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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1966

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 1966 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 have a short reflection on this year’s Hugo nominees at the beginning.

1966 Hugos– Overall, this was a great year for the nominees. Dune is basically on its second go-round of eligibility the first half having been eligible in 1964. Some voters may have been upset by that (I don’t know), but the novel itself is nearly incomparable. This Immortal is competent, but I don’t think it deserves to be in the same conversation as Dune. It’s fine. The Squares of the City was a novel I discovered many years ago, and it stands up to a re-read in sometimes surprising ways. I even wrote more extensively on it. Heinlein is hugely hit or miss for me, and The Moon… is more of a hit, but even there Heinlein can’t seem to avoid lecturing his readers on his preferred systems. E.E. “Doc” Smith is one of the progenitors of much sci-fi I enjoy, but Skylark DuQuesne, and, indeed, the whole series, barely holds up as readable. The sub-genres represented here aren’t very diverse, but the selection is good nonetheless. Which are your favorites?

Dune by Frank Herbert (Co-Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A+
Certainly one of the best novels ever written, Dune’s depth is astonishing. The characters are captivating, and the reader is put directly into their minds frequently. The book’s message is also thought-provoking on many levels–theological, scientific, ecological, and more. Herbert’s motivation to try to subvert the hero narrative makes this even more fascinating than it is otherwise, with its mashup of so many themes. There are questions that remain, though–did Herbert succeed in making an anti-hero hero? Or is Paul Atreides really some kind of true hero? To me, at least, the ending is ambiguous in this regard, even though many fans of the book remain convinced it is phenomenally successful in doing so.

This Immortal AKA And Call Me Conrad by Roger Zelazny (Co-Winner)- Grade: B-
There is little by way of character development or, really, plot here. But Zelazny is such a talent with words that I didn’t mind as much as I would have otherwise. Not as stylistically elegant as some of his other works, This Immortal nevertheless remains almost lyrical in the way it conveys its story. I can also see where many ideas for later science fiction came from, though maybe not directly. What exactly is the core premise of the novel? Is it a push to question one’s own assumptions about reality? Does it go that deep? Is it really just a kind of dressed up old-school sci-fi adventure? It is difficult to tell, in the end. The novel doesn’t reach the stunning heights of Zelazny’s Lord of Light, but you can see his immense talent here nonetheless.

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- Grade: A
I read this book as a young teenager and was blown away. On a re-read sometime later (extended discussion here), I am convinced that I didn’t grasp some of the bigger concepts happening in the novel. Nevertheless, I still loved it in a different way. The book’s main plot is based upon a real-life chess game in which the characters are moved like the pieces from that game that actually took place. That’s cool, but a bit gimmicky. Then, it turns out chess is a major theme in the book, but that the notion of black/white and racial inequality also threads throughout. The main character is a traffic planner brought in to deal with some issues in a fictional South American city in the future. Societal strife, racial tension, and more lurk under the surface and the main character and a rather large supporting cast must come to grips with it. It ends ambiguously and maybe pushes its theme a bit too hard, but it’s superbly written and deeply thoughtful. I love it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein- Grade: B-
The book was serialized for two years and was eligible this year and next year. What? Anyway, I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It was enjoyable, but the style dragged it down somewhat. It felt very matter-of-fact about even the most intense moments of the book. It’s not as beautifully odd as Stranger in a Strange Land nor as challenging as Starship Troopers. It’s still enjoyable, but the whole plot felt predictable. It lacked the excitement that comes with many other science fiction books. Not bad, certainly, but neither is it spectacular.”

Skylark DuQuesne by E.E. “Doc” Smith- Grade: D
E.E. “Doc” Smith is a major voice in early science fiction, and at the time some put him on par or better than Asimov. His Lensman series was edged by the Foundation Trilogy to be named the best science fiction series ever. I enjoyed the Lensman series pretty well, but this Skylark series has not aged well at all. I read all four books including this one in the series so that I wouldn’t be confused about what was going on, but I’m not sure I really needed to. Skylark DuQuesne is full of space adventure spirit, but also full of ridiculous treatment of women, paper-thin characters, aliens with little to motivate them, and an Ameri-centrism that defeats the notion of the scale the novel needs to make it epic. It’s definitely a pulpy read, but not in a good way.

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.

2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel: My Reviews

I read as much sci-fi/fantasy as I can get my hands on, and have been working through the backlog of all the Hugo winners and nominees for best novel for some time. The 2020 Nominations were announced recently, and I wanted to read them all so I could review them and talk about/debate them with fellow fans. Without further adieu, here are my reviews!

[Edit: The Hugo Award for Best Novel went to “A memory Called Empire,” which is a truly deserving novel that I also loved. 2020 was a great mix of works showing a wide variety of speculative fiction. Let me know what you thought of this year’s nominees!]

