Pseudo-Hugo: Red Mars (1993)

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Read March 9, 2010 – March 26, 2010

Premise: An international group of scientists is sent to Mars to perform research and set up a colony, eventually leading to terraforming efforts to make the planet fit for human habitation.

Verdict: This novel didn’t win a Hugo, although it was nominated for one (and lost out to two novels, as this was a year there was a tie.) The final two books of the trilogy, however, won Hugos and this was one was necessary to understand those. This book is so smart and brilliant. The characters all have these flashes of poignant insight into the nature of life and humanity and the universe and I just want to stop and write them down. They make me go “YES! That is what I mean when I say x, y, and z.” This book goes very in-depth into the particular issues involved not only in the scientific and physical struggles of setting up life on Mars but also on the political turmoil and social dynamics of removing a portion of the population to a planet that is then exploited for its natural resources and the cheap labor on the surface. Add in the fact that the amazing scientists discover an immortality treatment and you get major overpopulation on Earth and multi-national corporations fighting to gain control of anything and everything within the scope of humanity. Yeah, ok, so it’s intense. But I really adored it. I loved all the characters, I actually cared about their romantic trifles (this is becoming a rare thing with me—caring about romance), and I love all the detail that Robinson put into this novel.

Can’t wait to read the other two.

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Hugo: To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999)

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Read January 13, 2010 – February 16, 2010

Premise: The time-space continuum is presumably screwed up when a “historian” (basically, a professional time-traveler) saves a cat from drowning in the Victorian era. The characters then spend the rest of the novel trying to avert universal disaster and strive to regain the balance of history.

Verdict: This is a very clever novel and, despite the convoluted time-travel plot (such things are the bane of my mother’s existence) it actually made sense in the end. I loved the characters, the setting, the style, and just about everything about this novel. I kept forgetting it was science fiction while I was reading it. It comes off as an engrossing story rather than a pretentious mass of scientific facts strung together to sort of make a story. True, it is about time travel, and you can’t really detail that the way you might a biological theory or something. But I like it better when you have loose science and a really great story. The majority of the plot takes place in the Victorian era, which is a lot of fun because the book picked up on lots of conventions of Victorian novels, as well as paying attention to the real societal pressures and limitations that the character’s would be experiencing. But what’s even more fun than actual Victorian novels is that the narrator is from 2057 so you get built in snark and amusement. At any rate, I think I have a new favorite character in the science fiction genre: Cyril, the English Bulldog who belongs to an Oxford student in the Victorian era. Things to add to my list from here: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (not science fiction), Have Spacesuit Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. Aside from Cyril, my favorite thing has to be “time-lag.” Time-lag is what happens when you go on too many “drops” or time-travel trips. You basically become an overly-sentimental mess who cannot hear properly, see properly, or function at all. Sleep deprivation on steroids. I was pretty sick when I started reading this book and as the narrator was disoriented, I was sure whether I was just sicker than I thought or if the book really was as crazy as it was going into my head. It was pretty crazy.

Amusing, fun, well-written, and a good read. Highly recommended if you like science fiction, Victorian novels, mysteries, or all of the above.

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Hugo: Starship Troopers (1960)

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Read January 26, 2010 – February 6, 2010

Premise: A future militaristic fascist utopian human society fights a constant war with the hive-minded communist Bugs on an alien planet. We follow cadet Juan Rico from the time he joins the Federal Service through his ascent up the chain of command.

Verdict: You know, I really adored this novel. This was another book we had to read for class. The discussions that come up about Heinlein’s worldview and politics amuse me exceedingly. The man wrote 32 novels and they try and pin him on just this one. The other that I’ve read is Stranger in a Strange Land—vastly different in all respects. You will notice my love/hate relationship with that novel. This one I simply love. Let me put on my gender-police hat for a minute: the females are just as crucial as the males to the success of any given mission and all Naval captains are women because they are more skilled. The amusing remarks about women being sexy etc are not even write-offs of their gender but exaltation of their ability as well as their attractiveness. Also, if anything were to be offensive, it’s a first-person narrative and therefore is not saying things with the omniscient truthful authority of a third-person narrator. Gender-police hat off. This is a really cool book! It makes you think. It gets you all hyped up with the action-adventure and then makes you pull back a minute and say “woah Sparky! Those are some interesting politics you have there.” And then once you say that you realize that there’s no reason they aren’t valid except through our own social conditioning. Very interesting. This book also stands up well to the years. It was published in 1959 and it felt just as current in technology, flow, and style as if it were published last year.

I enjoyed this novel and recommend it. It’s short, fast, and fun. Heinlein is becoming a swift favorite.

(For the record, I do like Sirens of Titan better—a novel also nominated for the Hugo this year—but I suppose I understand why this won in 1960.)

