Aug 10 2019

An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

I remember enjoying these assessments of the Hugo Awards when they first appeared as columns on Tor.com, and I am glad to see them collected in book form with the addition of selected comments that appeared in the discussion that followed each column. The subtitle of this collection — A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953–2000 — relates the book’s remit about as succinctly as possible. The book is in some sense the obverse of her collection of reviews, What Makes This Book So Great. That volume started with individual books and sometimes veered into reflections on where they fit within an author’s career, within the history of larger movements in literature, or in trends that were popular at the time. This volume starts with each year and considers works within it, only occasionally delving deeply into an individual publication. Though the Hugo Awards have embraced many different categories over the years, Walton concentrates on written fiction; indeed, she thinks that in many years the Hugos would have been better off without the Dramatic Presentation category (or, later, categories) at all.

An Informal History of the Hugos

For each year from 1953 to 2000, she concentrates on the Best Novel category and considers the winners and nominees (once those started becoming known after the award had been running for several years), whether they have had a lasting effect on the field, whether they were in fact the best novels of their respective years, and what books the voters and nominators might have overlooked. As the years went on, more science fiction and fantasy awards were given, and Walton also looks at their nominees and winners as ways of gauging the field as a whole, and whether the Hugo voters were in step with other readers, juries, and voters. To those considerations of the years, she has added slightly more than two dozen essays that examine individual works. Finally, the original posts on Tor.com drew comments, and Walton reproduces a number of them after each annual summary. Two of the commenters who appear the most are Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois, themselves significant figures within the field (Dozois, for example, edited Asimov’s for 20 years and won 15 Hugos for editing over that span, and also won two Nebulas for his short fiction). The comments are also reminders that science fiction and fantasy are not large fields, and that editorial titans are just as human as their readers:

26. Gardner Dozois
Yes, I was the first person George [R.R. Martin] met at his very first SF convention, as I was running
the registration desk that day at that particular Disclave, so the first SF fan he ever met recognized him as being a writer and approved of his work—a foreshadowing of things to come!
27. TNH [Teresa Nielsen Hayden, editor of this volume among many others]
Gardner @26, shouldn’t there be a diorama of that scene in a museum somewhere?
29. Gardner Dozois
When you paint it, remember that I was skinny in those days, not fat. (Neither was George.) I also had long hair—of an “eerie, voluminous sort,” [Robert] Silverberg once said—that grew down past my ass.

Listening in on luminaries is one of the particular pleasures of An Informal History of the Hugos. Walton adds some of the things that she gained from looking at nearly half a century of nominees and winners. “I have learned that novellas are consistently the Hugo category about which I feel most enthusiastic, which I would never have guessed was the case. … I’ve learned that the results of the Campbell Memorial Award almost always baffle me and that the Philip K. Dick Award always picks up interesting things other awards miss.” (p. 571) Dozois adds, “It also reconfirmed my feeling that the bulk of the really good work is done at shorter lengths, particularly novella and novelette, and especially novella. Unfortunately, what everybody talks about in a year, and what the quality of a year is judged on, is the novels, which often are the weakest stuff. Even here in this series, there were always far more comments about the novels than about the short fiction, and I can only conclude that many more people read the novels than ever get around to the short fiction.” (p. 575) In 2015, four years after this series wrapped up, Tor.com launched its line of original novellas. By 2019, five of six Hugo finalists in the Novella category were published by Tor.com.

An Informal History of the Hugos is a lot of fun to dip in and out of; more fun, in fact, than reading it straight through would be. Inevitably, there are a lot of lists in this book. They’re great for providing additional input, but they’re still lists. The other inevitable shortcoming of this book is that it stops in 2000. Walton explains her reasoning, “I stopped in 2000 for three reasons. First, the ticking clock of the century seemed like a good end point. Second, it was ten years before the time when I began to write the posts, and it didn’t seem possible to have perspective on anything any closer to the present than that. If you’re considering whether a book from 1958 or 1978 has lasted, knowing it’s in print in 2010 is useful. This doesn’t work so well for a book from 1998, never mind 2008. Historical perspective takes time. The third reason was personal—I began to be published myself in 2000, and I didn’t want to either consider or not consider my own work in this context. It felt tacky. I was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award in 2001, and won it in 2002. I wanted to write about the Campbells, and I wanted to stop before I came into the frame myself.” (pp. 15–16) Fair enough on all counts. On the other hand, another 10 years have passed. When these columns appeared in 2010–11, they covered all but 10 years of the Hugo’s history. Now nearly 20 years are absent, not quite a third of the awards given.

An Informal History of the Hugos is a good project, well done, and all the more valuable now that one of the key commenters, Dozois, has passed away. I hope it’s not another 20 years before someone who’s as knowledgeable and fun to read as Walton decides to close the gap and look at the Hugos of the twenty-first century.

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