My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1975

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.

Links

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!

SDG.

The Hugo Award for Best Series: 2021 Reviews

Reading the nominations for the Hugo Awards for Best Series takes dedication. I have read at least the first three books of every single one of the series and given the series a grade and review based upon that reading. If I have not read the entire series, I have noted it in my review of the series. I would love to talk about these series with you, dear readers, and want to know what you think about them. Which is your favorite? Have you read them all? This year’s nominations are a pile of excellent books, so it’s worth diving in.

S. A. Chakraborty: The Daevabad Trilogy- Grade: A (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, The Empire of Gold)
There’s an allure about this whole series that stays with the reader all the way through. Chakraborty does such a fabulous job of building the world that the sights, smells, and sounds of the trilogy stick with the reader long after the books are closed. The different tribes of the Djinn make for some surprising conflicts and even protagonists and antagonists. The shifting nature of allegiance throughout the series means readers have to pay close attention even as they admire the prose and movement of the stories. It’s somewhat rare to see the final volume of a trilogy be the strongest, but I personally thought that was the case here, with The Empire of Gold providing a truly wonderful conclusion to the trilogy that had been building throughout. Chakraborty will most certainly be on my list of authors to read more

John Scalzi: The Interdependency– Grade: B+ (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox)
Scalzi is endlessly entertaining. Every one of the books in this trilogy made me grin and even laugh out loud at times. Reading his novels can sometimes feel like reading an entertaining blog post that happens to go on for hundreds of pages. It’s not the strongest prose, but it’s captivating and always fun. All of that said, the story of this space opera felt alternatively epic and rushed. The premise is that there’s a way of travel that connects an entire empire together, and that way of travel is collapsing. The powers that be must then figure out what to do to secure their power or run into the night before the inevitable doomsday for all society. It’s a great premise, and it, along with the entertainment factor of Scalzi’s writing, carries the series on its back. The characters here aren’t as strong as some of the other works on this list, and the plot of the last book, The Last Emperox, feels extremely rushed. It’s unfortunate, because the series does have that sense of the epic at times, but as the events spiral too quickly, it loses it. Scalzi walks that fine line space operas must so often walk between being so huge they get overdone and rushing events too quickly, and he leans over to the “rushing” side with some frequency. All of that said, the series is immensely enjoyable top to bottom simply because of his writing. It also features one of my all-time favorite book dedications with The Last Emperox: “To the women who are done with other people’s shit.”

Mary Robinette Kowal: The Lady Astronaut Series- Grade: A+ (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky, The Relentless Moon, and several short stories)
Kowal is a master of characterization, and this series demonstrates that beyond measure. An alternate history in which an asteroid strike smashed off the east coast of the United States and forced humanity to look to the stars for hope in colonization sounds like a pitch that would play out somewhat differently than it does. The thrust of these novels is much less about the impact of this asteroid strike on civilization than it is about following a few characters caught up in the work to become (lady) astronauts and explore space for the sake of all humanity. I have not read any of the shorter stories in this series, but did read all the novels, including the first one twice. Anyway, the first book, The Calculating Stars, won the Hugo Award for best novel a few years back. It touches on issues of racism, sexism, and more, all while couching it in familiar 1950s-60s vibes and culture. Kowal did her research and historical notes at the end of each book gives some fascinating insights into the novels. The second book, The Fated Sky, gives surprising insight into the characters we grew to love (and hate) in the first book, and it has launched itself in among my favorite science fiction novels. The third novel, The Relentless Moon, is also a nominee for best novel this year, and it follows one of our lady astronauts on the home front as others are on the way to Mars in the second book. Each novel is fantastic, and the series as a whole is as well. Fans of science fiction and/or period pieces will eat this up, and the series is a clear frontrunner for best series.

Martha Wells: The Murderbot Diaries- Grade: A- (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, and Network Effect)
The star of this series is the titular Murderbot, a security robot whose busted its programming and sometimes fantasizes about the murder it could carry out but mostly spends its time instead on protecting those close to it and binging TV shows. It’s a solid setup that allows for Wells to bounce from one-off to one-off while developing longer character arcs here and there. The first four works are novellas, and they move with the intensity and action of their format. Network Effect is the first novel in the series, and it has gotten a Hugo nomination (and a Nebula Win) under its belt already. The hugely popular series is popular for good reason: they’re just plain fun to sit down and read. Time and pages fly past when you read these largely escapist books. Wells weaves a few hints at our own political and societal concerns into the series as well for readers looking something deeper. The series is also continuing, as Wells signed a contract for several more works in the series with Tor Books.

