Friday, 15 December 2017

The Stone Sky is the echo of a great book

Some reviews of N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky offer ebullient praise and predict an unprecedented
The Fifth Season is a great
novel. We're less convinced
that its sequel deserves
another Hugo Award.
(Image via Goodreads)
third
back-to-back Hugo win for Jemisin. While this is a fine book, it is much harder to say it is the most deserving science fiction or fantasy novel of 2017.

The first book in the series, The Fifth Season, was innovative and unique. It offered a refreshing take on science fiction and fantasy that unquestionably deserved the Hugo Award. But The Stone Sky does not stand on its own. It is good, but mostly because it is an echo of a truly great book. 

It might be more appropriate to honour N.K. Jemisin with a Best Series Hugo this year, rather than another Best Novel, because that would recognize how The Stone Sky works as part of a larger whole.

If there hadn’t been so much astonishingly good science fiction and fantasy published in 2017, we might have been rooting for N.K. Jemisin to complete her Hugo Award hat trick. But there are numerous novels at least as good.

The third book in the series picks up immediately on the conclusion of the second, and despite the brief recap those of us who hadn’t looked at The Obelisk Gate since last summer had difficulty picking up the narrative threads.

This volume is the story of a mother doing whatever it takes to save her daughter, willing to sacrifice herself and the entire planet if necessary. Over the course of the novel, we learn the origin of orogeny, roggas, stone eaters, and Guardians. Jemisin reveals the history and mystery of the world in a way entirely believable for the all-too-human motivations. This background and world building is what was most enjoyable about the book, but also what made it so dependent on the previous works.

That being said, Jemisin is in fine form as a wordsmith. This novel may be her most quotable, with
The quality of NK Jemisin's
prose is outstanding.
(Image via Wired.com)  
lines such as “For a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress,” and “If you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back.”

As the final book in a trilogy, The Stone Sky ramps up the tension and the stakes, and serves as a fitting conclusion to the story. It’s a good book that satisfyingly concludes the story of Essun, Nassun, and an alternate Earth.

As a trilogy, The Broken Earth’s environmental metaphors, cautionary tales of hubris, and racial allegories are powerful. And while this book reveals the history of the broken Earth and nicely wraps up the various plot lines, it retreads and develops the ideas introduced in the first two books without presenting anything groundbreaking. The metaphors are made more obvious, but not more incisive.

It seems inevitable that Hugo voters will nominate The Stone Sky, but with so many other strong novels written in 2017 it will likely not make it to the top our ballot.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Retro Hugos 1943: Novels

It was with no small degree of excitement that we greeted the news that there would be Retro Hugo awards presented at next summer’s Worldcon. Just on principle, we love Retro Hugos, and will take any opportunity to do a deep dive into the science fiction published in a particular year. The Hugo year of 1943 (which would cover works published in 1942) has some excellent novels to choose from. We will explore other fiction categories for these awards in later posts. 

Legendary science fiction pioneer Olaf Stapledon has never been nominated for a Hugo
Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) has
never been nominated for any
Hugo Awards.
(Image via Futurism.com)
Award in any category. The author of Last and First Men, Star Maker, and Odd John had published most of his major works prior to the first Worldcon, so even with Retro Hugos, there hasn’t been much opportunity to honour his works with the genre’s top award. Although Darkness And The Light is not one of his most well-remembered works, and although it has some flaws, it is still one that should be considered for the award.

In his previous books, Stapledon had created epic narratives about the long-term future of humanity. These are beautiful, idealistic, and sweeping stories, but as Robert Silverberg noted at last summer’s Worldcon “In The Last And First Men, every time Stapledon makes a prediction about the future, he gets it wrong.” By 1942, events had overtaken Stapledon’s most famous works. He had failed to predict the Second World War and Darkness And The Light is his response to this omission.

In Darkness And The Light, he charts two divergent paths for humanity, one that leads to a destructive and controlling empire which flickers out and dies, the other a “Tibetan Renaissance” and an eventual utopian revolution. Neither of these futures is as well developed as those in his previous works, and the writing seems more trepidatious than one might expect from an author who wrote inaccurate predictions with fearless confidence in Last And First Men.

Even if it is sadly one of Stapledon’s lesser works, the book still warrants an inclusion on our nominating ballots.

