Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Retro-Hugo nominees 1954

NOVEL

  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (Galaxy, Oct.–Dec. 1953)
    Call it what you will, but this book is basically a mystery story with an sf element, rather than the other way around. I haven't read the original collection of Robot stories, but this offshoot from a few years later posits a world populated by servant robots and humanity feeling varying degrees of threat from the prospect of a new, more human, smarter class of robot. Racism and bigotry abounds in all the principal characters, chief among them the protagonist Lije Baley, but it's "racism" against robots, and primarily it's because these new models look so much like humans that no one can be sure who's a robot and who isn't (much like, dare I say it, no one could be sure in 1953 who was a Communist?). Bailey is not a particularly likeable character to begin with, and when he's partnered up with one of these new-fangled robots who for some reason has the name Daneel Olivaw, he's full of angst over what to do about it. Their mission is to solve the murder of the man who created Daneel. Seems like a reasonable premise, but Baley comes across as a rather inept detective, basically accusing everyone in sight one by one, including Daneel himself, until he finally hits upon the right one. Even his wife is temporarily under suspicion as she, unbeknownst to him, has gone and joined a sort of pro-Luddite protest group. The future seems rather generic, there are "spacers" who have some sort of federation that is at odds with earth's government, people use moving sidewalks and cops carry blasters, the cities are vast tracts of steel and concrete where the buildings have no windows. No explanation of robotics is really offered other than their "positronic brain", which is really no explanation at all. Daneel is annoyingly above the petty bickering of the humans around him, it would've been more interesting if he'd been a little less perfect, if Baley was a little more competent and a little less annoying, and if Asimov had a little more to say with this story than just a whodunit with robots.
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Ballantine)
    Bradbury's first real novel (an expansion of an earlier story from Galaxy) shows how much he and Philip K. Dick had in common. Where Dick preferred the taut Kornbluthian prose where not a word was wasted, Bradbury, while not exactly verbose, is much more poetic about what he describes, and as a result this book, really a series of loosely connected vignettes, is all over the place, but is still a classic. Possibly the most widely read sf book outside of the genre, the cautionary tale aspect of this story is really not the main thrust of the narrative. At the beginning, the main character Montag doesn't take much after years of loyal service to start questioning his role in burning books, to the point that he preserves a few just to see what all the fuss is about. Without really meaning to, the system suddenly has turned on him and, in true PKD fashion, he becomes a fugitive from his former co-workers. The populace even gets to watch the manhunt for him live (here and in other ways anticipating reality tv). The real cause behind the bookburning isn't censorship so much as political correctness, but that becomes just a means to an end for Montag to question why things are the way they are, and why everything is so entrenched that it can't be changed, particularly when he encounters a group of vagabonds who have taken it upon themselves to memorize the contents of the books. There's definitely some spectre of thinly veiled communism at work here, but the way Bradbury presents it would seem to be way ahead of its time for the 50's. Deservedly a classic and worthy of any award that can be bestowed upon it.
  • Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke (Ballantine)
  • Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement (Astounding, April–July 1953)
    I will be truly shocked if this book doesn't win. But it has nothing to do with the fact that this is the seminal "hard sf" novel, which spawned an entire sub-genre of clanky stories that kept Astounding in business for the next 20 years. No, I think it will win because the Worldcon is in Boston, and Hal Clement was the premier Boston fan for the last half century-plus, and the fact that he went and died six months ago is just icing on the cake. Because let's be honest, Hal Clement couldn't write that well. His prose is a clunky monotone, the characters are all interchangeable, including here even the non-human ones, which is quite a feat considering they're basically overgrown slugs, and the dialog everyone spouts is so awkward and artificial sounding it would make James Fenimore Cooper snicker. The premise is a good one, a planet where the gravity is up to 700 times that of Earth, and a rescue mission that has to take into account the various difficulties that imposes. What makes this book a classic to sf fans who like hard sf is the rigorous working out of ideas, where literally every couple of paragraphs some trick of physics or chemistry or biology is being explained, and deep down it really should be an adventure story as told by and to people who want to really understand and believe what is going on, rather than just spinning out a space operatic tale with no thought for the science behind it. In a way this is a problem with sf in general, that huge shortcomings in some of the classic work in the field is overlooked or ignored in order to focus on the ideas being presented, such that readers from outside of the field who investigate these works as representative of the genre are generally appalled at what they see from a more literary standpoint, since the pure sf aspect isn't of as much interest to them (Foundation being another good example). Too bad Hal won't be there to accept, but this one's a lock.
