Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review - The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2 edited by Isaac Asimov

Stories included:
The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
Goat Song by Poul Anderson
The Meeting by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
Eurema's Dam by R.A. Lafferty
The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree, Jr.
The Deathbird by Harlan Ellison
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin
A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin
Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitiude 38 54' N, Longitude 77 00' W by Harlan Ellison
The Hole Man by Larry Niven

Full review: The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 2 is part of the continuing series of books compiling all of the Hugo Award winning works of short fiction. As with the previous volumes, the stories in this one are all quite good, which probably explains why they all won Hugo Awards. While no author can be said to dominate the book, with two stories each, it is clear that this was a highly productive era for Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin. This volume also contains the lone Hugo winning story attributed to Cyril M. Kornbluth, which was awarded thirteen years after his death.

The Word for World Is Forest is the first of two Ursula K. Le Guin stories in the volume, set on an alien world called New Tahiti by Earthmen, and Athshe by its inhabitants, that is covered by ocean and forest. Humans have arrived to colonize the place, harvesting the timber because on an Earth that has been covered with cement, wood is more valuable than gold. But the world is occupied by short, green furred inhabitants that the invading humans call "creechies" and keep in pens as little more than slave labor. Because the story is set in Le Guin's Hainish universe, the creechies (and several other non-terran populations) are humans, seeded on far flung planets in the distant past. The creechies make poor slaves, often dazed and sleepy, berated by their human foremen as lazy. The technologically advanced Earthmen despise the creechies, and based upon the studies done by their specialist Lyubov, they assume the natives are passive and entirely non-violent. Until the creechies begin to burn human bases to the ground and slaughter all the inhabitants. The rebellion is led creechie Selver, who had lived as a slave under the human invaders until his wife was raped to death and he was maimed. After Selver was saved by Luybov, he becomes a "dreamer", and then is acknowledged as a god. The twin influences of Selver and a particularly brutal Earthman named Davidson bring the gift of war and murder to the previously peaceful creechies who had until then resolved conflict with ritualized displays and singing contests. The main message of the story is the rise of indigenous peoples against encroaching cultural imperialism, with the creechies filling the role of, among others, the Native Americans in the United States, the Zulus and other tribes in Africa, and the Vietnamese in Vietnam, but this time their actions are not in vain. Their overwhelming numbers, combined with oversight of the Earthmen's actions by the other Hainish worlds, leads to the liberation of their world. But the story runs deeper than a mere resistance story, exploring the nature of cultural misunderstandings, and what it means to be human. Every time I read a Le Guin story, it reminds me what a brilliant writer she is, and this one is no exception.

In the early years of the Hugo Awards, Poul Anderson was a dominant writer, with at least one story appearing in every volume of The Hugo Winners, and the Anderson story featured in this one is Goat Song, a high tech retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The main character, named only Harper, sings disquieting songs that lament the loss of the woman he loves. He petitions the Dark Queen, who is the human interface of SUM, for the return of his dead lover. In Anderson's future, all of humanity is cared for, managed by, and controlled by the vast computer network of SUM, even to the point where an entire person's life is stored on discs worn about one's wrist that will allow SUM to heal almost any malady, and resurrect the dead at some future point in time when the world has been perfected. Intrigued by Harper's pre-SUM appeals to mythology, the Dark Queen takes him deep within SUM to question and study him, and grants his request when Harper promises to turn his considerable persuasive talents to promoting the divinity of SUM. But to test Harper, SUM says that his newly raised beloved will walk behind him out of the bowels of SUM, and insists as a test of his loyalty that he not turn and look to see if she is actually there. This being a retelling of the legend of Orpheus, Harper fails and turns against SUM, dedicating his life to destroying it. Through the story of Harpers' rebellion against SUM, Anderson returns to his favorite theme of human freedom, contrasting Harper's vision of an exciting but dangerous world in which humanity forges its own destiny with the safe and comfortable future that SUM promises. The story taps into both the yearnings of mythology, and the promises and dangers of technology. Harper wants those around him to rediscover their almost feral independence, but not simply for the purpose of returning to barbarism, but rather to give them the fire to explore and find their own way to the stars. Technology, Anderson is saying, is a tool, but should never be a master.

