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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Hugo: The Left Hand of Darkness (1970)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Read June 16, 2010 – June 22, 2010

Premise: A political emissary from a planetary alliance tries to bring a frozen planet of ambisexual humans into the alliance and must contend with the strange society he finds there.

Verdict: I had read this book for the first time a few years ago and remember being incredibly moved and absolutely blown away. This time around I already knew the story and what was going to happen so I paid close attention to the details and the construction of the thing. It’s just as good on a second read and perhaps even more so since you can take a close look at what’s going on with the mechanics of the story instead of trying to figure out what’s going on. I’m not exactly sure what else to say, except that this is a very good novel and it reads very fast so even if (for some reason) you turn out not to like it you’re not out much.

I adore this book. It’s definitely a must-read, especially for a sci-fi fan.

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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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Hugo: Blue Mars (1997)

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Read May 1, 2010 – May 6, 2010

Premise: The third and final novel in the Mars Trilogy and absolutely worth reading the other two to get to—they are all spectacular but they all lead up to this one which, I feel, makes reading the first two worth it no matter how long you think they are.

Verdict: I get so caught up in all three of these novels that I forget 1.) I do not live on Mars, I live on Earth 2.) nobody lives on Mars—no one has even set foot on Mars 3.) I am not nor ever will be the various characters, even though I feel like I am. The entire series is so intricate and so large-scale and grandiose that I am just in awe and yet it’s so intimate and personable with the characters that you keep reading, even through the really technical mathematical scientific descriptions, just because you know that’s the nature of the characters and you want to know what happens with them. I just don’t know what else to say about this whole series. I know that I adored the first one, the second one was even better as far as character and such went—I guess simply because it was all the same people and still took them in really great directions. But for a conclusion, you cannot get better than this one. I’m still having trouble remembering that I am not on Mars, I’m on Earth. I can’t bring myself back out of it. I highly recommend this entire trilogy.

Go to the library, go to the bookstore, order them to your Kindle—whatever. But read these books.

Red Mars
Green Mars

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Hugo: Green Mars (1994)

Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Read April 1, 2010 – May 1, 2010

Premise: The second in a trilogy, the novel follows the same group of characters from Red Mars, their children, and some newcomers as they feud over terraforming and Martian independence from Earth.

Verdict: I loved this novel even more than the first one, although that’s probably because I loved the characters from the first one so much that I was ecstatic to see them back. This book very skillfully builds off of the social structures established in the first novel and adds in the perspectives and desires of people born and raised on Mars, as well as new immigrants, and military forces that are in place after the first Martian revolution. Robinson also uses this novel to develop the flatter characters of the previous book—who were more staunch representatives of opposing or controversial positions—into open and dimensional beings. I love the simple and informative explanations of actual scientific principal as it applies to Mars in the novel, and I adore the construction of new social orders that strive to better the human condition, but my favorite thing about these books is the complex and insightful way that Robinson portrays human relationships with free indirect discourse expressing the thoughts and desires of the people directly to the readers as if they are feeling it themselves. I could hardly put this novel down because I was so caught up in trying to organize the discordant groups of Mars that I forgot that humans haven’t even set foot on the planet yet—I was pretty sure that I was there!

Can’t stop to talk—must read the next one!

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