Hugo: Farmer in the Sky (1951/2001)

The Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
Read September 13, 2010 – September 18, 2010

Premise: A young man and his family decide to immigrate to Ganymede because of the promise of a better life, and because they want land to farm. The Earth is so overpopulated that food is heavily regulated and there is hardly enough for everyone to survive.

Verdict: This was another Retro Hugo award—eligible for 1951 and awarded in 2001. (I think they’ve stopped doing Retro Hugo’s, thank goodness.) I have, yet again, been spoiled by all the scifi that has come after this. I kept reading it going “And? What’s so special?” but in 1951, I’m sure this was extraordinary. The whole mechanics of how exactly one goes about creating a viable farm out of barren rock is incredibly interesting and well-thought out. Heinlein still pisses me off a little bit with his treatment of women—I put this off to the fact that, at that point, his entire audience consisted of teenage males, and I presume he knew that. This book sort of suffers from being a product of its time in my opinion. Its views on women, reproduction, the entire universe being in Boy Scout troops etc, are just so dated and trite. However, on the story level, the future is well thought out (prophetically thought out, really), the colonization of the solar system is quite detailed (especially for so small a book), and it really was fascinating to read. I also see why Ursula K. Le Guin was so determined to make this genre a girl’s game—or at least a game that doesn’t pay so much attention to gender at all. It sort of makes me want to write a space colonization story where women are hauled around because they cook and clean and make babies and have one of the girls run off and rule the universe.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading this, but it was interesting to see how science fiction has gotten to where it is now. And it was short.

Hugo: The Graveyard Book (2009)

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Read September 9, 2010 – September 12, 2010

Premise: A little boy’s entire family is killed and he wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts decide to raise him.

Verdict: I loved the whole idea of this book. I loved the story, the characters, the whole mood and feel of the thing. It’s a kid’s book, yeah, and I could’ve done without the illustrations, which I felt were distracting. But it’s a kid’s book, big deal. The main character’s name is Nobody Owens and he’s raised by a graveyard full of ghosts who teach him things about being dead and the knowledge from their time periods etc (it amuses me to think of an eight year old being taught about Renaissance Humours). But, somehow, I always feel like Gaiman loses steam at the end. All of his books that I’ve read just sort of peter out. This novel was sort of an exception but not quite. The ending was satisfactory and I didn’t feel cheated, like usual, but it was just so easy and obvious for me to figure out what was going to happen three or four pages before it did that it lost momentum for me and I just wanted him to get it over with. I don’t know if this is maybe because it’s a book for young adults, or if it’s just that Gaiman and I don’t jive. Who knows. I did enjoy this novel. I thought it was clever, amusing, and somehow real. The cleverest things were actually peripheral to the main storyline—namely who killed Bod’s family and the creatures who were hunting down the killers. I won’t give anything away, but I love when people personify and mythologize common expressions and word play.

When it comes to Neil Gaiman, I adore the worlds he creates, I love his stories, his writing itself is beautiful, and the mood and feel of his worlds is superb… a combination of the way Tim Burton and Roger Corman make me feel, but in a book—so it’s even better. But I just can’t seem to love him the way everyone else does. Something always rubs me a bit wrong with his books. Sorry, Neil. I love you. Mostly.

Sufficient. Gaiman and I seem always to be fighting. But this book was fun, fast, and clever.

Hugo: Doomsday Book (1993)

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Read September 3, 2010 – September 8, 2010

Premise: A 2054 flu pandemic leads to an Oxford historian accidentally being sent back in time to the Black Death.

Verdict: I would like to address the person who keeps leaving reviews for Connie Willis’ Blackout saying that there is “a whole bunch of running around looking for people that doesn’t even advance the plot.” Well, one half of this entire book is running around looking for people who are never even found. Might that not be the purpose? Also, this is the first of the “series” (which doesn’t really need to be read in order) but To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout certainly make more sense now. I’m thrilled that Colin is actually a developed character, for one thing, and not just some random kid I’m supposed to know. I am just this side of horribly in love with Mr. Dunworthy. It seems, somehow, that in two of the three novels I’ve read, the best character is a clergyman of some sort—probably because they have infinite patience with which to face their challenges. I’d also like to address whoever the hell it is that writes synopses. I was led to believe many things about this book—none of which were true. Basically, there are two main storylines: Kivrin back in time, and Mr. Dunworthy in the story’s present. Kivrin (the historian) does not go off on wild adventures, try and organize bell concerts, or any other such nonsense. She lives with a family and cares for the children. Mr. Dunworthy is the one who has to contend with modern politics, educational politics, crazy American bell ringers trying to organize a concert, and the stress of not knowing exactly where his historian is. This is a book about illness, but it’s two separate illnesses. Yes, people are trying to organize a bell concert in the middle of a pandemic. But it’s not the Black Death, it’s the flu. And there are so many more things to focus on than that in this novel. The amazing descriptions of medieval life, the amazing descriptions of having the flu (no really—it’s hard to accurately describe that kind of disorientation), the telling of the Bubonic Plague that made me feel queasy and ill (I’m a hypochondriac—I wish someone had told me this book was so disease-filled before I started). It was strange to me to read this (which was quite serious) when I had read To Say Nothing of the Dog first. Dog is lighthearted, amusing, and when it is direly serious—screwing up the time-space continuum and destroying the world etc.—somehow, it’s just another joke. (Dog is based off of comedy of manners novels—this seems to be based off of gruesome medieval accounts of pestilence). And you know, it sort of tricks you (I won’t say how because the trick wouldn’t work). But I don’t feel tricked, I feel deeply moved. Don’t go into this novel with any preconceived notions about it. It made me cry. Just read it, and enjoy.

I’d also like to address the reviewers of Blackout who were saying that “the time-traveler formula is getting old.” Well, so far I haven’t really seen a formula. One explores illness, one absurdity, and one… well, I’m not sure yet. It’s not done. Nevertheless, none of them are “formulaic” except in that, when you need the authority, they are usually missing and the characters have to play phone tag.

This novel is vivid and was very alive for me. It makes me love Connie Willis even more.

(Note: This novel tied with A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge)