Monday, September 28, 2009

1960 Hugo – STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein has won the most Hugos for novels of any author, and you should get used to seeing his name on this blog. Starship Troopers is one of his most influential and controversial works – one that I read when I was 13 or 14, which is basically the intended audience.

Let me start with a summary of the plot: Johnny Rico joins the space marines and deploys against giant arachnid-like aliens that humans refer to as “bugs.” That’s pretty much all the plot there is.

So, why so influential and controversial?

Well, first of all, this is really the harbinger of a more action-oriented science fiction. This novel more or less creates the popular sub-genre of military science fiction, in which new technologies exist mainly to blow up other beings. It is cracking good fun, and I enjoyed it quite a bit as a young teenager. In fact, Heinlein originally tried to sell this as one of his juveniles. When the publisher of his juvenile novels rejected it as too violent, Heinlein swore off writing for that audience, and his fiction took a more adult turn (including some of the most open sexuality in science fiction until the 90s – wait until we get to the next Heinlein winner).

Also, the space marines fight in powered exoskeletons; this turned out to be another influential aspect of the novel, and came to dominate military sf, sf role-playing games, Japanese manga and anime (I believe there is a Starship Troopers anime out there), and real-life military technology.

As for the controversy, the novel is fairly unapologetic about its militarism. Heinlein makes no effort to flesh out the “bugs” or complicate the space marines. The novel is pure heroic combat of the type usually reserved to 1940s WWII movies. Furthermore, Heinlein portrays (in a very positive light, I’d say) a society in which military service is required for full citizenship. This has led some critics to call the novel fascistic. I think Heinlein’s later novels reveal his politics to be a bit more complex (though no less oddball), but there’s no doubt that Starship Troopers celebrates combat and a simplistic “us vs them” view of military conflict. The over-the-top campy 1998 film actually satirizes this militarism to a large extent, but otherwise has little to do with the novel and, in my opinion, is pretty hard to watch (unless you’re mocking it with friends).

So, I can’t help but agree with a lot of the critiques leveled against this novel, but, at the same time, I have to admit that I enjoyed it quite a bit (and did not turn into a jingoistic warmonger in the process). Considering that it’s a short book, and a fast, compelling read, I don’t have a lot of reservations against recommending that sci-fi fans check it out and decide for themselves.

Grade: A-

Friday, September 25, 2009

1959 Hugo – A CASE OF CONSCIENCE by James Blish

Blish’s A Case of Conscience centers around a botanist and Jesuit priest from Peru named Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez. In 2049, he is part of an expedition to study and evaluate the first intelligence extraterrestrial life discovered by Earth, the Lithians. The Lithians live in harmony with their world and each other, and, most upsetting to Father Ruiz-Sanchez, they have no spirituality of any sort.

The book has two very disparate halves (I assume they were published separately in an anthology magazine). The first deals with Father Ruiz-Sanchez’s spiritual crisis and the rather extreme theological conclusions that he comes to regarding the Lithians. At the end of the first half, in what would have been a fantastic cliffhanger, one of the Lithians gives Ruiz-Sanchez his son to raise as an ambassador to Earth.

The second half follows the effects that this young Lithian has on Blish’s future Earth. Most of Earth has moved into concrete bunkers out of fear of nuclear armageddon (the Arms Race, we’re told, had turned into a Shelter Race). With Earth now united, only the elite live on the surface. The Lithian, raised on Earth in a matter of less than a year, decides that Earth’s inequalities are intolerable and leads a revolution. In this half, Ruiz-Sanchez moves to the sidelines.

There are a lot of interesting ideas here, and exploring how a man of faith (and a very orthodox Catholic faith at that) would deal with an alien life form is especially original and exciting. Unfortunately, this thread gets lost for most of the second half. Maybe Blish was setting up a dramatic clash – the Father judges against a utopian society because it clashes with his faith; the young Lithian judges against a dystopian society with a rational evaluation. That doesn’t seem to be Blish’s intention though, as he seems much more sympathetic to the Jesuit than the alien. I’m not really sure about Blish’s intentions. The pacing is odd as well – the first half is quiet and thoughtful, then the book gets dragged down in a long party (that is, I suppose, there to show how decadent and divided Earth has become), and then it rushes to a dramatic conclusion far too quickly.

