One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was about my thoughts on every Hugo Award winning novel. I didn’t write much about any of the books, I just placed them into categories. Now, I’m going back through each of those categories and giving some more in-depth thoughts on the books. This post is about the books that I thought were just okay. For me, these books were mostly forgettable (so my comments will probably be shorter than some of my other posts). I didn’t see anything in them that made them great. I know a lot of people will disagree with me on some of these, and I could probably be persuaded to give a few of these a second chance. This is one of the longest sections, so here’s my list:
A Case of Conscience (1959) by James Blish
This book probably had a much bigger impact in its time than it had with me when I read it. I can now look back and see that it likely won the Hugo for breaking new ground, but I wasn’t that impressed with the book itself. Like many of the other books on this list, A Case of Conscience falls into the realm of an idea that’s better than it’s execution. The premise of the book is great, a religious scientist who’s confronted with something that contradicts his theology. It seems very simple, but it’s not, and Blish does a decent job of exploring the questions that arise from the situation, but while he tries, I was left wanting more from the book.
Stranger in a Strange Land (1962) by Robert Heinlein
I read this book shortly after finishing Starship Troopers, and I was really excited to read it. I had heard it was Heinlein’s best and that it was very influential (albeit not always in a good way). I started reading it and I really liked the first half. I loved the way that Michael viewed humans and Earth culture. Then things changed. The second half of the book took a very different tone. Michael was no longer a stranger, but a leader and that shift ruined the book for me. I understand why the shift takes place, but it took away the part of the book that I enjoyed. I had to list this book here because as much as I enjoyed the first part, the second half dropped the overall book to mediocre.
The Man in the High Castle (1963) by Philip K. Dick
This book was probably the first alternate history sci-fi novel I had ever read. I don’t remember too much about it, but I do remember being really confused through most of the book. The most confusing part of it was the book within the book. I didn’t have any experience with alternate history, so having yet another timeline in the book was too much. I should probably go through this again now that I’m more comfortable with the genre, not to mention having read a lot more of Dick’s works.
The Wanderer (1965) by Fritz Leiber
I thought the idea of a random planet just appearing near Earth was great. The effects the planet had on Earth and its people was a lot of fun. The reason this book wasn’t any higher is that I didn’t find much substance to anything else in the book. The idea was great, but the characters, story, and writing were all pretty forgettable.
Lord of Light (1968) by Roger Zelazny
I am fully aware that I did not understand many of the nuances of this book when I read it. I wasn’t very familiar with Buddhist history or Hindu theology, so I missed a lot of the subtler aspects of the story. Having said that, I don’t really care for Zelazny. I had heard a lot of great things about him. I read this and the first half of the Chronicles of Amber, and I just can’t see the appeal. His writing is fine, but there’s something about his style that just bores me.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1970) by Ursula K. Le Guin
I don’t really understand why this book is so highly regarded. My only guess is that it dealt with gender issues when doing so was somewhat taboo. I thought that this books was pretty standard science fiction. The story was okay, The characters were okay. The world was okay, and the ideas were okay. I didn’t find anything in the book to be excellent, but nothing was bad either.
The Forever War (1976) by Joe Haldeman
I felt like this book was similar to The Wanderer, the idea is fantastic. Following a soldier that has to fight in a war that takes generations due to relativistic speed is awesome, but beyond the basic idea, I don’t remember too much about the book. I remember enjoying the cultural shifts that Mandella only sees in glimpses, and I liked him as a character, but I don’t remember much else. It’s sad too, because this was one of the Hugo winners that I was really excited about reading.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1977) by Kate Wilhelm
This is another book that was just forgettable. For a few years after reading it, anytime I looked up the Hugo winners to see what books I still had to read I had to skim a synopsis of this one to confirm I had already checked it off. The idea of exploring the effects of long term repopulation through cloning is fine, but I don’t think it’s very easy to execute, especially when trying to cover almost the entire history of the process.
Fountains of Paradise (1980) by Arthur C. Clarke
This book was my first introduction to the idea of a space elevator. I thought it was interesting in fiction, but not that compelling. As I continued reading, however, I became aware that the idea is legitimate and that Clarke was speculating on what could actually happen. The book became much more interesting at that point. The biggest problem that I had with this book (as with many others I’ve listed here) is that the story and characters didn’t support the idea. I liked the premise of the novel, but the execution seemed lacking. I will add that this is one of the few books on this list that I want to give another chance.
A Fire Upon the Deep (1993) by Vernor Vinge
Vinge always has interesting ideas, but there’s something about his style that keeps him from being excellent. I’ve yet to figure out what it is. This book was the first of his I’d read, and I liked it. It was a little too long, but the characters were solid, the plot was interesting, and the universe was complex (maybe a little too complex). Probably the best part of the book is the Tines. The fact that Vinge was able to write a collective consciousness species that actually made sense is impressive.
Forever Peace (1998) by Joe Haldeman
I thought it was a little sad that this book wasn’t as good as The Forever War. I was somewhat expecting it to be a pseudo-sequel, but it’s not. This book takes a lot of its ideas from other works. The concept of jacking in reminded me of Neuromancer, and the ultimate solution to war was reminiscent of The Forever Machine. I don’t remember the story of this book as well as those others, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s on this list. I feel like Forever Peace tried to blend a lot of different ideas together, but didn’t really contribute anything new to any of them.
American Gods (2002) by Neil Gaiman
This was the first Gaiman book I read, and I wish it wasn’t. Everything else I’ve read of his has been great, but this book kind of soured me on him. The story and characters are excellent, but the sex and violence in the book are so graphic that it was hard for me to get through. What made it worse was that some of the scenes were gratuitous. I don’t mind them much if they have a purpose in the story, but I didn’t feel like that was the case here.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2005) by Susanna Clarke
My goodness was this book slow. Not only that, but it’s huge. Normally, I don’t really care for that, but it really worked in this case. Clarke’s world thrives on that slow pace and it fits the mood and characters perfectly. The main reason why I don’t have this book on any of my better lists is because of the plot. This book almost feels like a prologue to the world rather than a full story. That’s kind of weird for me to type since the book is almost 800 pages, but that’s how I felt at the end.
Rainbow’s End (2007) by Vernor Vinge
Another Vinge, and I felt the same way about this book as I did A Fire Upon the Deep. I really liked the ideas in the book, but the execution lacked something. This book doesn’t take place in the same Zones of Thought universe as Vinge’s other novels, and I think that helped me. Having this book take place closer to home made the world a bit more relatable and the characters a bit more sympathetic, but like his other works, I thought the world was more interesting than the actual story.
The Windup Girl (2010) by Paolo Bacigalupi
I had a hard time getting into this book, but I liked it once I did. The world that Bacigalupi created is difficult to understand and has a lot of complexity, and it was wonderful to get into it. The big problem that I had was that I didn’t feel like the characters were the best lens into the world. I didn’t really get attached to any of them.
The City & the City (2010) by China Mieville
I really liked the premise of the book, but it felt a little too much like literary fiction rather than science fiction. The story was engaging, the mystery was solid, the characters were great. I feel like I really should have liked this book a lot more than I did. It took me a while to figure out exactly how the cities worked (though I think that’s intentional), but once I did it became fascinating how Mieville described the people in the cities and how they are taught to behave. What made it even more fascinating is that it was believable.