  • More than Human, Theodore Sturgeon (Ballantine)
    Sturgeon was not a novelist, he really excelled with the single worked-out idea, although some ideas took longer than others to work through. This, his most famous novel and maybe his most famous story altogether (unless you want to count "Killdozer"), is really three novellas run together, an expansion of the story "Baby is Three", which is the middle one of the set. Since its that middle one that forms the crux of the whole thing, the other two parts are quite purposefully tacked on, and the whole thing doesn't completely hang together. In the first part, we meet "The Fabulous Idiot" named Lone, who seems to come from nowhere without knowing anything, but is eventually befriended and taken in by an old farm couple who have lost their own son, and through their tutelage he learns enough to take care of himself. Various other characters are introduced, most of them quite young and endowed with some special ability, either to control people's thoughts, or teleportation, things that take the place of normal abilities such that they are naturally unable to interact much with the rest of society. As a result they eventually all come together in the middle section of the book, where they are living under the watchful eye of Miss Kew, who can't quite believe their special talents really exist but tries to raise them properly. This, the original story from which the novel is expanded, is the only part told after the fact in the first person by one of the older kids, Gerry, who now years later is telling this story to a psychiatrist. The upshot of it all is that what these individuals have together is a gestalt identity, offered up as the next phase of human evolution although it would seem to be an evolutionary dead end since they're such social misfits. In the last part, "Morality", the girl Janie is grown up and looking after an Air Force lieutenant named Hip who has forgotten everything about his past, and she gradually brings him out of it and gets him to understand what happened and what Gerry had to do with it. There's a fair amount of debate in this section on ethics and morality and how these are different for those with special or heightened abilities. You can't help but feel Sturgeon read a psychology textbook and is regurgitating the interesting parts into these story ideas, but that should not diminish the seminal importance of this book as a primary example of taking the SF of the time into new directions, where the science is inside the mind and the future being proposed centers on the evolution of mankind. I think what holds it back a little is the obvious intercutting of different stories told in different ways, he might have been better served by either mixing them up more or more thoroughly rewriting and integrating the middle part with the others. Not my favorite Sturgeon, but still his usual poetic, thought-provoking self, and certainly a classic.
  • NOVELLA

  • "Three Hearts and Three Lions", Poul Anderson (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept.-Oct. 1953)
    While it's the original novella that was nominated, I imagine what people really voted for was the novel version of this story, which is the only one I could find. I don't know how much Anderson expanded it for book publication, probably not that much, and I can't say I could tell what might have been tacked on after the fact. What this story puts forth is a now somewhat conventional tale of a man swept up from the midst of battle in World War II and transplanted in some unspecified part of the Middle Ages, speaking in another language and fulfilling a role as a legendary knight without even trying. In this respect the story reminded me of Burroughs, particularly John Carter of Mars. What's nice about Anderson's version is that the hero has adventures pretty much by accident as a result of trying to get to the people who may be able to help him get home, and even when he meets the gorgeous damsel who swoons over him, he knows they should just be good friends. I also like how Anderson allows his protagonist, Holger Carlsen, to use some of his knowledge of engineering to improvise some escapes from potentially sticky situations, rather than relying solely on brawn. But don't get me wrong, the story kind of meanders along, there's not a strong sense of place, many of the local characters speak with thick accents that make their lines sometimes difficult to read (and I had a tendency to hear them with a broad Scottish accent, which just made it unintentionally funny), the villain isn't that villainous. It's important to note that this was an early example of this kind of heroic fantasy story with some sf trappings, and for that it's worth reading, but many, including Anderson himself, improved upon it in later years.
