Recognizing Who Should Have Been Seen All Along, or, Why the Retro Hugos Are Worth Saving

Cover for the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Cover story: "Queen of the Black Coast" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. The male character is Conan the Barbarian. Brundage was the first artist to draw Conan, and continued to do so as more storied appeared in Weird Tales, earning her the nickname much later, “The Frank Frazetta of the '30s and '40s.”

Cover for the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Cover story: “Queen of the Black Coast” by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. The male character is Conan the Barbarian. Brundage was the first artist to draw Conan, and continued to do so as more of his storied appeared in Weird Tales, earning her the nickname much later, “The Frank Frazetta of the ’30s and ’40s.” (Click to embiggen)

Last week I wrote about some problems with the Retro Hugo awards and why it may be time to end them. I was a bit upset at not just the one winner who I thought was undeserving, but much more irritated by the justifications I saw people making for why he was deserving. Two of those justifications boiled down to people taking other people’s word for what was worth remembering and honoring from the past. Some very cringeworthy versions of both of those arguments comprise the subtext of the debacle of the Hugo Awards ceremony that happened just a couple of days later. Though that is a topic I’ll be posting about later.

But my previous blog post leans heavily to one side of an issue which I think needs more discussion—evenhanded discussion. As Cora Buhlert pointed out, many of us who complained about that one aspect of the Retro Hugos failed “to mention that Leigh Brackett and Margaret Brundage, two awesome women who went unrecognised in their lifetimes, also won Retro Hugos this year.” Those two wins were well-deserved and marked incredibly overdue recognition of creators who had contributed much to the genre. And they weren’t the only thing that the Retro Hugos got right.

First, a complete list of the 1945 Retro Hugo Award winners is here. Now, my thoughts:

I was really pleased that Leigh Brackett won Best Novel for “Shadow Over Mars.” It was the story I placed in slot number one on my ballot, but I didn’t have much hope, because even though her career as a science fiction writer spanned form the mind 1920s until the early 1980s, and despite having been described as “the Queen of the Space Opera” she isn’t talked about one one-hundredth as much as certain so-called great men of science fiction whose careers often were much shorter than hers. Before this Retro Hugo, the only Hugo she had won was awarded some months after her death, as one of the screen writers for The Empire Strikes Back. Only one of her novels, The Long Tomorrow, was nominated during her lifetime and that was 1956. I had been afraid that either the Olaf Stapledon novel (which wasn’t bad) or the one by E. Mayne Hull & A.E. van Vogt (which is quite bad) would win because Stapledon and van Vogt are talked about and their works are included in retrospective anthologies more regularly.

I was equally stoked by Margaret Brundage’s win in Best Professional Artist. For 15 years Brundage was the cover artist for Weird Tales, and she also did a lot of interior illustration. The covers at first glance will remind you of other lurid covers that always seem to have scantily clad damsels in distress on them, but Brundage’s were subtly different. The women on her covers were far less likely to be hysterical or fainting. If the scene called for the woman to be tortured or threatened, Brundage would show that, but she usually showed them fighting back. While there were people who suggest Weird Tales should be banned because some found the covers lewd, Robert E. Howard once admitted in an interview that letters from his fans always mentioned how much they loved Brundage’s art, and he claimed he started adding scenes to his stories which he thought might make Brundage more likely to select his story for a cover. Back to the outcries about the cover: the editors of Weird Tales revealed that M. Brundage was a woman to deflect some of the objections to the covers, and there were a rather large number of people who didn’t believe it was possible for a woman to draw that competently. She definitely is overdue for some recognition!

Theodore Sturgeon’s win in Best Novella for “Killdozer!” is not surprising. “Killdozer!” happens to be a pretty good story and Sturgeon is not a total unknown to modern voters. It was in second place on my ballot (behind Brackett’s “The Jewel of Bas”), which I liked quite a bit more. “A God Named Kroo” by Henry Kuttner (another quite good story) was in third place on my ballot, followed by “Intruders from the Stars” by Ross Rocklynne. So I wasn’t unhappy with this category, but it’s hard to know how many votes for “Killdozer!” were due to name recognition.

