Tag Archives: hugo award

Book review: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin 1974)

Rating: 2/5

I first read The Dispossessed in high school. I wasn’t wild about it. But high schoolers lack knowledge of government and people and how we get along together, major topics of the book, so I figured I owed it a reread.

I wasn’t wild about The Dispossessed the second time either. It may be the talkiest modern book I’ve read. With all the talking, I never felt like I emotionally connected with the countries, the characters, or the conflicts. In contrast, Le Guin’s other Hugo and Nebula award winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, is structurally similar and is one of my favorite books.

The Dispossessed takes place on a world and an inhabitable moon, the Earthlike Urras the harsher Anarres. Politically, Urras has rich and poor and countries of different political persuasions. Anarres is inhabited by descendants of anarchists from Urras. On Anarres, the people are equal and they struggle together against the harsh climate. They don’t own anything and they are free because of it. The main character is Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres. The book alternates between Shevek’s childhood on Anarres and Shevek’s visit to Urras. Shevek is the first person from either world to go to the other. The book contrasts to the two societies using Shevek’s eyes, a man who doesn’t quite fit in on either world.

Much of the book describes the society of anarchist Anarres. People work for the good of society. No one is strictly obligated to, but social shame is applied to those who don’t, those who “egoize”.  Everyone, even the physicists, is expected to spend part of their time laboring for society. Men and women are equal, the intelligent and less intelligent are equal too. The book does discuss where these ideals start to break down, but still, I had trouble believing in the Annaresti society. It felt one-dimensional, like its whole purpose was to be a foil to hedonistic, classist Urras, and moreso, hedonistic classist Earth.

Ultimately, I didn’t believe in the book. All the characters orated on social issues, and I often forgot who was who. I didn’t feel for any of the characters. The two different societies never felt real to me, just exaggerations of two extremes. Neither Urras or Anarres was shocking or insightful to me.

I wonder how the book felt in 1974. Roe vs. Wade happened in 1973. Title IX passed in 1972. A book by a female author about equality and respect was probably a breath of fresh air. Today, to me, maybe the story’s equality read a little too like a fairy tale. Too neat and tidy when we see female leaders like Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno pilloried for being ugly. There’s a lot of steps in between 1800’s style ownership of women and the ideal of female equality that the book tidily skips over.

Interestingly, The Dispossessed has a similar structure to The Left Hand of Darkness. A man who exists outside two societies visits and contrasts both of them. But for me, Left Hand has so much more feeling. I felt both cultures, and I loved the main characters. In both Left Hand and in The Dispossessed‘s Anarres, the battle against the elements forces a sort of communal behavior. Both books examine gender in society. But for me, The Left Hand of Darkness works, while The Dispossessed doesn’t.

Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie 2013)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed me quickly, with tight writing and careful and intriguing word choice. The winner of both the 2014 Hugo and the 2014 Nebula Awards, the most prestigious in sci-fi, it clearly had this effect on others. Only on page 3, we get the wonderful phrase “She was probably male”. The novel reminded me a lot of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, with high space opera and sophisticated scheming. The protagonist, Breq, is a semi-human fragment of an artificial intelligence. I found Breq interesting in expression and nature, and she was easy to root for.

You will notice gender in this book. Breq is from the Radch Empire, where gender is not determinable from appearance nor is it important to try, and thus everyone, male or female, is referred to as “she”. Surprisingly, this totally achieved gender anonymity for me. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, all pronouns are male, which left me picturing every character as male even though some of them are physically ungendered. Perhaps because female doesn’t seem like the default pronoun, using “she” didn’t feel the same. We know that Breq is a female human and her companion Seivarden is a male human, but we don’t know the gender of most of the characters.

Unlike Left Hand, Ancillary Justice doesn’t dwell on gender. The Radch convention is what the characters use, unless they are speaking in another language, and that is that. We never find out why the Radch in particular ignore gender in a way that must have been a determined effort at that level. Have their sexual proclivities evolved with their language too? I wondered. In a way, not knowing answers to questions that had inspired such curiosity in me bothered me. But in a way, it was in keeping with the Radch Culture– gender wasn’t important there and it wasn’t important in the book, and it was my hang-up only that kept it there. Why did anyone’s gender matter to the story?

I suppose it’s strange to devote such a chunk of my review to something that the book doesn’t dwell on. But still, in the contexts of our language, it was a major choice on the part of Leckie. It makes my brain itch in such a delightful way.

The novel has several other nifty science fiction ideas. Breq’s current sentience versus her life as an AI is wonderful. Leckie uses music to characterize Breq in a way I really enjoyed. The Radch Empire is also pretty interesting, though it sounds obnoxious. They run around and brutally conquer and are filled with narcissistic oligarchs like Seivarden. The empire is run by several thousand clones of the same person, Anaander, who for some reason I kept on picturing as Edna Mode from The Incredibles, but that weird detail is almost certainly on me as a reader.

I ended up giving the book a 4/5, though I still debate myself over the rating. A book that I read in a day and a half because I was so enthralled, a book that still has me thinking a week later should be a 5/5. But I felt like the book didn’t quite come together for me at the end, like it was all sweetness and no substance. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or uncertain as to the outcome. That said, I would read it again, and recommend it to others. Read it yourself and see what you think.

