My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1980

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 have included a brief reflection on the year’s Hugos at the end. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees.

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke (Winner)- Grade: D
The Fountains of Paradise is dull almost beyond words. It’s served with a heaping helping of ‘religious people are stupid’ on top. Hey, maybe you think religious people are stupid, but if you do, can you at least acknowledge that some of them are thoughtful instead of making them all into cardboard caricatures?  There’s a decent premise, I guess. Let’s build an elevator to the stars. Of course, only one place on Earth is suitable for some extremely dense hard sci-fi reason. I love science fiction. And I have enjoyed books by Clarke, but this one was aggravating and boring. That’s an accomplishment.  Clarke has done much better.

Titan by John Varley- Grade: D
Titan is a combination of some hard science fiction themes along with some fantasy elements. It’s a recipe for something that I love, but when you add something awful into the mix, it all goes sideways. Here, that something awful is a heaping dose of misogynist sexual fantasies. The amount of ink spilled upon how women look and just how good they might be because of a shapely thigh or somesuch is just… so over the top. It was distracting all the way through to the extent that it, along with the assumptions about how men and women in general would act, detracted entirely from my enjoyment of the novel. But then I started to notice some of the other issues with it–some big plot holes, somewhat annoying characters, and nonsensical twists. I’ll be reading the next book, entirely because it also got an award nomination, so I’m hoping that I like it more.

Jem by Frederik Pohl- Grade: D
I did not like this book very much. A planet is discovered and humans want to peacefully colonize it as a kind of idyllic vision. Back on Earth, things go south and the new colony turns into a kind of last hope for humanity. On the colony, the alien races there are more (or less, in some ways?) than they appear. Honestly, the last 5% or so of the novel was good–it shows the consequences of even well-intentioned colonialism. Everything else was a slog. The first 80 pages or so seem to be half tribute to Pohl contemporaries, half boring meetings of people talking about or seducing each other as they try to figure out colonizing. The whole thing just ends up feeling extremely boring and even chore-like to read, though the bit of payoff at the end made me less upset about paying the fee to interlibrary loan it. 

On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch- Grade: D+
How do you grade books that clearly demonstrate talent while also being nearly unreadable because they feel caught in the past with ideas that are sometimes cringe and sometimes just silly? I don’t know, but here’s where I settled on this frustrating, strange book. The premise is that the United States has turned, in parts, into ultra-conservative dystopias while at the coasts there exist some kind of hippy-ville that also has its share of problems. Someone has developed a way to have astral projection and trigger spiritual experiences, and Daniel Weinreb, our protagonist, has no small amount of trouble because of this “flying.” Ultimately, the book climaxes in a kind of revelation of the capacity to fully leave the body with the mind even as many conservatives and non-flyers reject the reality. It seems to clearly be a parable of a kind, but one that is so hidden behind layers that it’s difficult as to what Disch is trying to get at. Is he warning of the dangers of ultra-conservativism? Probably? Is it a broadside against religion? Perhaps? Is astral projection via machine a metaphor for drugs? I don’t know? It’s such a strange read set in sometimes strong prose that makes it all the more frustrating. I didn’t like it, but I understand why many might.

Harpist in the Wind by Patricia McKillip (My Winner)- Grade: B
Harpist in the Wind is the third and concluding volume in the Riddle-Master trilogy by McKillip. Like the other books in the series, the focus is pretty narrow, largely following a group of characters on an adventure as they quest to discover the mysteries behind some shape-shifters that have been dogging them, along with the mystery of the Kingdom in which they travel. There are moments of great revelations, especially when the magic is revealed in various parts. There are also moments of tenderness that are surprisingly strong in characterization. I have to express some disappointment, though, in that despite the massive focus on riddles as ways to control and even do battle with others, there is very little by way of actual riddles in the novels themselves.

1980- Uffda. This was a rough year for the Hugos. Several familiar names headline these nominations, but none of them delivered the goods, imo. McKillip’s novel is a worthy choice for a nominee, but would not win a stronger year. The winner chosen at the actual ceremony–Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise–is a tedious slog. The other books don’t fare much better. It’s almost like the voters just nominated favorite authors for the sake of seeing their names yet again on the ballot. One of the worst years, in my opinion. 