Patron saint of the Hugo Awards Robert A. Heinlein’s first novel was serialized in April and May of
We love Vincent Di Fate's cover art
from the 1979 Signet edition of
Beyond This Horizon.
(Image via Amazon.com)
1942. Beyond This Horizon is a comedic novel in which a man who is genetically near-perfect struggles to find meaning in his life in a utopian society that has solved poverty, want, and greed. While the weird social mores of this future society include a libertarian attitude toward firearms and sex, their economic system is something between communism and fascism, though without the coercive oppression that these systems have often used in the real world. In many ways, it is unlike anything else Heinlein would ever publish — David Brin provocatively describes Beyond This Horizon as "Heinlein's most fascinating novel." 

Many of his more utopian ideas from the book look naïve in retrospect, but Heinlein got some interesting details right about the future. He managed to describe a device that closely resembles an internet-connected personal computer, alludes to the atomic bomb years before it was realized, predicted the waterbed, and even offered the rise of video game arcades as a plot point.

The first half of the book sees the protagonist Hamilton Felix swept up in an authoritarian plot by people disenchanted with utopia, while the second half features the birth and childhood of Hamilton’s messianic superkid. There’s an odd side plot about a man from 1926 who is unfrozen and introduced to this new world, though he seems only to exist so Heinlein can explain his ideas to a modern audience.

Revolution, freedom, tyranny, telepathy, and economics are all themes that Heinlein would explore more thoroughly and successfully later in his career. Although Beyond This Horizon is a deeply flawed, scattered book that seems to meander in a variety of directions, it’s one that is hard not to love for its optimism and joyfulness.

We’d like to see it get a nomination, but there are much more artful works that should be considered for the award.

For Hugo voters who are of the Christian faith, one might suspect that C.S. Lewis’
C.S. Lewis writes some of the most
memorable — and old-school —
devils in fiction.
(Image via Bristol Radical History)
classic apologetic text The Screwtape Letters will hold particularly strong appeal. Like Beyond This Horizon, it is a comedic novel with a prescriptivist view about the world, however, it is far more focused, direct, and structured.

The work takes the form of 31 letters from a demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, whose job is to tempt a middle-class British man towards a life of evil. Every letter highlights Lewis’ views on morality, and what he sees as the consequences of straying from the Church.

Every novel Lewis wrote had significant Christian religious themes – from Aslan’s resurrection to the importance of theology in his Space trilogy – but The Screwtape Letters is one of his most overtly theological. What made The Screwtape Letters such a successful book is that the narrative framework allowed Lewis to use humour to make his point. Writing from the demon's perspective, the book doesn’t come across as preachy. It's an extremely clever way to write about theology. The Screwtape Letters is an excellent bridge between Lewis' apologetic essays and his fantasy fiction, as it's written like a series of essays but viewed through a lens of fantasy.

Even those who don’t share Lewis’ faith are likely to be impressed with the quality of his writing, his wry wit, and the charm of this novel. This is a novel that deserves strong consideration for the Hugo award, and it is almost unthinkable to have a 1943 shortlist that does not include it.

But there was some debate within our book club about whether The Screwtape Letters should be the winner, or whether the award should instead be given to Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi horror classic Donovan’s Brain. This evocative and moody classic of the sub-genre about a disembodied brain with malicious intentions has been adapted to the radio multiple times, turned into a movie on no fewer than three occasions, and heavily praised by Stephen King in his Hugo-winning non-fiction tome on the horror genre Dance Macabre.

The protagonist, Dr. Patrick Cory, is a researcher who saves the brain of criminal millionaire
Steve Martin parodied Donovan's Brain
in his 1983 film The Man With Two Brains.
(Image via EmpireOnline.com)
W.H. Donovan after a plane crash. The brain, sitting in a glass jar, connected to wires, has no sensory inputs, and no way to communicate. But soon, Cory begins to realize that he is being controlled by the mental powers of the brain. First he is forced to write names he knows nothing about, writing with his left hand although he is right handed. Then, he starts to discover that he’s doing things in his sleep … terrible things, and committing terrible crimes beyond his control. What compounds the creeping sense of dread is the horror of metacognitive discomfort the protagonist feels as his thoughts are taken over by the will of Donovan’s disembodied brain.

