Visions of Paradise

Sunday, February 01, 2009

If I Selected the Hugo Awards

Several years ago, Richard Lupoff edited three volumes entitled What IF? whose premise was stories which were worthy of winning the short fiction Hugo Awards but did not do so. The books were most interesting for their great contents (Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Golden Helix,” Shirley Jackson’s “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts,” Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” and Thomas Burnett Swann’s “Where Is the Bird of Fire?” are just a few of the stories included), but they also laid the groundwork for a lot of speculative thought.

Like most critics, I don’t agree with a lot of the selections the voters have made for the Hugo Awards. And why should I? Winners of awards are made for various reasons, not all of which have to do with the overall quality of the nominees. For example, the Australian voting system which distributes votes to the second, third, fourth and even fifth choices of most voters guarantees that hardly any voters’ first choice wins the Hugo Award. So the winner might actually represent the story which has actually alienated the least number of voters, rather than excited them.

And what about all the voters who select winners based on name recognition, choosing authors whose stories they have enjoyed in the past, or even authors whom they have met at previous worldcons and like personally? You think that is not an important factor? I do. Authors’ coattails can be an important factor too. Consider in the 1960s when Worlds of IF won three consecutive Hugo Awards as Best Prozine in spite of the fact that its companion magazine Galaxy was dominating the short fiction categories. So why did IF win instead of Galaxy? Because IF had the good fortune of publishing three Heinlein serials in that decade, and Heinlein’s children are about as loyal a group of fans as you will find in sf.

Anyway, I am not adverse to a bit of speculation myself, so here is my fantastic premise: What if the Hugo Awards were not voter-selected, but selected by committee, as the World Fantasy Awards are selected? I will allow the voters to select the nominees, but I will represent the committee in choosing one winner each year. Since nobody is on the awards selection committees every year, I will only choose a winner in years in which I actually attended the Worldcon.

1967 (Nycon III). This was my first convention at which I only spent a single day, driving into NYC to see what the heck a “Worldcon” was all about. The fiction winners were Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Jack Vance’s “The Last Castle,” and Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star.”

I have no problem with Vance or Niven, but much as I enjoyed Mistress, I thought two nominees far surpassed it in quality: Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 and Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon. Much as I loved early Delany, I will give the edge to Keyes’ masterwork as my choice.

1969 (St. Louiscon). I thought three of the nominees were deserving: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (although I personally preferred Delany’s Nova, objectively the two novels were both worthy), Robert Silverberg’s “Nightwings” (one of my favorite all-time stories) and Poul Anderson’s “The Sharing of Flesh.”

But Harlan Ellison has a history of winning Hugo Awards for reasons of personal popularity and the fact that his over-the-top writing style appeals to many fans. “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” was not nearly as good a story as either Terry Carr’s “The Dance of the Changer and the Three" or Damon Knight’s “Masks.” Either one would be a worthy winner, so I will select “Masks.”

1971 (Noreascon I). Two good winners here: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Theodore Sturgeon’s “Slow Sculpture.” But Fritz Leiber won Best Novella for his sword-and-sorcery tale “Ill Met in Lankhmar” which, quite honestly, was enjoyable but nowhere near the top of his form. My choice among the nominees was Clifford D. Simak’s “The Thing in the Stone,” a much stronger, emotion-packed story.

1973 (Torcon II). Four good winners and one of the worst Hugo choices ever. The good ones were Ursula K Le Guin’s “The World For World is Forest,” Poul Anderson’s “Goat Song.” and a tie for Best Short Story between R.A. Lafferty’s “Eurema’s Dam” and Pohl & Kornbluth’s “The Meeting.”

But Isaac Asimov’s comeback novel The Gods Themselves won the Hugo Award, in my opinion, for a single reason: it was his return to science fiction after decades of writing only nonfiction, and the voters were so thrilled to have the good doctor back that they rewarded him in the only way they knew, give him a Hugo Award. Any of three nominees would have been a much more deserving winner: The Book of Skulls, by Robert Silverberg, A Choice of Gods, by Clifford D. Simak or Dying Inside, also by Robert Silverberg. Dying Inside was Silverberg’s masterpiece, and one of the most unfairly-unawarded novels in Hugo history. I select it happy for my imaginary Hugo Award.

1974 (Discon). One outstanding winner (James Tiptree’s masterpiece “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” which beat out two wonderful novellas by Michael Bishop, “Death and Designation Among the Asadi” and “The White Otters of Childhood”) and three so-so winners: Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird” and Ursula K Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, true evidence of the Hugo Awards’ predilection towards BIG NAME WRITERS.

