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.
Protector by Larry Niven– Grade: B+
The first book in the “Known Space” series best known for Ringworld, Protector features the same mix of hard science and wild speculation. Niven’s style works well for me in this book, though it delves into some implausible explanations later in the novel. I did like the truly different feel of the aliens. There was a real sense of strangeness and foreboding in parts of the book, and the works relative brevity is in its favor. The drama ramps up well. Some characters’ blunders are frustratingly predictable, but I’m not convinced that’s a strike against the novel. The characerization, though, does leave something to be desired, as none of them stuck with me long after reading the book. It’s a solid first contact story. Also, just look at that cover!
Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein- Grade: F
What the hell did I just read? Heinlein went off the deep end. This reads like he just wanted to write an attack on religious sexual mores, but he did so in a way that seemed to combine crudeness, disgust, and a kind of remarkably naive misogyny into one confused, awful mess. Indeed, he basically admits that the book is an attack on any kind of sexual code as he, through the main character, writes that “‘incest’ was a religious concept, not a scientific one… the last twenty years had washed away in his mind almost the last trace of his tribal taboo.” Sin is similarly chalked up not as wrongdoing or evil but as a tired, backward way of looking at the world. Yep, incest is a-ok in Heinlein’s book, or at least that of his protagonist. Not only that, but so is pedophilia and other forms of sexual exploitation by men, specifically. Those silly religious people and their ideas of not having sexual thoughts about very young minors, not sleeping with your sibling/parent, etc. Oh yeah, but let’s not forget that this is all couched in decidedly 1940s/50s concepts of male-female relations, such that it is accompanied by a not-so-subtle male-dominance matrix. Forward thinking? not so much. Heinlein’s vision of sex in the future is that of the unfettered male, free to satisfy himself with anyone he chooses. Women are not included in this reasoning process, because they are simply the subjects of lust, expected to be willingly subservient to the sexual desires of the man, whether that man is their grandchild, brother, or adopted parent. Terrible, terrible book. I hate it.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (Winner)- Grade: B
It’s not difficult for me to understand why this is a much-beloved classic. But it also is difficult for me to love it. The book’s pacing is the main issue, as it plods along for chapters with hardly anything happening until it suddenly, like a roller coaster cresting its summit, plummets into a series of startling discoveries and action that gets jumbled together with alarming swiftness. The middle of the book is particularly subject to the problem of pace, as it is wholly occupied with lengthy descriptions of people moving from point A to point B without much characterization or plot to go along with it. The conclusion is ambiguous, but not in a bad way. Again, it’s easy for me to see how this won the award and is loved by many. The bigness of the ideas Clarke explores are always fun. But the novel itself just doesn’t make me want to love it forever. It’s fine.
The People of the Wind by Poul Anderson- Grade: C-
I think a lot of science fiction in the 60s-70s could be re-categorized into its own sub-genre of sex, with sci-fi tropes. The People of the Wind would not be easily filed into this made up category, but it teeters on the edge. I think maybe there’s an interesting subtext here about how different societies or peoples can relate with each other. Sex is used as a kind of way to open the conversation–or, more accurately, themselves–to the perceived “other.” But the prose in the novel doesn’t support this higher level reading. Anderson oscillates between matter-of-fact and seedy here, such that as a reader I never could fully buy into the notion that something else might be going on behind the scenes. The best part about the book is that it doesn’t entirely go black and white on the morality of either society. The humans or Ythrians could each be seen as morally superior here. That props up enough interest to have kept me reading. It’s an okay story that in the hands of another writer might have been great.
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold- Grade: C-
Gerrold wrote a fantastic exploration of the notion of time travel and how that might play out if one person got careless and perhaps a little wild with it. True to when it was written, however, it devolves that somewhat compelling thread into a series of explorations about sex and orgies and more sex and horse racing. What? Yeah, that’s basically how it plays out. It goes from was an initially decent yarn to a totally absurd tale about one’s self-absorption with himself. Actually, the more I think about the main plot, the more it annoys me immensely. I keep thinking I need to adjust the score down, because this book was basically just a narcissist fantasy told with time travel. It reads almost like wish-fulfillment for the most self-absorbed person alive. That said, Gerrold brings forward some genuine questions about time travel and its possibilities. It’s just not one that I can reflect on with much liking.
1974- Not a great year for the Hugo Awards, in my opinion. Each book feels as though it has missed opportunities for greatness, except, perhaps, the terrible Heinlein work. That book is total garbage, in my opinion. I could rant on about it more, but I think my brief review above is enough said. My choice for the winner probably isn’t the best book in the bunch. I think Rendezvous may be objectively the best book here, but I enjoyed reading Protector more. As always with awards, subjectivity is involved, and on other days I may have picked the Clarke novel over the Niven book. Anyway, time travel continues to be a sore spot for me. I love the idea of novels about time travel, but rarely enjoy the books I read about it. Gerrold’s book had one of the least sympathetic protagonists I’ve encountered. Poul Anderson continues to baffle me. It was possible to be great with the story he came up with, but his delivery is so off that I couldn’t appreciate it for what it was. There’s no nuance to Anderson’s writing, which is a shame, because with some nuance, People… may have been great. What did you think of these nominees?
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