Hugo Nominees: What Makes a Good Scifi/Fantasy Book

I don’t try to describe the future.  I try to prevent it.

-Ray Bradbury

[Minor spoiler’s ahoy]

As I’ve already mentioned, I love science fiction and fantasy because both genres allow us to imagine different cultures and allow us to explore different social norms.  This reminds me of the sociological imagination, a concept coined by C. Wright Mills.  This is usually one of the first concepts taught to beginning sociology students.  Ultimately, we should be able to connect our life experiences to the larger social context that they are embedded in (Mills 1959).  Mills admonished his readers that people should think creatively about their own society.  I suspect that exposure to different cultures and norms in literature actually helps us evaluate our own society better.  For example, I know that reading Ursula Le Guin’s novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness, ” helped me consider gender roles and stratification in a more nuanced manner.  Her characters on the planet “Winter” do not fit into our ideas of sex, gender, sexuality, or gender roles.  Le Guin seemed to be playing with our ideas of duality of sex and gender.  This book published in 1969 helped me better understand my own society in the 21st century.

 

I love asking the question “what if?”  And I love seeing how other people ask and answer this question in their stories.  Additionally, authors can ask questions and discuss topics in science fiction and fantasy that would get them, at best, called names in our society if discussed directly and openly.  (Of course, some authors, like Salman Rushdie, have received death threats for their works of literature.  Rushie’s works are in the area of magical realism, which is a step closer to our reality than the genre of fantasy.)

 

As a child and teen, I read popular fantasy books, but it was in my mid-twenties that I discovered my love of science fiction.  I began reading Hugo winners several years ago to get a sense of past science fiction.  I found that the rampant sexism present in many of the early books made me profoundly uncomfortable, but I usually walked away from those books feeling like I had a new understanding of the world despite my discomfort.

 

For readers less familiar with sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo award is actually a set of awards for people and art in the area of science fiction and fantasy.  I’m particularly interested in reviewing the novels this year.  In a previous post, I reviewed “Among Others” by Jo Walton, which I thought was a lovely book. I’ve also finished “Leviathan Wakes,” and “Embassytown.”  All summer, I’ve been reading George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, but I haven’t reached “A Dance with Dragons” yet.  Although I plan to review all types of fiction, in addition to nonfiction like sociology books, these first posts will relate to the books I read to be an informed Hugo voter.

 

As I mentioned, the books that I read were brilliant in different ways.  This has forced me to really evaluate what I think “great” literature is generally, in addition to what qualifies as the “best” science fiction and/or fantasy.  When speaking to literature in general, I prefer books have good characterization and character growth, beautiful prose, an important overarching theme, and good societal analysis.  One of my favorite classic novels is “Anna Karenina.”  In it, Tolstoy shows how the characters change over time, but he also connects their different outcomes to how embedded in their culture they are.  Do they have quality social ties?  How does this connect to suicide?  He explores gender, social class, and many other topics.  The book is also well-written, although many people critique his sections relating to the agrarian part of the society.  I found this fascinating as a person who took her comprehensive exams in work, occupations, and organizations sociology.  I’m more specific in what I hope for in my science fiction.

 

In terms of voting for the Hugo, I hoped to see a book that deeply challenges some aspect of society.  I want to be challenged in how I think about my own society.  This year, I feel that China Miéville’s, “Embassytown” does this the best of the books that I read.  I plan to write a more in-depth blog about it soon, but for now, I have to say that, at first, I was very confused.  The reader is thrown directly into the culture, and it is very different in many ways than ours.  The book explores conflict between cultures and does a more realistic job of showing how different beings from diverse planets would have a much more difficult time communicating than is normally shown in science fiction.  This book floored me, and I actually want to read it again soon.  I suppose that in science fiction, I choose challenges to society over characterization.  I felt that “Among Others” actually had better characterization in many ways.  Hopefully, as I blog about the books that I am reading, I will learn more of what I think makes good books, whether in science fiction or more broadly.

 

Questions:

(1) What is your favorite science fiction book or fantasy book?  Why?

(2) What do you think is the most important aspect of fiction for you?  What makes great fiction?

(3) Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts on what makes good, award winning science fiction and fantasy?  What do you look for?

(4)  What book do you think deserved to win the 2012 Hugo?

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Science Fiction

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