Archive for the ‘Hugo Award’ Tag

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1965

For the first time since beginning this series of essays, I find myself dealing with a new-to-me book. In the early 1980s I made it a project to read Hugo-winning novels (and short stories) in an effort to better understand the genre that inspired me to write fiction. During that earlier effort, I was unable to locate a copy of the 1965 winner. The book had apparently gone out of print (I was working in a bookstore at the time and couldn’t special-order a copy for myself), and the few copies I found in used bookstores were either too expensive, or in such bad shape that I passed them by. I always meant to bridge this gap, and this time around was determined to do so. Fortunately, during the intervening years the book was brought back into print, and so tracking down a copy through an online source proved no challenge. At long last, I could read the eleventh novel to win the Hugo Award. After all that time and effort, I suppose it sort of figures that this book doesn’t measure up to those preceding it.

The Wanderer is a tale of disaster on a planetary scale. During a lunar eclipse, a rogue planet suddenly appears in the solar system, so close to the Earth and the Moon that tidal forces are able to tear the Moon apart. The same tidal forces devastate Humanity, creating flood tides of Biblical proportions, triggering massive earthquakes, and setting off super-volcanic eruptions. As civilization is hammered by catastrophes, survivors on Earth and a lunar base seek to unravel the mystery of the Wanderer, as they all come to call the rogue planet. The hardships experienced on Earth are seen through the eyes of survivors scattered around the globe.

As interesting as the premise of this novel surely is, I had quite a bit of trouble getting into the story. There are a lot of points of view used, but there is a lack of consistency in the way they are developed. Three subplots are strongly developed and a number of others weave in and out of the main flow, apparently to add details to illustrate the horrors being inflicted on the people of Earth. Many of these subplots appear and disappear sporadically, and only those that involve the deaths of the characters involved are resolved. One of the throw-away subplots ends with what stands as the worst sex scene I’ve ever encountered as a reader of science fiction. These partially developed subplots ultimately failed to support the story, and left me feeling more distracted than informed. It’s as if the author (and the editor) couldn’t quite decide which story to tell. Two such subplots could have accomplished the job; a less-is-more editorial approach would have greatly improved the structure of the book.

Improved it, but perhaps not rescued it from the cardboard, heavily stereotyped characters that inhabit this tale. Remember how people reacted to the dialog between characters in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones? The characters and their interactions in this novel have that sort of awkwardness. And then there are the aliens responsible for the mess who, when the reader gets to know them, come across as little better than cartoonish.

By the time I was finished with The Wanderer, my reaction was one of puzzlement. This is not what I would call a very well-executed novel, especially when I compare it to Way Station, the previous year’s winner, or with either Dune or This Immortal, the winners (in a tie) of the best-novel Hugo the following year. Was the year in which The Wanderer first saw print a poor year for science fiction? That’s frankly hard to believe. And yet this imperfect book, written by an author who has done much stronger work (including The Big Time which brought a Hugo award to Leiber in 1958) took the honors in 1965. Fame is a fickle thing, and the ways in which it is bestowed often make little sense in retrospect. This is apparently as true in science fiction as it is with any form of entertainment.

This one disappointed me. I expected more of Leiber, being familiar with his work, and felt that The Wanderer fell short of the mark he usually hits. It isn’t a book I’ll ever read again, and as this review makes plain, isn’t one I’d recommend unless you share my desire to read all of the Hugo winners. Or unless you’re curious to see what it is about this book that makes it seem like such a train wreck to me. In which case, read it! I will never, in any of these reviews, tell you that a book is “bad,” or worse, heap venom and scorn on a work just because I don’t like it. If the book fails for me, it might be me and not the book at all. It may be that many others see this book the way I do, but in 1965 readers of science fiction saw The Wander in a very different way. They bestowed upon it the highest honor we have for science fiction. Who was right? Does that even matter? All I can tell you is that the book didn’t work for me and why I felt it failed. In other words, I didn’t like it. To go from saying “I didn’t like it,” to the conclusion that it’s a “bad book” that no one else should read has always seemed to me to be a step too far.

