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Niven declares, "Out of five Hugo Awards, this is the only one that surprised me." Yet "The Hole Man" is one of his most celebrated short stories and has enduring appeal to young readers. The center of its appeal, and the reason it won the Hugo, is probably its central conflict between two men. One is a bully and a teaser, while the other is intelligent but uncertain of how to behave himself in company, uncomfortable in a crowd. This subject matter echoes a common feeling among young adults and is easily recognized by them (the pain of ridicule, the fear of appearing foolish to others). Lear takes a psychological pounding that can be as severe in its pain as a physical beating; it is a pounding that continues everyday and from which there is no escape. It sounds a little bit like having to go to school to endure teasing that cannot be answered or to work to endure the company of people who do not have a clue as to who you are or why your work is important. In this, Niven achieves his declared objective in writing his stories, to say something universal about human nature, because Lear's misery is the misery of all decent, live-and-let-live people confronted by bullying that ignores their yearning for respect and for a place to retreat to be free, if only for a day, from torment. The nerve the story touches is raw, and the manner in which the story presents the pain makes looking at the dreadful tolerable, even, for a moment, satisfying.

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