For several of our book club members, our first experience of Donovan’s Brain was from the superb 1944 Orson Welles radio production, which effectively conveys the creeping terror of Dr. Cory’s slow loss of personal agency. The tone and tenor of that production is so rich that reading the book decades later, one can hear Welles’ somber intonation in every line.

One of the challenges that Retro Hugo voters often have is how influential some older works have been – if you read Donovan’s Brain for the first time in 2017, many of the writing techniques and ideas may seem overdone, or overly familiar because so many of us are familiar with the works inspired by the original.

Donovan’s Brain is one of the defining works of horror and is a work of science fiction that would be a worthy addition to the ranks of Hugo Award Winners. Works like this are one of the reasons we love the Retro Hugos, and we hope that it is on the final ballot.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Autonomous is a rich text

Despite being a debut novel, Autonomous is already enjoying a lot of Hugo buzz, helped along by the
Autonomous is jam-packed with ideas.
(Image via Den Of Geek)
prominence of its author, former io9 editor Annalee Newitz.

Set in a corporatist dystopia, the book offers twin narratives of a pharmaceutical pirate named Jack, and Paladin the robotic intellectual property police tasked with catching her. These intersecting stories allow the characters to explore various facets of a post-national libertarian North America where citizenship is commoditized, and human rights only exist for those who can afford them.

The book’s plot takes the characters to cities, provinces and territories throughout Western Canada – communities that members of our book club have called home. Newitz’s understanding of these places, their geography, and cultures is evident.

This is a rich text written with a deep understanding of the genre. Newitz’s academic background is evident in both the plausible science and the narrative construction.

There are more interesting science fictional ideas in this book than many authors choose to explore in an entire career. This is both impressive and overwhelming. It often feels like Newitz is trying to pack in more than the base plot can handle.
Saskatchwanian readers had no problem
believing that Newitz has visited
Moose Jaw and Saskatoon
(Image via TourismSaskatchewan.ca)

The productivity enhancing drug that is the core of the conflict in the book is both a plausible corporate misdeed and a logical extension of the science fictional concept of “emergent focus” Vernor Vinge introduced in A Deepness In The Sky.

The ontological malaise underpinning the character arc of Paladin is reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream, while also raising questions about consent. Paladin’s feelings are an invasive program that forces her to love her human handler. Some of our readers interpreted this as a metaphor for the patriarchy.

Newitz’s book almost makes some interesting arguments about intellectual property issues, and about the ways in which the rights of patent-holders are abused. Unfortunately, the basis for these ideas is not provided nor fully explored, and no alternative to the status quo is proposed.

True to the title, a main conceptual focus of the novel is to explore the ways in which sentient beings gain or lose autonomy, and to show why this matters. Newitz links the erosion of human rights to legislative negligence that unevenly granted rights to sentient robots. The result is a society that is unjust to many humans who have the same legal standing — and lack of autonomy — as most robots.

Some of our group found several relationships within the book to be problematic. The power
Corporations pushing productivity
enhancing drugs is another way in
which human autonomy is undermined
in Newitz' debut novel.
(Image by GladisAbril via Pixabay.com)

dynamic between Jack and an escaped slave was questioned, as was the age gap between Paladin (an 18 month old android) and her amorous corporate handler (an adult human). Anytime one person in a sexual relationship had less than full autonomy, we had significant qualms.

And in this way, the book prompted an exceptional amount of discussion amongst our book club. For every engaging idea the reader had to chew on, there seemed to be some flaw to dissect.

The plot structure, which alternates between Jack’s and Paladin’s points of view, may be the most fundamental challenge of the book. Most chapters seem to undermine the narrative tension of the subsequent chapter: Jack isn’t in Vancouver, so we know Paladin won’t find her there. Paladin isn’t in Saskatoon, so we know Jack’s not in danger.

Taken on their own, each of these stories are well-written, tightly plotted, and interesting. There is depth in the writing and in some of the explorations of identity, but we felt like these parallel narratives undermined each other often enough to distract the reader from the story.

Autonomous is an extraordinarily promising debut. Any book that provokes such intense — and interesting — discussions should be a strong contender for the Hugo Awards. We are looking forward to her next work.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Consider nominating The Good Place

If the arguments on Twitter are any indication, the race for the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic
The Good Place has a distinctive visual
style that reinforces both the comedy
and the morality of the series.
(Image via Netflix.com) 
Presentation Short Form may be shaping up as a battle of Orville versus Star Trek: Discovery.