Hope and Melancholy   1 comment

Thoughts Inspired by Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1964

Growing up in the 1960s was a peculiar thing. We were surrounded, as children, by such a mix of confidence and anxiety, high adventure and social unrest, lofty visions loudly proclaimed and horrible nightmares manipulated to manufacture fear – and control. Such was American society in the Cold War. As a pre-teen growing up in that time, I sometimes had nightmares in which tornados, often a clear and present danger in rural Illinois, transformed into the mushroom clouds of nuclear destruction. I didn’t fully understand the nature of the danger, but I could feel the uneasiness, the anxiety, and sometimes outright fear in the adults around me, and images of “The Bomb” were commonplace. The black-and-white B-movies I watched on TV were often tales inspired by the mutant consequences of radioactive disasters. And there were all those duck-and-cover exercises at school, cleverly concealed as “tornado drills.” Our culture was saturated by the fear that the next big war really would be the war to end all wars, because there would be no one left to fight another. Somewhere in my memories of those years I recall telling an uncle that I wanted to be an astronomer if I grew up. I remember this because great concern was expressed over my use of the word “if.”

I was barred from watching the evening news for some time, after that one.

The science fiction of those days, film and print, was heavy with variations on a theme of ultimate war and its consequences. You see this in the novels that won the early Hugo Awards: Bester’s The Demolished Man is set in a post-apocalyptic future; Heinlein’s Starship Troopers depicts a civilization that rose following World War III. These books and others like them at least contain a note of optimism; as in wars past, we survive and rebuild. It’s an optimistic  assumption that shows these authors had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. Of course, to be fair, very few people did. More brutally honest is A Canticle for Leibowitz, which depicts the long and agonizing rebirth of a civilization doomed, by its failure to learn the lessons of history, to die again. So many novels, award winners and those passed over, assumed such a war would come, and tried to imagine the consequences of a thing that truly defied imagination. It is not, by its nature, an uplifting body of literature.

In the midst of this, in 1963, Clifford D. Simak added his own take on the troubles of those times, a book that stands in powerful contrast to so many other sci-fi tales from the Sixties. Way Station, winner of the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is the story of a man who survived the worst of the American Civil War, and who finds himself, shortly after, recruited to run a relay station for a galactic civilization. This civilization uses a strange form of teleportation to bridge the vastness of interstellar space, and knit a multitude of species into one star-spanning community. Enoch Wallace has hardly aged at all in the hundred years that followed, sustained by an aspect of the galactic technology for which he is Earth’s only, and completely unknown, custodian. Unfortunately, after a century of meeting and befriending hundreds of alien beings from dozens of species and cultures, Enoch’s quiet existence as station keeper is threatened. Someone from a government agency has realized Enoch is the same man who came home from the Civil War long ago. And in coming to the aid of an abused deaf/mute girl, Enoch has come into conflict with her family, and drawn to himself exactly the wrong sort of attention. Discord in the galactic civilization threatens to shut down his way station, leaving him the choice of being abandoned where he is on a world of which he is no longer truly a part, or himself abandoning the world of his birth forever. On top of all of this, that very same world is on the verge of blowing itself to bits. Calculations using the advanced mathematics of the galaxy show that Earth’s destruction by way of nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and the cure suggested by Enoch’s alien friends is almost as bad as war itself.

In resolving these conflicts, Simak weaves a compelling tale of interstellar intrigue and very human drama. The resolution to it all is sudden, a bit fanciful, but very satisfying. It’s also more than a bit melancholy, for the hero does pay a price to hold on to the life he has come to cherish. It ends not with a bang, but a whisper. But the story overall is one of hope, and not calamity. This is a novel that looks at the Cold War tensions of those unsettled and uncertain years not from the perspective of how bad things might turn out, but with the idea that what might seem unavoidable could, in fact, be prevented. Way Station stands apart in an era of sci-fi nuclear holocaust novels in a refreshing and thoughtful way. It also holds up well to the passage of many years, and seems not in the least bit dated. I first read this book when I was in high school, almost a decade after it was published, and was fascinated by its very different take on how a galaxy-spanning civilization might work, and how Earth might take part. Now, so many years later, with the bad dreams of glowing mutant tornado mushroom clouds fading into memory, I have a different and perhaps improved idea of why the book appealed to me. It presents a positive vision, based as it is on the thought that the worst need not come to be. It was a story of hope and melancholy, and what teenage loner growing up in troubled times could  resist such a tale?

The Man in the High Castle: Thoughts on the Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1963   Leave a comment

It’s been at least 30 years since I first read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The only detail I could recall, when I picked it up to read for this series of reviews, was that someone got his throat cut. Strange, the things that stay with you from a book.

