My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1965

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. I’ve given grades for each book, and underneath those grades, I’ve added a reflection on that year’s Hugo Awards.

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber (Winner)- Grade: D+
Thoroughly shrug-worthy, this one has most of the features I dislike in classic science fiction. First, it’s overly focused on concept rather than execution. Second, the women are all throwaway characters. Third, the dialogue is laughable. Fourth, you can really tell that it’s dated. Fifth, the aliens are basically just humans that got reskinned. Hey, it won the Hugo Award, so good job on Leiber, I suppose. Also, I think it is one of the early innovators of the sort of mutliple-main-characters viewpoints in science fiction way of telling stories, so there’s that.

The Whole Man by John Brunner- Grade: D+
This is apparently a novel that marks Brunner’s breakout from space opera, and the style does seem like a transition. It has a little bit of the feeling of New Wave sci-fi while also some of the campiness of adventure sci-fi. The stylistic jumps make it feel a bit haphazard to me. I also do not particularly enjoy how Brunner dealt with “disability” in the novel, using generally derogatory words to discuss disabilities and running with the notion that anyone with a disability is a kind of person to be pitied. The novel, in other words, has not aged well at all. Not one of Brunner’s better works.

Davy by Edgar Pangborn- Grade: C-
Post-nuclear-apocalypse coming-of-age stories were apparently very “in” in the 50s and 60s. Here’s another one. It’s decently well done, though not nearly as good as some other notable ones (thinking here, in particular of The Long Tomorrow). Here, Davy is a kind of future pirate ne’er do well who’s writing back on how he came to be where he is. It has its moments of fun and fear, but it takes forever to really get going, and when it does it suddenly feels so rushed it is hard to get on top of it. A decent book that I’d recommend for those who like pastoral apocalypses.

The Planet Buyer AKA The Boy Who Bought Old Earth AKA part of Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith (My Winner)- Grade: A
Yes, the publication of history of this is a bit complex. I ended up reading it as part of Norstrilia because that’s the version I could get my hands on. Anyway, Cordwainer Smith is one of those almost forgotten authors whose works really ought to be much more influential and well-known than they are. He wrote many more short stories (this is his only sci-fi novel), and each one of them is haunting and wacky in its own way. The Planet Buyer/Norstrilia is set in the same world as the rest of his sci-fi, a world in which the Instrumentality of Mankind rules. However, Old North Australia (Norstrilia) is the only place that can produce an immortality drug made from its genetically diseased sheep that are raised in pastoral settings preserved by ludicrously high tariffs and powerful defenses. Through speculation, a man is able to acquire an immense fortune, but then has to go on an adventure and into hiding in with the underpeople, some animal-people who are treated as slaves by others. The story somehow mixes elements of the absurd, New Wave, and pastoral sci-fi together in unexpected ways while still maintaining a cohesive, fascinating narrative. Smith also made choosing my personal winner for this year especially easy. The other nominees this year are either not very good or show their age in overwhelming fashion. By contrast, this novel feels fresh and inventive more than 50 years later. I definitely recommend reading all of Smith’s sci-fi corpus.

1965 Hugo Award for Best Novel: It’s likely this won’t be the only time that the book I considered (tied for) worst of the nominees won the award. The Wanderer was just boring. It’s almost a pure concept novel of the sort that has people today hate on hard sci-fi as a sub-genre. Leiber has entertained me before, so I was surprised by how little I liked this one. The Whole Man was little better, and I’m honestly a bit upset that I spent my money on that one because I couldn’t get it through interlibrary loan. It hasn’t aged well, and likely is only worth reading if you’re trying to look at the origins of space opera. Though even on that latter regard, I’d say the Lensman series is a more fun entry point, despite having its own significant flaws. Anyone out there who enjoyed either of these books? I’d be interested to read your own opinions on the novels. Or, if you also disliked them, join me in hating on them in the comments.

Davy was bland as well, but had moments of interest. It’s a mix of tropes that have been done many, many other times, but is written in a winsome enough way that I didn’t mind. It certainly has more staying power than the previously discussed books. Then, we get to The Planet Buyer (et al.). It’s so delightfully fresh and strange that it blew me away the first time I read it. I initially only read the book because I found the Baen edition of Cordwainer Smith’s collected sci-fi in a bookstore and it had a dragon in space on the cover, which convinced me that I had to figure out why that would be the case. I then plunged into his works and read all the sci-fi he’s written, enjoying each individual piece. The Planet Buyer absolutely stands the test of time, as Smith deftly wove many seemingly contradictory styles into one haunting narrative that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s absolutely top notch science fiction, and I commend it to you, dear readers.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

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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Book Review: “We the Underpeople” by Cordwainer Smith

wtu-smith“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” It’s a maxim that I hammered into my own head for quite a while. Yet, as an author (Eric Flint) said at a convention I was at some time ago, “People don’t buy books based on the covers, but they do look at them based on the cover.” I bought We the Underpeople because the cover of the next collection of Cordwainer Smith’s writings looked so interesting to me I figured I had to have them both. (The cover has a dragon eating a space ship! What could go wrong!?)

I finally got around to reading the first collection, which has a bunch of Smith’s short stories as well as the novel Norstrilia in it. I gotta say it blew me away. The introduction certainly set me up with high expectations–this unknown author with a pseudonym that made it even harder to determine blew up the science fiction scene when one of his stories was published in a sci-fi magazine some time ago.

Well, the stories blew me away too. Here is a collection of stories unified around a central timeline that has breadth and scope that is sometimes hard to comprehend. As a reader, you’re thrown into a world with a huge amount of terminology, names, and histories that are unknown and mostly used unapologetically until you figure out what they mean. It’s a bit like reading Dune the first time (how’s that for a recommendation?). The world Smith created spans thousands and thousands of years, and the stories take you across a portion of that time.

Humanity has sought to eliminate sorrow and hardship, but in doing so have created the “Underpeople”–human-like creations made from synthesis with animals. These underpeople basically serve as slaves for the “real people.” Thus, there are some elements of social justice found throughout the stories. There is also a strong sense of dystopia as the way hardship is eliminated is through brainwashing, reconditioning, and the radical loss of human freedom. There are also elements of religion found scattered throughout, with subtle references to Christianity melded into a kind of retelling of Joan of Arc, among other stories. One central theme in the novel that is included in this collection, Norstrilia, is the theme of forgiveness and the power that it can bring in one’s life.

All of these elements are set to an amazing lyrical style of writing which weaves poems and songs and even descriptions of artwork into the stories in meaningful ways. Smith’s writing style makes the words seem to flow from the page in a rhythm, even when it is written into paragraph form. Smith’s background in psychological warfare (I’m not making this up, folks) also comes through in a number of–sometimes disturbing–ways.

We the Underpeople is an absolutely incredible read that I would recommend to any and all fans of science fiction. The epic scope, beautiful style, and wonderful stories contained herein are well, well worth the price of entry. I’m pleased to say I’ve discovered a master writer I didn’t even know about. Thanks for putting a dragon on the cover of the second book, Baen books! Time to read the next collection.

The Good

+Lyrical, poetical style of writing
+Wonderfully rich world with sense of vastness
+Complex, intricately detailed plots
+Stunning scope

The Bad

-Not enough character development in some of the stories

Grade: A “A surprising, inventive collection of thought-provoking science fiction.”


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

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!