  • "Un-Man", Poul Anderson (Astounding, Jan. 1953)
    This is a classic pulp story from the '30's and '40's brought into a future where the United Nations runs the whole world with a magnanimous iron fist. Considering this was written only a few years after the formation of the U.N., I think it was a natural extrapolation that this was a good possibility of where things were headed, with individual governments ceding authority to the world organization, rather than the ineffectual bureaucracy that it instead became. The pulpy angle comes in with the main characters, the un-men, who are a group of super-secret undercover agents working to infiltrate those various groups that seek to decrease the dominance of the U.N. They all look alike and go by assumed names, such that when one is captured and killed, another steps in to take his place with the dead man's wife none the wiser. As he picks up the case where his predecessor left off, he ends up finding out just where he and the rest of the un-men came from. And in the end he gets the girl, too. Told in concise, snappy prose, this is Anderson at the top of his form, full of good ideas and characters worthy of taking them on.
  • "A Case of Conscience", James Blish (If, Sept. 1953)
    This is the original novella which was subsequently expanded into a novel, which won the Hugo for that year. When I read the longer version a few years ago I have to say it left me flummoxed, it was hard to follow what was going on or what was the point. The novella seems a little more straightforward, although it does suffer from dumping the reader into the middle of the action and leaving him to figure out what the fuss is about. But patient reading (which I'm not very good at) provides its rewards, and you're left with a seminal human/alien encounter story where the humans have second thoughts about what's going to happen to the aliens. Of the four men sent to Lithia to judge its suitability for raw materials or as a waystation, one is a Jesuit priest, although I'm not quite sure why, unless the implication is that in this future organized religion is predominant enough to have a role in space travel. While the other members of the group think the planet has potential for one type of exploitation or another, the priest strongly implores that they leave and never come back, because the indiginent intelligent species actually transforms from one type of creature to another as it grows. This idea of "recapitulation" (Haeckel's famous dictum that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny") in human embryos is an argument for evolution (although I don't think it was taken seriously by anyone at the time this story was written), which goes against the church, and the evidence of a similar process outside of the womb, he reasons, would give the theory more credence than it deserves. Blish doesn't really take sides on this issue himself, so the reader is left to figure out just what he's trying to say, is the story anti-religious or anti-evolution, or what? On the surface, the story would seem to indicate that the human inclination to look upon our relationship to another sentient species as paternal, if not patronizing, is not always going to be the case, and in a subtle way with this setting the aliens could cause the undoing of human civilization without even realizing it. Thought-provoking, to be sure, this is the kind of story that sticks with you and can change its viewpoint with multiple readings.
  • "The Rose", Charles L. Harness (Authentic Science Fiction Monthly, March 1953)
    I don't know if this is a good story or not. Harness had a rather spotty career and wrote a fair amount of stuff that I think must be of some literary merit but was never particularly popular with the sf crowd. For someone like me, who isn't reading particularly carefully but is attuned more to general feelings of pacing, idea and plot, this story fades from memory the second you stop reading it. I think Harness, whom I've never reading anything else of before, is working with some big themes here particularly as it relates to the relationship between science and art, is one better than the other, can one exist without the other, but I don't get the sense that a lot of time is spent actually grappling with these questions in the story, directly anyway, a lot is left as an exercise for the reader, which is where multiple readings would definitely come in handy. There's a dancer named Anna who is asked to present a ballet for some Rose Festival, she meets up with another dancer, Ruy, whose wife is distinctly anti-art or at least pro-science. None of these people appear to be human, although the background is definitely earth history. This story was originally published in an obscure British magazine, presumably after being rejected by the US ones, and although Harness is American the story has an English feel to it, what with the lack of dramatic high points and mostly undifferentiated characters. In an alternate universe where the Hugos were really given out for 1953, this story would not have been nominated. It's not that I don't think it's worthy, or that it stands on its own merit now, in fact I'd be curious to read more of Harness' stuff, but while the writing is not oblique it's still difficult to find something to sink your teeth into with this story, even though the putative subject would be of great interest to me.
