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 Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven- Grade: D+
Take the longest, most drawn-out parts of Ringworld, in which the characters are slogging through endless terrain. Now, turn that into an entire book. That’s what it feels like I just read. Yes, I know there was a plot there to try to ratchet up the tension. Something about some aliens trying to find treasure so they can impress other aliens or whatever. But realistically, the plot here absolutely drags. I mean, it’s the sloggiest of slogs. I found myself barely caring about what was happening about halfway through, and then forcing myself towards the end, which manages to be, insultingly, a cliffhanger-ish ending. A cliffhanger! After a book that did almost nothing with its characters for 300 pages! I admit I groaned a bit. Finally, something happened, and it was right as I turned the page to run into the epilogue.
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl- Grade: A-
A small group of humans goes to explore an artifact left by the Heechee, a super-advanced race that mysteriously disappeared. There’s a surprising amount of plot tucked into this book that starts with a kind of razor focus on four main characters and ultimately has galaxy-wide implications. As I read, it seemed there was plenty left unexplained. It’s possible I missed some explanations. I just thought that more questions were opened near the end than were closed. I didn’t realize that this opens up more of a series from Pohl, though, and I’m interested in whether the next few books live up to the first two.
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A
I had a number of abortive attempts to read this a few years ago and then just gave up. I picked it up for the fourth or fifth time on a vacation for this read-through and it all started to click together. This is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Snow Queen…” kind of. It doesn’t really strike me as having too many similarities, but my only experience with Anderson’s version is, to be fair, a few cartoon versions somewhere (I think) and the Wiki page. So I basically read this on its own merits, and it stands up very well. The world building here is at a level akin to some of the all time greats. The characters are complex, though a few get lost on tangents here and there along the way. The star is the Snow Queen and Moon, her pseudo-progeny slash rival for power. Political intrigue, questions of connection to a greater universe, and more abound throughout the novel. It’s not an easy read. This is one you’ll need to sit down and pay attention to, which thankfully lent itself to a couple long drives across South Dakota and Wyoming for me (I wasn’t driving, before you get too worried). I think I can now say I understand why this is considered a great by so many, and I may even dive into it again in a year or two because I enjoyed it immensely. It’s dense, though, almost to the point of being unbearably dense.
Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg- Grade: A-
A science fantasy epic follows the story of Valentine, a man who’s memories have been repressed as he finds himself in a major city with a pile of coins but little knowledge of what to do. He becomes a juggler with a traveling party of humans and aliens for lack of anything better to do. As the novel goes on, layers of this fantastical world are peeled away and readers are swept into the adventure of Valentine as he rediscovers himself and his place on Majipoor. I used the terminology “swept” on purpose, because this is a novel that, if you’ll allow it, will take you up and carry you on an adventure across the massive planet. There are parts where the plot could drag, such as the lengthy descriptions of the juggling. However, if one lets oneself truly dive into those parts and see the flow, the rhythm, and the beat for what they’re intended to be, it’s enthralling. A slow burn read that builds on itself over its lengthy stay, I believe readers will largely get out of it the amount of emersion they’re willing to allow.
Wizard by John Varley- Grade: B-
A significant improvement over the first book in nearly every way. Wizard tells the story of the world of Gaea, which is somehow sentient and also personal and… has many other singular qualities. Readers follow the story of a few pilgrims to Gaea, each seeking their own answers, who get drawn into a kind of epic journey trying to figure out and possibly overthrow some of the mechanisms behind Gaea’s workings. Along the way, no small amount of Weird Sci-Fi conventions get thrown into the mix. Whether it’s the pseudo-centaur-like creatures on Gaea engaging in explicitly detailed sex with a human, many, many other sexual comments and scenes, the constantly pseudo-feminist-yet-weirdly-male-gaze-y narrative of a certain character, or any number of other scenes, the reader is treated to a veritable cacophony of strangeness. At times, the feeling of “other” is overwhelming to the point where it becomes almost prosaic to have an actual plot happening. Happens it does, however, and the story itself is fine enough, though I found some if its elements (such as Gaea’s boredom and attempts to cure it) a bit disappointing. Still, this is a singular work that, so far as I am concerned, vastly surpasses the first in the series.
What a weird year. Wizard headlines the weirdness by being among the more strange pieces of science fiction I’ve read–but it remains readable. I had fun reading it as I walked circles around a local pond. Snow Queen is a book that felt a monumental task to finish, and I’m glad I did. I doubt if I’ll ever attempt it again, though, despite it being my pick for a winner. It’s majestic, but overbearing. Silverberg’s entry is somehow a traditional-feeling fantasy novel, something I haven’t really encountered from him (which shows both his range and my need to read more of his works!). I was hoping to find a newfound love of the Ringworld books, as I always hear them raised as longtime favorites. I especially felt this way after having finally “figured out” the first book in some ways. But alas, I found Ringworld Engineers to be boring and mostly pointless. Finally, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is full of big ideas and cool happenings. While it never reaches the highest of heights, its a supremely worthy read. 1981 is a solid year for the Hugos. It’s not the best, but it certainly isn’t the worst year. It also is one of the few years so far in which my winner was the same as the actual winner. I should keep track of how often this happens.
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Surprisingly, given that I’d been reading mostly UK SF for almost a decade, I read 4 of these. I basically agree with you on the Niven, SilverBob & Vinge. As before, I liked the Varley more than you did. I have always been meaning to get into Pohl’s Heechee series, and hope that I one day get around to it.