Seanan McGuire: The October Daye Series- Grade: A (Rosemary and Rue, A Local Habitation, An Artificial Night, and many more novels and stories)
A huge series with 15 (and counting) novels and a host of shorter works to go with it, the October Daye series follows our half-fae character, October (Toby) Daye and her adventures intersecting the realms of fairy and our own. Whether she’s solving a murder, getting involved in kidnappings, or fighting demonic fae, the series brings action and whimsy together in delightful story after delightful story. These are quick reads, but they are more robust than you might think based on that description. McGuire has a way of worldbuilding that continues to work on itself, block after block, in ways that surprise and delight. The wild thing about this is that this isn’t even my favorite series from McGuire, but her writing is just so good that I keep coming back regardless of what she’s writing. I recommend you give it a try, too, because it’s worth finding out if you, too, can have another author that you plan to read everything from at the earliest possible moment. I love it. I read the first 5 novels before writing this, and plan to read the rest forthwith.

R. F. Kuang: The Poppy War- Grade: B- (The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic, The Burning God)
Kuang’s first book, The Poppy War, contains some of the absolute most gruesome and horrific descriptions of violence I have ever read in any book, whether fiction or nonfiction. I believe that is on purpose. However, I found the extreme amount and brutal details of gory violence to genuinely eat away at my enjoyment of that novel. It was especially surprising because early on, the book feels a bit like a Young Adult novel. I am not at all critical of something being YA. I love YA. I think rejecting something just because it’s YA is the height of stupidity regarding reading habits. I’m only saying it felt YA because it read like a “hey we’re going to school to learn how to fight” story that dominates a lot of YA fantasy at times. Then, it got so supremely dark that I almost felt sick to my stomach reading it. Such extreme violent could be pointless–and it almost feels like it here–but it’s also true that Kuang seems to be emulating some real life events, whether it’s an examination of Japan’s atrocities on China’s mainland in the second World War or more modern events (like the casual violence of running someone over to ensure you don’t have to pay for disabilities after an accident). These are themes worth exploring, but the extreme nature of the violence is so intense that I found it taking away from my enjoyment of the novels. Maybe, on some higher literary plain, there’s a sense that novels aren’t for enjoyment and that they can be for instruction or activism. I don’t disagree, but I also wonder whether the level of description was necessary. Regardless, I did read the whole series and I think the central plot is good, and sometimes surprising. I admit I started to skip over whole sections of text when I discovered more violence coming, though.

Links

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!

SDG.

Hugo Award Nominations for Long Form Dramatic Presentation 2020: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”

For the first time ever, I’m a Hugo voter (you can be, too!). I am trying to work my way through the mass of nominations in order to feel fully informed as a voter. I have young kids and I don’t watch movies often, so I hadn’t watched any of the nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. So, here goes nothing! Time to watch a bunch of movies.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, written by Will Ferrell, Andrew Steele, directed by David Dobkin (European Broadcasting Union/Netflix)

Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like gatekeeping on fandom. I think it’s an awful waste of time and energy. So I’m not going to debate whether or not this movie counts as speculative fiction. It’s got at least one scene that seems to undeniably make it such, and it has a Hugo nomination, so here we are.

What a wild ride! Will Ferrell probably touches some people the wrong way, but I love his overly earnest, expressive characters. Here, he plays a man who has dreamed his whole life of winning Eurovision, something I have to admit I’d never even heard of before it started popping up all over my Twitter feed in May 2021. The Eurovision Song Contest is some kind of international competition for an original song. It’s also, so far as my Very Extensive Research (not very extensive and based exclusively on a couple image searches and Tweets) can tell, known for extravagant outfits and presentations.

This movie is fun, exciting, and full of great music. It’s got Dan Stevens (playing Russian singer Alexander Lemtov), who really should be lead in a lot more roles because that guy is talented. What a voice! The plot follows Lars (Ferrell), the bumbling idiot, and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), a woman in love with the Eurovision-obsessed Lars, as they manage to get through the contest on technicalities and explosions–yes, explosions. Oh, and murder(s). As they advance, they meet other singers and realize how outclassed they are, even as their erotic tension increases. Alexander tries to lure Sigrid away, seeing her talent for what it is even as Lars sees himself as the star. The culmination of everything leads to Lars realizing that his life with Sigrit is more important than Eurovision, and they return home bigger stars than they could’ve imagined.

Can we talk about how fun the original music is for this movie? “Volcano Man” is an absolute banger. I desperately want a “full version” with a completed music video (eg. 3+ minutes). Other songs are fabulous, too, such as the innuendo laden “JaJa Ding Dong” or Dan Stevens belting out “Lion of Love.”

