Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Jeffty Is Five, Stardance, Gateway: published 1977, won Hugo/Nebula 1978

Next in my write-ups of works that won both the Hugo and Nebula, which I am now doing year by year. The 1978 Hugos and 1977 Nebulas were awarded in 1978 for work published in 1977. As is sometimes the case (most recently three years ago), three out of four written fiction categories were won by the same work for both awards.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Jeffty is Five” by Harlan Ellison, which won both Best Short Story awards, is:
Her husband managed to drag himself out of the old easy chair and went to her. He bent and tried to soothe her, but it was clear from the graceless way in which he touched her graying hair that the ability to be compassionate had been stunted in him. “Shhh, Leona, it’s all right. Shhh.” But she continued crying. Her hands scraped gently at the antimacassars on the arms of the chair.
Jeffty was the narrator's best friend as a child; but almost twenty years later, Jeffty is still five (like Oskar in The Tin Drum) and everyone else has grown up. However, Jeffty is still getting comics, hearing radio shows and even seeing films which are updates from the 1940s (the story is pretty clearly set in the early 1960s). His parents are in despair. One day Jeffty gets beaten up by older boys when he magicks their radio to only play the shows from his timeline, and his parents take the opportunity of his injuries to drown him in the bath, and the present day returns to their household. As stories go, it's much closer to horror than to science fiction; but the shock ending is told well, and perhaps this bit of talecraft, along with the community's affection for Ellison, helped the story over the line for the awards (and he was a Guest of Honor at the Worldcon).

Ellison was generally seen (not least by himself) as a firebrand radical leftie, but this is a very conservative story, unapologetically wishing for the old days:
Things are better in a lot of ways. People don’t die from some of the old diseases any more. Cars go faster and get you there more quickly on better roads. Shirts are softer and silkier. We have paperback books even though they cost as much as a good hardcover used to. When I’m running short in the bank I can live off credit cards till things even out. But I still think we’ve lost a lot of good stuff. Did you know you can’t buy linoleum any more, only vinyl floor covering? There’s no such thing as oilcloth any more; you’ll never again smell that special, sweet smell from your grandmother’s kitchen. Furniture isn’t made to last thirty years or longer because they took a survey and found that young homemakers like to throw their furniture out and bring in all new, color-coded borax every seven years. Records don’t feel right; they’re not thick and solid like the old ones, they’re thin and you can bend them... that doesn’t seem right to me. Restaurants don’t serve cream in pitchers any more, just that artificial glop in little plastic tubs, and one is never enough to get coffee the right color. You can make a dent in a car fender with only a sneaker. Everywhere you go, all the towns look the same with Burger Kings and McDonald’s and 7-Elevens and Taco Bells and motels and shopping centers. Things may be better, but why do I keep thinking about the past?
It's also striking that the story is clearly set before the Sixties really took off, but was published in the late Seventies; a gap between setting and writing that is almost the same as the gap between the narrator's childhood friendship with Jeffty and the main part of the story. I found it curiously backward-looking for an award-winner.

The only other short story on both shortlists was “Air Raid”, by John Varley writing as Herb Boehm, which Jo Walton describes as "one of the best and most memorable short stories of all time". I don't think I've read it, but that's a strong recommendation.

*

The second paragraph of the third section of “Stardance”, by Spider and Jeanne Robinson, which won both Best Novella awards, is:
Dance requires intense motivation at an extraordinarily early age—a blind devotion, a gamble on the as-yet-unrealized potentials of heredity and nutrition. The risk used to be higher in ballet, but by the late ’80s Modern had gotten just as bad. You can begin, say, classical ballet training at age six—and at fourteen find yourself broad-shouldered, the years of total effort utterly wasted. Shara had set her childhood sights on Modern dance—and found out too late that God had dealt her the body of a woman.
“Stardance” is a story about a dancer who risks her health by staying too long in orbit where she is performing a new and revolutionary dance sequence; then aliens turn up who as it turns out communicate only through dance, and she makes the breakthrough on behalf of humanity before dying romantically. The narrator is the ex-dancer turned cameraman who loves her from (mostly) afar.