Father Ruiz-Sanchez is probably the most fascinating character I’ve encountered in one of these novels thus far, and overall the novel has some very nice ideas. In the end, however, these ideas don’t quite shine through some murky plot development and herky-jerky pacing.

Grade: B

Monday, September 21, 2009

1958 Hugo for Outstanding Movie – THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN

I’ve decided to throw in the “dramatic presentation” category as well (simply called “movie” the first time it was awarded in 1958). One, it gives me a chance to talk about some very iconic and essential moments in science fiction history. Two, I’ve seen almost all of the winners.

I had not seen the first film though. The Incredible Shrinking Man, believe it or not, tells the story of Scott Carey, a man who begins to shrink after being exposed to a strange cloud. He goes through a lot of angst, including trouble with his wife, but he starts to feel better when he stabilizes and starts hanging out with little people from a local circus. Soon, however, he starts shrinking again, and he moves into a dollhouse. Everyone comes to believe that Scott is killed by his house cat (I know from personal experience that cats are, indeed, evil), and he’s left on his own in a struggle for survival at two inches tall.

Thrilling? Kind of. Sometimes. I wouldn’t call this a must-see classic. The film’s second half, covering Scott’s efforts at survival, is where the movie really takes off. The first half tries to make some interesting points about Scott’s little person alienation, but these are a bit awkward and Grant Williams‘ performance is overwrought.

Overall, it’s a bit of a surprising choice for the first film/tv Hugo. Not that 1957 was such a banner year for science fiction in film (sorry Attack of the Crab Monsters, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and The Robot vs the Aztec Mummy). Still, Hugo did show a willingness to skip this particular award when nothing seemed up to snuff (even in years when there were nominees!).

The film’s finale was probably the most surprising and intriguing thing about it, and I believe it’s in those final contemplative sixty seconds that the filmmakers bagged their Hugo.

Grade: B-

Friday, September 18, 2009

1958 Hugo – The BIG TIME by Fritz Leiber

This is an odd book. I was not surprised to read that Leiber was an actor and the child of actors, as he constructs this novel like a play. A handful of characters are stuck in a room for the length of the book, and they spend the entire novel debating their plight, discussing the nature of their lives and of existence, falling in love with each other, getting into feuds with each other, and generally just talking a lot.

Of course, the room – which they call “The Big Time” – is a dimension outside of time through which the characters (a group that includes Romans, Nazis, and aliens) hop around through history and generally muck with the timeline as part of an ongoing Time War between groups calling themselves the Spiders and the Snakes. Of course, we don’t see any of this historical fighting, because they spend the whole novel trapped in the room when it is sabotaged to disengage from all of space and time. I’m a fan of time travel stories (the historian thing again – I can’t wait to get to Connie Willis), and I was disappointed that we didn’t see more of the Time War presented here.

The narrator is Greta, a flapper from Chicago, now engaged as a nurse in the Time War. The other reason this novel reads like a play is that most of Leiber’s energy seems to have gone into Greta’s voice and language. There’s a lot of slang here – most of it describing aspects of the Time War that we have no way of knowing about or understanding. As a result, The Big Time is more than a little confusing. The slang also felt very “imitation 50s youth culture” to me. It hasn’t aged well as plausible lingo for people outside of time.

So, if you want to see a 50s author play with language and character in a very odd setting, maybe check this book out. I can’t say that I enjoyed it though. It’s difficult to follow, at times impossible to understand, and, as a result, not incredibly engaging. At least it was very short.

Grade: C-

Sunday, September 13, 2009

1957 Hugo - er....

The only Hugos given out in 1957 went to magazines, not specific novels or stories. I really don’t know why and haven’t seen an explanation anywhere on the internet tubes.

I’m unilaterally giving the award to Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun. This is the sequel to The Caves of Steel, the robot detective story I’ve raved about a couple of times already. If you like ‘50s sci-fi or Isaac Asimov and you haven’t read these, you should go do that. I’ll stop talking about them now.


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space. It emitted a repetitive beeping noise to scare the crap out of Americans for the next 22 days. In less than four years, Yuri Gagarin would become the first man in space.

Obviously, this is an important moment in world history. But, it’s also an important moment in the history of sci-fi. There are three main ways that I think we can see this event impacting science fiction for the next generation and longer.