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Hugo: The Snow Queen (1981)

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
Read January 9, 2010 – January 25, 2010

Premise: Tiamat is a planet whose main export is an eternal youth/life preserver known as “The Water of Life” which is extracted from the blood of indigenous sea creatures. The planet experiences hundred-year-cycles of winter and summer with two peoples and cultures that correspond to each season—the Queen changing at each seasonal change to a woman of the coming season’s people. Where is the story, you say? The Winter Queen is 150-years-old, looks 19, is pretty much crazy, and clones herself in an attempt to stay on the throne forever. We follow the clone, named Moon, as she ends up inadvertently cavorting all over the galaxy and learning about her true purpose. This world is way too complex to properly encapsulate here and I’ve had to leave out way too much including technology, religion, disease, interstellar politics… I could go on. Apologies—if I were more specific this would become unreadably long.

Verdict: I found this book sort of by accident three years ago in the library. It said science fiction, I picked it up, I read the first chapter, I said “What the hell, this isn’t science fiction!” I was thoroughly annoyed with the immature characters and fantasy-esque setting. I gave it back to the library. This time, I caught the subtleties that Vinge was baiting me with and I kept reading, intrigued. Guess what! The characters grow up, all of them are complex and deeply troubled intense personalities, the universe is masterfully crafted, and the plot is compelling. Gentlemen, this is indeed science fiction! And very awesome science fiction at that. This, friend-Herbert, is how emotions are truly experienced—the same by both genders. Thanks. While the love lives of everybody are central and essential to the plot, I never felt that this in any way weakened or degraded any of them, even the ones who were degraded by the world’s society. The structure, the tension, and the actual details of this novel kept me yearning to finish it when I had to run off and read stuff for class. While the main character is just a bit too good (think Harry Potter level of self-righteous goodness), every other character makes up for it by being a conflicted mess of good and evil, justice and injustice, love and hatred. Another really neat feature is a sort of universal-internet which you access through human terminals called “Sybils.” Very nifty. This is a great book!

This was a surprisingly complex and intense novel that was a true treat to read. If you can find it, I recommend it.

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Hugo: Dune (1966)

Dune by Frank Herbert
Read January 19, 2010 – January 24, 2010

Premise: A planetary Duke and his family take up leadership of an environmentally harsh, but universally economically important desert planet that produces a mind-altering spice that is poisonously habit-forming and which you cannot cease to take once you’ve begun. The family is then hunted in a galactic family feud and thrown out into the desert to live among the wild people. The son of said Duke is apparently the focus of about fifteen different legends throughout the cosmos. And consequently we focus on his doings as he fulfills his destiny.

Verdict: I hated this novel. I hated everything about it. It has no redeeming features or qualities. This was the fifth time I tried to read it and the first time I ever succeeded (the only reason I made it through was because I had to read it as a Hugo and for class.) Usually, the first chapter is enough to piss me off so much that I take it back to the library. I bought my own copy this time and marked it to pieces.

What I hate:
1.) The writing style. This man cannot write. He repeats every single purpose, point, motivation, and detail at least three times every two paragraphs. Does he think I’m stupid? Does he think I can’t understand what he wants to me get out of what I’m reading? Does he think he has to jam it down my throat? Or is he just that poor of a writer that he can find no other way to express his ideas? Overall, this made for an extremely annoying read—like a sharp trill going off in my head the whole time.
2.) This is my gender police speaking again. It’s not exactly the portrayal of women that I find bothersome. It’s more the way he has tried to express the mentality of women as if it were universal truth that all women think in a certain way. And that certain way that they think is about as substantial as the thoughts that must run through the mind of a half-naked kidnapped woman on a pulp cover. Not only that, women exist for three purposes: to have random children at random times, to get into troublesome situations that the men must get them out of, and to be emotional attachments that are used against men by their enemies as leverage. If there is a female character she is either blindingly beautiful or a crone. The Bene Gesserit are supposedly a strong universal coalition of powerful females—excepting that their only purpose is to breed and be pretty, and their training seems to be focused entirely on overcoming “weak girly emotions.” Yeah, real strong there. I can just see the power oozing off of them. Also (what always pissed me off about the first chapter) the women, in their omniscient Bene Gesserit magical state, can only see “feminine” things. However, the man who will come save the universe can not only see masculine things, he can also see feminine things. This computes how exactly? Illogical.
3.) The main villain is a morbidly obese, homosexual pedophile. We can’t just have him be a bad man—damn it, you’re going know he’s a bad man because all fat people and homosexuals are certainly horribly. We’ll throw in the pedophile thing to make sure you get it.
4.) I hate all the characters. Every single one. That’s a lie. I love Gurney Halleck. He has motives I can care about, morals and reasoning that I can admire, and is a poet as well as a warrior. I haaaaaaaaaaate every other character and when they died, I cheered. When they were sad, I would write things like “oh, give me a break” in the margins. If they were trying to murder each other, I would simply get annoyed with the repetition of all their motives fifty times. I guess they had motives that made sense—I simply didn’t care about them. The characters were as alive as cardboard cutouts putting on a puppet show.

