Archive for category Hugos

Genre and Me and Me in Different Mediums

About ninety percent of my reading is in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Back in the eighties and nineties, the split was more like fifty-fifty between Spec Fic and “other.” And it’s more than that. I can say that ninety percent of the literature I revere is in science fiction and fantasy, and only ten percent in other fields.

Revere is a strong word, but it is the word that comes to mind. I like a lot of things, and I admire talent in a lot of genres, but it is science fiction and fantasy that hits me in the gut and sets my brain on fire, that makes me wonder “…how the hell did he/she come up with this?”.

While moaning about the demise of The Hour, and re-watching season four of Mad Men, I realized something perhaps a bit odd: My percentages for genre in television would be exactly opposite. Ninety percent of what I revere in television is not science fiction or fantasy. The list goes on and stretches back for decades.

Revered in Comedy: Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, M*A*S*H, Keeping Up Appearances, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Revered in Drama: Breaking Bad, The Hour, Sopranos, Mad Men.

In the drama category, a case could be made that mainstream TV gives me a lot of what I love in SF literature, my number one draw to SF, which is that I am transported to a different time and/or place in which everything is different from what I know. Or, almost different.

I have been to Albuquerque, but met no one while there who was involved in cooking or selling crystal meth. The shots of the desert in that show take my breath away, so starkly beautiful in Breaking Bad.

I have also been to the nineteen-sixties, but I did it as a teenager, not as an adult at a Manhattan ad agency. The time travel aspect of Mad Men is a bit sf-nal.

Comedy, on the other hand, seems to be about home, whatever its genre, whatever its locale. Comedy transports me in a different way, and it is much more difficult for me to pin down what makes me laugh. Why did I laugh at the mother-in-law/hippo joke in Reginald Perrin every time? What was so funny about Mystery Science Theater? That concept should not have worked, but it did. And all, somehow, are about home. Remember, the characters in MST3000 return to live together in an apartment in Wisconsin at the end of the series.

I don’t notice genre as much in television. Sure, there’s the SyFy channel, but the genres do tend to bleed together more. Community gets a Hugo nomination. People not otherwise interested in fantasy watch Game of Thrones. No one seems to care quite as much about genre in TV as they do in literature. And perhaps literature is the key word here. Some books are supposed to be good for you. Books that are good for you are called literature. If you actually like books that are good for you, well, you must be an intellectual! And if you read that sci-fi stuff, you clearly are not.

On the other hand, television is not good for you, no matter what. I’ve been hearing that from the time I was old enough to operate the channel selector. (We did not have remotes in those days.) It is assumed that, if you are watching television, you are wasting time. Distinctions matter less. Oh sure, there can be the occasional PBS documentary, but when you’re knocking around a broadcast lineup that includes Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Real Housewives, My Secret Addiction, and dozens of others, watching Dr. Who, or Buffy, or Star Trek Next Generation doesn’t seem all that bad.

My point in all this is that television is more than not-always-that-bad. It is often good. It is is occasionally, in recent years in particular, as brilliant as any writing done in any genre and any form in all of time.

Cheer up, Philo T Farnsworth! Your invention is a good thing, and we love it!

Cheer up, Philo T Farnsworth! Your invention is a good thing, and we love it!

Photo: Library of Congress

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Done (With Hugo Reading) But Not Dusted: Award Ambivalence

Now that I’ve submitted my Hugo votes, now that I’ve said all I have to say about this year’s nominees, I wish to revisit my basic discomfort with awards.

We have to have them, I think. They are a way for fans and professional organizations to celebrate the work that gives us all so much joy and meaning in our lives. They spur us to read stuff/see stuff/ listen to stuff we might not otherwise. For the authors, a nomination or award becomes a tag they can attach to themselves forever, which will further their success. And there’s the drama of the event itself, who’s going to win, and how excited are they. Awards are fun.

Then there are the problems. For instance, the apples-and-oranges problem.