I'm not a huge fan of dance, though I thoroughly enjoyed Giselle in Bratslava last year, and much longer ago a royal command performance in the Hague in 2004. On the other hand, one of the silliest things I've ever seen was a solo interpretative dance about the love of God, performed in lieu of a sermon at a church I was visiting in Munich in 1992. On the other hand again, the choreograhy is an important part of what makes the Hamilton stage show so memorable. Anyway, it's not especially my fandom, but the Robinsons drew me into it.

But I do wonder how one could actually dance in zero gravity? The whole mechanics of dance are about balancing movement against weight; I can't imagine that you could do the same without anything to dance on, as it were. And the protagonist does her last dance wearing a spacesuit, which seems even more improbable.

“Stardance” kicked off a series of novels, which I'm not especially inclined to get; I bounced off the only other book I've tried with Spider Robinson's name on the cover (and the other co-author there, nominally at least, was Robert A. Heinlein).

The only other novella on the Nebula ballot, “Aztecs” by Vonda N. McIntyre, was also on the Hugo ballot. I don't recall anything about it, but I guess I have read it because along with both “Jeffty is Five” and “Stardance” it is in the Nebula Winners Thirteen anthology which I own, and which you can get here.

*

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Gateway by Frederik Pohl, which won both Best Novel awards, is:
“I think we might go back to a different area, Rob. There was something you said some time ago that we might follow up. Can you remember that time, the last time you—”
When I first reviewed Gateway in 2004, I wrote this (links have been updated):

Gateway is about the adventures and loves of Robinette Broadhead on the eponymous asteroid, a claustrophobic community of prospectors desperately gambling on the winnings they might make from one of the hundreds of alien spaceships abandoned there. It is certainly one of Pohl's best books out of a long and distinguished career, where his influence as editor and fan has probably been as great as his influence as a writer. It was written between his other two great novels, Man Plus and Jem, and about the same time as the one Pohl book that should be read by anyone interested in the history of science fiction, his autobiography, The Way the Future Was.

The novel manages to weave three quite different strands of plot together. The main plot, Robinette's reminiscences of what happened on Gateway, is told as a series of flashbacks between his much later sessions with the robot analyst he dubs Sigfrid von Shrink. But the third and most interesting strand is the insertion of single pages of text which are on first sight tangential to the story: output code from Sigfrid von Shrink's programming, lectures on the mysterious vanished Heechee, official publications of the Gateway Corporation, and, most evocative of all, the small ads placed by the Gateway prospectors. It allows the author to show his world from a different viewpoint than that of the narrator, which becomes reassuring later in the book as we gradually realize that he is not an entirely reliable witness.

As a Belfast teenager attending a convent school twenty [now forty!] years ago (albeit a liberal and broad-minded convent school - heck, it even took us boys as well as girls) my exposure to same-sex relationships had basically been restricted to media coverage of the Jeremy Thorpe trial. Gateway was probably the first book I read with a positive and unembarrassed portrayal of homosexuality - almost the first explicit mention of the topic is in a small ad from a lesbian couple looking for a partner for "permanent trimarriage" with the ultimate object of settling in, of all places, Northern Ireland. Robinette's failure to deal honestly with his own (limited) homosexual tendencies is clearly shown as one of his (many) negative characteristics. It's a striking contrast with the utterly inept treatment of the topic in Haldeman's The Forever War.

Great science fiction makes you sit back and think about your own world - in Brian Aldiss' phrase [actually he was quoting Philip K. Dick], "Not 'What if...?' but 'My God! What if...?'" Gateway achieves this effect for me in the sensawunda of exploring the Heechee artifacts, and even more so in its vivid and believable portrayal of life on the asteroid, and the backdrop of the desperate, overpopulated future solar system. A favourite line of mine, from Robinette's account of his early life in Wyoming: "Funny. In the old days oil used to bubble right out of the ground! And all people thought to do with it was stick it in their automobiles and burn it up." I guess that the portrayal of the horrors of getting decent medical insurance is also in this category, at least for American readers. The brutal exploitative economics of spaceflight seem all too realistic (and must have been a bit of a bucket of cold water on the sf of the time).

