Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Hugo Nominees 2004

NOVEL

  • Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold (Eos)
    I'm a big fan of Bujold's Vorkosigan books and I appreciate her sense of character interaction, incremental advancement of plot, and basically how over the course of several books she was able to create an ongoing universe with characters you cared about and make it look easy. With Paladin of Souls, the sequel to the Hugo-nominated Curse of Chalion from a couple of years ago, she's basically set out to do the same thing in a fantasy milieu, and she may be again succeeding, but I can't really objectively look at this because I have an attitude towards this type of story. The world that this book and its predecessor takes place in is not from our history, and yet the made-up setting in which the characters interact is only a plain, generic backdrop. Much of the action takes place in isolated camps or castles, so there's not much opportunity to describe the surroundings, so Bujold doesn't really bother, it doesn't seem to be important. What your left with then is the plot itself, which is fine, except other than the main character Ista none of the others are particularly interesting. Bujold's wry sense of humor comes through often to keep things from getting too serious or pretentious, there's a significant mystical element that doesn't get too out of hand or over-explained, she's pared down the narrative to its barest elements and as a result delivers a story that doesn't rely on unnecessary detail or historical background, which would either be refreshing or offputting to those who read a lot of this kind of stuff. In short, Bujold is really channeling Jane Austen here, and I suppose if you're a Jane Austen fan that's great, but I'm in the opposite camp that believes that characters just standing around jabbering all the time with little attention placed on setting other than what can be inferred from the dialogue is not that interesting. George R R Martin has shown us what fantasy can be with political intrigue, vivid characters and memorable images. Bujold just gives us Sense and Sensiibility with demonic possession.
  • Humans, Robert J. Sawyer (Tor Books)
    Last year's winner is back with a sequel, the middle book of a trilogy, and it's every bit as disappointing as the first volume (and again the only nominee not on the Locus list). The gateway between our universe and the universe of the Neanderthals has been reopened, with opportunities for commerce, knowledge sharing, etc., offering up a decent premise but without much payoff. The rape scene that was left unused in the first book becomes a half-hearted mystery subplot in the second (with a role for the perpetrator left for the next book). The main Neanderthal character, Ponter, is positively Christ-like, spouting wisdom and surviving an assassination attempt (and meting out his own brand of justice to the aforementioned rapist). The third-person narrative, when told from the main human character Mary's point of view, is annoyingly riddled with bad puns and geek references (Star Trek, Python, etc.) that seem very out of character for her. Throughout you can't help but feel that Sawyer wrote this in a hurry, and that he wasn't trying very hard. The tight plotting and overflowing sense of wonder present in some of his early books (Starplex, Terminal Experiment) takes a backseat here to more of a screenplay style of plot development, with lots of shrill Neanderthal supporting characters, superficial romantic entanglements, and a utopian backdrop that seems manufactured rather than a natural evolution. Sawyer's prose moves along quickly, he leaves plenty of open questions for the third book which are intriguing enough to want to check it out, but given the other nominees in this category I can't call this Hugo material.
  • Ilium, Dan Simmons (Eos)

    This is my first Simmons since I read the Hyperion books about 10 years ago, and while it's hard to compare this half a story to those classics, the potential is there for this to equal or surpass it. Simmons has distilled here an odd assortment of sources ranging from far future post-human extrapolation to serious analysis of Proust, Shakespeare and Homer that makes me want to re-read the Iliad, which is no small feat for a book to do. There are basically three parallel stories that evolve through the course of the book, with the most interesting probably being the resurrected classical Greek scholar observing the events of the Trojan War as they happen. While that's going on two robots are on a mission to deploy a device of unknown purpose to Mars, and a group of people in the far future go on a sort of quest that leads them to discover what really happens at the end of their natural lives. The threads are so different at first that it's like reading three books at once, but two of the stories do merge about half way through, and enough hints are dropped to begin to understand at least where Simmons might be heading in the next book to merge the remaining ones. While I can't say that there is the depth or variety of characters here that you had in Hyperion, all the protagonists are believable and interesting and at the end, where a major war is about to start and in the parallel story two characters are questioning their existence after discovering what happened to all the other post-humans, there's a lot left to sink your teeth into for the next book. Like Hyperion, even though it's really only half a story, it stands on its own merits and is chock full of ideas and vivid imagery. I can't imagine how Simmons can possibly relate the ensuing battle convincingly, given the parties involved, but I'd be more than willing to take a look.

  • Singularity Sky, Charles Stross (Ace Books)
    Filling in for Ken MacLeod this year is this first novel from Stross, definitely the best if not the only first novel nominee since China Mountain Zhang, and on a par with the Hugo-neglected Alastair Reynolds for its rip-roaring baroque space opera. Replete with nanotechnology, quantum computing, time travel, crazed military commanders, interplanetary spies, Marxist ideology, interstellar battles and unknowable intelligences, it's a wonder Stross can pull it all together, but not only does he deftly juggle all the various aspects of his wonderfully complicated plot, the keeps things moving forward to the point that you can scarcely notice all the jargon. Unlike most British authors of the present day, including the aforemention Mr. MacLeod, Stross conveys a sense of urgency and excitement where required, even throwing in a military exercise in space that turns out to be a drill just to keep things interesting. He's also throwing out so many ideas that he can't possibly believe them all personally, like the Vingean singularity leading to the perfect anarchist utopia. In his short fiction this glut of throwaway ideas tends to distract from the story at hand, but in a novel it seems he has time to let his real plot unfold at its own pace in front of the backdrop of this polyglot of politics, technologies and Python references. The central idea is that once humanity has reached the singularity, it creates the Eschaton, which takes 90 percent of the population and sends them forward in time to inhabit other planets. Years later it comes back in the form of the Festival, a sentient space-faring entity whose job it is to fix gaps in these other worlds technology, even if these gaps existed for a reason. His mantra, stated on the cover, is that information demands to be free, and there's a fair amount of chest-thumping about how any attempt to suppress information is counterproductive and leads to more problems than just letting everyone have access to everything. Whether you agree with it or not, at least you understand it, unlike MacLeod's "Dark Light" or the "The Sky Road", which just made me feel stupid and bored at the same time. Reynolds novels, by contrast, tell stories of a very few specific individuals with special qualities against the backdrop of an immense, complicated, dangerous and downright scary universe. Stross's book isn't as long, so it doesn't delve as deeply into his main characters, but they have a similar role to play in a similar environment, although things don't work out the way they think. There's a lot more going on here than one reading can comprehend, and there's already a sequel, and I'm hoping it serves as the vanguard for more to come. One Reynolds book a year isn't enough, but if Stross can match him stride for stride then I would eagerly try to keep up with both of them.
