Tag Archives: Hugo winner

STAND ON ZANZIBAR – John Brunner (1968)

Stand On ZanzibarJudith Merrill called Stand On Zanzibar “the first true SF novel”, and in his introduction to the 2011 edition Bruce Sterling calls parts “radically antinovelistic” and the book in general a “unique formal achievement”. Let me assure you, dear reader, such hyperbole statements are bollocks. I’ve written about some SF-readers’ real literature frustration before, and I won’t repeat all that here. It seems that some people still need to be told that what they are reading is really True Art, and really worth Their Time.

Sterling goes on to compare John Brunner’s first non-pulp novel to George Perec’s 1978 La Vie mode d’emploi in an attempt to make Brunner’s book more formally visionary than it actually is: it predates the English translation of that ‘real’ literature masterpiece by 20 years. While doing so, he almost casually brushes aside the formal comparisons to Dos Passos’ U.S.A., a trilogy from the 1930s that uses the same narrative techniques. Sterling claims Dos Passos doesn’t really count, as he was an “naturalistic” writer, and Brunner “antinaturalistic”. Content is not form in my book, so “unique formal achievement”? Yeah right. And in Dutch Louis Paul Boon already wrote an even more radical cut up book right after WW2.

Maybe it was unique in the context of SF. Brunner might have been the first speculative writer to put all these techniques together in one book: I’m not widely enough read in pre 1968 SF to verify this. But its partial techniques were tried & tested, in speculative fiction too. I’m guessing books that alternate the big storylines with smaller storylines or vignettes can be easily found. The habit of inserting made up texts from the future period somebody is writing about is not unheard of either: just look at this list of fictional books Frank Herbert quoted from in the Dune series. Asimov did the same in the early 50ies. And Tolkien had fictional song and verse too.

All this is not to shit on Stand On Zanzibar, as Stand On Zanzibar is a masterpiece.

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THE DISPOSSESSED – Ursula Le Guin (1974)

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed is a famous book: it won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, and it tackles a tricky subject: politics. It is set in the Hainish universe, on two twin planets. On Anaress, a group of dissidents founded an anarchist syndicalist society that has been going for about 2 centuries when the book starts. The other planet, Urras, has three states, of which the most important ones are modeled on the USA and the Soviet Union.

The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anaress who, in a gesture of dissent, travels to Urras, hoping to be able to finish his revolutionary theory about time there.

Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed, saying “it performs one of [science fiction’s] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work.” I don’t fully agree, as I didn’t feel I was transported to another world: the cold war politics alert sign was constantly flashing.

That is my main problem with the novel: it is so obvious, and so obviously about Earth, I always felt Le Guin’s intentions, instead of feeling a story. It is no secret Le Guin has leftist sympathies, and also in this book it is clear where her heart lies: sure, Anaress has its problems, but it is liberal about sex, it is pro-gay, feminist, and people don’t eat meat. There are only two big problems on the planet: it’s arid and doesn’t easily grow food; and the anarchy syndicalist system of the Odonian society slowly evolved into a bureaucracy, with stagnating power structures popping up.

The fact that this book is praised so much seems to me the result of a couple of things, that at the same time explain why The Dispossessed didn’t fully work for me.

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THE DEMOLISHED MAN – Alfred Bester (1953)

The Demolished ManWhat to write about this first ever winner of the Hugo award? The main conclusion must be this: times have changed. The CIA had a secret program (‘Project MKULtra’) trying to gain insight into mind control during the 1950s and the early sixties. Arthur C. Clarke dabbled in the paranormal (see the few lines I quoted from the foreword to Childhood’s End – also published in 1953), Asimov had telepaths living in a second Foundation, and Frank Herbert wrote The Santaroga Barrier as late as 1968. It were trippy times, and the belief in the potential powers of the mind was hopeful and naive.

