Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review - The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 1 edited by Isaac Asimov

Stories included:
Ship of Shadows by Fritz Lieber
Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Lieber
Slow Sculpture by Theodore Sturgeon
The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson
Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven

Full review: After the success of the first two volumes that collected the Hugo winning stories, it was somewhat inevitable that a third would be in the offing. Isaac Asimov returned to take on the editing duties and write funny little anecdotes about the prize winning authors. This installment, the first half of the third volume in the series, only contains five stories, but they are five excellent stories by four outstanding authors.

Asimov notes that the book opens with two consecutive novellas by Fritz Lieber, meaning that what is supposed to be a multi-author collection of short fiction opens with approximately forty-thousand words worth of fiction from a single author. Fortunately, they are forty thousand pretty good words, so it isn't really much of a problem. The first Lieber story is Ship of Shadows, a story that begins with an almost dream-like feel that sharpens into a high focus by the end of the tale. The ostensible reason for this increase in clarity are the optical enhancements the main character acquires through the course of the story, but Lieber uses this as a metaphor for learning. What at the outset were poorly seen shadows that coalesced in the mind of the viewpoint character as vampires, witches, and werewolves, are transformed into their real shapes as the narrator gets better vision, and a better understanding of the world he lives in. The story starts off as a fantasy, but by the end it is clear that it is pure science fiction, and that Lieber is playing with the reader's perception by means of the narrator's faulty reporting, although at all times the narrator's reporting is painfully and almost childishly honest. In the end, the mystery is solved, the threats faced by the protagonist are mostly averted, and all is more or less well, but that is almost all beside the point of this simultaneously surreal and real tale.

The other Lieber story in the collection is Ill Met in Lankhmar, in which the author details the first meeting of his two famous sword wielding swashbucklers Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Though this is ostensibly the tale describing the first encounter between the pair, it is one of the last-written stories about them, and it seems to assume that the reader has more than a passing familiarity with these two characters and the world they live in. And for a long awaited story about how a team of well-liked pulp heroes got together, this story is something of a disappointment. The pair accidentally bump into each other while ambushing the same set of members from the Lankhmar Thieves' Guild. After the fight, they take on look at one another and become immediate friends. They then go get some wine, get their girlfriends, and stage an impromptu party. And seeing one another in an alleyway after killing a couple thieves is the sum total of the introduction that made Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser the best of friends. The story goes on from there in fairly standard fashion. The pair are goaded into infiltrating the Thieves' Guild, do so drunkenly and clumsily, get both their girlfriends killed by sorcery, and then go back to bash their way into the Guild house and kill the sorcerer responsible. The story is pretty standard swords and sorcery adventure, so I have to wonder if the voters were honoring this story, or were rather honoring the body of Lankhmar stories that preceded it.

After the surreal first story and pulp adventure of the second, Theodore Sturgeon's sober dissection of human nature in Slow Sculpture is something of a jolt, but it is a refreshing and compelling jolt. An unnamed woman suffering from cancer finds her way to a cynical engineer brilliant enough to have invented numerous inventions that would revolutionize everything about our world. The central message of the story is that humanity will resist such revolutionary changes, and that if the engineer released his inventions upon the world that they would be suppressed, destroyed, or ignored. This is in direct contrast to many science fiction stories in which a brilliant scientist comes up with a clever invention that sweeps across the world and causes massive change. In the story humanity is likened to a bonsai tree, capable of being changed, but slowly, and with great persistent effort. It may not be the best story in the collection, but it is the most thoughtful.

In The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson crafts another story involving humans dealing with an alien world and its seemingly inscrutable inhabitants. The son of a scientist studying the native life in the wilderness of a frontier planet is mysteriously abducted. After being stonewalled by the local police, she enlists a private investigator and sets out to find her son. The story alternates between the pair of searchers and the humans living amidst the alien intelligence that seems to love and care for them. But as in his previous Hugo winning story The Sharing of Flesh, the humans don't really understand the aliens they are dealing with, and their assumptions have led them to some missteps. In the end, the private investigator unravels the aliens' secret and the story ends with everything turning out more or less well. But the plot is not the fascinating part of the story, rather, the alien "Queen" is coupled with the exploration of how an alien intelligence could hide more or less in plain sight.

The final story in the volume is Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven, which was later made into an Outer Limits episode of the same name starring Michael Gross and Joanna Gleason. In the story, an improbably bright moon leads Los Angeles resident Stan to conclude that the sun has exploded on the other side of the Earth. He calls up an old girlfriend and proceeds to have what he expects will be one last night in which they can live it up before dying when the cataclysmic wave of superheated atmosphere rolls around to where they are. Through the story several clues lead Stan and the reader to conclude that the future is not quite as bleak as he first thought, although the picture is definitely not rosy. The story is a classic astronomical disaster story, a chilling reminder of just how precarious our continued existence on the Earth is, and how randomly death and extinction might come to our doorstep.

The Hugo Winners, Volume 3, Book 1 is an excellent collection of award-winning stories. Of the five stories in the book, four are excellent, and the remaining one - Ill-Met in Lankhmar - is pretty good. The stories are thought-provoking, and enjoyable, and as usual, Asimov's commentary about the authors and the circumstances of their Hugo victories is amusing and gives a fascinating look into the history of science fiction. These are stories that are "must reads" for any serious science fiction fan who has not already come across them, and an anthology that should definitely be on every science fiction fan's shelf.

Subsequent book in the series: The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2 edited by Isaac Asimov

What are the Hugo Awards?

This volume contains the Best Novella winners for the Hugo Award for the years 1970, 1971, and 1972, and the Best Short Story winners for the Hugo Award for the years 1971 and 1972.

1969 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novella: Nightwings by Robert Silverberg (reviewed in More Stories from the Hugo Winners, Volume II)
1973 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novella: The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2)

1970 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany (reviewed in More Stories from the Hugo Winners, Volume II)
1973 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: (tie) Eurema's Dam by R.A. Lafferty (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2)
1973 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: (tie) The Meeting by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2)

1971 Locus Award Winner for Best Short Story: The Region Between by Harlan Ellison
1973 Locus Award Winner for Best Short Story: Basilisk by Harlan Ellison

1970 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette: Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany (reviewed in More Stories from the Hugo Winners, Volume II)
1973 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette: Goat Song by Poul Anderson (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2)

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

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Short Story

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novella
List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novelette

1970 Hugo Award Nominees
1971 Hugo Award Nominees
1972 Hugo Award Nominees

1971 Locus Award Nominees
1972 Locus Award Nominees

1970 Nebula Award Nominees
1971 Nebula Award Nominees
1972 Nebula Award Nominees

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  1. I like Larry Niven - my husband is a huge fan!

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: If you check my page about Larry Niven, it should be pretty obvious that I am a big fan of his too.