My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1981

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 Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven- Grade: D+
Take the longest, most drawn-out parts of Ringworld, in which the characters are slogging through endless terrain. Now, turn that into an entire book. That’s what it feels like I just read. Yes, I know there was a plot there to try to ratchet up the tension. Something about some aliens trying to find treasure so they can impress other aliens or whatever. But realistically, the plot here absolutely drags. I mean, it’s the sloggiest of slogs. I found myself barely caring about what was happening about halfway through, and then forcing myself towards the end, which manages to be, insultingly, a cliffhanger-ish ending. A cliffhanger! After a book that did almost nothing with its characters for 300 pages! I admit I groaned a bit. Finally, something happened, and it was right as I turned the page to run into the epilogue.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl- Grade: A-
A small group of humans goes to explore an artifact left by the Heechee, a super-advanced race that mysteriously disappeared. There’s a surprising amount of plot tucked into this book that starts with a kind of razor focus on four main characters and ultimately has galaxy-wide implications. As I read, it seemed there was plenty left unexplained. It’s possible I missed some explanations. I just thought that more questions were opened near the end than were closed. I didn’t realize that this opens up more of a series from Pohl, though, and I’m interested in whether the next few books live up to the first two.

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A
I had a number of abortive attempts to read this a few years ago and then just gave up. I picked it up for the fourth or fifth time on a vacation for this read-through and it all started to click together. This is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Snow Queen…” kind of. It doesn’t really strike me as having too many similarities, but my only experience with Anderson’s version is, to be fair, a few cartoon versions somewhere (I think) and the Wiki page. So I basically read this on its own merits, and it stands up very well. The world building here is at a level akin to some of the all time greats. The characters are complex, though a few get lost on tangents here and there along the way. The star is the Snow Queen and Moon, her pseudo-progeny slash rival for power. Political intrigue, questions of connection to a greater universe, and more abound throughout the novel. It’s not an easy read. This is one you’ll need to sit down and pay attention to, which thankfully lent itself to a couple long drives across South Dakota and Wyoming for me (I wasn’t driving, before you get too worried). I think I can now say I understand why this is considered a great by so many, and I may even dive into it again in a year or two because I enjoyed it immensely. It’s dense, though, almost to the point of being unbearably dense.

Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg- Grade: A-
A science fantasy epic follows the story of Valentine, a man who’s memories have been repressed as he finds himself in a major city with a pile of coins but little knowledge of what to do. He becomes a juggler with a traveling party of humans and aliens for lack of anything better to do. As the novel goes on, layers of this fantastical world are peeled away and readers are swept into the adventure of Valentine as he rediscovers himself and his place on Majipoor. I used the terminology “swept” on purpose, because this is a novel that, if you’ll allow it, will take you up and carry you on an adventure across the massive planet. There are parts where the plot could drag, such as the lengthy descriptions of the juggling. However, if one lets oneself truly dive into those parts and see the flow, the rhythm, and the beat for what they’re intended to be, it’s enthralling. A slow burn read that builds on itself over its lengthy stay, I believe readers will largely get out of it the amount of emersion they’re willing to allow.

Wizard by John Varley- Grade: B-
A significant improvement over the first book in nearly every way. Wizard tells the story of the world of Gaea, which is somehow sentient and also personal and… has many other singular qualities. Readers follow the story of a few pilgrims to Gaea, each seeking their own answers, who get drawn into a kind of epic journey trying to figure out and possibly overthrow some of the mechanisms behind Gaea’s workings. Along the way, no small amount of Weird Sci-Fi conventions get thrown into the mix. Whether it’s the pseudo-centaur-like creatures on Gaea engaging in explicitly detailed sex with a human, many, many other sexual comments and scenes, the constantly pseudo-feminist-yet-weirdly-male-gaze-y narrative of a certain character, or any number of other scenes, the reader is treated to a veritable cacophony of strangeness. At times, the feeling of “other” is overwhelming to the point where it becomes almost prosaic to have an actual plot happening. Happens it does, however, and the story itself is fine enough, though I found some if its elements (such as Gaea’s boredom and attempts to cure it) a bit disappointing. Still, this is a singular work that, so far as I am concerned, vastly surpasses the first in the series.

1981

What a weird year. Wizard headlines the weirdness by being among the more strange pieces of science fiction I’ve read–but it remains readable. I had fun reading it as I walked circles around a local pond. Snow Queen is a book that felt a monumental task to finish, and I’m glad I did. I doubt if I’ll ever attempt it again, though, despite it being my pick for a winner. It’s majestic, but overbearing. Silverberg’s entry is somehow a traditional-feeling fantasy novel, something I haven’t really encountered from him (which shows both his range and my need to read more of his works!). I was hoping to find a newfound love of the Ringworld books, as I always hear them raised as longtime favorites. I especially felt this way after having finally “figured out” the first book in some ways. But alas, I found Ringworld Engineers to be boring and mostly pointless. Finally, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is full of big ideas and cool happenings. While it never reaches the highest of heights, its a supremely worthy read. 1981 is a solid year for the Hugos. It’s not the best, but it certainly isn’t the worst year. It also is one of the few years so far in which my winner was the same as the actual winner. I should keep track of how often this happens.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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: 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

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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.