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Considering the Hugos

By / May 25, 2015 / no comments

In a long and thoughtful response to this post, Nirvan asked me to write at greater length about the Hugo Awards. My first response was: oh dear me no, I don’t want to step further into that minefield. Then I thought again, and decided I would, partly because I’ve been sceptical about the value of the Hugos for some years now. But because there is a lot to say on the subject, I’m not going to limit myself to one post. There’ll be two, or possibly even three.

The first thing to say is that this is not about the Puppies, Sad, Rabid or any other kind there might be.

I’m going to start with some context, looking back at the history of the award.

The first Hugo Awards were presented at the 1953 Worldcon, PhilCon II. The awards were the invention of that Worldcon, and were presumably intended as a big set-piece event that would be one of the cornerstones of the convention.

Awards were presented in seven categories: Best Novel (The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester), Best Professional Magazine (a tie between Astounding and Galaxy), Best Cover Artist (another tie, Ed Emshwiller and Hannes Bok), Best Interior Illustrator (Virgil Finlay), Excellence in Fact Articles (Willy Ley, who happened to be the Guest of Honour), Best New SF Author or Artist (Philip Jose Farmer) and No.1 Fan Personality (Forry Ackerman).

It is possible to see something of the skeleton of the modern Hugo Awards in this list: Best Editor Short Form, Best Artist, Best Related Work, Best Fan Writer and the Campbell Award (not a Hugo), but in fact there is little real connection. Excellence in Fact Articles dropped out of the reckoning when Willy Ley was not Guest of Honour; No.1 Fan Personality disappeared as a category to be replaced by Best Fanzine. In fact the 1953 awards are best seen as a snapshot of the way the genre was structured at the time. It was a period when science fiction was all about the magazines. All the categories except No.1 Fan Personality relate to the magazines: the novel award was for the 1952 magazine serialization of the book in Galaxy not for the revised volume publication in 1953; the Professional Magazine, Cover Artist, Interior Illustrator, Fact Articles and New Author/Artist all reflect the dominance of the magazines. It is probably safe to say that all of the voters in that first Hugo Award subscribed to at least four magazines (Astounding, Galaxy, If, F&SF), possibly more, and read them assiduously, because they constituted almost the entirety of their access to science fiction. There were a few books out there, most of which would have been serialized in a magazine anyway, and that was it. It was perfectly possible for a keen fan with a moderate reading speed to read every work of science fiction published in the year.

One other thing to bear in mind: the members of that Worldcon numbered 750. Not the largest of the period, the previous year’s Worldcon in Chicago had 870 members, but still large for the time. It is a safe bet that most of those attending the convention knew, or knew of, practically everyone else there. Postwar American fandom was a rather small and incestuous circle. Of course we don’t know how many of those 750 members actually voted. They were simply asked to write down the work they liked best in each category (the Official Hugo Awards website mistakenly describes this as “First Past the Post” voting, it isn’t), and apart from the winners we have no idea what other works or people received votes. It is, in other words, a very different Hugo Award that hardly seems to belong on the same family tree as the current awards.

It doesn’t even seem that this experiment was a success. Certainly the next year’s Worldcon did not repeat the experiment, but the following year, 1955, Clevention chose to revive the Hugo Awards. They changed the categories to something closer to how the Hugos would be structured for the next several years: Best Novel (They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley, again recognised for its serialization in Astounding rather than volume publication); Best Novelette (“The Darfsteller” by Walter M. Miller); Best Short Story (“Allamagoosa” by Eric Frank Russell); Best Professional Magazine (Astounding); Best Professional Artist (Frank Kelly Freas) and Best Fanzine (“Fantasy Times”). Other than the Fanzine (and the fanzines were, of course, modelled on professional magazines), all these awards are related to the magazines. And that’s the way it would continue for years to come. The first Best Novel award that did not go to a serialization was in 1959, when James Blish won for A Case of Conscience.

Clevention’s membership, by the way, was about half that of PhilCon II. We are still talking about a very small circle of voters who most likely knew each other and knew practically everything being published in sf.

I say Clevention established something closer to the common pattern for the Hugos, but since the awards were still the possession of each year’s Worldcon, the categories changed regularly. The 1957 Worldcon in London had only three categories: Best American Professional Magazine, Best British Professional Magazine and Best Fanzine. This was also the first time that runners-up were announced in each category, though this was dropped the following year. The 1959 Worldcon was the first to introduce an initial nominating ballot, which was originally open to anyone whether or not they were a convention member. Other Worldcons introduced categories such as Best Feature Writer or Best Book Reviewer (both in 1956) that were then never seen again. The first time No Award won was in 1959, in two categories, Best SF or Fantasy Movie, and Best New Author of 1958 (the contestants for that particular prize included Brian Aldiss and Kit Reed).