Stranger still, now that I’ve reread The Man in the High Castle. It has a solid, well-developed plot and the story moves right along, as all good stories do. The characters are well-developed, with motives readers can relate to, even if the alternate history setting might seem hard to grasp more than sixty years after the Second World War. Even so, the only moment of familiarity offered during the rereading was that incident involving a single-edged razor blade.

The first thing that needs to be kept in mind, when reading this novel, is that WWII was still all too fresh in the minds of many people in the early 1960s. As always, when reading an older novel, a modern reader needs to keep in mind the context provided by the times in which it was written. Dick’s presentation of Japanese characters, in particular, might strike today’s readers as somewhat racist, but the way he handles those characters, and the culture they represent, doesn’t really support a racist interpretation.

In this alternate reality, the war ended with the United States of America and its allies defeated. Japan has control of the west coast, while Germany occupies most of the eastern third of the nation. In the middle is a shadow nation that is to various degrees under the influence of the war’s victorious Axis powers. The world as a whole seems divided between the sophisticated influences of Japan, and barbarism of Nazi Germany. In this setting, a tale of cultural conflict and survival unfolds in parallel with political intrigue that threatens to set off a holocaust, while people ponder a popular novel that seems to reflect our own reality, the one in which Germany and Japan were defeated. It’s a post-war slice-of-life alternate history, with elements of what might these days be called magical realism. The book easily held my attention to the very last page, and then left me wondering just what the hell happened.

This is a strange book, a story that at first left me with the feeling that my copy was missing chapters at the end. It took me a while to understand that the book actually ends as it begins. It fades in, and then fades out, without a sharp hook at the beginning, and no dramatic stroke of the pen to underscore The End. I find myself thinking of the story between the covers as comprised of a single object, instead of a flow of ideas. Or a flow of words and ideas that became, when I was done, a single thing in my mind. It’s as if this story were a small wood carving or a bit of jewelry you could hold in the palm of your hand and appreciate with one long look. This concept comes to mind because of a plot element in the book itself. A purveyor of historic Americana (the Japanese in the story are crazy about the stuff) tries to interest a Japanese client in something different, jewelry made by local American craftsmen who create designs like nothing seen before. The Japanese client (and later another of the main Japanese characters) is at first inclined to dismiss the item, but finds himself unable to do so. There’s a quality or property possessed by the thing that simply cannot be ignored. The Japanese client declares that the object contains “wu,” a concept from Chinese philosophy that seems open to a certain degree of interpretation. As the character in the book expresses it, an object that has wu is complete in itself, balanced in a way that cancels dualities. It isn’t one thing or another, it doesn’t begin or end; it just is. (It can also apparently mean that a thing is lacking in distinguishing characteristics, not necessarily something an author would want associated with his work.) A quick bit of research in Daoist philosophy more or less supports this, though – not surprisingly – it would seem there’s a bit more to the concept than what is employed in the novel. But if I stick with the explanation given by the character Paul to Mr. Childan, I seem to have a concept that fits the underlying oddness of The Man in the High Castle.

Like the bauble that mystifies the Japanese client, and later entrances – literally – one of the primary characters, The Man in the High Castle would seem to be a book possessed of wu, that certain something that makes it work as a whole, even though the components seem to be a little hard to distinguish. Since the author was obviously familiar with the concept, it’s natural to wonder whether the novel itself was an attempt to imbue a work of literature with wu, or if that knowledge informed the writing process as the story unfolded, and wu was the result.

Or the concept of wu merely caught my fancy, and became a straw to grasp while trying to comprehend this strangely compelling, well-written tale. Or both. I can’t really say. In any case, a rereading of this winner of the Hugo Award has given me something more subtle than a single-edged razor blade to carry away in the end.

Stranger from a Strange Time: Reflections on “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written”   3 comments

After my recent experience rereading Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning novel Starship Troopers, I approached his third Hugo winner, Stranger in a Strange Land* with a certain amount of trepidation. As was the case with the former, the latter was one of those novels that made a profound impression on me as a young reader of science fiction. I was disappointed by Starship Troopers as an older and more experienced reader. The contrast between my impressions of the book, then and now, was stark. I was in my late teens – a little older and a bit more experienced, though not perhaps as much as I believed at the time – when a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land fell into my hands. I remember being strongly affected by the book back then. With this rereading of another old favorite, was I about to be disillusioned yet again?

