Category: Nebula Award Winners

“Ringworld” by Larry Niven Review

Ringworld

Ringworld

Author:  Larry Niven

Released:  1970

Ringworld by Larry Niven is probably one of the most famous science fiction books that I had not previously read. It’s the type of book that while I’ve been reading it in public places over the last week or so that friends and coworkers have stopped and mentioned that they’ve read it too and asked how far along I was in the plot. The story is fairly standard for the sci-fi genre, as a group of explorers are visiting an alien world. This is a book that stands out though for two reasons: first the group of explorers are comprised of four memorable and unique characters, and second the world they are visiting is the incredibly original idea of a giant ring shaped “planet.”

The beginning of Ringworld tells the story of Nessus, a puppeteer named Nessus recruiting his team of passengers to go explore the Ringworld planet. Puppeteers are alien creatures with two heads that look sort of like ostrich’s and mules crossed together, and are known for their cowardice and amazing technology. Nessus comes to recruit Louis Wu, the reader’s primary point of view character, an Earth man who is a few hundred years old (but is healthy enough to look like he’s in his late 20’s) and Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin alien which is basically a giant orange panther that is from a very warlike race. Finally, Nessus recruits Teela Brown, another human who I’ll come back to later.

The mission objective is to investigate the Ringworld planet, which is a ring shaped structure that is about 1,000,000 miles wide and as long as Earth’s entire orbit around the sun. The theory is that the builders of the Ringworld did not have the technology for faster than light travel, and so instead of relocating to other star systems the builders harvested all of the materials in their own solar system and built the gigantic Ringworld and lived in isolation. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the team ends up on the Ringworld, but the sheer magnitude of the planet is such that the group never even sees the edge of the structure.

The result is that an expedition to the Ringworld is not only interesting for what sort of world might exist on the inside, but also for how different that world may be from one area to another in this giant expansive place. I see that Niven has written four prequels and four sequels to this book. I’m sure a large part of that is because of how successful this book was (winning both the Hugo and the Nebula Award), however the large scope of the planet provides a setting that can be revisited numerous times to discover what sort of creatures, structures and civilizations inhabit it.

Arthur C. Clark was famous for writing “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Ringworld has plenty of that sort of technology, but here it felt like plot convenience more than I typically see in this genre. The hull of the spaceship used to travel to Ringworld is built by Nessus’s Puppeteer race, and is essentially a physical manifestation of the joke “if the little black box always survives the plane crash, why not build the whole airplane out of the little black box?” There are also near invisible wires that that connect the inner ring of shadow squares that provide for simulated days and nights that are basically adamantium that can cut through anything they touch.

Most of my critiques of this book and spoilers all deal with the character of Teela Brown. It is revealed early on that Nessus wants her to join the crew for this expedition because Teela is one of a handful of Earth people that is the result of multiple generations of her family winning the lottery to allow the family to have children. Nessus concludes that using that methodology shows that Teela is statistically lucky and will bring good luck to their mission. Unfortunately, between Teela Brown and later the alien Prill, Ringworld ends up being one of the worst books I’ve read for its treatment of female characters, even standing out among books from its era.

**Spoilers follow**

Both of the female characters in this book are amazingly beautiful creatures (one human, one alien) who have sex with Louis Wu in ways unlike anything he’s experience in his 200+ years alive. One, the human, gets brought along because she falls in love with Louis right after meeting him and decides to go on this dangerous space mission to come with him and continue to have great sex. The other, Prill, is an alien woman who specializes in bringing sexual pleasure to men and who eventually wants to travel to other worlds and have more sex to show the galaxy how great she is at it. Teela also has the interesting revelations of how her “luck” has shaped her as a person and how it affects the trajectory of this mission (it gets to the point where her luck can be pointed to explain any event that has happened in terms of how it benefits her). Prill doesn’t really have any other character arc.

I suspect that your overall enjoyment of this book will likely hinge on whether or not the treatment of these two characters completely overshadows the fun aliens and exploration of the rest of the plot. For me, it was a distraction and it made the book feel very dated, but the very cool idea of the Ringworld was still enough to have me enjoy the book overall.