We suspect that these two shows will garner most of the attention in this category during both nominating and voting. Which is a shame, because 2017 has been a spectacular year for science fiction and fantasy on the small screen, and some of it might be overlooked.

The Handmaid’s Tale should garner a nomination for its eighth episode “Jezebels,” American Gods fifth episode “Lemon Scented You” is excellent, and the sixth episode of Preacher’s second season “Sokosha” deserves strong consideration.

But most of all, we hope Hugo Award voters take the time to consider The Good Place, NBC’s sleeper hit about ethics and mortality. The show deserves at least a nomination for the first season finale “Michael’s Gambit” (which is already on Netflix, if you haven’t seen it yet).

When the show premiered in late 2016, it introduced viewers to a simple non-denominational afterlife
Lava monsters, angels, demons, and the
afterlife all make The Good Place
clearly eligible for Hugo consideration.
(Image via Netflix.com)
in which there is a ‘good place’ where good people go, and a ‘bad place’ where the not-good people go. In the pilot, the protagonist Eleanor (Kristin Bell) arrives in the good place and quickly realizes that she’s only there because of a clerical mistake.

The Good Place does not fit the traditional mold for a Hugo Award show. For one thing, no half-hour sitcom has ever won — or even been nominated — for a Hugo Award. In addition, the stories are not typical fantasy adventures. The show also uses few genre conventions, although the afterlife the protagonists inhabit is clearly a fantasy setting that would qualify for nomination, even if you never saw a lava monster.

Over the course of two very short seasons, The Good Place has managed to balance fleshed-out
Is there another show on television that
can make Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian
philosophy so interesting and funny?
(Image via Critical-Theory.com)
character arcs, absurdist humour, and explorations of philosophy. In most mainstream network shows, the exploration of philosophy would probably have been limited to name-dropping Jean Paul Sartre, or Jeremy Bentham. The Good Place manages to delve into some of these thinkers’ ideas — and it never seems forced or condescending towards the viewer.

The Season 1 finale “Michael’s Gambit” aired on January 19 of this year, and it is one of the finest half-hours of television in recent memory. Ted Danson deserves to win the Emmy for best supporting actor just on the strength of his performance in that episode.

Danson shines, in part, because of the excellent casting throughout the show. In addition to Kristen Bell, who plays a foul-mouthed party girl, William Jackson Howard’s role as straight-laced ethics professor Chidi, Manny Jacinto’s portrayal of enigmatic monk Jin-Yang, and Jameela Jamil as bubbly socialite Tahani are all perfectly cast.

Over the course of just 21 episodes (to date), the show has re-invented itself, completely changed
The cast of The Good Place.
(Image via Metro.co.uk)
courses, and on multiple occasions we have thought that the show was about to jump the shark. But it sticks the landing every time.

It’s also worth noting that not only is The Good Place good (as in of high quality), The Good Place is good (as in possessed of a certain positive moral tenor). This is not a grim-and-gritty show, but one that has a genuine positivity about it, and that’s refreshing.

Given its bizarre premise, overly cerebral aspirations, and moralistic underpinnings, The Good Place could have been a hot mess. But somehow, its writers have managed to craft one of the best fantasy shows on television.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Hot War is Turtledove at his best.

Harry Turtledove's The Hot War
suggests that nuclear war was
closer than many of us
choose to believe.
(Image via NationalInterest.org)
Superficially and stylistically, it would be hard to distinguish The Hot War from most of Harry Turtledove’s previous series.

As always, the writing is occasionally stilted. And as always, we are introduced to dozens of point-of-view characters representing key perspectives in every faction of a historical upheaval and their individual stories paint a larger picture of a global narrative. This is the Turtledove ‘sweep of history’ template, and it’s served him well over his career as the Dean of Alternate History.

But fundamentally, The Hot War is something different, darker and timelier than anything else he has written.

Keeping The Hot War to a trilogy — which is short by the standards of an author known for works like his 11-volume Southern Victory series — allows the narrative to move relatively quickly and with greater impact.

The point of divergence for this alternate history takes place in November of 1950, when (unlike in the real world) the Chinese invasion of Korea successfully destroys a significant portion of the American forces. The ratcheting up of the conflict has an inevitability and a horror to it, as first there are limited strikes by the Americans, then retaliation by the Russians, followed by direct attacks, and direct retaliations.

