Friday, October 29, 2010

1956: Double Star

Winner of the 1956 Hugo is Robert Heinlein's Double Star. For those of you who don't know Heinlein casts a large shadow over science fiction. He has won more Hugos then any other author at 4 and also won 1 retro award. Along with Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov, Heinlein is a pillar of Golden Age science fiction. I love the term "Golden Age" because it is always given years after the fact; long enough afterward for best works to be remembered and everything else to be forgotten. In the case of science fiction, the Golden Age is when the genre came out of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and more into the mainstream. This is, if you will, old school science fiction: stories about Mars, men in rockets, and strange aliens.

First and foremost, Double Star was a fun read. The book is narrated in first person by Lawrence Smith aka Lorenzo Smythe aka Great Lorenzo, actor extraordinaire. Lorenzo is full of himself and high sentence, prejudiced against Martian,s and a master of his craft. He also is immensely entertaining and likable. Within the first few pages, I felt I both understood and liked Lorenzo.   Sometimes, the first person narrator can be lost in a story and the observations he gives sound out of place for the character. Not here though. At no point does during Double Star does Heinlein lose Lorenzo's voice. The character feels very whole and real, as do most of the characters surrounding him, with the exception of Penny who feels like the obvious romantic interest and just kind of boring.

Lorenzo is hired to take the place of the prominent leader of the Expansionist Party, John Joseph Bonforte. Initially, he just has to impersonate Bonforte during his initiation into a Martian nest, but that's just the beginning. To tell more would give away the plot but it's a fun journey. I wish the ending had a little more force to it though.

The novel is vague on when exactly it takes place. Lorzeno does not talk about much that isn't relative to him as an actor or the politician that he is impersonating. It takes place far in the future, where the solar system is mostly colonized and ruled by a constitutional monarchy based on the Moon. Mars, Venus, and Ganymede are all populated by aliens. It's an interesting universe, and as far as I know, Heinlein never comes back to it.
I would recommend this to any science fiction fan. It isn't the deepest novel or the most innovative but it is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

1955: They'd Rather Be Right

More like They'd Rather Be Preachy. This book is a step down from the last winner, The Demolished Man, and not a very good novel.
It's also not easy to find. Not a single bookstore I visited had it in stock or on their website. The New Castle County public library system didn't have it either. The University of Delaware library did have it but it was part of the special collections. There were a few copies on the Amazon marketplace but I wasn't so sure I wanted to pay $25 dollars plus shipping for what is considered the worst novel to win the Hugo. Finally, I struck on the idea of looking at the University of Buffalo library, where my brother is studying for his PhD in the Classics. Sure, enough they had a copy and he was able to send it my way.
They'd Rather Be Right wasn't worth the effort. The plot has some promise. In the future (the 1990s, it seems. This was written in 1954 after all), the United States is under Opinion Control so when scientists at Hoxworth University create a supercomputer named "Bossy" they are forced to go on the run with Joe Carter, a young telepath. From a hidden lab on skid row in San Fransisco, the scientists are able to use Bossy to turn an old woman named Mabel into a beautiful young woman with psychosomatic therapy. After that Bossy become well known as everyone wants immortality and blah blah blah.
It doesn't really matter. The remotely interesting premise is squandered on boring one-dimensional characters, a slow plot, and endlessly preachy asides. Every character is a stereotype. Drs. Billings and Hoskins, and every other member of academia, are narrow minded intellectuals who don't so much speak as spout scientific mumbo jumbo. Their dialogue reads like a bad Star Trek episode. As in:
Hoskins: "Do you think (techno babble techno babble)?"
Billings: "No its obvious (techno babble techno babble).
This is not good writing. Science Fiction can be heavy on the science but it needs a good story to back it up. All the non-academic characters act like nothing the "Brains" say is understandable. The telepaths are even worse characters. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Joe is the only telepath and that he manipulated the scientists into working together so they could create Bossy which would turn other people into telepaths. Joe seems to have complete control over his powers and comes across as too perfect and thus uninteresting. For a guy who has been able to read everyone's thoughts since he was a child and has had no training, Joe is remarkably well-adjusted. When Mabel and Carney become telepaths, they also adjust quickly and seem too perfect.
There are so many plot holes. For instance, Joe and the scientists are on the run because they have wronged Opinion Control but what that exactly is is never explained. Its usually treated as an informal but powerful force yet if that is the case why are they running from federal agents? It just doesn't make sense.
The worst part of the book is its endless preachy tone. The authors go on and on about how people can't see beyond their own prejudices, preconceived notions, and tensions and how everyone is secretly full of themselves. Frankly, after the 2nd chapter this gets tiresome. Apparently the supercomputer Bossy is above all that because it only follows facts. Thus Bossy seems too perfect and, like the telepaths, uninteresting.
They'd Rather Be Right isn't worth reading. So far the Hugo Awards has had one good book and one bad. I have faith that the next one, Double Star by Robert Heinlein, will be better. It's easy to find so I should know soon.

One final note: Why did they think a supercomputer named after a cow was a good idea? C'mon- Bossy?!