Tuesday 4 July 2017

1962: A Hugo Dilemma

It’s hard to argue that Hugo voters got it wrong in 1962. 
When a book has added words to the
dictionary, it's hard to argue its enduring
cultural value. The word 'Grok' is in the
OED and Webster's. Image via Nerdist.com

That year’s winner, Stranger in a Strange Land’s appeal has stood the test of time — over the decades it has inspired researchers, religions, fetishes, linguists, and Billy Joel.

But as much as I love the works of Robert A. Heinlien, and as much as Stranger in a Strange Land deserved the recognition, several other nominees are less well remembered than perhaps they should be.

James White’s Second Ending is probably the most obscure of the nominees — I haven’t read it yet, mostly because I’ve never found a copy. White is probably better remembered for his Sector General series, which are well-written and engaging. I strongly suspect Second Ending — a ‘hopeful’ last-man-on-Earth story — was a worthwhile nominee, and look forward to reading it eventually.

One might argue that Harry Harrison’s closest brush with winning a Hugo was that year, with one of his more serious novels Planet of the Damned making the shortlist.  The dialogue is a bit stilted, but the worldbuilding, and adventure of the book make it an entertaining read.

Simak's novel is an
interesting counterpoint
to Heinlein's.
(Image via Wikipedia)
Time Is The Simplest Thing by Clifford Simak covers some of the same themes as Stranger in a Strange Land; the persecution of someone with telepathic abilities, meditations on philosophy, divergent moral systems, religion. But while Heinlein offers these through hopeful a lens of the perfectibility of humanity, Simak’s vision is bleaker, suggesting that the enlightened few should escape.

It is not my favourite of the nominees, nor my favourite work by Simak, but Time Is The Simplest Thing a fascinating work to experience as a counterpoint to its more famous fellow nominee.

These are three very strong nominees that all clearly belonged on the shortlist, but none really rivaled Stranger In A Strange Land — Probably the most famous novel by one of Science Fiction’s biggest names.

However, if Dark Universe had been published in almost any year other than 1961, it should have taken home the top prize at the next year’s Hugo Awards.

Daniel Galouye’s debut novel explores a post-apocalyptic subterranean society of people who have lived in the dark so long, they have forgotten what it is to see.

According to the oral tradition of the cave dwellers, “Light” used to exist everywhere, until the wickedness in mankind’s heart brought the darkness into the world. But what “Light” is, their language fails to properly convey.

And that’s the brilliance of this book — it illuminates how many of the metaphors in our language are 
In any other year than 1962,
Dark Universe would have
been a frontrunner for the
Hugo Award.
(Image via Goodreads)
based on sight.

The cave dwellers — who are locked in a feud between two tribes — have metaphors based on sound and on touch. They’ve gotten somewhat adept at echolocation, timing how long various noises take to bounce off the walls.

So many of the details are handled with nuance and insight. The description of a light bulb — a sacred cultural artifact that none of the characters understands — has stayed with me for years. They feel its shape, and are told that “light” used to live within.

One of the things that makes this scene so interesting is that it can be read either as a denunciation of naïve religious devotion to the unsubstantiated — or it can be read as a metaphor for humanity’s incomplete understanding of the ineffable and divine.

Galouye only published five novels in his short career, but returned repeatedly to themes centred around how we perceive the world. None of his later books were at the same caliber as Dark Universe.

There have been few years in which Hugo voters were presented with as difficult a choice as they were in 1962. Heinlein didn’t need a third Hugo award, and his works would have been remembered and celebrated for generations regardless of what happened at the awards ceremony. Galouye, on the other hand, is not nearly as well remembered — perhaps a Hugo win might have guided more readers to a book that’s worth reading.

In the end, Stranger in a Strange Land deserved to win, did win, and is inarguably a classic.

All the same, if I had been a Hugo Voter in 1962, I would have been strongly tempted to vote for Dark Universe by Daniel Galouye.

The Hugo Book Club is going through past Hugo Awards and discussing the ballots in previous years. Previously, we have discussed 1947 and 1973.

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