I do not, can not, and probably never will understand the appeal of this book to so many people for some many decades. I hate every bit of it. I suppose if I didn’t know that women don’t really think the way they do in this novel—i.e. if I were male and thought it possible that such apparently strong women actually did have such vapid consciousness—maybe I could enjoy it. But I doubt that even then I would give a damn about the plot or characters. The good news? I’VE READ IT!! This was the one and only major hurdle in my Hugo Project. And now it’s done. The rest should be a piece of cake.

If you have no opinions or thoughts of your own, by all means read this novel and enjoy the hell out of it. If you actually have a brain, I say don’t waste your time. There’s nothing here of real value or even interest. You can get a hell of a lot more out of other novels.

NOTE This novel tied for the Hugo in 1966 with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal.

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Hugo: Neuromancer (1985)

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Read January 12, 2010 – January 16, 2010

Premise: A “console cowboy,” a kickass assassin woman, a guy who is incredibly like Pusher from The X-Files, and the consciousness of a famous dead “console cowboy” captured in a bit of hardware are all hired by a mysterious man to do a mysterious job in a combination of cyberspace hacking, colonial space cavorting, and lots of drug use. It’s that cool. This novel, I might add, is sort of the definition of “cyberpunk” in and of itself.

Verdict: I had no clue what this book was going to be like. This was (amazingly) on the syllabus for one of my classes and I was very pleased to have a reason to buy and read it. This is the novel that coined the term “cyberspace” as well as (apparently) inspiring every single bit of The Matrix films (which we also had to watch for class.) The correlation to what we would call the internet is jacked directly into your head, you experience it as a physical place and it’s called *drumroll* the matrix. Yeah, no shit. There’s also a thing called a simstim which can allow you to experience actually simulated realistic environments instead of just the electronic networks of information. This book, let me tell you, was kickass. How has a book this old and this technologically based held up so well to the test of time? Search me, but it didn’t hit me wrong at all. I never once was like “wtf” about any of my usual turnoffs and there wasn’t anything that made me say “wow this is dated.” If anything, there were things that made me go “damn, this is amazing.” For those of you who enjoy The Matrix, there’s also a city named Zion, some plot-centric confrontation with screwy AI, and a kickass female in tight leather clothing.

Yeah, the movie people totally ripped it all off. But hey, rocks dun’it?

Read this book. READ IT.

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Hugo: This Immortal (1966)

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
Read January 6, 2010 – January 8, 2010

Premise: Earth has been destroyed in what seems to be an atomic war. But some people (and mutants) still live there. Most people, however, live on other planets in our solar system and on Vega, where they have blue aliens who are more intelligent than humans. On Earth, the head honcho of what is essentially the official government history department (who mysteriously has some sort of mutation that has allowed him to live for approximately 200-hundred-or-so-years looking as if he’s twenty-five-years old) is asked to give a grand tour of Earth for a Vegan. No one really knows what this tour is for and there is much conjecture and hiring of assassins.

Verdict: I probably would have liked it more if I hadn’t kept putting it down. It’s narrated in first-person and has no chapters, just occasional breaks. It was ok. As a post-apocalyptic story it was definitely different. The fight scenes would unnecessarily go on for pages and pages. But I suppose that was the appeal of the things. It’s pretty short so the fact that it wasn’t a stellar read isn’t really that horrible because it didn’t take very long to finish. I thoroughly enjoyed all the literary references and such. That was fun. It’s like high-brow literature, but science fiction. Interesting combination. I guess you get that when your main character is inexplicably older than dirt and still looks and acts young.

If you need a book to fill an afternoon you could do worse. But you could also do better.

NOTE This novel tied for the Hugo in 1966 with Frank Herbert’s Dune.

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Hugo: The Big Time (1958)

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
Read January 5, 2009

Premise: People (and extra-terrestrial creatures) from all time-periods, races, religions, and alternate histories of Earth are pulled out of their respective “life-lines” to become “demons” or creatures who are neither alive nor dead and exist in the void of “The Big Time.” They are warriors in the enormous battle to change “the Little Time” or the one in which they existed to begin with. Demons in the Big Time time-travel and screw around with Earth’s history (the Little Time) in order to ensure that their side (The Spiders of Western culture and the Snakes of Eastern culture) win the grand battle of intergalactic awesomeness. There are Soldiers who do all the fighting and Entertainers who take the Soldiers’ minds off how screwed-up it all is. This story takes place in one of the Entertainment venues.

