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 was 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.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Harry Potter and the Undeserved Hugo

It is quite possible that there are more printed copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire than of all other Hugo Award winners put together.

The fourth Harry Potter novel has more than 60 million printed copies, easily quadrupling the number of printed copies of Dune (at twelve million) and ten times the number of American Gods (around a million) and Stranger in a Strange Land (five million) combined.

Despite this and the fact that I enjoyed The Goblet Of Fire moderately well, I now wonder with the benefit of hindsight, if awarding the Potter franchise novel the 2001 Hugo Award was a mistake. Certainly, there were other books nominated that year that were more worthy of the Hugo Award. 

The Goblet of Fire rarely ranks near the top of anyone’s list of Harry Potter novels. As the middle volume of the seven-book series, it lacks the freshness of the early novels and offers none of the narrative resolution of the latter books. What does The Goblet of Fire offer? Almost endless description of a Quiddich tournament.
What The Goblet of Fire needed is a
few more Quiddich matches.
(Image via Independent.co.uk)

The Goblet of Fire won the Hugo Award in 2001, at the height of Pottermania. There were lineups at bookstores as fans clamored to get the fourth volume of the series. Kids were dressing up as Harry Potter for Halloween. The first Harry Potter movie was expected to hit theatres in November. 

If Hugo Award voters had the prescience to have recognized (via award or nomination) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1998, or if the whole series had won upon its conclusion, perhaps it would be more forgivable. But looking at the situation with 15 years of hindsight, it feels like the Hugos were just bandwagon jumping on an established series that was already extraordinarily popular. 

It seems to me that honouring the book with a Hugo Award did nothing to help it find new readers, and this feels like an abdication of what the award should be about. 

In introducing the First Annual Achievement Awards in Science Fiction (which would later become known as the Hugo Awards), organizer Will Jenkins wrote: “It has long been felt that some formal system of awards should exist in modern science fiction whereby outstanding accomplishments of writing, editing and artistry in the field could be properly recognized and made known to the world.”

Can it reasonably be argued that in 2001, the Hugo Award made Harry Potter ‘known to the world’? For almost every other Hugo Award-winning novel, we can definitively say that the award improved the visibility and impact of the book, helping it find new readers. 

Because publishing numbers are notoriously unreliable, especially for works prior to 1980, we looked at the number of North American libraries with English-language copies in circulation (according to the OCLC database Worldcat.org). This too has gaps and omissions, but represents a fair measure of how in-demand and thus well-remembered a book might be in North America. 

The 1964 Hugo winner Way Station can be found in 713 libraries, while hardly any other title by Clifford D. Simak has even half that figure. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which took home the Hugo in 1972 is available in 810 libraries, while most other books by Phillip José Farmer are only represented in about 200 or so libraries each. 

It’s a pattern that repeats itself as you look at the works of almost every Hugo Award winning novelist whose Hugo-winning novel is not a sequel. Even books by most big-name science fiction and fantasy authors seem to get a boost from the award. 

Perhaps George R. R. Martin should
get the Retro-Alfie for 2001?
(Image via Westeros.org)
Which brings me back to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. At the time of this writing, there are 5131 libraries that provide access to the book. The preceding volume in the series is available at 5210. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? A whopping 5270. 

The Hugo Award did nothing for Harry Potter. Perhaps that’s why J.K. Rowling was not represented at the awards ceremony, and may not even have ever accepted it. 

It’s understandable that Hugo voters got swept up in Pottermania, but with the benefit of hindsight, we should also be willing and able to own up to our mistakes. 

The Hugo Award has currency, and that shouldn’t be devalued by throwing the award to the fad of the moment.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

The science fiction of revolution

America was born of science fiction.

In the 1770s, the idea that a country could govern itself through the collective decision making of
Ben Franklin was the Rick
Sanchez of his time.
(Image via Wikipedia)
everyday people was a science fictional concept: It required imagining a fundamentally different world that was bereft of monarchs; it was based on an unproven social technology; and it aspired to a utopian future.

The man who is often called “The First American” — Benjamin Franklin — was the most science-fictional person of his day. He experimented with electricity, invented new technology, and imagined new ways of organizing government.

All science fiction is political. But all political movements – especially the revolutionary ones – are likewise science fictional.

Those setting out to change the world start with the premise that the world could be different. They have to imagine a different world before knowing that action should be taken, and the more revolutionary the change, the greater the imagination required.

Which is why some particularly radical political movements keep being reexamined, reflected, reinterpreted, and revisited within the genre of science fiction.

Major radical movements such as communism, libertarianism, socialism, feminism, conservatism, and fascism have each been reflected in major movements in science fiction.
This isn't science fiction — it's the
headquarters of the communist party
of Bulgaria (Image via Wikipedia)

There was a well-established strain of science fiction in the Soviet Union — much of it made with explicit government support — that depicted a triumph of communal living.

The German Nazis produced several works of now-forgotten (I would say deservedly forgotten) films and novels depicting a triumphalist science fiction that echoed the architecture of Albert Speer.

