My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1967

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 1967 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.

1967- I think this year’s nominees were one of the best so far. Whether we’re talking about the absolutely heart-rending Flowers for Algernon or the familiar-yet-otherworldly Day of the Minotaur, this was a great year. Even The Witches of Karres at least has value as understanding where later ideas developed from. Babel-17 made me realize I should go back and re-read some Delany novels, perhaps finding more enjoyment the second go-round. I liked Babel so much that I’m convinced I may have missed something. Somehow Heinlein gets another year of eligibility for The Moon… and wins? I don’t understand. It’s a fine novel, but I don’t think it needed to be brought in to compete with the others this year, and certainly some of the competition was better. Which did you like?

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: A
Babel-17 is through-and-through a concept novel. I don’t know if that’s a real term, but its how I refer to books that have an idea that they’re about more than characters or a main plot. To be fair, Delany makes some interesting characters in this book, but they’re not what it’s about. What it’s about is language and how it may shape the way we think and act. Indeed, if we have no word for something like a computer or any of its components, how could we even begin to understand it? More abstractly, what if something like “nationalism” was an unknown term or concept? How would we relate to others and the space in which we live? These are some of the types of questions Delany asks in this fascinating piece of science fiction. I liked it enough I may actually go back for another try at his alleged magnum opus, Dhalgren, which I initially abandoned fairly early on. This is first rate idea-driven sci-fi.

Day of the Minotaur by Thomas Burnett Swann- Grade: B
Impressive for its prose, especially for its time, this novel is one of the earliest attempts (I read a few places it might be the earliest) to re-tell Greek myth for the modern audience. The downside to the novel is found in the times when a few anachronisms from the time in which it was written sneak in–yes, there are a few clear “flower child” type scenes, as well as a few cringe-worthy comments about women. On the flip side, it seems Thomas Burnett Swann was trying to subvert some of the latter through the narrative, which has women acting independently and with authority at times. Day of the Minotaur is also nearly lyrical in its prose, something that was not often attempted, to my knowledge, at the time. It’s a quick read that’s worth looking into for readers interested in mythical re-tellings.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (My Winner)- Grade: A
Heart-rending and poignant, Keyes has created an enduring masterpiece. Yes, some aspects of it haven’t aged well (such as outdated psychological theories), but it’s the kind of science fiction that could be set in the past as something that has happened, so that doesn’t matter. It’s got one of the best aspects of science fiction storytelling, namely that it asks us to look at ourselves as humans and see what we are more fully. I readily admit I did not think I’d enjoy this one going in. It had all the makings of one of those books that is more literary than it is plot, but it is not that at all. I wept bitterly at more than one point in this haunting work. It’s a beautiful book.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner)- Grade: B-
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 beautiful 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. Also, apparently it was eligible both in 1966 and in 1967?

The Witches of Karres by James M. Schmitz- Grade: C
How do you fairly evaluate a novel that seems like a possible precursor for many other ideas? The Witches of Karres has many of the elements later space operas would absorb, and the breadth of some of it is surprising. But it’s also… not very good. The ideas are there, but the execution is not. It reads about like what you would expect from an antiquated sci-fi adventure trying to grow beyond the bonds of the usual simplistic narrative. It’s admirable that the concept was developed here, but reading it for reasons other than history is not highly recommended.

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.

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1965

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. I’ve given grades for each book, and underneath those grades, I’ve added a reflection on that year’s Hugo Awards.

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber (Winner)- Grade: D+
Thoroughly shrug-worthy, this one has most of the features I dislike in classic science fiction. First, it’s overly focused on concept rather than execution. Second, the women are all throwaway characters. Third, the dialogue is laughable. Fourth, you can really tell that it’s dated. Fifth, the aliens are basically just humans that got reskinned. Hey, it won the Hugo Award, so good job on Leiber, I suppose. Also, I think it is one of the early innovators of the sort of mutliple-main-characters viewpoints in science fiction way of telling stories, so there’s that.

The Whole Man by John Brunner- Grade: D+
This is apparently a novel that marks Brunner’s breakout from space opera, and the style does seem like a transition. It has a little bit of the feeling of New Wave sci-fi while also some of the campiness of adventure sci-fi. The stylistic jumps make it feel a bit haphazard to me. I also do not particularly enjoy how Brunner dealt with “disability” in the novel, using generally derogatory words to discuss disabilities and running with the notion that anyone with a disability is a kind of person to be pitied. The novel, in other words, has not aged well at all. Not one of Brunner’s better works.

