Tag Archives: Nebula winner

GATEWAY – Frederik Pohl (1977)


Gateway is a famous book. It’s one of the few novels that won 4 major prizes: the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Campbell award, and it’s on numerous essential SF lists.

While it’s perfectly self-contained, Pohl wrote 5 sequels: Beyond The Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), The Annals Of The Heechee (1987), The Gateway Trip (1990) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). Together with the 1972 novella The Merchants Of Venus, and The Gateway Trip – a short story collection that appeared in 1990 – these books form the Heechee saga.

The Heechee are a mysterious alien race that explored our Galaxy hundreds of millennia ago. Near Earth, they left structures on Venus, and – crucial for this novel – a space station in an asteroid, including functional spaceships. Humans can operate these, but don’t really understand the technology.

The basic premise of Gateway is brilliant: humans embark on voyages in these ships, but it’s a bit of a lottery. Most of the time, crews do not know where they’ll end up – there might be proverbial gold at the destination, but more likely it’ll be just a barren planet, or worse, mortal danger. The link with prospecting in the Wild West is easily made.

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AMERICAN GODS – Neil Gaiman (2001)

American GodsI’ve only seen the trailer of Starz’s adaptation of American Gods, but that firmly set the face of Ian McShane as default for one of its main characters – Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of Odin. Ian McShane plays Al Swearengen in HBO’s brilliant – and sadly uncompleted – Deadwood. The mannerisms of that cunning brothel owner suit Mr. Wednesday well, and as books aren’t read in a vacuum, my Mr. Wednesday turned out to be an incarnation of Mr. Swearengen. Kind of fitting for a book about the dark side of Americana, and the casting people of Starz must have thought so too.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s most famous and acclaimed book: it won the Hugo, the Locus Fantasy, the Nebula, and the Bram Stoker award. Worlds Without End has it as number 6 of their most read books, and it’s on spot 2 of their list of SFF’s most nominated books.

I guess most people reading this know what the book is about: “gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the United States brought with them spirits and gods. The power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting the American obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.” The book’s protagonist, Shadow, finds himself at the center of a conflict between the old and the new when he is recruited by Mr. Wednesday, just after being released from prison.

I’ve read the 10th anniversary edition, which added 12.000 words that were cut for the first version, and the praise on its back cover leaves no room for doubt: this is speculative fiction of the literary kind. I’ve written about speculative fiction’s obsession with Literature before, so I will not repeat that here, but rest assured, American Gods is no pulp indeed. Not being pulp does not make it a masterpiece either, so let’s start this review already. Continue reading

UPROOTED – Naomi Novik (2015)

Uprooted 2Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.

Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.

Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest. Continue reading

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 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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2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)

2312The heart of this novel is a love affair with the universe itself… People that haven’t lost their sense of wonder and amazement at the splendor of existence, and who also like to learn and discover as much as they can about the vast reality we live in, will find a lot to rejoice in this breathtaking and brave book.

That plentitude is one of 2312‘s strengths. It covers a very broad spectrum, and people with a keen interest in non-fiction will see that Robinson has incorporated lots and lots of stuff from various scholarly domains. It was a boisterous, joyous feast of recognition that broadened my horizon at the same time.

As every more or less enlightened person nowadays thinks in the wake of Darwin, Robinson is a writer of evolution as well, and his bold speculations of how things might evolve in the near future is depressing and hopeful at the same time. As such, 2312 is a very realistic, hard SF book, and utterly mind-blowing at that.

Robinson has found a really interesting narrative voice, funny at times, revealing things at the right time, switching between 3 main different modes, without it ever being confusing. The way the novel is structured elegantly solves the info dump problem. While it drags a wee bit around the halfway mark, and it suffers a bit from too much description at times, generally, it’s a fast paced book.

2312 sometimes reads as a giant, original 540-page summary of other contemporary SF, as it touches upon so many themes. It feels a bit like the true Hard SF variant of Bank’s utopianism, as if we were witnessing the very early stages of the birth of a human Culture, confined to this solar system. And what Reynolds did for the realistic, lonely portrayal of interstellar space travel, Robinson does for the portrayal of life on the other planets, moons and asteroids of this solar system. I’m interested if Stephenson will equal this in his upcoming Seveneves – a book with a similar setting, albeit part of it in a much further future.