  • Blind Lake, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor Books)
    Wilson's third nomination in the last three books definitely cements his position as the next Robert Sawyer, and this is the book where he really comes into his own. Unlike his fellow Canadian, this book still takes place in the U.S., even though it didn't really need to, and tells the story of a scientific installation set up to study the sentient life discovered more or less accidentally on another planet through the use of quantum computers that were built by humans but have evolved to the point that no one really understands how they work. The main character, Marguerite, works at the outpost, which is suddenly put under quarantine and severed from all communication with the outside world. As if that weren't enough to deal with, she's got a daughter who talks to an image of herself in her reflection, and an ex-husband who is left in charge of the installation and is a total jerk. The plot goes in different directions from what you would expect, which is good, and there's quite a bit of rumination on impermanence of life and rumination on what exactly constitutes life in a quantum universe (one of the characters would seem to be a thinly disguised Frank Tipler). The book isn't perfect, the siege goes on for too long and its ultimate rationale is rather thin, the ex-husband Ray is too evil, and since much of quantum physics is just guesswork, it allows things to happen for which there can be no real explanation, which is handy for the author but sort of unsatisfying for the reader. But Wilson engages the reader from the first chapter and doesn't let go, the characters are all well-drawn, and he wrestles with ideas that make his story challenging to tell at all, unlike the screenplays in prose form we get from his fellow Canadian these days. While I don't think this will win, I think this lives up to its nomination better than Wilson's previous efforts and will ultimately be more memorable, I just hope it doesn't go to his head.
  • NOVELLA

  • "Walk in Silence", Catherine Asaro (Analog Apr 2003)
    A rather non-descript title doesn't help this rather non-descript story which, while it has a definite hook and plot, ultimately seems kind of conventional. Asaro's protagonist is a female ship captain who discovers to her shock that she's pregnant, and is even more shocked that the father is an alien, originally descended from humanity thousands of years before but now a separate species altogether and supposedly incompatible, or whatever the word is. There's lots of backstory going on regarding his own origins and how it relates to a current plot to create a human-alien hybrid or "chimera", plus an interplanetary political situation that is made infinitely more delicate and complicated if news of this blessed event were to become generally known. There's even an international incident caused by the main character stumbling across some illicit smuggling operation. But the main thrust of the story is her pregnancy and subsequent delivery, and how, since this was not something she had planned for, she has trouble coping with it all. Asaro gives us a reasonably well thought-out background, an interesting alien species, and a strong protagonist, but doesn't do more with it than "I'm carrying my alien friend's baby" pathos. Her prose is clear, the story moves along just fine, I just wish, given the novella length, that she'd given more time to the other threads of the narrative.
  • "The Empress of Mars", Kage Baker (Asimov's Jul 2003)
    This story is one of those we see a fair amount of these days that recasts some planet as basically the old west without oxygen. In Baker's hands, though, this comes across as a well-told yarn about a bar on what is still a very roughly settled Mars, how they come upon discovering something that will make everyone want to go there, how the government tries to step in and regulate everything, and how the denizens of the bar rebel and overcome their oppressors. Doesn't sound that appealing described that way, but it moves along fairly well, although at the end it's a bit long and short on a real point. Baker does a more than credible job of giving us strong if slightly over the top characters that are perfectly at home in this setting, as well as a distinct sense of setting with an ascendant British empire trying to rule things from afar as they are wont to do, and a healthy dose of the politics that have come to be on Mars also. I think it's this attention to detail and still providing a decent plot and consistent narrative impetus that raises this story above the average for this type, but I wouldn't proclaim it a future classic just yet.
  • "The Green Leopard Plague", Walter Jon Williams Asimov's Oct.–Nov. 2003
    This is an interesting entry as it's really two stories, one inside the other. One gets the impression that Williams had the inner story kicking around for awhile but it wasn't original or whatever enough to stand on its own, so he wrote the framing story and made it into a novella. The outer story concerns a mermaid named Michelle who is conscripted to investigate what really happened hundreds of years ago to a now iconic public figure name Terzian during a three-week period of his life where he disappeared. While this process of discovery is going on, it is being played out in the inner story, where Terzian is a seemingly mild-mannered scientist who meets up with a radical young woman who's mission in life is to release an engineered virus into the world that will supposedly cure world hunger by allowing people to photosynthesize like plants. Terzian thinks this is the wrong way to go about it, since the global economy will disintegrate and chaos erupt if no one needs food any more. The virus has been stolen from a lab in a third world country, and there are some thugs after them because of it, but there's not a lot of action, more just wrestling with the implications of it all. Once the inner story has finished, the outer one comes back and we learn Michelle has some issues with her spouse who was killed in a freak accident but is still around and trying to contact her. While the two stories lead into each other, they don't seem to be thematically linked, nor do they display more than the most ephemeral, tangential plot relationship. I like Williams writing a lot, and I know he's a smart guy, but he's obviously smarter than me as I don't quite see what he's trying to do by juxtaposing these two seemingly disparate threads together in the same story. Also the outer story doesn't really get going until the end, to the point that I went back and read through most of it again just to see if I missed anything important the first time. I hadn't, but it only reinforced the impression that this is two stories in one, still worth reading, but not Williams' best.
  • "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know", Connie Willis (Asimov's Dec 2003)
    Willis's annual Christmas story is better than usual, and they're usually pretty good. The story is told from several different character viewpoints from around the U.S., all of them interesting, and the constant jumping around means some of the ubiquitous zaniness characteristic of Willis is missing, which is actually rather refreshing. It's Christmas Eve, and everyone is wishing for a White Christmas. As the day goes on, it starts to snow everywhere, even in the deep south, Hawaii, the Middle East, and so on. But rather than a gimmick, it serves as a vehicle for changing the characters' lives, mostly making their dreams come true, some in big ways and some in little ways, and in a few cases causing them to confront their own shortcomings. The ultimate explanation for the snowstorm is not rooted in sf by any means, but it doesn't really matter. Willis provides a well-crafted, well thought out, old-fashioned feel-good story, much like "White Christmas" itself.
