My first Check-In post in this auspicious quest. I’m going to admit, I thought this would be a breeze given word count in books in the 1960s were far and away less than the current average word count. What I didn’t take into account was the -isms. Sexism, racism, etc. And some of that can be…difficult.
Now, I’m going to do my best to consider the time period in an effort to be a little more fair since it’s truly impossible to judge certain things by today’s standards when thinking of yesterday, especially when I obviously wasn’t around fifty-sixty years ago to have personally experienced the world then. So certain instances, like calling all women “girls” or the invisibility of certain races, I will strive to overlook.
However, I’m human and my beliefs will very likely get in the way sometimes.
So far, I’ve read four of the 1965 Nebula Nominations:
The first book I read was Rogue Dragon by Avram Davidson, a small, chapbook-sized science fiction novel about an Earth that had been turned into a hunting ground for unintelligent creatures titled dragons. In reality, the descriptions and writing of these dragons resembled large theropods. (And, in fact, there’s a scene that heavily reminds me of Jurassic Park, though of course that book wasn’t published until the 90s.)
The lead character goes on a discovery adventure where he lands within one group of characters after another, becoming acquainted with different sides of the entire story there on future Earth. His journey is a haphazard series of events though, with much of his autonomy stolen from him often enough that it’s comical to discover just how he would stumble into the next phase of the story. He is not a typical hero for the bulk of the story; he’s more of an information gatherer.
By the end, we see a change in him, but it has less to do with character growth and more to do with finally putting the puzzle pieces together of what these dragons are, what they represent.
For much of the novel and even up to a few pages from the end, I thought there would be a comment on the hunting for sport going on using these dragons. The hunt started the story and remained a common thread within the novel and for a brief moment I thought there was a point to be made at the end, but then that entire point dissolved immediately within the last few pages, seemingly destroying the narrative I thought had been part of the purpose of the book. So, I’m not even sure there ended up being any underlying ideas, which isn’t entirely a problem, except that the main character did very little to influence the narrative up until the very end.
Of the first four I’ve read The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream by G C Edmondson is my favorite thus far. If I had to vote between just these four books, this is where my vote would be thrown. It’s a naval ship. That jumps around through time and across oceans. Meets up with Vikings, plays God to prehistoric beings, fights the Roman navy. Things get intense.
And what’s even more great is they don’t even know how they’re doing it.
Some fifty-five years later, the technology expanded on for this novel has been improved far more, with the obvious, disappointing exception of the whole time-traveling portion. Within the story, there’s the whole mystery of how in the world the crew were ever going to stumble their way back to their own time period which is something they take an active role in, up to and including using the time travel to escape problems once the mystery begins to be solved. The fact that most of the time they’re hanging out in the past (where -isms are at least explainable) makes this story generally straight-forward (ha!) with a comedic side that takes the sting out of some of the situations or lines that in a more serious book could be harsh.
And the ship is called Alice. The fact that it’s literally named Alice, like the ship and the crew are all falling down some warped time portal to other worlds is a just great!
I’m sorry to say, but The Escape Orbit by James White is by far my least favorite of these nominations. By a landslide. The general idea, that of a far future intergalactic war going on, leading to a planetary prison where humans are dropped, is actually quite interesting, especially with the added tension of those humans separated into two camps: those who want to spend all their resources in an escape attempt and those who wish to settle into normalized lives within this new planet. However, that is mostly where the interesting ends, at least for me.
Far too much of the “domesticated” side of the equation is blamed, or otherwise dropped, at the feet of all women, all of whom were also prisoners of war and had served in the human fleet in many positions of power, prestige, and skill. And yet, on this planet women were reduced to being dangerous hags (from a place called hagtown, no less) only out to snag husbands, leading men astray from their military vows and escape aspirations.
The worst part about this particular view of women in the book is that the author is entirely aware and even attempts to show that his lead character is not like the other men. Unfortunately, all he truly does is enforce the subtle sexism with his attempts to compare it against the overt sexism.
There is a clumsy twist at the end, done to show that much of what had come before had not been all as it seemed, however, it was clear from the beginning that this was going to occur in some fashion and because of the subtle, consistent sexism and lack of reliability of the narrator, it’s impossible to believe anything that character claims. In fact, my reading of the culmination is almost the exact opposite of what I think the intent had been.
I’m aware this sounds like a harsh interpretation of the book, but given I’m perfectly willing to overlook a lot–including the invisibility of certain types of people, certain phrases/naming conventions, etc., and the difference between author beliefs and character beliefs–I think my take here is far more reasonable than what a lot of modern-day readers would have.
It’s going to take a lot to dethrone this one from the bottom.
The last book I read–The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch–gave a it a bit of a try, but ultimately has a much better central theme and idea and while not being my favorite nomination, I can certainly appreciate its merits. As the title suggests, this is a tale of genocide. In fact, you could call it an apocalyptic zombie novel, just without the zombies. Instead you get giant, unkillable plants that eat away the world’s plant-based food sources, destroying all ecologies, leading to the degradation of humanity. And there’s a lot of degradation in this novel, though if you’ve seen any modern-day apocalypse stories, you already know about the inter-group fighting of humans, the cannibalism, the destruction of moral codes, etc. I will say, at the time this book was published, I doubted that apocalyptic fiction was as it is today, which makes this novel stand apart for that reason alone.
It wasn’t all rosy though. There was a particular relationship between a man in his forties and a girl of thirteen. Starts as a revenge tactic (totally understandable) yet turns into something…real? One argument I thought of is this relationship could be the linchpin for the entire theme of the book, exhibiting human morality disintegrating completely in the face of their extinction. Yet given that, one, a much older man attached to an incredibly young girl has been and still is a mainstay in both fiction and, in some places, real life, and two, there came a point where all revenge/escape/purpose finally went out the window and yet this relationship continued its trajectory, I don’t think that the point was to claim its immorality.
I did enjoy the ultimate reveal surrounding the mystery of the plants. I loved how it became a footnote, unimportant, yet devastating to humanity. Personally, I loved the underlying ending idea in this novel far more than the typical “humanity got ahead of itself/played gods” theme that crops up a lot in fantasy and science-fiction.
So those of my thoughts on those first four. I still have eight more to go and will probably update with fewer books per post because this got to be a little unwieldy.