Thursday, November 2, 2017

Isaac Asimov, The Super Hugos (1992)

Asimov, Isaac, editor. The Super Hugos. New York: Baen Books, September 1992.

The Super Hugos at Goodreads
The Super Hugos at ISFdb

Overall Rating:     8/10

Credited to Isaac Asimov as "presenter," the iconic author passed away during the preparation of the anthology. The idea for the book came from prolific editor Martin Harry Greenberg, and had the book been released before Asimov's death, it might have been another of the many books credited as a collaboration between the two. Along with co-editors Asimov and Greenberg, Charles Sheffield might have been the third name, as he supplies the main introduction and a brief intro to each story, which he informs us in a note were all written before Asimov's death. Indeed, many hands were involved in compiling the voting for the best Hugo Award recipients, a process which Asimov likely had little (or nothing) to do with. It is possible he might have contributed a preface to the book, though there is no evidence in the book for this.

In production for the book, members of the Science Fiction Writers' Association (SFWA) were invited to vote for their favourite past Hugo winners, and the book includes the three most voted novellas and novelettes, and the four most voted short stories, for a total of ten stories. I like the idea as well as the end result, since when dealing with such quality, though not every story is for every person, there is not one bad story in the group. At the same time, however, because these are such popular and successful works, they are oft anthologized and, aside from compiling them together, is there need for additional presentation of stories that have been presented enough, while other quality stories get ignored?

But I digress...

Of the ten stories, three I had not yet read: Simak's "The Big Front Yard," Niven's "Neutron Star" and Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man." Of these, "Neutron Star" was my favourite. Of the entire collection, I would select "Sandkings" and "Flowers for Algernon" as my top stories, with "Enemy Mine" close behind. The only story I outright dislike is "Weyr Search," but that is mostly due to personal taste. I read "Weyr Search" many years back in Nebula Award Stories Three and did not like it then; I tried re-reading it here but could not get past two pages. I also did not care for "The Big Front Yard," though acknowledge it has some interesting elements. Of all these stories, those with the highest rating on ISFdb (as of the writing of this article) are "Flowers for Algernon" (9.63), "Sandkings" (9.38), and "Enemy Mine" (9.20).

Originally I had thought of writing a separate article on each story, but since these pieces are all well-read, overly anthologized and frequently written on, I figured I would have little to add to their lexicons and will keep my comments brief. I will also include the interesting details as per the voting of each category, according to the information in the appendices and introduction. Finally, I will mention that I liked Sheffield's additions to the anthology, which added unity to the work and kept its purpose at the forefront. Something often lacking in anthologies, and lacking in many of Greenberg's, in particular. I will return to the notes at the end of this article.

Sandkings by George RR Martin     9/10
(Omni, August 1979)
Listing on ISFdb

Self-interested Simon Kress searches for a unique pet to entertain both himself and regular party guests. He settles on sandkings, socially advanced insect-like hive creatures. What interests Kress is that the hives can wage war with one another, something he believes will provide excellent entertainment. However, lacking the patience to allow the creatures to evolve, Kress instead starves them in order to initiate combat.

I first read "Sandkings" in Nebula Winners Fifteen when I was a pre-teen more interested in science fiction than I am now. That same anthology included two other greats: Barry B. Longyear's "Enemy Mine" and Orson Scott Card's "Unaccompanied Sonata." The oft-anthologized and oft-praised "Sandkings" is strengthened with a re-read; while I clearly remembered many of the details of this story, including the ending, I was nonetheless wrapped up in re-reading the novella.

Martin takes liberties with the end paragraph, since the idea... well, what Kress sees (avoiding a spoiler here) has no bearing on anything we have learned about the sandkings. We understand that the creatures carve faces of their perceived god into their fortress walls, and that they drop their plating as they are in constant evolution, but there is no indication that the biological evolution can take on something that is obviously external to the creatures. Martin tosses this is for effect, and it is quite effective.

There is a possible nod to Theodore Sturgeon, or perhaps a stretch from my end. While shopping for a pet the salesperson informs Kress that they have a mimic from Celia's World. Though the mimic is a simian, I immediately recalled Sturgeon's suspenseful short story "The Other Celia," which involves an alien who must transfer herself over to a new body each night.

The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov     7/10
(Stellar #2, edited by Judy-Lynn Del Rey. NY: Ballantine Books, February 1976)
Listing on ISFdb

When an android shows an inexplicably creative side, its owner and family help it to achieve its ambition: to become human. Over the course of two hundred years, the family and their descendants do what they can to change bylaws and physical make-up, but continually need to deal with human prejudice.

The story received three major awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards for best novelette. It was originally intended for publication in an anthology dedicated to the US bicentennial, but the project was dropped.

Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear     8/10
(Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, September 1979)
Listing on ISFdb

Published one month after Martin's "Sandkings," I also read this for the first time in Nebula Winners Fifteen. Amid a viscious war between humans and Dracs, human pilot Willis Davidge and Drac soldier Jeriba Shigan crash onto an ecologically hostile planet where they are immediately forced to unite resources in order to survive. An excellent story not just for its anti racial message, notions of family and survival, but the fact that it is written with such energy and clarity amid a chaotic setting elevates the story above its social vision.