It is refreshing to see alternate history
that explores conflicts other than the
civil war or the Second World War.
(Image via Britanica.org) 
Against this backdrop, Turtledove offers the interwoven stories of a British widow named Daisy Baxter trying to get by in a ruined U.K, a U.S. pilot named Bill Staley who wrestles with his conscience as he destroys cities, a concentration camp survivor named Fayvl Tabakman who has to deal with the destruction of Seattle, a German veteran named Gustav Hozzel who goes to the front lines, and literally dozens more.

Turtledove's overarching themes of the universalities of human experience are well explored. Characters do their best in the best ways they know how in difficult circumstances. There are few, if any, true villains.

Unlike many previous Turtledove alternate histories, the human stories are unpredictable. These are tumultuous lives marred by sudden bouts of unexpected violence and destruction that turn worlds upside down. Death comes out of nowhere, and little meaning can be found in any of it.

Of particular interest in this alternate history is the tragic — and believable — story of Harry Truman. Turtledove’s research into historical figures is always impeccable, and many of Truman's decisions in these novels are based on courses of action that he considered in real life. Turtledove paints a portrait of an alternate failed presidency that hinges on one bad decision after another.

America's 33rd president was the
only one who ever ordered an
atomic bomb deployed in a war.
(Image via historynewsnetwork.org)
The consequences of Truman's mistakes keep compounding. The way in which this weighs on him in the novels is effectively conveyed, and this may be one of the best character arcs Turtledove has ever written. Turtledove seems to be arguing that even a well-intentioned president might invite calamity through brinksmanship.

This cast may be one of the most memorable groups that Turtledove has written since Worldwar: In The Balance back in the 1990s. However, it’s still clear that Turtledove has difficulty writing characters from outside his cultural background — none of the important Korean or Chinese characters are given point-of-view sections.

Harry Turtledove’s The Hot War trilogy concluded this summer with the publication of Armistice, and is eligible for consideration for the new Best Series Hugo. None of the three books stand on their own, and all of them have flaws. But the completed trilogy is far more than the sum of their parts, and it seems to us that this is the sort of work that the Best Series Hugo is uniquely able to celebrate. We are going to consider nominating it.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

As strange as fiction: 1963's Hugo shortlisted authors

The novels that were up for the Hugo Award in 1963 are amongst the most confounding ever on a shortlist. But that is not to say that they’re bad.

The list ranges from the emotionally challenging (Man In The High Castle) to the technical (Fall Of Moondust) and from the approachable (Little Fuzzy) to the befuddling (Sylva).

Other than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Sword of Aldones, it’s easy to see why these novels were contenders for the top prize in science fiction. But possibly even more interesting than the novels themselves, are the lives of those who penned them.

In the 65-year history of the Hugo Awards, the shortlist has included a wide variety of dreamers, eccentrics, heroes and zealots. But in no year has there ever been a group of people like those whose names were on the ballot for best novel in 1963. The lives of the Best Novel Hugo shortlisted authors that year were variously heroic and tragic, inspiring and contemptible.

Jean Bruller lived so interesting a life
that writing a completely insane
Burt Reynolds movie is one of the most
mundane episodes in his biography.
(Image via Movieposter.com )
Amongst English-language science fiction readers, Vercors — AKA Jean Bruller — is probably the least well-known of the nominated authors, but he may be the most inspiring. Born to middle-class Parisian parents, Bruller graduated as an engineer before embarking on a successful career as a cartoonist. During the Second World War, he became famous as a resistance fighter. He guerilla-published an anti-fascist novel while living in Nazi-occupied France in 1942. After the war, the French government presented him the Legion of Honour, which he turned down in protest over his government’s ongoing mistreatment of Algerians.

Bruller’s 1960 novel Sylva, translated by Rita Barisse in 1962, was his only Hugo-shortlisted work, and is mostly forgotten. The plot — which involves a man torn between his love for a drug addict and his love for a humanoid fox — is significantly less interesting than the author’s life. It should be noted that Barisse did outstanding translation work. The writing is poetic, although the story has aged poorly. On this level alone, the book belongs on the shortlist.

