Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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1958


Hugo Nominees 1959

NOVEL

A Case of Conscience, James Blish (Ballantine)

It took Blish five years to expand his novella of the same name into this short novel, and he did it just by adding a second half that takes places a year after the events of the original. I had read this book several years ago and it didn't really stick, and then I read the novella when it was nominated for a retro-Hugo and wasn't that wild about it either, so I had some trepidation about revisiting this story yet again. The first half deals with a Jesuit priest, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, who is one of a team of four scientist-types sent to evaluate the planet Lithia. What they find is a paradise, the geology of the planet is such that is has no major natural disasters, and the temperature is constantly temperate, although on the humid side. The native Lithians are an intelligent reptilian species who have evolved into some sort of utopia with no conflicts, and no concept of religion. Blish is fascinated by the implications of this on Catholicism in particular, but not being religous myself I'm still at a loss as to what all the fuss is about. Ruiz-Sanchez ultimately concludes that not only should this planet not be colonized by humans, but that it should never be visited again, as the prospect of this paradise seems to contradict thousands of years of religious teaching. But then at the end of the first half, his Lithian friend Chtexa gives him a Lithian egg to take back to Earth with him, so you know that's not going to turn out well. It would seem the logical conclusion to his line of reasoning would be for the priest to destroy the egg, to my mind that would be a real case of conscience, but that isn't the path that Blish takes. The second part of the book finds the egg all grown up as Egtverchia, after just a year, and stirring up trouble. He's become something of a cult figure and stirs up trouble at his first public appearance at some sort of high class party. Within a matter of days he's started his own political movement and encourages the general public to rise up and overthrow their oppresive government. The backdrop for this is the most interesting part of the book, particularly as extrapolation from the time it was written, where much of the world's population lives in vast underground cities built to withstand the impending nuclear war. But the war never happened, and there's been such an investment in this infrastructure that there is no consensus on moving back to the surface. Although Egtverchi has no direct memory of Lithia he knows enough to realize this isn't how people should live, and takes over the airwaves to foment dissent amongst the populace. As a result of this he's on the run, and is found to have stowed away on a spaceship back to Lithia. In the end, it would seem that Catholicism wins, but with an ambiguous sense of what was really gained. Blish confronts the clash of science and religion head on, that would seem to be the main thrust of the book's appeal, and there certainly haven't been many books since to follow up on this theme so starkly. Some events happen a little too fast to really get caught up in it as a reader, though, and Blish assumes a level of understanding of Christian dogma, and Catholicism in particular, that I think limits the profundity of the issues with which he's trying to wrestle. Egtverchi is part celebrity and part rabblerouser, an improbable cross between Oscar Wilde and Lyndon Larouche. I think the story of this type of figure's rise to power is potentially a compelling one, but not enough space is given here to see it through. Heinlein would revisit this same idea a few years later to much greater effect in the person of Valentine Michael Smith. Still a classic for what it tries to achieve, though.
Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, Robert A. Heinlein (F&SF Aug,Sep,Oct 1958)
"Time Killer" (book title (expanded) Immortality, Inc), Robert Sheckley (Galaxy Oct,Nov,Dec 1958, Feb 1959)
"We Have Fed Our Sea" (book title The Enemy Stars), Poul Anderson (Astounding Aug,Sep 1958)

Part of the ongoing criticism against the Campbell era in Astounding centers on his insistence on a positive view of space exploration and of man's undoubted primacy over aliens. But that doesn't mean he wouldn't publish depressing stories, maybe "The Cold Equations" being one of the best known examples. Anderson's novel is equally bleak, an uplifting ending doesn't really offer enough counterpoint to the overall nastiness of space, but it goes a long way from the Doc Smith type of space adventure and I think gives a good indication of where things were heading in hard SF. In book form this was published as "The Enemy Stars", but this is a bit misleading (not that the original title is that great either). There is no enemy other than physics (again like The Cold Equations) against which Anderson pits his four protagonists with varying results. In Anderson's future, space travel to the stars is doable but takes years, and trips to the outer planets take centuries. Instead of perfecting FTL travel, this culture has developed the ability to instantaneously transport people and materials between two points in space, as long as the equipment to receive them is at the other end. This device, which from our modern perspective would seem to be more improbable than FTL travel, is on the spaceship heading towards an interesting star in space, and every so often a new crew is beamed aboard and the old crew returned. The story follows the recruiting of the newest crew, four men of varying backgrounds and discplines who have different reasons for going, or in some cases don't want to go but do anyway. Anderson knows his physics and emphasizes both the remoteness and isolation of space travel at this distance. Something goes terribly wrong and the ship is no longer able to communicate with Earth, so the astronauts have to apply their various skills to attempt to create their own transporting device and hope they can get it to synchronize with another one in order to have a chance of returning home. Ultimately they succeed, but not in the way they expected, and not everyone makes it back home. Where the novel is only partially successful is in the contrasts between the four astronauts, the story isn't long enough to get to know them that well, so it makes it a little harder to care about what happens to them, or to even tell them apart sometimes. The title comes from a line from Kipling, relating to exploration by sea and the high price in human lives it required. Anderson correctly anticipates the same level of sacrifice in space, seeing it as something of a necessity and an inevitability. The artifice of teleportation is an implausible alternative to equally implausible generation ships or FTL, but worth exploring for the variety of story it can provide.

