Hugo Travels Through Time and Space

From 2023 in Chengdou, China back to 1970 in Heidelberg, Germany

Issue #47, Sunday 9 July, 2023

A fantastic landscape of a frozen lake, stark black and white colours, strange buildings

Bookish News

2023 Hugo Ballot Now Available

I won’t give the entire list, which is available from the Chengou Worldcon website here. But I’ll list the major fiction categories.

The Best Novel category is a sad disappointment to me, I have to say. Not one of the three novels I nominated made the list, and I can’t say that I’m at all excited by any of the books which did get there. I’ve said it before, but this year’s ballot reinforces it: the Hugo Award voters and myself have parted ways.

Best Novel

No sign of Sea of Tranquility, Babel or The Mountain in the Sea… That’s very sad.

Best Novella

Best Novelette

Best Short Story

My Reading

Hugo Awards 1970

Almost all of my reading since the last issue has been for the purposes of our podcast. Every so often we run a segment called “The Hugo Time Machine”, in which we go back and look at the works nominated for the Hugo Award in a particular year. This time it was 1970, and so I’ve been reading the following books.

Macroscope by Piers Anthony

I have to start with a confession. I didn’t actually read this book, or at least, I didn’t read all of it. I don’t know how many words it is, but it felt like a very long book. About half-way through, maybe a little more, I started flipping pages, flip, flip, flip, trying to get back to what seemed like the main core of the story. Eventually I reached the point where I just gave up and skimmed through, glancing at pages here and there to see if it had improved. It hadn’t. And then I found myself at the end. I read the last page. No joy there, either. So of the five novels nominated for the 1970 Hugo, this one definitely ranked last for me.

But let me at least give you an outline of the story and an indication of why I found it so unreadable.

We start with a young man called Ivo. He’s of mixed race, with darkish skin. As the novel opens, he’s being followed. The setting is of some American town or city, and the time is meant, I guess, to be in the 1980s or 90s, in other words, a few decades in the future from when the book was written. Ivo fears that the beefy White man following him means him harm. It turns out that he’s wrong, but there’s lots of (completely unnecessary) mystery about what’s going on as Ivo is driven to Cape Kennedy and shot off in a rocket to meet up with someone he used to know called Brad who is aboard a space station housing a fantastic instrument called the Macroscope.

I use the word “fantastic” advisedly, because due to some hand-wavy scientific nonsense, the Macroscope can see into the Universe without paying any regard to the inverse-square law, and can thus see in incredible detail (again I use the word “incredible” advisedly) objects hundreds of light-years away. Solid objects don’t block it, either. So if they turn it on the Earth, they can clearly see the print on a book someone is reading inside a library (the Macroscope, apparently can also adjust to match the rotation speed of the Earth while it does this). And—gosh wow!—they even can do the same for civilisations on planets orbiting other stars, and so read alien books!

The scientists operating it have also discovered that there are the equivalent of galactic radio stations broadcasting knowledge using the same technology on which the Macrosocope operates. One of these stations, or channels, has become known as the “Destroyer” because if you’re intelligent enough to understand it, it fries your brain. Less smart people are safe, it seems.

Then there’s a lot of political goings-on. Brad and a senator have a macho stand-off and decide to test their mental powers against the Destroyer. Both of them get their brains fried and then Ivo and a bunch of other hijack the Macroscope and head off for the planet Neptune. There Ivo is able to (safely) tap into the galactic radio channels and they discover amazing technology which lets them leave the solar system entirely and make huge many-light-year jumps through space in an instant, from where they can look back at the Earth, but of course they are now hundreds of light-years, in fact thousands of light-years away from Earth now, and so they’re looking back at the earth as it was thousands of years ago, and so there’s a long boring segment where Ivo is projected back to live in ancient Tyre and...

That’s when I started skipping. And I haven’t even mentioned the huge slab of the book which appears to be based on the idea that astrology really works, and it’s all tied up with the Destroyer and....

My tip: give this one a solid miss.

Up the Line by Robert Silverberg

I don’t have a lot to say about this one (Perry reviewed it on the podcast), but I suppose it’s entertaining enough.

The book is told in the first-person by one Jud Elliott, who has recently dropped out of a job as a law clerk and joins up with the Time Service as a tourist guide. Yes, in this period well-heeled people can pay to be taken back in time to visit famous places and events (one problem: the area around the Crucifixion is becoming very crowded with tourists pretending to be locals).

Lots of time-traveling, mostly to or nearby sixth-century Byzantium (about which Silverberg revels in telling you about in great and often boring detail). Lots of bonking of his charges, and of women of the past, by the protagonist, and because of that he gets himself into a complex time paradox which eventually leads to his demise.

Ho hum.

Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

Like Macroscope, this one is set a few decades in the future from when the book was written, let’s say the start of the twenty-first century.

