My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1973

Not the original cover, but I picked it because… what is it trying to say?

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 1973 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 Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (Winner)- Grade: B-
Another proof that Asimov is capable of at least somewhat interesting characters. The first part of the story is the most compelling, as an apparently free source of energy is revealed to have dire consequences and pretty much nobody cares. Free energy is free, right? So who cares if everyone will die billions of years in the future? It’s the exact kind of reasoning that would probably be used, to the end of us all. But that dire feeling is mostly lost at the end of the book as Asimov changes its tone into a kind of future look at human colonization of the moon and the problems that might face. Yes, there are still references to the earlier portions of the book, and the solutions offered are interesting, but it lost something of the truly bleak and all-too-reasonable feel of the beginning chapters.

When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold- Grade: B-
Apparently this is one of the first books ever that is strictly about AI and emergent intelligence. It was fascinating in many ways, especially as the designers interacted with HARLIE and came to appreciate the difficulties of doing anything with AI. Frankly, the book may have been better if Gerrold didn’t even bother trying to put characters into it. Where it bogs down is entirely in the places where characters interact with each other, and Gerrold attempts to tie the human interactions into the AI/human interactions. Thus, the love story that is central to the characters ultimately seems nothing more than a foil for trying to explain love to HARLIE, the AI. It seems to cheapen the overall effect. Nevertheless, for a “first ever” effort in this field, this is a great, imaginative book that lays out some of the questions we’re still asking about now: like how to tell if a machine is intelligent, what that might mean, and how parameters that we set for such intelligence may be bent or broken.

There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson- Grade: D
I think I’m getting to the point where I can definitively say that Poul Anderson just isn’t my thing. He’s a highly decorated author, so, as with anything, this is just a matter of preference. For this specific book, I thought the style was pedestrian, the interlude chapter with “definitions” was so on-the-nose that you could almost see “Libertarianism is the best system ever” smacked into the back of your eyeballs while you read it. I mean, that chapter is probably what killed my interest in most of the rest of the book. It’s sardonic, not even close to witty, and so full of self-congratulatory ideas that I just couldn’t get over it. The plot drags quite a bit too, and, as with too many of these early sci-fi novels, uses rape as plot device. As far as the actual time travel ideas, Anderson did avoid some of the pitfalls of time travel, as he used it much better as a device for his characters than as a gimmick to have a historical fiction novel. However, the time travel seemed somewhat inconsistent as we’re forced to wonder whether time is immutable (or not) at points. Overall, not my jam.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg- Grade: B
I feel extremely torn about this book. It has some of Silverberg’s best (that I’ve read, anyway) atmospheric writing. He writes with whit and foreboding, sometimes together, often apart. But it is also filled with some really awful comments about women, disabilities, and more. As is often the case, it’s difficult to tell whether these last aspects are all truly representative of Silverberg’s view, or whether they are his own satirical attack on the same. If the former, I would downgrade the book significantly. If the latter, it hovers maybe a touch higher. For better or worse, The Book of Skulls is a book that is still making me think about it, weeks after reading it. It has staying power, and it wriggles its way under your skin. It’s strange, compelling, repulsive, alluring, haunting, disturbing–it needs a lot of adjectives to describe it! I’d recommend it to readers who want to dig deeply into New Wave sci-fi, warts and all.

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg (My Winner)- Grade: A
Considered Silverberg’s masterwork by many, I initially read this book at the beginning of my attempt to appreciate older science fiction and this is definitely not the book I would recommend to try to sell someone on vintage sci-fi. It’s dense. The prose is awkward at times. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles that at lot of people tend to expect when they hear “science fiction.” My first read of this was a disaster. I didn’t catch any of its themes. I didn’t really understand it at all. Since then, I’ve grown in appreciation of older science fiction and of Silverberg in particular. On a third reading, now, I finally understood some of its core themes. In particular, that of “Dying Inside.” This is truly a haunting tale about loss that everyone experiences, set in the mind of a telepath who is losing his abilities. The main problem I had the first time reading the book is that the main character isn’t particularly likable–he’s not. But when considered in light of this central interpretation–as a kind of metaphor or allegory of loss through aging or other loss, it becomes transformed into a thing of beauty. It haunts me. Dealing with my own loss recently, it helped me reflect on that more and come to see some of the light at the end of the tunnel. I loved this book. Give it a try… or three.