 

Who?, Algis Budrys (Pyramid)
Cold War paranoia is in full cry in this classic story of the good guys vs. the commies. Government agent Shawn Rogers is responsible for sending spies across the border and simultaneously on the lookout for Soviet infiltrators in his own ranks. One of their top scientists, Lucas Martino, is working on a super-secret project implausibly close to the Russian border, when a lab explosion sends the bad guys over the line to take him away with them., only to return him a few months later sporting a metal head and robotic arm. Is it really Martino, or a devious Russian plot? Arguably Budrys's most accesible novel (if you don't count Hard Landing), there's really not much sf in this story. Although in this reasonably near future such sort of bionics are unheard of, none of the other characters seem to dwell on the technical aspect of it because they're all focused on the true identity of this man. As with much of Budrys's other work, the centerpiece of this story is the nature of self and identity. How far does a person have to go to prove who he is? If he is cut off from everything he knows for an extended period of time, to what extent is he really the same person as he was before anyway? Rogers can never really know for sure, so it becomes his life's work, and Martino's own life is turned upside down as the years go by with no resolution. Parallel to this story are a series of flashbacks to Martino's previous history and how he got to be where he was when the accident happened. But the last part of the story starts to muddy the waters a bit. Rogers finally extracts an admission from Martino, but it is contradicted by further information about how Martino was captured and the time he spent behind the iron curtain in the hands of a man named Azarin. This Soviet apparatchik wants information on the project for which Martino was working, code named K-88 but not really explained in any detail. Azarin himself doesn't know exactly what it is, and arranges for another man to undergo the same transformation, coincidentally Martino's old college roommate Heywood. Ultimately, while seemingly clear what happened to Martino and Heywood and who really made it back to the good guys, this goes against what Martino tells Rogers at the end. So is he lying, and if so why? Budrys's signature taut prose and long stretches of dialog don't provide a lot of details to surround each scene, but for the story he's telling they're not missed. The flashback scenes inform what is happening in the present, up to where the two stories converge just as they should, so it doesn't feel like padding. Beyond all this, Budrys's most significant achievement is how he conveys the mentality of the time, where no one can be trusted, and the dehumanization on both sides that this causes, such that not only do the characters question one another's identity, but even their own.

NOVELETTE

"The Big Front Yard", Clifford D. Simak (Astounding Oct 1958)
"Captivity", Zenna Henderson (F&SF Jun 1958)
"A Deskful of Girls", Fritz Leiber (F&SF Apr 1958)
"The Miracle-Workers", Jack Vance (Astounding Jul 1958)
"Rat in the Skull", Rog Phillips (If Dec 1958)
"Second Game", Katherine MacLean & Charles V. De Vet (Astounding Mar 1958)
"Shark Ship" (aka "Reap the Dark Tide"), C. M. Kornbluth (Vanguard Jun 1958)
"Unwillingly to School", Pauline Ashwell (Astounding Jan 1958)


SHORT STORY

"That Hell-Bound Train", Robert Bloch (F&SF Sep 1958)
"The Advent on Channel Twelve", C. M. Kornbluth (Star Science Fiction Stories No. 4)
"The Edge of the Sea", Algis Budrys (Venture Mar 1958)
"The Men Who Murdered Mohammed", Alfred Bester (F&SF Oct 1958)
"Nine Yards of Other Cloth", Manly Wade Wellman (F&SF Nov 1958)
"Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee", Fritz Leiber (F&SF May 1958)
"Space to Swing a Cat", Stanley Mullen (Astounding Jun 1958)
"Theory of Rocketry", C. M. Kornbluth (F&SF Jul 1958)
"They've Been Working On...", Anton Lee Baker (Astounding Aug 1958)
"Triggerman", J. F. Bone (Astounding Dec 1958)


SF OR FANTASY MOVIE

The Fly (1958)
Horror of Dracula
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad