Hugo award

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This year’s Hugo Award for best novel will soon be announced, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts about the nominated novels. In case you’re not familiar with the Hugo Award, it’s one of two major science fiction and fantasy awards, awarded by the World Science Fiction Society (by popular vote at various conventions). You can read more about it here.

Below, I have written something about each of the five nominees and ordered them in the order I think they deserve to win, with the best novel first. We’ll know which novel actually won on August 20th, but if they deviate from my own opinion, they are of course wrong.

Update after the winner was revealed: I’m happy that N.K. Jemisin won the award. It was the only really good book on the list. Neal Stephenson’s would have been a contender if the last part had been transformed into a short epilogue, but the others don’t come close. The right book won!

N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fight Season is nominated for a Hugo Award this year. I normally don’t read fantasy, but I thought this looked interesting and decided to have a go. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and I found this book rather interesting.

The setting is a geologically very active super continent that undergoes cyclic cataclysms where life is about preparing for the next catastrophe. There is a mix of advanced technology from earlier, fallen civilisations and magic related to geological activity and heat.

The story is composed of three threads; three women experiencing a different part of the setting and a different stage of the approaching catastrophe. The narrative is well written, the characters believable and also quite interesting. The story itself is rather bleak and there’s plenty of oppression and tragedy involved, but not to excess.

I like a couple of things with this book. First, I like the concept of cyclical catastrophes that influences everything in the setting. Second, the story is well written using a device I have actually considered using myself at one point (spoiler: the three women are actually the same person at different times).

Do I think the book should win this year’s Hugo? I don’t know, yet, but it beats the only other nomination I’ve read so far, which is Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Also worth noting is that three of the five nominees this year are women.

Neal Stephenson – Seveneves

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson explores a scenario I’ve been interested in for a long time. The basic idea is that the entire surface of the Earth will turn into an inferno for several thousand years, wiping out all life. Humanity gets about two years to prepare for survival in orbit.

The first part of the book focuses on humanity’s collective attempt to launch as many people and as much resources as possible into orbit, turning the ISS into the centre of a “cloud ark” meant to be self-sustaining and able to survive without any support from Earth. This is of course problematic, not only from an engineering perspective, but also from a political and social one. This part is great! The second part covers the time after the catastrophe and is good too.

The third part of the book takes place thousands of years later and is really bad; I seriously wish I had stopped after the second part. It feels pretty much like taking a good hard science-fiction novel (the first part) and sticking a mediocre far-future soft science-fiction novel to the end. It doesn’t work at all. I care neither for the characters nor the story. The third part should have been an epilogue, which would have chopped a few hundred pages off the book. That would have been no bad thing considering that the book is 880 pages long.

My suggestion: Read the first two parts. Then, regardless if you liked it or not, do not read the third part. Here’s what happens (spoiler): They find out that there were other projects apart from the cloud ark, including one to burrow deep into the mountains and one to survive deep in the oceans. All three succeeded and the third part is an extremely roundabout and boring way of saying that.

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Mercy

I have now finished Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. Overall, the books are competently written and worthwhile to read. The first book is significantly better than the following two, but far from awesome. To be honest, this feels much like Lois McMaster Bujold, just slightly worse and not as funny (there are some good parts though; I loved the translators). They might be fairly bad for non-initiated readers, so I only recommend the first book to people who already like reading space opera. For the rest of you, there are better books in this genre.

Jim Butcher – The Aeronaut’s Windlass

I’ve now finished The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, which means that I have read all the nominees for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel. I’ll write something about my thoughts in general later; I’ll stick with this novel for now.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a strange hybrid of fantasy, steam punk and intelligent cats. While the world is not described in detail, it’s clear that the surface of the planet has been abandoned and that most people live in very tall towers, or spires, that were left behind by an earlier civilisation. As the title implies, airships of various kinds are central to both the plot and the setting.

