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Back to the Hugos
March 29, 2010 10:42 PM   Subscribe

Back to the Hugos is a series by Sam Jordison of the Guardian Books blog where he reads and reviews old Hugo Award winners. He was once skeptical of the literary quality of science fiction but then started to examine the validity of the critical orthodoxy and is now a firm convert, as this review of The Man in the High Casle demonstrates, and now even goes to science fiction events. Among the other books he's covered so far are A Case of Conscience by James Blish, Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner and the latest review is of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's not all sunshine and roses though, The Big Time and The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber don't appeal to him and the dreadfulness of They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley makes Jordison doubt the value of democracy, at least when it comes to selecting litearary award winners.
posted by Kattullus (40 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oooooo, thank _you_, Kattalus, this looks great! I have The Big Time at home to read - I hope it's good. Leiber was an incredibly writer when he was on song.
posted by smoke at 10:53 PM on March 29, 2010


Hmmm, on reading them, now, I'm not quite so enamored. Jordison doesn't really go deep on any of the novels, and his drive-by concerns are not especially insightful, I feel.

I think he would be better isolating one or two elements of the novels, contrasting them with the year of publication, and adding something a bit more substantive to the SF discourse. Otherwise, what he's serving up is not so different from a million other blogs out there, except if anything less informed of genre context - which I think is very important when looking at popularly chosen SF from decades ago like this.
posted by smoke at 11:02 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


dreadfulness of They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley makes Jordison doubt the value of democracy

Well, that's the 50s for you. The Demolished Man won the year before that, which I see he more-or-less liked.

Oh this is bound to annoy some folks around here: The Hugo award winner that spawned a Pulitzer prize winner - Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz is a direct ancestor of Cormac McCarthy's The Road
posted by Artw at 11:03 PM on March 29, 2010


Thanks for posting this. It reminded me that it's time for me to re-read The Man in the High Castle and to finally read A Canticle for Leibowitz.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 11:05 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Stand On Zanzibar is one of those utterly before-its-time books. It's like hypertext and surfing the web from before either of those things existed. The reality it creates is complex and deep, the plots it follows are confusing at first but finally meet in a pretty satisfying way. I cannot recommend the book enough.

Now I'll go read what this guy has to say about it.
posted by hippybear at 11:28 PM on March 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


smoke: I think he would be better isolating one or two elements of the novels, contrasting them with the year of publication, and adding something a bit more substantive to the SF discourse. Otherwise, what he's serving up is not so different from a million other blogs out there, except if anything less informed of genre context - which I think is very important when looking at popularly chosen SF from decades ago like this.

What I find most interesting about Jordison's blogposts is precisely that he isn't steeped in science fiction arcana. I've spent so much time immersed in science fiction in my life that it's hard for me to look at it in any other way, this gives me a different perspective. If nothing else it's persuaded me that taking another look at Heinlein might be worth it. Heinlein carries a lot of baggage and reading someone's take on Heinlein who isn't familiar with, say, The Cat Who Walked Through Walls *shudder* makes me reconsider my views of Heinlein. Jordison does have a very thorough knowledge of literature and his open-minded embrace of science fiction is not only laudable, but an interesting prism for those of us who are steeped in science fiction arcana to take a look at some of the classics. Also, this series is a fine introduction for someone who wants to read science fiction but doesn't know where to start.
posted by Kattullus at 11:30 PM on March 29, 2010


The Sheep Look Up is worth a read as well, if you can find a copy of it.
posted by Artw at 11:30 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and speaking of Heinlein, I just noticed that Jordison's review of Double Star is missing from the list. All the other Hugo winners up to The Left Hand of Darkness are there, so I don't think anything else is missing.

And Stand on Zanzibar is worth a read, definitely, and so is its literary model, John Dos Passos' USA trilogy.
posted by Kattullus at 11:43 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz is a direct ancestor of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Sure. And if they were attempting to breed out all wit and humor through the generations, they succeeded with flying colors.
posted by griphus at 11:49 PM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


A writer at IO9 has been reviewing the Hugo Award winners in chronological order for the last few months too.
posted by octothorpe at 3:43 AM on March 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


What I find most interesting about Jordison's blogposts is precisely that he isn't steeped in science fiction arcana.

As someone who has dabbled in reading sf, but less so over the years, I really welcome this kind of semi-outside perspective. Fanzone descriptions tend far too much towards trivia and are either ignoring or have come to terms with some of the more glaring flaws of the genre. These reviews come much closer to my own feelings.
posted by Forktine at 5:31 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wait until he reads Wolfe.

Oh, wait, they didn't even nominate The Shadow of the Torturer (The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge won that year [gag]) and he's never won the Hugo when nominated ('82, '83, '88), anyway.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:31 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kattullus:

"the dreadfulness of They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley makes Jordison doubt the value of democracy, at least when it comes to selecting literary award winners."

