An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000

An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000

by Jo Walton

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Engaged, passionate, and consistently entertaining, An Informal History of the Hugos is a book about the renowned science fiction award for the many who enjoyed Jo Walton's previous collection of writing from, the Locus Award-winning What Makes This Book So Great.

The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been presented since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious awards in science fiction.

Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award's inception up to the year 2000. Her contention was that each year's full set of finalists generally tells a meaningful story about the state of science fiction at that time.

Walton's cheerfully opinionated and vastly well-informed posts provoked valuable conversation among the field's historians. Now these posts, lightly revised, have been gathered into this book, along with a small selection of the comments posted by SF luminaries such as Rich Horton, Gardner Dozois, and David G. Hartwell.

"A remarkable guided tour through the field—a kind of nonfiction companion to Among Others. It's very good. It's great."—New York Times bestselling author Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing on What Makes This Book So Great

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466865730
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 08/07/2018
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 706,872
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

JO WALTON won the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award for My Real Children and the Locus Award for What Makes This Book So Great in 2015. Three years prior, her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Before that, Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. A native of Wales, Walton lives in Montreal.
JO WALTON won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for her novel Among Others and the Tiptree Award for her novel My Real Children. Before that, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award. The novels of her Small Change sequence—Farthing, Ha'penny, and Half a Crown—have won acclaim ranging from national newspapers to the Romantic Times Critics' Choice Award. A native of Wales, she lives in Montreal.

Read an Excerpt



Best Novel

Winner: The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester

Nominees: None

Between 1953 and 1958, the Hugo Awards were fairly disorganized. The categories weren't fixed, and there was only one round of voting — no nominees were announced. The 1953 first-ever Hugo Awards were presented at Philcon II, in Philadelphia. The winning novel was Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. It's not in print, but it was recently, in Gollancz's SF Masterworks series, and it's never been hard to find. I first read it when I was reading my way through all the science fiction in the library when I was twelve. It's an examination of how it might be possible to commit a murder in a world of telepaths where not even your thoughts are private. There are some aspects of it that seem dated, but I'd say it is an enduring classic, and a worthy winner.

So, what else might have been considered?

The International Fantasy Awards for 1953 had three nominees, all of which I think might well have been Hugo nominees too. The winner was Clifford Simak's City, one of his best books, a gentle pastoral and typically Simak story of post-civilization. It was a fix-up of short stories published in the '40s, put into novel form for the first time. It's in print in a beautiful small-press hardcover from Old Earth Books.

The other nominees were Kurt Vonnegut's first and very science-fictional novel, Player Piano, and C. M. Kornbluth's Takeoff.PlayerPiano, like most of Vonnegut, has leanings toward both surrealism and science fiction, but was published as mainstream. It is still in print.

Takeoff was one of Doubleday's early attempts at doing hardcover science fiction. Takeoff is not in print, and isn't one of Kornbluth's best-known works. I honestly can't remember whether I've read it or not. I think I must have, but I don't remember it.

The interesting thing about both of these is the reminder that there really wasn't much science fiction being published in book form back then — the real action was still in the magazines. It's also interesting that the Hugos emerged just as science fiction book publishing was getting established.

It's worth noting here that the Hugos and the International Fantasy Awards, a juried British award started in 1951, were the only awards for the genre in 1953, according to Locus's awesome database. It's easy to lose sight of that given the huge number of awards there are today.

Looking for novels published in 1952, I see a few other things that might have made the short list. Isaac Asimov had two adult books out that year: The Currents of Space and Foundation and Empire. Both of them had had earlier magazine publication, both of them are in series, which might have impeded their chances. But they're both in print, and I think they're both fairly well known almost fifty years later. There was also A. E. van Vogt's gloriously pulpy The Weapon Makers. I wouldn't have been surprised to see this on the short list, if there had been a short list. There's Cyril Judd's (C. M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril's) Gunner Cade, James Blish's Jack of Eagles, and Lester del Rey's Marooned on Mars.

In young adult and children's books, possibly E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Mary Norton's The Borrowers, or C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader might have made it on. In straight SF juveniles, we have Lester del Rey's Rocket Jockey, Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky, Robert A. Heinlein's Space Family Stone (aka The Rolling Stones), or Asimov's David Starr: Space Ranger.

Other possibilities about which I know nothing: John Taine, The Crystal Horde, and Raymond F. Jones, This Island Earth.

