Category: Hugo Award Winners

“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin Review

Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Author:  Ursula K. Le Guin

Released:  1969

Much like the previous books in the Hainish Cycle, I found this book to be full of interesting ideas but delivered through average execution. The story is about a Human emissary to an alien world called Winter, where the intelligent life forms are stubborn, bureaucratic humanoids who can change their gender when it comes time to mating. The largest differences between our world and the world of Winter is that with no dominant sex, traditional gender roles do not exist. The human is actually considered a pervert by the natives, as he is always ready for mating while the alien life forms only mate at certain times of the monthly cycle.

Beyond that there is some additional world building relating to the different governing faction on the planet and the mathematics and calendar that heavily depend on the number 13. The perspective is mainly told through the human protagonist, although it does shift to a secondary character named Estraven who at times is not trusted by the human and at others is his only ally. I found these shifts in perspective frustrating as they weren’t marked by anything and typically happened in chapters with little dialogue so I wasn’t even aware the perspective shifted right away on several instances. Better executed are a few chapters that go into folklore and history of this alien planet, which are more clearly marked and provide some interesting context.

One of the most common criticisms of science fiction are books where characters and places all have weird names and which keep it from reading like a typical story. I actually found that to be the case here, as aside from three characters (the human, Estraven, and the King (who is usually referred to as the King)) the names were all so complex that I rarely retained them and had no interest in trying to pronounce them in my head while reading to myself. Perhaps this would have been alleviated by reading this as an audiobook, but between the jargon names and the unclear shifting perspectives I found this to be a frustrating read at times.

The plot is fairly straight forward, with the human emissary trying to open trade (mainly of thought and culture) with this alien world, which will primarily be accomplished via the use of an ansible that allows for instant communication across the universe. The trip to the planet is seventeen years from the nearest inhabited world, and “a lifetime” away from Earth. What should have been an easy sell is complicated by the bureaucratic intrigue of the government officials and the rivaling governmental factions on the planet. The result is a journey that leads across secured borders, into prison stints and a 700+ mile journey over barren frozen landscape. The best passages deal with the human’s interactions with Estraven, as the two try to understand each other and mind-speak (I picture the Vulcan mind meld) to each other. There are clearly some interesting relationship dynamics between the human and the androgynous/multisexual aliens.

The previous books I’ve read that have been both Hugo and Nebula award winners have all been fantastic, and while this book was interesting I was let down overall in comparison.

3-star

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“Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner Review

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar

Author:  John Brunner

Published:  1968

Stand on Zanzibar won the 1969 Hugo Award for best novel, beating (among other books) Rite of Passage which was a book I really enjoyed.  While Stand on Zanzibar was much more ambitious than Rite of Passage, I preferred Panshin’s book to Brunner’s though Zanzibar was still much better than several other award winners from that era (sorry Delaney).

The first thing that strikes a reader beginning this book is the unusual structure Brunner uses to tell his story.  Instead of solely advancing a narrative, Brunner utilizes a macro-micro type of setting similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but with four separate styles of chapters.  The chapter styles alternate between:

  • Continuity – This is the basic narrative advancement
  • Tracking with closeups – This follows secondary characters, and then eventually becomes a second main plot passing through the book
  • The happening world – This is a scattershot macro section where rapid fire paragraphs give headlines, slogans, conversations, etc. to funnel a ton of information and create a sense of atmosphere
  • Context – Similar to the appendices tacked onto the end of Dune, these chapters just provide additional world building.

The plot of Stand on Zanzibar follows a few main threads that all deal with the overpopulation epidemic of the future (of the distant year of 2010!).  A super computer owned by a General Electric type company is used to direct decisions by the most powerful company in the world.  A small country in Africa has the very unusual characteristics of no murders or border conflicts for years and is looking for a new leader to replace their dying President.  A genetics specialist in Asia claims to have developed the secret to creating super babies for those so inclined; the United States sends a spy in to determine the truthfulness of the claim.

While this was a book that took me awhile to get interested in (it doesn’t really pick up or steer the plot until a long cocktail party chapter told through rapid fire conversation switches) I actually ended up really enjoying it by the end.  The science stuff actually holds up better than one would expect from the subject matter, as Brunner’s writing ends up having a kind of internet/twitter vibe with all the rapid fire information.  The interconnection of politics and major corporations also was well done.  Although some of the racial politics of the book have a very 1960’s slant, unfortunately some of the issues (police relations, representation at the corporate level) are still very relevant today.

If I had a main criticism of the book it’s that the characters are pretty flat, with only one of them being particularly interesting.  Donald is a spy sent to the small Asian country by the United States.  **Slight spoilers though the rest of this paragraph**  Before he goes he is basically reprogrammed Jason Bourne style to also be an assassin.  His character’s storyline is the most exciting one in the book, but that’s more a statement on the lack of competition by the supporting cast.  Norman is probably the main protagonist of this book, the lone black man on the board of the big company and the man most responsible for the super computer becoming the new president of the small African country.  Most of the tension in this plot line is whether the transition will be profitable for the company or not.

