My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1983

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.

The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe (My Winner)- Grade: A
Gene Wolfe’s monumental epic, The Book of the New Sun continues here with the third book, The Sword of the Lictor. As with the whole series, there are layers upon layers of meaning, dimensions of thought, and completely mind-bending revelations and symbolism. These books are wonderful science fantasy, yes, but they also demand study in a way that few speculative fiction works seem to call for. There are literally books written about these novels, and dissecting the meaning found therein. And, frankly, the books deserve that level of analysis. Wolfe’s prose is captivating as ever, but the layers that can be peeled back over time make it worthy of re-reading and digesting in ways few science fiction novels touch. I’m planning to read and re-read this series many times. Top notch sci-fi/fantasy.

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov (Winner)- Grade: B-
I loved the early parts of the book in spite of myself. The Foundation Trilogy, long hailed as the pillar of science fiction, has managed to bore me three times through. (Also Asimov was… not great.) I wasn’t sure I’d like this one, but found myself really getting into the premise of a mystery within a mystery within a wider, galactic story. But then Asimov dragged it out for far longer than the premise itself could carry and it began to wear out its welcome. As it wore on, the faults became more vivid: whether it is the nonchalance with which Asimov dismisses his own female characters or the absurdity of the parts that take place on Gaia, there’s some big flaws here. It’s also clear Asimov was really struggling with the anthropic principle as he wrote this, and his solution to the principle, set in the book as a kind of big reveal, really just boils down to waving one’s hand and saying “Well, we’re here, aren’t we?” Okay, but that doesn’t make for a good plot, nor a good philosophy. Despite these gaffes, Foundation’s Edge still manages to be slightly above average, largely riding on the strength of its core premise, which remained fascinating throughout, even as its luster was tarnished. A good read that could have been terrific.

The Pride of Chanur by CJ Cherryh- Grade: C
Ever read a book where you kept waiting for the main plot to get going? That’s definitely how I felt with The Pride of Chanur. I guess I expected that, at some point, someone would do something. But it seems, instead, everyone was so caught up in their own brand of intrigue that they all forgot to do anything about it. Oh! Those aliens are over there plotting! Let us counter-plot! And then we’ll manipulate them into stopping their plotting! Ah, but alas, other aliens have thwarted our own plot. Curses. That’s basically how this book seems to play out. I am disappointed. I enjoyed the beginning, and it felt like it might be the start of some ripping space adventure that would carry me across the stars, with battles and intrigue and everything mingling together in awesomeness. Instead, it seems every character–every species–was urgently ensuring nothing would happen in the book. I desperately want to love Cherryh’s stuff. I’m extremely hesitant to write off any author, and I have so much respect for Cherryh because, it seems, everyone adores her work. But The Pride of Chanur is the sixth book I’ve read from her, and not a single one has struck me as particularly excellent.

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke- Grade: C+
The first book in this series, the famous (infamous?) 2001: A Space Odyssey was a delightfully vast, weird, and personal look at… everything? At it’s core, 2010: Odyssey Two carries the mantle of that other work, with a solid hard sci-fi foundation built upon by other threads sewn throughout the tapestry of the novel. It just isn’t as good as the first effort. It loses some of the vastness and weirdness that made the space odyssey stand out and turns much more into a human drama mixed with some questions about AI and robotics. The introduction to the work by Clarke explained he was trying to answer many of the biggest questions readers had about the first one, and that seems exactly like what this book ends up being. It reads more like an extended story written specifically to fill in gaps than it does as a work that can stand on its own.

Friday by Robert A. Heinlein- Grade: D-
The general idea isn’t terrible, but wow this is filled with a lot more of the late Heinlein’s nonsense. It’s like he’s trying to create a sexually liberated world, but can only do so through perversion. Within the first 50 pages there is brutal sexual assault narrated in the most detached fashion, followed by some rather grotesque implications about the same. The female lead seems to only serve as a sex object for the vast majority of men, and once again we find that for Heinlein, sexual liberation is really just a male-dominated sex-fest. Oh, and the main plot isn’t really that great, either. It did have some promise at the beginning.

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury- Grade: A-
I’m sitting back having just finished this book and I can’t figure out exactly how I feel about it. There’s no doubt it was very well done. But, what was it? Was it a novel about human colonization? Yes, I mean the people are all descendants from colonists in some distant past. Was it a novel of a unique culture that is both unsettling and tantalizing? Absolutely, there is everything weird in this novel, from cannibalism to using human skins for decoration. But it all somehow makes sense in the context in which it’s placed. Was it a dystopia? I don’t know, maybe? Was it a utopia? I guess? I don’t know. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, having read Courtship Rite, it is that I will never forget it. It was strange, disturbing, and alluring all at once. The fight for one’s own society, the disturbance of that society, the coming of war; all of these were themes in the book. I can’t get over it. It’s a great read.

