Can the award-winning science fiction novels of the past actually still be worth reading several decades later? Do they have messages, technology, and characters that are pertinent in modern society? Have I just been reading rehashed versions of past award-winners? There's only one way to find out...
read and review the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning novels.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Reading Lord of Light, by Zelazny

I'm working my way through Lord of Light, but I'm having a hard time of it. Chapter 2 was great, but so far I'd rather be reading almost anything else in the house. I'll have to make a decision on whether to continue the slog-fest soon, but I'm not willing to give up on the book entirely just yet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, tied for the 1967 Nebula Award for Best Novel. It also received a Hugo Award, but in a slightly different form for Best Short Story. If your education was anything like mine, you read this book at least once before high school graduation--probably more than once.

I enjoyed reading Flowers for Algernon in school, and felt that I remembered it very well--I almost decided not to re-read it for this project. Re-reading it was entirely worthwhile, and I found layers to the book that I missed on previous reads.

The key passage, for me, comes midway through the book when a coworker tells Charlie, "'s not meant for man to know more than was given for him to know by the Lord in the first place. The fruit of that tree was forbidden to man." Charlie blindly follows Adam & Eve down that well-beaten path, discovering wonders but also tackling previously unknown emotions like shame and condescension. Ultimately, Charlie learns that ignorance is only bliss if you've never known anything else.

Flowers for Algernon is well-written and compelling, and its language evolves right along with its lead character. In my mind, it *barely* qualifies as science fiction, but it's certainly worth reading--again.
Rating: 5/5

Monday, November 16, 2009

Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany, tied for the Nebula Award in 1967. As best I can remember, this is the first book by Delany that I've ever read. It blew me away.

I'm a sci-fi fan. I don't go to (many) conventions, but I'll watch almost any genre series on TV. Two of my favorites are Babylon 5 and Firefly. Brilliant writing, brilliant execution, and worthy additions to the genre. Clearly, in reading Babel-17 I'm going better-late-than-never where these series' creators have boldly gone before. I found many delightful descriptions and scenes in Babel-17 that I now recognize as homages in Babylon 5, Firefly, and other series & films. Delany has a fleet of shadow-ships, and smaller spider-ships, that were more than familiar from B5. Early in the book, a female character writes "Present location: I'm sitting in a folding chair in the freight lock looking over the field." If you've watched Firefly, you'll remember Kaylee in precisely this scene. There are many others, and it's fun to recognize them, even after the fact.

Delany gets to join my list of authors who love word-play, and who are skilled at it. I'll avoid specific examples, because they're just so darn fun to read (and I hope you'll find this book and read it!); I'll just say that the strategies for his space battles are novel and descriptive.
Rating: 5/5

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein, received the 1967 Hugo for Best Novel. It was Heinlein's 4th Hugo win, and a nice companion to his previous novels. As in many of his earlier works, Heinlein uses the book to share his political ideologies with the reader, specifically individual responsibility.

In my opinion, the political goings-on slowed the book down a bit; consequently, it's not as easy or entertaining a read as Stranger in a Strange Land or Starship Troopers. It is, however, a well-written political story with interesting perspectives on revolt and government. Rating: 4/5

And Call Me Conrad (aka: This Immortal), by Roger Zelazny

And Call Me Conrad (aka: This Immortal), by Roger Zelazny, tied with Dune for the 1966 Hugo Award. It's a "grand tour" story with a sci-fi overlay, and it's a darn good book.

Zelazny plays with language, and does it very effectively. My favorite was his description of a world leader, "...his function is rather like that of an anti-computer: you feed him all kinds of carefully garnered facts, figures, and statistics and he translates them into garbage."

The story is steeped in Greek myth and legend, and has many intriguing layers and characters. It's books like this that make this project worthwhile! Curiously, I'm finding that the more I like a book the less I have to say about it; if it keeps me turning the pages, I don't have any interest in making notes about what I'm reading, apparently. Rating: 4/5

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bogged down in Books and Life

I'm behind (on many things, including this project). I've read two additional books from the list, but can't work up sufficient motivation to write interesting and coherent posts about them. Meh. I'll get around to it eventually. Probably. ;)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dune, by Frank Herbert

Dune, by Frank Herbert, received the first-ever Nebula Award in 1966 and tied for the 1966 Hugo Award. It's one of those books that, for some inexplicable reason, I've avoided my entire life.

I'm not sure what started my anti-Dune bias, although it might have been an aborted attempt to read the National Lampoon parody before picking up the original. I avoided the 1984 film by David Lynch. I didn't even know there were two Dune-based TV miniseries, and I actually like TV miniseries (especially in the SciFi and Fantasy genres). I've read and enjoyed other books by Frank Herbert, but have actively avoided the Dune-i-verse.

In contrast to this, my husband's December 1981 (23rd printing) copy of Dune has been read so many times that chunks of pages have fallen out and only remain with the book because they're tucked carefully into their proper places. In his defense, the 80s were a terrible time for paperbacks--something about the glue; however, he's quick to admit that he revisited his copy of Dune before reading each new addition to the series.

As I read Dune, I wished it had been released as multiple smaller volumes. As I write this, I realize that if it had been published in any other form than the existing epic the world wouldn't ever have known the book at all. It's huge and rambling, but the three sections of the book build logically on each other. Had part 1 been published as a stand-alone novel, it would have vanished into the pile of 60s sci-fi and never been heard from again. The overall book, though long, is what captures the reader.

As an author, Frank Herbert rambles. Unlike some of the other rambling writers I've read for this project, he still manages to be a pretty easy read. He pulled from a vast number of cultures to create the world that his characters inhabit, and for me it never came through as a cohesive whole--each time he dropped a non-English word or cultural reference I mentally traced it back to its real-world source (or tried to), which slowed me down from time to time.

