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.

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...