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is the first of this year’s Hugo-nominated movies I’ve watched. As it stands, it would certainly get my vote over “No Award.” It’s a fun, often hilarious movie with more heart than one might expect. I loved it, but I could see a more serious spec-fiction movie unseating it for my vote this year.

Links

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

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!

SDG.

Initial Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Nominees

The 2021 Hugo Nominations have been announced. I’m pleased to say I was involved this time as a paying member and got to help nominate. It was a ton of fun, though I absolutely agonized over my choices for best novel. I wanted to talk about the shortlist now that it’s been announced and highlight a few things.

Best Related Work

I start here because one of the selections truly blew me away. Finding new things that I’d never have thought about before is THE reason I read through lists of any sort. Well, when the nominees were announced, I saw “The Last Bronycon: a fandom autopsy” from Jenny Nicholson, a YouTube video pop up. I know a couple bronies, and my kids love the Friendship is Magic show, so I’ve seen glimpses of it here and there. I figured, what the heck, I’ll watch this video. It’s a bit over an hour long and I was just enthralled the whole time.

First of all, Nicholson is an engaging speaker. She blended humor, personal experience in the community, and a critical eye into a genuinely wonderful piece. It would be easy to make videos mocking bronies or asking why people are how they are. Nicholson has enough firsthand experience to love the community and acknowledge its faults. It was an incisive look at how the fandom rose up around My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and how some parts could be quite toxic while others were wonderful.

The video also made me want to watch My Little Pony much more than I have with my kids watching it in the background. I think it’s always fun to join new fandoms, though trying to navigate the unfortunate (and sometimes, it seems, inevitable) toxicity and gatekeeping makes it tough to get on board.

As a related work, though, what a great work “The Last Bronycon” was. It offered insights into the subject while also calling on viewers to experience the joy and love that Nicholson herself had/has for both the community and the content. I highly recommend you watch it. (Fair warning: some adult content, language, and discussion.)

I love this thumbnail, it’s so great!

Just another quick note, I was tickled to see the article “George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony” by Natalie Luhrs on there. The 2020 Hugo Awards ceremony was certainly an interesting thing to behold, but I only watched it intermittently. This analysis helped me see more of the problems with it. I confess I’m a huge Silverberg fan as far as much of his fiction, but the searing he got in this article may have been deserved too. Whether it was or not, I do think that articles like this that help make us aware of potential problems in fandom are helpful.

Best Novel

This is probably the category with the most buzz, and, as I said, I agonized over my own choices. There was so much fantastic speculative fiction released last year. The nominees are

  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery / Saga Press)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tordotcom)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tordotcom)
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books)

I’ve read most of these, but not Harrow the Ninth or The Relentless Moon. I did a deep dive into some Mary Robinette Kowal recently, though, reading the entire Glamourist Histories series, which was fabulous, along with some shorter fiction. I need to go back and read the whole Lady Astronaut series. As for Harrow–well, I did not enjoy Gideon much at all, but since I try to read every single Hugo nominee for best novel, I’ll be giving the series another chance. I genuinely think Harrow will win regardless. The first book had so much hype and this one seems to be getting just as much. The other four novels, which I’ve read, would each be deserving in their own way. So far, out of these (and excluding by default those I haven’t read), I’d probably pick Network Effect, but they’re all great choices.

I gotta say I was shocked that To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini wasn’t on this list. I thought it was a shoe-in for at least getting a nomination. It was one of the biggest surprises of last year’s reading for me, and I wrote about it in longer form already. I loved it. Given Paolini’s big name from the Eragon books (which I admit I didn’t like much, having only read the first), I figured he’d be on it for sure. Goes to show how much I know!

Best Video Game

I believe it’s the first year for this category, and the nominations are all over the board. A few are expected–Animal Crossing and the Final Fantasy VII remake (which I still need to play, come on PC release!), while others are surprises. Like Blaseball? I’ve never even heard of it, but apparently it’s a browser based horror baseball game? Uh, I’ll be giving that a try.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko should win this. It’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. I loved it so much, and I encourage you to go read it as soon as possible! I keep seeing A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking showing up places–I need to read it. I wrote a review of Raybearer if you’d like to check it out.

Astounding Award for Best New Author

The choices here are:

  • Lindsay Ellis (1st year of eligibility)
  • Simon Jimenez (1st year of eligibility)
  • Micaiah Johnson (1st year of eligibility)
  • A.K. Larkwood (1st year of eligibility)
  • Jenn Lyons (2nd year of eligibility)
  • Emily Tesh (2nd year of eligibility)

This is an incredibly solid list. I personally lean towards Simon Jimenez because his The Vanished Birds is a spectacular debut work. Found family, shades of “Firefly.” Check it out.