1983- Courtship Rite could have won many years, but going up against Wolfe is unfortunate. I want to use some of this space to emphasize how strange that book is. The thing about it is, as I said, the weirdness and yuckiness of it all somehow still makes sense in the context of the story. Masterfully done, but still gross. Also, how is it not available on an ebook platform so far as I can tell? It’s excellent. Okay, obligatory Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke inclusions here, with varying success. Cherryh’s also become a perennial nominee, and will ultimately collect 5 nominations and 2 wins. It’s a solid selection here, though Friday is awful. Another good year for the 80s Hugo nominees.


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.

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Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Foundation’s Edge” by Isaac Asimov

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.

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov

Foundation’s Edge won the Hugo and Locus Award and was nominated for the Nebula Award for best novel when it came out. That’s some great pedigree, especially coming from an author as prolific and influential as Asimov. I loved the early parts of the book in spite of myself. Yes, that’s right, I have a predilection to disliking Asimov which has only increased through my reading about the man himself and his treatment of women (more on that below). The Foundation Trilogy, long hailed as the pillar of science fiction, has managed to bore me three times through. Asimov, in my opinion, is not great at developing characters at all, and tends to focus on whatever pet idea he had in the book. All that said, I wasn’t sure I’d like this one, but found myself really getting into the premise of a mystery within a mystery within a wider, galactic story.

The initial premise(s) of the novel is absolutely fascinating. The two Foundations were in a secret war with each other; one is thought to have been destroyed, while the other comes to dominate humanity. Suspicious about the death of Second Foundation being exaggerated come to the surface, and the only female character written with any effort manages to maneuver a blowhard politician into outing himself as a potential “traitor” and getting pseudo-exiled on a snipe hunt to try to find Earth with an eccentric, obsessive scientist as a cover for actually tracking down Second Foundation. Seriously, that is an awesome premise, and the setup was deftly handled. I was absolutely engrossed.

But then the book kept going. And going. And going. The premise kept getting dragged on and on through permutation after permutation of the same ideas and characters remarking on how this or that aspect of the premise is good or impossible or bad or great or the worst. We get it, Asimov. The events in this novel are A Big Deal. That was understood with the premise itself! Let’s get into the meat of it! But when we do get to the meat of it, Asimov drops the ball, big time.

It is impossible, as the novel wears on, to ignore some significant flaws. Most egregious is Asimov’s treatment of women, which should not, perhaps, be surprising given his notoriously crappy treatment of real-life women (something that surely ought to downplay his legacy). There’s a whole scene in which the male characters debate over whether to go out on the town and hire prostitutes (without using the term), and ridiculously stupid joking about the needs of men regarding sex. It’s as though Asimov never grew past the earliest adolescence regarding both his attitude towards and knowledge of women, and it is extremely grating, especially as the novel goes on and on.

That is the second major problem with the book: it’s about two times too long. The awesome premise mentioned above isn’t enough to bank on throughout a novel that’s this long, but it is effectively what Asimov plays towards. Though he does give the payoff, that payoff is the absurd scenes centered around Gaia, which appears to be a form of escapism for Asimov but only annoyed me as a reader. The third major problem is Asimov’s struggling with the anthropic principle, which is again a major theme in the book. It’s almost as though Asimov attempted to answer this rather deep problem through Foundation’s Edge but ultimately the best he could come up with was “Well we’re here, aren’t we?” and some hand waving and readers are supposed to think that somehow solves the very real difficulties with the anthropic principle that Asimov himself brings up in the novel. It’s a kind of deus ex machina that Asimov tries to use in order to get rid of the Deus. In doing so, however, he only shows how absurd his own position is: a kind of brute fact approach tha doesn’t provide any answer at all. It’s annoyingly simplistic and detracts from the novel

Now that I’ve ranted for that long about the flaws, readers might think I disliked the novel, but I didn’t. It was a good novel, but one that could have been improved immensely by a much heavier hand from an editor. Foundation’s Edge is good, not great, which is a disappointment, because the premise on which it is built could have been a really fantastic adventure story. The characters were compelling enough in the beginning, but got replaced by the typical Asimov cutouts later on. Instead of being an epic novel, it’s a middling mess of hard sci-fi, adventure, sexism, shoulder-shrugging answers to big questions, and a psychadelic acid trip of a planet.


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!