Monday, December 28, 2009

1972 Locus - THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin won her first Locus award in 1972 with The Lathe of Heaven (the award began the year after The Left Hand of Darkness appeared). The Lathe of Heaven takes place in 2002, and begins on an over-populated and polluted Earth. Like Brunner, she correctly pegs the population in the first decade of the twenty-first century at about 7 billion, and like Brunner, she fails to predict the Green Revolution which, so far at least, has made that level of population sustainable. You could argue that she’s a bit more on the money with the constant war in the Middle East and the official first mention of global warming in these award-winners so far, though in both cases things are even worse in her 2002 than they were in the real 2002.

Really though, this is all background material. Most of the story takes place in Portland, Oregon and centers around one George Orr (a play on George Orwell?). George believes that his dreams can transform the entire world. For instance, if he dreams that a relative died in a car accident long ago, when he awakes said relative will be dead, and no one will realize that things have changed. George goes for help from a local sleep expert who quickly realizes the potential of such a power and begins to guide George’s dreams through the use of hypnotism.

(An odd sidenote: something I haven’t really mentioned before is the prominence of hypnotism in these books. Apparently, most people in the '50s, '60s and '70s thought that hypnotism was the wave of the future. I think most experts now would agree that hypnotism is of very limited utility for a variety of reasons.)

Anyway, the rest of the novel follows the massive changes in the world as the unethical hypnotherapist/sleep expert makes use of George’s powers. There are usually unintended consequences. When trying to correct a problem like overpopulation, the cure may be worse than the disease.

A plot description really doesn’t do the novel justice. It’s beautifully written (moreso even than The Left Hand of Darkness), it asks some really interesting and important philosophical questions, and has some very fascinating and richly drawn characters (George’s eventual love interest is one of the best characters I’ve encountered in these readings so far). This is a fascinating novel that more than transcends the rather odd (and maybe somewhat tired) central concept.

This is the first time that Hugo, Nebula and Locus have gone with three different winners. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, A Time of Changes, and A Lathe of Heaven were all from the class of ’71. I’d have a hard time deciding between the Silverberg and the Farmer, but I’d probably choose the Farmer. Luckily, Locus magaizine’s voters made the choice moot by selecting one of the best novels I’ve read. I am glad I added that third award.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

1972 Hugo - TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO by Philip José Farmer

What an awful cover.

Philip José Farmer, who recently passed away, created one of the most original science fiction series and worlds with Riverworld, which debuted in To Your Scattered Bodies Go. The novel won over the Hugo voters at World Con in ’72, but not the Locus voters or the Nebula’s Science Fiction Writers’ Association. Or me.

One day, every person who ever lived and died on the Earth wakes up reborn along a river that winds around a world. They are totally naked, and geographically and chronologically intermixed. There are no insects or animals to be found, but they do have cylinders that regularly provide them with food and drink, as well as alcohol, tobacco, and an opiate-like chewing gum. Most people assume that God or gods have resurrected them in some purgatory, though several rationalists come to believe some alien beings have resurrected them with technology as a social experiment.

Our point-of-view character is Sir Richard Burton, the famous nineteenth century explorer and linguist famous for his swashbuckling adventures and scholarship in the Middle East. He soon befriends a man named Frigate, who seems to be a stand in for Farmer himself (Farmer places Frigate's death in 2008 – killed by aliens – the real Farmer actually made it to 2009, probably due to the good fortune of aliens not landing earlier). The first half follows a few core characters as they try to figure out what’s happening to them and begin their efforts to survive and build a community for the first few years after their resurrection. The novel’s second half focuses on Burton’s obsession with uncovering the secrets of Riverworld.

It’s a fascinating set-up, and I enjoyed the first half. I did not like the second half as much, as Burton’s obsession pushes the rest of the characters to the side, and the answers he discovers are not nearly as interesting as the questions. There’s also a casual sexism here that bothered me a bit. The female characters (there’s really only one with a significant presence at all) don’t get a lot of face time or character development, and often find themselves victimized. They're sex objects. I’d say Farmer also misses the boat on a few anthropological and historical details (a passing mention of a Mohawk slave-raiding party seems to badly misunderstand their culture). This kind of thing was not uncommon in early science-fiction, but by 1972, Farmer really should know better. These problems bothered me enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the novel as it went on.

In other words: fascinating set-up, mediocre (and declining from there as the novel goes on) execution, problematic on race, and very problematic on gender. I am intrigued by the topic of the next novel though, and I might revisit Riverworld sometime down the road.

Grade: C

Monday, December 21, 2009

1971 Nebula - A TIME OF CHANGES by Robert Silverberg

Creating a richly detailed alien culture seems to have become a favorite game for science fiction writers. Following in the footsteps of LeGuin and Delany, Silverberg spends most of A Time of Changes elaborating on the culture of the planet Borthan.

In the distant future, Borthan is an old colony of Earth that has developed a unique culture that eschews expressions of individuality (which Bortans call “sharing of self”). As a result, the personal pronoun “I” is considered an obscenity, and characters awkwardly use “one” in its place. The novel is narrated by Kinnal Darival, a prince in exile who eventually rebels against his society’s taboos. When an interplanetary trader from Earth invites Kinnal to take a mind-expanding drug, the prince discovers the pleasures of individual identity and interpersonal closeness and begins to share the drug with everyone he can. Yes, this is the era of Timothy Leary.

There’s not much more to the plot, and there are long, languid passages describing Kinnal’s trips. There are some interesting ideas here – especially the seemingly paradoxical context that denial of self and a more communal focus could lead to severe loneliness. It’s a compelling idea for a culture, but it’s not presented in a particularly interesting manner, and there’s little else worthwhile to fill out the novel (unless you’re a fan of mediocre psychedelic prose). This book is very much a product of its time, and it has not aged well.

Grade: D+

Friday, December 18, 2009

1971 Hugo and Locus, and 1970 Nebula - RiINGWORLD by Larry Niven

If the 60s was a decade of experimentation and social awareness in speculative fiction, the 70s represented a turning back to science fiction’s roots in the hard sciences and pulpy adventure. For my money, no one represents this retro phase of science fiction better than Larry Niven. Niven’s work is very reminiscent of Heinlein’s, and early Heinlein at that. It has the same combination of imaginative engineering problems and off-beat, iconoclastic central characters.

Ringworld is part of Niven’s Known Space, the world that provides the setting for most of his solo fiction. Humans have made it to the stars and colonized new planets (like “We Made It”). They’re challenged by a catlike, war-mongering and honor-obsessed species called the Kzin (who surely inspired the revamped Next Generation Klingons) and occasionally manipulated by the highly advanced yet very cowardly puppeteers. The puppeteers have discovered a engineered ring with a circumference the size of the Earth's orbit – it's some sort of immense habitat that promises amazing technological revelations. They hire a 200 year old human, Louis Wu, a Kzin diplomat, Speaker-to-animals, and a human woman named Teela to investigate.

The first half of the novel is incredibly fun. We meet the different characters, and learn about the alien species involved. The puppeteer cowardice and the Kzin penchant for violence are wonderfully exaggerated and lead to some humorous moments. Wu is also amusing, though maybe a little to perfect (again, in the tradition of Heinlein). Teela is included in the mission because the puppeteers believe that humans are evolving good luck due to a breeding lottery, and they think that she is the vanguard of the probability-enhanced, and thus will bless the expedition.