Best Fanzine

I am so pleased to see the “Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog” ed. Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne on there. I enjoy their presence on Twitter so much, as they both interact so kindly and also help highlight so many works. They’re great at signal boosting others and I just love that.

Other Categories

I’m sorry if I didn’t comment on your favorites, but I’d love to read your thoughts! Let me know what you think in the comments, please! I love talking about this stuff. I also tried to avoid commenting on anything I just hadn’t read or didn’t know enough about to comment upon. Congratulations to all the nominees!

Links

Announcing the 2021 Hugo Award Finalists– Tor dot com’s post about the finalists, a convenient place to view them all.

Science Fiction Hub– I’ve discussed past Hugo Awards extensively, and would love to chat about them and hear your own thoughts! I have several posts discussing entire years’ worth of nominees/winners for best novel as well as my own choice for a winner. Check out all my posts on science fiction (and some fantasy!) at this hub.

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!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1971

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 1971 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. As always, there will be SPOILERS for the books discussed.

1971- Sometimes people ask me why I enjoy reading lists so much. Being handed a bunch of choices made by someone else isn’t always the most enjoyable thing, as any high school student can tell you. The reason I like lists is because it forces me to read things I may otherwise never have encountered. 1971 is a year that proved that for me again. The Year of the Quiet Sun is an absolutely fantastic book that I’m sure I never would have read otherwise. I liked it so much that I even wrote a longer post on it in my Vintage Sci-Fi series. The other books this year are widely variant in my enjoyment of them. My third time through Ringworld made me both like and dislike aspects of it more than ever before. I may try more of the series soon. Tau Zero was… not great, yet again. I don’t know if I’ve liked almost anything by Poul Anderson. He may be outside my taste. Star Light by Hal Clement is a great example of the pitfalls of hard sci-fi. Tower of Glass is another great Silverberg novel, exploring themes that go far beyond the surface.

Ringworld by Larry Niven (Winner) Grade: C+
I’ve now read this book twice and a third time on audiobook for various lists. The audiobook helped me really focus in on certain parts of it that I’d kind of skimmed before. I think the first half or so of the book is quite strong. Niven makes compelling aliens that are different enough from humans to seem truly alien–a gift he displays in other books as well. But once all the initial drama is out of the way and the mysterious nature of Ringworld is revealed… it all seems kind of ho hum from there. The immediacy of the breakdown of civilization on Ringworld is difficult to believe and somewhat forced. The strong sense of mystery when the Ringworld is first revealed is a letdown in its payoff. And the characters don’t hold interest after a while. But the first half was such compelling reading that slogging through the incredibly uneven back half is at least partially forgiven. I’m thinking I may finally go and get the next couple to read them, just to see if we get a better payoff for the ideas Niven developed earlier in the book. So, I guess my overall thoughts are that this was a mixed bag. The hard sci-fi elements were fascinating, and I loved the ideas for various aliens. But once the plot truly got rolling, it seemed to fizzle out instead of all come together.

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson Grade: D+
It’s hard sci-fi with all the ups and downs of the subgenre. Fewer ups than downs are present. It’s a good example of the things that can go wrong with hard sci-fi. Anderson actually pauses for paragraphs at a time to explain to his readers concepts like relativity. Perhaps that was necessary or seen as stylistically acceptable when it was written, but it disrupts the flow of the novel repeatedly. Is this an intro to physics textbook or a novel? It’s hard to tell. The plot isn’t terrible interesting, either. A colonization ship runs into a problem with a nebula; science and fake science ensues to try to solve it. Much misogyny is the name of the game when it comes to character interactions. Women are vessels for sexually explicit fantasies. The book is barely readable, in my opinion, and notable perhaps only for its helping establish the subgenre as something to be pursued. Easy to pass up now, and I’ve read it twice! Curse my commitment to reading lists! But it pays off sometimes (see below, The Year of the Quiet Sun).