It sort of works, but let’s start with the good things. The characters are interesting and mostly well-written. They are also varied and are reasonably well-connected to the story. I also like airships in general, although I like the magic aspect much less, especially on the personal level (they have gauntlets of some kind that can channel ethereal energy). The setting with an abandoned surface is also cool.

What doesn’t work is the narration. The entire book feels too much like an action TV-series with almost no time to breathe or build characters or setting. One climax has barely passed before the story rushes on to the next. Most chapters finish with cliffhangers that would have been more suitable in a periodical of some kind, but make for a very tiring experience in the long run. To put it bluntly, the pacing in this novel is awful. Furthermore, there’s nothing really ingenious or imaginative about the plot, and the novel probably fits into the category of things I could have written myself given enough time.

So, while I like steam punk, the setting and the characters, this is not a good novel. It would be great as a setting for table-top role-playing or similar though. I haven’t fully decided which book I think deserves this year’s Hugo, but I’m quite sure it’s not Jim Butecher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

I usually don’t read much fantasy, but this year I have decided to read all the nominations for the Hugo award for best novel, which includes both science fiction and fantasy. Uprooted by Naomi Novik definitely belongs to the second category.

The setting is small-scale fantasy heavily influenced by Slavic fairy tales. The main character grows up in a small valley where one girl every ten years is picked by the mysterious wizard living in an isolated nearby tower. She is picked because of her latent magical powers, and the rest of the story is about her finding out about these powers, the wizard, his tower and how they fight the dark forest threatening the country.

The book is interesting because of the somewhat unusual influences from Slavic fairy tales mentioned above, plus the setting itself. However, it’s also an example of why I don’t really like reading certain kinds of fantasy. Way too many pages are spent on describing magical battles or adventures that would work well in a film (which I think is planned), but don’t add much to a book. The book is fairly long, but the story would be very easy to summarise because so much time is spent on just describing what happens.

While I think the book was worthwhile, it’s far from the best of the nominees I’ve read so far. I only have one left now, which is The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I’ll try to summarise all the nominees once I have read the last one!

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Just a moment ago, this years Hugo Award ceremony was held in Melbourne, Australia. Since I have read all but one of novels awarded the Hugo in the past, I felt that this year it was time to go one step further and read all the nominees before the prize ceremony, usually held in August or September. That way, I get to read more new science fiction, but I can also complain in the probable event that the wrong book wins. In this post, I’ll go through the six nominees and comment on my assessment of how much they deserve the award. I’ll do it in reverse order, so my favourite nominee will come last. For a discussion of the actual winner of the award, see the last paragraph.

To read the full review of each novel, click title over each entry.

Number 6:
Robert Charles Wilson – Julian Comstock

This is by far the worst novel of the nominees. In fact, it’s the only one that I would call bad and I regret reading. It’s written by a fairly skilled author, but he just simply doesn’t know when to stop. This as post-apocalyptic story about two boys (one of them the nephew of the sitting president) and their adventures, both in the ongoing civil war, but also in the political environment none of the actually understands. The major problem with the book is it’s length and the fact that most of the book feels like a long-winded and dull epilogue. If I the Hugo was separated into ten pieces, I would give none to Robert Charles Wilson.

Nunmber 5: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

Having left the only really bad book, it becomes a lot harder to distinguish the best from the very best. I would say that the numbers five through two are quite similar in their overall aptness to win the Hugo Award. The overall rating is, however, the only common denominator between the four books is the rating. Palimpsest is an explosion of creativity, both when it comes to language and setting. Sadly, in my opinion, the author fails to piece the novel together. She’s created a lot of beautiful shards, but in it’s current form, the novel lacks a few key features and contains too much of some other things. If I had ten Hugo Awards, I would give one to Catherynne M. Valente.

Number 4: Robert J. Sawyer – Wake

Wake is in some ways the diametrical opposite of Palimpsest. It’s written by an author who truly understands how to use science in science fiction. As such, it’s a lot harder (i.e. more realistic, more scientific) than any of the other nominees. As is the case with Palimpsest it feels like the novel lacks something. It’s inspires and it creates a wish for more, but as a novel in itself, it’s not very good. This might be remedied in upcoming sequels, but I hesitate to praise series, to say nothing of the first book in a series. Of the ten hypothetical Hugo Awards, I would give one to Robert Charles Wilson.

