Now and Then

The Hugo Awards do not honor the best science fiction book published in the previous year. Anyone who is following along on the Great Hugo Read should be disabused of that notion by The Forever Machine. Instead, they honor something much more specific. They honor the book most popular and/or best liked by those attendees of Worldcon who chose to submit a ballot, which itself is drawn from a short list.

It’s a process that’s triple self-selecting.

Selection one: Nominations and votes are open only to those who are members of Worldcon.

Selection two: The short list is drawn only from books nominated by those members who choose to nominate.

Selection three: The award itself goes to the winner of an instant runoff vote conducted by those members who choose to vote in a given category.

None of this is meant to damn the Hugo Awards. It’s only to be realistic that they represent a very specific thing. This is worth keeping in mind for the next few months as the Great Hugo Reads includes a few Retro Hugo Winners. The Retro Hugo Awards represent a slightly different very specific thing: the books that have had the greatest lasting impact among those same self selective voters.

I bring this up for a pair of reasons. First, LonCon 3 has announced they are exercising their rights to offer Retro Hugo Awards, and will be honoring those works of science fiction and fantasy that would have been eligible for awards at the inaugural Worldcon in 1939. More specifically I bring it up because this month the Great Hugo Read looked at two very different books. First, the book that won the Hugo in 1958, and second the book that the British Science Fiction Association retroactively selected as the best book of 1958…fifty years later.

To be blunt, I can understand why Non-Stop was retroactively chosen.

Don’t think for a second I didn’t enjoy The Big Time. It was an interesting novel, especially as it set a very small story in a vast and massive world. It’s very clear that there are massive things afoot just outside the door to the room where the story takes place, a war being fought across all of time as the two sides change and rechange history. However, that’s not the story. The story is a closed room mystery. The broader war is only presented in snippets and monologues.

Oh the monologues.

The major failing of the book comes from the solution to the mystery. In many ways it’s the typical problem of Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes investigates the mystery, and comes up with a solution not based on the facts in evidence, but based on some obscure piece of knowledge he possesses. In this case, the solution to the mystery came about from a piece of technology that isn’t presented until the chapter where it’s revealed to be the solution. It’s a weak solution to the mystery, but the book isn’t about the mystery. It’s about the characters, and it’s about exploring the underlying morality of war.

It was also the first Hugo winner with a female protagonist. I expected that to take rather longer.

Non-Stop feels a little more modern, if that’s the best word to use. There were few points in The Big Time where it didn’t feel like a book written in the 1950s, a bit of a time capsule. Non-Stop felt like the more complete story, where the breadth of the story being told better matched the width of the world around it. That’s not to say it’s a perfect book, just that it’s the book that holds up better 55 years after its publication.

I don’t know how this dynamic will come forward with the Retro Hugo winners. In a way, they’re safe selections from a modern perspective. Bradbury, Asimov, and Heinlein. These are all three writers who still speak very strongly to a modern audience, and have maintained broad name recognition over the years. This isn’t to say that one, or all three, may not have won if the Hugo Awards were voted on in those years. But it’s no guarantee, either.

With all that said, we’re heading rapidly into October, which features the first of these three Retro winners as the secondary read.

Primary: A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1959)

  • Print: In print, available from Amazon or check your local independent (or at least brick-and-mortar) bookseller.
  • Electronic: Not Available. What the hell, Del Ray Impact?
  • Audio: Available from Audible, narrated by Jay Snyder.

Secondary: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Retro Hugo winner awarded 2004 for 1954)


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