  • "The Cookie Monster", Vernor Vinge (Analog Oct 2003)
    Even when Vinge writes a good story it often gets a bad (or at least unmemorable) title, and this is one of them. He plays fast and loose with virtual reality to create a company and follows some brand new employees who discover they're just simulations of their real selves, where every day is their first day and as a result they have a much more postiive attitude and get a lot more done. Worse off is the r&d group, who repeat the same year over and over (while only minutes elapse in the real world). But over the course of several hundred repetitions they're able to leave clues to their future iterations that help them to understand what's going on, clues that are essentially stored electronically like "cookies" in a web browser. This story is almost all conversation, all the characters but one are basically drawn the same, but there's enough going on during the process of discovery to keep things interesting, although if you're looking for a big showdown or confrontation at the end you'll be disappointed.
  • NOVELETTE

  • "The Empire of Ice Cream", Jeffrey Ford (Sci Fiction Feb 2003)
    This story caused enough of a splash to be the first Hugo-nominated story ever from an online source, and it's a pretty good one, too, from the author of last year's nominated "Creation". This one concerns the narrator's coming of age suffering from synesthesia, a more or less legitimate condition that causes a person to mix up different sensory perceptions, such that, as he says in the first couple of sentences, birthday candles smell like the sound of a bow drawn across the bass string of a violin. The narrator as a child grows up rather sheltered as his parents seek some root cause and cure for his ailment, but things get interesting when he first tastes coffee ice cream at the ice cream parlor which gives the story its name, and sees a girl who isn't there. As the story progresses, it seems she's suffering from the same condition, and is also seeing a therapist who understands what they're going through. It's not that surprising that he ultimately discovers this supposed figment of his imagination is more than she's cracked up to be, and where the story gets particularly inventive towards the end is when Ford starts to break down the barriers between what's real and what's not, to the point that at the end it would seem the reader and the narrator are left to reevaluate what has really been going on. Well told, nicely done, expertly paced, I really am impressed with what Ford is able to do in creating such memorable images in a relatively short space.
  • "Bernardo's House", James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's Jun 2003)
    Resnick and Kelly must be reading the same magazines, because they turn in similar stories dealing with robots left to care for masters who are no longer around. Kelly's entry involves the robot Louise who is really an extension of the computer running the eponymous Bernardo's house, who is busy tending to her duties until his return. Along comes a street urchin with an annoying slang patois who ends up taking residence in the house and forces Louise to come to grips with what really has happened outside and what happened to Bernardo. Although we learn that there was some kind of computer plague that caused Louise to be shut off from the rest of the world, she apparently isn't aware of this, and only gradually through flashbacks realizes what happened to Bernardo. It's difficult to tell exactly what she realizes, though, because Kelly is so circumspect in the end about what happened that you're left not really sure what precisely was going on. But the story is told in such a strong, convincing style, grabbing you right out of the blocks and not letting go, that these shortcomings don't matter that much, and while the basic premise may not be that original, Kelly's mastery of all the story elements he handles more than makes up for it.s
  • "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night", Jay Lake (Writers of the Future XIX, ed. Algis Budrys, Galaxy Press, 2003)
    I don't know what to say about this story because I didn't follow a word of it. I've never read anything from this Writers of the Future series before, and this story typifies exactly what I would've expected: disjointed, unfocused, monotonous. Having said that, Lake does come up with a nice turn of phrase occasionally, there is some interesting imagery (if only it were made to fit into the context of story), which maybe sits well with the artsy crowd, but there's not enough to sink your teeth into here to feel like the story has anything to say. There's a guy named Elroy and a talking dog named Wiggles in some sort of future Texas who through an endless series of short episodes with pretentious headings like "Stepping into the Sunlit Dark", make their way to some spacebound location which is apparently the "Gardens of Sweet Night", whatever that means. Once they get there, they meet up with Lord Liasis, who offers Elroy something, and he turns it down in some sort of implicit rite of passage. Or something. Despite the sf trappings it's more fantasy in tone than anything else, sort of like Jack Vance on a bad day, and while he holds promise if he ever get a rhythm established, Lake otherwise has put forth not a story but instead a long list of sentences. You can't help but ask, does he have enough of a fan following on the west coast to get on the ballot, since I can't imagine enough random Hugo voters would have otherwise even found this story in order to nominate it no matter how wonderful it was.
  • "Hexagons", Robert Reed (Asimov's Jul 2003)
    This story from the most underappreciated sf writer working today is a solid effort, but I wouldn't include it in the Best of Robert Reed 1000 page retrospective from NESFA Press in 30 years. It's an alternate history story, which puts it at a disadvantage from the get-go for me, told from the point of view of a man looking back on his childhood when his father decided to run for senator. But this Senate is the new world equivalent of the Roman Senate, this being the universe where England didn't take over western civilization and the Roman Empire continues to run the world along with the Chinese and the Middle East. The hexagons of the title refer to those classic war games with a grid of hexagons laid out over a map of the area (do they still make those?), and how the grandfather of the narrator's friend has a bootleg, illegal computerized version that can be tweaked to show various outcomes to world history, which serves as a way to expositorily depict what's different about this reality, but not much else. Instead, the story wanders into a meditation on hatred and prejudice, as the opponent of the narrator's father is obviously a young Adolf Hitler (although he's never identified by name). I guess the obvious point is that even in an alternate reality racial bigotry and anti-semitism can still rear its ugly head, but what are we supposed to take from that, should it make us feel better, or heighten our resolve, or what? And who is the third candidate, also unnamed and therefore also likely to be a stand-in for a real person? Reed shines as always with clear, lucid prose and a strong narrative drive, but in the end I don't think there was much new to say.