Is this book science fiction? Not because it’s set in 2301 AD, as that doesn’t matter for the story: it could have been 1981 AD just as well. Not because it features Venus or Ganymede as locations, as that doesn’t matter either, it could have been Hawaii and Malawi too. The fact that humans colonized the solar system is not explored one bit – the most comical moment of the book is when a character wonders if he’ll catch the “10 o’clock rocket” to someplace off-planet. Not because cars are called jumpers and can fly. And not because the judge is a computer, as that could have been any bureaucrat.

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THE FIFTH SEASON – N.K. Jemisin (2015)

The Fifth SeasonThe Fifth Season is a quick, easy read: I burned through its 450 pages in a weekend. It’s the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy: the sequel The Obelisk Gate should be published in August later this year.

The story is fairly standard: the world is ending because of a deliberate and magically invoked cataclysm, and the book follows 3 women in 3 different time frames fairly close to said cataclysm. There’s Damaya, a young women discovering her magical powers while being mentored in a magic school, Syenite, an older apprentice of the same school who is sent on her first real mission, and discovers the real world moral complexity of her organization – it’s not really that complex: they keep slaves themselves for protection, and she’s ordered to breed to keep the numbers up – and finally there’s Essun, an older women that wants revenge for the murder of her son.

What makes this novel stand out is its focus on plate tectonics: both the history of the world and the magic system revolve around this aspect. It’s interesting, but don’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson or Neal Stephenson levels of research or complexity on the matter. Every so often, this world goes through a so-called ‘fifth season’, being a few years or decades of despair because of various seismic events. And some people – called orogenes – are able to control seismic activity with their minds, because they are born like that. That’s about it for the plate tectonic complexity.

So, to cut to the chase: The Fifth Season is not bad, but judging from the current average 4.32 Goodreads rating – that’s pretty high – I know I’m in a minority position when I state that I think it’s just okay, and not excellent at all.

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THE FOREVER WAR – Joe Haldeman (1974)

The Forever WarThe Forever War is generally thought of as a SF-classic with everlasting appeal. Not only a SF-classic, but even a straight out American classic of literature. 3 different quotes on my edition rave in one way or the other about the book being up there with the big boys of non-genre, non-pulp literature: “the most important war novel written since Vietnam”.

I disagree. It’s not that the book hasn’t aged well: it hasn’t, but that’s not its problem. I never felt it being a very good book, and I think it never has been. It is not without merit, there’s excellent parts, but overall there’s not enough meat on the bone. It works as an allegory, but not as a story. Moreover, its ethics are pathetically superficial: a pretty spectacular fail, especially for an indicting war novel. More on that later, also in the comments.

I guess most SF-fans know that Joe Haldeman was a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, and that The Forever War actually is about the Vietnam war – it is even considered a critique of that war; in the introduction Haldeman recollects having a hard time getting it published because of that. It’s a personal book: the protagonist’s name, William Mandela, clearly is an anagram of Haldeman.

So, what’s the good here?

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THE CITY & THE CITY – China Miéville (2009)

The City & The CityI enjoyed The City & The City a lot. It was only the second book I’ve read by China Miéville. My first was Embassytown, and while that was fun, it was very flawed too. So, my expectations for Miéville’s most hyped book weren’t exactly high, and to make things worse, reading the comparisons to Kafka on the back put my inner-cynic on high alert. Still, it won 6 awards, and its premise really piqued my interest.

First things first, this is not really ‘fantasy’ fantasy. And for sure it’s not science fiction either. Some label this book as near-future, but it is most definitely not. The City & The City is simply speculative fiction. The novel is set in the timeframe of its publication: the very beginning of the 21st century, on our very own planet Earth, in a fictional Eastern European city that is a kind of double city. Two cities exist in and on the space of one, interweaving, but separate – Iron Curtain kind of separate. This is not to be taken as something magical, metaphysical, hallucinatory or fantastical. Both Besźel and Ul Quma are very, very real. While there is a sense of wonder for the reader, discovering both cities’ interwoven workings, it is all perfectly possible & explainable. It’s not New Weird fiction either – a genre tagged to some of Miéville’s other novels. There’s actually nothing impossibly weird about this double city, other than that it doesn’t exist in our reality. It could exist though, and that fact is one of the strengths of the book.