Every year, the field of speculative fiction widens. It’s beyond science fiction and fantasy; it’s alternate history, and urban fantasy, and epic fantasy, and steampunk, and military sf, and near-future dystopia, and so on and so forth, every one of which has its own aesthetics, tropes, and flavor. In the Hugo Best Novel category, we have 1) A coming-of-age fantasy, 2) The fourth book in a six-book epic fantasy series, 3) The second book in a zombie trilogy 4) A far-future, end-of-the galaxy, political/anthropological/sociological sf novel, and 5) a nearer future science fiction novel of a more traditional sort. It is difficult to compare any of the two in absolute terms, because they are truly five different sub genres. They may be among the best examples of their respective sub genres, but they are not easy to compare.

I could say to myself, “Is this book a superior example of a coming-of-age fantasy/fourth book of epic fantasy series/second book of trilogy/etc.?” And, “Is this a better second book in a zombie trilogy than that is a far-future, end of the galaxy, political/anthropological etc., etc.?”

I could do that, or I could just vote for what I like. In this case I like (and was predisposed to like) numbers 2 and 4 the best. Number 4, the political/anthropological/sociological sf novel is my favorite genre-within-a-genre. Number 2 is not normally my thing, but I’ve seen the TV show, and I’d read the first three books, and the epic had its hooks in me. Number 4 did get my first-place vote, but Number 2 was further down the list, because I did not feel the fourth book ranked as high as some of the previous volumes in the series. (Yes, George R. R. Martin was in competition with himself, as well as with the others.) But I still loved it.

At the other end of the spectrum, Number 5 could not pull me in at all. It’s not my favorite type of sf, I was already tired from all my intensive reading, and I just wasn’t in the mood for something I didn’t feel drawn to. It must be said, this is not the fault of the book. I don’t think it’s an unworthy book, only that it’s not my thing, and in my less-than-open frame of mind, it could not seduce me.

In the end, my ranking came out of my sincere attempt at best apple vs. best orange analysis, combined with “Oh man, I loved this best, I really did.” I feel honest and fair about my efforts. I also got through the novellas, novelettes, short stories, and fancasts. I actually feel almost “hip,” and “with it,” rather than “square,” and “out-of-it!”

I am ready to see who wins, and to get into possibly passionate discussions about the results.

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The Next Novel on My Hugo List

Jo Walton’s Among Others is a book I would not have picked up except for its being nominated for Best Novel, and for my determination to vote responsibly this year, and read the categories I intend to vote for. I’m pushing. And, I’m ignoring a bunch of worthy not-nominated or new books to get this done.

Without this push of a deadline, without this desire to read all nominated books and stories, I fall back back on other methods of deciding what to read next, and what to eliminate, and that is to judge a book by its blurb. Judging by the blurb, sad to say, sees me falling back on preconceptions, prejudices, and misunderstanding of intent. In the case of Among Others, these prejudices, etc., would include the following:

  • I don’t like fairies
  • I think I’ve read enough coming-of-age stuff
  • I think I’ve read enough YA for a while

The first one is a genre thing. I would have said (did say) something similar about Seanan McGuire’s zombies, and did about Lois McMaster Bujold’s “military” science fiction. I avoided Bujold because for years because of the “military” label. I would not have read Mira Grant except that my daughter made me. So many times I have been burned by genre labels. The genre tag turns out, once again, to be a horrible guide to book selection. Always seek more information, that’s my motto from now on, because I am very glad to have read this book.

The second prejudice is more a matter of mood, because I like coming-of-age tales. It is the tale that every single one of us can tell. We all have our own coming-of-age story, and I believe every single one of us has a good one in us, whether we have the skill to write it or not. So I can always relate, no matter what. The trouble, for the coming-of-age tale, is that its universality makes it difficult for it to stand out, even if it’s not autobiographical, and even if it’s fantasy. Among Others does stand out, mainly for the author’s confidence and her understated approach to the supernatural.

As for YA objection, I’m old, and I really do need to read mostly grown-up books. I just do.

My prejudices and mood issues, in this case, were easily overcome by the engaging voice of the first-person narrator, Mor (or Mori), age 15, who is being shipped off to an English boarding school by her father (whom she has only just met), and (more ominously) by her father’s two sisters, for whom, at best, Mor is an unexpected intrusion in their tidy world. Mor has come into their lives because of an incident that left her twin sister (also nicknamed Mor, or Mori) dead, and herself crippled. That incident had to do with their mother, who is mentally ill or evil or both, and it had to do with fairies, whom Morganna and Morwenna played with and spoke with regularly as children, in their native southern Wales. The fairy element is kept on a low simmer; the fairies don’t do all that much. They barely speak, but when they do, it counts.