Have I become a Dune fanatic? No, but I'm planning to Netflix the film and mini-series, and will probably read more books in the Dune saga. My Dune-avoidance has officially come to an end. Hm. Guess you can teach an old dog new tricks! Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Wanderer, by Fritz Leiber

The Wanderer, by Fritz Leiber, was the 1965 recipient of the Hugo Award for best novel. If you'll recall, this was his second novel to win the prize (and I didn't like the first one, The Big Time, at all).

The Wanderer is set on Earth in the mid-1960s, and is a fairly standard natural disaster story. The natural disaster, in this case, is caused by unnatural means; however, for most of the book's characters this matters little or not at all as they deal with the repercussions on a small, localized scale. As in The Big Time, Leiber's characters are rather two-dimensional--we get snapshots of their personalities and how they react to the expanding global disaster, but for the most part they're described mainly in terms of the cliche they represent: hipster, druggie, scientist, astronaut, treasure-hunter, etc. (for the record, there are WAY too many characters to make this book an easy read). Leiber also continues to play with language in this book, which at times becomes a tad cumbersome. Occasionally, this word-play brings something unique to a scene, such as an 11th-hour sex scene described mostly in terms of the characters' surroundings.

Leiber name-drops several classic science fiction writers, including Heinlein, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, E.R. Burroughs, and Doc Smith. Several of his characters work in snide critiques of the genre, which I enjoyed. "Science fiction is as trivial as all artistic forms that deal with phenomena rather than people" was one that seemed to be a statement against the all-action, no-character books that Leiber was trying hard not to write.

This book felt like the product of it's time, particularly the inhabitants of the Wanderer itself--"we Wild Ones, we Recalcitrants, we Untamed," whose government began to nibble at their freedoms millennia ago. They're the ultimate rebels, and like many fringe groups in the mid-60s, just want the government to leave them alone to do as they like. Interestingly, Leiber leaves the ultimate decision of whether they're the good guys or the bad guys up to the reader.

There were many things about this book that I found intriguing and fascinating, but in the end I felt that the general wordiness and the number of distinct character-threads made it difficult to read and follow. In my opinion it's better than many of the earlier Hugo winners, but it can't compete with most of the modern stuff I was reading at the same time. Rating: 3/5

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak, received the Hugo Award for best novel in 1964. Simak is considered by many to be the pioneer of "realistic" science fiction, and was the 3rd author named as a Grand Master of the genre. As with many of the early Hugo-winning authors, this was the first work by Simak that I'd read.

Way Station includes many standard features of science fiction--aliens, high-tech gear, interstellar travel, futuristic weaponry, and interplanetary disputes--but does so with the best tools of the storyteller's craft. It has more in common with last year's film The Visitor (a bittersweet character piece starring Richard Jenkins) than with summer sci-fi bl0ckbusters like Independence Day. Although each has its place in the genre, I'm finding that I appreciate the quieter and more thoughtful stories much more than the overblown whiz-bangers these days.

The main character, Enoch Wallace, is a man with one foot in each of two worlds. He is set apart from humanity, both by his situation and his own choices, but isn't fully a part of the world he has come to know through his role as keeper of an interstellar way station. Both of these worlds are heading toward what appears to be unavoidable war, and Enoch is forced by his circumstances to decide where his loyalties lie.

Although this book was written, and is set, in the early 1960s it has aged well. There's not much about the book, its characters, or its technologies that would be jarring or read as archaic to today's reader. It's a snapshot of a life, and a story about the effect one life can have on a race or a universe. I'm looking forward to reading Simak's other award winners as this project continues. Rating: 4/5

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel. This was my first reading of the book, although I've read one other novel by this author and several of his short stories.

I'm much more familiar with PKD's worlds and themes from the movie adaptations of his writing than from his books themselves. Blade Runner & Total Recall certainly top my list of favorite PKD adaptations, and I enjoy them primarily for their worlds, themes, and convoluted plot lines. The Man in the High Castle fits in well with these, and I'd love to see it on screen.

The book is set in 1962, in an alternate San Francisco. Following an extended World War II, the victors--Japan and Nazi Germany--divided and dominated the rest of the world. "Nazis eliminated the Jews, Gypsies, and Bible Students," then headed out to conquer space. Japan created a global empire based in the Home Islands and dominated by metaphor, Taoism, and the I Ching.

Once you get past the alternate history concept, there aren't many typical sci-fi elements to this book. It's a story about culture, racism, fear, caste, indecision, freedom, power, paranoia, and politics. That said, it's a twisty, well-written depiction of what our world could have looked like if things had taken a few different turns.

I enjoyed PKD's use of language to reinforce character, particularly that of the characters in the Japanese-dominated Pacific States of America. In the PSA, even the non-Japanese characters speak and think in ESL-style English. Articles like "a" and "the" are almost non-existent, and non-action verbs such as "was" and "is" get dropped most of the time.

The Man in the High Castle is a character piece, and a good one. Its intertwined story lines and character arcs are interesting and unique, and the world is plausible and consistent. I suspect that a re-reading of this book would reveal layers that I missed the first time, but for now I'm hoping to find something a little less political! Rating: 4/5

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, was published in 1961 and won the 8th Hugo Award. Heinlein is one of my favorite authors, and I've read this book several times over the years. For this project, I read the originally published, shorter version of the book. Opinions, reviews, and summaries of this book abound, so I'll keep mine short.