Number 3: Paulo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl is a debut novel from an author I expect much more from in the future. It’s set in a quite unique post-apocalyptic setting after waves of genetically induced doom and destruction. In this world, Thailand is still a relatively calm island, where people live on much as they have before. The main character is a windup, i.e. a person who is genetically created for a specific purpose (to entertain, in this case), and the novel tells the story of how she tries to escape from her genetic destiny. The novel feels a bit unpolished and could have become a lot better without having to change too much. If I could split the Hugo in ten pieces, two would go to Paulo Bacigalupi.

Number 2: Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Continuing in the steam punk genre, but this time for real and with little else, Boneshaker is a book which combines so many cool things that it simply can’t be bad. A mad but brilliant scientist living in Seattle designed a mining machine, but during a test run of the machine (called the Boneshaker), something went horribly wrong and parts of downtown Seattle were destroyed. A poisonous gas also began to seep out from the tunnels dug by the Boneshaker and the people who didn’t evacuate died. Or so people thought. The son of the scientist goes into the city to find the truth. His mother follows to find her son. This book is fast-paced, well-written and set in a thrilling environment. If I had ten Hugo Award pieces, I would give two to Cherie Priest.

Number 1: China Miéville – The City & the City

My overall favourite is, without the slightest hesitation, China Miéville’s The City & the City. It’s so good that I knew that it would be my preferred choice for the Hugo Award even when I didn’t even know which the other nominees where (I read this book first)! The concept is one of the coolest ever: two overlapping and yet legally and customarily distinct countries, with border upheld by psychological training and behavioural rules, as well as the intercity police force, the Breach. In this city, the author describes a case of homicide, where one officer from each city needs to cooperate. The investigation of course has far wider implications than what at first seems to be the case. The remaining Hugo Award pieces would go to Miéville, i.e. four.

The right book won!

When I prepared this post (no, I didn’t write in the ten minutes that have past since the award ceremony), I actually had the heading “the wrong book won”, because I didn’t think that Miéville’s book would appeal as much to other readers as it did to me. I was wrong, or at least partly wrong. The 2010 Hugo Award for best novel is a tie between The City and the City and The Windup Girl. Two good books, congratulations to the authors. The official results will probably be up on the Hugo Award official website shortly.

Even though my prediction was wrong, I’m happy that two good novels shared the award. I already look forward to reading the nominees of next year’s Hugo Award!

Update: Here are the complete data from the voting in the various categories.

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Title: Palimpsest
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Year: 2009

Palimpsest is the last of six novels I read of those nominated for this year’s Hugo Award. I started reading without any preconceptions whatsoever (I even had to check a dictionary to know what “Palimpsest” meant), but this book turned out to be excitingly creative in more ways than one. If you ask me, it shouldn’t win the Hugo (more about the award in a another post), but I think it was more than worthwhile to read it.

The story opens up with a long streak of more or less weird scenes featuring sexual intercourse with one of the participants having a map-like tattoo somewhere on his or her body. The intricate lines describe the topology of Palimpsest, a city that can only be reached in sleep by combining one’s own map with that of another person’s. The novel opens up with a number of these scenes, which means a little bit too much sex in too few pages, but this stops as soon as the four main characters, initially separated in their own very special lives, begin to gravitate towards Palimpsest.

This novel has three merits. The first is that it is a cornucopia of small but brilliant ideas; it’s a pity they aren’t connected to form a better whole, but there are enough small wonders to make the reading interesting all the way through. The third is that the characters are unique and well-portrayed, and yet feel credible.

