Book Review: The Hugo Winners Volume 5 1980-1982 edited by Isaac Asimov
The Hugo Awards are given out every year by the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon.) This series of books from 1986 collected the winners in the three short fiction categories: Novella (17,500-40,000 words), Novelette (7,500-17,500 words) and Short Story (less than 7,500 words.) Anything over 40,000 words is considered a novel. The volume is organized by year, in the order from longest to shortest, giving a kind of wave effect.
“Editor” Isaac Asimov spends much of the introduction detailing the history of the science fiction magazine Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, of which he was the figurehead. It’s relevant because 1980 was the first year a story from that magazine won a Hugo.
“Enemy Mine” by Barry B. Longyear was that story. Two soldiers from opposing sides are stranded on a deserted island–one of whom is a pregnant alien. To survive, they must work together, and come to respect each other and bridge the gap between their cultures. This one was made into a movie, and Hollywood inserted an actual mine run by enemies. Perhaps this was necessary as the emotional climax of the story is a three-hour recitation of family history, but Mr. Longyear was not well pleased. It’s an excellent story.
“Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin is a chiller about a man who collects exotic pets. The Sandkings of the title are hive-mind creatures vaguely reminiscent of ants. They come in sets of four colored “castles” which have wars until only one remains. Simon Kress, however, is a cruel man and does not want to wait for his pets to war in their own time. How does it end? It’s by George R.R. Martin, how do you think it ends? An outstanding application of horror sensibilities to science fiction.
“The Way of Cross and Dragon” is also by George R.R. Martin, the first time an author had ever won two of the short categories in the same year. An inquistor for a future Catholic church is sent to stamp out a heresy that venerates Judas Iscariot (and dragons.) The inquisitor finds it a particularly appealing heresy, well-crafted and visually attractive. But that’s not the real trap–there’s a more dangerous heresy underneath. Of note is that the heretics have vandalized the local equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia so that those doing research would find supporting evidence for the heresy.
Also in 1980, The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke took home the novel Hugo, and Alien won Best Dramatic Presentation. Barry B. Longyear was also picked as Best New Writer.
“Lost Dorsai” by Gordon R. Dickson is as you might suspect set in his Dorsai Cycle, a story universe where the resource-poor planet Dorsai makes its employment credits by hiring out its inhabitants as top-notch mercenary soldiers. This story tackles the question of what happens when a Dorsai decides that he will not kill humans under any circumstances. Even when he’s one of a handful of people in a fortress surrounded by bloodthirsty revolutionaries. What does make a man a hero, anyway?
“The Cloak and the Staff” is also by Mr. Dickson, making him the second author to win two of the short categories in the same year. Both he and Mr. Martin had won the third short category previously as well. The Aalaag are superior to Earthlings in every way, and hold our planet in an unbreakable grip. Even if somehow humans managed to rise up and kill all the Aalaag on Earth, the vast Aalaag Empire would simply wipe out the inhabitants and replant. Courier Shane knows this better than almost anyone else, and yet he finds that he’s sparked a resistance movement with a bit of graffiti. He manages to save one rebel for the moment, but there’s noting more he or anyone can do….
“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” by Clifford D. Simak concerns an archaeologist who goes back to the dig site of some cave paintings one last time. He discovers the title grotto, and its connection to one of the dig workers. It’s a rather sad story about a man who wants one person to know the truth before he leaves again.
Also in 1981, The Snow Queen won Best Novel for Joan D. Vinge, Best Dramatic Presentation went to The Empire Strikes Back, and Somtow Sucharitkul (S.P. Somtow) was Best New Writer.
“The Saturn Game” by Poul Anderson concerns an expedition to Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, which turns deadly due to a moment of inattention.
A bit of context for our younger readers–the turn of the 1980s is when role-playing games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, went from an obscure hobby to a cultural phenomenon. The usual cultural conservative distrust of anything new that kids get into converged with the 1980s “Satanic Panic” in which people sincerely believed there was a worldwide network of Satanists abusing children and performing human sacrifices. So many people worried that RPGs would either teach children how to perform actual black magic (see Jack Chick’s unintentionally hilarious Dark Dungeons for an example of this thinking) or make impressionable teens unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and thus act out their violent pretendy fun times on real people. This last one was a bit more plausible; most roleplayers know that one guy who takes the game way too seriously, akin to the sportsball fans that have violent temper tantrums when their team loses.
Mr. Anderson’s story works with the latter concept; it never uses the phrase “role-playing games” as those died out during a bad time in human history–the future equivalent is “psychodramas.” Three-quarters of the expedition have been playing in the same game for the last eight years as their larger ship has been headed to Saturn. In the future, psychiatry has been replaced by pharmacology to balance brain chemistry, and no one thought ahead about the possible consequences. So when the players find themselves in a fantastic landscape that suits their story, they fall into a semihypnotic state acting out the play, and miss the real danger.
Mind, Poul Anderson also shows the strength that can be drawn from imagination, as the fantasy helps sustain the strength of the survivors, even as they know they must not succumb to it and ignore what must be done. One of the flashbacks is about the significant other who doesn’t “get” role-playing games, and is unable to distinguish between in-character romance and an actual affair between players. She forces the player to choose between her and the gaming group–it does not turn out the way she hoped.
“Unicorn Variations” by Roger Zelazny is more in the fantasy realm than straight science fiction. When a species goes extinct, a new species comes to take its place. And in a future where extinctions have become even more common, the unicorns have grown impatient to replace humans. But one human bargains with the unicorn representative. If he can beat it in a game of chess, the unicorn will not directly hasten the extinction of humans. Unicorns, as it turns out, are very good at chess…but the human turns out to have a surprise backer. If you have your chessboard handy, play along!
“The Pusher” by John Varley, is set in a future with relativistic space travel and time dilation. That is, time on ship passes more slowly than for those standing still. Six months on board is thirty years back on Earth. Ian Haise, a “pusher” (starship crewmember) doesn’t want to entirely lose touch with those on the ground, so he has a scheme to befriend children so that when he returns decades later, they will remember him and welcome his return. It’s an uncomfortable story, as Haise’s methods are strikingly similar to those used by a pedophile to “groom” victims.
1982’s Best Novel was Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, Raiders of the Lost Ark took home the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo, and the Best New Writer was Alexis Gilliland (who beat out David Brin!)
This collection really strikes a chord for me as it’s in my early adulthood, and I read most of these stories first-run. It looks “modern” to me in ways that early SF doesn’t, and the field was becoming more diverse (even though all these stories happen to be by white guys.) It’s worth finding just for “Sandkings” if you’ve never read that story, but the others are good as well, especially “Enemy Mine.”
Oh, and “Sandkings” was also loosely adapted for an Outer Limits episode. Enjoy!