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders- Grade: C
There are some cool ideas here, and a strong inspiration from classics like 1984 (the government determining times, for example). However, I felt the whole thing was hampered by a lack of enthusiasm from the main characters which led to me not caring very much about the stakes. Moreover, the strangeness of motivation behind some of their acts throttled my suspension of disbelief. Perhaps there are some metaphors or analogies happening here that simply went over my head. I’d love for someone to explain if I did miss some things of import here. Anyway, the whole thing ended up feeling kind of surreal in an off-putting rather than enthralling way. 

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (Winner)- Grade: A-
I attempted to read this book four times. I say attempted because each time I got sidetracked by something else. It’s dense, and my life circumstances were such that I couldn’t concentrate on it as deeply as I’d have liked to. Finally, it went on a great sale and I grabbed the audiobook along with the ebook. Listening to the book was a great experience, and let me concentrate on it better than reading it on paper. The bottom line for A Memory Called Empire is this: How well do you like complexity in your sci-fi?
A) The more Machiavellian, the better! I want names that I have to write down to keep track of! I want political intrigue I need to chart to follow! 
B) I enjoy complexity quite a bit, but don’t want to inflict pain on myself for trying to follow a story.
C) Complexity is fine, as long as it is spoon-fed to me.
D) I admire the handiwork, but I don’t like it.
Whichever option you chose is basically what I anticipate your grade for this book being. There are names that are nothing like you’d expect. There’s mystery throughout. There are political maneuvers, thrusts, and counter-thrusts. It’s all there. This book is like a combination of the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie with some Iain M. Banks in it. The book has a phenomenal payoff for the investment of energy, as well. The last 40% or so of the book has all the political machinations that you could desire to go along with the central mystery. I love it, but I also had to work to love it. I can’t wait to see what the next in the series does to me.

Gideon the Ninth by Tasmyn Muir- Grade: D+
I don’t know that I’ve experienced as much hype surrounding a book as this one before I’ve read it. I also try to avoid being one of “those people.” You know who I’m talking about: the type of people who talk all loud and proud about how “I read that super hyped thing everyone loves and found it was just mediocre at best.” So instead, I’ll try to focus on real, substantive critique rather than posturing. First, I do not like pop culture references in my sci-fi/fantasy. Veiled references? Sure. If they make sense for the story? Absolutely. But straight up pop-culture references in a novel that doesn’t have a very good explanation for how they come into play for the main character? Hard no. Second, the novel ends up reading exactly like it sounds in the blurb: it’s a sci-fi space necromancer with a sword and cool tattoos and a lesbian who kills stuff and cusses and doesn’t care but maybe she does care more than you know and there’s magic and space castles and everything that’s awesome like skeletons and badassery and it’s there! Whew. There’s no such thing as too much cool stuff thrown together. I firmly believe that. But it has to actually work together, and here we somehow have all of that cool stuff in it without ever having a main character or interesting enough main plot for me to care whatsoever. Moreover, since the cool stuff is being hurled at the reader at a breakneck pace, one cna never really sit back and just absorb how awesome it should be before you’re getting confronted by the next thing. There’s a gothic space palace! What more do you want!? I know: I want to actually have that described to me. I want to envision how gothic it is. I want to feel its movement through space–or the mechanization that keep it in place. I want to read about all of these awesome ideas, not just have them pitched to me as one-liners and then thrown onto an increasing heap of ideas that are never fully realized. And this is what I think made the book so terribly disappointing to me. It had so many cool ideas–it oozed with them–but it never really cashed them in. 

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley- Grade: C
I am so torn about this book. I love so many of the ideas in it. There’s a foreboding sense that aspects of Hurley’s vision of the future are not far off from the reality we may experience if we let greed continue unfettered indefinitely. The trauma of war, the pervasiveness of changing reality through the way that news can shape people’s minds, and the like are all explored here through what is, ultimately, a character piece about a soldier, Dietz. But Dietz is not, to me, particularly likable as a protagonist, and there’s a kind of paper-thin quality to not only Dietz but every other character in the book that made me start losing interest. There are so many cool concepts here, but I don’t know that we ever get to enjoy them as well as we should. It’s a thrill-ride, but one that may not have enough meat on the bones to sustain the interest of all readers. For me, it was a middling read, though I may go back to revisit it sometime. 