  1. It was a big step in the humanity’s movement into space. When you think about the fact that a dozen or so years after the first rocket launches, we’re launching satellites into space, Heinlein’s 50-years-to-Jupiter timeframe is a bit more understandable. Things were moving fast (especially compared to post-1969), and that translates to a lot of the ideas flying around in these novels.
  2. It increased interest in space and space travel. In some ways, the ‘50s is a heyday for science fiction, and I think the immediacy of technological developments played a key role in that. The government also begins to invest massive amounts of money into science education (the National Defense Education Act of 1958), increasing scientific literacy among American students, and perhaps increasing the number interested in science fiction…
  3. It was part of a period of rising tensions in the Cold War. Sputnik by no means caused deteriorating relations, but it was symptomatic of them. The Space Race was really all about showing how far and accurately you could launch a missile payload and thus demonstrating your strategic edge. Sputnik and Gagarin made it seem like the Soviets were winning and nuclear annihilation was becoming more imminent. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi is right around the corner….

Friday, September 11, 2009

1956 Hugo – DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein’s back again! This is his first Hugo-award winner (remember, Farmer in the Sky won the 1951 Hugo in 2001…oh, Hugos, why do you confuse me so?)

The title and original cover artwork are a bit misleading. No, this novel is not about a binary star system, it’s about a “star” of the screen and stage. If you’re like me, you’ll imagine the narrator as Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian: “Acting!” (which I think may be what the guy on the cover is saying with his hand in the air).

The brilliant but pretentious (and out-of-work) actor Lorenzo Smythe is hired to impersonate a missing politician who is about to play a key role in a Martian civil rights movement. After much convincing, he agrees and slowly grows into the role of one of the human empire's most important politicians. He also grows as a person along the way, falls in love, yada yada yada. It’s all a bit cornball and way too easy. For instance, one of the key subplots in the early going is that Smythe hates Martians. He’s a flat-out, hardcore speciesist. Instead of organically overcoming this hatred, however, Smythe’s employers give him a quick round of hypnotherapy to make him love Martians. Smythe had been disgusted by the aliens' he thinks Martians smell like his crush's perfume.

Based on the theme and timing, there’s a fairly unsubtle civil rights parallel going on here. Will Martians get equal rights? Voting rights? Can Smythe-as-diplomat bridge the gap between the races…er…species? These are the questions Heinlein poses, but they’re not the most interesting questions. How do individuals move beyond racial hostility seems like a much more interesting conundrum. Apparently, Heinlein’s answer is hypnotherapy.

The book is also a tad short on conflict. Yes, it takes Lorenzo some time to warm to his role. But he’s too great an actor, and his beneficent employers are far too clever, for any of his enemies to ever come close to the truth once the acting begins.

Still, Double Star is very well-written and readable (as usual for Heinlein), and Smythe’s evolution from shallow and cocky thespian to heroic leader is interesting, even if some of the intervening steps are too artificial. Double Star is worth a look, but again, not a high priority. I’d start with Heinlein’s ‘60s work if you want to look into him (check back when we get to 1960s' winners).

