Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review - The Hugo Winners, Volume 1 edited by Isaac Asimov

Stories included:
The Darfsteller by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell
Exploration Team by Murray Leinster
The Star by Arthur C. Clarke
Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson
The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak
The Hell-bound Train by Robert Bloch
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
The Longest Voyage by Poul Anderson

Full review: A few years after it became apparent that the Hugo Awards were destined to be an ongoing affair, someone at Doubleday decided that it would be a good idea to print all the winning works of short fiction as a collection and have Isaac Asimov provide pithy commentary about each winning author. It turned out that it was a good idea, and the resulting collection is an example of some of the very best science fiction of the era.

The first story in the volume is the 1955 Hugo winning novelette The Darfsteller by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a tale of a man whose profession has been overtaken by technology. In this case, the profession is acting, and the profession has been replaced by mechanical performances tuned by an automated system to meet the mood of the audience. This is a brilliant story that has so many intersecting ideas layered through it. Ryan Thornier is a bitter-ender, an actor still hanging around the theater working as a janitor just to stay near the venue where his ilk used to ply their craft. He engineers a situation in which he is called upon to go on stage one last time, but everything goes awry, as it turns out that try as he might, he simply cannot fit into the new mechanized world that has grown up around him. Just like the character he plays in the play within the story, Thornier cannot adapt to fit within the confines of a world built not to a human measure, but with an eye towards other concerns. Running in conjunction with this theme is the idea that once someone becomes specialized, they will be soon replaced by someone who is even more specialized. And while the story says that the replacement will be human, the dislocation experienced by Thornier suggests that specialists will be replaced by machines. And if actors, members of a profession that involves being able to display the full range of human emotion and experience, can be replaced by a machine, the question that arises is who cannot be replaced by the fruits of the industrial revolution? And this dovetails with the third theme that runs through the story concerning the meaning and purpose of art. In the story the theater has been reduced to providing exactly what the audience wants, with the autodrama machines fine tuning the performance to tailor them to the audience's reactions. But if all art does is produce entertainment, is it still art? If art does not have the ability to challenge, disturb, or unsettle the viewer, is it still valuable? As is typical of a piece of short fiction, The Darfsteller doesn't answer these questions, but it raises them, and unlike the autodramas that it posits, it forces the reader to contemplate some rather troubling possibilities.

While The Darfsteller is a piece of deeply insightful fiction, the other 1955 Hugo winner, Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell, is decidedly not. This is not to say that Allamagoosa is a bad story, but it is a much lighter work, poking humorous fun at the rigidity of bureaucracies. The space navy ship Bustler is due to be visited by the inspector general, and in the frenzy of preparation that follows the crew simply cannot find, or even identify, one item on their manifest, the mysterious "offog". Hastily rigging up a pretend item manages to fool the inspector, but humorously leads to further troubles for the Bustler's crew. The story is fun and funny, but it seems a little too much like a bit of fluff to take seriously as a winning story.

In 1956, the Hugo for Best Novelette went to Exploration Team by Murray Leinster, at the time the "old man" of science fiction, having been publishing in the genre since World War I. The story takes place on the alien planet Loren Two where Huyghens is working as an advance scout for an illegal colonization operation. Planetary survey official Roane finds himself marooned on the alien planet and rescued by Huyghens and his team of genetically engineered bears. The meat of the story is the interaction between these two men, and their competing ideas about the place mechanization should hold in human exploration and development, with Huyghens holding that the standard method which relies upon ample robotic assistance is simply too inflexible to adapt to the challenges posed by an unknown world. And to prove him right, the "sphexes" of Loren Two has overwhelmed the nascent legal colony, while his team of bears has proven resilient enough to survive. Although the story does have the distressing 1950s attitude towards alien life of "kill it as quickly as possible so humans can build undisturbed", the story itself is raised above the typical fare of the day by the interplay between Huyghens and Roane. The other 1956 winner was The Star by Arthur C. Clarke, a brief tale about the crisis of faith experienced by a Jesuit astrophysicist on an exploratory expedition into a distant nebula. There isn't much story here, with the entire piece being told more or less in the form of a journal entry by the disillusioned priest who has been confronted by the devastating price paid to put a star in Earth's sky to foretell the birth of Jesus.

In 1958, the winner for short fiction was Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson, a mixture of science fiction and horror that sits just on the edge of possibility. This sort of cross-genre mixing was typical for Davidson, and he mixes them well here with a story in which safety pins, coat hangars, and bicycles take on a sinister air. The story manages to fit within the science fiction genre while being plausible enough that it could be happening right around the corner. It probably isn't, but after reading it you might want to check your drawers and closets anyway.