As for Gateway itself: though the prospectors' economic activity is very tightly regulated, one gets the impression that Gateway is a more sexually liberated place than the rest of the solar system. In fact, it's slightly reminiscent of a university campus: the prospectors get there only after a long journey, have to go to lectures, and hope to spend only a year or two there before they "graduate". There are very few children, and lots of drinking, dope and sex. But of course there is a perpetual edge of dicing with death. Robinette's lovers on Gateway, like him, all face deadly danger: Sheri comes back from her first trip damaged but alive and rich; Louise metaphorically sold her own body and literally sold her son's to get to Gateway; and the last three, Susie, who turns out to resemble Robinette's mother, Dane, with the "warm and welcome circle of his arm", and of course Klara, the grand love of his life, are all abandoned in the final chapter, "going down" into the black hole.

Of course, the whole Big Dumb Object genre, including Ringworld and Rendezvous with Rama, seems somewhat post-Apollo now, and I rank the novel as "very good" rather than "superb". Other aspects of the story have dated too. These days the Gateway Corporation would have an immense marketing budget, with fan magazines, internet newsgroups, frequent TV documentaries being made by the most obscure countries, and also exposés by political opponents of the government in the five major shareholders (one or two of which may be democracies). [This was written in 2004, before social media had taken off.] The typewriter-style font in which the Corporation documents are presented now looks unprofessional rather than official. It's a bit surprising, two years before Alien, and especially given Pohl's own political activities, that the politics of the relationship between prospectors and Corporation is barely explored (there is one small ad for a "mass meeting" to demand "prospector representation" but we hear no more of it and presume that nothing happened). The environmental concerns, though less fashionable perhaps, are still with us. (Of course, he was saving the politics for Jem.)

Pohl is frank about his own mental health problems in The Way the Future Was, and the sessions with Sigfrid von Shrink are clearly based on real experience of therapy. Clearly, because in fact taken on their own they are not that interesting; reading about someone else's therapy sessions is probably about as exciting as hearing about someone else's dream, or perhaps reading the transcript of a legal hearing or a dull parliamentary debate. But the Sigfrid sections also raise the question of man/machine relations which (if I remember correctly) Pohl then pursues to a greater extent in the later books of the series. The idea that a computer could be used for therapy doesn't seem so absurd at first glance; a character in David Lodge's 1985 (non-sf) novel Small World comes to grief by having deep psychological conversations with the famous ELIZA (or one of her close relatives).

The insertion of pages of Sigfrid's output near the start of the novel remind us that he is in fact a computer, not a person, and that Robinette's treatment of him as a human being who can be dominated or controlled is misguided - so when Robinette manages to get hold of the override command we, but not he, are prepared for his disappointment when it doesn't in fact change their relationship very much. In the very last chapter, though, after Robinette has begun, painfully, to come to terms with his past, Sigfrid throws a new light on the question in the rather poignant final words of the book: "You asked me, 'Do I call this living?' And I answer: Yes. It is exactly what I call living. And in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much."

I really enjoyed returning to this book after sixteen years (as noted, there's a nostalgia factor for me). Not much to add to the above, except to say that two things are peculiarly missing from life on Gateway: there appears to be no police force, and no sex work (although Louise from Venus is a former sex worker). Neither omission seems at all believable for a frontier society. But it's still a Very Good book, and you can get it here.

No other novel was on both Hugo and Nebula ballots that year. I have read two of the other Hugo finalists, Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin and Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but I think I'd have voted for Gateway. The other Hugo finalists were The Forbidden Tower by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Time Storm by Gordon R. Dickson; the other Nebula finalists (none of which I can remember having read) were Cirque by Terry Carr, In the Ocean of Night by Gregory Benford, Moonstar Odyssey by David Gerrold and Sword of the Demon by Richard A. Lupoff.

The other written fiction category that year was Best Novelette, where the Nebula went to “The Screwfly Solution” by Raccoona Sheldon aka James Tiptree, Jr and the Hugo to “Eyes of Amber” by Joan D. Vinge. “The Screwfly Solution” and “The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs” by Carter Scholz were on both ballots. This was also the year that Star Wars won both awards. The BSFA Best Novel award went to The Jonah Kit by Ian Watson, which I thoroughly bounced off; there was as yet no Tiptree or Clarke Award to be given.
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Tags: bookblog 2020, sf: hugos, sf: nebulas, writer: frederik pohl, writer: harlan ellison, writer: spider robinson
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