The Star by Arthur C. Clarke     7/10
(Infinity Science Fiction, November 1955)
Listing on ISFdb

Returning to Earth from an expedition to the site of a supernova, a Jesuit priest is in deep existential meditation, the reason for which is slowly revealed as the narrative progresses. Without giving anything away, the surprise ending of the story does not stop at the surprise itself, as Clarke asks a fundamental metaphysical question, which of course can be answered differently depending on your faith, or lack of.

The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak     6/10
(Astounding Science Fiction, October 1958)
Listing on ISFdb

Hiram Taine's house is infiltrated by alien beings that transform his home into a doorway to another world. This other world serves to access several other doorways, each to another world. Though the story is certainly interesting, its tone and simplistic approach to its protagonist unfortunately weighs the story down to its decade, leaving it feeling dated.

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison     7/10
(Galaxy Magazine, December 1965)
Listing on ISFdb

In a dystopia that functions through regimented punctuality, where time lost is taken away from a person's expected life-span, a Harlequin wreaks havoc on the orderliness of things. Ellison's story is presented without ambiguity, with lines and characters that are so black/white no other colour or shade has the opportunity of creeping in. The story works due to its level of satire and the interesting structure in which it is presented. I loved this story when I first read it in my teens, from the entertaining Leo P. Kelly anthology Fantasy: The Literature of the Marvelous (McGraw-Hill, 1973), but unlike the excellent "Sandkings," this one has since lost appeal to me, and as I get older, so does much of Ellison's work. Still a good story, particularly if one has not yet read it.

This is the third most-voted short story, and from the top five list, one of three written by Ellison.

Weyr Search by Anne McAffrey     --/10
(Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, October 1967)
Listing on ISFdb

Unrated because I could not re-read the story. I read "Weyr Search" a number of years back in the anthology Nebula Award Stories Three (ed. Roger Zelazny, Pocket Books, 1970), and did not like it at all. However, I acknowledge that my dislike for the story is due primarily to my own taste and not necessarily the story itself. I simply struggle with stories of dragons and that kind of fantasy. The fact that the story received both the Hugo and the Nebula in its category says much about my taste, but I also believe that over time these fantasies have diminished. Interestingly enough, it is the only story that has a single rating on ISFdb (which is my original rating from a few years back), which is to imply that the story is not read much anymore.

Neutron Star by Larry Niven     8/10
(Worlds of If, October 1966)
Listing on ISFdb

Unemployed and heavily in-debt pilot Beowulf Shaeffer is hired to fly to a neutron star that inexplicably claimed the lives of two researchers. It is a dangerous mission, with a near death guarantee, and Niven does well in trapping Shaeffer in an offer he can't refuse. Aside from the mystery of the neutron star and the death of the researchers, the story is nicely shaped into something more complex, with the inclusion of the fascinating alien race of Pierson's Puppeteers, Shaeffer's own persona and agendas, and the special, unbreachable ship (the Skydiver) that is constructed for the mission. Highly satisfying and entertaining.

Niven's story is credited to be the first to investigate the neutron star, doing so before science had a firm grasp on its properties. "Neutron Star" was the second most voted short story. The sixth most voted, according to the notes, is Niven's "Inconstant Moon" (All the Myriad Ways. NY: Ballantine Books, 1971), which is listed as a novelette at the ISFdb.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison     7/10
(Worlds of If, March 1967)
Listing on ISFdb

In this post apocalyptic story, the five seemingly last people on Earth live inside a super computer that, once a war machine, has gained sentience and wiped out the rest of humanity. Motivated by an insatiable hatred for humanity, the computer, AM, preserves the five humans in order to mount an everlasting series of extreme punishment and torture. Told through the point of view of one man, Ted, the reader is taken on a journey with the group to find some canned food, while getting glimpses of the kinds of punishment the humans endure, alongside snippets of backstory. A dark and engaging read despite the borderline misogyny.

The story garnered the most votes for the Super Hugo, one of three for Ellison. I prefer this one over his "Ticktockman" though both are nicely titled, but I do prefer Niven's "Neutron Star" overall for best short story.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes     8/10
(The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1959)
Listing on ISFdb

It is difficult to dislike this widely read novella, the story of intellectually disabled thirty-seven year-old Charlie Gordon and the experiment that transforms him into a uniquely brilliant individual, only to see its effects reversed. Despite the vats of cheese and sentiment in the story, the writing spans the gamut of emotion, from humour to desperation, maintaining dramatic focus. It must be read.

The anthology includes detailed sections on the voting process and results of voting in all categories. I will reproduce the top five voting results for the four main sections here, with their year of publication.

Best Short Story
1. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison, 1967
2. Neutron Star, Larry Niven, 1966
3. "Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman, Harlan Ellison, 1965
4. The Star, Arthur C. Clarke, 1956
5. Jeffty I Five, Harlan Ellison, 1978

Best Novelette
1. The Big Front Yard, Clifford D. Simak, 1958
2. The Bicentennial Man, Isaac Asimov, 1976
3. Sandkings, George RR Martin, 1979
4. Unicorn Variations, Roger Zelazny, 1981
5. Blood Music, Greg Bear, 1984

Best Novella
1. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes, 1959
2. Weyr Search, Anne McCaffrey, 1967
3. Enemy Mine, Barry B. Longyear, 1979
4. Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber, 1970
5. Soldier Ask Not, Gordon R., 1964

For more of this week's Fridays Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

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As of 24 December 2015