Tuesday, 31 October 2017

As strange as fiction: 1963's Hugo shortlisted authors

The novels that were up for the Hugo Award in 1963 are amongst the most confounding ever on a shortlist. But that is not to say that they’re bad.

The list ranges from the emotionally challenging (Man In The High Castle) to the technical (Fall Of Moondust) and from the approachable (Little Fuzzy) to the befuddling (Sylva).

Other than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Sword of Aldones, it’s easy to see why these novels were contenders for the top prize in science fiction. But possibly even more interesting than the novels themselves, are the lives of those who penned them.

In the 65-year history of the Hugo Awards, the shortlist has included a wide variety of dreamers, eccentrics, heroes and zealots. But in no year has there ever been a group of people like those whose names were on the ballot for best novel in 1963. The lives of the Best Novel Hugo shortlisted authors that year were variously heroic and tragic, inspiring and contemptible.

Jean Bruller lived so interesting a life
that writing a completely insane
Burt Reynolds movie is one of the most
mundane episodes in his biography.
(Image via Movieposter.com )
Amongst English-language science fiction readers, Vercors — AKA Jean Bruller — is probably the least well-known of the nominated authors, but he may be the most inspiring. Born to middle-class Parisian parents, Bruller graduated as an engineer before embarking on a successful career as a cartoonist. During the Second World War, he became famous as a resistance fighter. He guerilla-published an anti-fascist novel while living in Nazi-occupied France in 1942. After the war, the French government presented him the Legion of Honour, which he turned down in protest over his government’s ongoing mistreatment of Algerians.

Bruller’s 1960 novel Sylva, translated by Rita Barisse in 1962, was his only Hugo-shortlisted work, and is mostly forgotten. The plot — which involves a man torn between his love for a drug addict and his love for a humanoid fox — is significantly less interesting than the author’s life. It should be noted that Barisse did outstanding translation work. The writing is poetic, although the story has aged poorly. On this level alone, the book belongs on the shortlist.

Is the moon covered in
oceans of dust that will
swallow anything that
lands on it? In 1963,
scientists weren't certain.
(Image via Abe.com)
If Bruller has any competition amongst interesting lives lived by Hugo Award shortlisters, Arthur C. Clarke would be it. The sage of Sri Lanka’s exploits are well-documented: his work on the invention of radar during the Second World War, the discovery of sunken archeological treasures, his work on groundbreaking movies. Clarke was on the shortlist for the first time in 1963 for A Fall Of Moondust, a brilliant little novel about tourists trapped in a lunar transport vehicle that has sunk to the bottom of electrostatic quicksand.

It’s a memorable novel, in part because it was hard science fiction when it was published — theories abounded about what the surface of the moon was like — but almost immediately overtaken by real science.

As with many Clarke works, the challenges to overcome are purely technical, but are worked through in interesting ways. Memorably, issues of heat dissipation and oxygen provide narrative tension.

Despite being dated, A Fall of Moondust is among Clarke’s finer works, and deserved the consideration it received in 1963.

It’s interesting to note that not only was 1963 the last year in which all the authors on the Hugo Awards Best Novel shortlist were first-time nominees, it’s also the first year in which a sequel (The Sword of Aldones) was up for the award.

That sequel, The Sword of Aldones was the second of the Darkover books. Both it and its predecessor
Hugo Award nominee Jean Bruller
is commemorated at the Pont Des
Arts in Paris with a plaque that
describes how he "Allowed French
intellectualism to retain its honour
during the occupation."
(Image via Pinterest.com)
hit the shelves in 1962, continuing the Darkover stories that Marion Zimmer Bradley had been writing since 1958.

The Sword of Aldones’ unpolished first-person narrative was unsatisfying enough that 20 years later, Bradley decided to revisit the story. In 1981, she re-wrote it from the ground up, and re-published it as Sharra’s Exile, a longer, more fleshed out book written in the third-person, and moving the protagonist's first-person observations into sections that are supposed to be quoted from his journal. If you’re reading through the Darkover novels, we'd argue that The Sword of Aldones is more of a published oddity than it is a key part of the narrative.

