Sunday, September 9, 2012

1966: Dune and This Immortal

              Wow, the first tie in Hugo Award history and one of the books is Frank Herbert’s Dune. For those of you that don’t know, Dune is one of the bestselling and most important works in the history of science fiction. How could it tie with a relatively unheard of book like This Immortal?  After having heard them both it isn’t as hard to see as you would imagine.
             Let’s begin with Dune. Dune is a very unconventional science fiction novel in a number of ways. Though it does take place in the future (20,000 years in the future), it does not feature computers, rockets, intelligent aliens, or any of the standard sci-fi troupes. Instead computers are forbidden and humanity has colonized much of the universe without finding any intelligent alien life. Travel between worlds is not accomplished by rockets but instead by ships that bend space to move from one end of the universe to the other. The government of the Known Universe is set up on medieval lines with an Emperor and Houses Major and Minor who control planets as fiefs. While much of science fiction shows government as democratic and efficient, the Imperium is decidedly byzantine and despotic with various factions with their own agendas fighting each other, both overtly and covertly. It’s a truly fascinating universe and easy to get lost in. Strangely, given the depth of the universe and the scale that is set up, a vast majority of the novel takes place on one planet, Arrakis also known as Dune. Arrakis is a desert world with little to recommend it except for one thing: the spice Melange. The spice is everything in Dune. It allows the navigators of the Spacing Guild to fold space making it vital for the economy and very existence of the Imperium. It expands the minds of people and lengths their lives. It is also very addictive. Spice can only be mined on Arrakis so the planet is the most vitally important in the Known Universe.
The story itself is about the son of Duke Leto Atreides, Paul. The Atreides are given the planet of Arrakis from their sworn enemies, the Harkonnens, led by the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The new fief is a trap set by the Baron and the Emperor to destroy the Atreides. The Baron wants to destroy his sworn enemy and the Emperor fears the Atreides rising power. Paul and his mother, Jessica, flee into the desert of Arrakis and create an army out of the native inhabitants, the Fremen, to destroy the Harkonnens and retake the planet. The description I just gave of Dune hardly captures what makes it a great novel. It’s like describing the Sun without mentioning that it is hot. Dune is well realized characters operating in a society unlike our own with interesting philosophical underpinnings. Paul’s mother is a member of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a group trying to create the perfect human. Herbert does an excellent job with the effects of environment effect on people and society and the role and misuse of religion. That is the reason that Dune is one of the great sci-fi novels and not just a great tale.
 I read Dune for the first time when I was in 7th grade and absolutely adored it. Not to date myself, but that was 17 years ago and I thought I should reread it for this review. It is still an excellent book and ranks as of one of my all-time favorites but there are some elements that could use some work. Herbert has a real problem switching perspectives which can be jarring. A section could be focusing on Jessica and then switch to Paul and switch again within a few pages. It is hardly a deal breaker but some tighter editing could fix that. This may seem like a strange complaint but characters are a bit too calculating. Everyone one is thinking 8 steps ahead and nothing happens without a great deal of intrigue. And I mean everyone; from the lowest Fremen to the noble houses, nearly every character is constantly on edge. This can be a bit wearing after a while and my reading of history shows that Herbert doesn’t use enough stupidity. These issues are small compared to how great this book. If you are a science fiction fan and you haven’t read Dune change that now. I mean right now. Stop reading and go get the book. You will not be disappointed.
I have one main problem with This Immortal: it is not as good as Dune. But it is very good. This can be a problem with a yearly award; some years are great and others are not. In my mind This Immortal should not have tied with Dune but it is far superior to The Wanderer. I guess 1966 was just a good year. Even though This Immortal is not Dune level good I am glad it tied with Dune; otherwise I probably never would have read it.
Roger Zelzany came up with an interesting premise for This Immortal. It takes place on devastated Earth with population of only 4 million. Most of the planet is radioactive and people can only live in tropical and temperate areas by ocean so the world capital is Port-du-Prince, Haiti and Greece is the home of our titular hero, Conrad. Conrad is enjoying his honeymoon on a Greek island when he is called to Port-du-Prince to take a Vegan around the planet to some of the ruined sights. Conrad has little choice because the Vegans own Earth and treat it as a tourist destination. Conrad takes this Vegan around with a company of former lovers, enemies, and friends. The Vegan, who claims he is on a mission to record the monuments of Earth, is important but Conrad doesn’t know why. Because of this he defends the Vegan from numerous attempts on his life including, but no limited to, mutated animals, members of his own company, and savage natives.
What sells this novel is Zelzany’s excellent writing and the likability of his main character. Conrad, who narrates the story in first person, is a joy to read. He maybe an immortal but he is a hardly typical. He has a pronounced limb because one leg is shorter than the other, a scared face and an irreverent sense of human. I wanted to spend more time with this character and learn more about his past that is hinted at throughout the novel. It was a short but fun 200 odd pages and made me interested in reading more of Roger Zelzany’s work.
What can else can I say but that 1966 was a good year for science fiction. Two excellent books and I discovered a new author I liked. I should always be this lucky. Read both of these books. This Immortal might be hard to find.  I only found it at the University of Delaware library. Dune can be found anywhere. Go now and read them both. You will be disappointed.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