A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak- Grade: A-
Simak has quickly ascended to being one of my favorite sci-fi authors. His pastoral way of writing means he can introduce some truly bleak and heady themes at times without you as a reader really even noticing. In A Choice of Gods, some of his major themes make their appearance–religion, robots, and pastoral settings. Lumped into this are some kinds of questions about colonialism as well. Standing alongside these questions, one is forced to ask about cultural appropriation, at points. Simak even touches upon this concern, though it’s never explicit; only implied. It’s much headier than it seems at first, though the central mystery of the plot is kind of a let down when it is fully revealed. There are several lengthy monologues, each of which I enjoyed immensely, but it might not be for everybody. I wouldn’t recommend this as an entry point for Simak, but it’s a great read if you’re already into him.

1973

Six novels nominated for Hugo this year, and frankly 5 of the 6 I wouldn’t be mad at winning… except that Dying Inside definitely should have won, finally giving Silverberg a Hugo win (he’s been nominated 9 times with no wins for best novel, and I think at least a couple of them deserved the win). But more seriously, this is overall a great slate of nominees. Asimov is never my favorite, but The Gods Themselves has a cool premise that (as with several of his novels, in my opinion) ultimately collapses when he tries to bring it to a conclusion. When HARLIE Was One is strangely compelling in its AI, though the rest of the characters are cutouts. The Book of Skulls probably changed my perception of driving forever, and it stays with me to this day. Dying Inside is an all-time great. Simak’s entry this year, A Choice of Gods, is fascinating but has some flaws that lead many to dislike his work (lengthy monologues, somewhat inconsistent in its pastoral setting). Finally, There Will Be Time served as proof that Poul Anderson just isn’t my thing. What did you think this year?

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings 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.

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!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1972

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 1972 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.

1972

This year featured one of the more diverse arrays of styles so far in the Hugo reading list. There are two science fantasy novels (Dragonflight and Jack of Shadows), two women authors and incidentally the first time more than one woman author made the list (Anne McAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin), some radically different New Wave sci-fi (A Time of Changes and To Your Scattered Bodies Go), pseudo time travel (Scattered Bodies…), and a hauntingly thoughtful–if flawed–look at the human psyche (The Lathe of Heaven). The science fantasy books are quite different as well. Anyway, I was deeply disappointed by To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It should have been so much better, but the author didn’t change tone no matter which of the incredible caste of characters he introduced. On the flip side, A Time of Changes is the book that got me to appreciate Silverberg. I have rarely been so moved as I was by that book, and listening to the excellent audiobook is what sold me on it. It’s strange and even uncomfortable at times, but it’s great. Dragonquest looks on the surface like an easy read but has incredible depth. Lathe and Jack were each fine novels, but not as intriguing as some of their authors’ other works.

Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey- Grade: A-
The quiet nature of these books by McCaffrey belies the epic scale of her world and the place she built in Pern. Dragonquest is a science fantasy novel of the best kind. There are dragons, hints of ancient secrets, dire threats, and human striving of the best kind. What makes the novel especially poignant is that the “villain” here is not really a person but a kind of natural threat. In a world with raging pandemics and climate change, the “natural” kind of evil in this novel is especially haunting. The dizzying heights of dragon flight and characterization help offset what would otherwise be a fairly bleak story. McCaffrey’s worldbuilding is especially dense, though in the first book, Dragonflight, it’s even more dense. I expected these books to be fairly breezy reading, but they’re in fact phenomenally deep explorations of a well thought out world that McCaffrey has created. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like about the characters and plot here, too, but the real star is the world she’s created. Readers who enjoy science fantasy should consider these must-reads.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer (Winner)- Grade: C-
Farmer had all of humanity to choose from for his characters, and he chose some truly awesome figures. The problem is that he never gave any one character the time or space to develop properly and show the unique personality of each. The characters should surely speak in radically different voices, have conflicting concerns, and even see the world in quite diverse ways. But instead, each character was a fairly standard science fiction trope with a historical figure’s name slapped onto him or her. Their voices all sounded the same to me on almost every page. The book came very highly recommended from a number of sources. I’m pretty disappointed, to be honest.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin Grade: B-
I thought the premise–a man whose dreams become reality–was a bit tacky, but Le Guin is a master of prose and makes it work as a compelling piece about humanity. Really, that seems to be what all I’ve read from her is about, at its core: human nature. What does it mean to be human? What kind of fears would guide us if we had such a power? Who might try to harness it and why? These are intriguing questions that are just lightly touched throughout the book. The characters, unfortunately, end up largely being stand-ins for various philosophies or ways to explore different ideas. Unlike some of Le Guin’s other works, I never felt connected in any way to the characters. They read more like caricatures than characters. That said, it’s a thoughtful work that I enjoyed greatly.

Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny Grade: C+
After reading this book, I looked it up online and discovered it was written in one draft. I’m impressed, but also somewhat dismayed, because it seems the book could have been much improved with some thorough edits and rewrites. The concepts are there for a truly excellent novel, but it’s hampered by a kind of meandering at points that means I as a reader struggled to follow along with the events. Zelazny’s talent is on display here in glimpses, but it only presents itself in fragments. The Jack of Shadows has power in the shadows, unlike many of the magic users of his world whose power relies on the light or darkness on their side of the planet. It makes for a cool idea, but doesn’t go much beyond a few lines of dialogue and some action scenes. I don’t know what it is about the book, I guess I just wanted more from it.

A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg- Grade: A
I admit part of my score here is likely due to the simply phenomenal reading by Tom Parker. I listened to it from my library and was simply blown away by the quality of this narration. Parker lends the novel a kind of alien/familiar feel that reflects the dichotomies found therein. Yet even if my score is slanted because of that, there’s no denying this is a pretty excellent read. Silverberg here creates a society that sees the revealing of the self as a great crime. Only among certain relationships is it permitted to even begin to reveal oneself to others. The use of words like “I” or “me” is considered horribly obscene. Inside this society, there are priests called “Drainers” who basically act as places people can confess their wrongs and “drain” their souls of them. The multifaceted nature of this is juxtaposed with Silverberg’s central drama, the autobiographical journey of the main character as he discovers the joys of self-revealing, in part due to the use of a drug from a society most people on his planet view as barbarians. Throughout the whole book there are a number of dichotomies. Alien/familiar is the most obvious, as the people of this society are humans but act so inhumanly by denying the self; civil/uncivil is another; pious/pagan another; and the list could go on. It’s a masterfully crafted, thought-provoking science fiction novel that manages to make a rather well-worn Nu Wave sci-fi trope (drug use) into something eloquent and fresh rather than tired and dated.

Links

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.

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!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1971

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 1971 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 included a brief overview discussion of the year’s nominees at the beginning. As always, there will be SPOILERS for the books discussed.

1971- Sometimes people ask me why I enjoy reading lists so much. Being handed a bunch of choices made by someone else isn’t always the most enjoyable thing, as any high school student can tell you. The reason I like lists is because it forces me to read things I may otherwise never have encountered. 1971 is a year that proved that for me again. The Year of the Quiet Sun is an absolutely fantastic book that I’m sure I never would have read otherwise. I liked it so much that I even wrote a longer post on it in my Vintage Sci-Fi series. The other books this year are widely variant in my enjoyment of them. My third time through Ringworld made me both like and dislike aspects of it more than ever before. I may try more of the series soon. Tau Zero was… not great, yet again. I don’t know if I’ve liked almost anything by Poul Anderson. He may be outside my taste. Star Light by Hal Clement is a great example of the pitfalls of hard sci-fi. Tower of Glass is another great Silverberg novel, exploring themes that go far beyond the surface.

