I don’t have a whole lot to say about the 2018 Hugo Awards (yet), because I haven’t done all my research on it and also because I’m still trying to figure out how to finish writing about a book that won the Hugo in 1956, so I hope you didn’t come here hoping for takes on the hot new sci-fi of 2018. However, this whole blog thing or whatever it is I’m doing was born at WorldCon and stemmed directly from the 2015 Hugo Awards and the Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy, so I feel the need to at least briefly comment on the very cool, very historic stuff that went down in San Jose last night.
The cast of Double Star includes daring space pilots, scheming politicians, deadly Martians, and an Emperor, but they are all effectively backdrop compared to the narrator and main character, Lorenzo “The Great Lorenzo” Smythe, an actor so good he literally becomes another person. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Lorenzo is one of the most fascinating sci-fi characters I’ve read about, which is weird, because his “base” personality is that of a selfish xenophobe who thoroughly believes his own hype despite the fact that he’s completely broke – in other words, about as basic as human beings get. But there are a number of contradictions baked into him from the beginning, and as the story moves along, those contradictions multiply. Lorenzo is a washed-up has-been who is also an amazing actor, a conniving louse whose noble qualities draw friends and allies to him, an unrepentant hater of Martians who spends his life fighting for their political rights. He is Lorenzo Smythe, but not really, because he is actually Lawrence Smith, but not anymore, because now he’s John Joseph Bonforte. His identity is rewritten, folded up, torn to pieces, and taped back together into a form both totally familiar and unrecognizably alien. How could he be anything but fascinating? He is the ultimate thespian of the future, a character whose entire raison d’etre is the act of transformation. He is change incarnate.
Aaaaaaaaand we’re back!
If you’ve followed this blog even a little, or heard me constantly plug it on the Unspoiled: Dark Tower podcast, or even just had a thought, maybe one time, along the lines of “hey, I wonder if Miles is ever going to write anything new for Universes of the Mind again,” please accept my most sincere apologies. I am aware that we are rapidly approaching the first anniversary of this blog, and so far I have finished covering a grand total of three (3) Hugo-winning novels. I am also aware that I haven’t posted on this blog since March, meaning it’s been a solid six months since there was anything resembling new content here. And I am most certainly aware that the content I published in March was supposedly supplemental material about the Shannara series, which, as much as I love it, has never won a Hugo Award.
I am aware of all that, and I’m sorry, and I promise it won’t happen again. Mostly because I only plan on getting married the one time.
So, with apologies taken care of, let’s jump right back into the list of every novel to win the Hugo Award! Where were we again?
Let’s see…there was the one about murder in a telepathic society, that was really good…the one with all the book-burning isn’t good as everyone thinks, but it’s still okay…oh man, the one that probably got a Hugo because of scientology, that was terrible…ah, yes, here we are. The fucking promised land.
As previously discussed, the question of why Mark Clifton’s They’d Rather Be Right won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955 is one that has a few different answers depending on how you look at it – though I believe the connection between editor John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard’s pseudoscientific/quasi-religious doctrine of Scientology to be the most likely culprit. A somewhat more straightforward question, however, is why science fiction fans are so dumbfounded by its victory in the first place.
My copy of They’d Rather Be Right cost me one dollar. Wait, no – less than a dollar. A dollar was the total price for the Kindle download of a book called The Second Golden Age of Science Fiction MEGAPACK: Mark Clifton. It’s a collection of Clifton’s work that happens to include a Hugo Award-winning novel, as the book cover loudly proclaims. While I think the works of Mark Clifton are probably worth more than a buck American, I’m certainly not upset that I didn’t pay more. They’d Rather Be Right wasn’t awful, necessarily, but it sure as hell wasn’t good. I have officially managed to power through it in pretty good time, thanks to a combination of actual narrative enjoyment (“Hey, I really do want to know what happens next”) and growing impatience with the author’s endless pseudoscientific diatribes and contradictory proclamations about the nature of humankind, both dripping with made-up jargon that is never satisfactorily explained. It’s probably needless to point out that, while the former shouldn’t be discounted, the latter formed the bulk of my experience.
But we’ll get to that soon. For now, I thought it appropriate to begin with the first question anyone ever asks about They’d Rather Be Right, which is, “How the hell did this win a Hugo Award?”
Fahrenheit 451 is basically a work of prose poetry, beautifully written but lacking most of the qualities that traditionally make up a novel. There are no fully-realized characters, and to be honest, there’s barely even a functional plot, as the events of the book unfold in dream-like, ambiguous fashion in an attempt to drive the reader promptly from one allegorical point to another. Understand that this is not criticism; I’ve never been a huge poetry reader, but if a writer as good as Ray Bradbury wants to write a novel-length poem, who am I to argue? But it is a poem, and it’s written in such a way that neither the plot nor the characters are rich enough – distracting enough – to get in the way of the message being delivered.
But what is that message, exactly? When I first started writing about Fahrenheit 451, I spent some time on the fact that it is considered an essential classic, having become known over the years as THE book about censorship. That’s where it exists in the cultural consciousness – if you don’t believe me, type “books about censorship” into Google. Fahrenheit 451 is the first and most prominent result, with almost all the others being either controversial books that were censored, or non-fiction works about the history of censorship. Fahrenheit 451 is and will always be the Great Anti-Censorship Novel.
Except it isn’t. Nor was it ever intended to be.
When last we visited the fire-blackened dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, we learned two key things. First, I didn’t enjoy the book quite as much as I thought I would, and second, that has nothing to do with Ray Bradbury’s powers as a wordsmith, which are staggering. Take any sentence from Fahrenheit consisting of more than five words, and I would probably be perfectly happy reading just that sentence over and over again for hours on end. When it comes to the English language, Bradbury is a master craftsman.
So why wasn’t I completely enamored of Fahrenheit? It has a great deal to do with the characters populating Bradbury’s book-burning hellscape. I like a good hellscape as much as the next guy, but a great book has to show it to me through the eyes of interesting people. I would never suggest that Bradbury doesn’t know that, but in this case, he seems not to care. Fahrenheit 451 is more of an allegory than an actual story. Its characters are symbolic representations, not people. They serve a purpose for Bradbury’s message, but they don’t grow or change — not even Guy Montag.