  • "...And My Fear is Great...", Theodore Sturgeon (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, July 1953)
    Two ways to make a story title sound pretentious is to have it begin with the word "and" and to contain an ellipsis. Sturgeon does both, but so what, he's at the top of his form and this story is a standout in every respect. Long enough for him to explore some of his themes in his preferred circumspect style, but not so long that it rambles all over the place, Sturgeon delves into the characters of Don, a young delivery man, and Phoebe, the woman who takes him in has her charge with the goal of opening up his mind to those around him. The title, a snippet of a poem from Yeats, seems to focus the author's intent on the idea of trust and communication, letting a person into a private part of oneself, and the inherent risks involved in doing so. At one point in the story, the two characters have a falling out over a misunderstanding resulting from an incident involving Don and a girl with the police. Phoebe leaps to the wrong conclusion and casts him off, and years go by before some kind of reconciliation is attempted. This story is barely science fiction, the "mental powers" aspect of what she's trying to teach him is almost incidental, but Sturgeon's prose deftly conveys all of their inner struggles as well as outer ones, tying things up very neatly in the end at just the right point. Although I've read a fair amount of his work before, reading these nominated stories in isolation this year has given me a greater appreciation of his craft, and he strikes me as a writer who doesn't really benefit from a single author collection, because stories like this one and "Saucer of Loneliness" need to have some space of their own to be properly appreciated.
  • NOVELETTE

  • "Sam Hall", Poul Anderson (Astounding, Aug. 1953)
    Here's another story that maybe looks more intriguing now with hindsight than it might have at the time it was first published. The eponymous Mr. Hall is a fictional construct of a bored individual named Thornberg who is this simpler information age has unlimited access to whatever computer systems he may need (all punch cards and mag tape, of course) to fabricate the identity of a Sam Hall as a prank. He then takes things a step further by implicating Hall as the murderer in an unsolved crime, and things kind of snowball from there. Fortunately for the rest of the world, even though security is lax in this future there's still an audit trail, and the powers that be finally catch up. That's all well and good, but the real prescience of this story is the idea, just taking shape at the time it was written, that in the future the government could know everything about you at every moment through the cross-computer filtering of vast amounts of personal data. Anderson's cautionary tale is actually spurred on by the rise of a totalitarian state, but in this day and age we know you don't need a dictatorship to be witness or victim to the fabrication of information, or the appropriation of real information that could be used against you.
  • "The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound", Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson (Universe, Dec. 1953)
    Who are we kidding here, the Hoka stories may collectively deserve a place in sf readers' hearts, but individually, at least in this case, this is hardly Hugo material. The quintessential furry aliens, the Hoka have decided in this story to act out as Sherlock Holmes in order to help their human investigators solve the search for some other alien critter. There's serious channeling of the Hounds of the Baskervilles as an ersatz Holmes co-opts his human counterpart as Watson and solves the case much as Doyle would have the real private eye do, replete with pipe, hat, violin, and wild extrapolations on the flimsiest of evidence that turn out to be true. I suppose we can consider it refreshing in that it's not another anti-communist allegory, but it seems unlikely that if our brethren of a half century ago had been given the chance to pick their own nominees that this would've been among the contenders.
  • "Earthman, Come Home", James Blish (Astounding, Nov. 1953)
    Blish is one of our more neglected writers from this era, fairly prolific but with the misfortune of dying too soon to establish himself to the current generations of readers, and maybe without enough of a champion from the public or his estate such that his entire output languishes out of print. But in the '50's, he was at the top of his form, and this story, the basis for what became "Cities in Flight", which I would consider his best novel, is spectacular. Blish seemingly conceives an entire future all at once in glorious detail, with the politics and the science and the history all fully developed from the first paragraph. Technology allows the humans of the future to fly their cities around from planet to planet gathering up the raw materials they need. This naturally makes for some interesting social and political situations, and Blish has already thought them all through. The plot as such involves the Amalfi, the mayor of one city, who gets embroiled in a revolutionary plot that works against his way of life. I can't say I can completely follow what's going on in a single reading, but in a way the plot doesn't matter so much as the total mastery of setting that Blish puts forth in the space of 40 or so pages. Maybe a bit more narrative drive or distinctive characters would put this story into true classicdom, but even as is it's still a worthy contender.
