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Hugo winner: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translation, Ken Liu), 2015

My take: in many ways, this is the exact opposite of what can be stereotypically termed an "action-packed" SF novel; the violence it depicts - although occasionally quite brutal, as with the opening chapter that occurs during the Cultural Revolution - is either in flashback form or so much at a remove from anything currently happening in the main plot of the novel that the violence is more of a news report than a direct threat to any of the main characters. That's not to say that Three-Body isn't full of menace. Without resorting to spoilers, the Trisolarans are one of the most ominous alien invasion forces recently dreamt up by an author specifically because they're so subtle in terms of strategy. They don't need death rays, UFOs or other varieties of  traditional BEM-style super-weapon to deal with their future human antagonists because what they have in their arsenal is both so subtle as to be nearly invisible and so powerful that it could put humanity in a potential tailspin years before the invasion actually happens. But don't take my word for it; read the book.

Nuggety?: You really might want to re-read the previous paragraph if you think so.

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Hugo nominee: Count Zero by William Gibson, 1987

My view: It could be the fact that I empathized a lot more with Count Zero's Turner than I did with Case in Neuromancer; it could be the fact that I first read CZ at an emotionally stressful time in my life (the unexpected death of my father due to post-surgery complications in 1990) that somehow caused the novel to remain especially vivid in my memory; or it could be that it's just a damn good novel. It's certainly full of the twists, turns and strong characterization that make Gibson such an vital writer at his best, but whatever the reasons, CZ still remains a favorite of mine to this day.

Nuggety?: Nah.

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Hugo nominee: The Peace War by Vernor Vinge, 1985

My view: Sure, it's a lot closer to the traditional idea of hard SF than most of the novels I've read (it was serialized in Analog, so there's your proof), but that's not to say I couldn't - or didn't - enjoy the hell out of it. I ended up getting a hardcover copy as a freebie at a local convention (Capricon, probably) shortly after its publication and it serves as proof that sometimes you get far more than what you pay for.

Nuggety?: I'm going with "no" on this one as well; Vinge has rhetorical points to make in this book, but he does it in a way that seems more than a little too subtle for the likes of what Torgersen and co. seem to think is suitable for Sad Puppy-approved SF. Plus, Vinge's small-l libertarian (read: probably not Objectivist) technophile streak wouldn't sit too well with a John C. Wright or a V*x D*y, either.

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Hugo nominee: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl, 1981

My view: It's a continuation of Gateway, to be sure, but Pohl never stoops to the lazy pattern of writing more of the same formulaic crowd-pleasing material (what I lovingly term "fanwank") in order to please an equally lazy audience. Indeed, if he had done that Beyond would've probably never come close to receiving the Hugo and Nebula nominations it did. As stated before, Pohl's ability to be a challenging writer well into his years was as much a way of defying the clichés of old age as a degree of abnormally robust physical health. He may have been getting older but he certainly never started thinking that way. 

Nuggety?: Hardly.

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Hugo nominee: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick, 1975

My view: I suppose this was a sign of things to come in terms of my tastes in SF; it's been decades since I've read this, yet the feel of the novel's oppressive atmosphere has remained in my mind since I read it and was one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

The nightmarish alternate world that Jason Taverner is thrust into after a failed murder attempt embodies the word "Kafkaesque" with a vengeance, but unlike PKD's earlier works the usual sense of paranoia is leavened by certain degree of empathy that points a way out of the maze Taverner has been thrust into no matter how dark his personal universe has become. It seems like PKD was becoming something of a humanist (albeit a very odd version of one) in his later years, and this novel is strongly indicative of that fact.

Nuggety?: Not even close.

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Hugo nominee: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, 1973

My view: There is no doubt as to what David Selig is in this book. He's a telepath.

He's also a complete and utter wreck of a human being because of it.