Is the moon covered in
oceans of dust that will
swallow anything that
lands on it? In 1963,
scientists weren't certain.
(Image via Abe.com)
If Bruller has any competition amongst interesting lives lived by Hugo Award shortlisters, Arthur C. Clarke would be it. The sage of Sri Lanka’s exploits are well-documented: his work on the invention of radar during the Second World War, the discovery of sunken archeological treasures, his work on groundbreaking movies. Clarke was on the shortlist for the first time in 1963 for A Fall Of Moondust, a brilliant little novel about tourists trapped in a lunar transport vehicle that has sunk to the bottom of electrostatic quicksand.

It’s a memorable novel, in part because it was hard science fiction when it was published — theories abounded about what the surface of the moon was like — but almost immediately overtaken by real science.

As with many Clarke works, the challenges to overcome are purely technical, but are worked through in interesting ways. Memorably, issues of heat dissipation and oxygen provide narrative tension.

Despite being dated, A Fall of Moondust is among Clarke’s finer works, and deserved the consideration it received in 1963.

It’s interesting to note that not only was 1963 the last year in which all the authors on the Hugo Awards Best Novel shortlist were first-time nominees, it’s also the first year in which a sequel (The Sword of Aldones) was up for the award.

That sequel, The Sword of Aldones was the second of the Darkover books. Both it and its predecessor
Hugo Award nominee Jean Bruller
is commemorated at the Pont Des
Arts in Paris with a plaque that
describes how he "Allowed French
intellectualism to retain its honour
during the occupation."
(Image via Pinterest.com)
hit the shelves in 1962, continuing the Darkover stories that Marion Zimmer Bradley had been writing since 1958.

The Sword of Aldones’ unpolished first-person narrative was unsatisfying enough that 20 years later, Bradley decided to revisit the story. In 1981, she re-wrote it from the ground up, and re-published it as Sharra’s Exile, a longer, more fleshed out book written in the third-person, and moving the protagonist's first-person observations into sections that are supposed to be quoted from his journal. If you’re reading through the Darkover novels, we'd argue that The Sword of Aldones is more of a published oddity than it is a key part of the narrative.

It is also hard to read Bradley’s works without having the experience tainted by the revelations about her complicity in the abuse of children. I would argue that there are few Hugo Award-shortlisted authors whose conduct has been as reprehensible.

Conversely, there is a goodness and a nobility to the book Little Fuzzy, and protagonist Jack Holloway’s passionate advocacy for the rights of the titular characters.

I first read Little Fuzzy when I was 12 years old, and appreciated H. Beam Piper’s classic book as a fun, interesting, engaging novel about the plight of a possibly intelligent species on a recently colonized world, and the political and economic consequences of their existence.

On re-reading it as an adult, I was struck by the maturity of Piper’s worldview, the anti-corporate politics, and the subtle undercurrent of melancholy.

Some critics have noted that Piper’s cute and primitive aliens can be seen as a metaphor that
Perhaps without H. Beam Piper, there
never would have been a
Caravan of Courage.
(Image via TVOvermind.com)
infantilizes tribal indigenous peoples, and that is a fair criticism. However, the childish nature of the Fuzzies can also be interpreted as a discussion point on liminal areas around sapience, and the rights of intelligent wild species such as dolphins and great apes.

Little Fuzzy has influenced generations of writers. The book’s legacy echoes through Star Wars’ Ewoks and the Na'vi from James Cameron’s Avatar. Piper’s work, however, remains more fully thought out, and more nuanced than its imitators.

It is a tragedy that in 1964, H. Beam Piper took his own life in the wake of arguments related to the rejected publication of a sequel to Little Fuzzy. One suspects that had he continued writing, he might have ended up on the ballot again in subsequent years.

The entire text of
Little Fuzzy is in the
public domain, and free
to access on the internet.
It's worth your time.
(Image via Wikipedia)
The winner that year, Phillip K. Dick, was another of science fiction’s tragic figures. Suffering from mental illness, visions, and depression, Dick attempted suicide in 1974, but survived and continued writing for another decade, until his death at the age of 53 in 1982.

The Man In The High Castle is one of the most confounding novels ever to win the Hugo Award. It’s shapeless, meandering, unsatisfying in its conclusion, deeply sad and entirely brilliant.

The narrative mostly goes nowhere, in part because Dick was plotting it by casting random lots with the I Ching. But the plot of this alternate history is less important than how it depicts an America of learned helplessness. This is a book about succumbing to tyranny and the ways in which we become complicit through inaction.

