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 1986 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.
Footfall by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven- Grade: C-
Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven collaborated on a number of bestselling blockbuster novels for several years. Some were great, others were not-so-great. This one falls towards the “not-so-great” side of the spectrum. The primary flaw in Footfall is with how bloated it is on almost every level: the buildup is too long, there are too many characters (to the point that, as a reader, I never became very invested in any of them), and there is too little going on in extended sequences of exposition of people walking around wondering what to do. It has the intensity of their other collaborations, but it doesn’t maintain it throughout the novel, which lends itself to exposing some of the flaws in the writing style itself. On the plus side, the Fithp, despite having a ludicrous name, are a well thought out alien species with some fascinating details in the background. Footfall ultimately would have been much better as either a series–so that readers could get more invested in the characters and perhaps more of the Fithp background could be explored–or a short story–so that the extraneous details could all be cut out. As it stands it’s a middling novel.
Cuckoo’s Egg by CJ Cherryh- Grade: A-
Cherryh has a knack for making aliens seem quite alien, and for telling the stories from their perspective. Here, we get the story of a protective alien, Duun, caring for a human child named Thorn. Duun is a Shonunin, an apparently warlike species of aliens. But Cherryh uses the perspective of Duun to totally subvert many of the reader’s expectations. We, being humans, have made assumptions about the Shonunin society from the outset, not realizing that Duun’s affiliation with a warrior group may have made them seem more warlike and aggressive than they actually are. As Thorn learns about human language, his own development as a character begins to take over the novel as well. It is in that section that I started to have a few points of wanting to get back to the “main plot” of Duun’s life and how he was impacted by all the events. Cherryh sells it all with a passionate viewpoint from Duun that makes it believable while playing with expectations. It’s quite well done.
The Postman by David Brin- Grade: C-
I couldn’t help but feel a major amount of deja vu with this. It’s got scenes that feel incredibly similar to Chrysalids or Alas, Babylon in different ways. I’m not saying it’s copied–it clearly is not–but it has a sense of familiarity that simply should not exist in a post-apocalyptic novel. Perhaps that’s a mark of how many of these books I’ve read by now, but I think it is at least in part a function of the writing itself. Anyway, The Postman certainly isn’t bad, it just didn’t strike me as particularly excellent, either. The blurbs on the back seemed to focus on how it’s some kind of warning. But a warning of what? And why is it particularly poignant in regards to humanity’s plight? Frankly, compared to some other post-apocalyptic tales, this is rather tame.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A
Ender’s Game will always hold a special place in my heart as it was basically the first serious science fiction I ever read. I read it for a book club in high school, and the only sci-fi I’d read before that was a bunch of Star Wars books and then some Timothy Zahn works because I had read all of his Star Wars books and figured I liked them enough to try something else by him. Card’s thoughtful sci-fi absolutely blew me away, and I will never forget the experience of gushing over it with several fellow high schoolers and then, a few years later, meeting Card himself and getting the chance to sit and chat with him for about 15 minutes at a conference. So while I have some decidedly mixed feelings about the man and his legacy (his personal kindness to me–and it was true kindness–seems so at odds with his often hateful writings about politics and policy), I am navigating the space of work vs. creator. Ender’s Game itself is a fantastic study of not just the human psyche but also of military science fiction itself. It’s unexpected, particularly in its massive twist at the end. Or, perhaps it was only unexpected for my teenage self. Nevertheless, I believe the novel stands as a bell ringing warning as well as a surprising call for mercy in a merciless world.
Blood Music by Greg Bear- Grade: B+
Bear does a fantastic job building this one up and setting the stage. The outbreak itself was a bit terrifying and it is all too easy to envision this actually happening. One person’s mistake leads to a complete disaster on the highest scale imaginable. But once Bear went past the setup and the early stages, it got crazy quickly. The story went from a somewhat standard–but well-written–outbreak scenario to something much bigger and stranger. That’s not bad on its own, and that makes it more memorable in many ways, but it moved so quickly from one type of story to another so quickly. It was an interesting, if sometimes rushed, play on the outbreak type theme in science fiction.
1986- There’s a strong ballot here, and quite a bit of catastrophe for humanity. Footfall, The Postman, Blood Music, and Ender’s Game each have humanity at a destructive crossroads. While I didn’t enjoy all of them the same amount, each has some redeeming qualities. Cuckoo’s Egg and Ender’s Game are the more thoughtful reads of the bunch, however. The former gives us alien viewpoint to a high degree while the latter ultimately gives us a deep look at humanity. As I said, while I am navigating the creator-creation distinction regarding Ender’s Game, it’s been incredibly formative to my own sci-fi fandom, and I believe it remains a classic read to this day. Overall, ’86 was a good year for the Hugos. Which would you choose?
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.
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