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 1985 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 Peace War by Vernor Vinge- Grade: B-
Vernor Vinge has huge ideas, and that is fully on display here. A hard sci-fi combination with dystopia and superweapon (almost a play on “Red Scare” type vintage sci-fi) fears comes together into this story of humanity imploding and coming out of the rubble. I have such mixed feelings after having read it. The first 100 pages or so are an amalgam of confusing data, breathtakingly cool ideas, and characters being thrown around in ways that are difficult to follow alongside everything else going on. As a reader, you’re very much just plopped in the middle of this story without much ground to figure out what’s going on. Why does the Peace Authority go full on totalitarian so quickly? What motivates the central players here? Why does the dude who created the superweapon manage to escape? In the midst of all this we have, as I said, some hard sci-fi ideas like quantum decay, parallel universes, and the like being thrown together in what is a stunning but confusing mess of a novel. I alternately was enthralled and confused by this. I think I liked it?
Neuromancer by William Gibson (Winner)- Grade: B-
I have a lengthy relationship with Neuromancer. I first bought it as a teenager and tried to read it and was completely confused. I’d only really read Star Wars novels for sci-fi before this point, and the complexity of this cyberpunk world was beyond me. I tried again later, and then again when a friend at work recommended it. I finally got through it then. I’ve since read it in total 4 times, with numerous false starts. I still don’t think I understand the book, and at this point, I’m becoming more willing to blame Gibson than myself for it. Although Gibson writes an in introduction to one of the versions I read that he was not out to try to predict the future, this novel seems almost prophetic in some ways as Gibson coined a number of terms and used ideas that have since become reality. The dialogue-to-action ratio is off. The world and characters feel somewhat empty and lifeless. There’s a great hook at the beginning, but we then spend an enormous amount of time just following one guy around as he follows a hacking job down a rabbit hole. Though there are characters with all kinds of cool backgrounds, they never seem much more than cutouts put there to help the plot along. There is very little characterization, and as a reader, that’s something I look forward to most. The thematic details are, I am okay admitting at this point, totally lost on me. I often feel I don’t get this novel, but I can admire what’s going on from a distance. There’s no denying that Neuromancer is one of the best examples of Cyberpunk, but that’s more for its ideas than for its excellence of plot or character development. People looking for big ideas in their sci-fi will love this. I’m still trying to decide.
Emergence by David R. Palmer (My Winner)- Grade: B+
Emergence will be a polarizing book. The novel is told from the viewpoint of a young super-genius who writes in shorthand. That means grammatical rules largely don’t apply. I am usually annoyed hugely by that, but Palmer manages to use the backstory of the character and still make it work. And what a character she is! Candidia Maria Smith-Foster–or “Candy”–is 11 years old and at first seems to merely be a precocious character who possibly has a heavy overdose of being too good at everything. But as you read her story, you discover why she is the way she is. The earliest part of the novel–the first 1/4 or so–is the best part by far in my opinion. Here, you spend all your time with Candy and her “twin brother” (a bird, Terry) as you peel away the layers of a disaster and how to survive. Of course, Candy has a huge leg up as she starts off with an almost embarrassingly well-equipped bomb shelter. But again, this is all part of the story and it makes sense. Revealing too much more would give away some of the better parts of the plot, and I have to admit Candy is such a wonderful character that I couldn’t not love the book for that. That said, there are some scenes that grossed me out. (SPOILER: specifically, when she runs into an older boy and they think they may be the only human-ish people left so he tries to convince her, not even a teenager, to have sex or give him some kind of relief. It’s gross and the way he keeps pushing on the topic makes it even worse. This alone, along with another similar scene later in the book, is what leads me to mark it down. I can see the argument for people would really act that way, but it didn’t prevent me from feeling extremely awful about the scenes anyway. /SPOILER.) Aside from those, this is a pretty fantastic post-apocalyptic story that has a heartwarming, almost comfort-food type of feel to it that only a few books can truly grasp.
Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein- Grade: F
Reading this was an absolute chore. If I had to choose a single word to describe this novel, it would be “pretentious.” In the hands of a humbler author, an exploration of the end times going along with corruption of a main character in a fall from grace type narrative could be a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek adventure. Here, it reads as projection. There are so many ideas about Christianity thrown together here in a mishmash of ecumenical soup that it doesn’t even make sense. Is Heinlein trying to offer a critique of Christianity? Is he trying to say there’s something more going on? I doubt it, and if he is, his combination of Roman Catholic ideas, American millenarianism, folklore masquerading as theology, and various other branches of beliefs into one is done with all the deftness of using a dump truck to spread mulch around your flowers. It’s incredibly frustrating to read, and set alongside a central plot that is a yawn-inducing reflection on (surprise, surprise) a man choosing to reason by means of sexual desire instead of any sort of character drive (I’m not surprised–this is Heinlein), it becomes unbearable. It’s not the worst Heinlein book I’ve read, but it’s mighty close.
The Integral Trees by Larry Niven- Grade: C
The Integral Trees is milquetoast to me. It wasn’t offensive or terrible enough to make me downgrade it, but it wasn’t captivating or thought-provoking enough to make me feel anything more than a general sense of… “meh.” The core idea of some trees that can move and have changed how humans evolve and interact once they’ve crash landed on some planet is okay, and may have been more exciting at the time the book came out. But as it stands it just doesn’t really have any single point that makes it worthy of recommendation or any effort to critique it beyond this review. The characters are bland; the societies are bland; the tension is almost nonexistent; and the overarching plot is barely enough to engage with. Even as the characters faced various perils, I just wasn’t engaged. It’s a novel for which the offhanded remark of “fine” seems entirely appropriate.
1985- The nominees here are a banner year for some heavy hitters past and present at this point. We’ve got yet another Heinlein, who continues to show up due to a voracious fan base; Larry Niven, William Gibson, and Vernor Vinge. I don’t think I’d read anything from Palmer before, but found Emergence one of the more unique narrative voices I’ve experienced. I’m sure there are many who would be upset by my picks and grades here, but that’s the joy of diverse opinions, right? If we all liked the same thing, it’d be pretty boring out here.
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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