A similar problem happens in Best Novelette with Clifford D. Simak’s “City,” because Simak is well-known, and entire City series is popular enough that it is still in print. However, I don’t think this particular story was outstanding compared to the rest of the ballot. I thought “The Children’s Hour”, by Lawrence O’Donnell (pseudonym for C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner), “No Woman Born”, by C.L. Moore, and “When the Bough Breaks”, by Lewis Padgett (C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner) were all better stories. The one thing that gives me some hope that Simak didn’t win just because of name recognition is that Asimov was also in this list (with a mediocre story, IMHO), so if name recognition were the only driving force, he probably would have won.

Ray Bradbury’s win in Best Short Story for “I, Rocket” isn’t surprising on its own. I personally thought of the stories on this ballot that it was the third best (behind Simak’s “Desertion” and van Vogt’s “Far Centaurus”). Mind you, “I, Rocket” is a good story. But Bradbury had a few much better short stories published in 1944. I mean, I’m not complaining that much, because even a mediocre Bradbury is more interesting that a lot of other writer’s merely good tales. I just happen to think that Bradbury’s “The Jar” and “The Lake” and much better Bradbury stories.

Leigh Brackett’s win in Best Related Work for “The Science-Fiction Field” is a bit of surprise if for no other reason than that it was one of the nominees that wasn’t available anywhere online. I had forgotten it exists until I saw it in one of the Retro nomination suggestion lists. After reading a summary I had a vague memory of having read it, and had to go by that recollection and some reviews to decide where to put it on my ballot.

Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster winning Best Graphic Story or Comic with Superman: “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk” can only be explained as name recognition and the fondness for more recent Superman stories. I had this story at dead last on my ballot. Both Flash Gordons and the Donald Duck story were in the top three positions because, well, Alex Raymond and Carl Barks were among the best comic artists of that decade. Full disclosure: when I was a kid one of my Aunts bought me a collection of trade paperback sized collections of reprints of a whole bunch of old Donald Duck comics, and this story happened to be in there! I actually have a physical copy at that nominee in my house! I also thought (once I tracked it down) that the Spirit story was better than this particular Superman comic. It just is not a good example of the series.

Since The Canterville Ghost and The Curse of the Cat People were number 1 and 2 on my ballot, respectively, I’m quite happy that they tied for Best Dramatic Presentation. There isn’t more to say here, other than, even 13-year-old me (who was the biggest diehard fan of the Universal Frankenstein movies) was shocked that such a stinker as House of Frankenstein even made the ballot!

I think the most important thing I can say about the Best Fan Writer category is, that if it hadn’t been for such modern fan-created websites like The 1945 Retro Hugo Awards Spreadsheet, Retro Science Fiction Reviews, and the like, I would have had no idea who to nominate other than the same old white (sexual harasser) guy who tended to always when in this decade. Fritz Leiber won six Hugos in his lifetime for professional stories, but like many pros, he was also extremely active in unpaid fan work. So I’m not at all unhappy with this win.

In my previous post I talked about the Best Editor category, but I want to repeat here that from my reading of scans I could find of old issues of the various zines that were being edited by the nominees in this category, Amazing Stories and Weird Tales (Raymond A. Palmer and Dorothy McIlwraith) published more good stories than Astounding that year. Planet Stories (edited by W. Scott Peacock) seemed to be a tie with Astounding in the ratio of good stories to bad. And I should note that the winner of the Retro Hugo for Fan Writer, that essay by Leigh Brackett? According to that essay, at the time Planet Stories was considered hands-down the superior publisher of accurate science in its science fiction. So all those grouchy old white guys who keep insisting Astounding and Campbell were beloved and revered above all others at the time and were the undisputed champions of science—they can sit on something unpleasant and spin.