1965: The Wanderer

              I don’t think I like Fritz Leiber’s work. At least not his science fiction work. Observant readers may remember that I reviewed Mr. Leiber’s 1958 Hugo Award winning novel The Big Time a little while ago. It wasn’t bad but it was hardly my favorite Hugo winner.  The novel was too long on ideas (inter-time war, rest stations outside the universe, Venusian satyrs, etc.) and too short on pages (129). The Wanderer, Leiber’s 1965 winner, is the exact opposite. It’s too long at 320 pages for its core idea. That and it just isn’t a very good book.
                Let’s start with the core concept: an Earth-sized planet appears suddenly in the sky (called the Wanderer by the people of Earth), havoc ensues, and people around the world react to it. At its core, this isn’t a bad concept. The havoc from the massive gravitational changes such as hurricanes and tidal waves make for a good backdrop. It all falls apart from there. The story is told from multiple perspectives, so many in fact that I can’t remember all of them and so randomly that often times when a plot thread was brought up I couldn’t remember anything about it. It did not help that most of these didn’t go anywhere. The story of Wolf Loner (not the last in a series of bad names used in this book) who is sailing across the Atlantic by himself is without a point. Same with the story of the atomic cruiser hijacked by revolutionaries. Nothing happens. There are too many threads that never weave into whole cloth.
                This would be more forgivable if the main characters and stories were more interesting. With few exception, both the stories and characters are uninteresting and ridiculous. The one exception was about Donald Merriam, an astronaut stuck on the moon when the Wanderer arrives. His escape through the Moon while it is being ripped apart is great. Leiber’s description of the events is excellent and filled with enough uncertainty to keep the reader guessing. Sadly, the other stories don’t fare as well. One of the main threads is the travels of the Saucer Symposium, a group of alien watchers and theorists, as they escape from a Southern California beach. Donald Merriam’s finance, Margo, and his friend, Paul, are part of that group. Not much comes of this plot either except for the group running into the typical post-disaster craziness, Margo cheating on her finance with a breaded married professor, and Paul getting abducted by some of the aliens that live on the Wanderer. We'll come back to the abduction in a moment. As the Saucer Symposium runs into homicidal soldiers and violent teens, I wondered if every post-apocalyptic story has to do this: show that people are violent animals if the veneer of civilization is stripped away. I see this all the time (zombie apocalypses always do this) and its getting old. Maybe it wasn’t as cliched in 1965 but it certainly seems that way now. Margo’s seduction by the professor seems less like a seduction than the acts of sexual predator. Creepy.
                There was promise after Paul is abducted but that plot doesn’t go well. I was excited because I wanted to see the aliens that lived on the Wanderer. Sadly, the aliens were a major disappointment. All of them are anamorphic animals. The alien that abducts Paul is a cat woman. It’s very lame. It doesn’t help that Paul describes her in very sexual terms making me wonder if Leiber was an early furry. I won’t even get started on the ridiculous of alien society and the purpose built planets surrounding stars as an egg covers a shell.
                Obviously, I was not a fan of The Wanderer. It was certainly not my least favorite Hugo Winner, it will take quite a lot to be worst then They’d Rather Be Right, but it is pretty low on the list. Fritz Leiber is one of the pioneers of Sword and Sorcery so maybe those are better. Next up is the first tied year in Hugo history. One is the science fiction classic Dune by Frank Herbert and the other is an obscure book called This Immortal by Roger Zelanzy. How do they stack up? Wait and find out.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

