My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1978

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.

Dying of the Light by George R. R. Martin- Grade: D
Full disclosure: I met George R. R. Martin once and he was a total jerk to teenage me for no reason whatsoever, so I have an intense bias against him.
That said, this book was extremely “meh.” For its time, it feels like there are some fresh ideas or at least presentations. Not having heterosexual monogamy as the absolute and only option wasn’t innovative at this point, but it plays such a major part of the story and characterization here that makes it seem more momentous. The problem is that the story itself is honestly so bland. The plot follows a bunch of characters on Worlorn, a rogue planet that is approaching a heat death (cold death?) as it moves away from the red giant star it’s passing by. Most of the characters also have themes of death surronding them, whether it’s the death of a culture, love, or individual. Everyone and everything is dying. Maybe that’s the main theme. It feels almost like an extended monologue from someone who’s not terribly interested at getting you to engage with the story in any way. Maybe reading this book is another way to push you along the path towards death by using your time in boredom. I don’t know.

Time Storm by Gordon R. Dickson- Grade: D
Another time travel novel, another disappointment. Gordon Dickson’s Time Storm should be an absolutely thrilling journey on a post apocalyptic, time-diluted, insane planet Earth. The cover for my Kindle edition has a huge shark battling some wild reptilian humanoid people things. I wanted a fun jaunt across time and shark battles. I guess I kind of got a shark battle at one point, but even that was written in such a matter-of-fact, ho-hum style that it didn’t engage at all. This journey of a leopard and a young man and woman is surprisingly, well, boring. Add in some tired tropes about women needing protection but also ogling, and you’ve got a recipe for alternating yawns and outrage. Time travel should be fun. It should be amazing. Yet time and again, when I encounter it in fiction, it’s not. Authors very rarely seem to make use of the wild possibilities they have at their fingertips. This is not a very good novel.

Gateway by Frederik Pohl (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A-
I found this to be a supremely interesting story with a number of intriguing elements. The reports, classifieds, and the like found throughout fleshed out the world. The interplay of the pseudo-archaeology, pseudo-adventure story with a [robot] psychiatrist’s office was amusing, thought not always in a good way. It makes the book feel quite dated at points, with its clear dependence on what was then cutting-edge psychiatry making for some laughable scenes. Ultimately, though, the story is a heart-rending, get-you-in-the-feels tale that has me mourning it days later. Maybe I should read the rest of the series to find out what happens next. Also, that first edition cover is just fabulous. I adore the 50s-70s style spaceship art, and wow do I love that cover.

Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven- Grade: C-
The premise is pretty neat: scattershot a bunch of characters as they face the possibility of a major asteroid strike, then follow those who survive after the strike. The buildup isn’t bad either. It’s interesting to see how the varied characters who are either ‘in the know’ or not deal with the possibility, whether they immediately start stocking up stores or wait till the last day. But there’s something just ‘off’ about a lot of the novel–and part of it is how it treats women. There’s a very dated view of women, as if they automatically need to be protected when society collapses because they’re helpless. Sure, not all of them are portrayed as helpless, but men take charge anyway. I also thought the creepy storyline with the voyeur man was unnecessary and, again, degraded women by effectively treating women as sex objects exclusively. The other problem is that the last third of the book is kind of ho-hum. It’s like a survival novel but there’s not much in the way of environmental hazards after the initial disaster strikes. I felt there should be a lot more tension and chaos, but there wasn’t. Merely okay.

The Forbidden Tower by Marion Zimmer Bradley- Grade: D+
I think this is technically book 11 or 12 in the series, and I’ve read a few others. I admit some of my distaste for the book is in part based upon the awfulness of MZB’s actions towards her own and other children. The book itself is full of tropes, but has some bright spots throughout that make it interesting. I especially enjoyed some of the descriptive language and turns of phrase that had me enjoying some of her other works before. However, this is very firmly in the more traditional fantasy adventure camp and it has all the foibles as such. The conflict is supposed to be this huge, world-wide conflict, but never reads as though it gets much bigger impact than on a few of the main characters. It seems contrived as times, and some of the ways the plot plays out don’t have great resolutions. It’s not great.