In this one, Spinrad seems to have felt that writing trendy New Wave science fiction came down to using a lot of swear words, describing sexual intercourse in gross detail, and having lots of long stream-of-consciousness passages. As if James Joyce hadn’t done all of that in the 1920s in Ulysses.

So much for the writing style, which I found very irritating. Let’s get on to the story. The book’s titular protagonist is one Jack Barron, the host of a hugely popular weekly television show called Bug Jack Barron, the idea being that viewers can call in with some topic they are incensed about and “bug” Jack Barron about it. Barron positions himself as the saviour of the common man or woman, he’s on their side, despite, of course, being filthy rich and as cynical as hell. He boasts of the size of his audience—100 million people! The whole thing is eerily prescient of the kind of television show run by men like Tucker Carlson on Fox News.

Anyway, it seems that Jack Barron wasn’t always this kind of character. In the past he was a left-wing progressive, friends with Black leaders like Lukas Greene, who is now the Governor of Mississippi, and deeply in love with his wife Sara, who joined in his progressive dreams. But six years ago he started his TV show and, so far as Lukas and Sara are concerned, sold out to the Man. Sara left him, but it appears that Jack can’t let her go, and as a substitute, has lots of sex with a series of women who mean nothing to him, though he frequently annoys them by calling out Sara’s name at the moment of climax.

The actual plot of the novel comes from Barron’s interactions, on screen and in real life, with a man called Benedict Howards. Howards operates a hugely profitable outfit called the Foundation for Human Immortality, which for a hefty fee is freezing human bodies in perpetuity, with the hope that one day science will have advanced enough to thaw them out and fix whatever was wrong with them—a common SF trope of the time. They are also working on actual immortality treatments which will stop human aging forever, but claim to have made no progress as yet.

Barron infuriates Howards by running segments critical of the Foundation on his show, and doubling-down when Howards objects. This prompts Howards to develop a cunning plan: bribe Barron with enough goodies that he’ll join Howards’ cause and help him get a law passed through Congress which will give the Foundation an effective monopoly.

But what would be enough of a bribe to do this? Barron is, after all, rich. Well, there’s a free Freezer contract, for a start. And Howards engineers it that Sara, Barron’s estranged wife, comes back to him on condition that she get him to agree to do Howards’ bidding. Her bribe to do this? Another free Freezer contract. The fear of death is described over and over again as a motivating factor controlling the behaviour of all of the major characters, in Howards’ case to an obsessive degree.

Then we go one step further, because it seems that behind the scenes the Foundation has developed an effective immortality treatment, but that fact, and how it works, is a deep secret. Offering true immortality to Jack and Sara is, it seems, the ultimate bribe, and one they both eventually agree to take.

However, there’s an ugly secret behind how the treatment works (but you can see it coming a mile away), so ugly that the knowledge will enough, Howards is certain, to force Jack and Sara into doing his bidding after they have first unknowingly had the treatment. He doesn’t really know Jack Barron, though, does he?

Look, this was all readable enough, but it’s a book very much set in the thinking and culture of the late 1960s and it hasn’t aged well.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Again, I don’t have a lot to say, because Perry covered it well in the podcast.

The book is subtitled “The Children’s Crusade”. Nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award in 1970, it is nevertheless only barely science fiction, though it certainly has plenty of SF elements to it. Really, it’s a very powerful anti-war novel, detailing in fictional form Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war who survived the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, an event now considered as a war crime (rightly, in my view). There were no military targets in Dresden, but the Allies nevertheless burned it to the ground, and some 135,000 people died in one night.

There’s a very dark thread of humour throughout the book; and perhaps it’s trying to show now only the tragedy but the essential absurdity of war.

A great American classic, however you want to categorise it.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book stands out head and shoulders above the other novels nominated for the Hugo Award in 1970. It’s deservedly a classic of the genre and will I think always remain so. But as you’ll hear later, I do have one issue with it.

Le Guin excelled at world-building, if we understand that to mean not merely the physical characteristics of a setting, but also the social structures and culture of a world. Here she does a magnificent job of doing all of that.

The planetary environment she depicts is fascinating in itself: the world of Gethen, colloquially called “Winter” by the investigators who discovered it. On the edge of an ice age, with its seasons created not by the axial tilt of the planet but by the eccentricity of its orbit around its sun, which means if you think about it, that everywhere on the planet is cold at the same time, there’s no division, as on Earth, between northern and southern hemispheres (I wonder if that’s a metaphor, hmmm). In deep winter, cities are almost buried in snow and travel is almost impossible.

There are several different nations on Gethen, and the author describes two of these in some detail, the monarchy of Karhide, run by a half-crazy king; and the Soviet-style Orgoreyn, complete with its secret police.