So, did a good book win, worthy of the Hugo? I'd say yes. Was it the best book of the year? Well, arguably. I'd argue for City or MoreThan Human, or Foundation and Empire as worthy of consideration, but I certainly don't have any problem with The Demolished Man as a winner.

Was anything left out of the short list? Well, since there was no short list, everything was.

Other Categories

Best Professional Magazine

Winner: Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction

This was clearly a tie. The interesting thing to me is that there isn't a category for professional magazines today. But John W. Campbell's Astounding and H. L. Gold's Galaxy were unquestionably the best magazines of 1953. I think the real reason for stopping giving this award is that there just weren't enough professional magazines at the time to make a good short list. You don't just need five nominees, which they might have managed; you need a tail of things almost good enough, or which might be good enough next year. There should be at least ten worthy nominees for there to be a category.

Best Interior Illustration

Winner: Virgil Finlay

Best Cover Artist

Winner: Hannes Bok and Ed Emshwiller

My only comment is that this is another indication that we are still in the time of magazine prominence here. We don't divide art by "interior" and "cover" anymore.

Best New Author or Artist

Winner: Philip José Farmer

Farmer had recently burst onto the scene and taken science fiction by storm. He wasn't brand new in 1953; indeed, he wouldn't have been eligible by today's Campbell rules, as he'd been publishing for longer than two years. But he was a good winner nevertheless, as he was near the start of his career and he became a major science fiction writer.

Excellence in Fact Articles

Winner: Willy Ley

Yes, his scientific articles were in fact excellent. No argument there. I'm not sure who any other nominees might have been — had Asimov started writing his Fantasy & Science Fiction science essays then?

#1 Fan Personality

Winner: Forry Ackerman

Well, he certainly was a memorable fan personality, who was a prominent fan then and remained a prominent fan until his death in 2008. So the Hugos did recognize lasting ability with this one.

Comments on 1953

7. Bob

Jo, the years were rather fluid in those first years of the award. You'll find that the awards for 1958 and 1959 both cover the same year — 1958! I would add one other 1952 novel — Limbo, by Bernard Wolfe. It was not published as SF but is pure quill dystopian fiction along the lines of We, 1984, and Brave New World. Still surprisingly good and has just been republished. I would have to include The Paradox Men, by Charles L. Harness, and Ring Around the Sun, by Clifford Simak.

9. Rich Horton

You're quite right, of course, about the fluidity of the time eligibility rules for the early Hugos. Anything published from the calendar year preceding the Worldcon up to the time of the con itself seemed to be eligible. I think codification of the rules came in the late '50s or maybe very early '60s. (Though of course they keep changing.)

Telepaths, Murder, and Typographical Tricks: Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man

I hadn't reread The Demolished Man for a long time, perhaps twenty years. It's a great idea book, but it's also tense all the way through, and none of the characters are people I care to spend time with.

Sometimes I read old books and they feel clunky, but I can enjoy them despite that. This isn't one of those. This is a surprisingly modern-feeling novel — though, of course, very short. It reads like cyberpunk — apart from the cyber bit. It has everything I don't like about cyberpunk: unpleasant immoral characters, bribery, an underworld, a fast pace, lots of glitz, a metropolitan feel, chases, and a noir narrative voice that doesn't want you to get too close.

This is a good book, certainly a classic, unquestionably influential, but I don't warm to it. There are excellent reasons for reading it, and if you like William Gibson, you might well like this too, but while I love The Stars My Destination and Bester's short stories, I don't like this one.

This is a future world where humanity is inhabiting three planets and three moons — and a rich man's clock gives him the time on the meridian of all six of them, but he has to do sums to know what time it is in New York, where he happens to be. It's a future that's had some considerable technological advances on 1953, not just in one area but in many. It's a New York that has different classes, and people of both genders, though they all seem to be white. Most of the story takes place in Manhattan, with one excursion to a space habitat.

Society is full of Espers, called "peepers" — telepaths. Not even your thoughts are private, and there's not much significant crime, though there's still an underworld. We're told there hasn't been a premeditated murder in seventy years, because some peeper would see the intent and prevent the crime. The Espers are organized into a Guild with an Oath, they're very moral, but they're also trying eugenic breeding to produce more Espers with a goal of a totally telepathic world. They require intermarriage and children, they classify themselves into rigid classes, and they earn a lot seeing through people's secrets. Their punishment for breaking their oath is total ostracism from Esper society — and we see poor ostracized Jerry Church pressing up against the outside of a telepath party just to be able to overhear mental communication.

