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Discovering the Award Winners: Birth of the Hugos

By / October 12, 2017 / no comments

The organizers of the 1953 Worldcon, known as PhilCon II, were looking for a centrepiece event for their convention. They decided on an award ceremony. The awards would be known as the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, and would be voted on by members of the convention.

At the time there was no plan to continue the awards in subsequent years, since each Worldcon was independent, free to choose what events it did and did not stage. Indeed, the following year’s Worldcon chose not to stage the awards. But they were reinstated the year after that, and only then did they become an annual event.

Nor were the awards known as the Hugos. That nickname, after Hugo Gernsback, started to be used quite early in the history of the award, but it would be 1958 before it was widely accepted, and it was only in 1992 that it became the official name of the awards.

So those first Science Fiction Achievement Awards are slightly detached from the history of the Hugos. And this detachment is further illustrated by the fact that, of the seven categories presented in that original award ceremony, only two would go on to become a regular feature of the Hugos: Best Novel and Best Professional Magazine (which continued as a category until the early 1970s, after which it was replaced by Best Editor). The other categories were: Best Cover Artist, Best Interior Illustrator (these two would subsequently be combined as Best Professional Artist, which continues to this day), Excellence in Fact Articles, Best New SF Author or Artist (variations on this would recur every so often in the history of the award, until eventually the John W. Campbell Award emerged), and #1 Fan Personality.

The one inescapable feature of this list of categories is the overwhelming importance of the magazines in the science fiction of the day: the best novel was a magazine serialization; the cover artist and interior illustrator were for magazine work; the fact article was the pop-science article, usually by Willy Ley, that were a popular feature of sf magazines (the excellence in fact articles award has nothing to do with the various iterations of the current Best Related Work award); the new writer or artist would make their mark in the magazines. Only the #1 Fan Personality (inevitably Forrest J. Ackerman, organizer of fan clubs and prominent in every aspect of fandom) was not directly connected to magazines.

There were no shortlists for these awards. Attendees at the convention were simply required to write down the work or the person they liked best. Given that there were only 750 people at the convention, this may explain why there were a couple of ties.

In reverse order, the awards were:

#1 Fan Personality: Forrest J. Ackerman

Best New SF Author or Artist: Philip Jose Farmer
The Lovers * Dark Is the Sun * Riders of the Purple Wage: Three Powerful Science Fiction ClassicsFarmer had only appeared on the sf scene the year before. His first two published sf stories, The Lovers (later expanded into the novel of the same name) at the time a transgressive story of sex and aliens, and “Sail On! Sail On!”, a witty alternate history in which Columbus literally sails off the edge of the world, had attracted immediate attention.

Excellence in Fact Articles: Willy Ley
Ley was, coincidentally, the Guest of Honour at PhilCon II, which may be why his name was the first one that occurred to attendees at that convention. At the same time, he was far and away the most prolific and popular science writer in the sf magazines.

Best Interior Illustrator: Virgil Finlay

Best Cover Artist: (tie) Hannes Bok & Ed Emshwiller

Best Professional Magazine: (tie) Astounding Science FictionGalaxy

Best Novel: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
The Demolished ManIt is, perhaps, slightly surprising that the very first Hugo Award was given to the debut novel by a far from prolific author, and a novel whose pyrotechnic style and reliance on psychological insights ran directly counter to the familiar science fiction of the time. Yet The Demolished Man continues to be regarded as one of the classics of science fiction, and of all the novels that have won the Hugo Award it is one of those that have survived best. On the surface it is a clever crime story, set in a future where crime is virtually unknown because telepathic detectives are able to spot the impulse before the crime happens. Yet in this world one man is almost able to get away with murder.


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