The saddest story in the collection, and one of the saddest science fiction stories I have read is The Meeting by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. Completed by Pohl after Kornbluth's death, the story starts with a parent night at a school for disabled children. Harry Vladek, having moved his family to be near the school, attends the event almost desperately hoping to hear that the school will help his mentally disabled son live something approximating a normal life. And when he leaves and returns home where his wife has been caring for their child, the source of his desperation is revealed. In the second half of the story, Vladek takes a phone call from a doctor who proposes to perform an experimental procedure upon his son. And as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that the proposal is a brain replacement in which the brain of a mentally healthy but physically dying child will be placed in his own physically healthy but mentally disabled child's body. In effect, he will gain a healthy child, but it won't be his child, even though he and his wife will continue to raise the resulting hybrid. One can feel the parents' frustration at having a grown child with the mind of an infant, but one can also feel the terrible anguish they feel at the prospect of going through with the operation. The story concludes with the choice unresolved, leaving the reader with the awful choice faced by the Vladeks.

Pohl and Kornbluth shared their award with R.A. Lafferty, whose story Eurema's Dam tied with The Meeting for the Best Short Story award. Lafferty tells the life story of Albert, the last of the dolts. He can't manage to do much of anything for himself, so he invents devices and machines to do things for him. He builds machines to eliminate pollution, to keep his accounts, to make teenagers behave, to write for him, and do pretty much everything else. Because of his personal incompetence, Albert is an outcast from society, berated even by his own machines. But because he is responsible for pretty much every invention in the world originated during his lifetime, he is honored with an award named after Eurema, the Greek goddess of invention. And this is the point of the story: that invention and creativity comes from misfits. Not from the people who fit in society. Not from the people who can handle all the tasks expected of them. From the failures, who must find a new way to make their way. I'm not sure I buy all of Lafferty's argument, but it does make for an interesting and in some places humorous story.

There are some works of short fiction that have so much going on in them that they get cluttered and seem rushed. But there are some works of short fiction that manage to pack that same amount into their pages and yet still manage to be sublime. The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for Alice B. Sheldon) is packed to the gills, and is also sublime. In the story a very young, very sad, not particularly bright, and grotesquely ugly girl named Burke tires to kill herself but before she can finish the job a corporation swoops in and makes her an offer she can't refuse: they "give" her a new body that is beautiful and graceful, and all she has to do is use the products they tell her to use on television. Her real body is essentially locked away in a closet and she is plugged in to a neural network to control her new body, dubbed "Delphi" via remote signals. The story has so many elements going on that almost any one of them could have carried the story on their own. Advertising is banned, but companies skirt the rules and advertise anyway. Burke is human, but hates herself, and can only be happy when she is wearing a robot body. Delphi is incredibly sexualized, made to be erotically enticing to anyone who sees her, and yet her own senses are deadened to save on the amount of bandwidth needed to control her, even to the point where it is implied that she has no sexual sensation at all. The wild imbalance of wealth, the inherent unreality of what passes for reality in popular entertainment, the passion of young love are all featured. The story barrels through to its seemingly inevitable tragic conclusion as the arrogance of youth and wealth intersect with the innocence of dimwitted love, with doubly fatal results. Sheldon somehow manages to jam all of this into an absolutely brilliant story.