  • "The Wall Around the World", Theodore Cogswell (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, Sept. 1953)
    Cogswell is largely forgotten today, but in the '50's he wrote a series of stories that blended sf with fantasy, along the lines of Kuttner or Fred Brown, and this one, maybe his best known, is remembered as being an allegorical tale about someone trying to bridge the two camps. The main character, a boy named Porgie, lives in a world where magic is commonplace, and in this pre-Hogwarts era is trying to find out what's on the other side of an impossibly tall, ubitquitous wall which no one has ever crossed. Much of the story involves his various attempts to invent ways to fly over the wall, by coming up with different designs for a glider (which as a mechanical device is unknown in his world), ultimately succeeding with the additional power of his broomstick. His parents, teachers and friends all consider this a bad idea, but he does it anyway. Suffice it say what's on the other side is in direct contradiction to the world he's lived in. The sledgehammer symbolism doesn't get in the way of what is otherwise a fairly routine story, and may go even further than commenting on the sf vs fantasy camps into sf in general vs the rest of the world, although I think most sf writers didn't really care about that overmuch back then. If these nominations were happening in '54 rather than '04, I don't know that this one would have risen quite so high.
  • "Second Variety", Philip K. Dick (Space Science Fiction, May 1953)
    This story sets up the classic "alien killer robots walk among us" scenario, where in a post-apocalyptic world both sides in the ongoing war are now being terrorized by a new class of robot that has been spawned by the military's own smart killing machines. They know there are three varieties of them, but they've only seen the first and third, so there is still no positive identification of the eponymous "second variety". When one operative from our side meets up with three from the other side on what was supposed to be a mission of negotiation, this information comes to light and they instantly suspect one another. It's no surprise that the second variety is ultimately revealed, and I think even less of a surprise that it doesn't stop there. Unfortunately, with 50 years of PKD under your belt, as a reader you get into the mindset of "things are not what they seem" that is endemic in his stories quite easily, so even when the mystery robot is revealed, there's no reason to believe that the paranoia ends there. So the final payoff is way predictable, and rather depressing in that the hero has basically doomed the species by not being as paranoid as he should have been. But the stated implication that these different varieties of killer robots are already starting to fight each other is enticingly chilling, and the story is told with the such deftness and economy of means that you can't help but like it anyway. Yet another allegory of communism, of course, but so what. In our enlightened era we suspect monsters under the bed at every turn, which lessens this story's impact, but in the era in which this story was published, sure paranoia was already a national pastime, but I think it would've still carried the power to knock the reader's socks off.
  • SHORT STORY

  • "Star Light, Star Bright", Alfred Bester (Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1953)
    This story has "Twilight Zone episode" written all over it, but I don't know whether it ever became one or not. A couple of guys set about to track down a young boy who seems to have developed a network of kids who are all geniuses of one kind or another. But those who are doing the tracking mysteriously disappear. As it turns out the boy has his own superpower, of which he is unaware, which keeps him from being apprehended. But that's not so much the twist as is the image at the end of his chief protagonist who has just discovered what he's truly up against. Bester excels at this kind of story, with a strong central idea and economy of means that leads to a dramatic punchline. The title is a bit unhelpful (also typical of Bester), but the story delivers the goods.