Davy by Edgar Pangborn- Grade: C-
Post-nuclear-apocalypse coming-of-age stories were apparently very “in” in the 50s and 60s. Here’s another one. It’s decently well done, though not nearly as good as some other notable ones (thinking here, in particular of The Long Tomorrow). Here, Davy is a kind of future pirate ne’er do well who’s writing back on how he came to be where he is. It has its moments of fun and fear, but it takes forever to really get going, and when it does it suddenly feels so rushed it is hard to get on top of it. A decent book that I’d recommend for those who like pastoral apocalypses.

The Planet Buyer AKA The Boy Who Bought Old Earth AKA part of Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith (My Winner)- Grade: A
Yes, the publication of history of this is a bit complex. I ended up reading it as part of Norstrilia because that’s the version I could get my hands on. Anyway, Cordwainer Smith is one of those almost forgotten authors whose works really ought to be much more influential and well-known than they are. He wrote many more short stories (this is his only sci-fi novel), and each one of them is haunting and wacky in its own way. The Planet Buyer/Norstrilia is set in the same world as the rest of his sci-fi, a world in which the Instrumentality of Mankind rules. However, Old North Australia (Norstrilia) is the only place that can produce an immortality drug made from its genetically diseased sheep that are raised in pastoral settings preserved by ludicrously high tariffs and powerful defenses. Through speculation, a man is able to acquire an immense fortune, but then has to go on an adventure and into hiding in with the underpeople, some animal-people who are treated as slaves by others. The story somehow mixes elements of the absurd, New Wave, and pastoral sci-fi together in unexpected ways while still maintaining a cohesive, fascinating narrative. Smith also made choosing my personal winner for this year especially easy. The other nominees this year are either not very good or show their age in overwhelming fashion. By contrast, this novel feels fresh and inventive more than 50 years later. I definitely recommend reading all of Smith’s sci-fi corpus.

1965 Hugo Award for Best Novel: It’s likely this won’t be the only time that the book I considered (tied for) worst of the nominees won the award. The Wanderer was just boring. It’s almost a pure concept novel of the sort that has people today hate on hard sci-fi as a sub-genre. Leiber has entertained me before, so I was surprised by how little I liked this one. The Whole Man was little better, and I’m honestly a bit upset that I spent my money on that one because I couldn’t get it through interlibrary loan. It hasn’t aged well, and likely is only worth reading if you’re trying to look at the origins of space opera. Though even on that latter regard, I’d say the Lensman series is a more fun entry point, despite having its own significant flaws. Anyone out there who enjoyed either of these books? I’d be interested to read your own opinions on the novels. Or, if you also disliked them, join me in hating on them in the comments.

Davy was bland as well, but had moments of interest. It’s a mix of tropes that have been done many, many other times, but is written in a winsome enough way that I didn’t mind. It certainly has more staying power than the previously discussed books. Then, we get to The Planet Buyer (et al.). It’s so delightfully fresh and strange that it blew me away the first time I read it. I initially only read the book because I found the Baen edition of Cordwainer Smith’s collected sci-fi in a bookstore and it had a dragon in space on the cover, which convinced me that I had to figure out why that would be the case. I then plunged into his works and read all the sci-fi he’s written, enjoying each individual piece. The Planet Buyer absolutely stands the test of time, as Smith deftly wove many seemingly contradictory styles into one haunting narrative that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s absolutely top notch science fiction, and I commend it to you, dear readers.

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1963

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 1963 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.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (Winner) Grade: B-
I still can’t figure out the ending, but it was an enjoyable book. Fascinating idea (Japan/Germany win WW2) that is frequently-explored in alternate history but done well here. Dick’s strength is in the way he conveys a mix of humor and horror. Most of the book feels a bit like a travelogue, though, and one that doesn’t seem nearly as foreboding or interesting as it ought to be given the compelling idea behind the plot. Dick’s obsession–like many other SFF authors of his time–with questions of sexuality and pushing whatever boundaries he thought he needed to push against isn’t overwhelming here, but it is definitely an underlying theme. Since reading the book, I’ve watched the first two seasons of the TV show, which is pretty fantastic and shows directions Dick could have gone to make the book even better. I liked the book, but wish it had been more.

