The Name's the Thing
Do the Hugos Really Award the Best in Speculative Fiction?
It's not a name that conjures mental images of soaring poetry or flights of fancy. Hugo is a good, solid, vaguely Germanic name. Straightforward. Morally sober and true. A Boy Scout, even, with a slide rule in one hand and a compass in the other.
Hugo just isn't a name that inspires the fantastic, so it's doubly ironic that it's the name for one of the premier awards in the speculative fiction field. While the Nebula Award could be considered the Oscar-equivalent in this genre, the Hugo is the People's Choice, voted on by fans who attend each year's World Science Fiction Convention. This year, World Con will be in Chicago over Labor Day weekend and awards will be announced with much fanfare on Saturday, Sept. 2 at 8pm (results will be available at www.chicon.org/hugos/hugos.htm shortly after this grand clambake ends).
Every year, like a dog returning to its own vomit, I read all of the Hugo nominees and handicap 'em for this fine publication. Neither wind nor snow nor 800-pound books will keep me from my appointed rounds. But this year stretched my dedication to the Hugos and I've begun to truly dislike that snot-nosed, steadfast little weenie and his limited vision.
Hugo's tastes are starting to become more and more predictable. This year, he's decided to only concentrate on the two ends of the speculative fiction spectrum. Give me the hard stuff -- he seems to be saying -- and I'll toss in some frothy stuff just to make it look like I care for those specific fans who wouldn't know a telescope from a bottle of Scope.
One of these concessions to the fantastic end of the readership is Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign: A Vorkosigan Adventure (Baen Books, 544 pp., $7.99, paper). Normally, Bujold's books are the highlight of the Hugo season. Her writing is spirited and evocative. Her plotting is tight and surprising. Most tight and surprising of all, however, are the characters she has created in her ongoing series of books about the magnetic Miles Vorkosigan and his friends. For those who have missed Bujold's development of this epic tale, I'd recommend diving right into Memory, a rich book that was nominated for a Hugo a few years ago.
But I wouldn't start with Campaign. Sure, it does everything that a new book in a series should do -- re-introduce the characters, introduce complications, resolve them, and set up the next book -- but it lacks gut, for lack of a better term. Miles, who is strong of will yet physically disabled in various places, gets caught up in affairs of the heart now that he has found the woman he thinks is the one for him. He just has to convince her of that. You never doubt, however, that he'll succeed. And that may be where the book goes wrong. Bujold's tone is so airy that Campaign quickly becomes as formulaic as your standard romance novel, if you can imagine one set in a far-flung galaxy. The grit she has shown in the past by writing herself into difficult corners and then clawing her way back out with panache is absent in Campaign. Ah, well. Maybe next year's installment will be Bujold's return to fine form.
Similar in tone is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 435 pp., $19.95). Somehow, before I took my ritual foray into the Hugo fields, I'd managed to avoid Potter and his attendant hoopla. After having read Azkaban, I can finally see what all of the fuss is about. Yup, these are good books. Yup, Potter is a neat character and his quest is thrilling. Yup, Rowling keeps it all snapping right along and, yup, Hogwarts is every kid's dream school. And while all of that is great and is sucking more young readers into speculative fiction, Azkaban just isn't a "Hugo" book. Hugo -- remember the slide rule -- wants books that are weighty and will tax his extra-large intellect. Sure, he'll nominate froth to keep the ladies happy, but what he really wants is to sink his teeth into some science.
Which he can do in Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio (Ballantine, 544 pp., $6.99, paper). This is the kind of work that our dear Hugo salivates over. Bear deftly manipulates the cutting edges of biotechnology and archeology in order to carve a fairly fast-paced read that continually pushes what we currently think about evolution. If you aren't a biologist, it's hard to tell exactly where reality ends and the fiction begins; I suspect that real-live biologists might also find it puzzling.
In a nutshell, Bear posits that the "junk" molecules in our DNA are actually sleeper bits of chemicals that are waiting for the right triggers to start an epidemic. Kaye Lang, a molecular biologist, and Mitch Rafelson, an archeologist, find themselves in the middle of a race to discover how to turn off this epidemic once it has started. Of course, it gets a bit more complicated than simply doing the science to cure these diseases that start to run rampant and leads them on a chase across the country and through biological theory.
Radio may sound deadly dull to those readers who are not hard-science inclined, but Bear does an admirable job of breaking down his ideas into bites even a liberal arts major could digest. In doing so, however, he gives short shrift to some of his characters and strains at the limits of what people -- even genius-type people -- will actually do. Still, Radio is an engaging read that makes you feel as if you are one step closer to understanding the Human Genome Project.
Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (Tor Books, 774 pp., $6.99, paper) moves us from inner space to outer -- way, way outer -- space. Deepness is a loose partner to Vinge's Hugo-winning A Fire Upon the Deep; the optimal word, however, is "loose." Unlike Bujold's Campaign, you really don't have to have read the first book to understand the second.
I wanted to like Deepness. I tried my hardest to ignore the lethargic pace, the muddled plotpoints, and the bewilderingly vast cast of characters. I didn't succeed. I will also admit that I'm still not sure what had happened by book's end. What I could puzzle out was that two warring groups of humans -- the Qeng Ho and the Emergents -- wind up in a face-off above a planet both wish to conquer. This planet circles a star that shuts itself off every generation, going dormant for centuries. (Someday, someone should explain the physics of this to me ... ) The beings who inhabit this planet are unlike any before encountered. The Qeng Ho and the Emergents begin fighting each other, which goes on for 500 or so pages. Then they battle the planet's inhabitants. Then the sun goes out. To his credit, Vinge creates some harrowing and/or touching moments -- at least, I think he does. It was all so very ponderous and complicated that I lost track.
Cryptonomicon (HarperPerennial, 918 pp., $16, paper) by Neal Stephenson creates an equally dense plot with magical results for those with patience. Stephenson has worked such wonder before; his The Diamond Age and Snow Crash prove just how tight and engaging science fiction can be. His greatest gift is his ability to deftly weave high-flown theory with concrete and fleshed-out characters with whom you want to spend time. And this book shows that Stephenson's work has only improved.
In Cyptonomicon, the author wrangles with theories of en- and decryption, from the early days of World War II to the later days of the Internet. He weaves together three characters' storylines with ease, telling the tale of a mathematical genius just as easily as he does an intrepid jarhead or a hacker businessman. Some Nazi gold enters the picture, as does Alan Turing and some Cap'n Crunch cereal. To explain more than that would destroy the surprise of discovering these connections on your own.
As you have probably guessed, Cryptonomicon is the book -- all 900 pages of it -- that I would love to see win the Hugo this year. Stephenson's work represents what you can do when you marry a healthy dose of imagination with a giant chunk of science. But I don't think it's the one that Hugo will pick, mostly because I think Hugo is afraid of anything that makes him think outside of his sad little box. Just look at what he's grabbing onto this year -- most of these nominees are from either proven bestsellers or proven Hugo winners. How can we expect to celebrate a sense of adventure and imagination -- on which the genre is based, for goodness' sake! -- if Hugo can't even look beyond what he's comfortable with and to some vibrant writers who are stretching what we call speculative fiction? Hugo. The name says it all.