When we were putting together our historical list of the best sf (1950s here) I noticed how rarely the book we chose as the best of the year was one of that year’s award winners. And when we compiled our own lists of the best books of 2015 and 2016, the number one book on each occasion was one that hadn’t won an award. It sort of looks as though we don’t think the various science fiction awards actually pick the best books. But that’s not really the case. In any award, there are always great books that somehow slip through the net. It might be published too late in the year to attract attention, or have a small print run from a small publisher so not many people have a chance to see it, or by some accident not be submitted to a jury, or any of a host of other reasons why it might not be noticed at the right time. But if awards can’t pick up every single great book, it doesn’t mean that the books that do win the awards are not worthy of attention. Quite the opposite. In fact, if you are looking for a canon of the essential sf books, the ones that every true sf fan should read, you won’t go far wrong if you work your way through the award winners and the shortlists.
So that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Sometimes we’ll cover several years in the same post, sometimes just one year, or just one award, or in some cases just one book. But over time you’ll build a reading list of the titles that everyone should know about.
We begin at the start of the 1950s, because that’s when the modern award era began.
The first major award in the field was a British award, the International Fantasy Award, which was devised by John Wyndham and a group of prominent British fans. It was a juried award, and was presented at the British annual convention from 1951 to 1955. It was revived as a one-off in 1957 to coincide with the Worldcon in London, though it wasn’t actually presented as part of that convention (the winner that year was J.R.R. Tolkien for The Lord of the Rings).
The International Fantasy Award lived up to its title, at least to the extent that most of the winners in the five years of its existence as an annual award were American. For the first three years of the award, there was one award for fiction and one for non-fiction. The non-fiction winners were: 1951: The Conquest of Space by Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell; 1952: The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke; 1953: Lands Beyond by L. Sprague de Camp and Willy Ley. Given the developments in space science since then, these are more interesting curiosities than books you should necessarily seek out (though Bonestell’s illustrations make The Conquest of Space particularly attractive). For the purposes of this series, however, we shall concentrate on the five awards for fiction. No shortlists were released, in fact we don’t know if the juries drew up a shortlist even for their own deliberations, but the five winners are certainly impressive enough on their own.
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
The IFA jury apparently based their eligibility requirements on first British publication, though in this case as in others it had first come out in America earlier. But whatever the thinking behind this award, it is certainly a novel that has lasted. In fact, Earth Abides remains one of the very best post-catastrophe novels ever written, and a benchmark against which all subsequent works should be measured. Stewart was an historian with a deep interest in the environment, and had already written novels about environmental catastrophe, including Storm about a tropical storm and Fire about attempts to control a forest fire. Earth Abides seems like a natural development of those interests, describing an Earth largely wiped clean of humanity by a plague, and the attempts of a handful of survivors in rural California to start rebuilding civilization.
Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier
The only British winner of an IFA fiction award, before Tolkien, is probably the least well-known today, though that is hardly fair. Collier tends to be seen as a mainstream writer (his work frequently appeared in venues like the New Yorker), though he often wrote fiction that incorporated the fantastic. His early novel, His Monkey Wife, for instance, is the earliest example of fiction that explored the interplay between species; while Tom’s A-Cold is a grim, dystopian tale set in a near-future Britain devastated by a disaster that has thrust humanity back into barbarism. Fancies and Goodnights is a collection of short stories that displays his barbed wit, and illustrates his mastery of the short story. The variety of his stories is shown by the fact that this collection also won an Edgar Award for mystery fiction.
City by Clifford D. Simak
Despite its name, the International Fantasy Award was a straightforward science fiction award, and you can’t get more straightforwardly science fictional than City by Clifford D. Simak. It’s a fix-up of eight linked stories (a ninth story, “Epilog”, was published in 1973 and has been included in some editions of City since 1980). The stories take the form of campfire tales recounted by the dogs who have succeeded humankind as inheritors of the Earth. Over the course of centuries we see urban civilisation breaking down, and as people become more and more isolated so humanity dies out. In the meantime dogs have been given the power of speech, ant communities have developed their own particular kind of intelligence, and robots become steadily more accomplished.
More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
This was another fix-up, at the heart of which is his highly acclaimed novella, “Baby Is Three”, which is bracketed by two previously unpublished pieces, “The Fabulous Idiot” and “Morality”. The story recounts the growth of a gestalt being. It starts with a lonely outcast with telepathic abilities who gradually gathers around him other runaway children with strange powers, including telekinesis and teleportation, but it is when the group adopt a newborn Mongoloid baby with phenomenal mental abilities that they truly become a gestalt. The novel then follows the development of the gestalt as members die and new members are recruited, and outside forces start to threaten it.
A Mirror For Observers by Edgar Pangborn
Nowadays, if Pangborn is remembered at all, it is for his later post-apocalyptic novel, Davy, and its sequels. But in the 1950s, at the start of his career, he was noted for his elegantly written and humane stories; Pangborn is one of the people cited by Ursula K. Le Guin as convincing her it was possible to write science fiction with strong human emotions. That quality is on display in his second novel, A Mirror for Observers. It is told from the point of view of a Martian Observer living secretly on Earth. There are two rival factions, each trying to influence the development of human society. The two factions come into conflict over a child prodigy.
After 1955, the International Fantasy Award went into abeyance. It was briefly resurrected two years later to honour The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, but then disappeared completely. But in its first five years, the IFA had highlighted works of lasting importance.
And in the middle of this run, over in America, the Hugo Award had stuttered into life. But that’s a subject for another post.
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.