This was the first book of Robinson I’ve read. I guess most of his other stuff will end up on my TBR-pile, so there you have it.

One more thing… Over the course of a small week, this book made me look up at the sun, the clouds and the sky multiple times, and made me deeply appreciate our biosphere, not really for the first time, but this time with a new sense of wonder and awe – we are actually walking and living on the surface of a planet, without space suits at all.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of Hard SF.

originally written on the 17th of May, 2015

BABEL-17 – Samuel R. Delany (1966)

Babel-17Babel-17 failed to connect with me. I felt this classic is way past it sell by date. Since it’s mainly a book about ideas, the ideas must remain fresh and crisp for a 21st century reader to enjoy it. Sadly, that’s not the case.

The ideas most important for the book are about the nature of language. Even when reading it in 1966, I doubt that someone with a fairly basic knowledge of language philosophy could have enjoyed this. It’s not so much the matter that the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been discredited to some degree, but it’s simply the general sloppiness of the ideas and little tidbits about language Babel-17 tries to force feed you. I’ll briefly illustrate that with 2 examples…

Delany writes about a language that can describe a very big and complicated power plant fully, to pretty small details – colors of the wall, mechanics, lay-out, etc. – in just 9 (nine!) short words, even though the culture that speaks this language has never even encountered a power plant. As a character with a keen mind says in the novel: “That’s impossible.” The prodigy main character, a telepathic uberpolyglot poet, dismisses this with a very short explanation, and simply states it is just a matter of the right vocabulary. Yeah, right. No, it is downright impossible, and any serious language philosopher would have told you in the sixties too. There’s nothing speculative about claiming something else, it’s just bad reasoning. Delany also devotes pages and pages about a language without the word “I”. Sure, thinking in (only) this language would probably influence one’s self-consciousness. Yet, Delany then goes on to claim such people wouldn’t have any will or incentive to escape a dangerous situation or be free, would know no fear, etc. Again, any behavioral scientist (or about anybody else with a right mind) in the 60ies would claim otherwise. I’m guessing ants or lizards have no word for “I”, but still try to scuttle off when in danger. Yet a character thinking in this language does try to escape a prison and – I’ll just stop here.

All this might not have been a problem if it weren’t for the fact that just about the entire narrative of the book depends on the content of the above examples and others like it. The net result is a plot that is painful to read.

A lot of the other, science fictionesque ideas (those not about language) are ill-conceived too. Who would possibly want to have real, sharp metal spurs implanted on their wrists? Think about it for a second: do the benefits outweigh the practicalities of such a gimmick when sleeping or generally not being in battle? The book is full of stuff like that. Cringeworthy.

The characters are cardboard.

On top of all that, Delany tries to be literary. So, it’s not only a SF book about language (meta!), it’s an artistic book too! But again, it’s just feeble attempts. There’s a full chapter – that is just 1 page long – with only broken syntax, there’s bad poetry at the start of every chapter, there’s a chapter with a minor lay-out experiment, etc. Other writers did stuff like that earlier, with more impact, and above all: out of internal necessity, because their novels or poetry needed it to advance the story.

This book probably has merit for those that read with a historical eye, but contemporary folk only looking for a good, entertaining read better stay away: even the action and the adventure story isn’t captivating.

And oh, there’s the giant infodump in the last 10 pages that explains just about everything that happened in the previous 180. So maybe just read that, and save yourself some time.

Concluding, as jwharris wrote on the forum of Worlds Without End: “these older books for the most part are poorly written compared to modern science fiction. (…) Often these old novels have some neat ideas, but the storytelling is crap.” In Babel-17, even the ideas aren’t that neat, often feel forced, not fully fleshed out or simply wrong.

Final verdict: embellishments + half-baked substance = shiny turd.

originally written on the 8th of May, 2015