The answer, I’m pleased to report, is no. While I certainly responded to the novel in a very different way after forty years of life experiences, I came away from this reread with a favorable impression. The novel is a strong enough character-driven story that it held my attention to the very end, even though these days I don’t read a novel and take its contents at face value. (That was very true of me in younger days.) To my relief, Heinlein resisted the urge to simply use Stranger in a Strange Land as another glorified soap box for his political views. I was able to read it and be entertained, even though his beliefs and attitudes do come through, at times loud and clear. Some of what comes across strikes me now, as a more mature reader, as an oversimplified take on human nature, but Heinlein’s views on such matters never derailed the storytelling process, as I saw happen in Starship Troopers. They were part of the tapestry he wove into the story, and for the most part the story worked.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the tale of Valentine Michael Smith, a young man raised by a very alien culture on Mars, who is then returned to Earth where everything humans consider normal is completely new to him. He discovers himself as a human being while observing all aspects of the human experience through that thoroughly alien frame of reference – one that, by the way, gives him superhuman abilities. Smith has no reason to simply accept his humanity as a given, or to accept blindly the rationalizations of those around him regarding the human condition. And thereby hangs a tale. Through the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, and the people who become involved with his life, Heinlein examines who and what we are as human beings. This is a common theme in science fiction, and grows none the worse for the wear through constant reuse. Heinlein puts it to very good use in this book. To my mind, this is one of the best novels Heinlein wrote. Some would go further than that. The cover of the old paperback I read proclaims the book to be “THE MOST FAMOUS SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.” (And yes, it’s all capitalized on the book cover.) I’m not sure this is literally true, but it surely is one of the most best known novels in the genre, in part because of the way it seemed to anticipate the “counterculture” of the 1960s. Oh, and for its famous prediction of the waterbed. (Can’t leave that out!)

Stranger in a Strange Land is sometimes dismissed by modern-day readers as – among other things – sexist. By today’s standards, the book could indeed be seen that way, though I doubt it would have seemed sexist in quite the same way more than fifty years ago, when it was published. The female characters of this novel certainly are comfortable with their own sexual appetites, and show a level of assertiveness not usually seen as completely acceptable in popular fiction of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yet these same characters also seem to carry plenty of 1950s happy homemaker baggage, which really doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) play well these days. To those who read old novels without considering the times in which they were written, this seems a mixed message. When this book was written, however, our society was stepping none too steadily out of one societal norm and into the next. Sometimes, while rereading the book, I got the impression Heinlein was a man standing with one foot in each epoch, not at all sure which way to go.

The strongest complaints regarding sexism seem to center around the character Jubal Harshaw. Jubal’s treatment of and interactions with the women he employs toucha nerve with many modern reviewers. Harshaw’s openly and bluntly sexist behavior toward these women would be cringeworthy in modern society, heard without a proper understanding of the context. But there is a context, and even a casual read of this book should reveal the understanding that exists between Harshaw and these women, and his obvious respect and affection for each of them. This is apparently missed by some modern reviewers, who interpret the material as being a typically sexist portrayal of women as brain-washed objects. (The character Anne, by herself, should dispel such a notion.) That seems too harsh to me, especially after reading Harshaw’s lecture to Ben Caxton regarding the sculptures La Belle Heaulmiere and Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. Not exactly the attitudes of your average insensitive male sexist pig.

For all that I believe some modern readers judge the book too harshly, I can understand, up to a point, why they react as they do. However, as I read the book I didn’t get the feeling that the author intended to belittle or diminish the value of female human beings. Quite the contrary, he seems more inclined to glorify them, although in a somewhat awkward, adolescent way. This explains why I could enjoy the novel, even though I often found myself shaking my head and thinking, “Really?” Heinlein’s portrayal of women obviously remains rooted in a time when some things we now consider sexist were seen as normal and acceptable. We no longer see things that way – well, some of us, anyway – and so whatever he intended is sometimes lost on modern readers. Perhaps because of this, I’ve seen reviews of the book that go much too far in their response to the apparent sexism, suggesting that the book should be shunned or heavily edited, because it does not match modern sensibilities. Such an idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as the degree of gender-based inequality that stubbornly persists in our modern times. The works of the past should not be dismissed, or worse, altered, because they do not reflect the beliefs of the present day. We need these books – and films, and whatever else from the past might draw such a response. We need these things in order to provide a perspective that can help us to judge how far we’ve come, a perspective that provides the only realistic measure of how much further we have yet to go.