Mor is a voracious reader, and she constantly refers to book titles and authors. She tells us about every book she reads, every book she has ever read, and she reads about twenty-five books a week. I would have thought this all-over-the-place constant name-dropping of book titles and authors would be annoying and distracting, but it works. It is integral to the character and her relationships. It is how she connects with her estranged dad, her grandfather Sam, two sympathetic librarians (librarian-heroes, love it!), and the “karass” she eventually hooks up with. This book name-dropping also works as an example of the rule I would call Way Too Much Is Better Than A Little Too Much. For instance, if Vidal Sassoon had made his asymmetrical haircuts only a little uneven, we would have assumed he had made a sad mistake. Because he made them very uneven, we know he did it on purpose. This book name-dropping is completely intentional, and it works confidently and beautifully.

I did find the ending abrupt. I don’t need every little last question answered, but I would have liked to be left with a little more insight into  Mor’s mother. Mor has a touch of the unreliable narrator to her–not a bad thing–but she can leave the reader a bit wobbly on what is actually going on here.

This is a very, very good book, in a strong novel category. I know which one still tops my list, but I’ll wait until reading the last one to decide for certain.

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Little Quibbles With A Major Work

Having finished A Dance With Dragons, and having praised it in my last post, I can now move on from the series for a while. Before I go, however, I feel the need to share two quibbles I have with A Song of Ice and Fire. These quibbles have come up throughout the series, and are not confined to the most recent volume.

Quibble the first: BRAN IS BORING!

Once again, I applaud the scary decision Martin made to tell the tale from 147 (not an actual count) first person points of view. Doing so allows him to paint all the characters in shades of gray. However horrible the Lannister twins, they do love their children. Well, Cersei loves herself and then her children, and Jaime loves Cersei. They are horrible, but their first person POVs allow us to see them as human. They do not mean to be evil. They see themselves as protecting only what is rightfully theirs.

We can’t help rooting for little stick-em-with-the-pointy-end Arya Stark. She sees her father beheaded, flees, and against great odds, survives. But oh does she have blood on her hands. Every night, she prays, listing the names of those she wants to see dead. Now, some of them do need killing, to be sure, but I find her nightly prayer quite disturbing. In a good way, as intended by the author, I think.

I can go down the list of first-person narrators and be interested, to a greater or lesser degree in how they ‘splain themselves.

Until I come to Bran. Sure, I was horrified when Jaime pushed him out of the tower. Sure, I felt for him when everyone left Winterfell, leaving him in charge. Yes, I cheered his escape and his quest to find the 3-eyed raven. But the only reason to have a first person point of view is that the reader needs to experience that character’s thoughts, and I do not need to know what Bran is thinking. His thoughts do not surprise me (as do Arya’s, or Sansa’s, for instance). His are the thoughts any child would have under the circumstances. He is innocent. Too innocent to be interesting as a POV character. There is no inner conflict.

Even worse is when Bran is view-pointing the world through the eyes and senses of his dire wolf, Summer. I am not interested in any wolf/boy points of view here. Too simple, too pure. Boring.

Quibble the second: EXCESSIVE FONDLING OF MISSING BODY PARTS.

It is tough to get through life in Westeros and Essos with your parts intact. Too many swords and knives are flailing about, and fingers, hands, noses, ears, genitalia, mammary glands, toes, and tongues are all to be feared for. Once I got over my initial gag reflex, I could only reflect that this penchant for chopping off body parts is an integral part of this society, whether it happens in battle, or in the administration of justice, or, in the case of Ramsey Bolton, as the power-wielding of a sociopath. I admire as well the Davos-Stannis relationship, in which Davos’s fingertips have been cut of because he is an smuggler, and that he is grateful to Lord Stannis for dealing with him justly. I suppose I can understand, too, why Davos would keep his finger bones in a pouch around his neck like a good luck charm. Strange, but okay. I understand, this is more about his relationship in the society, and his need to better himself for the sake of his sons, than it is about his fingertips. Once he loses that pouch and the bones within, however, I think he maybe should lighten up on the fingertip obsession. Every thought in his head should not be accompanied by a reference to the missing fingertips or bones. Bring it in every fifth or tenth thought, but not every thought, which is what it seems like. It is time for him to let go of his fingertips, so to speak. It’s distracting me from the story.