1978- Well, at least this year had a clear winner. 1978 wasn’t a great list, to be honest. I found it telling that the Nebula Awards of the same year only share one book with this list, and it’s Gateway. That novel is an achievement, though it shows its age on the corners. I don’t mind reading dated things. If I did, I wouldn’t be going through this list. But each of the other books listed here (and, to an extent, Gateway itself) are dated in the worst ways. Whether its the casual sexism of Lucifer’s Hammer or the inability to break out of trope-y campiness of The Forbidden Tower, these books all feel out of date in ways that take away from the story. Sometimes reading old things can give a sense of recapturing what was lost or at least some kind of strange nostalgia. There’s not much of that there. It’s not the worst year for the Hugos, but certainly one of the weaker years of the decade.


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My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1963

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. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1963 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.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (Winner) Grade: B-
I still can’t figure out the ending, but it was an enjoyable book. Fascinating idea (Japan/Germany win WW2) that is frequently-explored in alternate history but done well here. Dick’s strength is in the way he conveys a mix of humor and horror. Most of the book feels a bit like a travelogue, though, and one that doesn’t seem nearly as foreboding or interesting as it ought to be given the compelling idea behind the plot. Dick’s obsession–like many other SFF authors of his time–with questions of sexuality and pushing whatever boundaries he thought he needed to push against isn’t overwhelming here, but it is definitely an underlying theme. Since reading the book, I’ve watched the first two seasons of the TV show, which is pretty fantastic and shows directions Dick could have gone to make the book even better. I liked the book, but wish it had been more.

The Sword of Aldones by Marion Zimmer Bradley- Grade: C
There’s way more going on here than I expected when I read that this was a sword-and-planet science fantasy work. It’s almost more of a family genre/mannerpunk book in some ways than it is a science fantasy book. Genre questions aside, Bradley offered a compelling enough world and characters, but throughout the whole book there was a lack of punch. I just kept losing interest. Maybe that was my expectations about what I was getting into, but it just felt kind of ho-hum to me. The edition I got had an introduction from 1977 from Lester del Rey (cofounder of the publishing house) that was particularly revealing when he noted that Bradley’s work kept getting categorized as juvenile fiction because of a lack of overt sex. I guess that shows what was going on in that time related to SFF and also, if true, helps explain why so many books in this earlier part of the Hugo awards seem utterly obsessed with (ironically) juvenile notions of sex and titillation.

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (My Winner)- Grade: A-
There’s something about a good sci-fi thriller mixed with hard sci-fi that I find totally irresistable. This is an earlier one of Clarke’s works, but of those I’ve read from him it is the one that seems the most human. He puts a group of people together in a skimmer on the moon (and yes, we know the moon isn’t covered with a sea of dust now, but it could be any fictional place), has disaster fall upon them, and we sit with them as search and rescue begins, seeing the action from several angles. There’s something alluring about this plot. It’s so basic, but so fascinating. It’s like the stories about getting stuck in an elevator and befriending everyone aboard–it just works, with this inherently relatable feel to it. I was absolutely absorbed by this book from the beginning to the end. The only fault is that it shows the casual sexism of the 1960s through and through, whether it’s women naturally being selected for cooking, or appealing to vanity for women to get them to do things. Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and exactly the kind of book that makes a quest like my Hugo Award reading worth doing. Clarke weaves hard sci-fi throughout as well, as he explains without too many details–never in a boring way–the science or fake science behind so many of the events. And unlike other authors of hard sci-fi who sometimes get to the point where it reads as a textbook, Clarke weaves the science into the narrative in ways that even the occasional info dump seems to make sense–it just becomes a ratcheting up of the tension. A fascinating, fantastic read. Also, that first edition cover is stunning in its simplicity.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper- Grade: B-
The titular creatures are cute, and Piper seems to have been one of the few authors to pioneer the “aliens might not be the worst” subgenre of first contact novels. The writing is a little uneven, and the characters don’t quite break out of their molds, but it is all done in a kind of vanilla fashion that doesn’t leave that much to complain about. It’s an enjoyable taste, but nothing life changing. What is clear though, is the tremendous impact this book has had on the first contact subgenre of science fiction, from the debates over sentience/sapience to the way characters make discoveries about the aliens. It’s an influential book, and a quick read.

Sylva by Jean Bruller- Grade: C
The plot is that a fox becomes a woman becomes a wife becomes a fox-human mom. It’s weird. There’s a literary quality to it that both makes it seem a bit more well-written than some early science fiction while also managing to avoid being pretentious. But really, this is a kind of strange tale. The ending is much more alarming than I expected, though not because its horror or anything of the sort. It was just a major surprise. I found it a decent book, but not one I’d return to. It is so obscure now, apparently, that searching “Sylva Bruller” on Amazon doesn’t actually bring anything up. I feel fortunate to have tracked a copy down through interlibrary loan.


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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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