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)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

1962 Hugo – STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein’s most famous novel and a classic of 60s counterculture. I was shocked to learn that this book hails from the early 60s, since it feels so much like the ’68 and ’69 of Jesus Christ Superstar, Yippies, and Woodstock. Apparently, it didn’t crossover to become a mainstream hit until around that time. I’m pretty sure this is the only science fiction book to rate a mention in a Billy Joel song (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”).

Stranger in a Strange Land is a big shift from the militaristic action of Starship Troopers, so it’s interesting to learn that Heinlein started Stranger first. Stranger tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, orphaned as a baby during a failed expedition to Mars and subsequently raised by Martians until he is retrieved by a second expedition two decades later.

Smith returns with a whole host of Martian ideas, especially from Martian religion, and he begins to share these ideas with a few lost souls on Earth. Smith is brilliant and has fantastic psychic powers. He also believes in the spiritual oneness of the entire universe and introduces the idea of “grokking” something, or knowing it fully, intimately, and empathetically (“I grok Spock” was a common graffiti and t-shirt by the late-60s/early-70s).

Smith teams up with an eccentric and wealthy man named Jubal Harshaw, and eventually comes into conflict with Fundamentalist Christianity. He also learns of humanity’s self-hatred (he doesn’t understand the human sense of humor until a slapstick scene convinces him that all laughter is at the expense of others) and decides to change things by founding his own religion, the Church of All Worlds. He gathers a group of apostles, but he’s eventually martyred for his unorthodox beliefs.

This novel also really launches what I call the “dirty old man” phase of Heinlein’s career, as there are always a few nubile women around to teach Smith about human sexuality (though it’s not as explicit as his work from the 80s. Also, I read the uncut version; the published version was probably tamer). The Church of All Worlds’ key beliefs include free love and group sex alongside non-violence and cannibalism.

Stranger is a dramatic, and somewhat dated (if I haven’t conveyed this already, it’s very 60s) take on the human condition. Because it has such a clear and unapologetic point of view, it can be frustrating. If you’re willing to keep an open mind though (and that is sort of the point of the book – and, really, the whole point of science fiction), it’s very well-written, insightful, and entertaining. I read it in high school, and it’s been one of my favorite science fiction novels ever since then.

Grade: A

Friday, October 2, 2009

1961 Hugo – A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

I think I’m safe in saying that this is the first crossover-appeal/
mainstream hit to win a Hugo Award (not counting the retros, of course). Looking ahead, it’s worth noting that several of the winners in the ‘60s are more widely known books with better literary reputations. I’m not sure if this is a matter of the American reading public giving science fiction a closer look, or the World Science Fiction Convention looking for wider approval of the genre. I suspect it’s a little of both. I don’t pretend to know much about the culture of WorldCon and the Hugo selectors, at least not yet, but I do see an interesting parallel in the hit sf Hugo winners of the ‘60s and the victories of Gaiman, Rowling, etc. in this decade. Well, more on that as we go.

Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is really three stories taking place after a massive nuclear war in the twentieth century, each moving the timeline forward about 600 years. In the first, we get a society that has completely rejected science and rationality - there are groups who call themselves Simpletons and live in Simple Towns and burn every book they can get a hold of. Only the monks of an isolated abbey in the American southwest try to preserve old knowledge by smuggling and hiding books from before the apocalypse (“bookleggers”). In this first story, a young initiate in the order discovers the bomb shelter of his order's founder, Leibowitz, and helps to get the man canonized. The second story returns to the abbey, where one of the monks has reinvented the lightbulb and a savant from a nearby kingdom is helping to spark a renaissance of scientific knowledge. In the third and final story (set in the 38th century AD), humanity has made major scientific advances and is beginning a program of interstellar colonization, but is again on the brink of nuclear armageddon. There’s also a possibly immortal figure wandering in the background throughout these stories who may even be Leibowitz himself...

The novel’s basic message is that history repeats itself, and as inevitably as humanity will rise from the ashes, they are also bound to cast themselves into ashes again. In other words, people never learn. The prevailing mood is tragicomic – a lot of the novel is played for laughs (especially the first section with the hapless Brother Francis), but as humanity progresses intellectually, things get darker. The last 50 pages are pretty brutal. The religious conflicts in the novel (especially a discussion of euthanasia and radiation poisoning) are a great deal more nuanced, grounded, and relevant than anything in A Case of Conscience. That said, Miller’s depiction of the Catholic Church as a refuge from the darkness of the world, unless meant to be somewhat ironic, seems a bit overly simplistic. Sure, some monks saved important classical texts, but others destroyed them (and Islamic scholars played a much bigger role in preservation of ancient knowledge).

The novel is very well-written with wry but engaging prose; however, the book does move rather slowly. We really get three character-focused vignettes without a great deal of context (only hints at intervening history and the wider world). It can get a bit repetitive and claustrophobic spending so much time in the cloistered setting of the abbey. Also, I’ve read some thrilling descriptions of alternative renaissances (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent The Years of Rice and Salt), but the middle Renaissance chapter here was especially dull to me.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a thought-provoking and at times beautiful novel, but it’s not exactly a page turner. It’s also dark….really dark. There’s a fair amount of gallows humor, but the novel almost collapses into total despair by the end.

Grade: B+