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.

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.

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.