Then there’s Tyrion’s missing nose. He, too, runs his hand over his nose-stump frequently–too frequently. In the book, Tyrion is depicted as having an ugly, grotesque face already anyway. This is in direct contrast to the TV show, by the way, in which Tyrion is played by Peter Dinklage, handsome, and still in possession of his nose at the end of season two. And you know what? I don’t think the character is weakened by having him be a good-looking dwarf with an intact nose. The character’s identity is completely tied up with his being a dwarf, and his sister’s and father’s hatred of him. Cutting off his nose is piling on. Having Tyrion constantly touching the nose-stub comes off as an annoying tick.

By contrast, when Jaime mentions his missing hand, I am not so bothered. First, he does not have quite the need to fondle the stumps as  do Davos and Tyrion. Secondly, that missing hand is totally tied up with his self-identification status as Kingslayer. Similarly, Theon Greyjoy obsession with flaying doesn’t bother me because of how recently his torture by Ramsey Bolton has occurred. He is clearly suffering from PTSD and a touch of Stockholm Syndrome. He’s entitled.

So there you have it, everything bad I have to say about A Song of Ice and Fire. These are, indeed, minor quibbles, almost joke-worthy. Nonetheless, they annoy me enough to momentary take me out of the story. According to Seth Anderson’s blog, here, http://www.b12partners.net/wp/2012/05/10/wordcount-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fire/. the first five volumes have brought us to somewhere around 1,770,000 words. I would say that if these are the worst complaints I can come up with, they aren’t really much.

Several friends have begun the TV series, have some desire to experience the books, but are intimidated by their sheer massiveness. I have said to them that to read the books will bring rewards and happiness. They do sprawl, but they are clearly and entertainingly written, and easy to get through. Consider buying the last volume in hardcover, for some good maps and extensive family trees to refer to.

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This Hasn’t Gotten Any Easier (Adventures in Hugo Reading)

Back in April, I announced I was going to read every one of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels, so that I could vote responsibly. No big deal, normally. No big deal, had I already read books 1-4 of A Song of Ice and Fire. Alas, I had not.

So that’s what I began doing back in April. I am just now finishing up A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in the series, and nominated for this year’s award. As I finish the book, I become anxious. What will it be like to leave Westeros (and Essos), after dwelling so long there? It seems to have permeated my very existence.

Wow, what a world. A huge cast of interesting characters, plot firmly rooted in that characterization, and a masterpiece of world-building. One thing that strikes me: the big things George R. R. Martin is doing so right in this saga are built on the foundation of little itty-bitty details, details that shine like a Valyrian sword.

Big Thing: Major theme of humanity’s struggle for a just and lawful society amidst a harsh and brutal society not unlike in our own northern European middle ages.

Little Thing: One of the first events in the first book is honest, honorable Lord Eddard Stark chopping off the head of a deserter. He makes a point that he refuses to employ a headsman, because if a lord is passing judgment that a man’s head needs chopping off, that lord should have the guts to do the deed himself. The reader is immediately wrenched from her modern notions of justice, due process, honor, right, and wrong. In case we’ve missed the point, Lord Ned dispatches an innocent dire wolf puppy on the orders of his sovereign. And yet, he’s the good guy…

Big Thing: …which brings up the issue of the grayness of the characters. With a few exceptions, each main character–honorable or not–has blood on his hands. Every character’s actions are understandable at some level, even when deplorable. Martin made a brave decision to tell this from multiple, first-person, points of view. That means we have about 147 POVs going on here. (No, not an actual count.) Madness. Yet, it works.

Little Thing: I love how evil Queen Cersei gets stuff wrong. She’s smart, but not as smart as she thinks she is. She’s a complete cynic, and she mistakes that cynicism for common sense. She therefore believes that she and the Seven Kingdoms have nothing to fear from beyond the wall. She, as well as the other Lannisters, believe dragons cannot return. She is arrogant as well, and mistakes that arrogance for authority. She believes she controls that which she does not. She arms the septons, and is shocked by the results of that action.