Something else it is not, is Kafka (*). It starts Kafkaesque though, and Miéville explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s influence in the preface. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the political, bureaucratic stuff is more part of the setting, rather than one of the themes. Another crucial difference with Kafka is that The City & The City isn’t an existential book. Continue reading

WAY STATION – Clifford D. Simak (1963)

Way StationWay Station is firmly rooted in its time of publication. While the language and descriptions are still worthwhile, the themes of this book seem dated and naïve. Simak tells the story of Enoch Wallace, a soldier that survived Gettysburg and afterwards was chosen by an alien to transform his parental house in a secret way station for all kinds of different alien travellers. Enoch is to be the keeper of this station, and doesn’t age any more. At first, the story holds tremendous promise. There is a sense of mystery, and Simak’s rural descriptions of the lonely Enoch and his daily occupations really achieve a unique, emotional mood.

As the novel progresses, this mood at times becomes muddled by the obvious messages Simak wants to convey. The fear of a devastating, apocalyptic nuclear war lays as a heavy hand on the story. Progressing intelligence, technology and science are pointed out as culprits, something which has been in fashion for thinkers since the second half of the 20th century. They forgot that the brutal Mongol conquest in the 13th century was able to kill more than 40 million people, as opposed to the 55 million that were killed in World War 2. Yet the Mongols did so in a world with only 1/7th the population of the mid-20th century. They also did so without atomic bombs, tanks and gas chambers. Although war and violence remain potent themes for a book, the way Simak approaches them seems dated.

Simak also ventures into a strange mysticism, possibly also inspired by the sixties vibe. The universe seems to “care” in unexplained way, and an important part of the plot has to do with an ill-conceived “Talisman”, a mysterious device made 10.000 years ago by some alien. This more or less magical device is needed to keep the different societies of the galaxy, and even the galaxy itself, together. How the universe held together before this talisman was constructed is unclear. The fact that, near the end, the ultimate savior of humanity (and the other galactic races) turns out to be a deaf-mute child with unexplained magical powers, shows Simak actually is a hopeless, messianic Romantic.

Add to that a pervading feeling throughout the book, exemplified in the following sentence:

In the old days it would have been – what did you say, gentlemanly and on a plane of principles and ethics.

Simak is not only a Romantic, but a reactionary too…

As the magic above, there’s quite a lot of other stuff that’s underdeveloped. True, it’s a short book – only 189 pages in my edition – , but I feel some decisive editing would have made it stronger. There’s a side plot about the impossible love between Enoch and a kind of AI woman. It should have been cut away, or explored fuller. And Simak, as Asimov more than a decade before him, also dabbles a bit in the possibility of calculating the future with math, and even hints at an ethics calculator. It’s only dabbling & hints, sadly. There are strange artifacts that traveling aliens leave at the way station, and Simak clearly has a vivid, strong imagination, but I wanted to know more.

This book has merit, but not as a novel of ideas. The back cover talks about “pastoral science fiction”. The following quote illustrates this, as well as Simak’s real strenght…

It stood as it had always stood, unchanged, except that in the olden days there had been ruffled curtains at each window. The yard around it had changed with the slow growth of the years , with the clump of lilacs thicker and more rank and tangled with each passing spring, with the elms that his father had planted grown from six-foot whips into mighty trees, with the yellow rose bush at the kitchen corner gone, victim of a long-forgotten winter, with the flower beds vanished and the small herb garden, here beside the gate, overgrown and smothered out by grass. 

The old stone fence that had stood on each side of the gate now was little more than a humpbacked mound. The heaving of a hundred frosts, the creep of the vines and grasses, the long years of neglect, had done their work. In another hundred years, he thought, it would be level, with no trace of it left. Down in the field , along the slope where erosion had been at work, there were long stretches where it had entirely disappeared.

All of this had happened and until now he had scarcely noticed it. But now he noticed it and wondered why he did.