and who even manage to change the mind of an adult. It’s a beautiful moment in a novel that has them in spades. I haven’t even mentioned McIntyre’s handling of the city and the hints of “offworlders,” or the deft handling of the Dreamsnake problem itself. All of these were things I loved–the limited perspective, the hints of hard sci-fi in my Mad Max-like book, the strong featuring of snakes. The book is a superb work on every level. I adored it.
The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey- Grade: B
McCaffrey’s science fantasy series continues to entertain with the third book, The White Dragon. The central aspect of the world of Pern which McCaffrey created is the threat of Threadfall, some non-sentient creatures that fall at certain intervals from a distant planet. In the first book, Dragonflight, this was made bleakly threatening. The second book kept that threat and the sense of ancient age of the world in which the characters exist. In this third book, The White Dragon, readers get more intimate with the characters. This gives us a better picture of how the world is lived in on a day-to-day basis, but it also takes away some of the density of the world building in the first two books that I enjoyed so much. Here, we have a titular white dragon who would not have lived had he not been saved at hatching. His powers are extraordinary in some ways, but we don’t get a great sense of how this might play out. Eventually, after some threats are met and defeated, the book ends on a hopeful note that leaves it wide open for future development. I liked this one, but not as much as the first two in the series.
Blind Voices by Tom Reamy- Grade: B-
I found this such a surprising novel on just about every level. I have to admit, I did not expect to like it going in. It looked very much unlike anything I would enjoy. The premise seemed outside of anything I like either. The book’s central plot is around a summer in which some children from a village in Kansas discover the delights of a traveling wagon show. But it turns out that the people with their strange features are more than they appear–and certainly more than the deceptions some of the children assume them to be. As the novel wears on, we discover strangeness time and again. There’s a strong sense of the mysterious here, combined with a sense of wonder. Mix in a bit of “coming of age” type plotting, and the novel ends up being a rather unique mix of material. On the negative side, the pace struggles at times and the characterization is fairly thin. That said, this is a fascinating book that is rather shocking to find on the Hugo list at this point in time. It’s so atypical from what has been featured thus far.
The Faded Sun: Kesrith by C.J. Cherryh- Grade: A-
A fully-fleshed out world that shows off the range of Cherryh’s aliens and the depth of her character interactions. Cherryh is an author whose works are so dense that it can become difficult to unpack them from themselves. I have tried time and again to enter into her impenetrable worlds, and this novel finally felt like things began to click. The recovery from a devastating war is intertwined with the social niceties of alien cultures in ways that still feel dense but at least are presented through a narrative perspective that allows some explanation for the reader. Comparisons to Dune feel inevitable here, as the world is a desert planet and one of the main characters is even named Duncan. These comparisons will only find superficial points, though, because Cherryh has made her own endless well of world and character development that has that feel of only barely scratching the surface here. This novel actually took me 3 tries to finally get going, as I struggled keeping track of everything going on. It’s a great story, but only if you’re in the mood for a read that requires quite a bit of effort.
1979- Only 4 nominees this go-round, but it’s an incredible lineup. Dreamsnake can arguably considered among the best-ever science fiction in my opinion. Blind Voices is weird but absolutely deserving. The White Dragon sees McAffrey’s series truly start to sprawl out, and Cherryh finally made sense to me. Truly an excellent year.
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I’ve read all but the Cherryh.
I’d rank them:
White Dragon [a series I enjoyed as a kid but I think the defeat of thread in this novel ruined chronologically later novels]
I might be mixing up the plot of The White Dragon with a later novel. It’s been so long!
It’s All the Weyrs of Pern that I despise — not The White Dragon (which I now remember adoring as a kid). Still, I think the Reamy and McIntyre (both reviewed on my site) are superior.
No major disagreements aside from the fact that, for whatever reason, Pern just never did it for me.