These are all great ideas, and, like I said, the set-up is fun. The second half of the novel, which covers the ringworld itself, doesn’t quite live up to its promise. There’s a nice description of its lack of horizon, and the effects of punctures in its hull, but, for the most part, it’s just a really, really big alien setting complete with generic barbarians. The lame ringworld inhabitants were especially frustrating to see after the complex and nuanced alien society that LeGuin created for The Left Hand of Darkness. I wondered how living on this strange planet would affect these people, but we get only hints of this, and the ringworld barbarians are generally gullible, violent and stupid…and that’s about it.

There’s nothing that new here, other than the ring itself. But, even if it is somewhat familiar, it's extremely well-executed and fun. The novel is full of great ideas and, overall, it's a very good adventure tale. There should be no surprise that it swept all three of the major sf awards.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mind Voyages Sci-Fi Challenge

There's a fun event that several bloggers are participating in called the Mind Voyages Science Fiction Challenge. The goal is to read a certain number of science fiction award winners over the course of 2010, and there are various different paths participants can take. So long as I stay on schedule for this blog, I should have a moon voyage and a sling shot back to Earth with side trips to Saturn, Uranus, and maybe Jupiter. Of course, I'd be reading these books anyway, but I am looking forward to following some other opinions on Hugo winners. Maybe everyone will try They'd Rather Be Right.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

1960s Wrap

As I’ve hinted before, the ‘60s brings us a new generation of science fiction writers. The big three: Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, and editors like the famous John Campbell had pioneered a number of stylistic tropes that dominated the genre in the ‘50s: a focus on discoveries in physics or mathematics, humanoid aliens with familiar traits, spaceships, galactic empires, robots, ray-guns, etc.

In the ‘60s, the New Wave emerged, and a cohort of writers began to focus on more human issues like language, gender and sexuality, religion, stranger aliens, modern politics. This group
included Delany, Brunner, and LeGuin, and looked more to the darker and more ambiguous works of Dick and Bester than to the Big Three. I admire this new direction, and yet, there is something I like about the more classic sci-fi (and I think that’s reflected very much in my rankings). The ‘70s brings a welcome swing back to hard science fiction with grounded narrative, without completely abandoning the intriguing lines of inquiry posed by the New Wave.

Speaking of New Wave science fiction, one of the biggest changes is probably the inclusion of frank sexuality in most works of science fiction (not that Bester didn't hint pretty strongly at it back in the 50s). One collection of stories in particular, Dangerous Visions, was very groundbreaking in this regard and highly influential. It was edited by Harlan Ellison, includes works by Dick, Zelazny, Brunner, Delany, Leiber, Niven, Farmer, Silverberg, and so on. It dominated most of the Hugo and Nebula categories in 1968, including novella, novelette and short story, and received its own special Hugo. I considered reviewing it, but decided to pass because a) As I said before, I'm not a tremendous fan of the short story, and b) I expect "groundbreaking" stories of '68 to be more of the pointless psychedelia and sex that I've been seeing in the novels. I really have no problem with graphic sex in a book, so long as it serves a purpose. But a lot of the sexuality in the '60s and '70s feels gratuitous, awkward, and more than a little sexist. It's less about portraying normal human activities or providing intimate character moments, and it's much more "Look! I just wrote a sex scene! Look! Look! Sex! Naked women! Totally naked horny women! Look!" We've seen it in Heinlein and Leiber, and we'll see it soon in Niven, Farmer, and even Asimov. Yes, because of lessening restraints in society, the depiction of sex in science fiction grew up in the late '60s - unfortunately, it's growing into puberty. I'm hoping it grows into real maturity sometime soon.

Anyway, my rankings so far (I'm including the '50s, since I didn't do a wrap for that decade's few awards):

Top 3:

1. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
2. Dune
3. The Left Hand of Darkness

Bottom 3:

1. They'd Rather Be Right
2. The Wanderer
3. The Big Time

Finally, I’ve decided to add the Locus awards to the mix. Subscribers to Locus magazine get to vote for these every year – so, it’s another popular award like the Hugo, though maybe less self-selecting (or maybe more?). From what I’ve seen, the Locus does not have the prestige of Hugo or Nebula, but it is a very interesting set of winners, many of which I’d like to talk about anyway. I won’t always look at the Locus, but I’ll include it when a Hugo or Nebula winner takes it, or when I find it particularly interesting or significant.

Monday, December 14, 2009

1970 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation – NEWS COVERAGE OF APOLLO 11

On July 20, 1969, two Americans walked on the surface of the moon. It’s still kind of hard to believe. Hugo decided to honor the events by giving the award for dramatic presentation to news coverage of Apollo 11 (over Rosemary’s Baby, Charly (based on Flowers for Algernon), and an episode of the brilliant British television series The Prisoner).

This is a funny choice for a Hugo. Clearly, the landing on the moon was dramatic, and television’s comprehensive coverage of it was an extremely skilled presentation. It’s a pretty brilliant call, failing only to qualify on the level of science “fiction” (unless you believe some of the crazier conspiracy theories). That’s a big problem, but I can see why Hugo would want to acknowledge the event on some level.

Surprisingly, I don’t think this event had as large an effect on science and science fiction as Sputnik. It was the culmination of an awesome effort and a massive achievement. But, the next logical target, Mars, was perhaps too far. Again, you can see why sf authors might be overenthusiastic about future progress into space considering the rapid pace of development up to 1969; no wonder Clarke put a giant rotating space station in 2001 (which, by the way, did a good job of presenting the moon accurately before anyone actually got there). But, as we know, efforts in space tail off from here. The last trip to the moon took place in 1975, and efforts to get a space station into orbit were slow and fitful. Right now, the Apollo project looks more like an end to the Cold War-driven space race than the beginning of humanity’s expansion into solar system. Of course, the future may change that view of events.

Friday, December 11, 2009

1970 Hugo and 1969 Nebula - THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin

After twenty-six different Hugo and Nebula winning awards over the course of seventeen years, we finally get a work by a female author. And, it is, well, rather different, which is appropriate considering that this novel is all about the role of sex and gender in society.

Ursula K. LeGuin is the daughter of a rather famous California anthropologist, Arthur Kroeber, and she brings a lot of social science into her science fiction (which, as a result, generally gets labeled “soft science fiction” in opposition to the “hard science fiction” that dwells on the physical sciences).

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen (a benevolent federation made up of the various related human species descended from the ancient Hainish civilization – this includes Ai’s homeworld of Earth). Ai resides on the ice age planet Gethen (also known as Winter), as he tries to convince the planet’s hermaphroditic population to trade with Ekumen. He begins in a monarchy called Karhide, but palace intrigues drive him to a neighboring bureaucratic prison-state. These two nations share a lot of characteristics with the US and USSR, respectively, and there is a Cold War analogy at work here, though neither side comes off well. Ai narrates much of the novel, and the center of the novel is really his observations of gender in a society where people are sexless most of the time and can assume either partner's role at various times in their lives. We also get the insiders’ view, as an important politician and sometimes ally of Ai’s named Estrevan narrates other portions of the novel. And there are a handful of nicely-rendered folktales from Gethen recorded in the book that further illustrate the society’s workings.