It is also hard to read Bradley’s works without having the experience tainted by the revelations about her complicity in the abuse of children. I would argue that there are few Hugo Award-shortlisted authors whose conduct has been as reprehensible.

Conversely, there is a goodness and a nobility to the book Little Fuzzy, and protagonist Jack Holloway’s passionate advocacy for the rights of the titular characters.

I first read Little Fuzzy when I was 12 years old, and appreciated H. Beam Piper’s classic book as a fun, interesting, engaging novel about the plight of a possibly intelligent species on a recently colonized world, and the political and economic consequences of their existence.

On re-reading it as an adult, I was struck by the maturity of Piper’s worldview, the anti-corporate politics, and the subtle undercurrent of melancholy.

Some critics have noted that Piper’s cute and primitive aliens can be seen as a metaphor that
Perhaps without H. Beam Piper, there
never would have been a
Caravan of Courage.
(Image via TVOvermind.com)
infantilizes tribal indigenous peoples, and that is a fair criticism. However, the childish nature of the Fuzzies can also be interpreted as a discussion point on liminal areas around sapience, and the rights of intelligent wild species such as dolphins and great apes.

Little Fuzzy has influenced generations of writers. The book’s legacy echoes through Star Wars’ Ewoks and the Na'vi from James Cameron’s Avatar. Piper’s work, however, remains more fully thought out, and more nuanced than its imitators.

It is a tragedy that in 1964, H. Beam Piper took his own life in the wake of arguments related to the rejected publication of a sequel to Little Fuzzy. One suspects that had he continued writing, he might have ended up on the ballot again in subsequent years.

The entire text of
Little Fuzzy is in the
public domain, and free
to access on the internet.
It's worth your time.
(Image via Wikipedia)
The winner that year, Phillip K. Dick, was another of science fiction’s tragic figures. Suffering from mental illness, visions, and depression, Dick attempted suicide in 1974, but survived and continued writing for another decade, until his death at the age of 53 in 1982.

The Man In The High Castle is one of the most confounding novels ever to win the Hugo Award. It’s shapeless, meandering, unsatisfying in its conclusion, deeply sad and entirely brilliant.

The narrative mostly goes nowhere, in part because Dick was plotting it by casting random lots with the I Ching. But the plot of this alternate history is less important than how it depicts an America of learned helplessness. This is a book about succumbing to tyranny and the ways in which we become complicit through inaction.

As with many of Dick's works, one of the key ingredients is the ontological malaise that is woven into the narrative. The Man In The High Castle asks the reader to question what we know to be true.

Although most fans will probably get more enjoyment from the tightly-plotted, tense, action-packed television adaptation of the novel, the show entirely misses the philosophical underpinning that made the book so great.

The shortlist in 1963, would have presented a difficult choice for Hugo voters weighing the merits of the joyful brilliance of Little Fuzzy against those of the ponderous and meandering The Man In The High Castle. But we’d argue that they probably got it right.



5 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, there are ongoing questions about Clarke's behavior with young Sri Lankans. Not sure how justifiably posed, but persistent.

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    Replies
    1. I wasn't aware of that. Do you have a link to a story about this issue?

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    2. The strongest claims have tended to be made by the likes of the UK paper the DAILY MIRROR and "Vox Day", neither the most reliable source of information about much of anything, but there is a certain lack of resolution to the question, as perhaps can only be, given Clarke not being able to speak to the matter himself now nor for some years, and lack of testimony known to be officially documented. While the likes of Gawker, also not too worried about nailing down any given story, have been Quite Certain of his bad behavior. http://gawker.com/369964/best-buys-geek-squad-celebrates-death-of-noted-pedophile-arthur-c-clarke-tonight

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    3. Definitely troubling. I tend to believe people who come forward and describe their own experiences. Do you know if any of the 'young Sri Lankans' have been quoted? Or is it all second-hand rumours?

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    4. I'm not yet aware of any testimony from the then young men. But others have claimed to have been third-party witnesses. It is tough to know to what degree to consider the power dynamics involved and what they allowed for.

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