The third merit is that the language is poetic in a way I have seldom seen. It’s not only beautiful, but it also sets my imagination spinning. Here is an example where one of the main characters is served a small bird at a dinner party in Palimpsest:

November veils herself and takes the finch by its roasted beak, pushing it into her mouth with two fingers, her remaining blessings. It is sweet, at first, the burnished skin and meat, glazed in something like brandy and something like plum wine. But as she chews—methodically, for it fills her mouth to bursting—the organs rupture, bitter and bilious, a taste like despair, like the loss of love. And deeper, the bones shiver and crack and cut her—the taste of her blood flows in, salty as tears shed over a ruined body, mingling with the marrow, and it is sweet again, sweet as herself, herself remaining at the end of all trials. And November can see why the veil is needed. No god should bear witness to a woman devouring a meal of herself.

Here is another one, shorter, but which doesn’t need much introduction:

Sunday, as is its nature, was slow in coming, but it found her eventually, nosed her out with its beatific muzzle, and found her sitting in the seedy grass of Caracalla, waiting, her heart racing itself in circles around nothing.

The fascinating fact is that I could have quoted half the book, it’s all written like this. It’s written in a way that I would like to be able to write, and it makes the book worthwhile regardless of its shortcomings.

Alas, there are major problems with this book. The beginning contains way too much of the same thing (i.e. sex with weird people in weird situations). The pieces of the parallel stories never really fit together, giving me the feeling that this is a fantastic image of a city, but a shattered one where I have to piece the shards together to form something meaningful. This can be beautiful or effective in itself, but I simply don’t think the author has succeed in this regard.

By way of conclusion, I’m thrilled by the language in Palimpsest and by Valente’s audacity. However, I’m also a bit disappointed that these characteristics didn’t result in a novel that was absolutely stunning, which it has the potential to be. I give this book four snails, but I wish I could have given it more.

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Title: Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 2009

A problem with reading science fiction is that, at least on the surface, many excellent books look like they contain nothing of interest, like they are ruminated versions of tales told a hundred times. Some of these books turn out to be truly excellent (I Am Legend, Oryx and Crake and The Road come to mind), but sadly, others turn out to be just that, a well-known concept or setting used again with no added spice and no added flavour. The only thing that it stirs within me is the question whether or not  I should continue reading so much in the genre.

This is what Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is to me. It’s set in a low-tech, post-apocalyptic America where political intrigues has forced Julian Comstock, the nephew of the incumbent president, to hide out in the countryside. He there encounters Adam, the narrator, and they become good friends and experience lots of adventures together; being forcefully drafted into the army is only the beginning of their travails. The events of the story are interesting, but very few compared to the number of pages (over 400). It’s a solid setting, but I require more than that.

The novel is separated into a number of parts, and after reading the first one, I felt moderately excited. The writing style was solid and the action was good. However, everything faded away after the first part, and the remaining pages (perhaps two thirds) felt like a very, very long epilogue. That’s not good. I will go as far as to say that I think this book is outright bad. There are interesting bits, but they are few and far between.

Which is a pity, because I know that Wilson can write better books (see Spin, for instance). He has a style which might be good if he only used it to write more compelling stories (he usually gets the characters right). This novel is too long by far, and it’s also the worst I’ve read so far of the Hugo-Award nominees this year. Now only Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente remains before I can tell you which book should win the award. Reading Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America has at least made sure that I have one book less to take into consideration later.

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Title: Wake
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Year: 2010

Being a young American girl just starting a new life in a Canadian city might be a complicated undertaking all in itself, but since Caitlin is blind, it becomes even more so. As we slowly get introduced to Caitlin’s life, which is full of interesting details about blindness that are obvious when mentioned but that sighted people seldom think of, two things start to happen. First, Caitlin is contacted by a scientist who claims he can wake Caitlin from her life-long blindness. Second, the reader becomes aware that there is another somewhere, which is also stirring in its sleep.

In my mind, Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (the second book I read by him, after Hominids)  is about three things: Caitlin, blindness and information/computer science. The first bit feels much like cover for the rest of the story and is little more than a framework, but as such, it works pretty well. Caitlin’s life is interesting, but only insofar as it carries the story forwards in other areas. Her blindness makes this very interesting, not least because being almost blind in one eye, I think I’ve thought about complete blindness more than most people.