It’s a rich text, and LeGuin’s prose is as good as anyone I’ve discussed so far (it most reminds me of Frank Herbert’s weighty, mythological style in Dune, but it's far less stilted). She creates several compelling societies within the framework of the frigid and sexually fluid Gethen, and we see a wide variety of sub-cultures, from courts to mystical oracles. I didn’t always agree with Ai’s characterization of gender on Earth, but LeGuin is writing from a male perspective in these observations, and they do change subtly over the course of the novel. In the end, the book poses more questions than it answers about how gender shapes individual identities and societies as a whole, which is probably for the best.

It takes some time for the plot to get rolling, but once it does, it’s page-turning stuff, and includes rich character development including an intriguing and moving relationship. This is a great novel that I highly recommend. We’re going to see a lot more of LeGuin over the next forty years of awards, and I’m very much looking forward to it now.

Grade: A

Monday, December 7, 2009

1969 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation - 2001

The late 60s were quite the era for game-changing “dramatic presentations;” first Star Trek, now 2001, a fantastic classic. I bought this film on Blu-ray and watched it for this project, and I can attest that it holds up as a brilliant and haunting spectacle. There’s no question that this is one of my favorite films, though its long dialogue-free scenes keep it from being a particularly accessible film (there is no dialogue for the first half-hour).

Based on a short story by sf legend Arthur C. Clarke (and later expanded into a novelization with 3 sequels), 2001 takes place in the distant future year of 2001 AD. There are two main threads. 1) There’s an alien black monolith that seems to have played a role in shaping human evolution. The film begins at the “dawn of man” and shows several apelike creatures learning to use tools after interacting with the monolith. Later, in that futuristic space age future of 2001 AD, humans investigate another monolith that they have uncovered on the lunar surface. 2) the spaceship Discovery makes a long trip to Jupiter to investigate yet another monolith. Along the way, they experience problems with their artificially intelligent shipboard computer, HAL 9000.

2001 is all about visual spectacle. It was originally shown in Cinerama, a giant wraparound format using multiple projectors that was designed to differentiate the theater-going experience from the increasingly dominant television. The use of color is brilliant. The special effects are fantastic and hold-up next to anything produced for at least the next 10 years. I’m usually not a fan of the psychedelic, but the surreal final sequence really is sublime, even if you’re not high. 2001 is also the first real entrance of hard sf onto the silver-screen. Kubrick, Clarke and the producers attempted to remain as accurate as possible in their depiction of near-future space age technology (the vacuum of space is actually silent – an obvious but rarely seen point of accuracy). Obviously, as futurism, the film fails. But it’s still one of the realest visions of the future you’ll see. And, there’s no denying this films influence on everything from the look of the startships of Star Wars to the claustrophobic feeling of Alien, not to mention the dozens of parodies of the opening sequence or HAL that have appeared over the years.

Things do move slowly, and Kurbick’s not afraid to let scenes unfold for minutes and minutes within almost total silence (though usually there’s a relaxed piece of classical music playing on the soundtrack). The film is designed for the viewer to sit back and drink in the spectacle (or feel a maddening sense of tension in some of the later scenes). If you’re not prepared for that, you may very well hate this film. If you are patient though, it’s an amazing experience.

Grade: A

Friday, December 4, 2009

1969 Hugo and British Science Fiction Association Award – STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner

The 60s were a period of experimentation in science fiction as well as in the rest of arts and society, and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar certainly fits in with that spirit. I was reminded more of the post-modern work of Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo and David Mitchell than any book I’ve read on this list.

While Stand on Zanzibar does have a clear central narrative, this narrative is surrounded by a variety of alternate materials – short vignettes focusing on side characters, factual information, philosophical tracts, African folktalkes, poetry, etc. There are actually different types of chapters with different functions (“continuity” follows the plot while “context” provides ancillary materials, for instance), and the first few chapters contain a flood of brief snippets from media around Brunner’s future world; it’s almost like listening to a radio while scanning with the tuner. It’s frustrating and intimidating, but the novel does settle down a bit from there.

The novel takes place in the early twenty-first century (right about now) on a vastly over-populated Earth (7 billion people, not far from the present population). There are two central characters, roommates Donald Hogan and Norman House, who are each drawn into storylines concerning fictional developing countries. The United States drafts Donald to investigate an advanced genetics program in the Asian island nation of Yakatang, while Norman is supervising a corporate investment in a poor but peaceful African nation of Beninia. Each story revolves around a moral question: 1). is it right to play with our genes, especially on a world of controlled breeding and eugenics? 2). Why is Beninia so peaceful? What does this little state have that the rest of the world does not?

I’m afraid that I can’t report that the answer to either question is particularly satisfying. Beyond that, the plot is slight and the characters even slighter. Brunner clearly intended to draw a contrast between the roommates, but the contrast feels too simple: Norman is black and successful, Donald is white and seems to have less control over his own fate. Still, Brunner creates an incredibly rich world and manages to achieve more in the realms of social analysis by hewing close to contemporary events. This is the first of these novels that does a really good job of portraying global inequalities and the future of the first world vs the third world. Overall, as a work of futurism, Stand on Zanzibar is surprisingly solid. We’ve dealt with an expanding population better than expected (at least so far), and the specter of communism isn’t quite as strong as imagined. Brunner misses the personal computer and the internet as well, though computers do play a central role. But, he’s more right than most on the general geopolitical situation. Also, he’s right on with the importance of genetics, and he must have been paying close attention to developments in the '60s.

Stand on Zanzibar is a somewhat difficult work in its construction and its lack of focus, but it is an ambitious work that provides a richly drawn world that poses interesting questions about the near future of human society. It’s a worthwhile read if you don’t mind some post-modern stunts. Once again, I’d take the Hugo winner over the Nebula, though it’s a bit tighter this time.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Other Hugo Bloggers

I accidentally googled my way into discovering another "Blogging the Hugos." Josh Wimmer (aka Moff) is reading and reviewing the Hugo-winning novels in chronological order over at the very fun sci-fi site, io9. He'll be posting new reviews every two weeks, and it looks like he's going a bit deeper in his observations and his analysis than my quick remarks.

And, I'll take this opportunity to mention that I've also come across the work of Sam Jordison, who started going "Back to the Hugos" in chronological order for the Guardian's website well before I did. His reviews are very entertaining, but they seem to come out very slowly and irregularly (he started in 2007, and is only 14 books in).

I'm not sure if these kind of Hugo projects pop up fairly regularly and most have just been buried in the sands of internet time, or if there's something in the zeitgeist right now to go back over the Hugos, or examine classic sci-fi, or just to tackle everything chronologically. Whatever the cause, I do think it's fun to look at these other takes.

Plus, Wimmer and Jordison are way more professional and way better at this blogging thing than I am.

UPDATE 12/02/09

This week I also discovered fellow blogspotter Das Ubernerd. Not only has he undertaken a great Hugo-reading project, and added the Nebula awards...and covered novelettes, novellas, short stories, best cover art, etc., but he's also finished (in record time, I'd say). So, congrats! He's sorted things very nicely along the side.