Big Thing: Turning the conventions of heroic fantasy on their heads.

Little Thing(s): How sparingly magic is used. What we would see as supernatural exists, but it does not dominate. We are not even certain it is supernatural in the literal sense, so a part of nature does it seems. It feels a bit like magical realism at times, so blended into the fabric of life we barely notice it.

Big Thing: Religion. There is more than one religion here. We have the Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God, R’hllor, Mother Rhoyne, and more religions in the lands to the east. The religious practices resonate with real-life religions, but are not analagous with them. Oh, and there are atheists and agnostics, too.

My Utterly Favorite Little Detail Concerning a religion: To be baptized into the faith of the Drowned God, you are immersed in water until you actually drown. Then you are pulled out and given CPR. This is a successful baptism. I find that detail absolutely hilarious.

Big Thing: A Song of Ice and Fire is a big, complicated, fantastic story in a believable, accessible world.

Little Thing: Anything in the world that doesn’t have to be big, complicated, and fantastic remains recognizable and unapologetically mundane. Horses are horses, not some horse analog. The animals not currently in our world either once were (mammoths, dire wolves), or are firmly planted in our mythology (giants, dragons). The food doesn’t have to be explained either. It’s roasted wild boar, or peaches, or even pine nuts. Well, sometimes it’s horse, too. We are asked to strain our brains only on the necessary items, which are many. Thank you, George. You made my brain work, but you did not kill it.

Will my daughter ever call me, “My Lady Mother?” If I call my husband “My Sun-and-Stars,” will he think I’m being sarcastic? When my three cockatiels ride on my shoulders, could they be my dragons? Will they breathe fire? (They already hiss and bite.)

No, yes, no, and no. Yet reading A Song of Ice and Fire, Books 1-5,  made me believe that all might happen.

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This Is Going To Be Difficult

The Hugo Award nominations are out, and I want to vote more intelligently and completely this time. That requires me to read everything that’s nominated. I have a bit of a start in the novel category; I’ve read Embassytown, by China Mieville, and Deadline, by Mira Grant. Loved Deadline, but Embassytown is the one to beat so far for my vote. I am reading A Clash of Kings  (Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire). That means I have several more books before I get to A Dance With Dragons. I think I can do it, but I’m going to be spending a lot of time with George R. R. Martin. The other two novels, Among Others, by Jo Walton, and Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. The Jo Walton books looks very readable, as does the James S. A. Corey. I note that the latter is actually a collaboration between two writers, and I have a bias toward multi-authored novels; in some warped way it seems like cheating. (Of course, this is from someone who only has an almost-readable draft of a novel to her name. Perhaps I ought to put that bias aside.)

And at one level, I don’t place too much stock in awards, be they Oscars, Emmys, or Hugos. Certainly not Grammys–I can’t forget how they ignored rock ‘n’ roll–utterly ignored it–the most important music of the 20th century, just as it was being born in the fifties and sixties. And with the Hugos, or the Nebulas, there are absolute gems out there that never even get nominated. Some years, the field is stronger than others. Nonetheless, I think the Hugos do a decent job. I am quite impressed to see an episode of Community under the Dramatic Presentations–short form category. Fans of SF & F have nice, stretchy minds capable of seeing what’s actually there and pulling it into their sphere if it belongs there. And it does.

The main purpose of reading everything on the list–other than to be a thoroughly qualified Hugo voter–is that reading the list will cause me to look at books I would not otherwise have read. I am at a time in my life when a little extra reading effort is possible and highly desirable. I will be smarter and happier for my efforts.

So here I go. And after the novels, there are the novellas, novelettes, short stories….

I’ll keep posting on my progress.

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Science Fiction, By Any Other Name

When China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl tied to win the Hugo in 2010, I was thrilled. I had read both, and I loved both. I would have had a difficult time picking between the two. If forced, I would probably have chosen The City & The City. By a hair, just because it is so different.

