Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review - More Stories from the Hugo Winners, Volume II edited by Isaac Asimov

Stories included:
Weyr Search by Anne McCaffrey
Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip José Farmer
Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Lieber
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
Nightwings by Robert Silverberg
The Sharing of Flesh by Poul Anderson
The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World by Harlan Ellison
Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany

Full review: Following up on The Hugo Winners, Asimov agreed to edit and write interstitial pieces for More Stories from the Hugo Winners, an anthology featuring those pieces of short fiction that had won the Hugo Award since the first volume's publication. As with the first volume, this collection of stories is quite strong, which one would expect from a group of stories that had all been handed one of the two highest honors in science fiction literature.

The first story in the volume is the history-making Weyr Search by Anne McCaffrey, a story that marked the first time a woman had won a Hugo Award. The story introduces Pern, the fictional world that would dominate much of McCaffrey's career, and tells a tale of revenge and discovery with a little twist of the unexpected thrown in. The story features a vile usurper, a displaced princess, and dragon-riding hero, and a destiny that one of the characters didn't know they had. The story is a good story, but I'm not sure if it is a truly great story. As an installment in the Pern series, it is quite satisfying, but given that this was the first Pern story published, there is something of an unfinished feel to it. The later Pern stories put this one into context, but standing on its own the story seems unfinished with too many elements unresolved. McCaffrey's story shared its Hugo win with Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip José Farmer, an at times surreal tale of a future in which everyone lives off of government hand-outs, but in exchange gives up most control over their own lives, including where they live. The main character is Rex Luscus, an artist who is sheltering his grandfather, the last known tax evader, who is also the voice of rebellion and dissent in the world. The story meanders, with federal agents pursuing their quarry while hampered by a populace that mostly wants to be left alone to watch the future equivalent of television, but is also very touchy about those who trample on their myriad of rights. The story winds its way to an art show in which a disagreement between art critics leads to a riot, and then back to the apprehension and death of Luscus' grandfather, and then to a final joke played upon authority. The story is odd, with the characters displaying an equal mixture of feeding off the government and rebellion against the government.

Probably the most straightforward story in the volume is Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Lieber, a tale in which Joe Slattermill, a man with an amazing ability to roll dice, decides to head to a new casino to shoot craps. In a turn that will surprise no one, he ends up shooting against Death, which leads to a critical showdown. Slattermill realizes that no mere man can hope to succeed against the darkness of death, which results in an interesting denouement. The story is interesting, but as it is yet one more of the long line of stories in which a human matches up against Death and has to find their way out of their predicament using their wits, and as a result isn't particularly unique. Were it not for the final few lines of the story in which Slattermill makes a choice about what to do with his second chance at life, it is quite possible that the story would have faded into obscurity.

In contrast with Lieber's somewhat conventional story about an encounter with evil, we have Harlan Ellison's two Hugo winning stories I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, both nightmarish visions of terror that avoid being cliched. Ellison has a somewhat well-deserved reputation as the enfant terrible of genre fiction, and I am convinced that this is at least partially because the inside of his mind if a terrifying and scary place. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream follows the last four humans on Earth as they deal with the nightmarish reality that the "AM" computer forces them to endure. Having systemically killed off everyone else on the planet, the world-spanning AM tortures these four out of hate and spite, keeping them alive just to torment them. The story details the many horrors the AM inflicts upon the characters: starving them for months and then providing them food that is disgusting, or inaccessible, causing creatures to shred them to pieces, or freezing them, or boiling them, or any number of other atrocities, but each time the AM saves and heals them so that it may inflict further punishment upon them. Eventually, the lead character figures out how to kill the others, but before he can kill himself the AM stops him and transforms him into a gelatinous creature with no mouth, capable of feeling pain, but incapable of harming himself. This story is possibly the most terrifying vision that has been realized in print.

Also mediating on the subject of evil is Ellison's follow-up story The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, although in this story Ellison treats evil as insanity, and posits that insanity is a palpable force that can be isolated and excised. But after the insanity of cruelty and hatred has been removed from a being, it has to go somewhere, and the frightening thing about this story is the decision that is made concerning that question. And even though there are characters in this story that poison hundreds of people and blow up airplanes and engage in cannibalism, the real evil doers are shown to be those who, having purged themselves and their society of insanity, consign others to endure its ravages in order to be able to ship the poison elsewhere. In Ellison's vision, the true evil is appears to be in actions that are banal and dispassionate, and not those taken out of insanity and rage.