  • "Nightfall", Charles Stross (Asimov's Apr 2003)
    Not to be confused with the Asimov version, this "Nightfall" features a woman named Amber who is awakened from cold sleep and told that millions of years have passed and she is needed to fight an alien menace that threatens to destroy everything. I haven't read the original Nightfall in a long time, but I suspect that the similarities, if there are any, end there. Stross is back in the same universe as his previous nominees "Lobsters" and "Router", and this one is all about how to outfox the aliens and whether the intelligence that woke up Amber and her cat Pierre are legit or not. In usually Stross fashion, there's a ton of throwaway references to ideas that would make stories themselves, the pace is set at such a high pitch compounded with all the techno-speak that it takes a couple of readings to sort out what's going on, which as it turns out isn't really a whole lot, but it's generally entertaining along the way and throws in a few barbs about corporations, past and future, for good measure, as the aliens really traffic in humans as a type of currency. More focused than some of his earlier work, Stross continues to improve and amaze at the same time.
  • "Legions in Time", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Apr 2003)
    Well, color me surprised, this could be the best Swanwick story I've ever read, and thanks to a combination of his prolificness and his popularity within fandom, that's quite a few stories. It's a little longer than most, and that definitely helps, but aside from that he's able to grab you with an interesting premise and character from the first page and doesn't let up, doing his best to channel both PKD and Cordwainer Smith within the same story. And you're left sort of irritated to see how well it comes off and why can't he do it more often? In post-World War II New York, Eleanor gets a job watching a door inside an office with strict instructions not to be distracted by anything and to notify her boss immediately if something unusual happens. The boss, Mr. Tarblecko, shows up occasionally, sends her out to lunch, and when she returns he's just leaving and everything looks the same. So naturally she has to see just what is behind the door, since no one else is around. What transpires from there involves a conspiracy through time to assemble a group of people to defeat some sort of menace from the future (this is where Dick is supplanted by Smith as an influence), and the whole explanation at the end is just wacky enough to at least be original and unexpected, even if it's not completely intelligible. And even better is that Swanwick stays focused on the story at hand and doesn't wander off into gratuitous future-sex references and talking animals and the other sorts of things that tend to fascinate him. Unlike his nominated story from a few years ago where the guy thinks he's going crazy because he believes the world is coming to an end when in fact it already has, there's more to this story than just a gratuitous one-line twist ending, and even though I point out some similarities in tone to classic writers, this story isn't derivative of them, but builds upon them and mixes things up, with very satisfying and memorable results.
  • SHORT STORY

  • "Paying It Forward", Michael A. Burstein (Analog Sep 2003)
    There's nothing wrong with this story (except maybe that Analog lists it as a novelette), it's a bit post-modern for my taste, but that's just me. It's the story of a science fiction writer just starting out, whose role model is another sf writer who has just died. The dead writer's website is still available, though, including a link to send e-mail, and when the protagonist tries it on a whim, he actually gets a response, coming to the conclusion after several e-mails that it really is the dead writer at the other end. The explanation is of course quantum computing (the hard sf writer's solution to everything these days), and the story comes full circle at the end. Burstein strikes the right, wistful sort of tone for this story, and it's a sincere homage to writers of the previous generation he may have never had the chance to meet in person but who influenced him nonetheless. Stories about sf writers can veer into self-referential or self- reverential territory too easily, and I would think the casual fan wouldn't connect with this kind of story, but I may be wrong.
  • "A Study in Emerald", Neil Gaiman (Shadows over Baker Street, ed. Michael Reaves & John Pelan, Del Rey, 2003)
    This story is from an anthology where the remit of the contributing authors is to come up with an idea which combines Arthur Conan Doyle with H.P. Lovecraft. I haven't read any of the others, but Gaiman does a creditable job and comes up with an original take on this rather forced juxtaposition by having Sherlock Holmes (or is it? The character is never named explicitly) investigating the grisly murder of a prince of the royal family, the twist here being the royal family are the great Old Ones often alluded to in Lovecraft's fiction. Gaiman doesn't spend a lot of time on the Lovecraftian aspects of the story, which is fine, his interest is more in capturing the Holmesian ability to draw accurate conclusions from scanty evidence overlooked by everyone else. The narrator is ostentsibly Watson, but even this isn't necessarily a given, although he's very Watson-like. A reader with a thorough grounding in all the Holmes stories and lore would probably notice more throwaway references and hints than I did, but in the end it's a well-done pastiche of an alternative universe Sherlock Holmes, and you're left holding the bag as to who the perpetrator really is, even after he's been found out.
  • "Four Short Novels", Joe Haldeman (F&SF Oct/Nov 2003)
    Despite the title this story is only eight pages long, and each of the four sections is given the title of a famous work of literature, like War and Peace. The first three stories (really just vignettes) describe three different parallel Earths where humanity achieved some sort of means towards immortality which resulted in some kind of transcendence, which then backfired horribly. The fourth is the happy ending, where immortality takes a backseat to good old-fashioned love, and the two characters profiled live happily ever after. A cute little story, interestingly told, and making its point about the illusory gains of immortality and are they really worth striving for.
  • "The Tale of the Golden Eagle", David D. Levine (F&SF Jun 2003)
    I wouldn't normally give this story much of a look, this kind of "future fantasy" is allright but not really something I spend a lot of time reading, but Levine turns in a nicely evocative tale centered around the idea of "bird ships", spacecraft that are able to travel the distances between inhabited worlds by grafting the brain of the eponymous golden eagle into the star drive. The story involves a tinkerer named Denali who resurrects one of these sentient brains called Nerissa into a computer, and some conversation ensues over whether she wants to go back to another ship or not. The story ends with a nice juxtaposition of the two characters each looking past what their expected future would be to the point that they ultimately trade places. Told basically as a fable, this story places itself a cut above the rest of its kind, and while it may not be a future classic it's certainly worth reading.
  • "Robots Don't Cry", Mike Resnick (Asimov's Jul 2003)
    Two scavengers come upon an old robot and are able to reactivate it, only to find that their intended fate for the robot isn't going to work. The robot had been chartered with caring for a sick person until she died, and afterwards shut down for lack of anything else to do. What Resnick has come up with here in the space of not very many pages is a good dialogue about the nature of humanity and free will and sort of updating of Asimov and the ability of robots to have emotions or to go beyond their original purpose. The interplay between the human salvager and his alien partner is amusing (there's a bit of disagreement even there about what reactions or emotions are the proper ones, even for humans). A nice little thought-provoking story that asks a lot more questions than it can answer in a short space, but does a thorough job of presenting them.
  • DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM
  • 28 Days Later (DNA Films/Fox Searchlight). Directed by Danny Boyle; written by Alex Garland.
  • Finding Nemo (Pixar/Walt Disney Pictures). Directed by Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich; screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Bob Peterson & David Reynolds; story by Andrew Stanton.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Line Cinema). Directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson; based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Walt Disney Pictures). Directed by Gore Verbinski; screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio; screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert.
  • X2: X-Men United (20th Century Fox/Marvel). Directed by Bryan Singer; screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris and David Hayter; story by Zak Penn and David Hayter & Bryan Singer
  • Retro-Hugo nominees 1954

    NOVEL

  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (Galaxy, Oct.–Dec. 1953)
    Call it what you will, but this book is basically a mystery story with an sf element, rather than the other way around. I haven't read the original collection of Robot stories, but this offshoot from a few years later posits a world populated by servant robots and humanity feeling varying degrees of threat from the prospect of a new, more human, smarter class of robot. Racism and bigotry abounds in all the principal characters, chief among them the protagonist Lije Baley, but it's "racism" against robots, and primarily it's because these new models look so much like humans that no one can be sure who's a robot and who isn't (much like, dare I say it, no one could be sure in 1953 who was a Communist?). Bailey is not a particularly likeable character to begin with, and when he's partnered up with one of these new-fangled robots who for some reason has the name Daneel Olivaw, he's full of angst over what to do about it. Their mission is to solve the murder of the man who created Daneel. Seems like a reasonable premise, but Baley comes across as a rather inept detective, basically accusing everyone in sight one by one, including Daneel himself, until he finally hits upon the right one. Even his wife is temporarily under suspicion as she, unbeknownst to him, has gone and joined a sort of pro-Luddite protest group. The future seems rather generic, there are "spacers" who have some sort of federation that is at odds with earth's government, people use moving sidewalks and cops carry blasters, the cities are vast tracts of steel and concrete where the buildings have no windows. No explanation of robotics is really offered other than their "positronic brain", which is really no explanation at all. Daneel is annoyingly above the petty bickering of the humans around him, it would've been more interesting if he'd been a little less perfect, if Baley was a little more competent and a little less annoying, and if Asimov had a little more to say with this story than just a whodunit with robots.
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Ballantine)
    Bradbury's first real novel (an expansion of an earlier story from Galaxy) shows how much he and Philip K. Dick had in common. Where Dick preferred the taut Kornbluthian prose where not a word was wasted, Bradbury, while not exactly verbose, is much more poetic about what he describes, and as a result this book, really a series of loosely connected vignettes, is all over the place, but is still a classic. Possibly the most widely read sf book outside of the genre, the cautionary tale aspect of this story is really not the main thrust of the narrative. At the beginning, the main character Montag doesn't take much after years of loyal service to start questioning his role in burning books, to the point that he preserves a few just to see what all the fuss is about. Without really meaning to, the system suddenly has turned on him and, in true PKD fashion, he becomes a fugitive from his former co-workers. The populace even gets to watch the manhunt for him live (here and in other ways anticipating reality tv). The real cause behind the bookburning isn't censorship so much as political correctness, but that becomes just a means to an end for Montag to question why things are the way they are, and why everything is so entrenched that it can't be changed, particularly when he encounters a group of vagabonds who have taken it upon themselves to memorize the contents of the books. There's definitely some spectre of thinly veiled communism at work here, but the way Bradbury presents it would seem to be way ahead of its time for the 50's. Deservedly a classic and worthy of any award that can be bestowed upon it.
  • Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke (Ballantine)
  • Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement (Astounding, April–July 1953)
    I will be truly shocked if this book doesn't win. But it has nothing to do with the fact that this is the seminal "hard sf" novel, which spawned an entire sub-genre of clanky stories that kept Astounding in business for the next 20 years. No, I think it will win because the Worldcon is in Boston, and Hal Clement was the premier Boston fan for the last half century-plus, and the fact that he went and died six months ago is just icing on the cake. Because let's be honest, Hal Clement couldn't write that well. His prose is a clunky monotone, the characters are all interchangeable, including here even the non-human ones, which is quite a feat considering they're basically overgrown slugs, and the dialog everyone spouts is so awkward and artificial sounding it would make James Fenimore Cooper snicker. The premise is a good one, a planet where the gravity is up to 700 times that of Earth, and a rescue mission that has to take into account the various difficulties that imposes. What makes this book a classic to sf fans who like hard sf is the rigorous working out of ideas, where literally every couple of paragraphs some trick of physics or chemistry or biology is being explained, and deep down it really should be an adventure story as told by and to people who want to really understand and believe what is going on, rather than just spinning out a space operatic tale with no thought for the science behind it. In a way this is a problem with sf in general, that huge shortcomings in some of the classic work in the field is overlooked or ignored in order to focus on the ideas being presented, such that readers from outside of the field who investigate these works as representative of the genre are generally appalled at what they see from a more literary standpoint, since the pure sf aspect isn't of as much interest to them (Foundation being another good example). Too bad Hal won't be there to accept, but this one's a lock.