Bester describes the mental communication as making patterns impossible in speech, and represents this with typographical trickery. There's quite a lot of "@kins" and "Weyg&" kind of thing, which must have seemed very innovative in 1953, which is sufficiently ahead of 133tspeak that Bester can reasonably be considered to have either predicted or invented it. It seems a little precious now.

The patterns made by telepathy are also slightly too clever for my tastes — an eye in a stein, meaning "Einstein." I generally like them better when he describes them than when he attempts to convey them on the page. However, this was clearly the precedent for Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi. Generally, the telepathic communications are clear and well conveyed. Bester actually does succeed in making the Espers seem as if they have another channel of communication that isn't just silent speech — except when it is.

There's a computer justice system that can analyze very complex things, but on punch cards. There's a brief interlude among the decadent rich. (I am unaware of decadent rich people like this, but since they appear here, in James Blish's A Case of Conscience and Dorothy L. Sayers's Murder Must Advertise, then I have to believe that if three people satirize what is recognizably the same thing, they're probably working from a common original.) We see these decadent rich and the lowlifes at the fortune-tellers and the pawnshop, and much more unusually, the middle classes in the person of the girl who writes the earworm and the scientist who invents the rhodopsin capsule and others of Reich's subordinates.

The plot concerns a murder, first finding a way to commit it and then finding a way to prove the murderer did it. A murder mystery in a science fiction society isn't unusual now, but it was innovative in 1953. We begin in Reich's point of view as he plans the murder, finding ways to get around telepathic surveillance with an earworm, and then afterwards we switch to Lincoln Powell, Esper 1st, detective.

The best and the worst things about the book are closely allied. The whole thing is as Freudian as The Last Battle is Christian, and it causes the same kind of issues. First, it gives it some extra and interesting depth. We begin with a nightmare, and the absolutely best part of the book is another long nightmare toward the end that does the kind of sense-of-wonder things that only SF can do. But the adherence to the Freudian view of people also limits it unrealistically.

This is especially a problem with the female characters — not so much the dames, who are sufficiently stylized that it doesn't matter, but the actual characters Mary and Barbara really suffer. Indeed, the whole plot needs the Freudian thing to work, but while it's quite clever, it's a cheat. We've been in Reich's head, but Reich himself doesn't consciously know why he killed D'Courtney, or that D'Courtney is his father; he's just reenacting primal oedipal urges.

I feel as if I've spent this whole time tearing the book to shreds, and yet I do admire it. It contains images that I've remembered for decades — especially the nightmare image of Reich thinking he has everything he wants and then realizing the world has no stars and when he mentions stars nobody else knows what he's talking about.


There were no Hugo Awards in 1954.

The 1954 International Fantasy Awards considered The Demolished Man and Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human.More Than Human should definitely have been a Hugo nominee if it was eligible. It's another enduring classic, Sturgeon at his best and on his favorite topic.

Comments on 1954

6. Rich Horton

The list for the awards that might have been, in 1954, is REALLY REALLY impressive, as the Retro Hugo nominees from a few years ago show: The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke; Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement; and More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon. (Other potential choices, not as good but still quite good: Robert A. Heinlein's Revolt in 2100 and Starman Jones, Fritz Leiber's The Sinful Ones and The Green Millennium, John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes aka Out of the Deeps, Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, and Wilmar Shiras's Children of the Atom.)


Best Novel

Winner: They'd Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

Nominees: None

There's kind of a trick fannish trivial pursuit question, which is, "Which is the worst book ever to win the Hugo?" The answer is They'd Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, 1955's winner.

I don't know if the book deserves this reputation, because I have not read it, because when absolutely everybody tells me that the jar contains marmalade all the way down, I don't feel compelled to take the lid off. I have never heard a good word for this book. Sometimes these things worked and sometimes they didn't. This one didn't. The book is generally believed to be so awful that there are conspiracy theories about why it won. Goodness knows what the voters at Clevention in Cleveland in 1955 were thinking. The most sensible suggestion I've heard is Dave Langford's — Clifton had written good short stories, the voters hadn't read the novel and were going on past performance. In which case, oops. It isn't in print. It isn't in the library. It is barely in the memory of having been in print. It's quite clear that this has not stood the test of time.

Nineteen fifty-five, like 1953, did not release a list of nominees, so any guess as to what was in the voters' minds is just a guess.

The International Fantasy Award that year went to Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers. This is a brilliant, indescribable book that would have been a solid Hugo winner — one of the best five books of any year. It's in print in a gorgeous small-press edition from Old Earth Books.

