Monday, August 31, 2009

1953 Hugo – THE DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester

The first real Hugo winner and a certified grade-A science fiction classic. This was one of those Hugo winners that I had long planned on reading but never gotten around to.

In the early 24th century, psychic cops have wiped out most crime in the solar system. However, a mega-wealthy businessman named Ben Reich decides that he can get away with murder. He makes his attempt in the first third of the novel, and most of the rest of the novel relates the efforts of telepathic detective Lincoln Powell to catch and convict Reich of his crime so that the businessman can be “demolished” as punishment.

I enjoyed this book, but it was a bit odd. On the plus side, Bester does a good job creating a “noir” feel. Some people cite this as a precursor to cyberpunk, and there’s no denying that there’s a gritty, realistic feel to Bester’s future society. Also, both Powell and Reich are complex and interesting characters (probably the ingredient most often missing in sci-fi). Bester also has some interesting ideas about what a society with a limited number of telepaths would be like (there’s a nice bit where Reich’s psychic lawyer has to work to prevent a telepathic interrogation).

On the other hand, there’s a lot going on here…maybe too much. We have telepaths of different orders fighting over the evolution of a psychic society, space travel across the solar system, evil megacorporations of the future, computers acting as juries (with some very high standards), people’s minds getting regressed to birth as psychotherapy, myriad weird weapons, secret fathers and siblings, split personalities, people able to bend all of reality with their minds, and finally the strange punishment of demolition, all as the background for multiple mysteries. Usually I like a lot of ideas in a fast-moving book , but they don’t entirely seem to cohere in this one. The book seems to be tackling a different idea and theme in every chapter. There are also some awkward character moments along with the good. Reich can come off as a cackling megalomaniac at times. Powell, meanwhile, gets a very odd, and I’d say very uncomfortably incestuous, love story with a witness that concludes in an improbable happy ending.

That all said, I’d rather read a book that tries to do too much than one that doesn’t do enough. I’d recommend The Demolished Man, though I wouldn’t necessarily put it at the top of your to read list. I don’t regret the 15 years that I sat on it.

Grade: B+

Friday, August 28, 2009

1951 Retro Hugo – FARMER IN THE SKY by Robert Heinlein

Another retro winner. The 1951 Hugo was awarded in 2001.

I’ll be talking about Heinlein a lot as I go; he’s clearly one of Hugo’s favorites, and one of mine as well. I graduated from Asimov to Heinlein at some point in Junior High. Heinlein was more provocative in almost every way. I had not read Farmer in the Sky, however. Farmer was written before Heinlein’s more revolutionary books and was meant explicitly for kids, so it has a slightly different feel. Bill Lermer, the main character and narrator, is a boy scout (as he will remind you early and often) who decides to emigrate from an overcrowded Earth plagued by rationing (it’s interesting that overpopulation and the Malthusian crunch is a pretty common theme with these early novels – 20 years before Paul Ehrlich’s non-fiction bestseller The Population Bomb). He heads off with his father, step-mother and step-sister on a colonial ship (called the Mayflower) bound for Jupiter’s large moon of Ganymede. What follows is basically Little House on the Prairie in space. The plucky colonists overcome lots of hardships (or not in some cases) and by the end they’re talking about independence from a fading Earth.

There’s a lot of Frontier Theory here. Frederic Jackson Turner famously theorized (in 1893) that the hardships of frontier experience had forged Americans into a different (and, the implication is, better) people than their European forebears. The idea is in disrepute among American historians now (at least as Turner framed it), but it was clearly part of the American zeitgeist when Heinlein wrote this novel. The weak colonists retreat or die, and the colonists that remain on Ganymede become a hardy bunch of fighters, ready to take on the solar system and build a wonderful, vibrant free society.

This “ra ra” attitude, plus the “golly gee, I want to make Eagle scout” dialog makes the book a bit embarrassing at times. But, Farmer in the Sky also has a lot of what makes Heinlein great – especially the readable, interesting explorations of some of the basic engineering problems of space travel that make up a lot of his early work (he was the Kim Stanley Robinson of his day).

The book does take an odd (but intriguing) turn near the end, and then comes to a quick conclusion that left me wondering if Heinlein was planning a sequel. It’s always hard to come up with an ending, but I’m noticing that these early books often have very abrupt conclusions, and I’m wondering if it’s a product of serialization.

Anyway, I did enjoy this novel, though I wouldn’t call this a must-read. It’s not as influential or interesting as Asimov’s Foundation or Heinlein’s trio of Hugo-winning books from the ‘60s. But, it is a short, satisfying page-turner about colonization if that’s what you’re in the mood for.

Anachronism Alert: We’re told humans first landed on Ganymede in 1985 and that terraforming began in 1998!