In The City & The City, Police Inspector Tyador Borlu investigates a murder in his city-state of Beszel. The course of his investigation takes him to the city-state of Ul Qoma, a city whose geographical space is largely the same space occupied by Beszel. Images of Berlin or Jerusalem come to mind, but this is not a divided city, as such. Nor is it shared territory, exactly. They are in the same place, but they live as if they are entirely separate places. For instance, I might be a resident of an apartment building in Beszel. Let’s say there’s a grocery story across the street, but that grocery store is in Ul Qoma. I may not patronize that store. I may not suggest, by word or gesture, that I am aware of the store. I may not meet the eyes of any Ul Qoman citizen entering or leaving the store. The extent of any consciousness I have of their presence extends only to what is necessary to avoid bumping in to them. I may walk by the store, because I have to; the city of Ul Qoma occupies the same territory as Beszel, but although it occupies the same territory, it is not here. It is elsewhere.

When Tyador travels to Ul Qoma, he does so by traveling to the “border” which is a structure that resembles a large stadium. He drives into the Beszel entrance, a tunnel, goes through customs and immigration somewhere in the middle, and emerges from another tunnel, into Ul Qoma. Once in Ul Qoma, he cannot visit his apartment, nor recognize friends and acquaintances on the street. He can, however, call them on the telephone, just as someone in New York City might call someone in Paris.

So what the heck kind of story is this? How should it be categorized? I have seen it labelled fantasy, although there is zero supernatural content. Wikipedia, for instance, calls it “fantasy/weird.” Weird, yes; fantasy, no. Some reviewers like “existential.” A review in Amazon calls it an “existential thriller.” An L.A. Times review calls it a detective story (it is), and also surreal and metaphysical. While some may notice there is no supernatural content, no one seems to want to call it “mainstream.” They shouldn’t, because it is way too weird to be mainstream. “Slipstream” is a tempting classification, because while there is no magic, the book is definitely Not Normal.

The reviewer who came closest to nailing it was Andrew McKie, in his review, “Unseeing Is Believing,” which appeared in The Spectator, and in which he points out that citizens of the cities learn from childhood not to see citizens of the other city, and that the separation of the populations is achieved by this and fear of punishment. No magic necessary.

The City and The City is a blend of two genres: Detective fiction, and science fiction. The sciences are the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and political science. The scientifictional question being asked is, “Given the human capacity for denial, self-deception, nationalism, and fear of authority, would it be possible for two separate cultures to be organized in such a way?” Mieville makes us believe it would.

I remember a couple scenes from the book that bring home beautifully the science-fictionalness of this tale. Offstage, a car crash occurs involving cars from the different cities. This becomes a bureaucratic nightmare, as any contact between the two cities is forbidden. Although inadvertent contact can be excused, it must be adjudicated by The Breach, the scary, absolute judge, jury, and execution-wielding organization that handles all matters of illegal contact. The authorities and rescue workers must respond from the two different cities as well, and must only tend to their own citizens. This nightmarish scene alone makes me believe Mieville wants us to understand there is no magic here, no surrealism, no magic realism, and no extra-dimensional hocus-pocus at work, only that dark and idiotic magic that can be accomplished by and in the human brain.

One plot thread concerns the American parents of the victim, who come over to insist on action and justice for their daughter. Visas to travel to Beszel or Ul Qoma are given sparingly, and are only issued after the traveller has gone through a class on the history, customs, and laws of the cities, until he or she can be trusted to pretend not to see what the citizens have thoroughly hypnotized themselves not to. These American parents have some status that allows them to come over without the usual requirements. They are privileged, American, and beside themselves with grief. They have agreed to play by the rules, but of course they cannot, and they almost blow the pretense apart, because of what they can’t not see.

I read The City and The City when it came out and remember the slight confusion/disorientation I felt at the beginning, as we learn the setting. I looked for vapors or wisps of smoke that would tell me we were in fantasyland. I looked for fuzzy distortions and strange casts of light that would tell me were in physical science fiction land. At some point it dawned on me we were in the rare place of social science fiction land, the genre of 1984 (if it was set in 1948), and of Fahrenheit 451, but in new territory, a political and social turf we had not trod upon before.

It is one hell of a book, one of my all-time favorites. Please place it where it belongs, in the category of science fiction.

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