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 have included a brief reflection on the year’s Hugos at the end. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees.
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke (Winner)- Grade: D
The Fountains of Paradise is dull almost beyond words. It’s served with a heaping helping of ‘religious people are stupid’ on top. Hey, maybe you think religious people are stupid, but if you do, can you at least acknowledge that some of them are thoughtful instead of making them all into cardboard caricatures? There’s a decent premise, I guess. Let’s build an elevator to the stars. Of course, only one place on Earth is suitable for some extremely dense hard sci-fi reason. I love science fiction. And I have enjoyed books by Clarke, but this one was aggravating and boring. That’s an accomplishment. Clarke has done much better.
Titan by John Varley- Grade: D
Titan is a combination of some hard science fiction themes along with some fantasy elements. It’s a recipe for something that I love, but when you add something awful into the mix, it all goes sideways. Here, that something awful is a heaping dose of misogynist sexual fantasies. The amount of ink spilled upon how women look and just how good they might be because of a shapely thigh or somesuch is just… so over the top. It was distracting all the way through to the extent that it, along with the assumptions about how men and women in general would act, detracted entirely from my enjoyment of the novel. But then I started to notice some of the other issues with it–some big plot holes, somewhat annoying characters, and nonsensical twists. I’ll be reading the next book, entirely because it also got an award nomination, so I’m hoping that I like it more.
Jem by Frederik Pohl- Grade: D
I did not like this book very much. A planet is discovered and humans want to peacefully colonize it as a kind of idyllic vision. Back on Earth, things go south and the new colony turns into a kind of last hope for humanity. On the colony, the alien races there are more (or less, in some ways?) than they appear. Honestly, the last 5% or so of the novel was good–it shows the consequences of even well-intentioned colonialism. Everything else was a slog. The first 80 pages or so seem to be half tribute to Pohl contemporaries, half boring meetings of people talking about or seducing each other as they try to figure out colonizing. The whole thing just ends up feeling extremely boring and even chore-like to read, though the bit of payoff at the end made me less upset about paying the fee to interlibrary loan it.
On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch- Grade: D+
How do you grade books that clearly demonstrate talent while also being nearly unreadable because they feel caught in the past with ideas that are sometimes cringe and sometimes just silly? I don’t know, but here’s where I settled on this frustrating, strange book. The premise is that the United States has turned, in parts, into ultra-conservative dystopias while at the coasts there exist some kind of hippy-ville that also has its share of problems. Someone has developed a way to have astral projection and trigger spiritual experiences, and Daniel Weinreb, our protagonist, has no small amount of trouble because of this “flying.” Ultimately, the book climaxes in a kind of revelation of the capacity to fully leave the body with the mind even as many conservatives and non-flyers reject the reality. It seems to clearly be a parable of a kind, but one that is so hidden behind layers that it’s difficult as to what Disch is trying to get at. Is he warning of the dangers of ultra-conservativism? Probably? Is it a broadside against religion? Perhaps? Is astral projection via machine a metaphor for drugs? I don’t know? It’s such a strange read set in sometimes strong prose that makes it all the more frustrating. I didn’t like it, but I understand why many might.
Harpist in the Wind by Patricia McKillip (My Winner)- Grade: B
Harpist in the Wind is the third and concluding volume in the Riddle-Master trilogy by McKillip. Like the other books in the series, the focus is pretty narrow, largely following a group of characters on an adventure as they quest to discover the mysteries behind some shape-shifters that have been dogging them, along with the mystery of the Kingdom in which they travel. There are moments of great revelations, especially when the magic is revealed in various parts. There are also moments of tenderness that are surprisingly strong in characterization. I have to express some disappointment, though, in that despite the massive focus on riddles as ways to control and even do battle with others, there is very little by way of actual riddles in the novels themselves.
1980- Uffda. This was a rough year for the Hugos. Several familiar names headline these nominations, but none of them delivered the goods, imo. McKillip’s novel is a worthy choice for a nominee, but would not win a stronger year. The winner chosen at the actual ceremony–Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise–is a tedious slog. The other books don’t fare much better. It’s almost like the voters just nominated favorite authors for the sake of seeing their names yet again on the ballot. One of the worst years, in my opinion.
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The Nebula nominated Wilhelm’s Juniper Time (1979) that year. A solid novel. It probably would have improved the overall average!
That and “The Road to Corlay” by Cowper, neither of which I’ve read. The Hugos for 1980 were… rough.
I don’t understand whether The Road to Corlay could be nominated for the Hugo. It was published in 1978 not 1979. I’m unsure of the exact rules so I’m a bit confused.
I’m ambivalent about The Road to Corlay. But again, sounds better than some of these! https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/04/01/book-review-the-road-to-corlay-richard-cowper-1978/
Juniper Time review: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2014/04/11/book-review-juniper-time-kate-wilhelm-1979/
Lol that cover for Juniper Time!
I included three in the review. Which one? I make fun of the last one in the review — haha. All three are pretty miserable.
The first is the worst, by far.
I only read 2 of these because by this time I was heavily into UK writers, and pre-Amazon UK, I was taking trips to the UK to buy them and schlep them home, so little interested was I in most US output. I did read a few US writers, though, and with the cited 2 we run into our first serious disagreements. I adored both Titan (and the entire Gaea Trilogy) & On the Wings of Song. The Gaea Trilogy was interesting conceptually, and Varley has a pleasant, although not outstanding prose style. I’d been reading the trilogy driving cross-country with my mother, and left Vol. 3 (Demon) in a motel in Yuma AZ. I was frantic to get to LA and get a new copy, which I was able to do. The Disch has all of the hallmarks of a great Disch novel, with his exceptional prose and wonderful/horrifying concepts. I stuck with his releases until his suicide.
Were you flying to the UK from the US to book shop?
Weirdly I’m reading volume 2 of Gaea right now and I’m liking it a lot. The first felt sleazy to me.
Yeah, I was. And record shop. I did try to schedule trips around concerts, but wasn’t always able to.
That is awesome! Thanks for sharing a cool story!