Harlan Ellison normally writes excellent science fiction, but sometimes he transcends the genre and writes actual mythology. The Deathbird is one of those times. In the story, Ellison essentially takes on all of Judeo-Christian myth and turns it upside down, telling the entire tale from the perspective of the snake in the Garden of Eden. But as this is an Ellison story, it isn't just a linear narrative, the story unfolds in the form of quiz questions, pseudo-Bible passages, and short vignettes interlaced with a story in which Stark, the last man alive, and the titular Deathbird travel across a ruined Earth to confront the insane creature humans worshiped as God. The story builds to what the reader assumes will be a climatic confrontation, but in classic Ellison style, it turns out that the confrontation between Stark and God is merely an encounter between an adult and a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum. And stark isn't the petulant child. The story manages to deconstruct religion and do it in a witty and satirical manner. Science fiction is a genre that allows an author the freedom to poke fun at the sacred, or obliquely tackle a subject in a way that would be offensive to some if done directly, and The Deathbird is one of those instances. Because this is an Ellison story, the satire is blunt at times, but the humor masks the very real and very brutal savaging of foolish religious myths.

Ursula K. Le Guin's second contribution in this volume is The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. While Ellison's story deconstructs religion, and Le Guin's other story in the volume is a brutal critique of imperialism, this story is a cheerful but biting take down of utilitarianism. Omelas is a beautiful city with happy and virtuous citizens who live peaceful and joyous lives. Most of the story is taken up with loving descriptions of the city, its contented inhabitants, and the delightful pastoral surroundings. But then the story turns, describing a single child kept locked in a tiny, dark room, fed nothing but slop and grease, sitting in its own excrement, and terrified of the dirty mops left in the dank closet with him. Le Guin makes sure to tell the reader that the child has seen the light, and knows what the world is like outside, commenting on the pathetic pleas the child cries on those rare occasions when someone comes in the room, begging to be let out end promising to be good. And the terrifying truth of the story is that the child must be kept imprisoned in order to preserve the prosperity and happiness of Omelas. After showing the reader the beauty of the city, and the misery of the child, Le Guin takes the part of the citizens of the city and explains how they rationalize the situation: surely assuaging the misery of the child would result in much more total misery when the idyllic lives of Omelas' citizenry are irretrievably disrupted. But the reader recoils from this kind of transactional thinking when applied to a child's misery, and the entirely flawed premise of utilitarianism collapses on itself. The "out" that citizens of Omelas have that allows them to avoid being monsters who profit from the abuse and mistreatment of a child is to "walk away", but even that seems like a weak response in this case. By not overturning the system, and merely leaving the system behind, the walkers allow it to perpetuate, acquiescing in its continued torment of the doomed child, even if they refuse to actually profit from it. As with most of Le Guin's writing, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a thought-provoking and at times profoundly disturbing work.

A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin is another story about humans attempting to interact with and understand an alien culture. To a certain extent the story subverts the typical "understand an alien civilization" story, in that understanding the Shkeen seems to be more dangerous than not understanding them. Two "talents" named Robb and Lyanna are asked to travel to Shkeen by the human administrator of the human presence on the planet. They are both telepathic, but Lya is substantially more powerful than Robb. The Shkeen are a primitive but ancient culture that is far older than human culture, and which is unified by a single common religion. Once a Shkeen reaches the age of forty or so, they are "joined", a process in which they allow a parasite named a Greeshka to attach itself to them and slowly consume them. Eventually, a joined Shkeen makes their way to caverns outside the largest of the Shkeen cities and allows themselves to be entirely consumed by the massive Greeshka that dwell there. The humans have generally adopted a hands off policy, after all, they reason, various other alien cultures have strange practices and it is up to them to decide what they want to do. But humans have started converting to the Shkeen suicide cult, and administrator Valcarenghi is concerned by this, resulting in Robb and Lya's investigation. The plot proceeds fairly straightforwardly: exploring the bronze age Shkeen culture and its rituals, the intimate relationship between Robb and Lya, and the history of human presence of Shkeen. Eventually Lya's talent leads her to an understanding of the Shkeen religion, and understanding that Robb eventually shares, to his sorrow. For Lya, her choice is joyful, but for Robb her choice is acutely painful, and, when one thinks about it, seems to pose a danger to humanity's existence. The story is beautiful, tragic, joyful, sad, and foreboding all wrapped in to one package, and like the other stories in this volume, it is excellent.

