Back in the early 1950s, when the Hugo Awards were born, Worldcon organizers had much more liberty to choose what was and was not included in their programme. So after the 1953 Worldcon decided to introduce the awards, the following year’s convention chose not to repeat the idea. It wasn’t until the 1955 Worldcon that the awards were reintroduced, and thereafter became a regular part of the Worldcon.
There was, therefore, a gap in the award record for 1954 (the best work of 1953). That gap was plugged in 2004, when the Retro Hugo Awards were presented for that missing year.
The Retro Hugo Awards were introduced at the 1996 Worldcon. As the Hugo Award website says:
The World Science Fiction Society Constitution allows, but does not require, a Worldcon held 50, 75, or 100 years after a Worldcon at which no Hugo Awards were presented to present Retrospective Hugo Awards for works that would have been eligible for that year’s Hugo Awards if they had been held.
Since then, Retro Hugo Awards have been presented for 1939 (in 2014), 1941 (in 2016), 1946 (in 1996), 1951 (in 2001), and of course 1954 (in 2004). It is noticeable that a number of Worldcons eligible to stage Retro Hugo Awards have not chosen to do so.
With the best will in the world, the Retro Hugos do not feel like genuine awards, in the same way that the actual Hugos do. For a start, the categories for the Retro Hugos are the same as the current Hugo categories. Which means that some of the idiosyncratic categories introduced in the early years (Best Magazine, Best Feature Writer, Best Interior Illustrator, Best Book Reviewer, etc) are missing from the mix. But those categories reflected the overwhelming importance of magazines in the science fiction of the day, so the context of the awards, the sense of what science fiction is, is very different. And if you look back through the early awards and shortlists, you will find works and names that mean nothing to us now (except for a few historians and obsessives). Instead the Retro Awards are filled with familiar names, because they are the works that have stood the test of time, or that are remembered with nostalgic affection by those who vote in these awards. In short, the Retro Hugos do not reflect what might actually have made the awards in the years in question.
Let’s take a couple of specific examples: Isaac Asimov’s “The Mule”, which won as Best Novel for 1946 was shorter than Animal Farm by George Orwell which won as Best Novella for the same year. The early Hugos were very specifically for sf rather than sf and fantasy, so The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, shortlisted for 1951, would have been unlikely to be considered at the time. Also, I think Lewis’s The Hideous Strength, shortlisted for 1946, was not actually published in the US until some years later and so would likely have been unknown to most potential voters at that year’s Los Angeles Worldcon.
Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, these are the works that made the shortlists for each of the Retro Hugo years:
WINNER: The Mule by Isaac Asimov (later part of Foundation and Empire)
The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt
That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
Destiny Times Three by Fritz Leiber
Red Sun of Danger by Brett Sterling (Edmond Hamilton)
WINNER: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (later part of The Once and Future King)
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Galactic Patrol by E.E. Smith
The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson
Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.