Hugo: Barrayar (1992)

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
Read January 15, 2011 – January 19, 2011

Premise: Aral Vorkosigan, Imperial Regent of the planet of Barrayar, is set upon by various hostile mutinous forces as he tries to keep control of the planet and not allow it to slip off into a wasteland of conservative politics. His unbelievably amazing wife Cordelia (who is from the highly liberal planet called Beta Colony) pretty much rules the universe by wanting to be left alone. No, really.

Verdict: There is a lot of stuff in these books that sort of bothers me. On the other hand, there is so much awesome that I ignore the stuff that bothers me. As the first “official” entry into the Vorkosigan Saga for this project I suppose I should explain a bit about it. There are many many novels in this series and they were written utterly out of chronological order. I’ve started by reading them in in-universe chronological order which is possibly akin to watching all six Star Wars films in in-universe chronological order—one gets the sense that one is perhaps missing something important. However, I pretty much fell in love with all the characters from this novel by reading Shards of Honor which was set before it. The series focuses entirely on a character named Miles Vorkosigan. Shards of Honor was about how his parents met. Barrayar is about how Miles comes to be born with a strange affliction. The planet Barrayar (which I necessarily pronounce with an exotic accent) is basically a stand-in for every patriarchal conservative custom that Bujold could think of to enslave and ensnare its citizens—most of which are currently actively practiced on our own world. Women are patronized and trivialized into child-bearing housewives. People with disabilities and injuries are ostracized and killed. There is a very strict class system in place with discrimination in all directions. Then, enter Cordelia the futuristic-Utopian Betan who is exceedingly liberal by default when it comes to human rights issues (excepting abortion which apparently makes you akin to rapists and torturers. Oh, wait, rapists are ok as long as all of the children conceived by their actions are saved and cared for. No, really. Shards of Honor.) AT ANY RATE, Cordelia is a former space captain who married Vorkosigan because… well… Shards of Honor. She finds Barrayar restricting, and thus you have the entire crux of what I presume will continue down through the series. How does one with liberal sensibilities deal with originating from and living in a conservative world? I’m excited to see how Miles turns out. I hear good things about him. Cordelia, by the by, is pretty much amazing. Except when she bothers me. Which is often. Somehow, the argument for having children that’s presented in these books doesn’t sway me. “I want babies because… I want babies!” Real rational, there, future citizen of the universe. But whatever. I shall not complain. No crazy Cordelia, no Miles, no series.

As far as I can tell these books are like crack. Very addictive and quick to read. If I could just get whoever has it to return the next one to the library I would be a happy camper.

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Pseudo-Hugo: Shards of Honor

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, published 1986
(In-universe #1 chronologically in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga)

This is just a sort of informal write-up. Three books in this series have won Hugo awards so I decided it was necessary to read the entire series. I’m in for a long haul with it and I’d been avoiding it as I was laboring under the misapprehension that it was a huge fantasy series. It is not—it is resolutely science fiction. There are far-flung planets, wormholes, space battles, weird alien lifeforms, etc. Yes, it’s science fiction, albeit a bit off somehow.

To begin with, this book starts off on a raging torrent of awesome that runs off the charts of awesomeness. There’s a fairly moody legendary military butcher and a fairly moody initially awesome and ultimately wishy-washy redhead (held up as a paragon, naturally) who are mashed together out of necessity when left behind after a botched joint-assassination+ambush attempt. Please don’t ask. It makes sense in context. At any rate, it’s this redhead Cordelia’s apparent wobblyness and the sudden violent inthrusting of pro-life, rape-is-ok mentality that makes me a little reluctant to like this book (rape is apparently ok if people take care of the babies later). The rating swung from a resolute five stars to a two and a half mark within about two chapters. However, it took a mild upswing when psychologists were portrayed as emotional criminals who harass their victims into taking drastic action. That maybe ups it back to three hypothetical stars. This was enjoyable, and I don’t expect a book’s views to jive with mine, but I’m tetchy about things like rape and overpopulation (meaning people having far too many children). So hopefully the rest of the five million novels I have to read in this series to get to the Hugos won’t veer off into moral preaching land like some of the other Hugos I’ve read. And then I will be able to ignore the improper logic and misplaced humanitarianism and enjoy the sci-fi.

