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.
Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman (My Winner)- Grade: A-
Haldeman’s Mindbridge is a fascinating work of sociological sci-fi that explores what humans might do with things like mind reading powers, teleportation, and first encounters with aliens. Haldeman deftly handles an almost kaleidoscopic novel with everything-and-the-kitchen-sink thrown into it and still pulls out a coherent and even fascinating plot. The reason I’ve downgraded it a bit is that there are some unfortunate aspects of the future world. I’m happy enough to suspend my disbelief regarding some aspects of future humanity, but the whole concept of using women as essentially breeding material out in the stars is very yikes to me. Yes, they go willingly to do so, but one could argue it is coercive due to the contractual obligations built in for any women who want to explore the stars. Sure, the men also have obligations, but there seems to be a latent misogyny here, though not as blatant or overt as some other novels from the period. I was deeply impressed by Haldeman’s handling of the many plot threads he juggles, and frankly didn’t see some of the directions he took coming at all. It’s not a particularly twisting plot, either. It is just quite well crafted. A highly enjoyable piece of sci-fi if you’re willing to look past some of the flaws.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (Winner)- Grade: B-
I initially loved this book. The opening was awesome. I thought it was going to be this epic story of a family struggling to meet the coming collapse of civilization in some kind of pastoral setting. But then, a sharp turn was taken, and the book jumps ahead a few times as we see the real story is about what happens to the clones that same family had set up to try to solve problems of depopulation in a post-apocalyptic setting. And I have to say… I was a bit disappointed. The initial characters were really just foils for the personality of the later clones, and I felt almost betrayed by the shift in premise. Perhaps this is one where I should have read the pitch on the back cover before diving in, because I think if my expectations hadn’t been so dramatically thwarted, I would have enjoyed it more. As it is, I still wrote about it for Vintage Sci-Fi Month, because there is much to discuss in this intriguing, sometimes familiar, often alien novel.
Children of Dune by Frank Herbert- Grade: B
Following up Dune would feel a monumental task, I would think. but Herbert does an admirable job with Children of Dune. There’s something ineffable about this book that makes it tantalizing all the way through, even in the places where it could potentially drag due to its rather mundane plot. I think it’s the world that Hebert created and the sense of awe about the feel, texture, and rhythm of the same. I have to out myself here, though, I honestly enjoy the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson works well enough. I know they’re largely panned by a bunch of Dune fans, but for one thing, I don’t really care about gatekeeping fandoms. Yes, I’m a “real” fan of Dune even if I like the other books. For another, I enjoy books that are written as light reads just as much as I enjoy deep reads. Anyway, I’ve ranted long enough. Children… is another solid entry in Frank’s own sequels to Dune, though it never reaches the heights of the original work.
Man Plus by Frederik Pohl- Grade: D+
I don’t know what to make of this book. It’s like an artifact from a time past that seems out of place despite being a relic–like finding a dinosaur fossil alongside rabbits and other modern fauna fossils. The plot follows a man who has been made partially cybernetic to withstand the stresses of living on Mars. It reads, however, like a 1950s sitcom, complete with the casual sexism that goes along with that. It’s startling at times how out of place everything seems throughout the book. I struggled to connect in any way to the characters or the plot. The only part that really got me involved at all was reading about the struggles with being human/posthuman and the potentially interesting directions that could go, but even that got subsumed into the problems I already noted.
Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg- Grade: B
Silverberg’s corpus is filled with novels that I absolutely adore, along with some that are… not great. Shadrach in the Furnace was a surprising read from him, because it feels quite different from many of the other popular works I’ve read from him. Don’t get me wrong–much of the Silverberg flair (and problems) is there. But there’s a kind of sense of weirdness, discovery, and wonder in this one that just has a different sense than others of his works do. Shadrach Mordecai is the doctor for the dictator of the world, Genghis Mao. The names do matter to the plot… sort of. Anyway, Shadrach discovers more and more of Mao’s plans and is horrified to find out that one of the dictator’s ideas for survival involves Shadrach’s body. There are some difficulties in this novel with race and sexism, and no small amount of sex. In other words, it’s very much a New Wave sci-fi novel. The strangeness of the setting, which is largely taken as a given, lends itself to a sense of weird disconnect with reality as reading the book. The closest thing I can think of is watching “Blade Runner” for the first time. I enjoyed it, but it has some problems.
1977- There are some great reads this year, and what I appreciate most about it is how different each of these books felt from all the others. While they’re all science fiction with barely a hint of fantasy to be found, they show some of the breadth of the field in the best possible ways. Man Plus is obviously not a favorite of mine, but any of the others would have been a worthy winner. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing is a very strange Hugo winner, because it doesn’t really check any of the boxes many of its contemporaries did. It’s an almost pastoral post-disaster story that grabbed me. It doesn’t have the strong pay off of some similar stories I’ve read, but it certainly does grab the imagination. My own choice, Mindbridge, was surprising to me because I hadn’t terribly enjoyed some of Haldeman’s other works. Overall, it was a good year at the Hugos.
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