Ringworld by Larry Niven (Winner) Grade: C+
I’ve now read this book twice and a third time on audiobook for various lists. The audiobook helped me really focus in on certain parts of it that I’d kind of skimmed before. I think the first half or so of the book is quite strong. Niven makes compelling aliens that are different enough from humans to seem truly alien–a gift he displays in other books as well. But once all the initial drama is out of the way and the mysterious nature of Ringworld is revealed… it all seems kind of ho hum from there. The immediacy of the breakdown of civilization on Ringworld is difficult to believe and somewhat forced. The strong sense of mystery when the Ringworld is first revealed is a letdown in its payoff. And the characters don’t hold interest after a while. But the first half was such compelling reading that slogging through the incredibly uneven back half is at least partially forgiven. I’m thinking I may finally go and get the next couple to read them, just to see if we get a better payoff for the ideas Niven developed earlier in the book. So, I guess my overall thoughts are that this was a mixed bag. The hard sci-fi elements were fascinating, and I loved the ideas for various aliens. But once the plot truly got rolling, it seemed to fizzle out instead of all come together.

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson Grade: D+
It’s hard sci-fi with all the ups and downs of the subgenre. Fewer ups than downs are present. It’s a good example of the things that can go wrong with hard sci-fi. Anderson actually pauses for paragraphs at a time to explain to his readers concepts like relativity. Perhaps that was necessary or seen as stylistically acceptable when it was written, but it disrupts the flow of the novel repeatedly. Is this an intro to physics textbook or a novel? It’s hard to tell. The plot isn’t terrible interesting, either. A colonization ship runs into a problem with a nebula; science and fake science ensues to try to solve it. Much misogyny is the name of the game when it comes to character interactions. Women are vessels for sexually explicit fantasies. The book is barely readable, in my opinion, and notable perhaps only for its helping establish the subgenre as something to be pursued. Easy to pass up now, and I’ve read it twice! Curse my commitment to reading lists! But it pays off sometimes (see below, The Year of the Quiet Sun).

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg Grade: A
I read this book a second time as I came up on time to write this review, and I’m glad I did. I can safely say that the first time I read it, I didn’t understand it. I mean, I got the general idea of it as a kind of play on the Tower of Babel and the like, but I don’t think I got it. This time, I think I did, though, as always, the author may disagree with my reading. Anyway, the general plot is that there’s a possible alien intelligence trying to communicate with Earth from a star that doesn’t seem capable of supporting life, and the word’s richest man is building an enormous tower to try to communicate with these alleged aliens. Krug, the wealthy man, became so by creating Androids, who have since been assigned hierarchy based upon their abilities. What he doesn’t know (nor do any humans, apparently) is that the androids have made their own religion, turning Krug into a god, complete with a kind of Trinitarian theology and scripture. The androids dream of freedom, and throughout the book this is a major driving force of the plot. But when their freedom isn’t granted, the androids rebel, ultimately tearing down the tower, though some who remain loyal to Krug send him on his spaceship in cryo-sleep to see the aliens. None of these threads are tied off. Indeed, the book is full of loose threads at the end, but I didn’t mind. It forces you as a reader to sit and think about it. This is a book that I keep thinking more about every time I consider it. There’s so much going on in it, and I loved it.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker (My Winner) Grade: A
I’d not read Wilson Tucker before I dug this gem out of a pile somewhere online. It seems intensely out of print–no ebook edition (a problem I’ve run into more than once on this quest, to be fair), and many copies prohibitively expensive. Finally found an edition that collected it with a few other novels. Anyway, this book is stuffed with themes. Whether intentional or not, the way that the main character’s work and person is connected to many, many aspects of this time travel novel make it a wellspring of reflection. Brian Chaney, the main character, translated an ancient work that appears to show the book of Revelation is not, in fact, from the time of Christ but rather a few hundred years before. This side piece of information looms large on reflecting the major themes of the novel itself, but it’s done so subtly that it is easy to miss. Alongside this, Chaney is sent to a disturbingly possible future and the bleakness is so thick that the book is probably not for the faint of heart. It’s not flawless, as it has a decent helping of misogyny and the characters are rather thin. But overall, the novel is one of those I can’t stop thinking about, even weeks after finishing it. For that, it ranks among the masterworks for me. I couldn’t contain my thoughts on this fabulous book by Wilson Tucker in a single paragraph, so I wrote a lengthy reflection shortly after finishing it.