Now we come to another category that has a lot of people up in arms: the Cthulhu Mythos winning Best Series. Before I begin, I need to point out that for the last five years I have been running a homebrew Cthulhu-based rollplaying game with a bunch of my friends. I have written stories that were intentionally meant to evoke the Cthulhu Mythos. I own a lot of modern anthologies, novels, and novellas by various people set in that kind of universe.

Despite enjoying the concepts of the Mythos, I put it dead last on my ballot (and considered putting it below No Award) for a number of reasons. The first is that in 1944, when works must be published to be eligible for this award, most of what I consider well-written Cthulhu-mythos stories had not been written. Of the works published in 1944, Captain Future, the Shadow, and Doc Savage were infinitely better. Most of the Jules de Grandin stories were also superior (though the best, IMHO, were published between 1921 and 1930 and I was shocked when I saw it on the ballot because I didn’t realize an eligible entry had been printed in 1944) Burroughs’ Pellucidar series was more than a bit uneven, so kind of a tie, quality-wise in my opinion. And I should disclose that I was irritated that, so far as I could tell, the far superior Monsieur Zenith had no qualifying stories published that year. Another reason not related to Lovecraft’s blatant racism (that is the driving force of many of his stories in this cycle), is that the Mythos was listed as being created by Lovecraft, Derleth “and others.” And honestly, by far most of the good stuff in the series was created by those unnamed others. So even wording this nomination that way makes this an undesirable thing to vote for.

If you read nothing of this post except the previous paragraph, you should be able to infer that I am quite interested in and fond of a whole lot of sci fi, fantasy, weird tales, and mysterious fiction published many, many decades before I was born. I was born in the ’60s, but my mom was a sci fi fan before I was born. From my infancy, she read to me from the sci fi books she had most recently checked out from the library or bought from a used book store. Of course I am familiar with the works of all those problematic guys from the 40s and 50s (and beyond!)1. All those stories shaped my love and curiosity for more fiction of the fantastic. And I think that there is value, for those interested, in having some familiarity with some of those old stories.

But I also think that if those of us who have knowledge of those old stories are going to recommend things to modern fans, they need to be things we have double-checked to make sure they really are as good as we remember. During a previous Retro Hugos ballot, some old stories written by an author who for decades was my favorite were on the ballot. They were stories I had read many, many, many years ago and had very fond memories of. I decided the ballot was a great excuse to re-read these old beloved favorites.

The Suck Fairy had been extremely busy working on those stories. The Suck Fairy had been so busy on those stories, that when I saw more stories from the same series by the same author had been nominated for Retros this year, I decided to just put them in last place on my ballot without re-reading, because I would rather keep the happy, golden versions of those stories that exists in my imperfect memory than see that the tales were not as good as I thought.

Which brings us to some of the many discouraging issues that have embroiled the fandom on the fast few days. There are people who created great work 40, 50, or 60 years ago, who tend to be venerated now, and who are themselves living in the happy golden imperfectly remembered version of sci fi/fantasy stores that were written 70, 80, 90, or more years ago. They only remember the parts that resonated with them. They don’t remember the racism, the sexism, the colonialism, the homophobia, and other bigotries that were sometimes blatant, but almost always present to some degree in those works. So some of them genuinely do not understand why a lot of us are not as enamored with those days as they or in the same way that they are.

There are a lot of diamonds to be found among all that fool’s gold. And I think, if we can keep projects such as the Retro Hugo Awards Spreadsheet and the Retro Science Fiction Reviews up-to-date and available to modern fans, it is possible that through the mechanism of the Retro Hugos, we can bring recognition to many of those who deserve more credit for the foundations of the genre than the simple repeating of received wisdom has made available.


Notes:

1, I want to note, for the record, that while when I was a small child one of Mom’s favorite authors was Heinlein, her current obsession is the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal2. If my Mom, who is in her late-70s, can evolve with the genre, than 71-year-old GRRM has no excuse.

2. Her next most recent obsession was the work of Ellen Klages, so you can see that Mom has excellent taste!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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