Reading goal accomplished.
About eight years ago, when I was 40, thinking myself something of a science-fiction fan, I took a look at the list of Hugo Award winners in the best science-fiction novel category. To my chagrin, I saw that I had read only five of them, and this award dated back to 1950s publications. So, I set a reading goal to read them all before I turned 50. At age 48, I am pleased to announce that I have read all 65 of them. Here are my thoughts…
Before I started, the only ones that I’d read were: Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (of course!), Philip K. Dick’s “The Man In the High Castle”, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” books (here, part of “Foundation and Empire” and “Foundation’s Edge”), and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (thx Danny Almon!), Clearly, I was missing something in terms of context, scope and background. Clearly, I had no sci-fi cred. So, off I read.
The first book I tackled on this reading project was Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”. Really glad I chose this one; it was sort of the perfect way to start off. She’s an awesome writer and thinker, and I loved the imagery in this one. An ice age world; cities with deep snow covering them and people going from steep-roofed building to steep-roofed building via underground passage; some beautiful myths and stories told by the people of this world. Very interesting gender politics and issues. Highly recommended.
Then, I think it was “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. This 1961 novel is a bit piece-meal (based on how it was published in parts) and deals with a post-nuclear holocaust Earth, centuries down the line, just starting to eek its way back out of the new Dark Ages. I liked it.
I think another early one in my reading was “Stranger In A Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein. Now, I liked other Heinlein, including “Starship Troopers” and “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” but I didn’t like this one. It’s a classic, sure. It involves an alien who comes to Earth and has to deal with us stupid humans. Of course, he’s challenging social mores, but I really can’t stand that kind of storyline that goes “oh, your people do things this way? How curious. Well, in the sophisticated culture and advanced society where I’m from, we do things this way. You can see how much more sense that makes?, etc.” I grokked, but I didn’t like very much.
My favourites from this reading are:
“Hyperion” by Dan Simmons. A very unique spin on The Canterbury Tales. I loved Simmons’ language from the first page or two and knew I’d love the whole thing. I did. The Shrike is one of the most kickass characters you’ll come across, and some of the ‘tales’ are chilling and heart-wrenching. The sequel, “The Fall of Hyperion” – a Hugo nominee – was also excellent, but a very different style of book.
“A Fire Upon The Deep” and “A Deepness In the Sky” by Vernor Vinge. These are only loosely related novels, but both of the same distant-future setting in Vinge’s “Zones of Thought” universe. Both very intriguing looks at future societies, technologies, and non-humanoid intelligence. The resolution to the first one blew my mind.
“The City & The City” by China Mieville. This was a co-winner in 2010. Don’t read anything about this book before you start reading it. Don’t even read the back cover. It is very inventive and very cool.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” by Susannah Clarke. Not sci-fi, but a tale about ‘the return of magick to England’. I found myself almost believing it as a true story/history. Loved the language and imagery here, couldn’t get enough of it, and sorry it ended. “I reached out my hand; England’s rivers turned and flowed the other way. I reached out my hand; my enemies’ blood stopt in their veins… the rain made a door for me and i went through it, the stones made a throne for me and I sat upon it…”
Other Pretty Great Stuff
Maybe not quite cracking the very top, but Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’ trilogy (“Red Mars” nominee, and “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” as winners) was pretty stunning. They follow the settling and terraforming of Mars over a few centuries. Interesting stories, good characters, and the planet itself really becomes a character of sorts – its history, topography, its awesome features. Very detailed and long, so tough to recommend, but you won’t be disappointed if you carry on through it. I am very interested now in what happens with Mars exploration, and interested even to see what areas of the planet are explored.
The classics of military science-fiction are classics for great reason. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War” are something of a piece and should both be read. Forget the film, “Starship Troopers” is full of stuff like citizenship, heroism, and the details of platoon life in the MI (mechanized infantry; we’ll always need the MI). Some great science considerations like time dilation and background radiation come into play in these books. Your best friend is in another unit? Well, he’s shipping out tomorrow to hit a battle site many light years away. You are staying put. You’ll never see him again, because time for him will slow down in transit while it will carry on for you normally, until you move out. Haldeman’s follow-up, “Forever Peace” is worth reading, too.