Star Light by Hal Clement Grade: C+
Hard science fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres of sci-fi. I just love having all the science piled on–whether real or fake–to dress up the plot in a veneer of lab coats and testable predictions. That’s not sarcasm–I truly do love this sub-genre. But there is a huge, common pitfall in hard sci-fi: it is easy to allow the plot to be reduced to a vehicle for the introduction of science. This is no different from the pitfall of other sub-genres, but it seems extremely common in hard sci-fi. Star Light falls headfirst into that pitfall, and perhaps does so willingly as Hal Clement delightfully waxes eloquent on various scientific concepts–both real and imaginary–throughout the novel to the extent that it became difficult, in my opinion, to focus on the characters and the plot in any meaningful way. It’s not a bad novel, and it kept me turning the pages, but it wasn’t anything fantastic. Due to the intense, constant focus on the science, there was little development of characters or even background for them. It’s fine, but not great. The edition linked includes both Star Light and Mission of Gravity. The former is superior, in my opinion.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Stochastic Man” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back! January is here! After great response to my posts during last January and beyond, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

I found this a fascinating take on a time travel novel. Okay, it’s not actually a time travel novel, but it addresses quite directly some of the central questions that time travel is often associated with. The plot’s main workings are also very similar to what one might expect in a time travel novel. The story centers around Lew Nichols, who uses statistics to very effectively predict the future in broad terms. Later, he meets Martin Carvajal, who can actually see portions of the future–his own–but is quite lackadaisical about it. Nichols enlists Carvajal to help him win the Presidency for his chosen candidate, Quinn. The way it works is part of the similarity to time travel as well. Carvajal can see the future, but Nichols can only see the present and predict trends in the future. So Nichols, in his present, tells Carvajal things that are essential for Quinn to have done in order to bring about his election. Carvajal cannot see whether Quinn wins because he can’t see past his own death, which is apparently coming before Quinn gets elected (or not). But Nichols can use his statistical projection to estimate the long term impact of some of the actions. Carvajal then dutifully reports what future Nichols reported to him in their shared (future) present to the (real) present Nichols. Nichols then relays the information to Quinn and the team they’ve built to elect him.

As the two work together, questions of the unchanging nature of the future abound. Is Carvajal right in that they can’t change the future? His feelings about this means he never even attempts to do so, and one is left at the end of the book wondering whether Carvajal could have been manipulating events in his own way the whole time. Is Nichols ushering in a horrible future where his chosen candidate becomes a dictator? He’s predicted some of the outcomes of this and even sees them at the end of the novel when he discovers his own capacity for seeing the future. Are they, together, bringing about the future rather than predicting or seeing it? These questions are asked around a central pillar that is so subtle it might almost be missed: what would it be like to have time travel or foresight only to know that nothing can possibly be changed? It’s a question that looms large in works on time travel, but Silverberg’s spin by playing the question out in a much different way, by having a hyper-focused scale instead of expanding it out over major events in a timeline. Along with this, he addresses it in the unexpected way of having it not be true time travel involved but rather future prediction and statistical projection. This makes it a fascinating way to play ask the question, and of course Silverberg leaves readers with it as an open ended question, ready to debate on their own.

There are a few problems for this reader in the content of the novel. Silverberg’s major strengths of tight plotting and fascinating character pieces are there, but there are really only two characters that are anything more than foils for plot elements. Other than Nichols and Carvajal, there is very little interaction between characters beyond simply reporting what they are to do and a few arguments over the strangeness of some of Nichols’s advice to Quinn. No women are given any significant role. Nichol’s wife is primarily used to show some sex dynamics that are very 70s (shifting marriage-like relationships for the sake of sex, so far as I can tell). There’s a definite sense of her being the “exotic” woman because she’s non-white, which smacks of some misogyny or at least being quite creepy. She’s also used to introduce a kind of pseudo religious element into the book with a play on some Eastern philosophy. I’m not sure what it would have read like during the 70s, but now it feels much more dated and possibly even colonial in its treatment of the rise of an Eastern-inspired religion.