As with many of Dick's works, one of the key ingredients is the ontological malaise that is woven into the narrative. The Man In The High Castle asks the reader to question what we know to be true.

Although most fans will probably get more enjoyment from the tightly-plotted, tense, action-packed television adaptation of the novel, the show entirely misses the philosophical underpinning that made the book so great.

The shortlist in 1963, would have presented a difficult choice for Hugo voters weighing the merits of the joyful brilliance of Little Fuzzy against those of the ponderous and meandering The Man In The High Castle. But we’d argue that they probably got it right.



Sunday, 22 October 2017

Harry Potter and the Undeserved Hugo

It is quite possible that there are more printed copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire than of all other Hugo Award winners put together.

The fourth Harry Potter novel has more than 60 million printed copies, easily quadrupling the number of printed copies of Dune (at twelve million) and ten times the number of American Gods (around a million) and Stranger in a Strange Land (five million) combined.

Despite this and the fact that I enjoyed The Goblet Of Fire moderately well, I now wonder with the benefit of hindsight, if awarding the Potter franchise novel the 2001 Hugo Award was a mistake. Certainly, there were other books nominated that year that were more worthy of the Hugo Award. 

The Goblet of Fire rarely ranks near the top of anyone’s list of Harry Potter novels. As the middle volume of the seven-book series, it lacks the freshness of the early novels and offers none of the narrative resolution of the latter books. What does The Goblet of Fire offer? Almost endless description of a Quiddich tournament.
What The Goblet of Fire needed is a
few more Quiddich matches.
(Image via Independent.co.uk)

The Goblet of Fire won the Hugo Award in 2001, at the height of Pottermania. There were lineups at bookstores as fans clamored to get the fourth volume of the series. Kids were dressing up as Harry Potter for Halloween. The first Harry Potter movie was expected to hit theatres in November. 

If Hugo Award voters had the prescience to have recognized (via award or nomination) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1998, or if the whole series had won upon its conclusion, perhaps it would be more forgivable. But looking at the situation with 15 years of hindsight, it feels like the Hugos were just bandwagon jumping on an established series that was already extraordinarily popular. 

It seems to me that honouring the book with a Hugo Award did nothing to help it find new readers, and this feels like an abdication of what the award should be about. 

In introducing the First Annual Achievement Awards in Science Fiction (which would later become known as the Hugo Awards), organizer Will Jenkins wrote: “It has long been felt that some formal system of awards should exist in modern science fiction whereby outstanding accomplishments of writing, editing and artistry in the field could be properly recognized and made known to the world.”

Can it reasonably be argued that in 2001, the Hugo Award made Harry Potter ‘known to the world’? For almost every other Hugo Award-winning novel, we can definitively say that the award improved the visibility and impact of the book, helping it find new readers. 

Because publishing numbers are notoriously unreliable, especially for works prior to 1980, we looked at the number of North American libraries with English-language copies in circulation (according to the OCLC database Worldcat.org). This too has gaps and omissions, but represents a fair measure of how in-demand and thus well-remembered a book might be in North America. 

The 1964 Hugo winner Way Station can be found in 713 libraries, while hardly any other title by Clifford D. Simak has even half that figure. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which took home the Hugo in 1972 is available in 810 libraries, while most other books by Phillip José Farmer are only represented in about 200 or so libraries each. 

It’s a pattern that repeats itself as you look at the works of almost every Hugo Award winning novelist whose Hugo-winning novel is not a sequel. Even books by most big-name science fiction and fantasy authors seem to get a boost from the award. 

Perhaps George R. R. Martin should
get the Retro-Alfie for 2001?
(Image via Westeros.org)
Which brings me back to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. At the time of this writing, there are 5131 libraries that provide access to the book. The preceding volume in the series is available at 5210. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? A whopping 5270. 

The Hugo Award did nothing for Harry Potter. Perhaps that’s why J.K. Rowling was not represented at the awards ceremony, and may not even have ever accepted it. 

It’s understandable that Hugo voters got swept up in Pottermania, but with the benefit of hindsight, we should also be willing and able to own up to our mistakes. 

The Hugo Award has currency, and that shouldn’t be devalued by throwing the award to the fad of the moment.