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.