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.

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