The Award Winners Reading Quest

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It’s been a while since I talked about it, but I’m on a long-term quest to read all of the novel award winners of the major English-language speculative fiction awards. I started with the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Word Fantasy Awards, and the Auroras (Canadian, for those less familiar), and I began with that first Hugo winner back in 1953, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. Since I started the quest in 2016, these have made up about half of my fiction reading and I’m into the mid-1990s now. This year, I’ve added in the British SF Association Awards. When those start to get caught up to where I’m at with the others, I may add the Aurealis (Australian) Awards, and possibly the Vogels (New Zealand). This is as much to branch out as to make the quest last as long as possible. I’ve probably got another six or seven years after this year before I’ve got them all caught up to present.

Partly because I’ve been trying to read the previous year’s winners each year, too.

There have been ups and downs during the last five years, books I’ve loved and books I’ve hated and things in between. Very early on, I made a rule that I was allowed to not finish a book I wasn’t enjoying. This was quickly followed by a rule that if I didn’t like a book, I didn’t have to read the sequel (or even a book by the same author on a similar theme) if it won an award, too. I’ve made use of both of those, although more the first than the second.

While the Hugos, Nebulas, and Auroras have had some ups and downs, they’ve mostly been at least decent reads since I started The WFA winners have been a struggle all the way along. I’ve had a lot of DNFs (including the first three winners) and a lot more books that I just didn’t like. The theory I’m working with on those is that life is too short to spend time reading books you don’t enjoy. Every time I think that maybe I should just set this award aside, I come across a book that’s truly worth reading, something I really enjoy. Those are worth the wait, but right now I’m on the fence if they’re worth the unpleasantness in reading I’ve found between.

But the other big piece of things I struggle a lot with, and something that’s been brought back to me with the introduction of the early BSFA Awards, is the whole New Wave SF movement from the late 1960s and 1970s. Most of what I’ve read from the movement has been obsessed with style over substance, literary experimentation over plot and character. A lot of it was barely coherent and some of the rest didn’t seem to even try to be. A lot of it didn’t even seem to be SF to me, and I’m pretty generous with my definition. I’m worried the first few books of the BSFA winners aren’t going to go well for me. The first one already isn’t. The SF I remember from the 70s is stuff I read in the 80s as a teenager and includes authors like McCaffrey, Foster, Haldeman, Pohl, and LeGuin. Writers who wrote stories with characters and plots, who took the genre further forward instead of making a side trip into artistic oblivion.

But that’s me. Other folks might feel differently. I completely expect any given author to write to please themselves or their prospective audience, not my expectations some unspecified time after the fact.

And I’ve gotten sidetracked.

The Award Winners Quest. I’m not under any illusions that awards necessarily pick the best or most important books of the time, even if they give you places to start looking, and I’ve certainly found the winners to be a mixed bag for me personally. So why am I doing it? Especially given the two general rules noted above and how hard parts of it have been? I think it comes down to three main things: nostalgia, growth, and exploration. I want more of what I remember as being awesome. I want things that make me think in ways I haven’t before. I want to discover good stories I might have missed. The same things qualify when I’m reading books in the current era, whether they’re part of the quest or not and it goes for a lot of my non-fiction reading, too.

In recent tries, 2021 so far, I’ve found a WFA winner that I quite enjoyed, Glimpses by Lewis Shiner, and last year’s Hugo winner – A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – was great. I’m not sure I would have been in the right mental space to enjoy the first of those when it won in 1994, but I am now and that’s what really counts and the second was a good read for where and who I am now.

Just at the moment, I’m trying to fight my way through John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit, winner of the 1970 BSFA award. It’s not going well; a New Wave problem. I’m also trying to enjoy the third book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Blue Mars. This one is less info-dumpy so far than the first two, so it’s moving quicker for me. Not quite normal for his work I’ve read in the past – half great writing and half giant swaths of explanation of politics or science or tech. In a lighter vein, I have an ancient paperback copy of Doctor to the Stars by Murray Leinster on my nightstand, though I have to admit I’m not picking it up as often as I maybe should. A lot of my non-awards reading plan for this year is selecting things that have been in the house for a long time. I still can’t seem to stop picking up new books here and there, though, even during the pandemic.

Reading anything interesting lately?

Stay safe and be well, everyone.

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