The Hugos were a fluid and uncertain thing, but by the early 60s it had settled down to a pattern that was repeated with only minor variations for several years: Best Novel, Best Short Fiction, Best Dramatic Presentation, Best Professional Magazine, Best Professional Artist, Best Fanzine. For a couple of years there were insufficient nominations for Best Dramatic Presentation to appear on the ballot. Once or twice they introduced Best SF Publisher, and in 1966 there was a vote for Best All-Time Series (won by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation). Towards the end of the 60s the fiction categories were expanded to include, first, Best Novelette, and later Best Novella (these would appear and disappear on the ballot several times over the succeeding years); while the fan categories were expanded to include Fan Artist and Fan Writer. Best Professional Editor came in during the early 70s, and Best Related Non-Fiction Book appeared in 1980, so far as I can see to give an award to the first edition of the SF Encyclopedia, then in 1984 Best Semiprozine appeared to stop Locus winning Best Fanzine year after year. There was an Other Forms category in 1988 to accommodate Watchmen, and a short-lived Best Original Artwork category in the early 90s which didn’t even appear on the ballot in all the years when it was an option. But with minor and sometimes shortlived variations, the pattern of the Hugos from around 1960 until the end of the century was the same: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Story, Best Related Book, Best Dramatic Presentation, Best Professional Editor, Best Professional Artist, Best Semiprozine, Best Fanzine, Best Fan Writer, Best Fan Artist. Then the categories started to proliferate. There was a Best Website category that appeared and disappeared; Best Dramatic Presentation split into Long Form and Short Form; Best Editor split into Long Form and Short Form; Best Graphic Story was added, then Best Fancast.

(And I mustn’t forget the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer which has been awarded annually since 1973, even though we are forever being reminded that it is NOT A HUGO).

In the last 12 years the Hugo ballot has increased by approximately a quarter on what it had been for the previous 30 years.

Everything to do with the Hugos was under the full control of the individual Worldcon until 1963. That was when the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) was established, and from 1964 they took over control of the Hugos. WSFS basically consists of anyone who attends a Worldcon, because all WSFS business meetings take place at the Worldcon and are open to any Worldcon attendee. So WSFS owns the Hugo Award and anyone who wins a bid to stage a Worldcon does so with the proviso that they administer and stage the Hugo Awards as laid out by WSFS.

So much for context. There are problems with all of this that I will come back to in my next post.

But for now I want to consider one specific point raised by Nirvan in that post. Nirvan was unhappy with “fantasy novels (irrespective of their literary merits) that won over more deserving, and certainly more ambitious science fiction novels”.

Well, deserving and ambitious are often in the eye of the beholder. I am not going to say that the most deserving work has always won the Hugo Award; quite the contrary, I think that that is very rarely the case, but I don’t expect other people to necessarily agree with my own particular tastes and preferences. However, when it comes to the appearance of fantasy on the Hugo lists, I confess I was initially like Nirvan in thinking it was a fairly recent phenomenon. I know that the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) changed its name to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1992, and thereafter fantasy became eligible for the Nebula Awards, and I rather assumed that there had probably been a change in the Hugo rules about the same time. Then I checked back. The Best Dramatic Presentation category had been called Best SF or Fantasy Movie in 1959, and that same year the winner of the Best Short Story had been “That Hell-Bound Train” by Robert Bloch, a horror story. There were fantasy stories cropping up on the shortlists right from the start (Witch World by Andre Norton in 1964, Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett and Day of the Minotaur by Thomas Burnett Swann in 1967). So I suspect that the visibility of fantasy works on the Hugo lists since, say, J.K. Rowling won for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire won for Best Novel in 2001, is as much as anything a factor of a change in the market. The Hugo is a popular award, it rarely goes to obscure works (some winners have become obscure in the years since, but they were very popular at the time), so it reflects what the mass of people tend to be buying and reading. I did not think that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was anything close to being the best book of that year, but it was immensely popular, more people were likely to have read it than all of the rest of the shortlisted novels combined, so I wasn’t in the least surprised that it won. And at least partly because of the work of Rowling and others like George R.R. Martin, fantasy has become far more dominant in the marketplace than science fiction this century. Go into any bookshop and look at the sf shelves and you will see much more fantasy than sf. It is easily the most prominent of genre fictions and is likely to remain so for some time, so it is almost inevitable that it has become so prominent in a popular vote genre award where no real distinction is made between science fiction and fantasy.

And I’ve been going on for far too long already. Next time, I’ll talk about some of the things that are wrong with the Hugo Awards.


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