Grade: B

Monday, September 7, 2009

1955 Hugo – THEY'D RATHER BE RIGHT by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

"Who’d rather be right," you might ask, and about what? Well, my friends, the answer to the first part is “you and me,” and the answer to the second is “about everything.” You can tell that Clifton and Riley were absolutely certain that they were writing the most profound book ever. Thing is, They’d Rather Be Right is not the most profound book ever written. It’s certainly one of the least profound that I’ve ever read. But it has a Message, and it flogs the Message over and over again...and then some more.
I’d read that They’d Rather Be Right is widely regarded as the worst Hugo winner. I don’t think I let this bias me…In fact, I rather wanted to be able to go against the tide and call this a lost gem. Things did not work out that way.
The basic story (and this novel gives The Demolished Man a run for its money in the overloaded-with-sci-fi-tropes department) is that two scientists have created a cybernetic artificial intelligence named Bossy. When the American Public hears of this, everyone freaks out and the scientists have to go into hiding in the slums of San Francisco with their student assistant Joe, who, by the way, is a very powerful telepath. Eventually, they end up connecting a 68 year-old sex worker named Mabel to Bossy, and Bossy turns her into a beautiful, young (and psychic) advanced being...and manages to remove her personality in the process, but we soon learn that, as far as the writers are concerned, this is for the best.
The American Public discovers Mabel and gets excited as her revivification seems to suggest the prospect of immortality. But, they soon learn that one must give up all preconceived notions for Bossy’s psychosomatic Fountain of Youth treatment to work. Joe warns, “they’d rather by right.” We have a title! The second half of the novel consists of Joe telling us the same thing again and again (more of less every paragraph) – see Joe’s already expanded his own mind. He’s a precursor to the youthful but wise archetype that one sees a lot in the ‘60s – an example contemporary with the novel would be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. If only we were all as wise and empty-headed as Joe and Mabel!
This is the preachiest novel that ever did preach. Everyone, as we’re told again and again and again and again, is too stuck in their beliefs. Expand your mind, man! The book is especially harsh on scientists (who are so stupid as to only believe things that have been proven experimentally using the scientific method – silly scientists!) and the American Public (who are almost universally moronic, gullible and bigoted). Clifton and Riley outdo Bradbury’s contempt for the masses several times over, while they also ceaselessly attack intellectuals for the horrible crime of believing things. Only free-loving proto-hippies with totally open minds get it, man.
Not only is the novel preachy as hell, anti-rational, and full of sci-fi clich├ęs, it’s also one of the most poorly written novels I’ve ever read. The prose is wordy, lifeless, and repetitive.
I hated this book. I really, really did. This book has made me question this Hugo-reading whole project. I suggest you avoid it like the plague unless you have a real historical interest in an early sci-fi counterculture work, or you’ve figured out how to give a novel the Mystery Science Theater treatment. Avoiding the novel will not be difficult, since it has been out-of-print for most of the 50 years since its publication.
Grade: F

Friday, September 4, 2009

1954 Retro Hugo – FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

The third and final retro winner (so far) is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Hugo skipped 1954 after its first award in ’53, but came back to fill in the gap in 2004. This is also another book that I read over a decade ago.

This is the classic anti-censorship book, and the first real example on this list of the impact science fiction can have on society. So, it’s a bit unfortunate that I have some problems with this classic piece of American literature.

My main problem is that it’s not nearly so much about censorship as it is a polemic against mass culture. Farhenheit 451 is, of course, the temperature at which books burn. There are mass book burnings represented and condemned here. But, really, the main issue is not a repressive government or overly-constrictive social mores; the main issue is that everyone watches too much television and relies too much on appliances (and pharmaceuticals) to get them through their boring days. It's important to remember that the novel was written as a new consumer culture was emerging - the same culture that led to the kitchen and tv-centric view of the '50s that most of us still have. In Bradbury's view, a byproduct of this new consumer culture was a dangerous anti-intellectualism. The narrator’s wife especially (a soap opera-addicted housewife) seems like a judgmental and simplistic caricature.

I hate anti-intellectual trends in America society as much as the next academic, but I’m also fond of the old boob tube, and I find the whole "idiot box" viewpoint presented here to be a bit reductive and premature. There was a real debate in the ‘50s about the value of mass culture and a strengthening of the separation between high culture (classical music, literary fiction, some films) and low culture (popular music, genre fiction, television, most other films), with a few items caught in between (where does Jackson Pollock fit? Andy Warhol? Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is a bit too maudlin and sentimental to be serious literature, right?). I personally think that a lot of cultural critics were a bit too black-and-white with this divide, and there’s obviously an elitist tinge to this whole idea. I think it undermines Bradbury’s message that he ends up echoing much of this elitist argument. The basic message isn’t just “stop censorship!” It’s really “stop censorship of books by smashing all televisions,” which really verges on hypocrisy as far as I’m concerned.

Sure, you can still find people who rail against television as the root of all evil (though not as much), and yes, too much television probably does not make for a healthy, well-informed society. But, I think it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination (especially with hindsight) to see that tv has potential to be more than just an “idiot box.” Bradbury couldn’t see that television might educate and inform, deliver news to a broader population, create art, etc. It’s always disheartening to see this kind of failure of imagination in a writer of speculative fiction.

By the way, I think two other books nominated for the ’54 retro-Hugo are worth a mention. Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel is a futuristic mystery teaming a robo-phobic cop with a robot detective. It’s my favorite Asimov book and a somewhat underrated science fiction classic. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End demonic-looking aliens visit the earth in preparation for the evolution of humanity into higher beings, and Clarke examines human reactions to the visitation in the context of the Cold War. At the end of the day, Bradbury’s anti-censorship message is probably more important (even if it does get bogged down in elitist cultural critiques), so it’s probably for the best that it won. But, for my money, these other two are far better books and definitely worth a look.

Grade: B+