Things I love about this book:
  • The concept that humans are ultimately self-serving creatures, none of whom do anything they don't want to do for some reason of their own
  • There are some laugh-out-loud lines as the title character learns about human civilization, such as "I have learned two ways to tie my shoes. One way is only good for lying down. The other way is good for walking."
  • Most of the book consists of dialogue, and most of the characters are just as smart and interesting as Heinlein himself
  • The "Fosterite" church, if it actually existed, would probably do very well in modern western civilization with its combination religion/bar/casino structure
  • Early in part 3 of the book, Heinlein lays out a sensible system for sorting fan mail; using it would probably benefit any celebrity
  • Heinlein tempers his typical chauvinism by making most of the female characters very smart, and putting them in charge (whether the male characters admit it or not)
  • The overall message of the book is hopeful and positive
Things I don't love about this book:
  • Telepathy, when used to demonstrate the superiority of a character or race, has been overused and is losing any power to amaze that it might once have had
  • The church created by the title character seems overly idealistic, even taken in context; I loved the ideas as a twenty-something, but now that I'm a suburbanite mom I see it a bit differently
I still like this book a lot, if a bit less than I used to. Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spinning in Circles

Despite a trip to Texas for Spring Break, a trip to Kansas for a funeral, and many other distractions (including -Peder's entertaining and frustrating photo contest) I've finished reading Stranger in a Strange Land. My name came up on the library wait-list for Watchmen, also during this span, so I grabbed the opportunity to reread it as well. I'm thinking very hard about my SiaSL post, and will try hard to get back onto this project... right after I finish tracking down photos 6 & 7 for -Peder's game! Darn you, -Peder!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was published in 1960 and was the winner of the 7th Hugo Award. The book consists of three distinct sections: "Fiat Homo" is set in the mid-2500s, "Fiat Lux" begins in the year 3174, and "Fiat Voluntas Tua" begins in 3781. The stories take place in North American Earth, but in a world that was first devastated by nuclear holocaust in the mid 1960s and then stripped of its remaining documents, books, and scholars in a global Age of Simplification, leaving the Catholic Church as the dominant world power.

The book's technology ranges with its time period, from candle flames to spaceships, and every stage in between. The few pieces of technology and documentation that are salvaged and protected by the Order of Saint Leibowitz, along with the eventual reinvention and rediscovery of the natural sciences, allow the post-apocalyptic world to slowly rebuild itself from rubble to riches.

Most of the book's characters are members of the Catholic Church, or politicians; as a result, much of the book involves political and religious discussions and debates. There's a lot of Latin, and many references to the Bible; those unfamiliar with either will do a lot of cross-referencing or just miss a lot of the book's levels of meaning.

The author has a clever way with words, and describes things in unusual and often entertaining ways that create vivid mental pictures. Each section of the book is written in a specific style, each is different, and each presents its own challenges. I enjoyed the first section tremendously, but bogged down slightly in the scriptural and political styles of much of the 2nd and 3rd sections. Still great writing, but slow going at times.

I first encountered this book in January of 1986, while I was in 10th grade. An amazing school librarian took it upon herself to expand my already broad literary horizons, and proclaimed this a must-read. For whatever reason, I disliked it immediately and promptly returned it to the library. Coincidentally, some students were there watching the Challenger launch; I stopped to watch the launch, book in hand, and the book's cover art has since been inextricably linked in my mind with the image of the explosion. If not for this project, I wouldn't have revisited A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I'm glad I did. The final scene is hopeful, which is a nice foil to my previous memory of the book. I'm not likely to read this one again, and unlike many people out there, I don't consider it to be the best book in the genre; however, it's a well-written, thought-provoking, original story that I enjoyed reading. Rating: 3/5

Sunday, March 22, 2009

While we wait, my mini-reviews of the best and worst of 2008's reading

In 2008, I started keeping a log of every book I read, and an assigned an immediate gut-level rating to each book as I finished it. Here are some stats from my 2008 reading list:

Number of books (not including the ones I read to my toddler): 73
43 Science Fiction or Fantasy
26 Fiction (mostly "Thrillers" like David Baldacci and Greg Iles)
4 Non-Fiction
Average Rating by Genre:
SF/F = 3.89 (ranged from 2 to 5)
F = 3.35 (ranged from 3 to 4)
NF = 3.5 (ranged from 2 to 5)
Most-Read Authors:
Lois McMaster Bujold = 9 (I got on a mid-year re-reading kick)
David Baldacci = 8
Jim Butcher = 5
[2008 was my year for reading "B" authors, it seems...!]

Books that I rated as "5"s, in no particular order:

Mars Life, by Ben Bova--This is a continuation of the story that began with 1992's Mars and 1999's Return to Mars, and was the only book I read by this author in 2008. I became a fan of Mr. Bova in, I believe, the year 2000. I bid on and won his desk copy of the manuscript for the not-yet-published Jupiter in a literacy-benefit auction, and missed most of a convention while I huddled over it in my hotel room and devoured the book at a rapid pace. Toward the end of the weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Bova, and wryly explained how he'd both "ruined" and made the convention for me. He included a heartfelt apology with his signature on the manuscript. Mars, like most of Bova's books, is well-written, classic science fiction--good stuff. Rating: 5/5

Captain's Fury and Princep's Fury, both by Jim Butcher--The 4th & 5th books in the Codex Alera series, which just keeps getting better and better. I read five books by Mr. Butcher in 2008, and rated each of them as a 4 or 5. The Codex Alera is high fantasy with a Roman twist, and is one of those series I'm always reluctant to put down--I'm anxiously awaiting the series finale, First Lord's Fury. There's an anecdote out there about how this series came to be, but I don't know the veracity of it; supposedly, Mr. Butcher was inspired by a friend who bet that he couldn't write a novel combining Pokemon and the Roman Empire. If it's true, he certainly won that bet! Ratings for both: 5/5

Quantico, by Greg Bear--This near-future FBI thriller kept me engaged and interested. It's more of a thriller than science fiction when you boil it all down, but had enough hard science to satisfy my SF cravings. I read one other book by this author in 2008, and rated it a 4; I occasionally get bogged down in the politics of his books, but the two I read in 2008 were great. Rating: 5/5

Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold--Part of the Vorkosigan Saga, and set a couple hundred years before the saga's main character, Miles, is born. In my opinion, this is the best-written book of an incredibly well-written series. Original, consistent, engaging, intriguing, and very satisfying. I read nine books by this author in 2008, many of them for the second or third time, and although one earned a rating of 3, most were 4s & 5s. Rating 5/5

Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold--The first in a trilogy, and just as well written as the books of the Vorkosigan Saga. This book's characters are fully-fleshed out, most are flawed in obvious ways, and all of them are fascinating. From the first scene, I was fully engaged with the people and the world. While I also enjoyed books two and three of this series, this one is the best of the three. Rating 5/5

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement and The Sharing Knife: Passage, both by Lois McMaster Bujold--The 1st and 3rd books of the Sharing Knife series, which is set in a fantasy version of pioneer-era North America. The series is a combination of adventure and romance, and features a wide range of characters in both the "pioneer" and "native" categories. I liked the 2nd book as well, but only gave it a rating of 4. Ratings for both: 5/5

The Outlaw Demon Wails, by Kim Harrison--ODW is the 6th book in Harrison's Hollows series, and is the best one yet. I've enjoyed this series from the beginning, and the author's skill and finesse as a writer has visibly improved over the series. This book pays off some outstanding debts from earlier in the series, and opens up many things that will undoubtedly pay off later. I also read the 5th Hollows book in 2008, but only rated it a 3 (can't remember why...). Rating: 5/5

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell--Outliers, like the first two books by this author, made me look at things in a new way. It's not science fiction at all, but it's a mind-bending book. There's not much to say about the book that hasn't already been said by others, so I'll just say that it's worth every minute. Good stuff. Rating: 5/5

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester--This is one of the most original and gripping books I've read in a long time, and I heartily recommend it. It's dark and gritty, and holds up remarkably well after all these years. Rating: 5/5

Books that I rated as "2"s:

The New Strong-Willed Child, by James Dobson--My daughter's pediatrician loaned me this book after a 2-year checkup, insisting that we'd have to take it to heart to be able to successfully raise such a precocious little critter. I found it condescending, preachy, and far too overtly religious for my taste. There were a couple of good bits of advice here and there, but nothing that I hadn't already gotten from other sources. Rating: 2/5

X-Rated Blood Suckers, by Mario Acevedo--I picked this one up because the author is a Coloradoan, and I kept reading it because some of the characters were mildly amusing. Overall, the tone and style of Acevedo's writing didn't do it for me. Too bad, as some of his ideas were pretty interesting. Rating: 2/5

Whispering Nickel Idols, by Glen Cook--I started this one a decade or so ago, and never got through it. I gave it another shot in 2008, but still found it hard to finish. I've enjoyed many of this author's books over the years, but for some reason I just couldn't connect with this one. Rating: 2/5

Spellbinder, by Melanie Rawn--Ms. Rawn is another author I've really enjoyed over the years, so I gave this book a shot. Unfortunately, this book's characters and plot weren't as consistent as I've come to expect from her work, and her move to the supernatural romance (with an emphasis on the romance) sub-genre may alienate fans like me who are more interested in harder science fiction and fantasy. Rating: 2/5

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Still Waiting for Godot, and Leibowitz

Still no word from the library to indicate they've got the next book ready for me. Sigh. Within the next couple of days, I'll post a list of what I've been reading while I wait, with brief reviews. I may also look back at my list of what I read last year, and compile a Top 10 list ala Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein, was published for the teen market in 1959 and was the winner of the 6th Hugo Award. Although the back-of-cover blurb on my 1968 paperback edition says that the story is set in the 22nd century, a date is never actually specified in the text. The story is a military sci-fi piece set in a universe that includes at least three intelligent species, including humans, all of which have interstellar travel and a presence on multiple planets. The book's "history" diverges from our own sometime before 1987, which in the book was the start of the war between a Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and a Chinese Hegemon.

Technologically, Starship Troopers is mainstream science fiction--infantrymen go into battle protected and assisted by powered suits which amplify their strength and physical abilities, K-9 troopers are paired with genetically-enhanced dogs with the capacity for speech, and infantrymen are launched from spaceships to the planet below in automatically-fired capsules like human bullets. There's nothing that seems painfully outdated or outlandish, or that's not supported by the rest of the book.

Before trying his hand at writing, Heinlein spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, and made a failed attempt at a career in politics. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of WW2, Heinlein's application for a return to active Navy duty was rejected for medical reasons; during the war, he acted as a civilian mechanical engineer for the military at the Naval Air Experimental Station. If you read any review of Starship Troopers, you'll run across the opinion that Heinlein used this book as a platform for his political and social opinions; I can't disagree, but I also don't mind that he did it. Heinlein had a background in the military and politics, and drew on his experiences and opinions for his book--don't many authors do this in their writing? Maybe the critics were just miffed that he aimed his opinions at teenage American boys.

Speaking of teens... Because the book was written for the juvenile and teen audiences, it's missing a couple of things that are pretty standard in the adult market: bad language and sex. Heinlein's language, in my experience, is usually pretty tame; in Starship Troopers, "crumby" is the vilest word I could find (other colorful exclamations included "unprintable", "expurgated", "deleted", and "blankety-blank"). Although the book's main character has a keen appreciation for the few females he encounters, the closest the book comes to a romantic or sexual relationship between any characters at all is a post-dinner peck on the cheek.

Getting back to the book's political and social opinions--which may or may not have been Heinlein's, though I tend to believe they were mostly his--here are just a few that caught my attention as I read Starship Troopers:
  • The idea that violence never settles anything is an "inexcusably silly idea"
  • "Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in human history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst"
  • Communism is a "magnificent fraud" and 20th Century democracies just a "noble experiment"
  • Sometimes capital punishment is the only viable option
  • There's no such thing as a juvenile delinquent, just a juvenile criminal paired with a delinquent adult
  • "Both for practical reasons and verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal"
  • The military should only accept officers who are combat-proven soldiers
  • "Everything of any importance is founded on mathematics"
  • In an ideal government, ""every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service [federal, which can be military or non-military] that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage"; "The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert"
Interestingly, I agree with most of them. They're all thought-provoking, and in the right (or maybe wrong) circles, probably argument-provoking as well.