All major cultural awards have their clunkers. Oscars have The Greatest Show on Earth and Crash; Grammys have Christopher Cross and Toto IV and so on. With the Hugos in every decade there are (to my mind) questionable winners, winners that aren't questionable but not as good as other nominees, winners who won as "career awards" as much as anything else, etc*. It's simply the nature of awards and particularly award which purport to declare the "best" of anything, regardless of whether they are popularly chosen or chosen by a jury or by some other means.

*As a matter of attempting to appear less self-serving in this assessment, I'll note that the winners in the years I had a book nominated for the Best Novel Hugo were, in my opinion, worthy winners.
posted by jscalzi at 6:01 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Man, I gotta reread Man In the High Castle, it has the best non ending ending ever. (also, the crazy great internalized racism and paranoia).
posted by The Whelk at 6:19 AM on March 30, 2010


I can't see how Man in the High Castle can end any other way. I'll admit that it blindsided me when I read the first time but when you re-read it you can see how the narrative leads right up to it. For instance, Mr Tagomi's dream/journey in San Fransisco wouldn't make any sense without Abendsen's explanation at the end.
posted by octothorpe at 7:13 AM on March 30, 2010


I've never understood the love for "A Canticle for Leibowitz". It seemed juvenile and simplistic when I read it as a 15 year old, priest and religion despising atheist.
posted by signal at 7:55 AM on March 30, 2010


Seconding the love for John Brunner, esp. Sheep Look Up, Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider.

The reviewer is pretty young, and his writing is pretty casual, but it's still a really good project. Thanks for posting it.
posted by theora55 at 8:01 AM on March 30, 2010


Wait until he reads Wolfe..

Whenever I try to get my friends into science fiction, I mention Wolfe as a supreme writer, but I warn them that they'll have to work their way up to him. I tried introducing someone to sci-fi via the Book of the New Sun once, and...it didn't work out too well.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:14 AM on March 30, 2010


A while back I started reading Hugo and Nebula winners, looking to dig into the past of SF and fantasy.

"Zanzibar" was the book that made me stop reading the Hugos; Brunner's future slang of "codders" and "shiggys" just fell so flat in my ears that it ruined the rest of the book for me. I still refer to clunky, laughable future slang as "a case of the codder-shiggys", in fact.
posted by egypturnash at 8:21 AM on March 30, 2010


I read They'd Rather Be Right not long ago. I liked it. Sure, it had its clunky elements. No, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wasn't already a fan of forties and fifties sf. But it had an interesting premise that gave rise to a conflict that has stuck with me. I read it in the middle of reading Peter Watt's Blindsight and there was some thematic synergy between them, which doubtless helped my appreciation of it, as Blindsight is a really good book.

The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, edited by Barry Malzberg and Martin Greenberg, I recommend without the qualifiers. Those are some really good stories.

My politics and taste in music also suck.
posted by Zed at 10:03 AM on March 30, 2010


Man, I gotta reread Man In the High Castle, it has the best non ending ending ever. (also, the crazy great internalized racism and paranoia).

Dick actually planned a sequel to it, but it never materialized, because the Nazi thing freaked him out a little.

I remember reading some fragments of the sequel that seemed pretty good, possibly in the back of one of the editions of it - maybe it's online somewhere but I'm not finding it.
posted by Artw at 10:11 AM on March 30, 2010


How on earth did The Stars My Destination not get a Hugo? Easily one of the most amazing (moreso for it's astonishing ratio of brevity to ideas that you keep thinking about forever) books in any genre. So many of my aspirations as a writer have roots in the hope that I could eventually hone my craftsmanship to the point that I could produce one book in my career as richly-imagined as that one.
posted by sonascope at 10:22 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


If I am trying to introduce someone to Science Fiction, I give them The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I. These are Nebula award winning short stories and novellas. The subtitle is "The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time," and this actually lives up to the marketing.

The difference between a Hugo and a Nebula is that the Hugos are voted on by fans, whereas the Nebulas are voted on by the writers.

I tend to start people on short stories. Since they are short, my victim doesn't have to invest a lot of time to get a huge payoff. It also provides a sample of most of the best writers of Science Fiction, to see what he or she likes.

Another collection that is almost as good is The Hugo Winners, which is the Hugo winning short stories.
posted by Xoc at 10:24 AM on March 30, 2010


I give them The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I

I hope you rip out "The Roads Must Roll" and tape in "The Man Who Sold the Moon" or "Requiem" or "The Green Hills of Earth" or "The Long Watch" -- you know, one of Heinlein's good stories. (Seriously, I think both Heinlein and science fiction are done a great disservice by "The Roads Must Roll"'s presence in The SF Hall of Fame.)
posted by Zed at 10:31 AM on March 30, 2010


Xoc:

"The difference between a Hugo and a Nebula is that the Hugos are voted on by fans, whereas the Nebulas are voted on by the writers."

More accurately, the Hugos are voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, and the Nebulas are voted on by active members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There's a fair amount of overlap between the two (I've voted for both the Hugos and Nebulas every year since 2003, for example). That said, the membership for WSFS is based on purchasing a membership, while membership in SFWA is based on meeting specific membership requirements.