There are very few science fiction stories that make interstellar commerce plausible. Quite simply the energy requirements for travelling between the stars are so extreme that any civilization capable of doing so would be able to produce enough energy to make any goods they wanted to. But in The Big Front Yard Clifford D. Simak was able to come up with an idea that makes commerce plausible, mostly by discarding the idea of moving physical objects from place to place, and instead having the traders deal in ideas. Simak adds some spice to the mixture by having the aliens show up in the front yard of a Yankee trader who takes over the task of sharp nosed dealing for Earth. The story moves through a couple stages, from a mundane start, to a confusing middle as strange events swirl about the characters, to an ending in which everything comes together and the reader realizes that the aliens have probably more than met their match in negotiating a swap. This is also the only serious science fiction story I know of in which a pickup truck is used as a means of interstellar travel. This is an excellent story, and while it may not be the best story in this volume, it is my favorite.

Of the stories in the volume, The Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch is probably the second most famous. The story is a fairly simple morality tale in which a young man named Martin makes a deal with the conductor of the Hell bound train, agreeing to get on the train when his time comes in exchange for one gift. The young man chooses the ability to stop time for himself one time, thinking that he will choose the one moment in which he is fully happy to do so, and thus avert the necessity of ever having to pay off his end of the deal. The rest of the story details the life that the young man leads, ever searching for that elusive perfect moment of bliss until at the very end he finds himself out of time never having used his boon. In trying to trick the devil, he has outsmarted himself, as the devil knew he would. But the story has one more twist, as Martin realizes that while he was searching for happiness all his life, it had been right in front of him from the beginning.

The most famous story in the volume is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, a story that was later expanded to novel length and has been adapted for the screen more than once. Keyes' story is told by means of the journal entries of Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped man who is participating in an experiment designed to increase human intelligence. Gordon's entries are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors at the outset, becoming more and more polished as the treatment he received takes hold. Gordon is a completely likable character, good-natured and eager despite his limitations, and that makes the unfolding tragedy in the story poignant as it turns out that the increased intelligence is not permanent. The latter half of the story shows Charlie's slide back to his starting point, and the drama is further increased when Algernon, the experimental mouse that underwent the same procedure Charlie did, dies. In the end, Charlie's last journal entry is not a plaintive whine about his own fate, but rather a request that flowers be placed on Algernon's grave, which is also an unspoken request that he be remembered as well. When Keyes originally submitted the story for publication, the editors who looked at it requested that he change the ending to a happier one in which Charlie did not go back to his original condition, and in which Charlie did not die. Keyes wisely refused these changes, which would have left a decent story, but not the memorable and though-provoking masterpiece that we have instead.

The final story in the volume is The Longest Voyage by Poul Anderson, which starts out following the crew of the Golden Leaper under Captain Rovic as they travel across the oceans looking for new lands. While the reader may think that the story of the crew of a sailing ship might be set in our own 16th century, it quickly becomes apparent that the sailors are traveling seas lit by a different sun. The Leaper comes across new lands and a culture that seems remarkably similar to the Polynesian cultures of Earth's South Pacific. But the story takes a different turn when it is discovered that the natives are guarding a secret: a man from another world had landed decades before and taken up residence among them. It turns out that the inhabitants of this particular are the descendants of explorers from space who had become stranded on this world, and not having sufficient ability to keep an industrial culture going, had slipped back to a pre-industrial way of life. The outsider promises that if Rovic's crew will supply him with a few things he needs, he will reunify the planet with interstellar culture and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity. Rovic is faced with an interesting choice, and ends up choosing one that will be unsurprising to those familiar with Anderson's work. The story, like so many of Anderson's stories, is about freedom, self-determination, and human ingenuity.

As one would expect of a collection of award winning stories, the selections in this volume are all quite good. Although some are lighter than others, and less memorable, every one of these stories is enjoyable to read. Some provide the additional bonus of being thought-provoking, insightful, or disturbing. Not only that, Asimov's brief comments concerning each author, and in some cases the circumstances of their win, are fun to read as well. Overall, this is a great anthology, with nine good or great science fiction stories.

What are the Hugo Awards?

This volume contains the Best Novelette winners for the Hugo Award for the years 1955, 1956, and 1959, and the Best Short Story winners for the Hugo Award for the years 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1961.

1954 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: Earthman, Come Home by James Blish (awarded in 2004)
1958 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

1958 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
1967 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Last Castle by Jack Vance

1954 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (awarded in 2004, reviewed in The Nine Billion Names of God)
1962 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette
List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

1955 Hugo Award Nominees
1956 Hugo Award Nominees
1958 Hugo Award Nominees
1959 Hugo Award Nominees
1960 Hugo Award Nominees
1961 Hugo Award Nominees

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  1. I remember every one of these stories. Have a bunch of the novellas.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I have a couple more Hugo Winner collections that I recently read that I need to review as well. The stories in those volumes will probably be familiar to you as well. These stories, to me, are kind of like old friends.