Reading the BSFA Awards: 1975 “Orbitsville” by Bob Shaw

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I’ve been reading and reviewing winners and nominees, looking for hidden gems I might not have found otherwise.

Orbitsville by Bob Shaw

I was caught off guard by Orbitsville at several points throughout the novel. I didn’t read a description of it going in, so I had no idea what to expect. My description of the plot will have spoilers in it, of course.

Vance Garamond witnesses an accidental death but believes he may be blamed for it. He rushes to collect his wife and child and flee from the potential vengeance that might be wrought against him. It’s a fantastic setup that I thought would feature Garamond fleeing across space until some kind of epic confrontation. And, to some extent, I wasn’t technically wrong about those being aspects of the plot, but my expectations for how all of it would happen were completely blown up. Shaw weaves an endlessly entertaining yarn. Garamond eventually stumbles upon a Dyson Sphere, and realizes the humanity-defining moment this is fairly quickly. Many questions about the Sphere remain, however, and he contacts those he was fleeing to tell them about the spectacular find. His discovery leads to instant fame, making him basically immune to the vengeance he feared–probably. As humans start to make their way to the sphere and spread across it, more events lead to surprising consequences and discoveries throughout the book.

Shaw also has numerous fantastic lines that stuck with me after reading the novel. At one point, humans find some aliens within the Dyson Sphere. The chapter ends with some hopeful lines about first contact and the lives they may build. Then the next chapter starts “Rumours of massacre came within a month.” It was a gut-punch of a line that was set up so perfectly by the end of the previous chapter. These moments are scattered across the novel and done fantastically well.

If I have any complaint about Orbitsville it’s that it kind of just… ends. Yes, there are some great moments towards the end, but it reads like there ought to have been a bigger and better ending point. I realize two more novels follow this one, but I still think the ending could have been done better.

Orbitsville is a phenomenal read for any fans of space opera and adventure. It’s the kind of book that makes lists worth reading for me, and it has catapulted itself into my vintage favorites. I highly recommend it.

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SDG.

Reading the BSFA Awards: 1987 “Gráinne” by Keith Roberts

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I’ve been reading and reviewing winners and nominees.

Gráinne by Keith Roberts

I truly am unsure of what to make of this baffling choice for best science fiction novel in 1987.

The overwhelming majority of the story is Alistair Bevan recalling his time with his lover, the eponymous Gráinne. It’s several slice-of-life vignettes tied together, many of which appear to be focused around Gráinne’s body or aspects of her beauty, voice, or something else that aroused Bevan. The rest of the plot, a term I use with great generosity, is interspersed between these scenes, telling of the rise of Gráinne as a kind of cultic leader.

The central thread appears to be an attempt to weave a new kind of mythos around Gráinne, but ultimately it reads much more like a wet dream fantasy than it does like a mythology. Gráinne herself is idolized–at times literally–by many people, but there seems to be little reason to do so other than intense lust after her stockinged form. Male gaze seems to be the point rather than an incidental detail here.

Gráinne ultimately left me utterly confused. There’s very little by way of content here. It’s uncomfortable to read it at its best.

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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.

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SDG.

Reading the BSFA Awards: 1983 “Tik-Tok” by John Sladek

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I’ve been reading and reviewing winners and nominees.

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1983 BSFA Award Winner)

Tik-Tok is the name of the robot whose viewpoint we follow through this sinister novel. An incident in which he (using that pronoun because it’s used in the novel) is beaten by a human has undone his programming that required him to follow Asimov’s laws of robotics. He’s taken to exploring his own murderous tendencies, alongside interactions with humans who are working to try to get pay and other rights for robots.

The book is thematically interesting, though only at a surface level. Other books have explored what happens when Asimov’s Laws are taken to their logical extreme (see the excellent novel, The Humanoids by Jack Williamson- link to my review), and certainly the implications of the laws themselves are fairly thoroughly explored in various literature. Here, however, a more novel question of “What happens if something happens to disable the laws?” is asked. It’s an intriguing premise, though ultimately not enough to carry the story.

The plot itself falters occasionally, especially when flashbacks start to intervene. It’s not a bad way of telling how Tik-Tok got to the point he’s at, but the choppy nature of the flashbacks, which are frequently broken up themselves over the course of several scenes, means that readers have to be hyper-aware of exactly what time they’re in as they’re reading. Thus, for example, there might be three timelines- A (present), B (5 years ago), and C (10 years ago), and the scenes might alternate like A, B, C, B, A, C, A, B or somesuch. It may never have been quite that extreme, but there were a few times I caught myself thinking I was in a different time than I was and getting quite confused. Again, this is largely because the flashbacks themselves are broken up so that the scenes aren’t entire vignettes at once.

The murders Tik-Tok commits are occasionally fairly gruesome, so readers with qualms about that kind of content will likely want to steer clear. One poignant scene has Tik-Tok describing why he does what he does, and he explains that he basically wants to know what it’s like to sin. It’s a powerful moment in the midst of what feels like violence for the sake of violence through most of the novel. Once we finally arrive at that scene, though, I as a reader had become mostly immune to the goings-on around Tik-Tok. The scenes shifted from violence to tormenting of robots to sexual or other deviancy to further violence to covering up violence and it all starts to get kind of jumbled together.

Sladek’s nearly bland way of telling the story works quite well in character. The matter-of-fact tone lends a sense of the truly depraved to our robotic point of view, and made me as a reader struggle to put a moral compass on the novel.

Ultimately, Tik-Tok may have worked better as a novella or short story instead of a novel. The question at the core of the novel is of interest, but can’t sustain the action across a work of a novel’s length. The few reasons to relate to Tik-Tok combined with a choppy storytelling style made it a difficult read overall.

(All links to Amazon are Affiliates Links)

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.