Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Bicentennial Man

It seems kind of timely to go back to 1977 and review the two works of written fiction that won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards that year, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”, by James Tiptree, Jr. and “The Bicentennial Man”, by Isaac Asimov. Somehow I'm in the mood for looking at moments when there was a clash of visions of what science fiction should be about.

Interestingly, Best Dramatic Presentation also had the same winner for both Hugo and Nebula that year, which was No Award, beating Logan's Run and The Man Who Fell to Earth in both cases. (Harlan! Harlan Ellison Reads Harlan Ellison, an LP, was also on the Nebula final ballot, while Hugo voters also rejected Carrie and Futureworld.) I guess in the year of Star Wars, the previous year's works paled into insignificance.

The Hugo for Best Novel that year went to Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm, and the Nebula to Man Plus, by Fredrik Pohl, which is interesting as I would rate the former as the more literary, and certainly the more feminist. Both novels were on both final ballots, as was Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg. Hugo voters also had the choice of Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert, and Mindbridge, by Joe Haldeman; the Nebula list also included Inferno, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, Islands, by Marta Randall (Pyramid) and Triton, by Samuel R. Delany. I haven't read the last three; of the others, I'm unfashionably fond of Mindbridge.

In the Short Story category, the Hugo went to "Tricentennial", by Joe Haldeman, and the Nebula to “A Crowd of Shadows”, by Charles L. Grant; both were on both ballots, but there were no other shared nomniations. I'm pretty sure I have read the former but not the latter, though I have no clear memory of doing so.

OK. I can't put this off any longer. “The Bicentennial Man” is an awful piece of writing. Here's the second paragraph of the third section:
Andrew did not understand any of this at the time. But in later years, with greater learning, he could review that early scene and understand it in its proper light.
It is about an Asimovian Three Laws robot who wants to become human, and gradually acquired the legal rights of a human and the body of a human so that he can die as a human. I hate cute robot stories anyway, I hate the Three Laws as a concept and I hate Asimov's writing style. Collodi did "wanting to be a real boy" better in Pinocchio, and indeed Anderson did "wanting to be a real girl" better in "The Little Mermaid". (See TV Tropes on Pinocchio Syndrome as to why this plot is so unoriginal.) I wrote about its flaws at greater length here.

On top of that, it's particularly nauseating to read the story in the context of Black Lives Matter, and it surely must have been equally clunky with regard to the 1976 Zeitgeist in the immediate wake of the Civil Rights movement. Asimov is clearly invoking Black American experience in the character of Andrew, who starts out as a house servant with an artistic gift that his owners exploit (and kindly allow him to profit from), and then gets his own way through a succession of legal challenges and political initiatives. But the parallel is so offensive that I had better stop making it. I will note, however, that Andrew pulls the ladder up after him.

The story won the Hugo and Nebula not so much on literary merit as on Asimov's reputation and stature within the community (despite his well-known record as a serial harasser of women), and also because of Ursula Le Guin's protest against Cold War politics. For the Hugo, it beat “The Diary of the Rose”, by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance”, by John Varley and “The Phantom of Kansas”, also by John Varley. For the Nebula, the losing stories were “Custer's Last Jump”, by Steven Utley & Howard Waldrop, “His Hour Upon the Stage”, by Grant Carrington and “In the Bowl”, John Varley. “The Diary of the Rose” was also originally on the Nebula shortlist, but Le Guin withdrew it in protest at SFWA's expulsion of Stanisław Lem.
The SFWA called me to plead with me not to withdraw it, since it had, in fact, won. I couldn’t do that. So—with the perfect irony that awaits anybody who strikes a noble pose on high moral ground—my award went to the runner-up: Isaac Asimov, the old chieftain of the Cold Warriors.
I have to admit I was startled as I sat down to write this piece and discovered that “The Bicentennial Man” won Best Novelette and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” won Best Novella. Asimov's prose drags, and Tiptree's engages, and I really thought it was the other way around. But history is clear. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is not formally broken up into sections (though there are clear blocks of narrative int he text). The third paragraph is:
Bud Geirr's loud chuckle breaks in on him. Bud is joking with some of them, out of sight around a bulkhead. Dave is visible, though. Major Norman Davis on the far side of the cabin, his bearded profile bent toward a small dark woman Lorimer can't quite focus on. But Dave's head seems oddly tiny and sharp, in fact the whole cabin looks unreal. A cackle bursts out from the ceiling—the bantam hen in her basket.
This is a very different kettle of fish. Once again, we have a very old trope (TV Tropes as ever has a good section on Lady Land) but Tiptree takes it in new directions: three male astronauts from our near future are warped far forward in time to a solar system where men have died out and only women (and non-binary enbies) are left, reproducing by cloning and living an eco-friendly lifestyle (with space travel). The men are interviewed by the women, having been lightly drugged to lose their inhibitions; and it's strongly implied that as the story ends, they are about to be killed off as a danger to humanity. It's chilling but also very subtle, and I wonder how many of those who voted for it in 1977 actually understood the full point. It's also very clearly a story about the future, whereas Asimov, despite the centrality of the robot character, is clearly rewriting the past.

There was possibly also a non-literary factor operating to help “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” win. In the months between its publication, in May 1976, and voting on the awards (the Nebulas were presented on 30 April 1977 and the Hugos on 4 September) Tiptree's identity as Alice Sheldon had become public, a few people having worked it out by November 1976 and Locus breaking the story as the first item of the front page of its January 1977 issue. Both fans and pros were apparently ready to forgive and even reward the deception.

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” won the Hugo jointly with Spider Robinson's “By Any Other Name”. The other two stories on the Hugo ballot were also up for the Nebula; they were “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, by Richard Cowper, and “The Samurai and the Willows”, by Michael Bishop. The other story on the Nebula ballot was “The Eyeflash Miracles”, by Gene Wolfe. I can't remember having read any of them.

Both of these stories are available in many many collections. Indeed, it may be worth noting that both were originally published in anthologies rather than magazines - Tiptree in Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N. McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson, and Asimov in Stellar #2, edited by Judy-Lynn Del Rey. (Hmm, just noticed that all the editors were women.) “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” was the first short fiction by a woman to win both Hugo and Nebula (Ursula Le Guin had already done it for two novels).

Next in this series of posts: three joint winners published in 1977, and awarded in 1978 - Gateway, by Frederik Pohl; “Stardance”, by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson; and “Jeffty Is Five”, by Harlan Ellison.
Tags: sf: hugos, sf: nebulas, writer: isaac asimov, writer: james tiptree jr
Subscribe
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 4 comments