As much as I like Heinlein's writing, and as much as I enjoyed this book (again--I've read it at least twice before), there are still a couple of things I don't particularly like about Starship Troopers. As always, Heinlein's sexism is blatant; as always, I shrug and move on. I'm not much of a military buff, despite enjoying military sci-fi, so I get horribly bogged down in his loooong descriptions of rank, hierarchy, and military organization. As an Air Force brat, this is probably an unforgivable sin. Oh, well.

There were a couple of throw-away bits I found pretty interesting, and that I hadn't really noticed in previous readings. First, in a brief scene in the middle of the book, a secondary character is reading a book called "Space Rangers against the Galaxy"; the narrator opines, "a pretty good yarn, except that I doubt a military outfit ever had so many adventures and so few goof-offs." As far as I can tell, this book doesn't actually exist, but it seems possible that this was Heinlein's good-natured ribbing of the pulp science fiction trade as a whole. Second, as part of the narrator's second phase of training, he's put in a situation and conversation that's nearly identical to one in Double Star, also by Heinlein. After assuming a position of power as a temporary replacement for an ailing superior, the narrator is forced to determine whether or not his superior intended to promote an underling or have him transferred elsewhere. It's a minor plot point in both books, but is used in both cases to demonstrate that the main character possesses the analytical skills required to hold a position of command.

Whether you agree with Heinlein's politics or not, this is a good book, and it's quick to read. If you've only seen the 1997 movie by Paul Verhoeven, don't make the mistake of thinking that you know what happens in the book. Although several things made the print-to-screen translation, the two versions are radically different. I like them both, by the way, but consider them distant cousins. Rating: 4/5

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience, by James Blish, was first published as a novel in 1958 and won the 5th Hugo Award. The book is divided into two distinct sections, the first of which was published as a novella in 1953 then expanded for the novel. ACOC starts in the year 2049, and takes place on the planets Lithia—50 or so light-years from Earth—and a bomb-shelter-obsessed Earth. The main thrust of the story concerns religion and science, and the ways in which they interact and overlap.

I’d like to start by saying that I’m an agnostic and a libertarian (at least loosely). I’m willing to entertain the idea that the Christian God or Norse Odin exist and have an effect on our lives, but I don’t think there’s any way (or need) to prove it—you believe in your thing, and I’ll believe in mine, and please don’t try to convert, subvert, or divert me. As a libertarian, I’m not a political anarchist—I just believe that human adults should be responsible for their own actions and decisions, and also responsible for those of their children. If I’m not hurting anyone else by my actions, the government should have no right or responsibility to dictate that I live or behave in a different way than I choose to (as it turns out, I’m married to a person of the opposite sex and the same race, we own a home and two cars, and we have a lovely daughter and a few pets—I’m pretty traditional when you get right down to it; however, I don’t believe that the church or the government should be able to dictate that their way or even my way is the only “right” way.) My stances on religion and politics almost certainly influenced my opinion and understanding of this book.

After I got past the annoyance of the myriad pencil markings left by a previous reader (who either stopped reading or stopped marking on page 137 of 188), ACOC was an interesting, thought-provoking read. Like many authors of the time, Blish seems to make use of every word in his extensive vocabulary; because the English vocabulary has evolved in the ensuing decades, it makes for slow reading—and cross-referencing with a dictionary—at times. Add in the references to Catholicism and its tenets, and it slows down even more (at least for a reader with no grounding in Catholicism).

The first part of the book centers on a Jesuit priest who is also a biologist, and a crisis of faith brought on by his experiences and observations of the Lithians. The second part focuses on a young Lithian who is raised on Earth by humans— an outsider by definition, and described in the book as “a preacher without a creed, an intellect without a culture, a seeker without a goal.” The book’s characters—even these two—are, for the most part, more sketched-in archetypes than fully-fleshed individuals. Some of the minor characters, who appear only briefly, are pretty colorful—including a few members of the glitterati, a scientist/nobleman who goes by the pseudonym of H.O. Petard, and a politician who finds it easier to talk than to listen. They’re all still just hazy outlines, though.

The science and future tech are pretty standard sci-fi fare, although the Lithian race, their evolutionary process, and their world’s science are a little more original. The fearsome weapon of the time is that 50s bugaboo, the hydrogen bomb. The Earth has moved beyond a state of war into a “Shelter state” brought on by the rampant bomb scares of the past; with only a few exceptions, humankind dwells in underground bunkers, told to be afraid mainly because their parents were. For the most part, this message is probably lost on current generations—although I can remember having bomb drills at my elementary school in the 70s (we lived fairly close to an active Air Force base), many modern readers probably weren’t exposed to the post-war fears and paranoia that came at the true height of the Cold War. When a main character rises up, issuing a call to passive anarchy and urging the populace to return to the surface, future readers probably won’t have any idea what a radical suggestion it is that humanity throw off the inherited fears and move on.

Throughout the story, the reader is shown things from two different perspectives—faith and science—and left to judge for himself which of them drives the characters and events of the story. Blish leaves it open to individual interpretation, and even the characters in the climactic scene view the same event with different interpretations—one believes that what he sees was caused by his faith in God, and another believes it’s the result of a math error. Either one, or both, could be correct.

This book, like Stranger in a Strange Land, which Robert A. Heinlein would come to write within a few years of this one, deals with a character who is essentially a fish out of water. After reading ACOC, I have to wonder if Heinlein wrote SiaSL after reading this one, and as a foil for it. ACOC’s outcast, while he preaches passive anarchy, instigates a violent worldwide revolution; SiaSL’s outcast also has a widespread effect on the world, but in a more peaceful and positive way (although it’s been a few years since I last read SiaSL, and I could be remembering it incorrectly…). I’ve heard that The Sparrow, written by Mary Doria Russell and published in 1998, is essentially a modern update of ACOC—it won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the BSFA Best Novel Award in its year, so might be worth tracking down.