Something I was thinking about, however, while reading was the fact that fantasy novels tend to be set in medieval European worlds with distinct species in place of races where there is justifiable racism and odd treatment of women by modern Western standards. So far, the existence of a patriarchal politically volatile militaristic planet like Barrayar is just that same sort of excuse to have women be the strong sturdy (silent) backbone for men. We shall see. I am probably very wrong in this assumption, but it’s what was at the forefront of my mind at some points.

At any rate, don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. This will simply serve as a reminder to myself should things begin to rub me the wrong way.

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Hugo: Spin (2006)

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Read December 20, 2010 – December 27, 2010

Premise: Three childhood friends must cope with the sudden extinguishing of the night sky and the resultant time-gap between Earth time (very slow) and Universe-time (super-fast), as they grow up and each cope with the crisis in their own ways.

Verdict: I really loved this novel. The narrator is Tyler, a rather poor boy whose best friends are the twins Jason and Diane who live in the house where his mother is the housekeeper. Tyler becomes a doctor, Jason a genius at everything (but mostly an expert on the Spin, what the time differential star-extinguishing phenomenon comes to be known as), and Diane seeks solace in religion. I have to say, I generally hate when people put religion in science fiction. It’s usually there for one of only two things: to preach at me, or to degrade and humiliate the people who believe in religions. This book manages to show religion—even extremist crazy religion—from an atheistic point of view but also allows it the dignity and respect that millenia-old religious traditions and the poor people who adhere to them deserve. Kudos on that. Also it’s got overbearing and/or absent parents, mysterious hard-sci phenomenon, Martians, copious sci-fi references (I had fun with those), and largely unrequited painful pining love affairs. Plus it addresses overpopulation issues which is my favorite modern crisis and the root of all other modern crises. So. Yeah. I loved this book and I had a lot of fun reading it.

Fast, interesting, and engaging. You lose nothing by giving this book a chance.

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Hugo: To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1972)

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
Read November 26, 2010 – December 20, 2010

Premise: In some mysterious place at some mysterious time all members of the human race from the first pre-Monolith Kubrick ape down to the extra-terrestrial who has destroyed all of humanity are resurrected to fend for themselves and are protected, nurtured, and presumably studied by mysterious benefactors. The people resurrected include Richard Francis Burton, Alice Liddell, and Hermann Göring. It’s all quite mysterious. Ooo.

Verdict: I have never read a more stupid useless book. Except for some of the other Hugo winners that I’ve read. Burton the manly explorer is resurrected, has much sex with nameless “beautiful women,” is creepishly in love with Alice Liddell (as in, Lewis Carroll’s real Alice), and continually bucks authority to try and find the point of the whole resurrection exercise—meaning he commits suicide to escape the creatures controlling the resurrections and is resurrected somewhere else on the great river of humanity. That’s fine, that’s great, that’s all mysterious and wonderful. Oo, I’m impressed. Except there isn’t even an ending to the stupid book. The ending is “Curse you evil future beings monkeying with my life! I will defeat you some day and find out your nefarious purpose!” I didn’t care for this novel at all. There is no real plot beyond Burton being an asshole and the premise is at first intriguing but ends up coming off as stupid, boring, and like nothing more than poorly written hero-worshipping “real person fic.” 19th century adventure stories at least have excuses for their misogyny and general weird state-of-being. This does not.

Just wtf. Don’t even bother. This is the first of a series that you’d have to pay me good money to waste my time reading.

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Hugo: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1967)

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Read October 16, 2010 – November 26, 2010

Premise: In the near-ish future, the Moon is used as an international penal colony and the prisoners as well as the free-born, and citizens are essentially enforced labor for growing grain and other foodstuffs for Earth. Finding themselves ill-treated, the citizens of Luna rebel against Earth, aided in this rebellion by a computer mechanic (Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis) who has made friends with a super-computer who has gained sentience (Mike).