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg Grade: A
I read this book a second time as I came up on time to write this review, and I’m glad I did. I can safely say that the first time I read it, I didn’t understand it. I mean, I got the general idea of it as a kind of play on the Tower of Babel and the like, but I don’t think I got it. This time, I think I did, though, as always, the author may disagree with my reading. Anyway, the general plot is that there’s a possible alien intelligence trying to communicate with Earth from a star that doesn’t seem capable of supporting life, and the word’s richest man is building an enormous tower to try to communicate with these alleged aliens. Krug, the wealthy man, became so by creating Androids, who have since been assigned hierarchy based upon their abilities. What he doesn’t know (nor do any humans, apparently) is that the androids have made their own religion, turning Krug into a god, complete with a kind of Trinitarian theology and scripture. The androids dream of freedom, and throughout the book this is a major driving force of the plot. But when their freedom isn’t granted, the androids rebel, ultimately tearing down the tower, though some who remain loyal to Krug send him on his spaceship in cryo-sleep to see the aliens. None of these threads are tied off. Indeed, the book is full of loose threads at the end, but I didn’t mind. It forces you as a reader to sit and think about it. This is a book that I keep thinking more about every time I consider it. There’s so much going on in it, and I loved it.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker (My Winner) Grade: A
I’d not read Wilson Tucker before I dug this gem out of a pile somewhere online. It seems intensely out of print–no ebook edition (a problem I’ve run into more than once on this quest, to be fair), and many copies prohibitively expensive. Finally found an edition that collected it with a few other novels. Anyway, this book is stuffed with themes. Whether intentional or not, the way that the main character’s work and person is connected to many, many aspects of this time travel novel make it a wellspring of reflection. Brian Chaney, the main character, translated an ancient work that appears to show the book of Revelation is not, in fact, from the time of Christ but rather a few hundred years before. This side piece of information looms large on reflecting the major themes of the novel itself, but it’s done so subtly that it is easy to miss. Alongside this, Chaney is sent to a disturbingly possible future and the bleakness is so thick that the book is probably not for the faint of heart. It’s not flawless, as it has a decent helping of misogyny and the characters are rather thin. But overall, the novel is one of those I can’t stop thinking about, even weeks after finishing it. For that, it ranks among the masterworks for me. I couldn’t contain my thoughts on this fabulous book by Wilson Tucker in a single paragraph, so I wrote a lengthy reflection shortly after finishing it.

Star Light by Hal Clement Grade: C+
Hard science fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres of sci-fi. I just love having all the science piled on–whether real or fake–to dress up the plot in a veneer of lab coats and testable predictions. That’s not sarcasm–I truly do love this sub-genre. But there is a huge, common pitfall in hard sci-fi: it is easy to allow the plot to be reduced to a vehicle for the introduction of science. This is no different from the pitfall of other sub-genres, but it seems extremely common in hard sci-fi. Star Light falls headfirst into that pitfall, and perhaps does so willingly as Hal Clement delightfully waxes eloquent on various scientific concepts–both real and imaginary–throughout the novel to the extent that it became difficult, in my opinion, to focus on the characters and the plot in any meaningful way. It’s not a bad novel, and it kept me turning the pages, but it wasn’t anything fantastic. Due to the intense, constant focus on the science, there was little development of characters or even background for them. It’s fine, but not great. The edition linked includes both Star Light and Mission of Gravity. The former is superior, in my opinion.

Links

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!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dreamsnake” by Vonda N. McIntyre

Not the original cover, but the one I read and the one that will forever define the novel to me.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

I read Dreamsnake as a member of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club on Goodreads. It was selected in August 2020, and I had a difficult time tracking it down. It surprised me, because it was a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, but apparently was out of print and only available in ebook format on sites that I hadn’t used before. Finally, I managed to track a copy down through an interlibrary loan right as Amazon put the book up free for subscribers on Audible! I promptly dove into the audiobook. 

I started reading Dreamsnake without any prior knowledge of the plot or even the premise. My impression of the possibilities were defined by the cover I put on this post-a woman riding a weird looking horse on the cover of a science fiction novel. Then, I began listening to the book and discovered a world eerily familiar to our own. McIntyre’s prose was lyrical at times and haunting all the way through. The book follows Snake, a woman who heals with the use of snakes and, we discover later, through medical technology. Her Dreamsnake died in a tragic turn during one of her healings, and she is trying to find a new one. The world is apparently post-apocalyptic, as we go past a nuclear crater that causes radiation poisoning, and there is a kind of mythos built up through the novel about a city where higher technology exists. Snake, as a healer, rides the line between the pastoral, subsistence-living settlements throughout the region and the apparent affluence and easy living of the city. 

What makes Dreamsnake most remarkable is its exploration of themes that are much less common in science fiction. For example, an extended scene shows Snake interacting with a young man, Gabriel, who has issues with controlling his sexual functioning. It’s not impotence–it’s that he apparently cannot control whether he is fertile or not–a skill that has been developed in the future. This leads to a rather lengthy scene discussing sexual mores as well as the young man’s difficulties. It’s a surprisingly tender scene in the middle of a science fiction novel, and all the more surprising because it discusses fertility issues  on the side of the man. I have never run into such a discussion in a science fiction novel, and certainly rarely in fiction more generally. Snake recommends that Gabriel go seek a better teacher for his biocontrol, which gives a way out that was somewhat unexpected. The poignancy of this scene and its exploration of a topic that is almost untouched in science fiction is reason enough to read the novel.