*I read the “uncut” edition of the novel, released in 1991, but realized afterward that I really should read the one people actually voted on thirty years before. The original is the book discussed here. I didn’t see that the uncut edition added anything of substance to the story.

 

Apocalypse Then   1 comment

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

The idea of the post-apocalyptic tale is all the rage these days, a recurring theme in books, stories, and motion pictures. From weird, literally earth-rending Mayan prophecies to legions of the walking dead, the end of the world as we know it appears to be endlessly entertaining. A common theme in these disturbing visions of the near future is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for whatever catastrophe brings civilization down. If we’d been less selfish and more far-sighted, if only we’d refrained from tinkering with the “natural order of things” – usually in the name of greed – we could have avoided these grim fates. We never seem to learn from our mistakes, and so each technological leap makes the next repetition of foolish human behavior more deadly than the last, until in the end – it ends.

Those currently exploiting this interest in violent ends for civilization sometimes seem to think this is all a new way of writing fiction, but of course this fascination with the end of the world is anything but new. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War remember such visions all too vividly, and as all-too-believable realities. By its sheer destructive power, the “bomb,” in the hands of leaders cursed with blind stupidity, seemed destined to bring everything to an end. It was a fearful time to grow up, and frightening fiction was written, and filmed, to point out the dangers we faced. For a long time it seemed no one was listening, but I suppose that when you use giant ants and fleshy-headed mutant humans for cautionary tales, nuclear war becomes a little harder to take seriously. In time the danger was taken seriously and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse now – while still all too real – seems a bit less likely. This was not the case in the ’50s and ‘60s, when I was a child. It felt imminent, and no few of us expected to die very young.

Science fiction writers of the time were in some measures as guilty as Hollywood in exploiting the fear of things nuclear, rather than driving home the idea that this was not only a serious and dangerous business, but an avoidable fate. Published science fiction from that time included many tales of a world in ruins, in which determined men and women struggled to preserve civilization while fending off the mutant progeny of nuclear war. That there might be NO survivors in the end, mutant or otherwise, was a long time entering the popular imagination – Nevil Shute’s grim novel On the Beach being an outstanding exception to the rule at that time. Another author who stands out from the crowd in this regard is Walter M. Miller, Jr., whose post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz stood far enough apart from the rest to be recognized for the exception it was, and to be awarded the 7th Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961.

A Canticle for Leibowitz opens centuries after the Flame Deluge consumed the world, destroying civilization and taking the human race to the brink of extinction. Something like a civilization has risen from the cold ashes of that terrible event. Curiously enough, the Roman Catholic Church has somehow survived and kept its history and traditions alive – more than its own, actually. A new monastic order exists, named for Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, who was martyred trying to preserve the knowledge that made civilization possible, when most other survivors sought to erase the past in a misguided effort to avoid repetition of history through cultural amnesia. The mobs attempted to eradicate science and literature, blaming these for creating the technology that incinerated millions, and left millions more to die less merciful deaths. Leibowitz led a small band of folk who hid books from the mobs, and memorized others, something like the book people of Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The new monastic order grew from these heroic and often deadly efforts to save books, repeating the Church’s earlier medieval roll as a repository of knowledge in a dark age. The story begins with the tale of one Brother Francis, who discovers a cache of pre-deluge material that quite likely is connected to the not yet canonized Leibowitz himself. His grim life and its times set the stage for the next phase in the restoration of civilization, a civilization that evolves pretty much along the path of its predecessor, with the same old greed and lust for power. In the end, over millennia, humanity not only restores what was lost in the nuclear fires of the Flame Deluge, it reaches further, sending human colonies out to the stars. But it would seem that even in a star-faring age, when people still give birth to monstrous reminders of a horrible past, certain lessons remain unlearned.