Of the non-winners in those three categories, probably the most deserving were Poul Anderson’s novel The People of the Wind and Vonda N. McIntyre’s "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand." In a close choice, I’ll give the Hugo to Anderson.

1976 (MidAmericon). Unusually, I have no major gripes with any of the winners, JoeHaldeman’s The Forever War, Roger Zelazny’s “Home is the Hangman,” Larry Niven’s “The Borderland of Sol” and Fritz Leiber’s “Catch That Zeppelin!”. My gripe is with the fact that three of the novellas were slightly better than Zelazny’s winner (and it hurts me to admit that, since I really loved Zelazny’s fiction): The Custodians", by Richard Cowper, "The Silent Eyes of Time", by Algis Budrys and "The Storms of Windhaven", by Lisa Tuttle & George R.R. Martin. Probably the best of them was Cowper’s “The Custodians”, so give it the imaginary Hugo Award.

1980 (Noreascon II). This was my last worldcon, so this is the last time I’ll bug you with my Hugo choices (for now!). I actually disagreed with three of the Hugo winners, only agreeing with George R.R. Martin’s novelette “Sandkings.” I disagreed with Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (Clarke won more Hugo Awards for career recognition than any other author), Barry Longyear’s overemotional “Enemy Mine” and George R.R. Martin’s “The Way of Cross and Dragon.” Probably the two most sadly-overlooked nominees were John Varley’s Titan and “Options,” so I’ll give the Best Novel award to Varley for Titan.


  • I love this kind of posting. I think most people will agree that the Hugo Award system is far from perfect. I had to agree with many of your choices.

    Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon is one of my all time favorites.

    I thought Poul Anderson's The People of the Wind should have won in 1974. In the same year you went with "The Custodians". While it is an excellent story I prefer "The Storms of Windhaven" but I would have been happier with either of them.

    Right now I am working on a recommended reading list. Mine is starting with all the books nominated for a Hugo or Nebula. It will be a work in process. Next I plan on doing a list for short fiction.

    Very good posting. Keep up the good work.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 12:41 PM  

  • The Hugo Award is, for better or worse, a popularity contest, and a momentary one at that. There will always be great candidates that are completely overlooked, and great nominees that don't win.

    Still, it serves a purpose.

    For example, the Australian voting system which distributes votes to the second, third, fourth and even fifth choices of most voters guarantees that hardly any voters’ first choice wins the Hugo Award. So the winner might actually represent the story which has actually alienated the least number of voters, rather than excited them.

    It was a while before I really understood this, and referring to the system as "Australian voting" does nothing to clarify what really happens.

    What we use for Hugos (and site selection) is an instant-runnoff voting system, not a ranked voting system. Counting starts by tabulating each candidate's #1 ballots. Lower-ranked choices are only considered as losing candidates are knocked out and their ballot stacks are redistributed. If I vote #1 for the winner or the second place candidate, none of my lower preferences are ever counted. It's only when my #1 choice is knocked out that my ballot is redistributed to my #2 choice (or "no preference" if I don't have a #2 choice).

    It's not a perfect system, and it does augur towards a middle-of-the-road candidate. That's not, in itself, a bad thing. "First past the poll" can augur as easily towards a bad candidate as a good one.

    If a winner ends up with a huge stack of ballots at the end, then it's pretty clear that the winner is a candidate that voters liked (even though many may have preferred another candidate). If the winner ends up with a smaller stack of ballots than "no preference" we're looking at alienated voters.

    By Blogger Andrew Trembley, At 2:23 PM  

  • This is kind of a fun game. I think it's great to look back on past years and, using perspective unavailable to those who were voting, imagine how it could have been different.

    I don't have much to contribute (not having been alive for most of these worldcons), but, having read most of these works long after they were published, I do agree with most of your choices.

    By Blogger rahkan, At 7:47 PM  

  • Hmm... I'm afraid I disagree we 1967. "Flowers for Algernon" works best as a short story, and it did win the Hugo for that version, in 1960. The novel version tied with Babel-17 for the Nebula in '67, so it's not like either of them was unnoticed.

    Mistress, on the other hand, is Heinlein's best novel. Stranger may have been the larger pop culture phenomenon, but hey.

    By Blogger Hal, At 9:17 PM  

  • I know of only two volumes of Lupoff's fine "What If" books. There was a third?

    Regarding the fairness of the hugo award, I quote Steve Davidson: "DUDE: (SF) awards are CELEBRATORY not PREDICTIVE." More here:

    By Blogger Michael, At 11:19 AM  

  • I've never seen a third volume of WHAT IF? but it is listed as one of lupoff's books, so i need to seek it out and see if it actually exists.

    I've read your blogs, Jim, and I look forward to your recommended reading lists.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 1:42 PM  

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