I liked this book, but more as a piece of the larger “history of sci fi” puzzle than on its own merits. It’s a short book, and if you have some understanding of Catholicism it might be a faster read for you than it was for me. I don’t regret reading it, but probably haven’t become an ardent fan of James Blish. Rating: 3/5

Friday, February 20, 2009

Preparing to start book #5

Book number 5 on my list is waiting downstairs to be read, after only a short wait for it to arrive. While waiting, I kept busy reading the following:

Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris--This is the 5th book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, and it fits nicely in with the others. Started off a bit stronger than the previous four, but then settled back into the familiar tempo and tone. I don't have premium TV, so I'm not watching the HBO series inspired by these books (True Blood) but I will likely watch it later on DVD--I always prefer to read the source material first when I can, so I'm getting prepared. Rating: 3/5

Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn--3rd book in the Kitty Norville series, and a welcome addition to the author's world. In the previous books, Vaughn explored werewolves (and other shifters), vampires, and fae. This book expands into a few different flavors/cultures of magic, and brings some previously-relegated-to-the-background characters into the main action. Well written and well-paced, and a very entertaining read. Rating: 4/5

The Last Colony by John Scalzi--the 3rd book in the world of Old Man's War, and a natural continuation of the first two books. Very different in tone from the first two, which fell firmly into the military sci-fi genre--this one takes place on a smaller scale, and remains planet-bound for most of the story. Scalzi has proven with this series to be a versatile and talented author who can tell compelling stories and create interesting and believable characters in several different sub-sets of science fiction. Although he says in the afterword that this is likely his last book with these characters, my husband just finished reading Zoe's Tale, which is apparently an Orson Scott Card-esque retelling of the events in The Last Colony from another character's perspective. Can't wait! Rating: 4/5

Next up: A Case of Conscience by James Blish. I have my fingers firmly crossed that this book is better than Leiber's was--it'll be hard to continue on through the book list if things don't start to improve dramatically.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber, was published in 1957 and was the 4th Hugo Award winner. I'd like to start this post by saying that I've read and loved many stories and books by this author in the past, including many in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. I fully expected to love this book, too--I was disappointed.

TBT uses many standard sci-fi concepts and characters: time travel, ETs, cosmic war, futuristic technology, and specialized jargon. Some of these it uses well, some it uses hardly at all, and some are used in ways I (for the most part) just didn't appreciate.

The book's ETs are a minor feature of the story, but are somewhat unusual and interesting in concept. There are only two of them--one from 1 billion years pre-modern Luna and one from 1 billion years post-modern Venus. The future tech is nebulous and not completely explained, but each piece of it features prominently in what passes for action in the story. These aspects of the novel are handled well, in my opinion.

Although the book is nominally about time travel, it's only used in the sense of "if you could put together a dinner party and invite anyone--past, present, or future...?" In this case, it's a waystation in the void outside of a cosmic war instead of a dinner party, and the guests and hosts don't really get to choose each other, but that hardly matters. Each of the characters is from a specific locale and time, and comes attendant with the language and mannerisms of that locale and time.

To illustrate his clever grasp of the language of each character's locale and time, Leiber has the characters soliloquize. A lot. I applaud his use of varied styles and vocabularies, but wish that he'd focused a bit more on pacing and story and a bit less on monologues. I've met a few people who put this book on their favorites list just because of this, though, so it's certainly a polarizing preference. There's one ongoing bit by the narrator that I did enjoy tremendously, in fact, and which gave me an amusing easter-egg hunt to focus on--she has her own religious swearing vocabulary (based on god-invocations in multiple languages) which includes "Hey, Zeus!", "Shaitan shave us!", "Nervy Anna enfold me", "Got mittens", "praise/thank the Bonny Dew", "Kreesed us!", and "Crisis!" For the most part, though, I got horribly bogged down in the multiple slangs and jargons that represented the cross-time collection of characters.

Which brings us to the cosmic war. As explained by the oldest character in the book's timeline (the ET from Luna 1 billion years ago) at the end of the story, it's not really war at all. Just evolution, which he explains is the same thing on a different scale. Luke-warm ending, with no sense of payoff or "ah ha!" moment.

Overall, this book was like a "Murder in a Box" mystery party that's massively overacted by well-educated people. Been there, done that--don't really need or want to read it.

In another situation, I probably wouldn't have read past the first one or two chapters of this book. Because there's another Leiber lurking down in 1965 on my list, and it might be related to this one, I made myself forge ahead. As I mentioned earlier, opinions on this book range widely-- but my advice is to skip it. Rating: 2/5

Monday, February 9, 2009

Reading The Big Time, very slowly

I've started to read The Big Time, but it's very slow going. Very dense, very wordy, and filled with references that might have been accessible to the reader in the 50s but aren't to me in many cases. I'm re-reading many pages, which is something I almost never do. I have a feeling this could be a good book, but I can't get into it yet--if I weren't reading it for this project, I'd likely have abandoned it by now. At the moment crocheting, ceiling-gazing, and web surfing are much more compelling. If you've read this book and can give me any sign of hope, I'd appreciate it...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Double Star, by Robert A. Heinlein, was published in 1956 and was the 3rd Hugo Award winner. It's set in a space-faring future, and native Martians are an important part of the story--if you can accept that as just a quaint pre-space-travel idea, and move on, there's not much about the story or the technology that's jarring.

The basic concept of the novel--body double is hired to stand in for a political figure--has been used by others, both before and after Heinlein. In 1894, author Anthony Hope used it as the basis for his novel The Prisoner of Zenda, which has spawned an endless parade of homages and adaptations over the years. In 1993, Kevin Kline starred in the movie "Dave", which used the same set-up.

By putting an actor in the role of body double, Heinlein made a larger statement than if he'd used a tourist or a temp agency owner. Heinlein's overall statement in the book is that the only thing separating an actor from a politician is that the politician believes strongly about something other than himself. Near the end of the story, in fact, one of his political characters comes right out and says that his job "could be done just as well by any second-rate actor."