His nom de plume is clearly well-deserved, as the guy knows his stuff. There's also a variety of reviews at his site of all sorts of nerdy fun things.

Monday, November 30, 2009

1968 Nebula – RITE OF PASSAGE by Alexei Panshin

I’d like to position Alexei Panshin as the vanguard of a new generation of sf writers. So far, every writer to win a Hugo or Nebula was born before the Great Depression began in 1929, except for Roger Zelazny. Alexei Panshin was born in 1940. Zelazny was born in 1937, but he seemed bent on taking his stories in a different direction, whereas Panshin is quite vocal about his devotion to the likes of Robert Heinlein and is known as much for his non-fiction works about science fiction as for his fictional works. As Panshin explains here, this novel is, to some extent, a response to the work of his idol, Robert Heinlein.

Rite of Passage is narrated by a pubescent girl named Mia, who lives on a massive colony spaceship built out of an asteroid in the late 22nd century. Earth has been destroyed, and the generational colony ships are the last refuges of civilization among several frontier planets with harsh living conditions and rough-hewn colonists (aka Colons, aka “Mudeaters”). Resources on the colony ship are scarce, so the number of births per family is more tightly controlled than in today’s China, and every person must prove themselves in a “rite of passage” at about the age of 14. Each teen is left on a colony planet for thirty days, and many don’t survive the experience. The novel tracks Mia’s training for the rite, followed by the rite itself, as Mia struggles with her survival skills, her career path, and a host of ethical questions, all while receiving advice from her wise father, an influential politician on the ship.

Panshin explains here that he was inspired to write this novel by two sources: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and his opposition to the right-wing rhetoric of his idol, Robert Heinlein. The result is something like Farmer in the Sky as narrated by Scout. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite novels, and it’s hard for me not to see Rite of Passage as a pale imitation. The novel is nicely written, and Mia’s narrative voice is compelling, but it comes nowhere close to the wonderful lyricism of Harper Lee’s narrative. Furthermore, the speculative politics of Panshin’s work seem a bit confused – for someone who’s disappointed in Heinlein’s nationalistic and jingoistic extremism, there’s a lot of eugenic nonsense here, especially in the rite of passage itself – do wilderness survivalist skills really indicate who is best suited to live on a starship? And, the ending, which I think is a critique of Cold War culture and mutually assured destruction is more an ambiguous question mark than a stirring moral statement. Overall, I didn’t find the colony ship, or Mia’s father’s politics, particularly appealing. The humanistic wisdom of Atticus Finch is nowhere to be found in this novel, and Mia's opposition is weak and poorly articulated, though perhaps that's the point.

This novel doesn’t come close to measuring up to the lofty levels of its inspirations. In some ways, it’s too ambitious, and that’s not the worst crime a novel can commit. Still, it's eminently readable, there are some very good ideas, and Mia is certainly the most compelling female character I’ve seen in a Hugo or Nebula winner so far.

Grade: B

Friday, November 27, 2009

1968 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation – STAR TREK “The City on the Edge of Forever”

Star Trek wins again, fittingly (it's sort of surprising that they don't get so much as a nomination from here on, even considering the declining budget and quality of the show). "The City on the Edge of Forever" is an episode from late in the first season that's widely considered the original series' finest hour. A drugged Bones wanders through "The Guardian of Time" into 1930s America, where he saves a young woman's life. Kirk pursues him and falls in love with the woman, who is named Edith Keiller (Jackie Collins). Bones and Kirk soon learn that Keiller is a very persuasive spokesperson for the pacifist movement - now that she's alive, she will prevent the United States from entering World War II in time to defeat Nazi Germany. In other words, Bones is going to change history and destroy humanity's utopian future in the process.

It's a fascinating ethical dilemma, a wonderful character moment for Kirk (somewhat undermined by the fact that he falls in love with a woman in every episode), and a fantastic production all around, with most of the series' best acting on display. I'm not sure if it's my favorite episode, but it's up there, and I don't disagree with its status as a classic for a second.

I should also take this moment to mention that the screenplay was written by Harlan Ellison, a staple of '60s science fiction. Ellison won three Hugos for short stories in just four years in the late '60s. 1966 winner "'Repent Harlequin,' said the Ticktockman" is a psychedelic metaphor that protests the tyranny of schedules and time in modern society. 1968 winner "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" tells the psychedelic story of five people tortured for eternity by a sentient computer he hates humanity for making him feel. "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" is just plain psychedelic. Can you tell it's the late '60s? I understand why Ellison is a legend, but his bleak and surrealistic visions really aren't for me. I think I'd rather read Ginsberg or Burroughs.

Ellison has long complained that Gene Roddenberry made several cuts and changes to the script (Star Trek mainstay Dorothy Fontana ended up with a co-writing credit). From everything I've heard about his script, the aired version sounds much superior (though the drug-dealing in the Federation sub-plot does sound intriguing). Ellison has a tendency to stir up trouble.

Grade: A

Monday, November 23, 2009

1968 Hugo – LORD OF THE LIGHT by Roger Zelazny

While Nebula voters focused on Samuel Delany in the late ‘60s, Hugo voters seem to have fallen in love with Roger Zelazny. While Zelazny’s This Immortal doesn’t hold up too well next to the book it tied for the honor in 1966, Lord of the Light has aged much better. This Immortal used an oddball future setting to create an irreverent take on Greek mythology, Lord of the Light takes the conceit even further by re-creating Buddhism on a distant planet.

Explorers from (a destroyed?) Earth have settled on a new planet and used their incredible technology to establish themselves as Hindu deities. They have achieved immortality and created incredible weapons and vehicles (flying chariots). They’ve also built a massive floating fortress that dominates the heavens, and they’ve even installed karma machines across the planet that evaluate the mortal inhabitants’ (their own descendants, many generations removed) qualifications for reincarnation into a new animal/human/divine body.

One member of this founding generation, Mahatasamatna, or “Sam” for short, has refused his godhood and resents the way his cohorts manipulate and repress the common people of the planet. He sets himself up as Siddhartha, re-founds the old Earth religion of Buddhism, and makes war on the gods. He even calls upon the planet’s original inhabitants – energy beings who have been recast as demons from Hindu mythology.

At the beginning of the novel, he’s lost this war, but Yama, the god of Death, has resurrected him for one last attempt at overthrowing their old friends. What follows is a series of episodes recounting Sam’s original war on the gods, which play out like a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha with super-technology. There are a series of big action set-pieces full of flames, energy bolts and massive explosions. All the while, Sam remains laid back and unflappable, and it’s never entirely clear how much he believes the religious concepts that he in introducing versus how much he simply resents what’s been made of this new world.

Lord of the Light is an absorbing and exciting read, and I was much more caught up in this world than that of This Immortal. In the end, it’s an irreverent, rock-and-roll/action movie take on Buddhism, and I wasn’t entirely sure what Zelazny achieved by setting it on another planet in the distant future. It is interesting when the gods delve into their human histories, as when Sam and Kali discuss an old love affair, and maybe that’s the central effect that Zelazny was hoping to achieve.

Once again, I’d take the Hugo winner over the Nebula winner (Einstein Intersection). Both novels were highly original and fun, but Lord of the Light is more cohesive and seems to have more to say.