Connie Willis has won three Hugo awards for her books that feature time travel — the scenario is the history department at Oxford around the 2030s and they have a time machine. There are aspects of the method of time travel that (we hope) don’t allow time travelers to alter the flow/events of time. So, as it doesn’t profit anyone to travel back in time to try to alter events in their favour, what is left is for the curious historians at Oxford to do the time traveling, to observe what life was really like way back whenever. In “Doomsday Book”, my favourite of the three, the researchers travel back in England to the time of the Black Death. As you can guess, the life then encounter is very hard; but do they bring the plague back to the present with them?? “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is some mostly 19th century fun, as light as “Doomsday” is dark. And her double novels “Blackout/All Clear” deal with the Second World War in England. As a Churchill buff, it was great to have this ‘immersion’ in the time period. I enjoyed these ones, although they could probably have been a single, shorter novel.
I enjoyed all four of the Lois McMaster Bujold winners. Three were from her Vorkossigan saga books, and one from her ‘Chalion’ series. LMB can write ’em.
I generally enjoyed the science and premise for (Canadian) Robert J. Sawyer’s “Hominids”. The setting is a parallel universe where we were the humans who died out and the Neanderthal continued on and populated the planet. There is an opening between universes and someone from the parallel world comes through. Cool, etc., but I found it a bit like the “Stranger In A Strange Land” syndrome of ‘oh, you do it that way? how curious, we do it this way, you can see how much more reasonable our way is … you stupid idiotic human’. That last bit is implied. So, I dislike the (really un-) subtle preachy-ness of this kind of storytelling.
Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbows End” won in 2007. Vinge teaches math and computer science. In this one, he envisions a near future where the Singularity is upon us, and the world is a very dangerous place. Pretty good story; awesome ‘sci’. He envisions a lot of stuff that looks like it is coming to be.
Neil Gaiman. He’s awesome and I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read. This project got me reading him. Also, JK Rowling.
I liked David Brin’s ‘Uplift’ universe books, and may continue along with those.
As for the cyberpunk, William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” was good. I liked Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” better. Shades of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” (I thought Ender’s computer training game/companion was the best part of that book); the quite unrelated sequel, “Speaker For The Dead” was a better book.
With recent winners, I did like Jo Walton’s “Among Others”, and John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” was among the funniest books I’ve read (and some great genre reading). I generally liked the stories and writing of Paolo Bacigalupi (“The Windup Girl”, Bladerunner-ish or something) and Michael Chabon (“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”). These are all writers I’d go back to.
The Big Object Books
There was a period in the 60s and 70s where ‘the big object’ was kind of the star of the book. Examples are Fritz Leiber’s “The Wanderer” from 1965, Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” from 1971, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” from 1974. and perhaps Clarke’s “The Fountains of Paradise” from 1980. These objects – a spaceship/planetoid, a Dyson-sphere type ring that rotates around a star, a giant spaceship, and a space elevator – all pose challenges to the people involved, and they have to work around them. The science is heavy and cool. “Rama” is probably the only book that’s given me vertigo from just reading. I thought “Fountains” was pretty beautiful, mainly due to its cultural/geological locale for the base of the space elevator, a Sri Lanka-type mountainous island. Anyway, cool to read about such sublime subjects.
Classics, but not for me
There were a few that others seem to quite revere, but I didn’t really enjoy, had a hard time getting through. Maybe it was just reading at the wrong time or in the wrong frame of mind; or maybe they just weren’t for me. One was John Brunner’s 1969 winner “Stand On Zanzibar”, about a (then) near-future dystopia where societies are pressured by over-population. This was certainly one of the alarmisms of the day, and it just didn’t work for me. A precursor to cyberpunk, perhaps. Another was C.J. Cherryh’s “Cyteen” which dealt with clones. I found it overly long and didn’t really embrace the characters. But, like I said, others seem to really love it and view it as a classic. I did like the other Cherryh on the list (“Downbelow Station”).
Others seemed fairly light-weight but were fine.
Some others I just thought were kind of lame. “The Snow Queen” by Joan Vinge. Vonda McIntyre’s “Dreamsnake”. Stories and characters, but nothing to really appeal to me. Certainly not much ‘sci’.
So, I’m done and will keep reading Hugo winners (my son’s gift to me each Christmas) and nominees, and past Nebula winners and nominees. But with less of a goal in mind. I got my sci-fi (web-) cred.
Up next, Shakespeare. From start to finish.