The runner-up was Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity! How could the Hugo voters not have voted for Mission of Gravity — sometimes described as the only genuine hard science fiction novel? It's in print in an Orb edition, along with some stories set on the same planet.

Looking at 1954 novels, I am instantly struck dumb with amazement. Poul Anderson's Brain Wave and The Broken Sword! Asimov's The Caves of Steel! The Fellowship of the Ring! Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Pohl and Kornbluth's Search the Sky!

In young adult, I see Heinlein's The Star Beast, Andre Norton's The Stars Are Ours, Eleanor Cameron's The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, and C. S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy.

Also in SF I haven't read but wouldn't be surprised to see on a Hugo short list, E. E. "Doc" Smith's Children of the Lens and L. Ron Hubbard's To the Stars.

I could easily compile a Hugo short list out of these books — either a "Jo's favorite five books published in 1954" or "What I imagine other people would have preferred," but in fact, any five of the books listed here would seem to me to be a pretty decent Hugo ballot that had stood the test of time. I'd somehow imagined that 1954 must have been a poor year, but it wasn't; it was a vintage year. Wow. The actual voters at Clevention inexplicably turned away from all these great things and chose They'd Rather Be Right.


Excerpted from "An Informal History of the Hugos"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jo Walton.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1953 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 17

Essay: "Telepaths, Murder, and Typographical Tricks: Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man" 21

1954 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 24

1955 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 25

1956 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 29

Essay: "Parliamentary Democracy with Martians: Robert A. Heinlein's Double Star" 32

1957 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 35

1958 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 40

1959 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 44

Essay: "Ever Outward: Robert A. Heinlein's Have Space Suit-Will Travel" 50

1960 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 56

Essay: "Over the Hump: Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers' 60

1961 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 64

Essay: "Dark Ages and Doubt: Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz" 69

Essay: "Really Good Fun: Poul Anderson's The High Crusade" 72

1962 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 75

Essay: "Smug Messiah: Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land" 82

1963 Huaro Award Winners and Nominees 87

Essay: "A Future That Never Came: Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust" 94

1964 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 98

Essay: "I Think I'll Go for a Walk and Think About Aliens: Clifford Simak's Way Station" 104

1965 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 106

Essay: "Telepathy and Healing: John Brunner's The Whole Man (aka Telepathist)" 112

1966 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 114

Essay: Wisecracking, Aliens, and Hot Places: Roger Zelazny's This Immortal 124

Essay: In League with the Future: Frank Herbert's Dune 125

1967 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 129

Essay: "A Self-Aware Computer and a Revolution on the Moon: Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" 138

1968 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 142

Essay: "Fantasy Disguised as Science Fiction Disguised as Fantasy: Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light" 152

1969 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 155

Essay: "Growing Up for Real: Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage' 165

1970 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 168

1971 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 176

1972 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 188

Essay: "Effective Dreaming: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven" 198

1973 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 200

Essay: "Great Aliens, Rubber Humans: Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves" 213

Essay: "Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg" 214

1974 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 217

Essay: "Menopause, Aliens, and Fun: Larry Niven's Protector" 227

1975 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 230

Essay: "Clear-sighted Utopia: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed" 242

1976 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 244

1977 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 256

1978 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 266

1979 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 278

1980 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 288

Essay: "Sunlit Clouds Beyond the Iron Grating: Thomas M. Disch's On Wings of Song" 298

1981 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 300

1982 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 312

1983 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 322

1984 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 332

Essay: "The Tea, the Statue, the Dragon, and You: R. A. MacAvoy's Tea With the Black Dragon" 342

1985 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 344

1986 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 357

"Who Is Alien? C. J. Cherryh's Cuckoo's Egg" 369

1987 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 371

1988 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 382

1989 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 395

Essay: "Designing People and Societies: C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen" 408

Essay: "The Most Expensive Plumbers in the Galaxy: Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free" 411

1990 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 413

1991 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 426

1992 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 439

1993 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 452

Essay: "The Net of a Million Lies: Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep" 465

Essay: "Time Travel and the Black Death: Connie Willis's Doomsday Book" 468

1994 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 475

1995 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 487

1996 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 499

1997 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 513

1998 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 525

Essay: "Transformative in This as Everything Else: Walter Jon Williams's Metropolitan and City on Fire" 535

1999 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 538

2000 Hugo Award Winners and Nominees 552

Essay: "So High, So Low, So Many Things to Know: Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky" 565

Conclusion 571

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