Grade: A-

Friday, November 20, 2009

1967 Nebula – THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION by Samuel Delany

The Nebula voters really loved Sam Delany in the late ‘60s, as a novel of his wins for the second year in a row. The Einstein Intersection takes place on a distant-future Earth inhabited by a constantly mutating populace. Functional mutants get the honorific Lo, La, or Le appended to the their name, depending on if they are male, female, or hermaphroditic, respectively. Some of these mutants have developed “differences” which are basically psychic abilities.

The protagonist and narrator, Lo Lobey, herds goats in a quiet village. He falls in love with a mute girl named Friza, but she soon dies mysteriously. Then, Lo Lobey must reenact the descent of Orpheus into Hades to regain his lost love (in this distant future, the myth has been rewritten, now it concerns Ringo Starr’s quest to reunite the Beatles). He journeys across a misshapen Earth, using his herding skills to sign on to a “dragon drive,” all the while looking to confront the mysterious Kid Death.

This is a very short, very psychedelic novel. Delany’s prose is quite lyrical, and I found this to be an easier, more engaging read than Babel-17, despite its being more ambiguous and just weirder all around. Again, like Babel-17, it has a very promising first few chapters, but as metaphor gets heaped on mythological allusion gets heaped on metaphor again, the book begins to sag under the weight of its own oddball symbolism. The Einstein Intersection is a quick, fun read if you don’t mind the very strange, but I still feel that Delany’s incredible originality would come across better if he could rein it in just a little bit.

Grade: C+

Sunday, November 15, 2009

1967 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation – STAR TREK, “The Menagerie”

Star Trek is certainly a watershed in science fiction. It draws heavily from published science fiction works, and especially works like Asimov's Foundation with its interstellar politics, and faster-than-light starships. There's also plenty of odd (but usually humanoid) aliens, telepathy, and time travel thrown in - the show hits pretty much all of the sci-fi tropes. In the context of all of the Hugo reading I've done, it's easy to see this show as derivative - merely a translation of ideas and themes that are old hat in the written medium to the newer medium of television. I don't think there is any question though, that science fiction from here on bears the stamp of Gene Roddenberry's creation. I think Trek re-canonized these ideas at a time when sf was drifting away from them.

I'm not the hugest fan of the Original Series - despite the fact that the show is blazing lots of new ground with material we've never seen on television before, it quickly falls into a few stock stories. 1). Godlike aliens test the Enterprise, and the crew must make a case for the innate goodness of humanity or the importance of freedom. Or, 2). the Enterprise discovers a planet that exactly resembles some period of Earth history. Those two plotlines cover about 80% of Star Trek episodes. These limitations were probably in part the results of budget constraints (plot #2, especially, saves money on sets by utilizing locations already on the studio lot), but it can still be frustrating.

Nonetheless, the 8 episodes that received Hugo nominations during the series' three year run (all five Hugo nominations for best dramatic presentation in 1968 went to Star Trek) are all very good examples that do break the mold. The losing nominees are an intriguing lot: "The Corbomite Maneuver" is an early episode in which Captain Kirk must match wits with a powerful alien presence. It's worth it for the odd, offbeat ending. "The Naked Time" sees the crew descend into madness following an alien infection and is most famous for allowing George Takei's Mr. Sulu to run around with a fencing sword rather than playing to racial stereotypes with a samurai sword. "Amok Time" delves into Vulcan mating rituals, which tend to involve arena combat. In "Mirror, Mirror," the crew must combat evil (and sometimes goatee'd) versions of themselves from a parallel dimension. "The Doomsday Machine" pits the Enterprise against a giant, planet-gobbling weapon from another galaxy, while "The Trouble with Tribbles" pits them agains cute little fuzzballs that quickly multiply and create a Malthusian crisis (an early example of the perils of biological invasion).

In 1967, "The Menagerie" won the big prize (I'll talk more about 1968's winner soon). It's actually the series' original, Shatnerless pilot, repackaged as a flashback set in a two-part framing story. Captain Christopher Pike is kidnapped by godlike aliens (see???) who want to use him in a breeding program. They offer him lots of sex with what appears to be a beautiful woman who will cater to any number of fetishes, but Pike would rather live free in reality than trapped in the aliens' sexy zoo. Ironically, in the framing story, Pike has been horribly burned in a starship accident, and his old second mate Spock has decided to return him to the sexy zoo where he can live free in the aliens' illusion rather than trapped in his wheelchair. It is an intriguing storyline that highlights much of what Trek is about (strong characters, godlike aliens, sexy women in short skirts), though it's probably not Trek at its best.

Grade: B

Friday, November 13, 2009

1967 Hugo Winner – THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein

The fifth and final novel by Robert Heinlein to win a Hugo (and the third in eight years) reenacts the American Revolution on a lunar colony. This is another novel that I read, and loved, when I was a teenager.

It’s the late 21st century and the moon is home to several million people, most of them descendants of criminals sentenced to the penal colony there. The inhabitants call themselves Loonies, and they’re beginning to get fed up with taking orders from Earth. The colony is managed by a supercomputer called HOLMES, and the novel centers around a technician named Mannie who discovers that the computer has become self-aware. Instead of bumping everyone off like HAL-9000, HOLMES (who Manny soon renames “Mycroft,” or just “Mike” after Sherlock Holmes’ brother) has a sense of humor and likes to play childish pranks on the Loonies.

Before long, Mycroft is holding meetings with lunar dissidents and hatching a plan to rebel against the Earth, which is taking too much of the moon’s food production. An anarchist professor named Bernardo de La Paz (really more of a libertarian, but Heinlein prefers the term Rational Anarchist) discusses political philosophy with Mycroft and becomes a mouthpiece for Heinlein’s personal politics in the process. The moon begins to use its infrastructure to launch some devastating attacks on the Earth, and soon, the dissidents have their independence and are charged with forging a new society.

In a lot of ways, this novel is an extension of Farmer in the Sky. That novel gave us a heroic story of frontier settlement; this novel gives us a frontier society that has grown up and is ready to strike out on its own. Turner’s frontier thesis of American history is still very much in effect in Heinlein’s writing, but we’ve moved to the “American Revolution” phase. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is much concerned with Heinlein’s libertarian politics, which he apparently felt the need to spell out after the accusations of fascism that accompanied Starship Troopers. He also manages to work in some of his pet ideas about unorthodox sexual relationships and open partnerships with a concept of polyandry he calls “line marriage.”

There’s a lot about Heinlein’s politics that I don’t really agree with, and this novel is almost nothing but Heinlein’s politics. Yet, this is by far my favorite Heinlein novel and probably my favorite Hugo winner thus far. The political discussions are at least well-informed and interesting, the Lunar society created by Heinlein is fascinating, and the sentient computer Mycroft Holmes is incredibly fun and lovable. Heinlein’s writing is, as always, clear and direct but also amiable and energetic. He’s the closest thing to a 20th century science fiction Mark Twain this side of Kurt Vonnegut.

In the 70s and 80s, Heinlein’s novels get a bit more sex-obsessed (sometimes in disturbing ways), and there’s a lot of navel-gazing as his later novels focused on tying together is older novels into a multiverse. But, if you have any interest in science fiction and have somehow missed out on Heinlein, you need to give Stranger or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress a chance.