While I’ll probably remember this book as one that took a long time to get into and focused on style (unusual chapter structure) over substance (character development), I should point out that this was also the type of book that draws you in as it progresses.  The fact that not all of the plot threads end up connecting is actually a good thing as the two main characters start out roommates and too many connections at the end would have felt forced.

4-star

“Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny Review

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Lord of Light

Author: Roger Zelazny

Release Date: 1967

I nearly quit reading this book three times. The first was around page 75, the second was around page 150 and the third was around page 250. I stuck with it out of a goal to finish all the Hugo and Nebula award winners, but at no point did I enjoy reading this book. Having read one of the other nominees for the 1968 Hugo award (“The Einstein Intersection” by Samuel R. Delany) I can say with some confidence that that was a terrible year for science fiction.

The plot of “Lord of Light” is about a society where Hindu gods and a system of Karma are the norm, and people are elevated into deity roles if they have some attribute that is basically a psychic power (pyrokinetic, death stare, and electromagnetism among those mentioned). All of these Gods have used technology to assert their dominance over the rest of the people from their capital of Heaven, and demand that technology remains pre-renaissance for their people (I gathered this from reading the back of the book, as the book itself is not nearly as clear regarding the pre-Godhood ascension). This despite the fact that any character that dies in the book is likely to reappear in a different body, with a different gender or be transmitted to some other consciousness. The whole thing had similar contradictions that seemed to only make sense as a way for the author to create this world. One God/man, Sam, Siddhartha, Maitreya, Mahasamatman, the Lord of Light, twenty other freaking names (which is common for most characters as they switch bodies) is either a God or a Man, and leads the struggle against the Gods, either resurrected by his own will or by his followers. Also present are demons, who could be aliens or subjugated humans (Christians?). I’m not even sure if this is supposed to take place on Earth or not and I’m not going to bother spending more time on this book looking it up online.

The writing style itself was also unpleasant. The author had a habit of starting chapters off with two characters and try to spend several pages in conversation before identifying who was present or which one was talking. Then once they were revealed, there would often be two more pages of rapid fire dialogue with no additional identifications for the the reader, who must depend on their memory of which character was delivering each boring monologue. I much preferred Zelazny’s other award winner, “This Immortal,” but that’s not saying much.

1-star

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein Review

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Author: Robert Heinlein

Release Date: 1966

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” has been a tempting book to read for many years, because of both its fantastic title and author Robert A. Heinlein’s consistently excellent storytelling. However, I’ve equally shied away from this book due to its reputation of featuring a broken English futuristic moon dialect. There are few things I hate more in literature than reading dialects (well, not just in literature… I’m one of those people that send follow up text messages fixing any grammatical problems in the prior one). As a result, I’d read ten other Heinlein novels before eventually coming across this one in my reading challenge of reading all the Hugo and Nebula award winning books.

As it turns out, the dialect isn’t horribly distracting in this book. The main difference between standard and English dialect looks to be dropping a lot of articles (a, the), using the present tense for several verbs when another tense would be more accurate, and the use of slang words like “earthworms” (for people) or “dinkum,” which if you grok what I’m writing you’ll have no trouble figuring out. What ended up being more distracting was trying to retroactively figure out what sort of technology Heinlein was imagining in certain scenes, as reading this fifty year old book now (2016) that is set sixty years in the future provides several moments of forgetting that cell phones and pocket calculators were unimaginable when this was written. For example, when a computer is removed from the bank, and 200 employees simultaneously using abaci (the plural of abacus) is the only solution, the reader chuckles; when the loonies (people on the moon) are interrupting television broadcasts on Earth but are unable to leave an area greater than the distance of phone cord available one can only speculate how exactly characters are accomplishing their plans.

The story is a first person narrative by Emmanuel, the computer technician who works on the most powerful computer on the moon, Mike (not named for Microsoft, but for Mycroft Holmes). Emmanuel is aware of something that nobody else is: Mike is “alive” based on the level of cognition he has achieved. Emmanuel keeps this a secret, until he meets a woman named Wyoming Knott at a political rally and begins to be drafted into the Free Luna movement. Besides Emmanuel, Wyoming and Mike, there is also a character referred to as the Professor that is basically Heinlein himself, and could be lifted out of numerous other Heinlein novels (Lazarus Long in any of his appearances for example). Despite what I’ve come to realize is a somewhat formulaic trope in Heinlein’s writing, it’s certainly one of his strengths as a writer to put together fantastic settings with high stakes and use it to push forward common sense (to him) ideals that he obviously believed strongly in.

