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 1969 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. I’ve also dropped a short reflection on the year’s Hugo list at the beginning.
1969- Ever see your own opinion on books and think you were wrong? I suspect if I re-read some books I’d have an entirely different opinion on them. One thing I wanted to talk about from the 1969 Hugos is the winner of best novella, “Nightwings” by Robert Silverberg. It’s pretty fantastic, and a superb example of New Wave science fiction. In a far future Earth the main character is assigned to watch for alien invasions while accompanied by a Changeling and a fairy-like woman. Silverberg wrote two sequel novellas, which he humorously points out Frederik Pohl, the editor of the magazine to which he submitted them, did not like. But I loved them as much or more than “Nightwings.” Together, they make a novel-length book which wouldn’t unseat Past Master as my favorite this year (see my gushing below), but would give it a run. The Goblin Reservation was a somewhat disappointing Simak book to me. But even if he’s not at his best, I enjoy Simak. Stand on Zanzibar was clearly worthy of a classic, though parts of it are nearly unreadable, and it is so heavy. Rite of Passage was forgettable. Past Master–well, you’ll see what I think below and in my extended review, but I adored it.
Past Master by R.A. Lafferty (My Winner)- Grade: A+
I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, and I have to say I was absolutely blown away. He’d been recommended by a number of different people to me, and with this Hugo read-through I finally picked up Past Master to check him out. I wish I’d done so earlier. This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or any number of other major themes in the book, it’s a fascinating, fantastic ride. Longer review/overview that I wrote here.
The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak- Grade: C-
A strange, mashup book of time travel, goblins, ghosts, dimensions, dragons, and more (robots, of course!) while still maintaining a Simak-esque pastoral plot. Something about this one didn’t click for me. It was almost like a travelogue with all the strangeness of the different creatures/species being lost in the mire of normalcy that permeates even Simak’s strangest writing. It didn’t all work together as some of his other works have. The setting just never made sense in a way that was cohesive. Having these different mythical creatures all jumbled together can work, and sometimes does so beautifully. But here, Simak just seemed to be piling on the creatures for no clear reason. There wasn’t much direction to what was happening, either. It’s an okay read, but not a very good one.
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (Winner)- Grade: B+
A phenomenally difficult and dense read. The style is particularly interesting, though I read that it was largely modeled after a work Brunner admired. Basically, some chapters are kind of info-dumps giving background on the setting, other chapters are more extensive background information, and still others follow a narrative. It makes the whole thing a bit of a chore to read through, and I can’t help but think that it seems a bit forced. However, the central narrative and the background context are each intriguing, and the dystopic future it envisions are, in some ways, chillingly accurate (though in others laughably quaint). In the time of COVID and other things happening, it seems increasingly, eerily prophetic. But I’m not convinced that’s the point of the story. It seems more a warning than a prophecy, and perhaps we should be concerned that the warning seems to be turning into reality. Also, I tried to re-read this book as an audiobook, and it was awful. The reader was fine–good, even–but this book is not meant to be listened to. It’s impossible to follow.
Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin- Grade: C
Panshin’s book is one of those that left me with an intense feeling of “oh well.” Nothing was terribly wrong with this coming-of-age story set aboard a ship, but nothing is terribly striking about it either. It just feels like a milquetoast read. There’s nothing striking about it any more, which is probably based upon reading it more than 50 years after it was written. Based on looking at its reception overall, it was apparently striking for having such a personal perspective, particularly for featuring a young girl in that role. But looking back on it, the claims that it portrays so well what “being a girl” is like seems absurd, and the plot is, frankly, boring. It’s somewhat lazy to say of a book that it shows its age, but I have to use that phrase here. This book shows its age. It may have been innovative and thought-provoking at the time it was written, but it is a chore to read today.
Nova by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: C-
It wasn’t the disaster that was Dhalgren, but it still wasn’t great. I think this book is an example of an idea that was so fresh and exciting at the time that it stuck with people, but it seems overdone and rather dry in hindsight. Well done on Delany for tackling this hard sci-fi topic ahead of most (or any) other authors. But I just didn’t think it was as engaging as I’d hoped it would be. None of the characters grabbed my interest. The center of the plot was basically just a set up for talking about science in the mouths of the characters. It wasn’t awful, but it also doesn’t stand up well with time.
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