4-star

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“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

“Rite of Passage” by Alexei Panshin Review

Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

Author: Alexei Panshin

Release Date1968

It’s hard not to read “Rite of Passage” today and compare it to the glut of modern Young Adult books with very similar premises. It’s the future, and because society has had a collapse there is now an event that every teenager must subject themselves to, with many dying in the process. In that world, one girl will need to survive that deadly event in order to change the world/find her place in the world/find true love. In that skeletal form, “Rite of Passage” lines up very similarly to books like “The Hunger Games,” “The Maze Runner,” or “Divergent,” which I was not expecting from a 1968 Nebula Award winner for best science fiction novel of the year.

The particulars in this book are as follows: the girl is Mia, who begins the book at age twelve with a personality that would probably be called precocious today. She is being raised on “the ship,” a six level interstellar space ship that has been carved out of a meteor and holds several thousand people. Earth is long gone, a victim of overpopulation and destruction, and the survivors fashioned this ship for Faster than Light travel and live on it now full time. Some of humanity also lives on about 100+ planets, which occasionally receive knowledge/technology from the Ship in exchange for raw materials, however the relationship between the planet people (called Mudeaters as an insult) and the ship people (called Grabbies as an insult) is full of animosity.

The big event that all teens must go through is called “Trial” and it is the lesson learned by overpopulation in the past. In addition to every family having to follow strict birthing regulations, every child at the age of fourteen must be dropped onto a planet for thirty days and survive. If this book were written today, my guess is that the group of kids that were dropped onto the planet would be divided into two teams and have to kill one another, but in Panshin’s book the kids are given a few months of survival training, then allowed to bring supplies like guns, horses and whatever else they want to bring, and then can even partner up (if they can find each other) or work alone, or hang out with the locals if they so choose. Despite all those advantages, plenty of kids die and it is an accepted part of civilization to keep its “delicate balance.” Maybe it’s because I’ve read several of the modern versions of this type of story that I was pleasantly surprised by this book as it constantly subverted my expectations of what was going to happen.

Those differences can be accounted for primarily by looking to the past, pre-1968. The influence of Robert Heinlein on the storytelling is obvious, as the young protagonist, telling this story entirely in flashback, with several older male characters that provide long monologues of their philosophies to the youth of the ship are all straight out of numerous Heinlein works. The entire plot is constructed in order to make the ethical question of how the ship people should interact with the planet people, and as a result there is much more debate and discussion of ethics than one would find in a modern Young Adult novel. TV westerns of the era also are not only referenced in the plot, but recreated in the form of a jailbreak on a technologically primitive planet. When the Trial began, I was most reminded of Star Trek: The Original Series when crew members would beam down and dress like locals, get in trouble, and rely on ingenuity and physical violence to make it back to the ship.

There are a few aspects of the book that don’t totally make sense within the logic of the book. The total population on any of the hundreds of colonized planets seems to dwarf the population of the space ship, but the book is only set 250 years from when it is written. (This is from a statement toward the end of the book where somebody remarks that if the ships settled on any planet they would be a substantial minority that would be overrun.) I get that there are no birthing limits on the one planet visited in this book, but that planet is the exception and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where these other populations are created and grow in the timeframe given. The science behind a scene where the kids go outside the spaceship (traveling faster than light) is a bit of a headache to try and consider, though Panshin uses this to fun effect. I also find it hard to believe that in the 160 years that the people have been on the ships that nobody debated the ethics of destroying a planet or the strict isolationism policy **Spoilers follow** prior to a few kids getting put in jail by locals during a Trial.

The actual trial is fairly anticlimactic but Panshin has not made it the focus of the book so much as Mia’s development as a person. While the primitive alien world is basically just early 20th century America plus two new species of animals, everything that takes place before it and after it are interesting enough to keep the reader invested. I don’t know if this book was released as Young Adult but for 99% of it I would classify it as such. That means that one strike to a character’s head will leave them unconscious for the desired five to twenty minutes to execute a plan, and that gun shots will make noises but also stop short in the dirt before hitting somebody. The 1% that is not young adult however, may be enough to keep a parent from giving to a child. There’s a pretty detailed sex scene between two fourteen year olds, and one outburst of sudden violence against an old man. The Nebula Awards have continued to select fine books as the best of the year, or at least I’ve enjoyed them more on average than the Hugo Awarded books through 1968.