Verdict: Heinlein always impresses, but also always manages to piss me off. This time around, he only pissed me off to such a tiny degree that I could ignore my anger. This book is so good. For one, I’m in love with Mike the computer who basically runs everything on Luna, the entire Revolution etc. He’s like Hal’s polar opposite (see 2001: A Space Odyssey) and just makes me want to be nice to my computers, waiting for the day they gain sentience so they don’t rise up against me. At any rate, this novel is (as I was told before) probably the most political of Heinlein’s books—mainly in that it deals directly with a Revolution and the running of a government. The thing that makes Heinlein’s utopian ideals possible, however, is the society they’re placed on—one where anyone truly unsavory who doesn’t play by the rules is simply killed without fuss the second they hit Luna soil. This novel has “Loonie-speak” which is a perfectly intelligible dialect that the citizens of Luna speak: combinations of every language under the sun, mostly English, with a lot of fun slang thrown in, and very few extraneous words that are necessary to formal grammar, but not to comprehension. Heinlein always pisses me off with the way his female characters behave, but never pisses me off enough to overpower my enjoying his books. In this one, I managed to not be pissed off too very much and even enjoy the female characters. All were sexy, hot-mamas who mostly wanted babies (one of my primary piss-off points) and were deferred to and mollycoddled in all things by males, but also occupied positions of power outside places like beauty parlors and kitchens (and inside them too)—in the end, not a thrilling future to look forward too, but not as ridiculous as some of his others.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those who enjoy political thrillers, and theories of how to be moderate and sensible. And to anyone who ever wanted to live on the moon. Or has been in love with a computer.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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Hugo: The Mule (1946/1996)

The Mule by Isaac Asimov
Read July 11, 2010 – July 13, 2010

Premise: The Foundation (a cultural organization that essentially rules half the Universe) is threatened by a general of amazing effectiveness and unknown mutant abilities that make it virtually impossible to win against him.

Verdict: First off, this is a Retro Hugo Award—the rules for them are complicated but they are rarely awarded anymore because they say the lens of time distorts the perception of what was considered good when the books were released. Second it was published as a novella in a sci-fi magazine in 1946 when sci-fi magazines were the epitome of popular literature. Third, if you are looking for it now, it is the second book in Foundation and Empire which is itself the second novel in the Foundation Trilogy. The Foundation Trilogy was awarded a special Hugo in 1966 for Best All-Time Series. Dispensing with the preliminaries, read these novels. The first female of any significance appears in The Mule and if you’re expecting you’re typical terrible 1940’s wimp who should be put to death for being such a terrible person you are wrong. Not only is the female character strong, all the characters are strong, you grow attached to them even though many of the stories in the Trilogy don’t last for long. You also start to realize that every sci-fi novel ever written after these books has stolen something from them. It’s sort of a backwards “ahha!” since I’ve read so many other works before these. And while I haven’t read the final novel in the trilogy yet I can say that I adore these books.

Don’t just pick this up and try to read it, read all the stuff that’s supposed to come before it first. Then read all the stuff that comes after it too.

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Hugo: Rainbows End (2007)

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Read June 24, 2010 – June 27, 2010

Premise: Famous poet Robert Gu is medically enhanced and comes back from a long bout of Alzheimer’s to find the world technologically advanced in the extreme. Robert must cope with the new standards of computer technology and his own changed talents while some crazy terrorist(ish) groups try and bring their world-dominating plot to a head.

Verdict: My copy of this book was used and somebody literally chewed on it and left huge bite marks. While I didn’t find it good enough to eat, nor bad enough to try and destroy, I did enjoy it immensely. The book is set in 2025 and was written in 2006, but the near-future technology is incredibly believable and I keep forgetting that I don’t have it. There are contact lenses with the interface built in so that information can pop up directly on objects, you can overlay different worlds and views onto the environment, and your clothing itself is the actual computer. Pretty neat. The storyline was also interesting and involved some mysterious intelligence manipulating pretty much every character to serve the intentions of its employer. The employer was concocting a sort of biological/technological attack on the whole world that he was trying to cover up etc etc. I guess that’s sort of standard sci-fi, which all the characters kept saying as well. And no, I’m not out of my mind and I haven’t forgotten basic grammatical skills—there is no apostrophe in the title. The story makes a specific point of that.

This was a fast read and a compelling book. If you don’t like it you haven’t lost much by reading it. I, however, enjoyed it. Please don’t bite your books.

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