The Sword of Aldones by Marion Zimmer Bradley- Grade: C
There’s way more going on here than I expected when I read that this was a sword-and-planet science fantasy work. It’s almost more of a family genre/mannerpunk book in some ways than it is a science fantasy book. Genre questions aside, Bradley offered a compelling enough world and characters, but throughout the whole book there was a lack of punch. I just kept losing interest. Maybe that was my expectations about what I was getting into, but it just felt kind of ho-hum to me. The edition I got had an introduction from 1977 from Lester del Rey (cofounder of the publishing house) that was particularly revealing when he noted that Bradley’s work kept getting categorized as juvenile fiction because of a lack of overt sex. I guess that shows what was going on in that time related to SFF and also, if true, helps explain why so many books in this earlier part of the Hugo awards seem utterly obsessed with (ironically) juvenile notions of sex and titillation.

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (My Winner)- Grade: A-
There’s something about a good sci-fi thriller mixed with hard sci-fi that I find totally irresistable. This is an earlier one of Clarke’s works, but of those I’ve read from him it is the one that seems the most human. He puts a group of people together in a skimmer on the moon (and yes, we know the moon isn’t covered with a sea of dust now, but it could be any fictional place), has disaster fall upon them, and we sit with them as search and rescue begins, seeing the action from several angles. There’s something alluring about this plot. It’s so basic, but so fascinating. It’s like the stories about getting stuck in an elevator and befriending everyone aboard–it just works, with this inherently relatable feel to it. I was absolutely absorbed by this book from the beginning to the end. The only fault is that it shows the casual sexism of the 1960s through and through, whether it’s women naturally being selected for cooking, or appealing to vanity for women to get them to do things. Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and exactly the kind of book that makes a quest like my Hugo Award reading worth doing. Clarke weaves hard sci-fi throughout as well, as he explains without too many details–never in a boring way–the science or fake science behind so many of the events. And unlike other authors of hard sci-fi who sometimes get to the point where it reads as a textbook, Clarke weaves the science into the narrative in ways that even the occasional info dump seems to make sense–it just becomes a ratcheting up of the tension. A fascinating, fantastic read. Also, that first edition cover is stunning in its simplicity.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper- Grade: B-
The titular creatures are cute, and Piper seems to have been one of the few authors to pioneer the “aliens might not be the worst” subgenre of first contact novels. The writing is a little uneven, and the characters don’t quite break out of their molds, but it is all done in a kind of vanilla fashion that doesn’t leave that much to complain about. It’s an enjoyable taste, but nothing life changing. What is clear though, is the tremendous impact this book has had on the first contact subgenre of science fiction, from the debates over sentience/sapience to the way characters make discoveries about the aliens. It’s an influential book, and a quick read.

Sylva by Jean Bruller- Grade: C
The plot is that a fox becomes a woman becomes a wife becomes a fox-human mom. It’s weird. There’s a literary quality to it that both makes it seem a bit more well-written than some early science fiction while also managing to avoid being pretentious. But really, this is a kind of strange tale. The ending is much more alarming than I expected, though not because its horror or anything of the sort. It was just a major surprise. I found it a decent book, but not one I’d return to. It is so obscure now, apparently, that searching “Sylva Bruller” on Amazon doesn’t actually bring anything up. I feel fortunate to have tracked a copy down through interlibrary loan.

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.

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.

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1962

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 1962 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.

Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye (My Winner) Grade: A-
Have you read about Plato’s cave? Okay, now that you’ve searched it and done so if you haven’t we’re on the same page. This book is a science fiction exploration of Plato’s cave. It’s done extremely well, combining elements of nuclear scare/red scare with world building that make a whole culture that lives purely in darkness. It’s fascinating all the way through, with how Galouye thought to even drop common sayings like “I see what you mean” out of the vocabulary of a culture that cannot see. The downside in the book is that the characterization is a little on the lighter end. Overall, a must-read, especially for those philosophically-minded science fiction fans.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner) Grade: B-
Stranger in a Strange Land manages to capture the feeling of ‘alien-ness’ utterly, but stumbles slightly at the end, when Heinlein allows his own time period to take control of the plot too completely. It takes some digesting. It is clear that Heinlein wants to push his own view of the world, and that takes the reader out of engagement with the haunting story, at times.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting, engaging work. One of Heinlein’s better works. Though, like every Heinlein book I’ve read, it loses its luster the more I think about it. Yes, there was too much preaching from Heinlein about sex and drugs. Yes, it was hopelessly enamored with Heinlein’s favorite ideas. No, its characters aren’t three dimensional outside of the main character. It has serious issues all the way through, such that my initial largely favorable thoughts (I initially graded this one an A- on my first read-through) become more and more negative as I think about it. I also dislike it more the more I think about it in context of his overall body of work, though that’s hardly a fair measure. As a single book, standing alone, read in the right mood, this is excellent.