In the same town in which Gabriel resides, we encounter Melissa, a 12-year-old girl who was badly burned in a fire. She is a prodigy with horses but the man who runs the stable won’t let her out, claiming it’s due to her deformity. But in reality, he has her trapped in a prison of child labor and sexual exploitation. It’s nothing explicit, but the horror of the situation is palpable. Snake uses her position to rescue Melissa from the awful situation, which in and of itself is a great story. But McIntyre doesn’t leave it there. Snake then directs Melissa on where to go next, but Melissa has other ideas. She insists on going with Snake, and the child and adult have a genuine conversation in which they each give their reasoning for their choices. Snake agrees on Melissa’s reasoning and allows her to come with on her journey. McIntyre here shows an enormous amount of self-determination given to a child. It allows Melissa agency when before there was so little available for her. It’s such an important theme and one about which parents and adults in general ought to take note. Children have agency, and the more we allow them to exercise that–and get in reasoned discussions with adults to allow them to determine a course of action–the better adults they can grow into. 

This also ties into the broader theme of a powerfully feminist vision of the world we get from McIntyre in this novel. It’s not only Snake whom we see exercising autonomy and being a genuine person rather than a trope. No, we also see that it is a girl–a child of 12 years–who gets autonomy of her own. Science fiction so often uses children as prodigies with either near- or actual-divine power. The field is full of books featuring child geniuses or children with wisdom beyond their years. The alternative is usually children as props for the main characters. Here, though, Melissa is a child with no small amount of trauma who still gets to voice her concerns and get listened to by an adult woman, who in fact changes her mind based on what the child expresses. It’s such a powerful moment that even writing about it after the fact has me wanting to cheer. There are several women in this book across a range of ages who are each given their chance to shine. 

The city hides a secret, though, and as readers we never get to explore it much. We’re limited to the viewpoint of Snake, who is roundly turned away from the city when she tries to enter to find a new Dreamsnake. Here we discover much more about the Dreamsnake, which apparently was developed with offworld technology. We experience only hints of this offworld society. In fact, we don’t even know enough to truly call it a society. There are just people–humans or otherwise–who live offworld and apparently have higher technology that the city relies upon. But the people of the city, Snake surmises, are hugely inbred and in need of genetic diversity to survive. In the book, we never know what happens with the city, nor do we learn more about the offworlders. There is no sequel. It seems intentional, though. McIntyre is essentially putting a limit on our knowledge, tantalizing us with glimpses of this post-apocalyptic wasteland while keeping us intimately tied to Snake and, later, glimpses from Arevin, a man who is trying to find Snake. 

The perspective, hints of a broader world, and plot all make the book read powerfully. It’s got plenty of social commentary, as seen above, but it’s also just a great work of science fiction. There’s genetic engineering, discoveries of technology, scientific endeavor, and gritty adventure. Dreamsnake is a wonderful novel, and one that I’m sure to read time and again. I adored it. 

Links 

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.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

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!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1969

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. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1969 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’ve also dropped a short reflection on the year’s Hugo list at the beginning.

1969- Ever see your own opinion on books and think you were wrong? I suspect if I re-read some books I’d have an entirely different opinion on them. One thing I wanted to talk about from the 1969 Hugos is the winner of best novella, “Nightwings” by Robert Silverberg. It’s pretty fantastic, and a superb example of New Wave science fiction. In a far future Earth the main character is assigned to watch for alien invasions while accompanied by a Changeling and a fairy-like woman. Silverberg wrote two sequel novellas, which he humorously points out Frederik Pohl, the editor of the magazine to which he submitted them, did not like. But I loved them as much or more than “Nightwings.” Together, they make a novel-length book which wouldn’t unseat Past Master as my favorite this year (see my gushing below), but would give it a run. The Goblin Reservation was a somewhat disappointing Simak book to me. But even if he’s not at his best, I enjoy Simak. Stand on Zanzibar was clearly worthy of a classic, though parts of it are nearly unreadable, and it is so heavy. Rite of Passage was forgettable. Past Master–well, you’ll see what I think below and in my extended review, but I adored it.

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty (My Winner)- Grade: A+
I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, and I have to say I was absolutely blown away. He’d been recommended by a number of different people to me, and with this Hugo read-through I finally picked up Past Master to check him out. I wish I’d done so earlier. This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or any number of other major themes in the book, it’s a fascinating, fantastic ride. Longer review/overview that I wrote here.