Links

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2022- Reviews Part 2

Steel Crocodile by D.G. Compton-
The description of this novel is somewhat incongruous with its content. The blurb I saw was something to the effect of: there’s an omniscient supercomputer that can answer any questions, but Matthew Oliver is asking too many questions. I went in expecting a kind of cyberpunk-esque thriller. Steel Crocodile is not that book. No, instead it’s a deep character piece about love between a husband and wife in an oppressive situation. It’s a reflection on the impact of surveillance state on the people therein. It’s a book that asks questions about aging with dignity. It asks questions about God and faith. It seeks to get at what’s right and wrong.
There are a number of cringe-y moments related to gender norms, especially when a competent woman is introduced and comments are made about how her hairstyle suggests her personality. That said, it’s clear Compton was getting at the deeper aspects of psyche and may even have been offering a critique of some of these gender norms in the novel. For example, the way men and women think about each other and the different ways people see the same events was done quite well by Compton at multiple points.
The main plot does deal with that allegedly omniscient supercomputer. Some big reveals center around how people plan to use this computer, and a few of these bring up intriguing questions of faith and God. Those latter questions abound throughout the novel, and as a Christian myself, it was nice to see Christianity (in the form of Catholicism) taken seriously in a sci-fi novel. There are also many moments of concern about a surveillance state and how easily we can simply turn the intrusion of people watching into a status quo.
Overall, Steel Crocodile succeeds far more often that it stumbles. Readers looking for a straightforward sci-fi novel will be disappointed, but those interested in sci-fi that asks big questions and looks into human nature will be delighted.

Jem by Frederik Pohl-
I did not like this book very much. A planet is discovered and humans want to peacefully colonize it as a kind of idyllic vision. Back on Earth, things go south and the new colony turns into a kind of last hope for humanity. On the colony, the alien races there are more (or less, in some ways?) than they appear. Honestly, the last 5% or so of the novel was good–it shows the consequences of even well-intentioned colonialism. Everything else was a slog. The first 80 pages or so seem to be half tribute to Pohl contemporaries, half boring meetings of people talking about or seducing each other as they try to figure out colonizing. The whole thing just ends up feeling extremely boring and even chore-like to read, though the bit of payoff at the end made me less upset about paying the fee to interlibrary loan it.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis-
A highly advanced robot who helps run a decaying New York City wants to die. Meanwhile, a pair of humans stops taking the drugs that keep almost all of the surviving humanity in self-imposed stupors and starts to discover what it really means to be human again. These stories entwine and blossom into a beautiful, haunting story that will stay with me forever. Tevis creates a kind of dystopia that is even more disturbing, in many ways, than some of the more well-known dystopias like 1984 or Brave New World. The reason for this is because humans clearly chose to let themselves cede all of their impulses, desires, and wants to the tending of robots and others. What makes that so disturbing is twofold. One, Tevis doesn’t really explain the how and why it happened. Humans just decided that it was better to just let robots take care of everything else and will themselves into drugged stupors than to continue trying. Two, it’s alarmingly prescient in that humans will very often choose the easier road than one that takes effort and pain.
One poignant scene helps bring this home, as a character is longing after one they fell in love with and realizing that it is actually painful to love and to hope for others. This, of course, leads the reader to wonder whether the character will give in and take drugs (specifically, the ubiquitous soporifics available readily throughout the novel). It’s a different kind of terror from worrying about Big Brother or the bad guys out to get anyone who dissents. Instead, this is a novel in which humans war with their own natures, and have very clearly lost repeatedly. That is a kind of horror and awfulness that is more haunting than even the most oppressive and intrusive government or society.
Much more is going on in this excellent novel. It feels hopeful at times, and hopeless at others. The ending is absolutely spot on for the feel of the whole book. Mockingbird deserves to be held in as much reverence as other deeply self-reflective dystopic works. I highly recommend it to any fan of thoughtful sci-fi.

And Chaos Died by Joanna Russ
A pair of humans crash land on a utopic world in which people live wonderfully alongside nature and have telepathy and seemingly other powers. Meanwhile, Earth is a hot, overpopulated mess. A bare bones plot almost holds the book together in between strange stream-of-consciousness portions that are at least attempts to make readers try to see what telepathy would be like, were it to actually exist. Russ is in command of her prose, but the book overall felt a bit like an overly complex puzzle. This slim volume is a tough read that might reward re-reading more than it does reading it the first time. I need to circle back and give it another go, but for now it was just a bit too much.