In the days before President Ronald Reagan and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, this must have been a radical concept. Today, it seems darn-near self-evident. Put that politician in front of a camera with a slide show, Al Gore-style, and he becomes a second-rate actor again. Huh!

This wasn't the first time I'd read this book, and probably won't be the last. Despite Heinlein's clear sexism--which I've come to accept with a chuckle over the years--I enjoy his characters and how he writes them. The characterization in this book is even deeper than in most of his other writing, and it adds a lot to what otherwise might have been a lightweight read. Rating: 5/5

Saturday, January 31, 2009

They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

They'd Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, was published in 1954 and was the 2nd Hugo Award winner. It's set in a near-future of 1950s San Francisco, but doesn't specify the exact date. According to its Wikipedia entry, this book is "widely labeled as the worst novel to ever win a Hugo"--I haven't read enough of the Hugo winners yet to have an educated opinion on that statement, so I'll have to judge the book on its own merits.

If, like the University of Princeton, you define science fiction as "literary fantasy involving the imagined impact of science on society," this book is science fiction. As far as I'm concerned, this book barely qualifies for inclusion in the genre. The book includes only one piece of technology that would have been non-standard in the 50s, and a few telepaths, and while they're integral to the story they're certainly not critical to the novel's main messages.

The book's central message is that humans must evolve and change to meet environmental challenges to survive as a species. Unfortunately, it's the means of change chosen by the authors that probably cause people to scorn the book.

I wasn't around in the 50s, so I can't be sure, but I'd guess based on the authors' treatment of the "sciences" involved that psychosomatic therapy was considered to be a promising and cutting-edge concept at the time. These days, it's lumped in with a host of other holistic and non-traditional techniques that are scorned by the mainstream medical community. In this novel, a multi-disciplined group of scientists work together to create a new breed of thinking machine and program it exclusively with the proven scientific facts of the day; amongst these facts are the techniques of psychosomatic therapy. It becomes apparent to the scientists that using the machine to administer the therapy can remove the lifetime's accumulation of tension from the patient's cells and cause him to become young again. As part of the therapy, the patient must let go of any and all preconceived notions that conflict with the machine's knowledge base (they're the source of the cellular tension, apparently); once you've completed the therapy, you're so literally open-minded that you become telepathic. Impressive house of cards to build on a base of holistic medicine--but that's what science fiction as a genre is all about, I suppose.

The authors do present some interesting ideas, if you can get past the pseudo-science to find them. Unfortunately, any of the ideas that could have been considered original in 1954 have been borrowed and rehashed so many times, by more adept authors, that they don't qualify the book as a "must read". The book's title is a clever reference to the double-edged nature of its thinking machine, but it's not sufficient payoff for the layers of pseudo-science you have to wade through to get there.

My conclusion: 1954 must have been a very lean year for science fiction, or the sci-fi community must have bought into the concept of psychosomatic therapy. Unless you're embarking on a project like mine and want to read this book as part of a larger set, I'd suggest that you not expend too much effort tracking it down. On the other hand, it's a quick read and has some thought-provoking concepts buried in it. I don't regret the time I spent reading it, but won't be looking for other titles by the authors. Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book #2 has arrived!

I got an exciting e-mail from the Erie Public Library this morning, which said that my inter-library-loan copy of They'd Rather Be Right has arrived. Woohoo! I plan to start reading it tonight on my weekly dinner/book/movie-filled evening away from my home and family.

Before I jump into book #2, I thought I'd complete the list of non-award-winning books I've been reading while I waited for it to arrive. Over the past few days, I've read the following titles:

Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn--2nd book in the Kitty Norville werewolf series, and an enjoyable read. This one has a Red Scare/witch hunt theme that is pulled off well, and continues some unfinished plot lines from the first book in the series. There's nothing particularly original about Vaughn's treatment of the genre, but her plotting and characterization is good enough that I'll continue to read her books. Rating: 4/5

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi--the sequel to Old Man's War, which I loved, has only a few characters in common with the first book but continues the overall story line very well. I wasn't quite as "wowed" by this one as the first, but Scalzi's writing is still darn good. Scalzi names many of his characters after renowned scientists and sci-fi authors, and it's like a particularly challenging easter egg hunt to find and follow the references; come to think of it, it's almost identical to a mental process he describes in this book as "unpacking". Well-layered, well-written, well-paced, and worth reading. I can't wait to see where he takes the story in the 3rd installment. Rating: 4/5

With any luck, the next post will get back onto the main topic of this blog--the award-winning books and authors that made the genre of science fiction what it is. If you've read anything amazing that you think I'd enjoy reading while waiting for other books on my list, let me know!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Waiting for book #2

It's possible that my librarian's superpowers have already failed the test. It's just as likely that I'm not quite as patient as I need to be. I suppose as I move into the more recent books on the list, they'll be easier to get... I hope so.

Because books are almost as essential to me as air, I've been filling my time since finishing The Demolished Man on 1/14 with some titles that aren't on my list. In the past several days, I've read the following books, some great, some OK:

Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card--a direct sequel to Ender's Game, which is on my list of books to read for this project. If I'd been smarter, I'd have saved it to read after re-reading the first one. Oh, well. I like most of OSC's books, although I bogged down in some of his uber-political Peter/Valentine books and eventually tired of reading about Bean. I loved this one. Loved it. Loved it! Great writing, great plot, interesting views of things we've heard about in other books, but this time from other characters' perspectives. Great book! Rating: 5/5

An Ice Cold Grave by Charlaine Harris--the 3rd book in the Harper Connelly series. More in the mystery genre than any other, although the main character has the ability to sense dead bodies (gained from a lightning strike rather than a more typical supernatural source). Quick read, but much better written than her Sookie Stackhouse books. Rating: 4/5

Dead as a Doornail
by Charlaine Harris--the 4th book in the Sookie Stackhouse series. Very quick read in the supernatural mystery genre, but this one (like the entire series) falls firmly into my "vacation reading" category (quick read, not too heavy, doesn't require or provoke much thought). Rating: 3/5