The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak- Grade: C-
A strange, mashup book of time travel, goblins, ghosts, dimensions, dragons, and more (robots, of course!) while still maintaining a Simak-esque pastoral plot. Something about this one didn’t click for me. It was almost like a travelogue with all the strangeness of the different creatures/species being lost in the mire of normalcy that permeates even Simak’s strangest writing. It didn’t all work together as some of his other works have. The setting just never made sense in a way that was cohesive. Having these different mythical creatures all jumbled together can work, and sometimes does so beautifully. But here, Simak just seemed to be piling on the creatures for no clear reason. There wasn’t much direction to what was happening, either. It’s an okay read, but not a very good one.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (Winner)- Grade: B+
A phenomenally difficult and dense read. The style is particularly interesting, though I read that it was largely modeled after a work Brunner admired. Basically, some chapters are kind of info-dumps giving background on the setting, other chapters are more extensive background information, and still others follow a narrative. It makes the whole thing a bit of a chore to read through, and I can’t help but think that it seems a bit forced. However, the central narrative and the background context are each intriguing, and the dystopic future it envisions are, in some ways, chillingly accurate (though in others laughably quaint). In the time of COVID and other things happening, it seems increasingly, eerily prophetic. But I’m not convinced that’s the point of the story. It seems more a warning than a prophecy, and perhaps we should be concerned that the warning seems to be turning into reality. Also, I tried to re-read this book as an audiobook, and it was awful. The reader was fine–good, even–but this book is not meant to be listened to. It’s impossible to follow.

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin- Grade: C
Panshin’s book is one of those that left me with an intense feeling of “oh well.” Nothing was terribly wrong with this coming-of-age story set aboard a ship, but nothing is terribly striking about it either. It just feels like a milquetoast read. There’s nothing striking about it any more, which is probably based upon reading it more than 50 years after it was written. Based on looking at its reception overall, it was apparently striking for having such a personal perspective, particularly for featuring a young girl in that role. But looking back on it, the claims that it portrays so well what “being a girl” is like seems absurd, and the plot is, frankly, boring. It’s somewhat lazy to say of a book that it shows its age, but I have to use that phrase here. This book shows its age. It may have been innovative and thought-provoking at the time it was written, but it is a chore to read today.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: C-
It wasn’t the disaster that was Dhalgren, but it still wasn’t great. I think this book is an example of an idea that was so fresh and exciting at the time that it stuck with people, but it seems overdone and rather dry in hindsight. Well done on Delany for tackling this hard sci-fi topic ahead of most (or any) other authors. But I just didn’t think it was as engaging as I’d hoped it would be. None of the characters grabbed my interest. The center of the plot was basically just a set up for talking about science in the mouths of the characters. It wasn’t awful, but it also doesn’t stand up well with time.

Links

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!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1968

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. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1968 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 put a brief overview of the year’s nominees at the beginning.

1968- Certainly an interesting year for the nominees. The Butterfly Kid is absolutely a product of its time, and not one that I enjoyed in any way. Straight up hippy culture with the thinnest veneer of sci-fi over it. Delany’s offering this year did not live up to its potential, which is a shame, because it is a very cool idea. Chthon reads a bit like an author’s first attempt at fantasy names with a number of made up words and concepts. I know this one is sci-fi, but I’m thinking of those novels where the author has elvish names with 6 accent marks on them. Then, we have two novels that are about as different as they can be, yet each is a stunning triumph. Lord of Light is one that I’ve read three times now, and each time I enjoy it immensely. It’s lyrical, beautiful, and strange. I love it so much. Thorns by Silverberg is, according to the author, his first major attempt at a more thoughtful sci-fi novel, and he absolutely nailed it. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s uncomfortable; it’s gaudy; and it’s endlessly strange. It’s fantastic.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A+
Astonishing. It’s part retelling of Hindu Scripture, part origin story of Buddhism from Hinduism, part interplay between psuedo-imperialist Christianity and other faiths, and all beautiful. I’ve never read Zelazny before but I eagerly look forward to reading more. This book was made of myth and legend in the best possible sense. It’s immersive, exciting, and exotic in a way few science fiction books are. Zelazny’s writing in this novel is like that of an epic poem. The prose is absolutely spot-on for the idea, and the lyrical nature of the reading made it just that much more fun to read. It’s an absolute tragedy that there’s not an audio edition of this novel, because I’d love to listen to it. Superb. (I used the cover art I read the book in because it will forever be linked with the novel in my mind.)

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: C
I like the concept of this book: aliens trying to adapt to life in the ruins of humanity while also developing and wondering about myth. It’s a cool, high concept that begs for a lengthy space opera-level epic. But The Einstein Intersection is not that epic. Delany’s prose is good, but it seems ill-suited to the concept at the center of the novel. It doesn’t get to the heights that it ought, but it’s never bad, either. It is thoroughly average, which makes it a disappointment, given the great idea at its core.