This novel came in second in the Nebula voting after the dual winners in 1966, while Flowers for Algernon and Babel-17 came in second and third in the Hugo voting. It’s the first time the awards diverge at all, and I’ve got to give the edge to the WorldCon Hugo voters on this one.

Grade: A

Monday, November 9, 2009

1966 Nebula Winner (tie) – FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes

The Hugo awards have only had two ties for best novel; the Nebula awards have only had one. Somehow, both major science fiction awards managed to declare a tie in 1966, and, in part because of the different schedules, there are no overlaps. This is the only year where I have four separate novels to talk about, but they are all very different.

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charles Gordon, a mentally disabled man who participates in an experiment to radically increase his intelligence quotient. In just a few months he goes from cleaning the bathrooms at a bakery to becoming an intellectual juggernaut in several different fields. Eventually, he’s looking down on the pathbreaking team of psychologists and neurologists that developed his surgery. Meanwhile, Algernon, the lab-mouse who first received the experimental intelligence-increasing treatment, begins to suffer the effects of a deteriorating mind after only a few months' time.

The tragedy is that Charlie’s main motivation in volunteering for the experiment is that he believes he’ll be less lonely when he can interact with others as intellectual equals, but when he surpasses everyone, he’s every bit as alienated as before.

This novel is free from most sci-fi concepts. There’s a simple, fairly grounded, idea here that exists mostly so that Keyes can explore questions about everyday existence. It is a nice change of pace, and one thing I like about science fiction is that it can incorporate so many types of literature and examine so many different questions.

In the end, though, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by Flowers for Algernon. Keyes dances on the edge of sentimentality on one side with Charlie’s tragic story, while he flirts with the edge of cynicism when describing the world that so harshly rejects both the good-hearted and hyper-intelligent versions of Charlie. His depiction of scientists is particularly rough, and I'm starting to think that a lot of sf writers had bad experiences with their science professors at some point in school. As an admirer of the scientific method and scientists in general, this stuff gets on my nerves pretty quickly.

Also, Keyes has chosen to present the novel as a series of reports written by Charlie over the course of the experiments. The novel begins with little punctuation, a simple vocabulary and frequent misspellings. Charlie’s writing then improves, at first subtly but then quite dramatically. It’s a vivid way to reinforce the change in the protagonist and, I’d imagine, a difficult trick for the author. However, Keyes was not the first or last author to imitate the mentally disabled, and I didn’t find his portrayal as real or poetic as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Hadden’s more recent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

On the whole, Flowers for Algernon is highly readable, though I found it paradoxically too cynical at times and too sentimental at others. Nebula awarded this and Babel-17 over The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (see next post), and I can’t say I agree with the decision, though I can imagine why the writers might pick a pair of novels that play with language over Heinlein’s workmanlike and effortless prose. All three books were nominated for both awards though, and an earlier, shorter version won the 1960 Hugo for best short story (a version which I think I might have preferred).

Grade: A-

Friday, November 6, 2009

1966 Nebula Winner (tie) – BABEL-17 by Samuel Delany

Samuel Delany is the first African-American and the first openly gay author to win one of these novel awards. It's the 1960s, alright, and it's certainly nice to watch the increasing inclusiveness of the science fiction community. Delany is also at the forefront of what is usually called the "new wave" of speculative fiction writers who wanted to explore more social and philosophical themes in the genre.

Babel-17 starts out strong. It begins on a future Earth that is under siege by a mysterious group called the Invaders who mount terrorist attacks against human outposts. Every attack is accompanied by strange, indecipherable transmissions. The military has decided to turn to the uncannily adept super-linguist Rydra Wong to decode the transmissions. Wong can learn almost any language and can also decipher a great deal about how a culture (or individual, for that matter) thinks from how they speak. She can even mimic telepathy with a precise and incisive analysis of the subtlest of body language. Wong deciphers Babel-17, learns the site of the next terrorist attack, and pledges to hire a ship and investigate herself.

This is a fantastic premise – it involves a strong central idea that looks to be thought-provoking and full of intrigue, and it also has a very solid hook for the plot. However, this set-up all takes place in the first two chapters, and from there, the novel goes off the rails. It turns out that hiring pilots for her trip involves Wong chatting up strange surgically-altered people with preternatural senses and polygamous tripartite sexual relationships. Some of them are dead; their corpses are in cold storage for revival when a good job comes along. This is all fascinating stuff, but it’s related in a breathless, obtuse, and dialect-heavy fashion that grinds the proceedings to a halt. It’s not unlike Leiber’s The Big Time, where the reader is never really given a clear explanation of the setting. I understand the artistic reasons why an author would thrust a reader into an unknown and wildly different future setting, but , at the same time, it’s not very satisfying.

The prose and plotting may be self-consciously and intentionally unwelcoming, but there are a lot of great ideas. The novel is about language, and Delany makes great use of the format to play with the concepts. He even includes an experimental bit where we get sidebars that translate the novel’s language into the more literalist language of Babel-17. There’s also a particularly nice exchange with a character who has no concept of the first-person singular, “I.” I also like Delany’s idea that humans will never even begin to understand alien species until they’re somehow able to think in alien languages – a concept that seems self-evident but that’s ignored in most sci-fi.

I have to admit that I knew nothing about Delany before I saw his name on the Nebula winner list (twice). Several of his novels were reissued by the literary imprint Vintage Books in the 1990s, along with works by Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester. I can certainly see how Delany fits in next to those two – he takes risk, pushes the envelope of both social mores and believability, and he has a dark sensibility. I look forward to reading more of his work, but this novel just didn’t quite hold together for me, despite the strong ideas.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 2, 2009

1966 Hugo (tie) – ...AND CALL ME CONRAD (aka THIS IMMORTAL) by Roger Zelazny

Apparently the franchise-spawning, greatest science fiction classic of all time, ever, was just barely the best book of 1966. Yep, Dune tied with the legendary …And Call Me Conrad (later expanded and repackaged as This Immortal) by Roger Zelazny. I’m being a bit facetious, but, in hindsight, this looks like a fairly big misstep for Hugo. I know I should take Zelazny’s novel on its own merit, but it’s hard not to compare it to the novel that it shared the ’66 Hugo with. And, next to Dune, This Immortal looks pretty slight, to say the least.

This Immortal takes place on a post-apocalyptic future Earth. After nuclear Armageddon, humans were befriended by a blue-skinned alien race named the Vegans. Most humans live on Vegan colonies, and Earth’s most magnificent sites have become tourist attractions, while the rest of the planet is overrun by mutants – some of whom inexplicably look like mythological creatures like centaurs.

The story is narrated by Conrad Nimikos, a long-lived Greek. Conrad is himself hundreds of years old, and there are hints that he is a Greek God, or he may just be a mutant. He previously lived as a hero of Earth named Karaghiosis, who opposed Vegan plans to buy up all of the real estate on Earth. Ironically, he now finds himself protecting a Vegan surveyor named Myshtigo from assassins and voodoo priests.

These are interesting ideas, but none of them are explored in depth or really developed at all. In a lot of ways, This Immortal is the anti-Dune. World-building, political machinations, and noble heroes are all there, but mostly just hinted at and relegated to the background. Instead, Zelazny focuses on a brisk, action-oriented plot and creating a mysterious but amiable protagonist. The book is a quick, light read, and Conrad is likable and funny (his narration is so good humored that it took me a third of the novel to realize that Earth had become a post-apocalyptic hellhole). Maybe I can see how the WorldCon voters might be split between the heavy epic Dune and the light romp This Immortal, but the latter doesn’t really seem so deserving in retrospect.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 30, 2009

1966 Hugo (tie) and 1965 Nebula – DUNE by Frank Herbert

Dune is one of the most famous Hugo winners, and it certainly warrants its status as a sci-fi classic. Herbert’s masterpiece is an epic – it’s the longest Hugo winner so far and more than double the length of the average winner to this point.

Dune describes a far-future, interstellar human empire in which most everyone depends on a chemical called spice that can only be obtained from a dangerous desert planet called Arrakis. There are a handful of feudal “major houses” that vie for power under the Emperor. The evil Harkonnens lure the noble House Atreides into a trap, giving them the valuable planet of Arrakis then betraying and attacking them. The heir to the House of Atreides is a teenager named Paul, prophesied to be a messiah by pretty much every interest group in the universe, and the story follows his rise to power, quest for revenge, and realization of his religious role on the inhospitable planet.

In a lot of ways, other than the occasional mention of space travel, this might sound like a fantasy novel plot. And, Dune does often garner comparison to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. There are limitations to this analogy, but the book does work for exactly the same reasons that Tolkein’s epic cycle does – this is a fully realized world. Herbert creates a detailed universe with its own internal logic and its own rich, detailed, and often weird, cultural practices. Furthermore, what makes this novel really revolutionary is that Herbert throws ecology in the mix. He’s the first author to really put thought into how his world’s natural settings would work, what keeps them in balance, what would throw them out of balance, etc. This is a big departure from the easy terraforming of Ganymede that Heinlein depicted.

If I had to find a flaw in the novel (and I have an advanced degree in nitpicking after several years of graduate school) it’s that the characters can be a little flat. The characters fall easily into “good” and “evil” camps, and most of the novel is taken up with dialog-heavy scenes in which the good characters act terribly brave, noble and wise. Meanwhile, the evil characters spend all of their time plotting, cheating, and molesting young boys. There’s not much complexity there, and it did get a little tiring about halfway through.

Still, despite some clichéd characters and some slightly familiar fantasy tropes, Dune is an ultimately compelling and exciting read because of the thought and detail Herbert put in to building his world. There are wonderful appendices on Dune’s religion and ecology, as well as a glossary of terms, that all demonstrate the thought and care that make the work so completely engrossing.

At the same time, I have to admit that I’d be very reluctant to read any more of this franchise. I hadn’t read Dune or any of its sequels before this project, and I’m very satisfied checking the core book off my list of must-reads. This is the first franchise-spawning book that I’ve encountered (there will be more!), but, at least in this case, I feel pretty satiated with this one novel.

Grade: A

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Before I launch into a discussion of the legendary Dune, I do want to mention that I’ve decided to review the Nebulas as well (at least for a while). The Science Fiction Writers Association members vote on the Nebulas, compared to the convention-goers who decide the Hugo. Sixteen novels have won both awards, including the first Nebula winner in 1965, Dune. Also, the two awards have different schedules, so there will usually be a disparity in the year. Anyway, I think it could be interesting to compare the types of novels that win each award when they do differ.

Monday, October 26, 2009

1965 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – DR STRANGELOVE

There were 4 nominees but no winner in this category in 1963 (apparently, WorldCon attendees were sick of The Twilight Zone by then; it was nominated but did not win). No award was given in 1964. In 1965, however, one of my all time favorite movies won: Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

I never really thought of this film as science fiction. It does, in the end, revolve around an unlikely bit of fictional doomsday technology, but the device is more satirical than speculative. I’ll probably have chances as we go to get into the question of what qualifies as science fiction. Either way, Dr Strangelove is a fantastic and timely comedy worthy of recognition. It’s probably obvious by now how much the Cold War dominated early 60s science fiction – we have the advent of post-apocalyptic fiction like A Canticle for Leibowitz just in time for the world to almost blow up in 1962. Dr. Strangelove takes nuclear war head on. A crazed, paranoid American air force officer launches a nuclear attack on the USSR (provoked by fluoridated water, of course) and the Russian and American governments desperately try to stop him before his actions trigger an unstoppable chain of events ending in nuclear Armageddon. Black comedy rules the day, as the film expertly satirizes the prejudices and self-serving attitudes at the heart of the Cold War mentality. Peter Sellers steals the film with three brilliant performances as a British exchange officer, the American President, and a bizarre Nazi scientist. George C. Scott is also brilliant as a dull-witted, belligerent, and paranoid military adviser. If you haven’t seen this film, go see it now (and keep in mind that it takes about half-an-hour to really get going).

Grade: A

Friday, October 23, 2009

1965 Hugo – THE WANDERER by Fritz Leiber

Leiber’s The Big Time had been my second least favorite book so far in this project (though it was light-years better than the book that shall not be named), but at least it had interesting ideas, even if I didn’t enjoy the execution. So, would Leiber redeem himself in The Wanderer? Did he deserve the second Hugo he received in 1965?

The short answer: No.

The book revolves around what is actually a compelling and imaginative concept for a disaster story, and from about 30 to page 100, I was prepared to dub this a thrilling page-turner. One evening, a new planet appears next to the moon. Inhabitants around the Earth watch in awe. Then the new planet’s gravity hits: there are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and massive tidal waves that drown entire nations, all over the globe. Within a day, the moon cracks in half and gets gobbled up by this new planetary body that humans dub “The Wanderer.”

From there, things get weird. The Wanderer is actually a planet-sized spaceship, and soon flying saucers are picking up some of the main characters and taking them up for a chat. From this point on, the novel gets worse and worse.

Not that there aren’t problems right from the start. First of all, we’re definitely into the ‘60s now (although the presence of a moonbase suggests that this novel takes place a little bit later). Every ‘60s cliché is present, many of them executed with a disturbing awkwardness: horny and rebellious teenagers, black potheads from Harlem, New Age weirdos, Vietnam, a Latin American coup, a moon landing. It’s nice to have different perspectives on the novel’s wondrous and destructive events, but there are just too many, and most of them have no grounding or context. I can’t really tell you what was happening in the Vietnam scenes because frankly, I didn’t care. And, it would’ve been nice to have some characters who weren’t some sort of obvious stereotype.

The characters are the fundamental flaw here. Not only are they one-dimensional stereotypes, they never react with anything approaching verisimilitude. The dialog is awful. I said that The Big Time was all about Leiber establishing his characters’ voices, but that they felt too artificial. His dialog had gotten even worse by the time he was writing the Wanderer. People have very contrived conversations; the main characters are actually talking about the possibility of planet-sized spaceships cruising through hyperspace RIGHT BEFORE The Wanderer appears. Subtle way to sneak in some exposition there, Leiber.

I haven’t even gotten into the novel’s odd sexuality, including a bizarre and horribly awkward human-alien sex scene. The only people to whom I would ever recommend this novel are members of the furry community. I’ll just leave it at that.