  • More than Human, Theodore Sturgeon (Ballantine)
    Sturgeon was not a novelist, he really excelled with the single worked-out idea, although some ideas took longer than others to work through. This, his most famous novel and maybe his most famous story altogether (unless you want to count "Killdozer"), is really three novellas run together, an expansion of the story "Baby is Three", which is the middle one of the set. Since its that middle one that forms the crux of the whole thing, the other two parts are quite purposefully tacked on, and the whole thing doesn't completely hang together. In the first part, we meet "The Fabulous Idiot" named Lone, who seems to come from nowhere without knowing anything, but is eventually befriended and taken in by an old farm couple who have lost their own son, and through their tutelage he learns enough to take care of himself. Various other characters are introduced, most of them quite young and endowed with some special ability, either to control people's thoughts, or teleportation, things that take the place of normal abilities such that they are naturally unable to interact much with the rest of society. As a result they eventually all come together in the middle section of the book, where they are living under the watchful eye of Miss Kew, who can't quite believe their special talents really exist but tries to raise them properly. This, the original story from which the novel is expanded, is the only part told after the fact in the first person by one of the older kids, Gerry, who now years later is telling this story to a psychiatrist. The upshot of it all is that what these individuals have together is a gestalt identity, offered up as the next phase of human evolution although it would seem to be an evolutionary dead end since they're such social misfits. In the last part, "Morality", the girl Janie is grown up and looking after an Air Force lieutenant named Hip who has forgotten everything about his past, and she gradually brings him out of it and gets him to understand what happened and what Gerry had to do with it. There's a fair amount of debate in this section on ethics and morality and how these are different for those with special or heightened abilities. You can't help but feel Sturgeon read a psychology textbook and is regurgitating the interesting parts into these story ideas, but that should not diminish the seminal importance of this book as a primary example of taking the SF of the time into new directions, where the science is inside the mind and the future being proposed centers on the evolution of mankind. I think what holds it back a little is the obvious intercutting of different stories told in different ways, he might have been better served by either mixing them up more or more thoroughly rewriting and integrating the middle part with the others. Not my favorite Sturgeon, but still his usual poetic, thought-provoking self, and certainly a classic.
  • NOVELLA

  • "Three Hearts and Three Lions", Poul Anderson (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept.-Oct. 1953)
    While it's the original novella that was nominated, I imagine what people really voted for was the novel version of this story, which is the only one I could find. I don't know how much Anderson expanded it for book publication, probably not that much, and I can't say I could tell what might have been tacked on after the fact. What this story puts forth is a now somewhat conventional tale of a man swept up from the midst of battle in World War II and transplanted in some unspecified part of the Middle Ages, speaking in another language and fulfilling a role as a legendary knight without even trying. In this respect the story reminded me of Burroughs, particularly John Carter of Mars. What's nice about Anderson's version is that the hero has adventures pretty much by accident as a result of trying to get to the people who may be able to help him get home, and even when he meets the gorgeous damsel who swoons over him, he knows they should just be good friends. I also like how Anderson allows his protagonist, Holger Carlsen, to use some of his knowledge of engineering to improvise some escapes from potentially sticky situations, rather than relying solely on brawn. But don't get me wrong, the story kind of meanders along, there's not a strong sense of place, many of the local characters speak with thick accents that make their lines sometimes difficult to read (and I had a tendency to hear them with a broad Scottish accent, which just made it unintentionally funny), the villain isn't that villainous. It's important to note that this was an early example of this kind of heroic fantasy story with some sf trappings, and for that it's worth reading, but many, including Anderson himself, improved upon it in later years.
  • "Un-Man", Poul Anderson (Astounding, Jan. 1953)
    This is a classic pulp story from the '30's and '40's brought into a future where the United Nations runs the whole world with a magnanimous iron fist. Considering this was written only a few years after the formation of the U.N., I think it was a natural extrapolation that this was a good possibility of where things were headed, with individual governments ceding authority to the world organization, rather than the ineffectual bureaucracy that it instead became. The pulpy angle comes in with the main characters, the un-men, who are a group of super-secret undercover agents working to infiltrate those various groups that seek to decrease the dominance of the U.N. They all look alike and go by assumed names, such that when one is captured and killed, another steps in to take his place with the dead man's wife none the wiser. As he picks up the case where his predecessor left off, he ends up finding out just where he and the rest of the un-men came from. And in the end he gets the girl, too. Told in concise, snappy prose, this is Anderson at the top of his form, full of good ideas and characters worthy of taking them on.
  • "A Case of Conscience", James Blish (If, Sept. 1953)
    This is the original novella which was subsequently expanded into a novel, which won the Hugo for that year. When I read the longer version a few years ago I have to say it left me flummoxed, it was hard to follow what was going on or what was the point. The novella seems a little more straightforward, although it does suffer from dumping the reader into the middle of the action and leaving him to figure out what the fuss is about. But patient reading (which I'm not very good at) provides its rewards, and you're left with a seminal human/alien encounter story where the humans have second thoughts about what's going to happen to the aliens. Of the four men sent to Lithia to judge its suitability for raw materials or as a waystation, one is a Jesuit priest, although I'm not quite sure why, unless the implication is that in this future organized religion is predominant enough to have a role in space travel. While the other members of the group think the planet has potential for one type of exploitation or another, the priest strongly implores that they leave and never come back, because the indiginent intelligent species actually transforms from one type of creature to another as it grows. This idea of "recapitulation" (Haeckel's famous dictum that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny") in human embryos is an argument for evolution (although I don't think it was taken seriously by anyone at the time this story was written), which goes against the church, and the evidence of a similar process outside of the womb, he reasons, would give the theory more credence than it deserves. Blish doesn't really take sides on this issue himself, so the reader is left to figure out just what he's trying to say, is the story anti-religious or anti-evolution, or what? On the surface, the story would seem to indicate that the human inclination to look upon our relationship to another sentient species as paternal, if not patronizing, is not always going to be the case, and in a subtle way with this setting the aliens could cause the undoing of human civilization without even realizing it. Thought-provoking, to be sure, this is the kind of story that sticks with you and can change its viewpoint with multiple readings.
  • "The Rose", Charles L. Harness (Authentic Science Fiction Monthly, March 1953)
    I don't know if this is a good story or not. Harness had a rather spotty career and wrote a fair amount of stuff that I think must be of some literary merit but was never particularly popular with the sf crowd. For someone like me, who isn't reading particularly carefully but is attuned more to general feelings of pacing, idea and plot, this story fades from memory the second you stop reading it. I think Harness, whom I've never reading anything else of before, is working with some big themes here particularly as it relates to the relationship between science and art, is one better than the other, can one exist without the other, but I don't get the sense that a lot of time is spent actually grappling with these questions in the story, directly anyway, a lot is left as an exercise for the reader, which is where multiple readings would definitely come in handy. There's a dancer named Anna who is asked to present a ballet for some Rose Festival, she meets up with another dancer, Ruy, whose wife is distinctly anti-art or at least pro-science. None of these people appear to be human, although the background is definitely earth history. This story was originally published in an obscure British magazine, presumably after being rejected by the US ones, and although Harness is American the story has an English feel to it, what with the lack of dramatic high points and mostly undifferentiated characters. In an alternate universe where the Hugos were really given out for 1953, this story would not have been nominated. It's not that I don't think it's worthy, or that it stands on its own merit now, in fact I'd be curious to read more of Harness' stuff, but while the writing is not oblique it's still difficult to find something to sink your teeth into with this story, even though the putative subject would be of great interest to me.