Chthon by Piers Anthony- Grade: C+
Chthon was a smorgasbord of impossible-to-pronounce words and sci-fi concepts that seemed to serve little purpose. It’s written almost like a Gene Wolfe novel with the language seeming to be literary–almost lyrical–rather than being a kind of space adventure. But the plot itself is almost a standard space adventure fare that struggles to mesh well with the concepts at its core. I’ll be honest, though, I didn’t notice the structural puzzle Anthony built into the book, which makes me appreciate it a bit more than I did before. I should give it a re-read sometime to see if it improves on a second take. I just didn’t get it. I wonder what other people think of it, to be honest.

The Butterfly Kid by Chester Anderson- Grade: D+
Want to read about hippy culture with a bare-bones plot? Get this book. It was very difficult to track down–only just recently coming out on Kindle–but I’m sad to say I don’t think it was worth the effort I put in to finding it. The humor falls flat now, it is incredibly dated, and it doesn’t seem to offer anything today except, apparently, a nostalgia trip for those who lived through the era.

Thorns by Robert Silverberg (My Co-Winner)- Grade: A+
Silverberg is a challenging author whose corpus I’m only beginning to work my way through. Thorns is another book that encourages me to continue as soon as possible. The core premise is simple, if weird: there’s a media mogul who is basically a psychic vampire who subsists on other’s psychological pain and he puts two people–a young woman whose eggs were harvested and lab-fertilized/grown into 100 babies she is not allowed to have contact with and a ‘star man’ whose body was rearranged/disfigured by aliens on a distant planet before he was sent back to humanity–together to wallow in misery and feed him. Wow, that actually took more words than I expected. The protagonists are alluring even as they’re somewhat off-putting. One might raise the question of whether the star man’s disfigurement is a kind of ableism found in the novel–but Silverberg writes the character in such a way that it is impossible to see him as anything other than a fully human person whose body just happens to be rearranged. In fact, I see the star man as a kind of critique, however basic, of ableism and the insistence that certain bodies are inherently better than others. Some of the content here might not be as shocking as it may have been in 1968 (harvesting eggs is presented as some far-future thing, when it is done fairly frequently today), but that doesn’t take away from what Thorns is, at its core: a tale of deep, intense humanity. It haunted me as I read it, and it will continue to do so for years, I’m sure.

Links

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

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!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Book of Skulls” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. It haunts me at the strangest times, but especially when I’m driving (more on that later). Silverberg is at his best in this novel, but is he also at his worst? I don’t know. 

At its core, The Book of Skulls is a kind of coming-of-age story of four young men who found a manuscript that they believe–maybe–will unlock immortality to them. All they have to do is travel across the country and join a murderous gang of cultists and have two of their number die–one through sacrifice and the other through murder. No big deal, right? It’s a strange setup for what seems almost like some B-list spring break movie where the plot is simply a vehicle for getting titillating scenes on the screen. And make no mistake, the book has lots of sex. I can’t help but think about the strange, disturbing sexualization that Silverberg put forward in the driving scenes; the way the car interacted with the road, and the language Silverberg used to describe it. But it’s not just the car assaulting the road as a (very strange) metaphor. There are liaisons with prostitutes, sex cultists, there sexual encounters of all kinds all along the road trip. That B-list titillation is all over the place. 

But The Book of Skulls is a lot more than that. It’s a haunting tale of humanity gone wrong in so many ways. Its main cast doesn’t really feature a single likable character, but that somehow works, because you don’t want to care about these young men, but you do! And you find yourself caring what happens and wondering what’s going to happen and whether the ‘real’ Book of Skulls in the characters’ minds is going to give them immortality. Is this a fantasy novel? Is it sci-fi? Is it just a strange thriller where the main characters go off and kill each other after a series of orgies? 

Why is it so compelling?

Silverberg is an immensely talented author. And it shows here in this almost annoyingly spellbinding book. I feel as though I ought to hate it. I can’t tell if Silverberg’s put his own views into the minds of his characters or not. If so, there’s a lot to call out as awful here. Self-hating characters–one that is Jewish and one that is homosexual–each could be called out for promoting hatred of the same in some ways. His comments about disabled persons are detestable, but again occur in the mind of a character whose viewpoint we can’t trust. Racism, sexism–it’s there. But is it what Silverberg is promoting, or is it simply more characterization of these four messed up, generally terrible men? Silverberg has mastered the art of an unreliable narrator, and we have four in this book. 

Like the characters in the novel, I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. I bet you would think about it if you read it, too. Would you hate it? Would you love it? Or would you feel as I do–stuck wondering exactly what it means and why it is so gripping?

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

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!

SDG.