The strange, almost fairy-tale quality of Nightwings by Robert Silverberg seems to have influenced his own Majipoor Chronicles, as well as Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, imagining a future Earth in which humanity living on a wrecked planet has slipped back into a feudal way of life and the working lives of all adults are dominated by the guilds they belong to. The viewpoint character is a "watcher", a guild dedicated to watching the stars for evidence of the expected invasion of Earth by alien forces. He travels with a "flyer" and a mutant who is a member of no guild as they all head for the ancient city of Roum. Once there, they find the corruption that has crept its way into every facet of society, and even when the human cause is betrayed, it doesn't seem like anything of importance has been lost in the destruction of the world that humans had built. The story deals with the nature of history, the nature of expectation, and the nature of power, and all of these themes weave together to yield a slightly unsettling tale.

Another unsettling tale is Poul Anderson's story about how cultural assumptions can blind one to the reality that they are studying. In The Sharing of Flesh a team of anthropologists studying the primitive inhabitants of Lokon are stunned when one of their number is murdered out of the blue by a native the researcher trusted. While investigating the murder, the deceased's widow uncovers the truth behind her spouse's murder, and the biological imperatives that drive the seemingly barbaric practices of the world. The story is a classic tale of miscommunication between disparate cultures and how even the most careful observers can be blinded by their own prejudices and assumptions. Even though the story itself is fairly simple, the excellent characterization and the stark unflinching manner in which the tale is told raise it up to superior status.

The final story in the volume is Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany, and as usual, Delany's story is strange and beautiful. The story itself, covering the rise of an upwardly mobile criminal with an ever changing name, is fairly straightforward. The protagonist recounts how he escaped from a life of dairy farming, tries to unload some stolen property, runs afoul of the law, flees to Neptune, and opens an ice cream shop. But the brilliance of the story is in the elements that surround the plot - the "singers" who tell the stories of the world around them, the use of gemstones as code words by a diffuse criminal network, the "holographic analysis" that allows the police to determine when a criminal is about to move up in the world, and the idea that the only thing the police are concerned about is the upwardly mobile criminal. The protagonist is shaking up the underworld by climbing the criminal social ladder, and comes into conflict with other, but realizes that after he has made the climb, the dust will settle and those he is fighting will be his allies again. The story is a brilliant essay on social stability and the conflict caused by those who would seek to change their own place in the world.

It is very difficult to go wrong with an anthology when you start with Hugo winners as your material, and More Stories from the Hugo Winners ably demonstrates why this is so. Every story in the collection is at least good, and many of them are great, especially Ellison's two contributions as well as Delany and Anderson's stories. As usual, Asimov's short essays about each author are fun and enjoyable, adding a nice personal touch that helps draw you into each story. Overall, this is an excellent collection of stories, and a must read for any science fiction fan.

What are the Hugo Awards?

This volume contains the the Best Novella and Best Novelette winners for the Hugo Award for 1968 and 1969, and the Best Short Story winners for the Hugo Award for the years 1968, 1969, and 1970.

1954 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novella: A Case of Conscience by James Blish (awarded in 2004)
1970 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novella: Ship of Shadows by Fritz Leiber (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 1)

1967 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Last Castle by Jack Vance
1973 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: Goat Song by Poul Anderson (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2)

1967 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Neutron Star by Larry Niven
1971 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Slow Sculpture by Theodore Sturgeon (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 1)

1967 Nebula Award Winners for Best Novelette: Call Him Lord by Gordon R. Dickson
1969 Nebula Award Winners for Best Novelette: Mother to the World by Richard Wilson

1969 Nebula Award Winners for Best Novelette: Mother to the World by Richard Wilson
1971 Nebula Award Winners for Best Novelette: Slow Sculpture by Theodore Sturgeon (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 3, Book 1)

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

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novelette

1968 Hugo Award Nominees
1969 Hugo Award Nominees
1970 Hugo Award Nominees

1968 Nebula Award Nominees
1969 Nebula Award Nominees
1970 Nebula Award Nominees

Isaac Asimov     Book Award Reviews     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. I love every one of these books and authors!

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: They are great, and I reiterate what I said before - the inside of Harlan Ellison's brain must be a scary place.