Planet of the Damned aka Sense of Obligation by Harry Harrison Grade: D+
I’ve enjoyed a few Harrison books, but this one was cliche in almost every regard. The characters were utterly predictable. The “surprise” discoveries were projected far in advance. The sexism was blatant, like when it is casually stated that women could not compete with men in a decathlon because women would “never” beat men at chess. It’s campy, but not in an endearing way as can happen. It’s just not a very well-written book in any regard.

The Fisherman aka Time is the Simplest Thing by Clifford Simak Grade: C
Clifford Simak is one of those names that looms large in classic sci-fi, but whose works, in my opinion at least, haven’t aged particularly well. Time is the Simplest Thing finds the protagonist engaged in a rather lengthy road trip basically trying to do… what? Having read the book rather carefully, I’m still not entirely sure why Shep Blaine decides he needs to flee when he encounters an alien that gets inside his mind. Is there some protocol of torturing information out of human hosts? Is there some way the alien is leading him? Kind of maybe. But the way it all plays out is written in a rather ho-hum, just the facts approach that doesn’t engage with the reader. Moreover, there is very little background for any character, making it difficult to really care at all about what’s happening. On the positive side, there is the occasional interesting exploration of themes like power, intelligence, and prejudice. My feelings after reading the book mirror the narrative style: ambivalence.

Second Ending by James White Grade: B-
James White is quickly becoming an author for whom I have a deep appreciation. The thing that makes him stand out, particularly for his time, is his almost total commitment to peaceful or even pacifist type solutions to problems. I have only read this book and the first of his Sector General novels, but I look forward to more. Anyway, Second Ending‘s biggest flaw is that it is too short for the story to really get off the ground. Yes, it is certainly possible for a short work to have a complete feeling to it, but this felt more of an amalgam of ideas than a deep plot. That’s okay, though, because the ideas–while somewhat dated–are interesting. White doesn’t have “red scare” in the traditional sense. Again, it’s all about what we–all of humanity–are doing to ourselves. If we destroy the world, what next? I enjoyed this pithy read, but it left me wanting more. Perhaps it’s time to dive into the next Sector General novel!

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1961

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 Awared winners and nominees for best novel. Let me know your thoughts and favorites.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (Winner, My Winner) Grade: A
It’s basically a thoroughly Roman Catholic ‘Mad Max.’ Is it even possible to not like that as a concept for a novel? Effectively three short-stories tied together, this novel tells of a dystopian future at three stages. A Roman Catholic order of monks, those who follow Leibowitz, have preserved human knowledge after major nuclear war and pushback against learning and science have set humanity back centuries. It’s a haunting, beautiful novel with character and delight to spare. Fantastic.

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson Grade: B-
Ever wanted to know what would happen if you had Medieval Knights running around in space? If your answer was yes, then this is the novel for you. But really, that’s… basically what this is. Your visceral reaction to the concept question that I started with will probably be a great guideline for your level of enjoyment of the novel. It’s campy, it’s weird, it’s a bit dragged out, but it also has a weird kind of classic feel to it that makes it read almost like a weird sci-fi Once and Future King. It is definitely not as good as that masterpiece of literature, but it captures that feel occasionally, and that makes it worth a read as well. I realize I’ve written this much and barely talked about the novel itself, but it would be pretty spoilerish for this one to say almost anything about the plot, so here we are. Read it if what I’ve said appeals.