The technology involved in giving her the sense of sight also have some interesting side effects. Since she needs the internet to download updates to her implant, lots of data is being shuffled around and she becomes aware that she can actually see the internet. Through a long process, aided by a Japanese scientist, the reader and Caitlin set out on a long voyage that covers areas such as cellular automata, artificial intelligence, information theory, linguistics, computational statistics and much more.

This journey is Sawyer’s forte. He is extremely good at describing these various topics and make them come together and form a meaningful plot. Even though I haven’t studied natural sciences since high school, I’m quite serious when I say that this book made me interested enough to spend hours reading articles on information theory and related topics. Having a smart but young main character is a good choice, because it allows the author to introduce these fairly complicated topics to a beginner without making the reader feel too stupid (although this is of course dependent on the education background of the reader).

In short, Wake combines a couple of really interesting themes. He weaves them together into what is the first part of a trilogy, and even though I truly hate series of books, it is likely I will read the remaining two books when they are published (the second is already out). However, I won’t go on reading because of the brilliant plot, because of Sawyer’s ability to make science come alive and become interesting. Just like this kind of science fiction is meant to do.

Why not read on for the plot, then? As I said, it works as a framework, but that’s really not enough for a really good novel. For instance, there is a complete lack of antagonists in the story, which means that apart form experiencing new things and talking about cool science, not much happens. There are various complications with Caitlin’s implant and some minor social events, but they all fade into the background, perhaps rightly so.

To sum things up, this book is partly science fiction at its best, but it also lacks vital parts to become a masterpiece. This book inspires and makes me want to know more, but rather about the topics rather than the story and the characters. Four snails seem to be a good compromise. Wake has been nominated to this year’s Hugo Award, so it remains to see what other people think about it even though my own mind is already settled.

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Title: Memory
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Year: 1996

I hate being disappointed by good authors. After reading books such as The Vor Game and Mirror Dance I’ve come to expect that everything McMaster Bujold touches turns to, if not gold, at least silver; all books read so far have been good or very good. With enthusiasm, I throw myself into Memory, but instead of being pulled in by a marvellous story, I find myself in some sort of marshland and have to drag myself through the first half of the book. After that, I find some dry land underneath my feet, and story becomes more solid and the journey towards the end is even enjoyable. This does not remove all the mud from inside my boots, though.

Miles Vorkosigan has suffered defeats before, but none so humiliating as when he wakes up and realises that he’s had a seizure, and not only that, but also that he has accidentally maimed a man he was supposed to rescue. In fact, this foul up is so bad that he tries to hide it behind something even worse: A lie to his superior officer, the almost omniscient Illyan of Barrayar’s Imperial Security. After being dismissed, he only has a short breathing space before Illyan becomes seriously ill; sabotage cannot be ruled out. Miles is unexpectedly called into the fray to sort things out and find who is really behind this devious plot and for what purpose.

Summarising the story as I just did, the novel seems fairly interesting, but that is mostly because it’s a summary. About half the book is spent on something vaguely interesting setting the stage for the real plot. This is by far too long an introduction. Some authors can get away with this (see Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks), but in Memory, McMaster Bujold can’t. I feel that this books could have been reasonably good if it was edited properly, cutting down drastically on certain sections, expanding others. However, in its current state, there are too much unrelated or uninteresting passages to make this a good read.

So, why do I still give it three snails? Why not less? That would be strictly impossible, for although the rule of the author’s ability to turn things into precious metals has been broken, even the darkest parts of the marsh are sprinkled with specks of silver and gold. She knows what she’s doing and she does it well. Also, she knows her characters, and Miles himself never ceases to be interesting. This isn’t enough this time, but I’m sure Memory is an exception to a rule rather than something more ominous.