By the time we learn that the inhabitants of the world destroying "Wanderer" are space bohemians just cruising about the galaxy to escape “the man,” I wanted to punch this book in the face.

Grade: D-

Monday, October 19, 2009

1964 Hugo – WAY STATION by Clifford D. Simak

I’m pretty unfamiliar with Simak’s work, and I really had no idea what I was getting into with this one.

Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War in the 1860s. In the 1960s, he's still living in his family home in Wisconsin, and he's not any noticeably older. At the beginning of the novel, the CIA takes notice and begins to investigate Enoch. They soon discover a gravestone on his family plot with an infinity sign and alien writing; interred below they find a strange alien corpse.

We soon learn that Enoch's house has been turned into a secret rest stop on an intergalactic highway. Most of the novel, in fact, centers around Enoch's day-to-day existence. Because of his duties, and the fact that he doesn't age, Enoch is very isolated from the world around him. The novel is mostly a thoughtful portrait of a very lonely man. The only connection Enoch has to any of his neighbors is with a deaf-mute girl. He mostly wanders the countryside, reads the newspaper, and tries to connect with the strange aliens who pass through his converted home. Simak really evokes the tranquility and beauty of the rural area that Enoch inhabits, and he also managed to create a very quiet and internalized piece of science fiction that’s still a compelling and thought-provoking read (better than Walter Miller for my money, though Miller received far more accolades). It's a different sort of book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The novel’s not perfect though. Towards the end, it’s weighed down by a few tacked on action sequences (including a holodeck-like hunting game that Enoch plays), the whole issue of the Earth Way Station suddenly takes on galactic significance, and we get some Cold War-era “can’t we all just get along” preaching. Less would have been more. But, the first part is so strong, and the story of Enoch so quirky and compelling, that I have to rate this as one of my favorites so far and a very pleasant surprise.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 16, 2009

1963 Hugo – THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick

A lot of sci-fi fans think it’s criminal that Dick only won one Hugo, and I would agree that this is not his best novel. Dick is odd enough that I don’t expect him to win these awards though. It’s like Quentin Tarantino and the Oscars; I love every Tarantino film I’ve seen, but I don’t begrudge the Academy for picking films with wider appeal. My first Philip K. Dick work, by the way, was VALIS, one of his last. VALIS is the semi-autobiographical story of a drug addict who receives coded messages from God via a hidden satellite in space. That pretty much sums up Philip K. Dick for those unfamiliar with his work (it is a pretty good book though.)

Anyway, High Castle is an interesting work, and, while it’s no Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which I will get a chance to talk about as we go), I think it’s a worthy representation of Dick’s work. It presents an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II and eventually conquered a stubbornly isolationist United States. Japan and Nazi Germany split North America down the middle. The two surviving powers are now involved in their own Cold War, though the rocket-loving and ruthless Nazis seem to have a decided advantage and have made it all the way to Mars. The novel takes place in California, which is in the Japanese half.

It’s a rich setting, but I can’t say there’s a ton of plot. A well-drawn and diverse array of characters wander around and try to live their lives under a totalitarian occupying power. Lots of people consult the I Ching for advice. Everyone reads an alternate history novel about a world where the Allies won the war (but not quite our world) which leads to some thoughts on parallel universes. Then, the book just sort of peters out.

It is a very interesting read though, and worth a look if you’re interested in Philip K. Dick (though you should really start with Do Androids Dream? first, if that’s the case).

Grade: A-

Monday, October 12, 2009

1960-1962 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – THE TWILIGHT ZONE

After The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Hugos gave no award in 1959 (though there were three nominees). In 1960, the category was renamed from “outstanding movie” to “best dramatic presentation” and the award went to the brainchild of writer Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, an anthology show of odd tales that generally fit into the categories of sci-fi or horror. The show also won in 1961 and 1962, and was nominated in 1963 (though no award was given in that year). Later, Hugo would reward individual episodes of tv series, but it seems that these awards were given to the show’s entire body of work in those years.

I hadn’t seen a lot of episodes of The Twilight Zone (though I watched about thirty or so of the reputed best for this blog post). I know this is sacrilege for a classic sci-fi fan, but I’ve never really been into short stories. That’s why I’m skipping some important Hugo categories here (novella, novelette, short story). In my opinion, there’s generally not enough time to develop a really engrossing world or compelling characters that you can get attached to. And, I often feel like I’m waiting for a punchline.

All of these critiques apply to anthology shows as well.

Better episodes avoid the “punchline” problem – like “Walking Distance,” where a man inexplicably travels back in time to recapture lost childhood. The story isn’t about what’s happening, but how the character feels about it.

But, an episode like “Eye of the Beholder,” is not only totally beholden to its surprise ending to succeed, but pretty much everyone already knows that ending. Still, it wasn’t hard to sit through these episodes because they have such high production values and incredible visuals, not to mention some fine performances by a wide array of great actors and actresses. For these reasons, I could enjoy an episode like “Time Enough at Last,” the classic about a bookworm who wants more time to himself to read and gets his wish. Even though I knew the ironic conclusion, I could still delight in Burgess Meredith’s brilliant work as the central character.

If you’ve seen The Simpsons Halloween Special, you know the “punchline” of “To Serve Man,” (turns out that aliens love puns) but it’s still a wonderfully written and produced piece of vintage television and excellent science fiction.

I think I liked the show best when it veered into the delightfully weird and stayed there. Case in point: “The Invaders,” an almost completely dialogue-free affair in which a rural woman fights off tiny aliens with kitchen knives. I won’t spoil the twist.

As I see it, the show has three major problems that cripple some episodes. There’s the aforementioned issue of being too dependent on the punchline. Furthermore, some episodes seem really stretched – a wonderful idea that would work very well as a six or seven minute short film often gets padded out to 25 minutes (I’d actually say that “Eye of the Beholder” suffers from this problem). Finally, some episodes have ideas that are just too big to work with the show’s shoestring budget and primitive special effects (“Little People”).

To sum up, a lot of episodes are one-note throwaways, but a select few are really worthy of their classic status, and this show certainly revolutionized science fiction on television. It’s easy to see why it won three years in a row (nor did the film industry offer up much competition, based on the losing nominees).

My top ten (of the episodes I watched from the winning first three seasons):

1. The Invaders (mentioned above)

2. Walking Distance (a man takes a quick walk to his hometown and ends up visiting his childhood)

3. And When the Sky Was Opened (the survivors of a crashed experimental space plane begin to disappear)

4. A World of His Own (A playwright can make his characters literally come to life)

5. Time Enough at Last (a bookish fellow survives a nuclear war then heads to the local library)

6. It’s a Good Life (a young boy who controls reality holds a rural town hostage to his immature whims)

7. Eye of the Beholder (a disfigured woman is an outcast in a dictatorship obsessed with conformity)

8. Kick the Can (an old man tries to flee his nursing home – and old age – by playing a child’s game)

9. Nick of Time (a newlywed - William Shatner! - becomes obsessed with a vague fortune telling device)

10. To Serve Man (aliens have come to aid humanity, but one man doubts their motives)

Grade: A for all of the above episodes.
A- for the series as a whole (not every episode's a winner)