The story is told from the first-person point of view of two characters, the Envoy, Genly Ai, and the Karhide politician Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the core plot is about their changing relationship. Genly Ai is a representative of the Ekumen, which is a star-spanning community of humans. The human form, it seems, was spread eons ago to a large number of stellar systems by some society now long-gone. Gethen is one of those systems, but like many others, has now no idea that other civilisations, or the Ekumen, exist. Genly Ai is a lone human, an Envoy, sent to the planet to carefully re-establish contact. Firstly, of course, he has to be believed and his message accepted. This doesn’t prove to be easy. Estraven, who has been speaking to the king on his behalf, abruptly tells Genly that he can no longer help him. Genly has been distrustful of him from the start, and now he feels betrayed.

Now, before we go any further, we have to talk about sex. There’s one huge difference between Gethen and the societies of humans on other worlds. On Gethen, there is only a single gender, not two. Humans for most of the time are asexual, but periodically, every five or six weeks or so, enter a state of estrus or sexual activity and fertility. The Gethenians call this state that of “kemmer”. An individual, while in this state and with a partner similarly in estrus, can express male or female genitalia. Which gender they take on is at random, so any individual and can either impregnate or be impregnated. A person can have children “of the flesh”, so be what we would call the “mother”, or else their sexual partner can bear the child, and so the first person would be what we call the “father”.

Le Guin deals well with this fascinating idea, and its ramifications for society. She introduces the concept very carefully, introducing us to the idea in a slow, subtle way: we get little hints, we get legends and myths, it’s really quite an education as to how she does it, no great expository lumps, until once we are properly prepared, when we do get such a lump, in the form of a report from an earlier Ekumen investigator (before the Envoy is sent, these investigators operated in secret from the locals).

This genderless society is of course, a key characteristic of the book, and one which is why it has deservedly attracted so much interest and attention. But in re-reading the book, probably for at least the fourth time, I was struck by one issue affecting the plot of the book, which is as a whole is a well-depicted adventure story. Genly Ai’s mission in Karhide initially fails, Estraven falls out of favour with the king and is sent into exile, Genly Ai gets into even more trouble in the neighbouring state of Orgoreyn and ends up in a prison camp, from which Estraven is able to free him. A long, long section of the book, carefully researched and beautifully written, is the journey which Genly Ai and Estraven make across a frozen section of the world in mid-winter, trying to escape Orgoreyn and return to Karhide. And of course it’s also about the changing relationship between these two people, forced closely together, a relationship which on Genly Ai’s side is badly misguided.

Now I’m going to do what some may consider to be blasphemy, and criticise this classic work.

Le Guin wants to say that the dual-gender nature of Estraven has prompted Ai’s misunderstanding and initial hostility to him, but I’m not sure that I buy it. Here’s the key passage, from Ai’s point of view. They are stuck in a tent on the ice, and Estraven has gone into kemmer:

I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me entire personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.

I don’t think this works, quite honestly. And the key reason is Genly Ai himself. I thought this the previous time I read the book. As I say, I think I’ve read it at least four times in total, and truly, I love it. But in a book which focuses so heavily on issues of gender, the problem is that Genly Ai himself seems to be so genderless, so asexual.

Consider: this is a young man (we’re told so several times), presumably with normal sexual appetites. Now he’s been isolated for nearly two years from his own kind, from women and men, but nowhere in the book, ever, do we get any sense of him experiencing any form of sexual frustration or tension, any sense that he is attracted by any Gethenian, though many of them are described as being good-looking. And here at the most crucial moment of the book, when Estraven goes into kemmer and appears to Genly Ai’s eyes as a woman, we get no feeling that he is aroused or tempted by this, not in the least. But if Genly Ai is a completely asexual human, then why is he afraid of seeing Estraven as a woman? Is he afraid of being sexually attracted to someone he’s been thinking of as a man? OK, but then why aren’t we, even at this critical moment, shown that attraction? Even if you think that perhaps Genly Ai is gay, it makes even less sense, because why the fear? I just don’t think it works.

Nevertheless, despite all that, this remains a great novel, and as I’ve said it definitely deserved to be the winner of the Hugo and Nebula in 1970 and to have become the great classic of the genre that it is.

Currently Reading

The Will of the Many by James Islington

I’ve agreed to review this book, but I was staggered by its size when it arrived. About 5 cm thick, 620 pages, small type. Goodness knows how many words. Might take me a while! Still, what I’ve read so far has me interested in where it’s going.

The Russia House by John Le Carré

I’m actually listening to this one. After many years during which I only ever listened to podcasts while I walked, drove, or did boring work in the garden, I’ve rediscovered the joys of audiobooks. I hadn’t read this Le Carré before, enjoying it so far.

And that’s about all I have room and time for this issue. See you in about a fortnight!

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