Looking back over most of the review, it’s easy for me to tell that it was difficult for me to convey just how compelling the central questions in the novel were. The Nichols-Carvajal interactions had me constantly asking myself questions about whether Carvajal was manipulating Nichols, why Nichols didn’t try at least once to change something, whether Silverberg was intentionally trying to say the future is fixed, or whether it was the opposite, and many, many more. The Stochastic Man the kind of science fiction that absolutely forces readers to think a mile a minute, and will leave them thinking about it long after reading the book.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings 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.

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!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1970

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 1970 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 put a small overview of this year’s nominees at the beginning.

1970- A new decade ushers in one of my least favorite batches of Hugo nominees so far. Let’s get the good out of the way: Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is fantastic. There hasn’t been a single book I’ve read from her that I’ve disliked, and this one is a renowned classic for good reason.

I didn’t like anything else this year. Macroscope was a fine offering, but it jumps around too much to ever establish itself and its world. I enjoy quite a bit of Silverberg, but Up the Line both annoyed me for not being great at time travel and was extremely gross/creepy at points. Bug Jack Barron, which I’ve read was an attempt to satirize racism and show its absurdity, but it came off as over the top even for that. It doesn’t help that there’s a good amount of sexism–intentional or not–throughout the book. I didn’t like it at all.

Vonnegut lovers won’t like me for this one: sorry. I just can’t stand Vonnegut. I kind of get where he’s coming from, I guess, but everything I’ve read from him (which is a lot, unfortunately) is something I’ve hated. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five in high school, which probably didn’t help. I thought it read like it was written by a dude who was even less mature than my 18-year-old self. And, re-reading it as an adult for this and another list, I can’t shake that perception. Some say that Vonnegut’s humor is so clever/dark/witty but I can’t read it as anything but infantile and going for cheap thrills. I will not read this one again unless I’m forced to.

Up the Line by Robert Silverberg- Grade: D-
I have enjoyed my share of Silverberg. In fact, I would rank a few of his books among my favorites. I quite enjoyed the cover of Up the Line I saw in the Kindle store. But wow I did not like the contents here. I like the idea of time travel fiction, and would rank the episodes of Star Trek having to do with time travel consistently among my favorites. But it seems like it must be extremely tricky to nail in the form of a novel. I’ve written before about the main difficulties I perceive in the sub-genre (Time Travel in Science Fiction). Up the Line falls victim to the problem I pointed out in that earlier post: ‘Too often in time travel books, the characters in the future or past are little more than vehicles for showing how strange or different that time period/place is.’ Yep, here the characters in the past are little more than objects of sexual desire/use by the main character, whose abhorrent acts have little to ingratiate him to the reader. Add in heaping helping of incestuous fantasy and you have a nearly Heinlein-ian level of creep factor happening here. I didn’t find anything to redeem the book, except that Silverberg is capable of weaving clever lines even in a book as gross as this one.

Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad- Grade: D-
Full of vile racism, which it was intended (apparently) to satirize, this novel is a really tough read. It is drenched in 60s/70s thought and expression, to the point that it is difficult to read it now without having had personal experience in those times. There are seeds of excellence here, whether it is the idea of warring reality shows as politics or the various cyberpunk themes. But add those to random sexism and a huge influx of hippy culture and it just isn’t a novel that was for me. It’s got a catchy title, some interesting ideas, and heaps of things that are annoying or gross. Take it as you will.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A
Le Guin created a world that feels strangely familiar, while remaining radically different. It makes you think about life and the struggles we face. The overarching plot wasn’t terribly strong, but the character-driven nature of it made that not matter very much. I was surprised, honestly, by how intimate the book was. It was to the point where it almost felt claustrophobic at points, but this reads as definitely intentional. One feels like an individual embroiled in the drama, set against the planet, set against others, ready to rise up. It’s an extremely personal novel. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut- Grade: F
I read this one in high school and hated it. I figured I should re-read it since I didn’t remember it at all, and–let’s be honest–I was a bit a of an idiot in high school. That re-read was a severe mistake. Vonnegut’s humor is barely 4th grade level, including lines that I think are supposed to be funny like ‘The old man was in agony because of gas. He farted tremendously, and then he belched.’ Yes, this is apparently a classic. The plot is also completely incoherent, effectively set up so that the author could draw an amateurish picture of a necklace dangling between a woman’s breasts. How mature. Slaughterhouse Five is among the worst books I’ve ever read.