This is easily one of Robert Silverberg's darkest novels (at least of the ones I've read) because he pulls absolutely no punches about Selig's many psychological shortcomings or the supposed gift of telepathy.That "gift" has helped shaped Selig into an opportunistic, ethically void grifter who is just as incapable of any sort of real emotional connection to another human being as anyone suffering from severe Asperger syndrome or full-blown autism. He's not a particularly likable protagonist as a result, but that's the point: Silverberg's ultimate message is that taking the easy way out from real human emotional give-and-take (in short, normal human interaction) is no real gift at all - it's one of the worst curses anyone can suffer in life.

Nuggety?:  Only if you're into chewing gravel.

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Hugo nominee: The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg, 1973

My view: Silverbob's SF (or fantasy, in this case) is particularly rewarding when he goes into the dark corners of the human psyche and shines a flashlight around and he does it with a vengeance both here and in Dying Inside, which also picked up a Hugo nomination in '73. This is less a story about a mystical quest for immortality than it is of the limits of friendship and how far someone will allow their ethics to be mutilated in the name of an overriding goal, and it's no surprise that this was probably one of the works that caused Silverberg so much distress that he wrote less and less often in the seventies due to the emotional strain it caused. Admittedly, it's not easy to read. Which it to say that you should.

Nuggety?: Afraid not.

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Hugo nominee: Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad, 1970

My view: It's no surprise that this particular novel came out in 1969 and actually got things horribly right about trends in mass media decades before they became prevalent (the yapping-dog hothead as media pundit theme in BJB is especially galling to think about in this day and age); it's not even close to being a subtle novel (again, not surprising for the late 60's), but Spinrad's theme of trading your ethics in for a quick shot at "immortality" (as ersatz and disgusting as the form of it offered in this novel is) is just as frightening now as it was in '69. Even more so, since any number of more contemporary events (do not click on this link if you're concerned about spoilers) have turned out to be sickeningly true.

Nuggety?: You'd have one hell of an imagination in order to think so.

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Hugo nominee: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, 1970

My view: I suppose a hypothetical hard SF purist will refer to this as slipstream (o, Mother no!) and consign this to the non-SFnal rubbish heap instead of calling it the antiwar fable dressed up in SF clothing that it obviously is, but consider this - any number of Hugo nominees can be considered antiwar fables; the fact that they're encased in much more traditional forms of SF is probably the reason why they're not distastefully squinted at in a similar fashion. I suspect Vonnegut left organized SF more for that reason than any other. I wouldn't have, but a writer has to do what he or she thinks makes sense to their careers and artistic tastes. It's obvious Vonnegut apparently needed to do just that.

Nuggety?: You're kidding, right...?

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Hugo nominee: Deathworld by Harry Harrison, 1961

My view: Considering how much danger Jason dinAlt is put in in most chapters of this book by the flora and fauna of Pyruss, a description consisting of the phrase "action-packed" seems more than a bit inadequate. The action doesn't let up a whole lot (which is the point, obviously) and Deathworld is probably one of the best examples of this type of SF that I've read.

Nuggety?: while it seems to meet some of the qualifications of what Brad Torgersen thinks is traditional, action-based SF, the big reveal concerning why Pyrrus is so dangerous isn't one likely to please him. Even more than Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, there's a message buried in the action that's far too complex and ambiguous than "let's go kill us some BEMs!";
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Hugo nominee: Who? by Algis Budrys, 1959

My view: a dark book that treats the concept of being stuck in the uncomfortable middle ground of the Cold War with the symbolism it deserves, Who? is one of those novels most people probably won't forget years - or even decades - after reading it. I'm not sure how much Kafka Budrys read during his life, but Lucas Martino's dilemmas as a character (suspected by all, but especially by those who knew him before he was "rebuilt") seems to have been inspired by him to a certain degree.

Or maybe that's just Budrys' understanding of that decade's international politics and how it related to his expatriate background talking. A enjoyable, unnerving novel, and its unresolved cliffhanger ending is just about perfect considering the subject matter.

Nuggety?: Absolutely not.