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys Grade: C-
It’s hard to hate on this novel as much as I wanted to at times. Yes, it reads rather choppily. Yes, its characters suffer from early sci-fi tropes and lack of characterization. Yes, it feels somewhat like a hack job. But it also manages to highlight so many of the things that make later hard sci-fi so great. Budrys here gives us a prototype for so much other hard sci-fi that would come later, and he fits it together with a kind of fun-house horror that somehow is not as terrible as it really ought to be. By no means is this an excellent work–it should be read largely for historical value–but it’s not awful, which is about as good an endorsement as I can give it.

Deathworld by Harry Harrison Grade: A-
I think this book benefited some from blowing my expectations out of the water. After reading The Stainless Steel Rat, I was pretty sure what to expect here. But instead of something that was pure action, Harrison delivered a remarkably thoughtful mystery of what is happening on a deadly world. The humanity with which it was delivered was also somewhat surprising, given the rough-and-tumble attitude he seems to have in his writings. Harrison’s view of women reflected his own (backward) perspectives of the time, but he did, to his credit, include one female character who was actually more three dimensional than many other characters, including males, in the book. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, but was somewhat disappointed with the next two. They were okay, this one was great.

Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon Grade: C+
Sturgeon wrote here an interesting experimental novel. What if gender norms and sexes were totally irrelevant? What would society look like? That’s the question he asks with this set piece novel. Much of it is spent on exposition, to the point where it starts to lose interest at points. The answers Sturgeon provides to some questions that naturally arise at times seem dated and even quaint, but this was clearly ahead of its time when it was written. Not a bad read, and short enough that it doesn’t outlive its stay.

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1960

Yeah, that’s a sPaCe BlAsTeR!

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.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner)- Grade: B+
Heinlein created a somewhat surreal story with a surprising lack of actual trooper-ing happening. I mean, there’s a lot of lead-up to fighting scenes, but very little of the action is portrayed. It’s good, but not quite as good as I was expecting. It also features what would become even more pronounced in later Heinlein writings- an insistence that you as a reader sit and read lengthy sections where he expands on his views of sex or economics. Despite that, it comes out at the other end a quite good novel, if not necessarily worthy of the hype it has. Hey, it’s better than the movie!

Dorsai! (AKA Genetic General) by Gordon R. Dickson- Grade: C-
It’s easy to see how this book influenced so much other military science fiction. It is also easy to see why it hasn’t remained the enduring classic that some of the others on this list have. It’s full of dull, stilted inner dialogue, thin characters, and ho-hum battle scenes. A stage setter? Absolutely. Still worth reading? Only for the historical value of it.

The Pirates of Ersatz (AKA The Pirates of Zan) by Murray Leinster- Grade: A-
Space pirates? I was pretty sure nothing could go wrong there, but I was surprised by how thoughtful this book was, and how not much at all like a pirate novel it turned out to be. I expected a campy book about some free shooting space pirate blowing stuff up. Yes, there is plenty of piracy here, but the novel is not about the action of space pirates raiding other ships. It’s about the main character, Bran Hodder, and his interactions in a sometimes careless universe. He initially is thrown into the plot because of a rather comedic scenario in which he accidentally made a possible death-ray emitter. From there, he goes on to fulfill a few action/adventure tropes, but he also has a fair share of Robin Hood in him (itself its own trope). But Leinster weaves these trope-like ideas together in a way that makes sense and actually contributes to the overall plot. It’s a very good read that holds up surprisingly well.

Brain Twister (AKA That Sweet Little Old Lady) by Mark Philips- Grade: B-
There is a healthy dose of humor in this pseudo whodunnit, pseudo action adventure, maybe slightly Red Scare novel. I’m still not sure what to make of it. The science fiction in it is downplayed, but essential to the plot. It’s a fun romp that you can read in just a few hours, and if you find it at a library or something I’d recommend taking the time to do so, just so I can ask you what the devil happened.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut- Grade: F
I have read enough of his books to think that yes, it’s him and not me. Anyway, this book has some bare bones plot about people going places and doing things so that you, the reader, may be subjected to a constant stream of consciousness of same-sounding dialogue that tells you about Vonnegut’s ideas. Nothing by Vonnegut is worth reading, in my opinion. His “dark humor” is laughably quaint and based on stupid jokes. His alleged wit about the way of the world is trite. His characters are infants. His dialogue is forced. His reflections on religion could be refuted by a first year theology student. There is nothing here that is not found in every other one of his books, recycled and reused. It is awesome in its awfulness.

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.