Old Man's War by John Scalzi--a novelist friend heartily recommended this one, so I finally tracked it down. It's in the military sci-fi genre, and was a Hugo nominee. It's heavily inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and takes a few good-natured jabs at the modern movie cliche of drill sergeants. Despite the recognizable inspirations and homages, this book is very original and very enjoyable. As with many other works in the military genre, in print and on film, I enjoyed the training scenes more than the battle scenes (Full Metal Jacket is a prime example of this for me--the entire movie is great, but I'd be just as happy if it ended when the left training). This book is great, and I'm looking forward to starting the sequel, The Ghost Brigade (which is waiting on my reading table downstairs...). Rating: 4/5

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn--Ms. Vaughn was also recommended by my novelist friend, who recently headlined a local fan convention with her. Since Vaughn is from Boulder, which is just a stone's throw from me, I'm surprised I hadn't heard of her before. Ah, well. Her writing fits in well with several other authors I enjoy (Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, Glen Cook, and others), and is pretty entertaining and well written. The world features werewolves and vampires, which haven't yet "come out" to the world at large at the onset of the first book. Not quite what I classify as vacation reading, but pretty close; there's nothing that bogged me down or slowed the pace. I've just started the 2nd book in the series, Kitty Goes to Washington. Rating: 4/5

I probably need to take a step back and decide what to do about the 2nd book on my project list. The 3rd book on the list is on my shelf downstairs, so I could just skip to it. I could bite the bullet and purchase the 2nd book. I could try to be more patient. I could just keep reading whatever strikes my fancy and attempt to preserve the project as laid out in earlier posts. I'll let you know what I decide to do...

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester, was first published in book form in 1953, and was the recipient of the first Hugo Award. It's a mystery/crime story set in the 24th century, and for the most part it holds up pretty well today. For some reason, most reprints of the book omit the original introduction, which can be found in the collection "Redemolished"; it sets the stage nicely for the book, and is worth tracking down.

If you watched the TV series Babylon 5, you're familiar with a huge homage to this book--the PsiCorps was obviously lifted, largely intact, from its pages (which is probably the reason behind the name of Walter Koenig's character in the show). Many lesser characters, in print and on film, have been inspired by the author, his major characters, and his novels.

Bester does some spiffy stuff in this book, stylistically, such as using non-standard text layout to depict what a telepathic party might "sound" like to the participants. Although Bester's characters aren't very relatable to me (for some reason, they're all "the best" at whatever career they've chosen rather than being just an everyman), they're all colorful, consistent, and interesting.

For the most part, the novel's future-tech has held up pretty well. The only jarring item I found was a slightly-off envisioning of what would come to be the Walkman/MP3 portable music technologies; the reality would have amazed Bester!

My conclusion: Bester's 2nd novel, The Stars My Destination, uses similar characterization and stylistic quirks, but is more polished and gripping than this Hugo winner. If you're a fan of sci-fi and haven't read anything by this author, you should track down The Stars My Destination as soon as you get the chance. If you like it, it's probably worth following it with The Demolished Man; if you didn't care for TSMD, pass on this one. Rating: 4/5

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Plan

Because I'm hoping to find the best science fiction novels ever written, it makes sense to look at the books that have been honored by the genre's awards each year. Since there might be years of feast and years of famine both creatively and objectively, it's probably worth considering not only the award winners but also the nominees.

The Awards

I did some research online (hooray for Wikipedia!), and identified seven major international awards that are bestowed on worthy science fiction novels annually:

To get the full picture, I have to decide whether to include the winners of all of these awards or just a few of them. At first glance, there's one that I can omit without much thought. Paperbacks only?--see 'ya Philip K. Dick Award. After more consideration, I've decided to omit the two British awards (since I'm looking at this from a purely American standpoint--my own); BSFA & Arthur C. Clarke Awards are off of the list. Lastly, I'm striking the John W. Campbell Award, as it's awarded by a small jury of experts rather than a large pool of readers, and doesn't fit in well with the other three.

The Books

Last year, I read 74 books. Of those 74, 53 fell into the broad range of science fiction/fantasy. Although I don't know how many books I've read in any other year of my life, I'd guess that last year was only a little below average. After compiling a list of all of the Hugo, Nebula, & Locus SF winners, eliminating duplicates, and accounting for an award that went to a trilogy instead of a single book, I have a list of 100 books. Hm. Call it 1.25 years of reading... I don't think I'll include the nominees after all.

To my surprise, there are only 29 books on my list that I'm sure I've already read, and only a few that I've read within the last several years. I plan to re-read each of these during the project as well, just so I can fit them into the "big picture" of science fiction as it has evolved over the years.

The Method

I've decided to read the books from oldest to newest by award year (mostly because I just finished reading the first book on the list); a few books were honored retroactively to books published before the Hugo existed, and I'll read these as I reach them as awarded. Availability might change my plans slightly, although I have the benefit of a librarian (not-so-secret master of the universe) who claims the ability to find nearly any book anywhere. So far he's lived up to his claim, although this project might put his skills to the test.

Next post: Thoughts on The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Idea

I'm a life-long fan of books--specifically, well-written and original science fiction novels. I recently ran across yet another cross-reference to the author Alfred Bester, who is considered by many to be one of the genre's best authors (although I can't recall exactly where I ran across it this time, it was likely in a recent book by Spider Robinson... I've persistently ignored references to Bester for many years now, for no good reason that I can recall).

I did some basic research on Alfred Bester and tracked down his two acclaimed science fiction novels--including The Demolished Man, which was honored with the first Hugo Award in 1953. I quickly realized that his work is among the best I've read recently, and that I'd been missing something big.

Can the award-winning science fiction novels of the past actually still be worth reading several decades later? Do they have messages, technology, and characters that are pertinent in modern society? Have I just been reading rehashed versions of past award-winners? There's only one way to find out...