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Hugo winner: The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neil Stephenson, 1996

My view: Phyles! Nanites! A more successful look at slice-of-life Steampunk-ish culture (albeit based in the future instead of the past) than Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine! Although I didn't enjoy this as much as Stephenson's Snow Crash, the plot here is a lot easier to follow than the back-and-forth past/present-jumping one he tailored for Cryptonomicon. It also has two noticeable advantages over Cryptonomicon as well, namely comparative brevity (a 400-plus page difference in length makes that abundantly clear) and an ending that doesn't feel like all the air just went out of the novel you were enjoying up until then. More than deserving of the best novel award for that year, IMHO.

Nuggety? In some alternative reality, maybe. Otherwise, no.

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Hugo winner: Hyperion by Dan Simmons, 1990

My view: if you think that winning this award is going to sway my opinion as to whether or not I'm going to read the book, you're wrong. Actually, this is not the most recent winner for best novel I've read (my mistake, but at least I was close) as I originally stated. That's not so much a negative comment on my reading habits as it is on my apparent lack of need to read every last book that's won a Hugo. Be that as it may, I really enjoyed this. There are parts of the Canterbury Tales-based protagonist-by-chapter format that I liked a lot more than others, but there's no denying it deserved the award.

Nuggety? Far too literary a book for that, although the "Soldier's Tale" section concerning Fedmahn Kassad might keep a Puppies' attention for a while. The rest, though? Not really.

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Hugo winner: Neuromancer by William Gibson, 1985

My view: For a book that was the first shot fired in arguably one of the biggest internal feuds over style and substance in the SF world since the New Age explosion of the late 60's, Neuromancer has more than a few problems for a book which I still consider one of my personal favorites. In my estimate, Case just isn't as interesting a protagonist as Turner was in Gibson's immediate follow-up Count Zero and Maelcum and his crew of spacefaring Rastas aren't quite as engrossing as characters as modern-day Vodou devotees Beauvoir and Lucas were in CZ, either. Then again, there's the breakneck-speed caper plot of the book, the tech that seems obscenely futuristic at times even today (and probably seemed utterly improbable to all but the most jaded SF readers when Neuromancer was first published) and side characters such as psychologically broken ex-special forces officer Armitage/Willis Corto and technologically enhanced sociopath Peter Riviera. And Molly Millions, who is anything but a mere "side character". Don't forget about her. Or else.

Nuggety? Nope. Not even close. Feel free to look up Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum" in Burning Chrome as to why this isn't even a subject for debate.

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Hugo winner: Gateway by Frederik Pohl, 1978

My view: I once made a statement on Facebook (go ahead and shudder freely at that fact, if you  wish) that veteran authors who successfully avoid Old Fogeyism - a tendency for writers to get cranky and start shouting "you damn kids get off of my lawn!" at new-fangled concepts that they don't like - is central to their continued relevance as authors even if they're pushing Who Knows What in terms of their actual chronological age.

Frederik Pohl is definitely one of those writers.

A Pohl work from the seventies is just as relevant to SF as a Pohl work from any other decade, and this story is no exception. Despite all of the futuristic trappings of the novel, Robinette Broadhead is exactly the sort of Everyman who'd be relevant regardless of whether or not he'd be alive during the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Era or Pohl's setting here. His neurotic quirks, desperation to make a better life for himself and the pain of losing a loved one and his crewmates to the same space travel phenomena that enabled him to become a rich man can be told in many ways and in many settings, but it's far too universal a story to merely be considered stilted BEM-fodder.

Nuggety? Probably not. Broadhead may be determined, grasping and capable of taking all sorts of crazy-ass risks in order to improve his meager lot in life, but he's no steely-eyed, iron-jawed alien-slaying type. Matter of fact, he's glaringly neurotic and emotionally vulnerable to his core. If what Brad Torgersen says is his idea of real SF is to be believed (my guess is that it's a huge mistake if you do), this doesn't qualify as real SF either - which is an entirely laughable view, IMHO. 
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Hugo winner: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, 1976

My view: This is a novel that seems completely undated despite its publication back in 1974; given the post-Vietnam era politics of the time it's absurdly possible to draw parallels to that was and the unending, mainly futile conflict that William Mandella and his comrades are fighting, but it seems to be more of a meditation on the futility of all wars and what they end up doing to the common soldier. Which is why it's just as relevant now (especially now, considering how long Gulf War II and the conflict in Afghanistan have gone on) as it was in '74.

