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.
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?
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.
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