Hugo Award Winners – Good, Not Great

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 liked, but didn’t leave a lasting impression. I know a lot of people will contend that these are some of the best sci-fi books in history, and that’s great. I probably wouldn’t even argue about some of them, they just didn’t impact me as much as other books did. This is one of the longest sections, so let’s get started:

The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester

When I started going through the Hugos, I figured that I’d go in chronological order, so I read this book really early. I didn’t have much experience reading sci-fi, which made it a little confusing. I really liked the ending, even if I didn’t really understand the events leading up to it. If I read it again, I think it would probably be on a different list, maybe with The City and the City, or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, since they’re also a combination of science fiction and mystery. The only reason I’m putting this one here is because I liked the idea of demolition so much.

Double Star (1956) by Robert Heinlein

I thought this book was fun. Nothing more, nothing less. It certainly wasn’t groundbreaking in any way I could tell, but the premise is interesting. I’ve long thought that science fiction is about exploring humanity by comparing it to something else, whether that be aliens, future humans, alternate timelines, etc. (as compared to literary fiction, which explores humanity through introspection rather than comparison). Double Star seems to take it a little further, exploring what individuality means by comparing a single individual to an actor playing that individual. It’s done in a light and entertaining way, but it asks the question ‘could anyone be replaced?’

Dune (1966) by Frank Herbert

A lot of people hold this book up as a standard in science fiction. I don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I only read Dune and none of the sequels. Maybe it’s because it was one of the first sci-fi books I read and didn’t have the experience to understand what makes it great. Maybe I’m crazy and it really is as good as it’s made out to be, and I’m the problem. I don’t know, but I didn’t think it met the lofty expectations that I had. Don’t get me wrong, the book is fine, I just don’t think it deserves to be in the conversation of best sci-fi book ever.

This Immortal (1966) by Roger Zelazny

I probably liked this book better than any other Zelazny I’ve read. I liked the Conrad and thought that the story was solid, but the book wasn’t particularly memorable. I recently read a synopsis to refresh my memory, and was surprised to find that I didn’t remember the main plot at all, but I did remember the setting. The Earth that Zelazny creates is vivid and interesting. I should probably read this book again, but since I have never really liked the author, I might not get around to it for a while.

Ringworld (1971) by Larry Niven

It’s really hard for me to write about this book. I like it, I really do, but I kind of like it in the same way I like the movie Batman & Robin. It’s a train wreck, but an entertaining one. Likewise, in this book the ideas are fantastic, from the ringworld itself, to the puppet-masters, to genetic luck, everything is there for a great adventure. The problem comes in the execution. This book is not very well written. The characters aren’t great and the plot is just kind of okay, but it’s a lot of fun. I never read any of the sequels, mostly because I’m not sure I could handle it if they have the same quality of writing with a less engaging story.

The Dispossessed (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin

Another book with a great idea, but only okay execution. I really liked the cultures LeGuin builds in this book. They may have some practical flaws, but they’re interesting, and the clash between them is great. I wish there had been more on the actual math that the plot centers around. I finished the book feeling a little disappointed that so little was revealed about the possible solution. This is probably one of the better books on this list.

Dreamsnake (1979) by Vonda N. McIntyre

The ending to this was excellent. I didn’t see it coming, the idea was solid, and the resolution was satisfying. The rest of the book was pretty good as well, but it wasn’t as memorable. I don’t remember much about any of the book aside from the ending. That’s the biggest flaw. As interesting as the idea was, the story didn’t engage me enough to stick with me.

Foundation’s Edge (1983) by Isaac Asimov

I really enjoyed the Foundation trilogy, but I wasn’t too sure about the sequels. This one is okay. I don’t remember it particularly well, but I liked the basic premise. The real problem with this book, and even more so it’s sequel, Foundation and Earth, is that it tries way too hard to incorporate all of Asimov’s other works into a single universe. All in all, when I go through the series again, I’ll probably stick with the original trilogy and the prequels.

Startide Rising (1984) by David Brin

I re-read this recently, and I liked it much better the second time around. I don’t think there’s anything spectacular about the novel, but the world is fantastic, the characters are solid, and the story moves nicely. One of the best parts of the entire Uplift series is how Brin writes the uplifted species. The dolphins in the book are both very obviously from Earth, and very obviously not human. There are problems, of course. The plot involving the Streaker is a little slow, and surprisingly unimportant to the crisis of the book as a whole. Tom Orley is a bit too perfect, and the side-story involving the mini-branch of the library is a little out of place. That’s why I put it here, it’s a solid book, and highly enjoyable, but it’s lacking a few key things that would have made it great.