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Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Year: 2007

These are strange times to be a Jew, even more so in a world where the state of Israel failed miserably and where many of the world’s Jews ended up in Alaska after the implementation of the Slattery Report, and especially when the lease of that frostbitten piece of land is coming to an end, and Jews soon will need to look elsewhere for some place to live. In the final weeks of the Jewish settlement in Sitka, a young man who was once deemed to be a future messiah, is found shot dead in his hotel room with a mysteriously set-up chess board on his bedside table. Alcoholic and decadent policeman Meyer Landsman starts investigating, sometimes with the support of his half-Jew half-Indian companion Berko Shemets. However, the investigation soon spins out of control and Landsman is relieved of his badge and gun, but he doggedly continues to follow the trail with reckless abandon, discovering ever more unsettling truths as he goes a long.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is the first book I read by Michael Chabon, but I can promise you that it will not be the last one. Even though I am normally not a fan of detective stories, this one has two things that I like very much, one of them truly unique. To begin with, I fancy the alternate-history genre. Admittedly, apart from the Jews inhabiting Alaska instead of Israel, the alternate history elements of this novel are not that prominent, but the are enough to earn my liking. This is an awesome genre that allows the author to mix reality with fiction in a way which appears both realistic and fantastic at the same time.

Even more important than that, however, is Chabon’s fantastic language. His style is truly unique and reminds me of no other author whatsoever. He uses words in the most unconventional, but yet effective way. His metaphors are sometimes beyond description, but most of the time they are entertaining, well-written and sometimes they also succeed in giving the reader a good idea about what the author wants to describe. Here is an example from page 135 which might be said to be typical for the author’s style:

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.

This kind of imaginative and highly creative language permeates the books. Chabon’s language is always interesting, albeit not always meaningful. Details, such as the recurring allusions to Chess, adds to the overall rating. Chabon also employs a mixture of Yiddish, Sitka slang and English, which works very well (however, this can not be said to be a major part of the novel in the same way as it is for, say, A Clockwork Orange).

In addition to this, the characters who inhabit the world of this novel are truly masterpieces. They are multi-faceted and highly credible portrayals of human beings, but are still very interesting and entertaining. I especially like Landsman himself, mostly because of his refusal to do what sane people would do in his place, and because of his sense of humour. This, and much more, makes me smile and laugh a lot when I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a valuable addition to a novel which would have felt heavy otherwise (literally speaking, the novel spans 400 pages).

That being said, the book is not perfect. The plot itself is interesting and Chabon does his best to deepen it with layers of chess, Judaism and Alaskan landscape, but it still is not even close to the brilliance of his language. Therefore, I felt a little bit disappointed in the end, and considered giving the novel only four snails. However, looking back at the novel as a whole, the good parts are so outstandingly good that I have no choice but to give four and a half snails to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

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Title: This Immortal
Author: Roger Zelazny
Year: 1966

Browsing my old reviews, I find that This Immortal (or …And Call me Conrad, as it was originally named) is the ninth novel I read by Roger Zelazny. None of these books have been bad; some have been truly astonishing (Lord of Light comes to mind). In his novels, Zelazny frequently makes use of fairly impressive (one might say godlike), and this his first published novel is not an exception. Earth has suffered a terrible nuclear holocaust, and its few survivors strive to live in the ruins, threatened by mutants and aliens. This might seem like it has been done a thousand times, but the characters make it worthwhile anyway.

Zelazny is the master of flawed heroes. It is not that they are evil or any kind of antihero, it is just that they are physically or mentally imperfect in some ways. Conrad, the protagonist of This Immortal is, apart from being ugly and deformed, practically immortal. He refuses to speak about his past and about his age; perhaps he is one of the ancient Olympian gods or demigods? As he himself puts it, his life is a row of farewells and goodbyes. In this particular story, he leaves his young wife to guide a Vegan tourist around the ancient ruins of Earth. When it becomes obvious that there is a conspiracy to kill the Vegan, Conrad is convinced that he must keep him alive. He does not know why, yet, but he knows that the future of his beloved Earth might reside with the fate of the Vegan.