It could even be argued that the bizarre fantasist Arian mythology created and promoted by the Nazi regime was a morally corrupt work of science fiction.

Perhaps this is why the “Nazis In Space” trope echoes throughout the genre, from the Empire in Star
Sometimes the space Nazis aren't just
a metaphor. (Image via IronSky.net)
to Emergents of Vernor Vinge’s Deepness In The Sky. Authors unconsciously recognize that Nazis were a science-fictional regime based on a radical ideology that is anathema to modern liberal values.

And of course, the genre is rife with variations on planetary democracies that are a reflection of an idealized U.S. — from the United Federation of Planets to the Twelve Colonies of Kobol to the Interstellar Alliance of Babylon 5.

When we realize how integral science fiction is to radical politics, it should be no surprise that the most radical American political leader of the past 30 years, Newt Gingritch, is an avid fan, and has even published science fiction.

Now Gingritch’s utopian vision, best expressed in his “Contract With America” is not a utopia that we would subscribe to, but it is indicative of the link between radical politics and science fiction.

In his Hugo Award-winning 1998 book The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, Thomas Disch suggested that science fiction can claim to be America’s national literature because “it is the literature most suited to telling the lies we like to hear about ourselves.”

Although this may be partially true, one could alternately argue that the space opera is America’s national literature — and that variations of science fiction are national literatures of many nations of the Western World — because science fiction is an embodiment of an idea that the world can always be changed for the better.

Sunday 8 October 2017

Review: The Space Between The Stars

It is a pleasure to read The Space Between The Stars, a book that manages to evoke both Earth Abides
Image via Goodreads
and Firefly.

On a simple sentence-by-sentence level, Anne Corlett’s debut is one of the best-written — and most quotable — science fiction novels in several years.

For readers with an affinity for England and Englishness, Corlett’s language will be a treat. Other might find the prose affected and the references to nineteenth and early twentieth century British values off-putting. What cannot be denied is the skill with which she writes. The author’s degrees in law and in creative writing are evidenced by the precision of her language.

The future of plagues

The story takes place across a multitude of worlds that until recently were part of an interstellar federation. This federation was prosperous but struggling to respond to the effects of overpopulation with extremely conservative and disruptive immigration policies, enabled by a strict class-based social stratification. As the narrative starts, a plague has swept across every inhabited planet, leaving few survivors. Of what were once billions, perhaps five thousand people remain.

The main protagonist Jamie, an upper class, recently divorced woman who appears to be the sole
It does seem excessively British to be
shipping fine china and a grand piano
from one side of the galaxy to the other.
(Image via CakeStandHeaven.com)
survivor on a remote world, sets out on a quest to return to Earth in the hopes of reuniting with her ex-husband. A loner by nature, Jamie struggles to balance her need for independence with the desire for community.

The story neatly marries the intellectual traditions of the British disaster novel (I.E. The Death Of Grass and The Wind From Nowhere), and the modern space opera (I.E. Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and Firefly).

Disaster novels often repudiate the comforts of modern living and laud the hardy souls who have the mettle to survive. Corlett, however, manages to magnify what has been lost by setting this novel in a materialistic utopia, with characters that feel dissipating emotional attachments to non-essential goods and instead learn to prioritize social cohesion with survivors from diverse social classes and life experiences. There is no celebration of the destruction, nor any great hero riding in to provide order and forge a new beginning.

Written with compassion

Those in our book club who have assisted people with intellectual disabilities noted that Corlett
The author, Anne Corlett has
degrees in both law and creative
writing. (Image via AnneCorlett.com)
showed some knowledge and compassion while writing about Finn, the book’s character with autism. Disaster stories’ tendency to have a token neuro-atypical character is overdone, but Corlett does it well.

This character with autism is a key part of the story, both showing Jamie slowly coming out of her shell as she begins to help Finn, and highlighting several of the book’s subtle metaphors, such as the ocean-polished shards of glass that no longer fit together as they once did.

Some readers felt the book drags in the last third, once the protagonist and the rag-tag crew of companions she’s accumulated arrive on Earth. It is unfortunate that the plot begins to strain credulity as the reader learns that one after another of Jamie’s acquaintances and family have survived the plague.

Especially dull are the sequences involving a group of historical role players intent on recreating Georgian Era fashion and mores. Annoyance with the characters tends to overshadow the obvious
The Northumberland coastline calls
to Jamie as a place of refuge.
(Image via Northumberland.com)
and important lesson of this sub-plot: a reliance on materialism and social expectations as a proxy for the pursuit of a meaningful life is a depressing reality of the human experience when basic needs are met.

Abandoning the genre

Oddly, if you were to read only the the last 100 pages, you might not notice that they are part of a science fiction novel. Corbett seem to abandon the genre entirely, as the character grapples with family history and the location in which she grew up.

Despite some excessive plot conveniences, The Space Between The Stars should receive serious awards consideration for the richness of its language, the deftness of character development, and the complexity of its metaphors.