Hyperion (1990) by Dan Simmons

This was one of the very first books I read when starting my list. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but it definitely had an impact. I vividly remember thinking this book was kind of like a sci-fi Canterbury Tales, where a bunch of travelers simply share their stories. Now, of course, I see that it was much more than that, but my lack of experience in reading science fiction didn’t let me see it at the time. I really need to go back and read this again.

Doomsday Book (1993) by Connie Willis

This book is super depressing, but in a really good way. This was my first introduction to Willis’s method of time travel, and I loved it. I thought the idea of a robust timeline that self-corrects, and even prevents certain travel was fantastic. This novel, about the Black Plague, is definitely not for someone looking for a light read. The history in the book is excellent, and Willis obviously does her research, probably better than any other author I’ve ever read. The pace is a little slow, but it works very well and contributes to the story. The weight of the conflict and the parallels between the past events and present events are great. I was tempted to move this up in my list, but despite how good the book is, I can’t say that it’s particularly enjoyable. The subject matter was just a little too heavy.

The Diamond Age (1996) by Neal Stephenson

This was an odd book. It was the first Stephenson I read, and I didn’t like it when I started. It took me a while to get into the feel of the cyberpunk genre. By the time I was half way through I was more comfortable with the style and things started making more sense. Unlike many of the other books that I’ve talked about, this was one where the idea was just okay, but the story and writing were good. I liked the characters and I liked the world. I wasn’t overly fond of the ending, but the journey was entertaining enough that the book was still enjoyable.

A Deepness in the Sky (2000) by Vernor Vinge

I was debating as to whether this book, or A Fire upon the Deep would be here. Ultimately I had to go with this one. The main reason is that the story is just a bit better. I didn’t like the Spiders as much as the Tines but they were still an interesting species, and OnOff was a far more interesting world. The plot is good, though it does stretch belief at times. The saving grace is that Vinge’s background is a mathematics and computer science professor, so at least I know that the programming magic that takes place is theoretically sound.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2001) by J.K. Rowling

I know I’m in the minority here, but I thought this was one of the worst books in the series. That’s not to say it isn’t good, just that I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the other books. I think the reason this book bothered me so much is because it’s where Harry starts acting like a teenager. He is a teenager, so it makes sense, but he’s an obnoxious teenager. My comparison would probably be that this is the book where Harry becomes Luke Skywalker, he has some talent, but he’s kind of whiny, and still depends way too much on other people without actually giving them the credit they deserve.

Hominids (2003) by Robert J. Sawyer

I really liked this book. I thought the premise was fun and interesting, the characters were interesting and believable, and the story is solid. There are only two things that kept me from listing it as a better book: 1) I never read any of the sequels. As interesting as the idea is, I didn’t really have any desire to expand on it and read Humans or Hybrids. 2) Sawyer didn’t balance the two worlds enough. He tried. He tried really hard to point out the pros and cons of the two realities, but in the end it still comes across as a Neanderthal utopia and that humans have squandered the planet.

Paladin of Souls (2004) by Lois McMaster Bujold

In general, I really like Bujold’s books. She’s probably my favorite author at the moment. I read this book before I had read any of her other series, and I didn’t care for it as much as it’s predecessor, The Curse of Chalion. I like the religion/magic of the world, and I even liked most of the characters, but the story just fell a little flat for me. It was good, but that’s it. That’s probably how I’d describe the entire book, it was good, but there wasn’t anything in it that was great.

Blackout/All Clear (2011) by Connie Willis

I’m not quite sure how I feel about these books. I want to say that I liked them better than Doomsday Book, but at the same time, I don’t think I actually did. Some of that may be the setting. For me, the middle ages was far more interesting than World War II. I also felt like the surrounding events weren’t quite as interesting in this book as they were in some of Willis’s other books. Don’t get me wrong, Blackout and All Clear are wonderful. I think the only real criticism I have for these books is that they were a little too long, but despite the fact that the writing was great, they just didn’t catch my attention as well as some of her other books.

The Three-Body Problem (2015) by Cixin Liu

This book was a ride. It shifts from mystery to hard sci-fi, back to mystery, then to political drama, and back again. It’s a solid book with a lot of insight into Chinese history. The characters are solid, as is the story. I read through it pretty quickly, and I’m glad I did. There are a lot of threads that need to be wrapped up in the end, and Liu does an admirable job of connecting everything together. It’s one of those books that I wish had been a little longer.


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