Sometimes I think that Harlan Ellison is simply toying with his readers. Each of his stories is so different than his others in form, and yet each is so undeniably "Ellison" that it seems almost as if he is doing nothing more than experimenting in how many ways he can take you on a journey through his mind. In Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitiude 38 54' N, Longitude 77 00' W Ellison combines time travel, mysticism, particle physics, and werewolves into a story about the cost of wasted life and redemption. But Ellison doesn't just throw these things into the story. Instead, he gives hints and glimpses, tantalizing the reader with the story behind the story while keeping you engrossed in the story he is telling at the same time. The story itself is difficult to describe in a way that does it justice: a man who owns a fish that will not die and who may be a werewolf answers an advertisement from a company that may be run by time travelers, and asks them to locate the physical location of a metaphysical item so he can die. Once he has his answer, he gets a physicist friend of his to covertly manufacture a way to make a miniature copy of himself to search within himself for the thing he lost, and once he finds it, he realizes he doesn't need to die any more, and instead makes himself a repository for the unrealized dreams of a pair of women whose lives have been wasted. As with most Ellison stories, the story lies just on the edge of insanity and brilliance, and as usual, it lands just a hair on the side of brilliance.

The last, and weakest story in the collection is The Hole Man by Larry Niven, which is surprising since it is a hard science fiction story, and I am usually quite fond of hard science fiction stories. In the story, an expedition to Mars discovers an abandoned alien base, and sets up shop there to investigate its mysteries. This cramped living quarters and an odd alien device spark a conflict between the spit and polish mission commander Childrey and the disheveled and absent-minded physicist Lear. It seems that the aliens used gravity waves to communicate, and Lear suspects that to create them they used a captured quantum black hole, a notion that Childrey ridicules. Although we are told that Childrey is smart and understands what Lear is talking about, the way he behaves in the story seems to run counter to this assertion. And given that Childrey is supposed to be an experience and presumably well-educated space pilot, his incredulity that sets up the conflict and the final confrontation of the story seems entirely unbelievable. The science that underpins the story is interesting, but the story itself is so implausible that it just sort of falls apart. Even so, the story is carried by the interesting science, and as a result is still pretty good.

As with all of the Hugo Winners collections, this one is packed with good to great short fiction. Some of the stories, such as The Meeting, The Word for World Is Forest, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, and The Deathbird are superlative, while most of the others are just a hair behind them. The only mildly disappointing story in the volume is The Hole Man, and even that is a substantially better than average science fiction story. In short, this book is definitely worth reading and deserves a place on any science fiction fan's bookshelf.

Previous book in the series: The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 1) edited by Isaac Asimov

What are the Hugo Awards?

This volume contains the Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story winners for the Hugo Award for the years 1973, 1974, and 1975.

1972 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novella: The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 1)
1976 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novella: Home Is the Hangman by Roger Zelazny

1969 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Sharing of Flesh by Poul Anderson (reviewed in More Stories from the Hugo Winners, Volume II)
1976 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Borderland of Sol by Larry Niven

1972 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven (reviewed in The Hugo Winners: Volume 3, Book 1)
1976 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story: Catch That Zeppelin! by Fritz Leiber

1976 Locus Award Winner for Best Novelette: The New Atlantis by Ursula K. Le Guin

1973 Locus Award Winner for Best Short Story: Basilisk by Harlan Ellison
1975 Locus Award Winner for Best Short Story: The Day Before the Revolution by Ursula K. Le Guin

1972 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette: The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 3: Book 1)
1974 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette: Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand by Vonda N. McIntyre

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

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

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novelette

1973 Hugo Award Nominees
1974 Hugo Award Nominees
1975 Hugo Award Nominees

1973 Locus Award Nominees
1974 Locus Award Nominees
1975 Locus Award Nominees

1973 Nebula Award Nominees
1974 Nebula Award Nominees
1975 Nebula Award Nominees

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