Beyond this, there are a lot of fans who are also writers, and writers who consider themselves fans. Said the guy who has a Hugo for Best Fan Writer.
posted by jscalzi at 10:35 AM on March 30, 2010


Interesting reading, thanks.

For those who can't decide between the Hugo winners and the Nebula winners, or would like to just pick the cream of the crop, take the intersection and read the books that won both.
posted by fings at 10:37 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


The first two chapters of the High Castle sequel are available in this book
posted by cnelson at 10:43 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I give them The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I

That was the main text book for the science fiction class that I took at Penn State given by Phil Klass/William Tenn who just passed away last month.
posted by octothorpe at 10:56 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


More accurately, the Hugos are voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, and the Nebulas are voted on by active members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Well, yes, but I don't know that those are particularly substantive differences. Anyone can vote on the Hugos for fifty bucks, even if they don't go to WorldCon.
posted by Amanojaku at 11:25 AM on March 30, 2010


Speaking of They'd Rather Be Right, I actually own this magazine!
posted by Mister_A at 11:47 AM on March 30, 2010


By year:
Nebula Award for Best Short Story
Hugo Award for Best Short Story

If anything I'd say that in recent years it feels like the Hugos have had better short stories, but the Nebula tends to lean more fantasy-ish in their picks and it's not quite my thing. Definately I'm going to go for "Exhalation" over "Trophy Wives". "Tideline" versus "Always" might be harder.
posted by Artw at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2010


jscalzi: It's simply the nature of awards and particularly award which purport to declare the "best" of anything, regardless of whether they are popularly chosen or chosen by a jury or by some other means.

Oh, absolutely. I was just describing the content of that particular post.

sonascope: How on earth did The Stars My Destination not get a Hugo?

They didn't give out a best novel Hugo at the 1957 Worldcon (for which you can blame the English).
posted by Kattullus at 1:08 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hugos given only to Periodicals this year

Weird.
posted by Artw at 1:16 PM on March 30, 2010


And they've decided not to do the Retro Hugo thing for that year because they did periodicals, which seems a bit daft and picky to me...
posted by Artw at 1:19 PM on March 30, 2010


Stand on Zanzibar is one of my developmental waypoints; when I read it my view of science fiction, literature, the world, and the future all shifted. A lot of it -- good and bad -- still resonates in me today. It always makes me happy to see it get a bit of attention.

And I wonder just how far out into the waters of Zanzibar people would be standing today?

Although I have to agree with egypturnash -- the slang gets more jarring every time I reread it. For what it's worth, though, so does A Clockwork Orange's "droogs" and "horrorshow."
posted by mkhall at 1:36 PM on March 30, 2010


And I wonder just how far out into the waters of Zanzibar people would be standing today?

None far. Looking around, Brunner picked Zanzibar for a population of 7 billion, and we have 6.7 billion.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:13 PM on March 30, 2010


I always thought there was a bit of metaphor in the population explosion aspect, though; it isn't the people who are packed onto the island, but the connectedness and complexity of our lives. Even if we have enough room and enough food, do we have enough breathing room?
posted by mkhall at 3:14 PM on March 30, 2010


I've been using the Hugo winners as a reading list, and I have to say...

Point 1:
Double Star shouldn't be a Hugo winner. There is nothing in it that is 'science fiction'. It has all the trappings, other planets, space ships, etc. But there's nothing in the story that depends on science fiction. The story could have been horror, or set in present day Washington, D.C. (Like Dave) or in a banana republic (Moon Over Paradour)... For example, The Left Hand of Darkness requires the science fiction-only sex change device for LeGuin to get to what she wants to say. Or The Demolished Man requires a telepathic police force.

Point 2:
Other than Double Star, this has been a very satisfying undertaking. I've found one thing somewhat in common among all the Hugo winners. An American public would reject, and maybe protest, much of the content of the books if presented faithfully in film. I can see people getting steamed over the sex change aspects of Left Hand, or outright protesting the required homosexuality in The Forever War. Good stuff. (Still making my way through the list though...)

Point 3:
The novels are well-selected. The award for Best Dramatic Presentation leaves something to be desired.
posted by CarlRossi at 6:24 PM on March 30, 2010


Double Star shouldn't be a Hugo winner. There is nothing in it that is 'science fiction'. It has all the trappings, other planets, space ships, etc. But there's nothing in the story that depends on science fiction.

Oh god, this again.

The irony is you then go on to praise The Forever War! Which is a great novel but is "just" a science fictional treatment of a soldier returning from war to find himself alienated from what he left behind. The time dilation is an inspired way to get at the problem but it doesn't change the nature of the story.

It's what you call the trappings that make science fiction. Trying it any other way is a recipe for a useless, convoluted, and unworkable definition where you are forced to declare things with spaceships and aliens as not-science-fiction.
posted by Justinian at 11:38 PM on March 30, 2010


2010 Hugo nominees
posted by Artw at 12:07 AM on April 5, 2010


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