This is not a “fun” book to read, and it’s quite clear that it was never meant to merely entertain. The B-movie two-headed mutants sprinkled through the narrative illustrate the cost of ignorance, but never really challenge the rebuilding of civilization. They are a burden to it, instead; a reminder of a past that can be willfully ignored, but not truly forgotten, or left behind. It’s a grim and regrettably believable tale, especially for anyone who has made even a modest study of human history. This book asks uncomfortable questions of a sort that have no tidy answers. The writing is some of the best you will find in the genre, with characters as believable as they are at once flawed and determined. No, not the escapism so many assume all sci-fi to be. It is instead a compelling work of literature, and one you will either appreciate for its quality and its message, or hate for its grim reminder that those who refuse to learn history may very well be consumed by it. For while history can be deliberately rewritten, or willfully ignored, its consequences are inescapable. This, in the end, is what I believe Miller is trying to say, a message that remains for the most part ignored, even though the continued popularity of apocalyptic fiction reveals that we are not entirely unaware of our danger.

 

A Certain Point of View   Leave a comment

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
1959 Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel

The early Hugo-winning novels are – with the possible exception of They’d Rather Be Right – widely accepted as classics of the science fiction genre. In most, cases each book challenged readers in new ways, painting with words futures not yet visualized while reframing the basic questions surrounding the human experience. For an excellent example of this phenomenon, it would be hard to top James Blish’s extraordinary tale of the consequences of knowledge uncoupled from wisdom, A Case of Conscience.

Lithia is a world both Earth-like and strange, a near Eden of marshes and rivers inhabited by intelligent and sophisticated reptiles who build their cities out of ceramics, and are entirely lacking in the concepts of good and evil. The concept of sin baffles them. This deeply troubles the mind of one member of the first contact team sent to assess this inhabited world, a Jesuit priest, who upon discovering that the Lithians lack even the concept of original sin, is forced by his personal frame of reference to conclude that Lithia is a trap set by the Devil. The questions raised in his mind, and later expressed by him, have serious consequences for this man of the cloth, as do the questions and conclusions of his colleagues during the expedition. Each man is, like the Jesuit, trapped in a particular – and yet understandable – frame of reference and they draw their conclusions accordingly. All of them have the knowledge they need, but proceed from false assumptions and misunderstand completely what they experience on Lithia, among the peaceful Lithians. One does so to such a degree that he attempts to deceive the others into seeing the Lithians as something they are not, and cannot be, in an attempt to make his decision the one that carries the vote. For they have a momentous decision to make regarding whether or not to open Lithia and its swamp-loving, dinosaur-like inhabitants to the people of Earth. The decision ultimately reached has truly fateful consequences.

Before the investigators depart Lithia, Father Ramon is given as a gift a small porcelain jar that contains a friendly Lithian’s son. Lithians literally experience ontogeny as a recapitulation of phylogeny, and the tadpole-like creature in the jar will pass through all the evolutionary stages of the Lithians before becoming an intelligent dinosaur twice the height of a grown man. The purpose of the gift is to have a Lithian grow up among Humans, understand them, and then come home to share that knowledge. It’s a good idea, but the Lithian father, like his Human friends, is also proceeding from unavoidable false assumptions, the consequences of which are both profound and tragic.

The bulk of the novel – and I use bulk loosely, since this is a slim volume indeed – takes place on a future Earth that is a bizarre if logical extension of the Cold War paranoia just gripping the West as Blish wrote his book. The bulk of humanity lives underground in vast, complicated “shelters,” with the original cities slowly falling into decay. This shelter culture is based on the sound knowledge of the consequences of potential nuclear war. But it was a war that never came, and now Humanity is trapped by the consequences of that knowledge. In this world the young Lithian grows up as a literal stranger in a strange land, surrounded by humans who, though they were born to that world, could really be described in the same way.

This is not a long work, and yet this small book packs a punch that is often entirely lacking in more lengthy epics. (Curiously, all the earliest Hugo winning novels share this trait of being complex stories packed into a relatively small number of pages.) There is nothing about this book that misses the mark. All of the characters are developed quickly and well, the plausibility of the story flows from the world-building, and the questions asked are never so obviously answered that the book develops a “preachy” quality. In a very real sense, the reader is left to decide how the story ends, even though at first glance the ending might seem painfully obvious.

The word “compelling,” used to describe a novel, is about as over-used as “bestseller,” these days, and yet that word truly applies to A Case of Conscience. This is a book I could not easily set aside once I started reading it, an experience that I’ve had with it twice now, without it wearing in the least bit thin. Highly recommended, of course, with this caveat: when you think you know where the story is going, what it’s saying, pause a moment and consider where your own frame of reference might be leading you.

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