I mentioned the technology issues that date this book previously, but this is also a novel where two other issues may cause today’s reader to take issue. First is the treatment of female characters, who by and large aren’t given much to work with. Wyoming is constantly praised for knowing to keep silent, and not distracting men as much as other women would in a similar situation. Other characters like Hazel or Ludmilla are praised for stepping up like a man to do certain actions, but then quickly returned to their place (I recall one of them even being sent out for coffee while the men spoke). Even Mike’s feminine personality counterpart is established early on and then is basically forgotten about for the rest of the novel, implying that Wyoming was incorrect about him and he was just placating her by taking on that persona. Much like the technology, it’s not anything that should ruin the book for a reader today, as you expect some of the 1960’s attitudes to be present in the writing. As somebody who likes to picture the books in my mind while reading, the more shocking aspect was the switching of races through the use of makeup (both of the short and long term variety). To my recollection, many of the characters in the book were of lineages that featured multiple ethnicities, and not much was made about difference races between them. When Wyoming became a black woman for a few chapters there were often comments about whether she looked better or worse than she did as a white woman. As part of the science fiction landscape, it caught me off guard but didn’t detract from my overall impression of the book. If you have strong feelings about that issue, I could see where the flippancy of it here might upset you more.

By far the most interesting aspects of the book for me was the character of Mike. Nearly God like in his ability to see the future and manipulate events accordingly, I kept hoping for the book to take a “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Alphaville” turn as the Loonies depended on him so completely, for the most part unaware. At the same time, some recognition of the cost of life to Earth by comparison would have also been appreciated, but as it stood Mike was essentially willing to help his friends and look at the long term health of Luna, and that justified any consequences to the people of Earth. Once it became clear that I wasn’t getting the evil robot ending, the actual ending became more predictable but was still very poignant in how it was written. Overall the book falls below classic “Stranger in a Strange Land” and my other favorite “Tunnel in the Sky” but is comparable to “Time Enough for Love” or “Double Star” as enjoyable albeit imperfect Heinlein.

4-star

“This Immortal” by Roger Zelazny Review

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This Immortal

Author: Roger Zelazny

Release Date: October 1965

My first Roget Zelazny book featured a plot that didn’t make much sense and the very annoying quality of being all one long chapter. But, I gave it four stars so obviously I enjoyed something about it.

“This Immortal” (a/k/a “And Call me Conrad) is the story of an immortal who serves as a tour guide for an alien with a mysterious agenda, and one of the other people in the group is an assassin trying to kill the alien. (Side note – early Hugo award winners must have got bonus points for using immortality as the plot device, as it’s been present in three of the first ten.)

The relationship and rivalry between Conrad and Hasan (the assassin) was the major character arc of this book and it was a joy to read. Both men were trained killers but didn’t take it personal, which also provided for some tense moments of potential conflict. Add in a giant armor played dog, straight out of a Benji movie and overall I had a lot of fun reading this book.

4-star

“The Wanderer” by Fritz Leiber Review

wanderer

The Wanderer

Author: Fritz Leiber

Release Date: 1964

** spoiler alert ** Now that I’ve read two of Fritz Lieber award winning books, I’m more confident saying I don’t care for his writing. This book focuses on three main stories after a new planet shows up near our moon. Plenty of spoilers follow. The primary story, about a group of UFO fanatics on their way to a military base, is OK at times but gets completely ruined by the fact that it ends up being about Margo finding herself as a woman after shooting an alien gun, and falling in love with a married man who knows how to talk I nonsense to her and abandoning her fiancé who was stuck on the moon when gravity tore it apart. This all takes place over about one day, and there’s also talk she might actually be in love with the head scientist that they meet for one paragraph at the end.

Both her fiancé, Don, and their best friend Paul are also in love with Margo, and both end up on the new planet. Paul falls out of love with her after having sex with a cat person alien (which began with him scratching under her chin). Don falls out of love on his way back to Earth, because, well why not. Those three are the main stories, but the destruction of the Earth needs to be shown, so about a dozen stories with cardboard characters are mixed in, including a couple screwing, three marijuana smokers, and some offensive depictions of African Americans and a lesbian that really wants screwed by a man as the world is ending.

As for the good stuff, the concept as a whole wasn’t bad. The mysterious man and second planet showing up both added some twists I didn’t see coming. The same plot outline with a different writer developing the characters could have made this a great book.

2-star

“Way Station” by Clifford D. Simak Review

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Way Station

Author: Clifford D. Simak

Release Date: June 1963

I didn’t know anything about this book before starting it. The ploy – Enoch Wallace lives by himself out in the country and hasn’t aged since the Civil War. The mystery of his life opens the book, but is quickly revealed to be the story of a gatekeeper for visiting aliens. Pretty wild stuff, and for the first fifty pages I was really enjoying it.

The plot slows down at that point but still stays interesting as it details Wallace’s daily routine. The author continued to add science fiction elements but not all of them added to a good story. The “talisman” in particular was a complete deus ex machina and the holographic love interest never entirely fit.

This book was still one of the better early Hugo award winners, with some unique alien races and protagonist, but missed out on being great with an all too tidy ending.

4-star