Received wisdom is the mind-killer, or, is it time to end the Retro Hugos?
In 1994 the World Science Fiction Society approved the awarding of Retrospective Hugos for those years when there had been a WorldCon, but no Hugos. WorldCons aren’t required to award them. Also, Retro Hugos awards are allowed only for specific years: 50, 75, or 100 years before the current Worldcon, and only if another WorldCon hasn’t already awarded Retro Hugos for that year.
The original idea was that the Retro Hugos can only be given out 11 times—for the years 1939, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1954. Because there was no WorldCon from 1942-1945, due to World War II. A recent rule change now allows for awards for those war years, as well, which is how we got to the ceremony earlier this week at CoNZealand where Retro Hugos for 1945 were handed out.
When I first heard about the idea, I thought it was a good one. People were creating and reading (or viewing) science fiction in those years, and it made sense that the organizations handing out awards for excellence in sf/f should look at award-worthy stuff during that time. It gives fans a chance to read stories with which they are unfamiliar and learn about the history of this genre we love, right? And if gives us, as a community, and opportunity to recognize some works and creators who are less famous today.
In practice, I’m not sure things have exactly worked out that way.
A lot of the Retro Hugos have gone to people who are still famous today (and who often had received plenty of awards while they were still alive). And it isn’t even because those are the best stories that made it to the ballot from that year. Several of the Retro Hugos have gone to rather mediocre stories from early in the careers of people who went on later to write much better stuff.
In other words, it seems that a lot of voters aren’t actually reading the nominated works, but rather picking works that are written by people they have heard of.
It it difficult to track down some of these old stories, I get it. Even though there are wonderful fan blogs out there publishing lists of links to where you can find these tales (since they have often fallen into the public domain many are available for free). As a voter myself, I admit that each time it has been a struggle to read everything nominated from both the regular Hugo ballot and the Retro Hugo ballot during the time between when the ballots are announced and when voting closes.
An even more difficult category is Best Editor, Short Form. Which is, in practical terms, an award for best magazine editor. So in order to do one’s due diligence this year, for instance, you would have to peruse all of the issues published in the eligibility year of the at least the magazines Astounding Stories, Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Planet Stories.
That’s a lot of 75-year-old magazines to track down.
And if, like me, you track down scanned versions of the old zines at places like the Internet Archive, probably your first reaction will be a lot of “WTF?” because all the ‘zines from that era printed a lot of stuff which would never pass muster today. A month or so ago it shouldn’t have surprised me at how much WTF-material there was (because this is hardly my first time looking at stories and magazines from the time), yet it did a bit. It’s amazing how quickly we forget the weird stuff, the poorly written stories you couldn’t force yourself to finish, and so on. You remember the stories you thought weren’t bad (and sometimes even quite good) more than the other stuff.
If you aren’t willing to do that, you’re going to fall back (as the voters did this year), and the name you know: John f-ing Campbell, yet again.
I haven’t read every single issue of Astounding (later renamed Analog) Campbell ever edited, but I’ve read enough to draw an opinion of his skills as an editor overall. Looking at the stories he published in the year under questions, to the extent I could in the time frame, I found his selection of stories to be overall, mediocre. Yes, there was good stuff in there, but the was a lot more meh than wow.
I believe strong arguments can be made for at least two of the other nominees to be ranked above Campbell in this particular year. But if you point that out, people come back with basically three counter-arguments:
- Everyone knows that Astounding was hands-down the best sci fi ‘zine of the time so who else could anyone vote for,
- Campbell’s influence over the field dwarfs everyone else so who else could anyone vote for,
- I liked more of the stories in the Astounding issues I sampled than in the others so…
The third of those arguments is the only one with any legitimacy. But let’s deal with the first two before I tackle the third.“Everyone knows” is simply a really bad reason to make any decision. We’re talking about very subjective things here, for one. And for most people it’s all second-hand knowledge at best. Most contemporary fans weren’t alive 75 years ago, let alone comprehensibly reading everything that was published. And cultural artifacts don’t survive equally. Astounding appealed to a certain demographic who, for a variety of reasons, are much more likely to live and remain active in a particularly hobby for many years than some others. The demographic has also, historically, had its preferences elevated above other groups, whose preferences and activities are often erased from history.
Also, the Suck Fairy has had 75 years to visit those publications. You shouldn’t fall back on the received wisdom without verifying for yourself.
As to the second argument, well, Donald J. Trump’s influence over the United States right now dwarfs everyone else, but it hardly means historians should be handing him a “Best President” trophy. I know that metaphor is a stretch, but the point is that having a lot of influence isn’t the same thing as using that influence well. And again, how much of Campbell’s influence was due to him, and how much is it due to that ability of the demographic he most appealed to to have an outsized impact on how the time period is remembered?
That third argument is a reasonable reason to determine who you vote for, I agree. But at least some of the people I’ve seen making that argument don’t stop at “this is why I voted for him,” they went on and tacked on the “…so who else could anyone vote for?”
Judging the editor categories is always difficult. Most people approach it by voting for the nominee who published the stuff the individual voter liked most.
That’s not the only criteria one ought to consider, in my opinion. Full disclosure: for over twenty years I edited a very small ‘zine that printed science fiction. Our circulation was never over about 300, but we also knew we were aiming at a particular niche. Still, it means I judge editors by more than just whether I like every story they publish. I didn’t limit myself, as an editor, to publishing only stories I thought were award-worthy and would stand the test of time. I picked stories because I thought my readers would like them and were worth their time and attention. Another quality I judge editors on is how well they seem to know their audience. If I have information about how they treat the writers they work with and the staff of their publications, I let that influence me, too.
Because giving your audience things they will enjoy (which isn’t the same thing as fan service, but that’s another discussion), cultivating writers, and managing staff are all also part of the job of an editor.
If I only voted for the editors whose publications I loved (and only stories I loved, et cetera), there would have been a lot more No Awards on my Hugo ballots over the last five years. I can look at something that isn’t to my particular taste and say, “Well, I don’t like that, but I know a lot of people do, and this seems to be a competent execution/exploration of a topic I don’t care for” and go ahead and vote for it. It’ll just be lower on my ballot than other things.
None of this is to say that no one has a right to vote for Campbell in the Retros. The question I raise in the title of this blog post is about whether the Retro Hugos are actually recognizing things that are award-worthy, or merely handing out trophies to nominees based on received wisdom instead of merit.
Unfortunately, the jury is still out.
Edited to add: Not many minutes after this published, one reader pointed out a copy-and-paste blunder that ate one whole sentence and part of a word.
Then another pointed out that my question is sort rhetorical for at least the next year, since the 1946 Retros were given out at LA Con III back in 1996, so it won’t be until 2022 that the question will come up again. To which I say, an amendment to the WSF Constitution has to be passed at two WorldCons before taking effect, though we don’t need a rule change if the organizers of 2022 and later conventions can be convinced that maybe these aren’t a great idea…
ETA 2: As always, Cora Buhlert writes much more informatively and nicely than I do on a fannish subject: Some Thoughts on the 1945 Retro Hugo Winners.
ETA 3: I wrote a rebuttal to this a big later: It shouldn’t require a keymaster to have fun, or, canon and other forms of gatekeeping in sf/f.
And Cora Buhlert wrote more elequantly on the same topic and included a lot links to other people writing on the same topic: Why the Retro Hugos Have Value.