Verdict: If you like time-travel, Steampunk, alternate history, science fiction, real-life history, literature, or any combination of the above then this book is for you. The warriors range from actual German Nazi, to fuzzy extra-terrestrial with tentacles, to Roman soldier, to WWI-era British poet. The entertainers include a Southern gentleman dandy, a far-future other-planet dwelling madame, and an English Renaissance… well, Renaissance man. The entire premise had me captured right up until the plot decided to turn all whack-ass and insist that all humans want babies, despite the fact that this is physically impossible for Demons.

I am, at least, learning something of the psychology of men. It seems that the only purpose they can devise within their thick skulls for the existence of women is to reproduce. And this, in their mind, is all that women desire to do. News for the men: I’d kill myself before adding more humans to Earth’s population. If this novel hadn’t verved off into Penis-and-Vagina Land it would have been kick-ass. As it was, I was again bombarded with the trite notion that females are imbecilic baby-making machines. That being said, the narrator was female and mostly sort of intelligent. There was a kick-ass female warrior who was bare breasted and just as psychotic and awesome as the psychotic Nazi. But the ultimate plot-hinging kicker was that a weak-ass woman wanted babies. Apparently, if a woman is in a male-written work of SciFi from 1979 or before it is to desire to reproduce and hold the men back.

And ok, seeing as how this was written in 1957 (which I didn’t know while reading it), I might have to rescind some of my bitchier comments. This was probably pretty bold, gender-wise, for 1957. I’ll stop griping and call it awesome.

Ultimately, this is a sort of mystery novel. But I won’t try to describe that part to you because it would take me as long as the book does to do it right.

This took me about three hours to read. And it was very cool. Go for it.

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Hugo: American Gods (2002)

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Read December 27, 2009 – December 31, 2009

Premise: Every god that humans have ever worshiped has been brought to the American melting pot and quickly forgotten. And so they’re still wandering around America, a bit lost, functioning covertly as normal people. The “new gods,” those of media, television, the internet etc, are trying to wipe out the old ones because there’s not room for them all in the hearts of the people.

This sounds so exceedingly familiarly like the last book I read. But not. But so. But not.

Verdict: I can see why so many people like this book. I also like this book. I’m not enamored of it and I’m not going to modify my life around it the way one of my friends did in high school (now that I’ve read it I see it’s influence plastered all over her life). But it’s a good book. Unlike Stardust it has a nice shiny, if slightly convoluted, plot. It’s the glittering webs of gorgeous glistening words that he strung on the structure that make me love it. It’s very. Beautifully. Written. The concept is awesome and makes a vital sort of sense to my strange brain. What does happen to the gods when people forget them? I’ve always felt lonely for them, when I start to think too much. At any rate, I enjoyed reading this book and I read it very swiftly. The characterization of the gods was fun and well done and the plot had me going for a very long time. Almost up through the end. Not quite. Some of the plot twists deflated my love for it a tad, but overall it was amazing. Gaiman just can’t give me a book with a punch at the end, can he? I’ll keep trying. I love the worlds he creates. The endings just seem deflated. Admittedly, I’ve only read two of his novels. On, on!

Read it. Everyone else has. It’s made of pure awesome. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t read it.

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Hugo: Lord of Light (1968)

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Read December 11, 2009 – December 27, 2009

Premise: Picking this up from the small scrappy tidbits of information you get, I deduce that Earth died and human colonists moved to a different planet which is now highly populated with them. Because of advanced technology, humans constantly have their consciousnesses moved from body to body so that they can live forever. The “first,” or the ones from Earth, are Gods. Those who they like are also Gods or demi-Gods in the Hindu pantheon. These Gods are squashing all semblance of current-Earth civilization in order to protect humans from themselves (and to maintain their own power). One God disapproves of this. We get a war.

Verdict: This book was pretty cool. The premise was amazing. It was written in pseudo-ritualistic religious language that was a bit heavy to wade through but often hilarious (for example, one God was making an “ancient and mystical symbol behind his back” which you can only assume means he is flipping somebody off.) I feel like the prose made the story too thick and convoluted to follow properly and if I got distracted even a tiny bit I had no idea what was going on and had to go back and re-read everything. And all the characters have about fifty names and incarnations so you sort of need a cheat sheet that says who everyone is. Not meaning to be the gender-police, but I didn’t like the way some of the characters were portrayed. For example, one of the Gods was really essentially a trans-gender woman who kept getting reincarnated into male bodies to satisfy herself, but she was never seen as virile and manly by women and thus threw temper tantrums. Wtf? That’s not how transgendered brains work. But whatev—as I said with Heinlein, he’s just a white man in the ’60s and his point of view must be excused and pitied.

Anyway, I liked the idea, I even liked the idea behind the execution of it, I just didn’t like the execution. Good book though.

Read if you have an attention span of lightyears and a mind with sharp teeth.

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