  • "...And My Fear is Great...", Theodore Sturgeon (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, July 1953)
    Two ways to make a story title sound pretentious is to have it begin with the word "and" and to contain an ellipsis. Sturgeon does both, but so what, he's at the top of his form and this story is a standout in every respect. Long enough for him to explore some of his themes in his preferred circumspect style, but not so long that it rambles all over the place, Sturgeon delves into the characters of Don, a young delivery man, and Phoebe, the woman who takes him in has her charge with the goal of opening up his mind to those around him. The title, a snippet of a poem from Yeats, seems to focus the author's intent on the idea of trust and communication, letting a person into a private part of oneself, and the inherent risks involved in doing so. At one point in the story, the two characters have a falling out over a misunderstanding resulting from an incident involving Don and a girl with the police. Phoebe leaps to the wrong conclusion and casts him off, and years go by before some kind of reconciliation is attempted. This story is barely science fiction, the "mental powers" aspect of what she's trying to teach him is almost incidental, but Sturgeon's prose deftly conveys all of their inner struggles as well as outer ones, tying things up very neatly in the end at just the right point. Although I've read a fair amount of his work before, reading these nominated stories in isolation this year has given me a greater appreciation of his craft, and he strikes me as a writer who doesn't really benefit from a single author collection, because stories like this one and "Saucer of Loneliness" need to have some space of their own to be properly appreciated.
  • NOVELETTE

  • "Sam Hall", Poul Anderson (Astounding, Aug. 1953)
    Here's another story that maybe looks more intriguing now with hindsight than it might have at the time it was first published. The eponymous Mr. Hall is a fictional construct of a bored individual named Thornberg who is this simpler information age has unlimited access to whatever computer systems he may need (all punch cards and mag tape, of course) to fabricate the identity of a Sam Hall as a prank. He then takes things a step further by implicating Hall as the murderer in an unsolved crime, and things kind of snowball from there. Fortunately for the rest of the world, even though security is lax in this future there's still an audit trail, and the powers that be finally catch up. That's all well and good, but the real prescience of this story is the idea, just taking shape at the time it was written, that in the future the government could know everything about you at every moment through the cross-computer filtering of vast amounts of personal data. Anderson's cautionary tale is actually spurred on by the rise of a totalitarian state, but in this day and age we know you don't need a dictatorship to be witness or victim to the fabrication of information, or the appropriation of real information that could be used against you.
  • "The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound", Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson (Universe, Dec. 1953)
    Who are we kidding here, the Hoka stories may collectively deserve a place in sf readers' hearts, but individually, at least in this case, this is hardly Hugo material. The quintessential furry aliens, the Hoka have decided in this story to act out as Sherlock Holmes in order to help their human investigators solve the search for some other alien critter. There's serious channeling of the Hounds of the Baskervilles as an ersatz Holmes co-opts his human counterpart as Watson and solves the case much as Doyle would have the real private eye do, replete with pipe, hat, violin, and wild extrapolations on the flimsiest of evidence that turn out to be true. I suppose we can consider it refreshing in that it's not another anti-communist allegory, but it seems unlikely that if our brethren of a half century ago had been given the chance to pick their own nominees that this would've been among the contenders.
  • "Earthman, Come Home", James Blish (Astounding, Nov. 1953)
    Blish is one of our more neglected writers from this era, fairly prolific but with the misfortune of dying too soon to establish himself to the current generations of readers, and maybe without enough of a champion from the public or his estate such that his entire output languishes out of print. But in the '50's, he was at the top of his form, and this story, the basis for what became "Cities in Flight", which I would consider his best novel, is spectacular. Blish seemingly conceives an entire future all at once in glorious detail, with the politics and the science and the history all fully developed from the first paragraph. Technology allows the humans of the future to fly their cities around from planet to planet gathering up the raw materials they need. This naturally makes for some interesting social and political situations, and Blish has already thought them all through. The plot as such involves the Amalfi, the mayor of one city, who gets embroiled in a revolutionary plot that works against his way of life. I can't say I can completely follow what's going on in a single reading, but in a way the plot doesn't matter so much as the total mastery of setting that Blish puts forth in the space of 40 or so pages. Maybe a bit more narrative drive or distinctive characters would put this story into true classicdom, but even as is it's still a worthy contender.
  • "The Wall Around the World", Theodore Cogswell (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, Sept. 1953)
    Cogswell is largely forgotten today, but in the '50's he wrote a series of stories that blended sf with fantasy, along the lines of Kuttner or Fred Brown, and this one, maybe his best known, is remembered as being an allegorical tale about someone trying to bridge the two camps. The main character, a boy named Porgie, lives in a world where magic is commonplace, and in this pre-Hogwarts era is trying to find out what's on the other side of an impossibly tall, ubitquitous wall which no one has ever crossed. Much of the story involves his various attempts to invent ways to fly over the wall, by coming up with different designs for a glider (which as a mechanical device is unknown in his world), ultimately succeeding with the additional power of his broomstick. His parents, teachers and friends all consider this a bad idea, but he does it anyway. Suffice it say what's on the other side is in direct contradiction to the world he's lived in. The sledgehammer symbolism doesn't get in the way of what is otherwise a fairly routine story, and may go even further than commenting on the sf vs fantasy camps into sf in general vs the rest of the world, although I think most sf writers didn't really care about that overmuch back then. If these nominations were happening in '54 rather than '04, I don't know that this one would have risen quite so high.
  • "Second Variety", Philip K. Dick (Space Science Fiction, May 1953)
    This story sets up the classic "alien killer robots walk among us" scenario, where in a post-apocalyptic world both sides in the ongoing war are now being terrorized by a new class of robot that has been spawned by the military's own smart killing machines. They know there are three varieties of them, but they've only seen the first and third, so there is still no positive identification of the eponymous "second variety". When one operative from our side meets up with three from the other side on what was supposed to be a mission of negotiation, this information comes to light and they instantly suspect one another. It's no surprise that the second variety is ultimately revealed, and I think even less of a surprise that it doesn't stop there. Unfortunately, with 50 years of PKD under your belt, as a reader you get into the mindset of "things are not what they seem" that is endemic in his stories quite easily, so even when the mystery robot is revealed, there's no reason to believe that the paranoia ends there. So the final payoff is way predictable, and rather depressing in that the hero has basically doomed the species by not being as paranoid as he should have been. But the stated implication that these different varieties of killer robots are already starting to fight each other is enticingly chilling, and the story is told with the such deftness and economy of means that you can't help but like it anyway. Yet another allegory of communism, of course, but so what. In our enlightened era we suspect monsters under the bed at every turn, which lessens this story's impact, but in the era in which this story was published, sure paranoia was already a national pastime, but I think it would've still carried the power to knock the reader's socks off.
  • SHORT STORY

  • "Star Light, Star Bright", Alfred Bester (Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1953)
    This story has "Twilight Zone episode" written all over it, but I don't know whether it ever became one or not. A couple of guys set about to track down a young boy who seems to have developed a network of kids who are all geniuses of one kind or another. But those who are doing the tracking mysteriously disappear. As it turns out the boy has his own superpower, of which he is unaware, which keeps him from being apprehended. But that's not so much the twist as is the image at the end of his chief protagonist who has just discovered what he's truly up against. Bester excels at this kind of story, with a strong central idea and economy of means that leads to a dramatic punchline. The title is a bit unhelpful (also typical of Bester), but the story delivers the goods.
  • "It's a Good Life", Jerome Bixby (Star Science Fiction Stories #2, Ballantine)
    Apparently I've seen this story dramatized in the Twilight Zone movie, but all I can remember is the one with John Lithgow in the plane, and that's not this one. Bixby was an editor and tv writer who wrote a string of stories in the '50's, including this one which became a TZ episode and then reworked for the movie 25 years later. It's also included in Silverberg's SF Hall of Fame collection, alongside "Nightfall", "The Roads Must Roll", and other icons of the genre. So this is a heavyweight contender here, and the story still packs some punch now. Even though you can see the ending coming about half way through, I think that probably wasn't the case back then with a half century less of tv and comic horror stories going for the same effect. There's a boy named Anthony who can basically make anyone in his small town do whatever he wants, and being a boy his wants are dramatic and instantaneous. The title comes from the essence of what everyone around him has to repeat to each other all the time, with an emphasis on the "good". The adults even try to throw a party and have a good time, but things don't work out as planned. When you see that people are coveting a small fixed number of books, records and other durable goods, you can pretty much tell what has happened, really the archetypal TZ twist where something horrible is going on but everyone tries to soldier on as though everything were ok. Is this a metaphor for living under communism? Does every story from the '50's have to be about communism? I think it's just a good creepy story in the true Shirley Jackson mode and worthy of its classic status.
  • "The Nine Billion Names of God", Arthur C. Clarke (Star Science Fiction Stories #1, Ballantine)
    Arguably the most famous story nominated in all the short fiction categories this year, it's also the shortest, weighing in at about 7 pages. But what makes it so memorable? Certainly not the characters, they're just cut-outs, and the plotting really can't pick up that much steam in such a short length to pack the wallop it probably could (although it was probably more effective 50 years ago when most stories were shorter anyway). No, I think what makes this story endure is it's unapologetic mixture of science and religion, something I don't think anyone else had succeeded in before Clarke, unless it was in a very abstract, "isn't-the-universe-awesome" kind of way. Since just about every Clarke story takes that approach (what Baxter calls "sensawunda"), what you have in this story and many of his others is the sense of scale of the cosmos that drew people from my generation and before to sf in the first place. Unlike his other story "The Star", where science and religion clash spetacularly, here the religious aspect, developing a list of all the possible names of God, is helped by science, the computer that is used to help derive them all. The implication, which Clarke didn't necessarily subscribe to, was that through science we could achieve a greater understanding not only of the universe, but of any mythological or supernatural aspects of it also. At the end, Clarke offers no scientific explanation for what happens once all the names of God have been produced, but that just adds to the sense of wonder. The seemingly unscientific, supernatural event that closes the story fills us with awe more than a detailed physics-laden explanation ever would. Campbell wouldn't have bought it, but Clarke knew better.
  • "The Seventh Victim", Robert Sheckley (Galaxy, April 1953)
    This story is basically a crime story, although a pretty good one. The ludicrous premise is that in the future people's murderous impulses will be so great that in order to stave off wars, a rigid system of allowing people to kill some random person if they so choose will be preferable, provided they then take a turn being the potential victim. Once you've killed 10 people you become part of a special club, and the protagonist is going for #7 this time, but is thrown for a loop when his randomly selected victim turns out to be a woman (these violent impulses are confined to men from the perspective of 1953, so the potential victims are always men also). Worse still, she's not making any effort to evade her attacker. But, as is usually the case, things aren't always as they seem, and while the ending isn't exactly unique, it's done well and rounds out a very concise, tightly paced and entertaining story.
  • "A Saucer of Loneliness", Theodore Sturgeon (Galaxy, Feb. 1953)
    This is a tough story to quantify because, like much of Sturgeon's short fiction, it's more impressionistic, and while there is a semblance of plot and certainly theme here, it all kind of takes a backseat to his prose, which conjures up imagery and emotional reaction without even breaking a sweat. On the surface, the story begins with two nameless characters after the man saves a young woman from drowning herself. She reveals that she is the person who achieved some notoriety after a flying saucer appeared from nowhere one day and spoke only to her, then promptly disappeared. The government tries to find out what it said, but she's not telling, instead writing down the message periodically and putting it in a bottle that she throws into the ocean. The backdrop of paranoia over what the visitors may have said, her sense of isolation from the outside world, and the shared secret she has with the saucer project a profound sense of loss, injustice with the world, all in maybe 13 pages. Unlike Bradbury (who has a similar style) these stories are hard to remember because of the lack of development, but spectacular none the less.

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