1964: The Way Station

                The Way Station (originally called Here Gather the Stars) by Clifford D. Simak was a pleasant and enjoyable yarn. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. The story of an American Civil War Veteran who manages an interstellar way station is well told and the characters especially Enoch Wallace, the previously mentioned veteran, are relatable characters. The Way Station was just nice to read.
                As I wrote those lines it felt like I was damning this book with faint praise but that really isn’t my intent. Simak’s The Way Station (also called Here Gather the Stars) does what a number of Hugo Award winners try to do and fail: tells a story with a message without bludgeoning the reader over the head with it. For perhaps the five of you that regularly read this blog, you may remember that the 1955 winner They’d Rather Be Right (or as I called it They’d Rather Be Preachy) is the most egregious offender in this regard though it is hardly alone. A Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein also had this problem, though Heinlein was a good writer so his mouth piece characters actually seemed like people (most of the time).  But Simak doesn’t do this. The Way Station deals with fear of nuclear holocaust, love over violence, and multi-species interaction without a gentler manner.
                As mentioned before, Enoch Wallace is an American Civil War veteran who manages an interstellar way station. The way station is in his Wisconsin boyhood home, which has been covered with an indestructible film to protect it from the elements and intruders. The building also slows down time meaning that Enoch has barely aged in 100 years. The way stations transmit the biological information of the various alien travelers and recreate them at each stop. When they leave, the body stays behind and the biological material is recycled to be used again. Enoch spends much of his time conversing with these travelers until they move on. The aliens are all unique and interesting. Many of them are not even close to human which is something I have always liked. Too much science fiction is Star Trek-like with their aliens: are just humans with pointy ears. When he is not visiting with the passing aliens, Enoch walks in the woods, reads, spends time with holographic friends, and plays in a simulated shooting gallery.
                For most of its length, The Way Station seems to be composed of somewhat unrelated subplots until coming together at the end. These plots include intrusions by a government agent, a deaf mute girl with strange powers, and a looming nuclear war which is causing concern among the galactic community that humans need dumbed down until they can be less violent. It all works together nicely with leisurely pace that makes for a nice relaxing read. It’s not to say that there are no stakes and that Simak doesn’t make them seem real because he does. Just the pace is so perfect that when events start to get serious I felt I knew the characters and the world so it all had more meaning.
                I especially liked the character of Enoch. Partially, I must admit, because he reminds me of me. He loves to meet knew new and different people (in this case aliens). He is voracious reader and cares about the world around himself even though he barely interacts with it. Enoch is not without his flaws though. To help combat loneliness, his house produces holographic friends to keep Enoch company. These friends are computer generated images of people he knew from his time before he became the keeper of the way station. One of them is a friend of his from the Civil War. The other is a woman, who is not one woman Enoch knew but a combination of three women. The parts with these always seemed saddest of the book as showed how isolated and alone Enoch is and how he yearns companionship. Over the course of the book, Enoch lets these two people go. I felt it was the right thing to do but I felt remorse for his loss.
                While the threat of nuclear war reminded me that the book was written in the 1960s, for the most part, The Way Station feels timeless and was an enjoyable story. I think I will have to check out more of Mr. Simik’s work.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

