“Dhalgren” is my windmill. Help me!

I’ve tried to read Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany multiple times. The first time, I made it about 60 pages in. This time (the fourth time), I’m about 180 pages in, and I’m dragging. What is it that makes this book such a classic to so many? Can you help me? If you love this book, I’d love to know what you loved about it, and why. I don’t mind spoilers. Honestly, I’d welcome them. I want to know what’s happening here because I don’t understand it.

I find the book, so far, almost incomprehensible. And maybe that’s the point? Maybe I’m supposed to wonder what’s happening and why. But if so, great! I’ve already gotten the payoff from the book. Is that right? What else is there going on.

Again, this is a genuine ask: please help me get it. Tell me what you loved. Tell me about the book. Share your wildest theories. Help me figure it out, because I want to finish it. I’ve been tilting at this windmill too long, and have tried to read it so often. Please, please help!

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My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1969

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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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.


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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My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1967

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 1967 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.

1967- I think this year’s nominees were one of the best so far. Whether we’re talking about the absolutely heart-rending Flowers for Algernon or the familiar-yet-otherworldly Day of the Minotaur, this was a great year. Even The Witches of Karres at least has value as understanding where later ideas developed from. Babel-17 made me realize I should go back and re-read some Delany novels, perhaps finding more enjoyment the second go-round. I liked Babel so much that I’m convinced I may have missed something. Somehow Heinlein gets another year of eligibility for The Moon… and wins? I don’t understand. It’s a fine novel, but I don’t think it needed to be brought in to compete with the others this year, and certainly some of the competition was better. Which did you like?

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany- Grade: A
Babel-17 is through-and-through a concept novel. I don’t know if that’s a real term, but its how I refer to books that have an idea that they’re about more than characters or a main plot. To be fair, Delany makes some interesting characters in this book, but they’re not what it’s about. What it’s about is language and how it may shape the way we think and act. Indeed, if we have no word for something like a computer or any of its components, how could we even begin to understand it? More abstractly, what if something like “nationalism” was an unknown term or concept? How would we relate to others and the space in which we live? These are some of the types of questions Delany asks in this fascinating piece of science fiction. I liked it enough I may actually go back for another try at his alleged magnum opus, Dhalgren, which I initially abandoned fairly early on. This is first rate idea-driven sci-fi.

Day of the Minotaur by Thomas Burnett Swann- Grade: B
Impressive for its prose, especially for its time, this novel is one of the earliest attempts (I read a few places it might be the earliest) to re-tell Greek myth for the modern audience. The downside to the novel is found in the times when a few anachronisms from the time in which it was written sneak in–yes, there are a few clear “flower child” type scenes, as well as a few cringe-worthy comments about women. On the flip side, it seems Thomas Burnett Swann was trying to subvert some of the latter through the narrative, which has women acting independently and with authority at times. Day of the Minotaur is also nearly lyrical in its prose, something that was not often attempted, to my knowledge, at the time. It’s a quick read that’s worth looking into for readers interested in mythical re-tellings.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (My Winner)- Grade: A
Heart-rending and poignant, Keyes has created an enduring masterpiece. Yes, some aspects of it haven’t aged well (such as outdated psychological theories), but it’s the kind of science fiction that could be set in the past as something that has happened, so that doesn’t matter. It’s got one of the best aspects of science fiction storytelling, namely that it asks us to look at ourselves as humans and see what we are more fully. I readily admit I did not think I’d enjoy this one going in. It had all the makings of one of those books that is more literary than it is plot, but it is not that at all. I wept bitterly at more than one point in this haunting work. It’s a beautiful book.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner)- Grade: B-
I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It was enjoyable, but the style dragged it down somewhat. It felt very matter-of-fact about even the most intense moments of the book. It’s not as beautiful as Stranger in a Strange Land nor as challenging as Starship Troopers. It’s still enjoyable, but the whole plot felt predictable. It lacked the excitement that comes with many other science fiction books. Not bad, certainly, but neither is it spectacular. Also, apparently it was eligible both in 1966 and in 1967?

The Witches of Karres by James M. Schmitz- Grade: C
How do you fairly evaluate a novel that seems like a possible precursor for many other ideas? The Witches of Karres has many of the elements later space operas would absorb, and the breadth of some of it is surprising. But it’s also… not very good. The ideas are there, but the execution is not. It reads about like what you would expect from an antiquated sci-fi adventure trying to grow beyond the bonds of the usual simplistic narrative. It’s admirable that the concept was developed here, but reading it for reasons other than history is not highly recommended.


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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!