Macroscope by Piers Anthony- Grade: C-
Several books on this list are written in the ‘kaleidoscopic’ fashion, and this is one of them. At times, it works. At others, it doesn’t. Macroscope, for me, fell into the latter camp, though it didn’t completely fail. The problem is with so many viewpoints and things going on, there has to be a strong central narrative or character or problem, and though the book seems to have an easy candidate, the promise never materializes. I was hoping for much more from this book, so part of my grade may just be disappointment with that aspect. Also, the idea of a tool that could drive people insane simply because of its complexity/usefulness/etc. is neat.

Links

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.

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!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1968

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 1968 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 put a brief overview of the year’s nominees at the beginning.

1968- Certainly an interesting year for the nominees. The Butterfly Kid is absolutely a product of its time, and not one that I enjoyed in any way. Straight up hippy culture with the thinnest veneer of sci-fi over it. Delany’s offering this year did not live up to its potential, which is a shame, because it is a very cool idea. Chthon reads a bit like an author’s first attempt at fantasy names with a number of made up words and concepts. I know this one is sci-fi, but I’m thinking of those novels where the author has elvish names with 6 accent marks on them. Then, we have two novels that are about as different as they can be, yet each is a stunning triumph. Lord of Light is one that I’ve read three times now, and each time I enjoy it immensely. It’s lyrical, beautiful, and strange. I love it so much. Thorns by Silverberg is, according to the author, his first major attempt at a more thoughtful sci-fi novel, and he absolutely nailed it. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s uncomfortable; it’s gaudy; and it’s endlessly strange. It’s fantastic.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (Winner, My Winner)- Grade: A+
Astonishing. It’s part retelling of Hindu Scripture, part origin story of Buddhism from Hinduism, part interplay between psuedo-imperialist Christianity and other faiths, and all beautiful. I’ve never read Zelazny before but I eagerly look forward to reading more. This book was made of myth and legend in the best possible sense. It’s immersive, exciting, and exotic in a way few science fiction books are. Zelazny’s writing in this novel is like that of an epic poem. The prose is absolutely spot-on for the idea, and the lyrical nature of the reading made it just that much more fun to read. It’s an absolute tragedy that there’s not an audio edition of this novel, because I’d love to listen to it. Superb. (I used the cover art I read the book in because it will forever be linked with the novel in my mind.)

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: C
I like the concept of this book: aliens trying to adapt to life in the ruins of humanity while also developing and wondering about myth. It’s a cool, high concept that begs for a lengthy space opera-level epic. But The Einstein Intersection is not that epic. Delany’s prose is good, but it seems ill-suited to the concept at the center of the novel. It doesn’t get to the heights that it ought, but it’s never bad, either. It is thoroughly average, which makes it a disappointment, given the great idea at its core.

Chthon by Piers Anthony- Grade: C+
Chthon was a smorgasbord of impossible-to-pronounce words and sci-fi concepts that seemed to serve little purpose. It’s written almost like a Gene Wolfe novel with the language seeming to be literary–almost lyrical–rather than being a kind of space adventure. But the plot itself is almost a standard space adventure fare that struggles to mesh well with the concepts at its core. I’ll be honest, though, I didn’t notice the structural puzzle Anthony built into the book, which makes me appreciate it a bit more than I did before. I should give it a re-read sometime to see if it improves on a second take. I just didn’t get it. I wonder what other people think of it, to be honest.

