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-