4-star

“The Einstein Intersection” by Samuel R. Delany Review

ein

The Einstein Intersection

Author: Samuel R. Delany

Release Date: 1967

** spoiler alert ** Well, I’ll admit it. I didn’t understand or care about what was happening for the first 125 pages of this book. The book was only 155 pages long, so that’s a bit of a deal breaker in terms of getting a good score. The story of Orpheus isn’t interesting enough of its own to be a payoff for an exciting ending, and with characters dying and reappearing frequently there was never any real suspense at any moments.

I’ll do my best to summarize the plot, which even reading the back of the book did nothing to clear up for me. So aliens are living on Earth after humans have either left or died out. The aliens are big on making sure everybody can function, speak, hunt, etc. or else they go live in The Kage. The main character is Lobey, who has a thing for a silent girl who can do some special tricks with her mind. She ends up dying. Lobey also finds an old super computer that gives him more questions than answers. He ends up chasing down a guy called Kid Death that’s like a Billy the Kid analogue (not metaphorically, he is actually an incarnation of that figure) while the silent girl may be film star Jean Harlow, or that could just be The Dove. There’s also Green-Eyes and the Spider, who fit in the Orpheus parable depending on when Lobey is getting things explained to him. And it’s possible all of this is just simulated realities by the aliens or the super computer.

Just typing that out made me frustrated at how ambiguous the book is at parts. Instead of clear explanations for the alien civilization (which is also just their version of reliving Earth world life) the reader is thrown in and not given enough reason to care about any of the characters. Also, because it’s a whole retelling of Orpheus and the underworld and everything’s a simulation, nobody really dies and everybody can be resurrected. Also several people have magic power (speaking to animals, telekinesis, knowledge of the exact amount of time somebody can hang off a cliff before falling) to serve the story at random moments. This book was just not for me.

1-star

“Babel-17” by Samuel R. Delany Review

babel

Babel-17

Author: Samuel R. Delany

Release Date: May 1966

I had high hopes for this novel because it tied “Flowers for Algernon” for the nebula award and came out the same year “Dune” won the Hugo. Unfortunately, there’s a reason those are remembered as classics and most people have never heard of this one.

“Babel-17” tells the story of a poet who is recruited by the military to decode a message that arrives whenever the alliance is attacked. The poet was formerly in code breaking and is a genius when it comes to language. A lot of the plot revolves around different languages not having words for certain ideas and thus the speaker not being able to imagine concepts. That part, and the surprisingly progressive cast of characters were both appreciated.

Unfortunately the book goes off the rails at the end with the introduction of “the butcher” a man with no concept of “I” or “me” and his role in the secret of the alien language. The book also rushed through the explanation of who was the traitor on board and the happy escape ending that felt lazy to this reader.

2-star

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes Review

flowers

Flowers for Algernon

Author: Daniel Keyes

Release Date: April 1959

The Nebula Award winning books are off to a strong start, with Dune and Flowers for Algernon (way better than the first several Hugo award winners). Flowers for Algernon tells the story of a mentally challenged man who receives the same surgery that previously granted an extreme boost in intelligence to a mouse named Algernon. The man who receives the surgery, Charlie Gordon, is the narrator of the book through a series of journal entries that display the various effects of the procedure on his intellect.

The worst thing about this book is that it’s very much a product of it’s time, so if you’re looking for a book with really positive treatment of women, the disabled, or minority groups it’s not here. That said, man, this book was a gutwrencher. I felt sorry for Charlie so many times, and the writing was so well done that the character feels fully fleshed out early on. For science fiction, the rest of the book besides the experimental procedure is firmly grounded in reality, making this a good pick for the genre to be in so many different school’s curriculum. Highly recommended.

5-star

“Gateway” (Heechee Saga #1) by Frederik Pohl Review

gateway

Gateway

Author: Frederik Pohl

Release Date: April 1977

While enjoyed the setting and the writing style, the main character of this book was so whiny (and pretty much a terrible person) that at times it became less of a sci-fi novel and more of a character study that I really didn’t want to examine.

I’d compare it to Rabbit Redux but with a cool outer space story worked in.

3-star