The Butterfly Kid by Chester Anderson- Grade: D+
Want to read about hippy culture with a bare-bones plot? Get this book. It was very difficult to track down–only just recently coming out on Kindle–but I’m sad to say I don’t think it was worth the effort I put in to finding it. The humor falls flat now, it is incredibly dated, and it doesn’t seem to offer anything today except, apparently, a nostalgia trip for those who lived through the era.

Thorns by Robert Silverberg (My Co-Winner)- Grade: A+
Silverberg is a challenging author whose corpus I’m only beginning to work my way through. Thorns is another book that encourages me to continue as soon as possible. The core premise is simple, if weird: there’s a media mogul who is basically a psychic vampire who subsists on other’s psychological pain and he puts two people–a young woman whose eggs were harvested and lab-fertilized/grown into 100 babies she is not allowed to have contact with and a ‘star man’ whose body was rearranged/disfigured by aliens on a distant planet before he was sent back to humanity–together to wallow in misery and feed him. Wow, that actually took more words than I expected. The protagonists are alluring even as they’re somewhat off-putting. One might raise the question of whether the star man’s disfigurement is a kind of ableism found in the novel–but Silverberg writes the character in such a way that it is impossible to see him as anything other than a fully human person whose body just happens to be rearranged. In fact, I see the star man as a kind of critique, however basic, of ableism and the insistence that certain bodies are inherently better than others. Some of the content here might not be as shocking as it may have been in 1968 (harvesting eggs is presented as some far-future thing, when it is done fairly frequently today), but that doesn’t take away from what Thorns is, at its core: a tale of deep, intense humanity. It haunted me as I read it, and it will continue to do so for years, I’m sure.

Links

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.

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!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Book of Skulls” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. It haunts me at the strangest times, but especially when I’m driving (more on that later). Silverberg is at his best in this novel, but is he also at his worst? I don’t know. 

At its core, The Book of Skulls is a kind of coming-of-age story of four young men who found a manuscript that they believe–maybe–will unlock immortality to them. All they have to do is travel across the country and join a murderous gang of cultists and have two of their number die–one through sacrifice and the other through murder. No big deal, right? It’s a strange setup for what seems almost like some B-list spring break movie where the plot is simply a vehicle for getting titillating scenes on the screen. And make no mistake, the book has lots of sex. I can’t help but think about the strange, disturbing sexualization that Silverberg put forward in the driving scenes; the way the car interacted with the road, and the language Silverberg used to describe it. But it’s not just the car assaulting the road as a (very strange) metaphor. There are liaisons with prostitutes, sex cultists, there sexual encounters of all kinds all along the road trip. That B-list titillation is all over the place. 

But The Book of Skulls is a lot more than that. It’s a haunting tale of humanity gone wrong in so many ways. Its main cast doesn’t really feature a single likable character, but that somehow works, because you don’t want to care about these young men, but you do! And you find yourself caring what happens and wondering what’s going to happen and whether the ‘real’ Book of Skulls in the characters’ minds is going to give them immortality. Is this a fantasy novel? Is it sci-fi? Is it just a strange thriller where the main characters go off and kill each other after a series of orgies? 

Why is it so compelling?

Silverberg is an immensely talented author. And it shows here in this almost annoyingly spellbinding book. I feel as though I ought to hate it. I can’t tell if Silverberg’s put his own views into the minds of his characters or not. If so, there’s a lot to call out as awful here. Self-hating characters–one that is Jewish and one that is homosexual–each could be called out for promoting hatred of the same in some ways. His comments about disabled persons are detestable, but again occur in the mind of a character whose viewpoint we can’t trust. Racism, sexism–it’s there. But is it what Silverberg is promoting, or is it simply more characterization of these four messed up, generally terrible men? Silverberg has mastered the art of an unreliable narrator, and we have four in this book. 

Like the characters in the novel, I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. I bet you would think about it if you read it, too. Would you hate it? Would you love it? Or would you feel as I do–stuck wondering exactly what it means and why it is so gripping?

Links

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!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

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!

SDG.