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: 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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Hugo: Hominids (2003)

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
Read May 13, 2010 – May 18, 2010

Premise: A Neanderthal man from a parallel (and Neanderthal dominated) world is accidentally thrust into the human world and causes a huge stir, both by his disappearance and by his adjusting to human society.

Verdict: This novel sounds amazing and I was very excited to read it. However, like many of the reviews I’ve read, I have to agree that this book is overly pretentious, patronizing, and absurd. I understand that the author was trying to show us that most aspects of humanity are not logical and are bad. Religion, violence, sexism, racism, yeah I get it, I know it’s all bad. Thanks. You don’t have to have a modern caveman pacifist flower-child come into this overpopulated world and point out the fact to me. You don’t have to explicitly portray a rape and then have Mister Hulking Gentle Manly Man heal the poor raped woman. I was offended not only by the author’s portrayal of humanity but also by his portrayal of women in both universes. He was pretending that women were treated as equals and had equal abilities but they all had emotional issues, rage issues, were vindictive bitches, or were extremely vapid, shallow, and self-centered. All of them were either “beautiful” or “plain” and were troubled by sexual assault issues or feeling awkward around nerds who stare at their overly exposed bodies. ‘Scuse?? Anyway, I definitely wasn’t impressed. It dragged on and on and the way he presented his approaches to social problems was sloppy and overly-preachy. This book was pretty terrible. There is a way to do “problem” sci-fi with finesse and intelligence. This isn’t it.

It sounds really awesome, but don’t waste your time on it.

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Hugo: Hyperion (1990)

Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Read May 6, 2010 – May 13, 2010

Premise: A mythical creature known as the Shrike on a remote planet named Hyperion is worshiped by suicidal desperate people the universe over for it’s killing prowess and sudden gore-bath strikes. Hyperion is under imminent enemy attack and so a very select few are chosen to make the last pilgrimage to the Time Tombs (home of the Shrike) and ask it to grant their requests. We hear the stories of their connections to Hyperion and the Shrike, and why they are going on this pilgrimage.

Verdict: I just graduated from college this past Sunday. Why does that matter? Well, one of my degrees was in English, and I think that this book is almost as in love with John Keats as I am. That is by no means a bad thing. Keats had an unfinished poem called Hyperion (and if you click on that link read more of his poetry because I adore it and am a little English Romantic nerd.) This is a complexly structured non-chronological novel which uses frame stories to get you to the meat of the thing—sort of like a Romantic or Victorian novel. Gee. I also think that the entire point of this novel is the journey and the stories that led to the journey. I guess I could be disappointed in it and scream and flail, but I really enjoyed it and it still has me thinking about it even after I’ve finished it. And anyway, there are more in the series apparently. Yes, that means there is little to no resolution of the frame story. But the frame didn’t seem to be the point at all. It was getting there that mattered.

I loved the story, plots, and structure of this book and I’m afraid to read the rest of the series because I don’t want to be disappointed. This was highly enjoyable and I recommend it to other nerds of all varieties.

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