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (My Winner)- Grade: A+
Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors, and she did not let me down with this sprawling epic about the twins Roger and Dodger and the strange, weird, magical world they–and we–inhabit. McGuire is a master of peeling away layers of reality so that it seems like you, the reader, haven’t actually thought about everything yet. Maybe there is magic just around the corner. Perhaps there’s a strange, disturbing creature lurking just under that rock. Witches may have a coven over in that moor. These things seem so possible in McGuire’s deft hands, and Middlegame is one of her best efforts yet. The central plot and characters are riveting, to the point that I basically didn’t put this book down until I’d finished it. McGuire writes with a tone that is somehow both light and dark, conspiratorial and friendly. You want to love the characters from the outset, and by the time the action really gets intense, your heart is racing along with theirs. I don’t know if McGuire will explore the world she created in this standalone (so far) novel, but I’d go back in a heartbeat. 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow- Grade: C+
I loved so much about this book. It’s one of those books that is a book about books for people who read books, and those tend to be right up my alley. Harrow created January, a fantastic main character whom I love and for whom I rooted the entire time, but then didn’t really… seem to do anything with her. Throughout the whole book there were echoes about how there are these ten thousand doors and so many possibilities and so much more to reality than we expect, but then that infinite set of possibilities never seemed to get realized for me as a reader. I felt let down by the payoff, which didn’t really even begin until about 60-70% into the book. By the end, I found myself reminiscing about the earlier portions of the book, when I had a character I adored and the anticipation that something big would happen. The prose is lyrical and endearing. Ultimately, I felt the book was merely okay, due to the main plot stumbling along, but it shows immense promise. I will absolutely seek out the next thing Harrow writes, because she has the gift.

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!

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 Month: “The Squares of the City” by John Brunner

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! 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 Squares of the City by John Brunner

Forgive me a bit of indulgence here on my story with this novel. My interactions with John Brunner’s The Squares of the City began when I was a younger teenager. On vacation to visit my grandma, we went to the same used book store we’d always visit while we were there. It was a huge bookstore, built into a building that was clearly not intended for such a use. It was almost like a courthouse, with a large inner room and several small rooms with vaulted ceilings, unusual columns, and more oddities scattered throughout. I only ever went in as a child–it’s unfortunately long gone now–so that may have colored my experience, but I always marveled at the shelves and the selection. In a far-off corner of the store, I spotted the cover featured as the image here on the shelf. A guy holding a chessboard had a lot of appeal to me as a kid who was involved in chess online and with friends. I grabbed it, paid the pittance for the book, and dived in. I loved it. I was blown away by the intricacies of the plotting and thought the idea of someone whose job it was to plan how traffic should flow was so cool. But I barely remembered it as an adult. Nevertheless, I dutifully boxed it up and brought it along with every move, whether college or apartment or beyond. The cover spoke to me. The knowledge that I had loved it so much as a teen meant I couldn’t quite bear to part with it, even as I boxed up and sold off hundreds of other books. It had a nostalgia connected both to the shuttered store, my grandparents, and the experience of reading it that I could never shake. It’s yellowing pages were a testament to the longevity of its staying power in my life. Yet I never re-read it. Until now.

The book should be a gimmick. Brunner’s concept, apparently, was to take a famous chess match and turn it into the plot of a near future sci-fi novel involving much political intrigue and little future tech. It should not work, but it does. Boyd Hakluyt is a traffic planner hired to make sense of the urban sprawl of Ciudad de Vados, a major new city in an invented South American nation. But there’s more to the city than Hakluyt planned on as he finds himself thrust into a power struggle between National and Citizen factions with competing interests that ultimately lead to a number of deaths, controversies, and disgraces.

Brunner weaves through the tale a remarkable amount of humanity, as concern for the plight of the poor clashes with interests of city development. The status of native peoples drives further conflict as those pushing for modernization attempt to drive out tradition. Racial tensions clash and Hakluyt, a white man, finds himself out of place time and again as his sympathies lie with people that those who are trying to control him did not expect. The novel stirs the pot and it does so deeply, asking questions about inequalities and race that receive only answers that are not black and white like the squares of the chessboard, but rather shades of gray that force readers to think for themselves. (Sorry, I needed at least one major chess reference here.)

Going along with all of this, there is a huge cast of characters, each of which is developed far better than one might expect for such a big cast. The reasoning behind the big cast is probably in part for Brunner to fill out his chessboard, but also makes sense in context of a complex city with major political strife happening throughout. The big reveal towards the end–when Hakluyt himself discovers the fact that the major players of the city’s strife have themselves been manipulating people into a real chess match to figure out who will “win” control of the city–is perhaps too literal, but it still managed to work for me. The ending is a bit short and far more ambivalent than I would have liked, but it serves its purpose well enough.

The Squares of the City is a remarkably deep novel, particularly when one considers it may easily have devolved into a series of gimmicks. Brunner took an idea and ran with it to a huge extent, but somehow he made it all work, and work really well. I recommend it highly.

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!

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.