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, 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