  • "It's a Good Life", Jerome Bixby (Star Science Fiction Stories #2, Ballantine)
    Apparently I've seen this story dramatized in the Twilight Zone movie, but all I can remember is the one with John Lithgow in the plane, and that's not this one. Bixby was an editor and tv writer who wrote a string of stories in the '50's, including this one which became a TZ episode and then reworked for the movie 25 years later. It's also included in Silverberg's SF Hall of Fame collection, alongside "Nightfall", "The Roads Must Roll", and other icons of the genre. So this is a heavyweight contender here, and the story still packs some punch now. Even though you can see the ending coming about half way through, I think that probably wasn't the case back then with a half century less of tv and comic horror stories going for the same effect. There's a boy named Anthony who can basically make anyone in his small town do whatever he wants, and being a boy his wants are dramatic and instantaneous. The title comes from the essence of what everyone around him has to repeat to each other all the time, with an emphasis on the "good". The adults even try to throw a party and have a good time, but things don't work out as planned. When you see that people are coveting a small fixed number of books, records and other durable goods, you can pretty much tell what has happened, really the archetypal TZ twist where something horrible is going on but everyone tries to soldier on as though everything were ok. Is this a metaphor for living under communism? Does every story from the '50's have to be about communism? I think it's just a good creepy story in the true Shirley Jackson mode and worthy of its classic status.
  • "The Nine Billion Names of God", Arthur C. Clarke (Star Science Fiction Stories #1, Ballantine)
    Arguably the most famous story nominated in all the short fiction categories this year, it's also the shortest, weighing in at about 7 pages. But what makes it so memorable? Certainly not the characters, they're just cut-outs, and the plotting really can't pick up that much steam in such a short length to pack the wallop it probably could (although it was probably more effective 50 years ago when most stories were shorter anyway). No, I think what makes this story endure is it's unapologetic mixture of science and religion, something I don't think anyone else had succeeded in before Clarke, unless it was in a very abstract, "isn't-the-universe-awesome" kind of way. Since just about every Clarke story takes that approach (what Baxter calls "sensawunda"), what you have in this story and many of his others is the sense of scale of the cosmos that drew people from my generation and before to sf in the first place. Unlike his other story "The Star", where science and religion clash spetacularly, here the religious aspect, developing a list of all the possible names of God, is helped by science, the computer that is used to help derive them all. The implication, which Clarke didn't necessarily subscribe to, was that through science we could achieve a greater understanding not only of the universe, but of any mythological or supernatural aspects of it also. At the end, Clarke offers no scientific explanation for what happens once all the names of God have been produced, but that just adds to the sense of wonder. The seemingly unscientific, supernatural event that closes the story fills us with awe more than a detailed physics-laden explanation ever would. Campbell wouldn't have bought it, but Clarke knew better.
  • "The Seventh Victim", Robert Sheckley (Galaxy, April 1953)
    This story is basically a crime story, although a pretty good one. The ludicrous premise is that in the future people's murderous impulses will be so great that in order to stave off wars, a rigid system of allowing people to kill some random person if they so choose will be preferable, provided they then take a turn being the potential victim. Once you've killed 10 people you become part of a special club, and the protagonist is going for #7 this time, but is thrown for a loop when his randomly selected victim turns out to be a woman (these violent impulses are confined to men from the perspective of 1953, so the potential victims are always men also). Worse still, she's not making any effort to evade her attacker. But, as is usually the case, things aren't always as they seem, and while the ending isn't exactly unique, it's done well and rounds out a very concise, tightly paced and entertaining story.
  • "A Saucer of Loneliness", Theodore Sturgeon (Galaxy, Feb. 1953)
    This is a tough story to quantify because, like much of Sturgeon's short fiction, it's more impressionistic, and while there is a semblance of plot and certainly theme here, it all kind of takes a backseat to his prose, which conjures up imagery and emotional reaction without even breaking a sweat. On the surface, the story begins with two nameless characters after the man saves a young woman from drowning herself. She reveals that she is the person who achieved some notoriety after a flying saucer appeared from nowhere one day and spoke only to her, then promptly disappeared. The government tries to find out what it said, but she's not telling, instead writing down the message periodically and putting it in a bottle that she throws into the ocean. The backdrop of paranoia over what the visitors may have said, her sense of isolation from the outside world, and the shared secret she has with the saucer project a profound sense of loss, injustice with the world, all in maybe 13 pages. Unlike Bradbury (who has a similar style) these stories are hard to remember because of the lack of development, but spectacular none the less.

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