Nuggety? This is going to be a bit of a quandary. But only a bit.

Yes, this novel fully qualifies as military SF. Yes, it pulls no punches about organized military violence, is full of action and also doesn't make any overt or unsubtle pacifist statements in its text. The problem is that it also doesn't glorify a single thing about war, military life or the havoc it reeks on everything from romantic relationships to the lives of the draftees who are caught up in it. So despite all the carnage and military jargon, this isn't even close to Nuggety. Not by a long shot.
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Hugo winner: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, 1969

My view: At this point - and this was a while ago, to say the least (at least twenty years, if not twenty-five) - this was the longest novel I had ever attempted to read. But read it I did, and if Brunner softened the blow of his overpopulation-as-hell on earth plot by resorting to a somewhat pat happy ending (a trait this book shares with The Jagged Orbit and The Shockwave Rider but not The Sheep Look Up) it's only because he was looking to find hope of escape out of the dystopian maze he expertly constructed. An incredibly solid work regardless of that fact, and a work that's almost impossible to adapt as a movie or even a miniseries because of its structure and refusal to pull its sociological punches.

Nuggety? Nope. For one thing, it's constructed in a fashion largely inspired by John Dos Passos' USA trilogy, and that constitutes literature. For another, it's message fiction, but the big difference between this sort of message fiction and what the Sad/Rabid Puppies think constitute big-m Message Fiction is this: the message follows from the consequences of the plot and not the other way around. It's not a form of Stalinist Socialist Realism at work here but an Orwellian cautionary tale (although Brunner is much less of a pessimist than Orwell was), and anyone who can't tell the difference probably thinks that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was unduly didactic as well.  
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Hugo winner: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, 1963

My view: It's not nearly as affecting to me - an old PKD fan if there ever was one - as either Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said or Ubik, but his alternate history version of a US occupied by a victorious Axis is both plausibly realized and suitably ominous, although the most important aspects of this novel (as with practically all of his work) are the disturbed inner psyches of the lead characters. It's a truism: the more deeply you read into a PKD novel, the more you get the sense that the workings of outward reality itself against those characters is the real enemy. This is a good place for a novice to start before heading off to even more challenging fare like the aforementioned novels and the likes of A Scanner Darkly, BTW.

Nuggety? Aw, c'mon. Not even close.

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Hugo winner: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber, 1958

My view: A war that runs through all of time and space as viewed through the setting of a futuristic USO station might have been a lousy idea in the hands of a lesser writer than Leiber, but although I don't like this nearly as much as his fantasy work he still pulls it off with a lot of flair and punchiness.

Nuggety? This is relatively close to what Brad Torgersen seems to prefer in terms of whiz-bang traditional (military) SF, but I doubt he'd find the moral ambiguity that underlies the plot and character motivation much of anything to write home about.

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So. I had this funny idea, and...

Yeah, yeah, I know - funny ideas are usually the death of good ones, but not in this case; what this idea was is to look through all of the Hugo Award-winning novels I've read (mere nominees will have to follow sometime later, but I'll get around to it) in order to see how they stack up both in terms of how I remember them and how they stack up to a certain Mr. Torgersen's ideal of breakfast cereal (pretty much beaten to death here by MD Lachlan). I know I have a tendency to overwrite introductions, so without further ado here's the first victim of this experiment:

Hugo Winner: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953)

My view: It's been a good, long while since I've read this, and the one thing that's a drawback is that the dialogue even seemed dated to me when I read it in my late teens/early twenties. Then again, so what? TDM came out in 1952, which essentially means that it would seem dated in most contexts since this is over 60 years later. A fun romp of a book that can almost seem like a positively cheerful alternative version of Minority Report at times.

Nuggety? There's plenty of action, but somehow I don't think that this is quite the kind of book that Sad Puppies would go for since it has about as much to do with military SF as it does the Bolshoi Ballet.

September 2017

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