I need somebody to love when I read a novel. As I finish up reading the Hugo Winners from 1958 to the present, I have been reflecting on my experience. I enjoy and feel rewarded by novels where I can learn more about science. I appreciate and admire an original setting. Quick pacing or witty narrative can make a book more fun. But the deal breaker for me is character development. Looking at the ratings on Worlds Without End, my local library’s website, and the listing of awards, I can see that is not true for all science fiction and fantasy readers.
I need characters for whom I can feel significantly empathetic in order to feel motivated to keep reading a book. Otherwise finishing the book is more of a chore for me and less of a pleasure. I like my characters fully fleshed out and four-dimensional. I want to know their quirks and flaws, their aspirations, and their fears. I like to know a little bit about their back-stories. The Civil War veteran Enoch Wallace in Way Station by Clifford D. Simak and Ender in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card especially moved me. The novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell created a unique experience for me. A number of times while reading the book I caught myself wondering whether Mr. Norrell was a good, likeable person. In retrospect, I think that he is so much of a curmudgeon that he gets a free pass.
I enjoy books where I relate so much to the characters that I begin to experience my own world from their viewpoints. When I was walking to my local library a few days ago, after I finished reading Paladin of Souls, I noticed black smoke coming from the local funeral home; obviously someone was being cremated. What fascinated me was that I saw the scene out of Ista’s eyes. I felt her feelings. I heard in my heart words that seemed like they would have come from her. Bujold’s writing, when it is at its best, does that to me. Similar experiences have happened to me after reading numerous other Hugo Winners. Sometimes this gets a bit weird. After reading the books in The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer—Hominids won a Hugo Award—I experienced my world from the viewpoint of an evolved Neanderthal. Similarly after reading David Brin’s Startide Rising and Uplift War, I experienced the world from the viewpoints of a neo-dolphin and a new-chimpanzee.
All the Hugo Award winners—with perhaps an exception or two—are good or great books. But, for me, they were not all enjoyable books. Orson Scott Card, in the introduction to Ender's Game, talks about what we as readers bring to the experience of reading a book. I realize I bring a longing to have someone take me by the hand and share their world and life experiences with me. Each reader of a book, including a Hugo Award winning novel, will bring a different set of desires and experiences.