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SF retrospectives
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
So, I finally finished (re-)reading the nominees for the 1953 Retro-Hugo. And, after much thought, have finally decided who to vote for. In reverse order:

Isaac Asimov: The Caves of Steel
Definitely last place. On the plus side, some nifty ideas, and one of the first ever SF/mystery hybrids (possibly the first at novel length?). On the minus side, unsympathetic protagonist, and *horribly* dated. This is SF in a sociological mode, but it is so clearly "1950s with a few significant differences". Admittedly, sociological prognostication isn't easy, but I don't give points just because what you tried and failed at was inherently hard.

Theodore Sturgeon: More Than Human
This is an excellent piece of Sturgeon at his prime. It's deeply psychological, yet fundamentally sentimental. So why does it place so low (besides the competition)? The story is fundamentally unmotivated. The "gestalt organism as next step in evoluton" is a nifty idea, but as presented in the book, it's rather suggestive of the pernicious "evolution is a constant and inevitable forward progress" meme.

Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood's End
Major props to this book for that rarity of rarities, telling a genuinely new story. It's a shame that one of its most moving images, the fleets of vast saucers overshadowing the cities of earth, has been co-opted by comparitively dull and derivative hollywood movies. But it has pretty much the same problem that the Sturgeon book does. It's fundamentally dependent on an interesting, but implausible, model of human evolution. (What that model is is actually a major spoiler, so I won't discuss it here. But go out and read it anyways, it's a fine book.)

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451
Deciding between these last two was tough. 451 is an undoubted classic, not just of SF, but of literature. In the "sociological prognostication" department, it's far more successful than Caves of Steel. Indeed, it still feels surprisingly relevant. Though this book is certainly *worthy* of a Hugo, I just enjoyed the final one on the list more. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this one win, though. One of the factors it has going for it is sentiment: Bradbury is the only still-living author in the group.

Hal Clement: Mission of Gravity
By far the most fun of the nominees. It's a classic exploration/adventure story on an interesting planet, with cool aliens. Moreover, it's by far the most Hard SF of the lot. While some of it might not hold up to current knowledge, it was worked out in extreme detail for the science of the time. The aliens are intriguingly characterized, and feel, well, alien, though enouh of their motivations are similar to humanity to still sympathize with them. Also, I must admit, there is a sympathy element in *this* vote. This Worldcon is going to be the first one that Hal Clement hasn't attended since, I suspect, before I was born. I'm still not usedto the concept of him not being at very nearly *every* SF con that I attend. He was well-loved, and is much missed. This is one of his finest novels, and an award for it would be a fitting memorial.

Also of interest: Remember how I was recently discussing how amusing it is to see what predictions in old SF look like in hindsight? On the flight home, I was reading a Nebula anthology from the early 80's. It contains an essay of SF writing advice, copyright 1981, presumably written in 1980. One of the pieces of advice given is that you shouldn't just substitute fancy SF names for everyday objects. This is, as far as it goes, good advice. But the example she gave made me laugh: calling something a "stylus" when it was clearly from context "a pencil or pen". Nowadays, I frequently "write" with an object called a "stylus", which, though it has some functional similarity to a pencil or pen, also has important technological differences :-)

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Interesting. I'd probably vote (going on memory) for F451 - it was much the best written of the books you list. Better tied to history, better tied to the world it was written in, far more illuminating of the world of those days, and the world which came after.

Mind you, every one of those books was a marvel. I did adore The Caves of Steel - but, unlike Sturgeon, every character of Asimov's "sounds" the same when it speaks. Sturgeon, at least, had the ability to make each character sing in its own voice. Childhood's End taught me how pathos really feels - not so easy a lesson to a boy as young as I was then.

Really, marvelous books. All of them.

Theodore Sturgeon: More Than Human
This is an excellent piece of Sturgeon at his prime.


I read this last week, because it sifted to the top of John's to-be-read pile and I nicked it.

To say that I found it dull, uninspired, lacking characterization, and a discredit to SF would be understating my reaction. The idea of a gestalt human could be interesting -- if there ever was any development of it other than "we're here and you better watch out."

There was nearly no dialogue, just a lot of mooning about by the narrator. The characters stumbled through their confusing life without self-examination, until the very end, and then only one of them is doing anything. The few interesting things that the characters do, come about by accident and then aren't utilized much afterwards.

I'd be interested in hearing more from anyone who liked it, because I don't think we have a book in the house that would make better tinder.

Consider, as an interesting (and possibly better example of what I mean) C.J. Cherryh and either her
    Chanur Series
or even better
    The Cuckoo's Egg
.

Each of those were a triumph of attempting to truly demonstrate an alien mindset filtered to us humans. (She is the sine qua non of
this ability.)

I took
    More Than Human
as one of the seminal attempts to portray the outside-ness, the true alien-ness of another external and fully different point of view. If you read the book as an attempt to tell that tale, and the novel as a deliberate attempt to futz with standard story-telling to make that work even more, you can see the brilliance.

Cherryh sticks with easier-to-swallow narrative, and her characters
still have the same internal monologue that we have come to expect, from our novels - even as the content of the monologue is ineffably alien-but-understandable. She has bested Sturgeon at his game.

But I love his game.

I haven't read any of those others, but perhaps I'll try and hunt them out. Thanks.

I've got at least the first in the Chanur series, if you want to borrow it. I liked it a lot.

Hmm. I absolutely adored Caves of Steel when I was younger - I wonder now whether rereading it would be an exercise in disappointment. My standards for quality of characterization and prognostication in SF have certainly gone up...

Ditto. Rereading childhood favorites is always perilous. Sometimes they have been perniciously replaced by the Bad Book Fairies...

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