Some Thoughts on the Retro-Hugos

No, I’m not going to talk about the Hugo Awards and all the drama associated with them in recent years.  I want to address a particular category that was introduced in the 1990s and has been on the ballot sporadically since then.

A bit of background first.  The Hugo Awards were named Hugo Gernsback, who was the editor of the first pulp devoted solely to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  The Hugos were first presented at the 1953 Worldcon.  There were none awarded in 1954, but they have been awarded annually every year since 1955.

In the mid-1990s, the Retroactive Hugos, commonly referred to as the Retro-Hugos were added to the list of categories which may be considered for an award.  They can be given 50, 75, or 100 years after a Worldcon in which no Hugos were awarded. These years are 1939-1941, 1946-1952, and 1954.  It is up the Worldcon of any given year as to whether a Retro-Hugo will be awarded.  They have been given in 1996 (1946), 2001 (1951), 2004 (1954), and 2014 (1939).  They will be given this year for 1941, meaning that stories published in 1940 are eligible.

I see both positive and negative aspects of this.  

First the positive.  Some of the works from a given year are well known and may even be considered a classic in the field.  But not all.  Many of the stories eligible for nomination have either never been reprinted or have only been reprinted in publications that out of print, rare, or obscure.  And many of them are in the public domain.

retro-hugos-1941-vol-1The good thing about this is that Norbert von Dimpleheimer has compiled all the out of print stories into 7 free ebooks (in multiple formats) for your convenience in reading.  (Thank you, sir.)  You can find links to them here.  I’ve downloaded the books and will occassionally review a story here, without regard to it being fantasy or science fiction.  (I’ve got 4 posts to write for Futures Past and Present and a 5th when I finish the book I’m reading.)  There’s some good reading in there, although not everything will be up to contemporary standards.  But if you’re interested at all in the early science fiction pulps, you can’t beat this deal.

Now the negative aspect of the Retro-Hugos (which some people won’t see as negative).  I have to question the point of awarding Hugos for stories that are half a century old or more.

Times change.  Tastes change.  What attitudes are and aren’t acceptable change.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have to be aware that many of the writers who were the leading authors in the field in the 1940s have fallen into disfavor.  Not forgotten.  Disfavor. The ones I’m talking about are the ones who’ve stood the test of time, meaning their names are generally well-known in fandom at large:  Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury.  L. Sprague de Camp.  Jack Williamson.  Fred Pohl.  Leigh Brackett.  We can quibble about which authors have stood the test of time, but I think you get the idea.

Most of the authors from the days of the pulps aren’t known to the younger members of fandom (or even the older members), and for this dicussion I’m loosely defining younger as under 40.  The bulk of writers from 1940 are basically forgotten by today’s readers.  This is true of all genres.  And many of those who are forgotten were at the time they were writing were as equally popular as the ones who are considered giants today.

These writers are from an earlier generation, one that had different views on race, sex, and other topics that will get them accused of some sort of -ism in these politically correct times, and has.  (After all, all the writers in 1940 were straight, white, cisgendered men who were racist, sexist, etc.  Or so the Narrative goes in some circles.)  The authors who would have won a Hugo then, had such a thing been possible, might very well not be the ones who would win today.

Ray Bradbury older

Ray Bradbury

I’m not saying that there’s some conspiracy to dishonor the giants in the field, so please don’t read that into what I’m writing.  Yes, there are those who never pass up a chance to denigrate dead authors, whether they’ve read those authors or not.  Those aren’t really the people I’m thinking about here.  I’m speaking about readers in general.

What I’m saying is that the people today, when choosing the “best” works from 75 years ago, most likely wouldn’t choose the same works as the people who were alive then.  The standards have changed.  There would probably be some overlap between the winners the two groups would select, but how much overlap, well, there’s just no way to know.

On the one hand, it’s nice that some of the movers and shakers in the field want to honor those who have gone before, who pioneered science fiction and fantasy before there were established awards.  I certainly would like to see the authors from the pulps better remembered today.  Then maybe we wouldn’t mistake something as being original when it was first done half a century earlier.  So from that perspective, I’m very glad the stories eligible (that are in the public domain, anyway) are available and will be read by some people who would otherwise woudn’t read them.

But I’m not going to put a lot of stock in the prestige of the Retro-Hugos.  The stories under consideration are products of their time.  And the standards used to choose the winners are products of ours.  And I’m not sure how well they mix.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Retro-Hugos

  1. Bill

    Hi, Keith.

    You make some very good points about how tastes have changed since the early ’40s. What might have been gee-whiz fantastic back then might seem cliched or old-hat today. I think you have to read the old pulp magazine stories while keeping in mind when they were written.

    True, the Retro-Hugos won’t be representative of what would have been given back then. But hopefully they might introduce today’s readers to older sf authors they may otherwise never have read.

    I was thrilled to see the collections of 1940 sf stories, happy that they are being preserved in some form. I think that’s more important that the naming of any Retro-Hugo winners.

    – Bill

    1. Keith West Post author

      Hi, Bill.

      Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to see the older stuff being preserved and made available, too. Especially since for the stories in the collections I linked to, I won’t have to hunt down the original pulps.

      When I started writing this post, I was pretty much of the mindset that there wasn’t much point to the Retro-Hugos because of the time and change factor. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that older works and their authors were getting attention they otherwise wouldn’t. And that was a good thing. I’ve thought more since I hit POST and have come to the conclusion that any exposure some of the 1940s authors are getting outweighs any other factors. So I think you and I are pretty much on the same page at this point.


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