I’m a huge science fiction fan, and, having read a list of what are alleged to be the top 200 science fiction novels, I decided to next tackle a read-through of all the Hugo Award winners and nominees for best novel. Let me know your thoughts and favorites. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees. I’ve also dropped a short reflection on the year’s Hugo list at the end.
Millennium by John Varley (My Winner)- Grade: B-
The concept here is pretty awesome. On a future Earth, the present is bleak, so they send back time travelers to grab healthy humans from the past to try to reinvigorate their present. They’re spotted, and hijinks ensue. It’s a great thread, and one of the better uses of time travel. I love time travel abstractly as an idea for a story, but it’s so rarely used in ways which make it actually integral to the plot. Varley, however, uses it in a way that is impactful without ever feeling like it’s just there for the sake of the plot or throwing people into past situations. The characters aren’t terribly compelling, which makes it difficult to get into the book. Ultimately, the ideas behind the story are what kept me going as a reader. It’s definitely of the better time travel-themed novels I’ve read recently.
Startide Rising by David Brin (Winner)- Grade: C-
Conceptually, Startide Rising–and indeed, the rest of the series–has quite a bit going for it. The idea of “uplifting” other species to sentience and then traveling through the stars with them is a good one that I have surprisingly not really run into much anywhere else. My issue with this book and the others in the series is that it drags out the concept for far too long and without as much payoff as I’d like. The cacophony of viewpoints becomes more than a bit annoying to try to follow as aliens, dolphins, and humans each chime in on galactic affairs and the events surrounding one specific ship, the Streaker, on which the humans and dolphins reside. The reader is shifted back and forth so frequently that settling in and trying to experience the story is impossible. The book is also quite lengthy, which adds to the difficulty of trying to manage so many sporadically appearing characters. I found myself wondering occasionally if I should remember a character encountered in one or another part, and it became a chore to read after a while. With a more tightly focused narrative, I think this would have been a much better read. As it stands, it shows flashes of brilliance throughout.
Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. McAvoy- Grade: C-
Sometimes you read a book and you can tell it’s probably much better than it feels. For me, Tea with the Black Dragon was one of those books. There’s a quietude in the novel that is both appealing at times and also off-putting at others. I found myself feeling a bit bored. I know that’s a strong indictment, but its nevertheless true. I found my mind wandering off to other novels or locales, hoping that some action would occur, or that something would break the tone of the novel. I don’t really know how to describe it; I was underwhelmed here. I acknowledge the craft while at the same time noting it’s not for me.
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McAffrey- Grade: B-
McAffrey takes readers back to an earlier time in Pern, making this book one of the potential entry points into the series. The science fantasy world of Pern has humans using dragons to fight voracious alien invaders known as Thread which falls whenever a sister planet gets close enough for them to cross the space between planets. In Moreta, a disease is spreading throughout the Weyrs to the point where effectively fighting against Thread is in danger. That puts the whole planet at risk, and Moreta must muster up the people of the Weyr to finally fight off the incursion, which is only successful when they rediscover vaccination. Reading the novel post-Covid makes it feel like a somewhat pointed and possibly refreshing science fantasy defense of vaccination as a proper way to combat disease. The book is, as I said, a good entry point into the series, but for those who’ve read everything so far, it could feel formulaic. At this point McAffrey definitely has a pattern in the stories of the novels and even in tropes of characters that show up. Fans of the series will enjoy it, and those who are new to the series may find it a good point to jump in. Those already unimpressed or with waning interest in the series will find this one another tough read. I enjoyed it pretty well, and continue to find the series a kind of comfort read. You get what you expect to get out of them.
The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov- Grade: C
I enjoy Asimov’s Robots series overall. They tend to have stronger characters than the Foundation series (let’s be honest, basically any characterization is stronger than that series) and I enjoy mystery novels, so combining that with sci-fi makes for a potent mix. We revisit Elijah Baley and see what he’s up to as he tackles yet another mystery, this time mixed with a heaping helping of agoraphobia. It’s a fairly good mystery story in which Asimov continues to use the setting to his advantage. The problem is that it seems almost interminably long with very little action to drive the plot forward. It’s a fine novel, but it serves much more as a springboard for discussions of Asimov’s pet issues than it does anything else. It’s a fine read, especially if you enjoyed the other books in the series, but there’s nothing extraordinary about it.
1984- A somewhat disappointing year for the Hugos. None of these books are runaway winners for the award, but none are egregiously bad, either. It’s more of a milquetoast feel to the whole thing. I chose Millennium as my personal winner over Moreta only because the former feels much fresher as a read. Each book on this list has some difficulties, but each has enough qualities to make them worth at least sampling. Not a bad year, nor a good year. Look, even the cover of the winner, Millennium, is boring! What did you think?
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.
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