Also, the terraforming itself is pretty simple – just keep as much solar heat as possible in the atmosphere, plant the crops and watch out for weeds. There is a nice bit about cultivating the proper bacteria in the soil, but it’s definitely a mid-twentieth century engineer’s view of the environment. One of the things I’m most watching for (and one of the reasons I’m tackling this chronologically) is to see when more complex and nuanced views of ecology will start to show up (I know by Robinson's Red Mars…)

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 27, 2009

1946 Retro Hugo – "The Mule" aka FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE by Isaac Asimov

This is an awkward place to start, for several reasons.

First , this was not really the first Hugo Award winner. The first was the 1953 award for Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (review coming soon!). The World Science Fiction Convention, which gives out the award, later decided to give retro Hugos to pre-1953 novels. "The Mule" received the first of these in 1996.

Second, "The Mule" was actually a short novella, which you now find collected with other novellas in Foundation and Empire. To compound the problem, Foundation and Empire is itself the second volume in a series of these collected stories (originally a trilogy, but Asimov added a few more volumes, a couple of prequels, then licensed it out to a few other big name SF authors. Asimov eventually decided that his other important series, including the Robot series, which I believe to be his best work, also took place in the same shared universe. You could easily count the Foundation series at over 15 novels) So, it’s not clear whether I should be reviewing the novella, the collected volume, the original trilogy of novella collections, or the entire franchise.

Finally, this is probably the Hugo-award winning novel that I read longest ago. It’s been twenty years since I read these books. I’d love to reread the original trilogy, but it’d certainly bog this project down. So, instead I’ll offer some brief thoughts and remembrances now and possibly come back to the books later (maybe with Foundation’s Edge, the fourth book in the series, and the Hugo winning novel of 1983).

So, enough with the rambling apology/introduction. Awkward way to start a blog, eh?

I read these books in fifth or sixth grade and absolutely adored them. I’ve always loved history (and am now a historian), and the Foundation novels set out the “future history” of a galaxy-spanning organization that hopes to secure human civilization from collapse in the distant future. It’s actually written in dry, distant, omniscient prose, modeled after Edward Gibbon’s influential 18th century history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. So, we get big dramatic events and discussion of societal development, but not a lot in the way of character or even recognizable plot.

The central idea is that a mathematician named Hari Seldon, living in a highly advanced and galaxy-spanning empire, has created a very complex model that can predict the future. He sees that the empire is on the edge of collapse, so he decides to create a refuge for civilization (“the Foundation”) to help nurse the galaxy through the inevitable dark ages that are coming.

“The Mule” itself concerns the rise of a fascist dictator in the galaxy with mutant psychic powers, and the Foundation’s battle against him. I had to rely on Wikipedia to remember even that much detail.

Anyway, if you like big, original ideas, a (somewhat dated perhaps) discussion of the rise and fall of civilizations, and don’t mind books being a bit short on character – check this series out. It’s some of the most influential stuff around when it comes to space operas.

Of course, I might not be quite as fond of them twenty years later. I’d like to find out, but I want to push on for now.

UPDATE: I did manage to get in a reread of the Foundation series, and I still enjoyed it quite a bit. There's a bit more character than I thought; we do get focused stories centered around Seldon-crises. I can see why I didn't remember the characters. They mostly just sit around and discuss the nature of history, economics, religion, politics, etc. It is all very fascinating though, and Asimov is a fine writer.

Grade: A- (A for the original Foundation trilogy as a whole.


Welcome to Blogging the Hugo Winners. The idea here is that I will read my way through the works that have won the Hugo Award for best novel given by the World Science Fiction Convention.

I recently saw a list of the Hugo Award winners (for Best Novel) and realized that many of the books on the list were books that I had long wanted to read - some had been on my list for decades. I decided to start working my way through unread books on the list, more or less chronologically.

I grew up on science fiction – I read a ton of Asimov and Heinlein, some Clarke and Bradbury, before moving on to Vonnegut, Stephen King, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson and several authors that often straddle the line between literary and speculative fiction. Along the way I missed some important work though. In the past two or three years I’ve developed a renewed interest in science fiction, so I guess that Hugo list showed up at just the right time.

After reading a couple of books and spending a fair amount of time processing what I was reading, I thought of doing this blog. How cutting edge (7 years ago)!

The idea is to post little mini-reviews of the books as I go. I’ll also post thoughts and remembrances of the dozen or so Hugo books I read (some of them long ago). I may add some Nebula winners for the sake of comparison, and I may add tv or movie reviews if the spirit moves me. This is all mostly for my own edification, but if anyone ends up reading this thing, I’d love to hear comments and maybe even have a discussion.