JCW’s Joe Doakes Challenge

Our occasional blog-muse, John C Wright has offered a challenge.

After listing Hugo Award winners for Best Novel in two time periods he says this:

Here is the Joe Doakes Challenge, for those bold enough to take it. Get out a pencil and make a not, for both lists, these three things:

(1) Which works possess the basic craftsmanship of our guild, i.e. a solid but imaginative story well told. Note also which have dull or hateful characters, little or no plot, or rely on gimmicks or nostalgia for their appeal.

(2) How many are among the softest of SF subgenres, such as alternate history or magical realism.

(3) How many are larded with a pretentious but sophomoric profundity or attempted relevance by presenting heavy-handed message fiction rather than science fiction. Is the number rising or falling?

How many of these stories do you love? Count and note the number.

Compare the two numbers. Based on this count, how often is the Hugo Award a sign of approval, or a leper’s bell warning a reader of sound sense and a craving for imagination to stay away?

Lets Go! I’m going to look just at the books I know well.
1996 Neal Stephenson: THE DIAMOND AGE – 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope 3 message fiction? Nope.
1997 Kim Stanley Robinson: BLUE MARS – 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope 3 message fiction? Nope.
2000 Vernor Vinge: A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope 3 message fiction? Nope.
2001 J. K. Rowling: HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE 1: Craft – Plot, Excellent, writing a bit mixed, 2 – soft SF/F? YA fantasy but overtly fantasy 3 message fiction? Nope.
2002 Neil Gaiman: AMERICAN GODS 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Fantasy but borders on magical realism 3 message fiction? Nope.
2005 Susanna Clarke: JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope – strong fantasy 3 message fiction? Nope.
2008 Michael Chabon: THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION 1: Craft – Masterful, a demonstration of how to write 2 – soft SF/F? Alternate reality 3 message fiction? Nope.
2009 Neil Gaiman: THE GRAVEYARD BOOK 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope – strong fantasy 3 message fiction? Nope.
2010 Paolo Bacigalupi: THE WINDUP GIRL1: Craft – Good, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope – strong near future tech 3 message fiction? Nope.
2010 tied with China Miéville: THE CITY & THE CITY 1: Craft – Excellent, author’s best writing 2 – soft SF/F? sort of passed through magical ralism and out the other side 3 message fiction? Who knows? There could be a secret message in it…
2014 Ann Leckie: ANCILLARY JUSTICE 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope, Space Opera 3 message fiction? Nope.
2015 Cixin Liu: THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope, alien invasion story 3 message fiction? Nope.

Hey! That was fun.

Oops! Forgot the other half:

1953 Alfred Bester: THE DEMOLISHED MAN 1: Craft – Good, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope – future society with ESP 3 message fiction? Nope.
1960 Robert A. Heinlein: STARSHIP TROOPERS 1: Craft – Good, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope – future space war 3 message fiction? In places
1961 Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Nope – future history 3 message fiction? Maybe in places
1962 Robert A. Heinlein: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND 1: Craft – Good, 2 – soft SF/F? A bit soft, aliens are in the context but primarily a social satire 3 message fiction? Social satire – so yes
1963 Philip K. Dick: THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Softish – alternate history 3 message fiction? Nope
1966 Frank Herbert: DUNE 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Space Epic 3 message fiction? Nope
1967 Robert A. Heinlein: THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Space Epic 3 message fiction? Libertarians seem to like it.
1969 John Brunner: STAND ON ZANZIBAR 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Space Epic 3 message fiction? Nope
1970 Ursula K. Le Guin: THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Alien society 3 message fiction? Not really – radical themes but no specific message.
1971 Larry Niven: RINGWORLD 1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Alen exploration 3 message fiction? Not really
1972 Philip José Farmer: TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO  1: Craft – Excellent, 2 – soft SF/F? Alen exploration 3 message fiction? Not really

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6 thoughts on “JCW’s Joe Doakes Challenge

  1. Hmmm. This appears to be merely a definition argument under a different guise. I maintain that pretty much all arguments (especially on the ‘net) are definition arguments – that unless all participants understand what the other participants mean by using particular words, then no actual progress can be made because everyone ends up committing obvious fallacies. It’s particularly bad in arguments about religion or science (or, indeed, both.)
    And whilst Mr Wright does attempt to clarify his definitions (good for him), he doesn’t necessarily make it clear that he may still wildly disagree with anyone else’s definitions, especially in the “message” category – for instance, it’s possible that he would consider Ancillary Justice to be very strong “message” fiction…

    It’s an interesting exercise though, and on the whole I agree with your assessments of the listed works.

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  2. And i note that a lot of your unfamiliarity in the earlier section are the less well-known winners, and they’re less well-known because they’re less great.

    As if we’ve had hits and misses the whole time we’ve had the awards.

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  3. (PS: One of the heaviest books of message fiction in the entire Hugos is generally considered to be one of the worst winners ever. I’d love to see Beale or JCW talk about They’d Rather Be Right…

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  4. Nice one! (Although I do think The City & The City (one of the most memorable books I’ve read in a long long time) is pretty much on message, regarding bigotry, fear and hatred of The Other etc. ) Still, your response brought a smile tonight.

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  5. The City & The City is a very political book, variously covering pillarisation, societies divided by culture but not space, and by extension the various socio-political walls through major cities (e.g. Nicosia Green Line, Berlin). That said, it’s certainly not message fiction.

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