1963: The Main in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick is a major figure in science fiction with such works as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made in to the film Blade Runner), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Scanner Darkly (made into a film by the same name). He even has his own science fiction award
                Yet until I read the 1963 Hugo Winner The Man in the High Castle, I had never read a Dick novel. I had read a handful of his short stories such as “Minority Report” and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”. Both were very good and quite different from their movie versions. “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” is a little unwieldy as a movie title; you might know it better as Total Recall.
Though his short stories were good I was a little apprehensive about reading Dick’s novels. They are known to be complex, strange, and metaphysical. Not that I don’t like complex and strange (one of my majors in college was Russian literature) but they can be hit or miss for me. While I loved Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I hated Franz Kafka’s The Triall. So with an open mind I read A Man in the High Castle and found a good novel, not one of my favorite Hugo Winners, but still very good. 
The Man in High Castle is an alternative history novel where the Axis powers win World War II. Nazi Germany controls all of Europe, the western half of Russia, most of Africa and the Middle East. The Japan controls all the land surrounding the Pacific as well as India and Australia. Italy exists as a smaller empire with most of the Mediterranean. The United States has been broken into three pieces with the Pacific Coast as a Japanese puppet state and the East Coast as a German puppet state. The Rockies act as a neutral buffer state between the two. All this is merely backdrop since a majority of the novel takes place in San Francisco with one character’s section in Colorado.         
The novel may have not a large variety of location but it does have a large cast. There is no main character. Instead the story is told from 5 perspectives. “The story” isn’t completely accurate; rather it is 5 stories that occasionally intersect. Robert Childan owns an antique shop that sells pre-war American items to Japanese customers. In this world, pre-war American crafts are a popular fad among the Japanese. Frank Fink, now going by Frank Frink, is war vet, metal worker, and Jew in hiding. His ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor in Colorado. Nobusuke Tagomi is the Japanese trade commissioner who is waiting to meet with the final main character, Mr. Baynes, a Swedish businessman. This sounds more confusing then it is. The problem is that getting into the stories of any of these characters would ruin the total.
There are two common threads that tie the characters together: the fictious novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen (the titular Man in the High Castle) and I Ching, a Chinese book used to tell the future. Nearly everyone in the novel is reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and Frank, Juliana, and Tagomi used to I Ching to guide their lives. Reading about characters breaking out the I Ching to make every decision was strange but added to the slight otherworld feel the novel gives. The world of the novel feels both familiar and alien at the same time. The San Francisco of the novel feels like the real San Francisco but is populated by peddled cabs and people smoking marijuana cigarettes. The cigarettes feel like wishful thinking on Dick’s part since what I have read of him suggests that he was involved in the drug culture of the 1960s.
For the sake of clarity for now on I will call The Man in the High Castle the novel and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as the book. The book is a fictional account of a future where the Allies defeated the Axis powers. But the way it happens in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is different than how the Allies won in the real world adds another layer of strangeness to the novel.
I have only two big problems with this novel. One is that there is not a great deal of resolution at the end and (minor spoiler alert) the meeting with The Man in the High Castle is a major letdown. The plot threads never really go anywhere. The characters are interesting but it feels a bit too… modern without an ending. I like a bit more resolved at the end, for good or ill.
My second problem is what I have termed “I call no way” moments. These are moments that just don’t make any sense. I’m ignoring the most obvious one here: there is no way that the Germans and Japanese could have conquered the world. Even together neither had the men or logistics for the sort of undertaking. But this alternative history so I won’t go too hard on Philip K. Dick for that. There are other moments though that had me shaking my head. It is only mentioned a few times but in the novel the Germans drain the Mediterranean Sea and turn it into farmland. They DRAINED the Mediterranean. Even given the accelerated technology featured in the novel this was just too much for me. Even if they could pull off an engineering feat of that magnitude why would they do that? It’s just stupid. Another “I call no way” moments is that the Japanese are treated as the “good guys” of the Axis powers and the Germans as the “bad guys.” Dick seems to labor under the belief that the Japanese were less vicious than the Germans in WWII but that’s just not true. The Japanese committed many atrocities during the war and I have a hard time believing that they have changed and the Germans have not. Perhaps Japanese war crimes were not as well known to Philip K. Dick. I don’t know. It just sort of bothered me.
I would still recommend The Main in the High Castle looking for an interesting alternative history. There are enough sci-fi moments to qualify it for the Hugo and it was just a good read. I will have to check out more Philip K. Dick in the future.

An Update on why there have been few updates

Hello my few dedicated readers,
I have not forgotten my goal to read every Hugo-winning novel nor did I forget this blog. The reason I have not written any is that I got a job working for the State Department in Afghanistan. My internet access has not been as great so writing blogs has been difficult. But I have been reading! Currently I am on leave and plan to write a few blogs to try and check up. I am half way through the 1968 winner, Lord of Light. So be patient and all will be written about.