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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Hugo: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2008)

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
read December 8, 2009 through December 10, 2009

Premise: In an alternate history where Israel was squelched in its beginnings and most Jews ended up in a relocation encampment in Alaska, a screwed-up Jew homicide detective investigates the braided complexities of a murder in his own hotel-of-residence. This leads him all through the religious politics and social tensions of the world that he inhabits, as well as colliding once more with his ex-wife—his superior at work.

Verdict: Marvelously written.

It was slow at first and I had trouble getting into it but that might have been because I was sleep deprived and vaguely ill. By the time I was finished I actually believed the world of the novel was the world I was living in and felt disoriented when the book ended. The Chabon’s style is alive and vibrant to the point of crystal bright sharpness. This book is brilliance. The writing is great. The murder mystery part is compelling. The politics and the alternate world are well-formed, convincing, and engrossing.

Kick up your heels and spend a day or two reading this one.

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Hugo: Stranger in a Strange Land (1962)

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
read October 21, 2009 through December 8, 2009 (I would like to note that in that time I had the Major League World Series, NaNoWriMo in which I wrote a 150,000 word novel, four books to read for class, two exams, and roughly six papers due.)

Premise: A boy born on the first mission to Mars comes back to Earth twenty years later on a subsequent mission and is totally out of his element. He was raised by the Martians and so adheres to their way of life. He must learn about human cultures, customs, religions, taboos, etc. Eventually, once he “groks in fullness” everything he sees (that means, once he gets it) he starts his own “religion” where everybody basically sits around all day, manipulates things with their brains, and has lots and lots and lots of sex.

Verdict: I’m split in my feelings. There are parts that I love and parts that I hate.

First off, apparently I read the original “toned-down” version. I say this because I was in the bookstore the other day and found a copy that said “COMPLETE AND UNCUT” implying that there is apparently an even greater amount of sex in Heinlein’s original manuscript. Moving on. There are sparkles of sheer brilliance in this novel, buried under the strangest sexist claptrap that I’ve ever had the displeasure to read (“all women like to dress up” “all women desire beauty, youth, and buxom boobs” “all women want nothing more than to be impregnated by a virile man” “homosexual encounters will be grokked as containing wrongness—but only if between men” Mike suddenly turning from adorable puppy to manly man… the list goes on. And on. And on.) However, in spite of these atrocities, I liked this book. I will simply overlook these things as Heinlein’s ignorance as a male in 1961. Poor dear. I nearly tossed this book across the room (metaphorically—the library copy is old and delicate). The only things that stopped me were the fact that I must read it as a Hugo Award winner and this article. Which is really awesome.

This book is all about the free love. And published in 1961—it certainly fits! Apparently it was sort of the hippie Bible and heralded in the counter-culture of the late ’60s. I also find myself at times wholeheartedly agreeing with the depiction of “religion,” but at others wanting to strangle someone. I believe this is due to him trying to get the people of that time to understand what he wanted to say. I much prefer Kurt Vonnegut’s “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent” from Sirens of Titan—a book published in 1959. (OH LOOK IT WAS NOMINATED FOR A HUGO!!! Lost to Starship Troopers. We shall see.) /digression. In the end, really, it’s the same sort of message Heinlein is promoting, only he’s more optimistic that humans can see for themselves that they are… shall we say, God. Whereas Vonnegut just insists we be good because God is utterly indifferent to whether we kill each other in his name. The power of kindness and treating others and the Earth with respect is in the hands of humans and need not defer to a mythical “higher being.” This is called Humanism—a movement which Vonnegut headed for decades.

I think this is a must read. Aside from the glaring bits of non-sensical sexist crap, this was actually a really good book with a message I can wholeheartedly get behind—the mark of good science fiction.

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Hugo: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1977)

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
read October 8, 2009 through October 15, 2009

Premise: In typical ’70s fashion, the novel starts out with the destruction of Earth through human’s inability to control themselves and thus they destroy the environment. Ok. Got it. Then it gets very interesting and involves generations of cloning, the conception of individuality, artistic freedom, the essence of humanity, and and all sorts of interesting things.

Verdict: Enjoyable.

At first I was like “yeah ok, I get it” but then it got really cool. I loved the exploration of cloning as a means to human survival and then the resulting strange society that formed. I don’t really want to talk about it too much—it would give away too many of the *gasp*-factor things. Suffice it to say that if you are interested in how it is individuality, creativity, and freedom of expression that fundamentally make us human, this book is definitely for you. I really enjoyed it.

It’s pretty neat. Go ahead and give it a try.

Random side note—no wonder men have loved science fiction for so long. It’s full to the brim with sex.

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Hugo: The Demolished Man (1953)

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Read September 24, 2009

Premise: In the future these telepathic people work in all sorts of jobs like police, business consultants, etc. This dude kills someone and is then hunted by the “Espers”—telepathic people who he is determined in his sheer brilliance to avoid.

Verdict: Eh.

This book has the honor of being the first ever Hugo Award winner. The telepath stuff was actually pretty neat and very well done. Some parts really stood out to me (all the Esper parties etc where they “think” in patterns—very cool) and some were just utterly ridiculous (the constant replaying of the naked woman who was present at her father’s death, the same woman who then regresses into an infantile state and must be “brought back” by the virile manly man). The murderer guy is basically a Dostoevsky ubermensch. It’s like a science fiction retelling of Crime and Punishment. Only putrescently optimistic in the end. I believe my father said it best: “It was the 1950s—what do you want?” Not sure what else to say about it. It’s short and in the vain of Dashiell Hammett and co. but with telepaths as detectives. As a sidenote: I never realized there was so much damn telepathy in science fiction. So odd. Keep in mind I read this months ago and have probably forgotten half of it. Also: while the ending is “optimistic” it is also startlingly frightening. At least to me. *shudder*

Read if you like old weird sci-fi.

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Hugo: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2005)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
Read from September 10, 2009 – September 22, 2009

Premise: Early 19th century England is full of Magicians who simply read theory. Mr. Norrell, stuffy, fussy, and pompous, has the largest and best library in the country but won’t let anybody see it. He also claims that he can perform magic. Turns out he can. Turns out he hates the world except one Jonathan Strange who, by randomly being harassed by a man who tells him his prophecy, has been convinced that he too can do magic. And does it. And seeks out Mr. Norrell. And eventually goes off and fights with Wellington and all sorts of marvelous period goodness.

Verdict: Love.

This book was stunning. It’s huge, it’s full of awesome footnotes that fill in the world even further, and it has characterization down to this perfect balance of insanity and curmudgeonliness. I adored it. I’m not sure how to describe it except if you love the works of the Romantics, if you love Victorian “paranormal” novels (think Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights), and if you love Harry Potter, you should read this. It’s such a marvelous mash-up of all of those things—even, at one point, with a Byron cameo. Oh god. I laughed so much while reading this. It kept me tense, amused, and turning pages at lightning speed. And the ending—suffice it to say, Ms. Clark could have screwed it up in so many different ways. But she didn’t. It’s perfect.

The best storyline involves characters you don’t even hear about in the cover descriptions. I have six words for you—and the six words make this novel absolutely brilliant: “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.”

Highly recommended.

(My apologies, I wrote the review more than two months after I finished the book. I wasn’t sure if I should do them, but I decided I should so I remembered wtf happened. Look for the others to come.)

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