Book Review: Cyteen (C. J. Cherryh 1988)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

Cyteen was the winner of the 1989 Hugo Award. It is about neither cyborgs nor teenagers nor cyborg teenagers, despite the name; Cyteen in the name of a planet. Cyteen takes place in the same universe as Downbelow Station (which I reviewed here) in a different culture and time. Like Downbelow Station, this is a book that requires patience up front, but offers great rewards. Cyteen is 750 pages of intricate scheming and counter-scheming, supported by interesting and conflicted characters.

Cyteen is the capital planet of the Union, one of a few major political entities in a future where humans have drifted amongst numerous stars with faster-than-light travel. The economy of Union is largely supported by the production of a cloned working force called “azis”, who are psychologically trained to serve in various capacities. All azis are produced in a research lab/city called Roseune. The book opens with power struggles between the forces of Roseune, the military, and another faction. A murder follows this initial conflict, which weakens the status of Roseune and fundamentally alters the lives of the characters. The continuing power struggles are described through the individuals trying to survive them at Roseune.

My biggest complaint: the book takes too long to develop. The first 20 pages are textbook-style background. Even after that, my progress was slow. It took a while to figure out a lot of the politics, and I didn’t understand what azi were for at least a hundred pages. Additionally, it read slowly, constantly packed with intricacy and detail on each large page of text. I very much enjoyed this book, but it is not light reading. Read this one when you have a solid block of time to set aside.

I would recommend Downbelow Station over Cyteen, although I prefer the characters in Cyteen. Despite a shared universe, the styles of the two books differ substantially. Downbelow Station is a smart space opera, threaded with politics. Cyteen is a personal drama, saturated with politics. If you enjoy hard science fiction and you are patient, you will probably enjoy both of them.

The Best of Science Fiction

I began reading science fiction novels almost by accident. One day I saw an Alfred Bester book on the shelf at a book store. Viewers of Babylon 5 (the best TV show ever) will recall a character by this name. I had read many Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 books, and I followed science fiction TV with ardor. So I assumed this book was in the same vein. It was not. The B5 character was named for a writer from the 50s.

Alfred Bester is best known for two novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. They’re both amazing, and I recommend them. “The Demolished Man” works on a simple premise: how would someone go about getting away with murder in a society in which telepaths existed? “The Stars My Destination” (loosely based upon the Count of Monte Cristo) explores what would happen if people could transport themselves at will. How would prisons work? How would you prevent theft? “The Demolished Man” won the first Hugo Award in 1953. “The Stars My Destination” has been credited as perhaps the creator of cyberpunk.

After Bester, I was hungry for more. I scoured the web for lists of the best science fiction novels. Here is one good list of the top novels, though it is somewhat weighted towards older books. I also tried to read the winners and nominees of the Hugo and Nebula awards (you can find a list of wins by author here). Wikipedia lists the Hugo Award wins according to year here. I personally strongly prefer the Hugo Award books to the Nebula Award books, but you may find differently.

So after all that hunting, here are my top 5 science fiction novels:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula LeGuin, 1969)– A human envoy visits an alien world, hoping to convince them to join an alliance. The aliens have no set gender, but phase in and out of male, female, and neuter. The book explores the culture of this planet, both due to the unusual gender of its people, and the extremely cold climate. For whatever reason, men tend to be unimpressed with this book, but women I’ve recommended it to like it. The book explores gender and cultural topics without getting heavy-handed or obvious. The two main characters are amazingly drawn. The book is filled with little amazing legends and folklore from the culture.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, 1960)– A post-apocalyptic story with a very different twist. Broken into three parts at very different times, the first part opens in a Catholic abbey in Nevada several centuries after a devastating nuclear war. The novel has a charming humor and levity despite the settings. It explores religious themes (not very common in scifi).
  • The Forever War (Joe Haldeman 1974)– A story about a man involved in a space war. As the battles are waged, centuries pass, and the man is isolated from his own life by a questionable war. Haldeman was a vietnam vet, and it shows. I have read at least a dozen novels by Haldeman, and I would recommend every single one. He writes science fiction with a focus on heart. “The Forever War” is one of the best science fiction love stories I’ve read.
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester 1956)– discussed above.
  • Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch 1968)– a dark and twisted “Flowers for Algernon”. A conscientious objector is sentenced to prison. He is then subjected to experiments that greatly increase his intellect, along with a number of other prisoners. This book is very literary to the point of sometimes being maddening. I skipped through some of the literary aspects that I didn’t relate to. But the story and the science fiction and the humor are spot on and excellent.

You may notice the heavy slant to the 50s and 60s. This is no accident. These books are old enough to be reprinted and therefore available, but old enough for the reprints to be available used (used books are so wonderfully inexpensive!). Some more modern very awesome scifi books are “Snow Crash“, “Mathematicians in Love“, “A Fire Upon the Deep“, and “The Windup Girl“.

If you are looking for more reading suggestions, check out my top 20 science fiction novels.

I could talk all day about science fiction, so drop a comment!