Zelazny’s language is difficult to assess, because at times it is truly fantastic. I feel marvelled by his quick-paced and yet effective style. At other times, however, it is nothing special. As  I have already said, the characters make this novel worthwhile (not only Conrad, but all the other members of the group is fairly interesting also, especially the belligerent Red Wig and the Arab master assassin Hasan). Here and there are sparks of brilliance, but not enough to raise the overall level of the novel to more than four snails. This is on par with what I have previously given to six of Zelazny’s novels, including the Amber series, so perhaps it comes as no great surprise.

Having finishedThis Immortal I now have only two Hugo-Award-winning novels left: The Forever Machine (or They’d Rather be Right) by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, and this years winner: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Unfortunately, the first one seems to be almost impossible to come by, but I hope I will be able to get my hands on at least an e-version of the text.

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Title: A Case of Conscience
Author: James Blish
Year: 1958

I generally enjoy religion as a theme in science fiction, counting A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr, as one of my favourite novels in this category. I often find it interesting to explore the religiosity of the main character in such novels, which made me happy when I began reading A Case of Conscience by James Blish. The story is about a Jesuit priest who is part of a scientific delegation of four people to the beautiful world of Lithia. Their mission is to investigate and provide enough information to be able to judge what status to ascribe Lithia and its population.

The other members of the group have fairly practical views of the aliens and their world, but father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez has something completely different in mind. He has spent much time together with the Lithians and is convinced that this world is the work of Satan. The world and its society is perfect, yet there is no concept of God, sin and other religious themes. In short, it is Eden before the Fall of Man. Some things on Lithia do indeed seem strange and Ruiz-Sanchez asks questions which are hard to answer. Things are further complicated when Ruiz-Sanchez is offered a gift by the Lithians he hardly can refuse: a beautiful vessel containing a fertilised Lithian egg.

I feel that the basic concept of this story is adequate to write a novel, but perhaps the original novella is better. The novel consists of two parts, which feel a little bit disconnected, even though Ruiz-Sanchez’ moral and religious questions tie everything together. On the positive side, James Blish never lets go of the reader. He constantly bombards one with action, interesting philosophical points or interesting setting (such as the Shelter Economy of Earth, the sequel to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War). The language is adequate, but not excellent. In short, it is a novel which is, in many ways, entertaining to read, but lacks something genuinely outstanding. Three and a half snails to James Blish and his A Case of Conscience.

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Title: Dreamsnake
Author: Vonda N. McIntyre
Year: 1978

Winners of both the Hugo and the Nebula Award are usually very good (see for instance Dune, The Gods Themselves and Ender’s Game). It might not be in a way I feel is important, but it is always easy to spot why other people think any particular novel in this genre is excellent. Sadly, this is not the case with Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake.

In this 1978 novel, the reader follows a young healer called Snake through her first exploratory year away from her teachers at home. She and her colleagues make use of snakes to produces antidotes, vaccines and a whole array of medicines to cure and aid the sick who inhabit a post nuclear war desert. When one of Snake’s serpents, the dreamsnake, is accidentally slain, she has to find a substitute or face grave consequences when she returns to the healers’ station.

I admit that the setting is nice. I like deserts and I like fantasy in deserts as well. Sadly, that is not enough to make a good novel. The story is extremely weak and sports no unique features or nothing at all out of the ordinary. Indeed, the whole basis for her adventure feels weak in the first, because I never grasped what was so important with the dreamsnake. Supposedly, it helps people to die without pain, but why should there be so much fuss about such a snake? Why is it impossible to be a healer without this capability? I have no idea, which undermines the whole story because this is what it is all about.

There is not much else that interests me either. The language is adequate, but very far from being brilliant. The same goes for characters, dialogue, and almost any aspect of the novel except for the setting, which I have already said I liked. This is not enough to make this book worthwhile and I have decided to give it two and a half snails. If anyone fancies Dreamsnake, please tell me why, because as it is now, I have really no idea at all how it could manage to win both the Hugo and the Nebula Award.

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