Sunday, 17 September 2017

The most obscure Hugo-shortlisted novel

One of the great joys of looking over the 64-year history of the Hugo Awards is discovering classic works of science fiction that might otherwise have been forgotten. Not all of these are spectacular – it seems clear that throughout Hugo history, niche elements amongst fandom have put forward works of marginal value – but most of them are well worth taking the time to track down and read.

Looking over the list of all the nominees, even someone who has delved deeply into the classics of
Second Ending lost in
1962 to Stranger in a
Strange Land.
(Image via Wikipedia)
the genre is likely to stumble across something of which they are unfamiliar. Second Ending by James White? A charming little book once we tracked it down. Edgar Pangborn’s Davy? Flawed, but worth your while. The history of the Hugo awards is littered with hidden gems like these.

What is the most obscure novel ever shortlisted for the Hugo Award?

If we’re basing our definition of obscurity on the metrics provided by the book-related social media site Goodreads, the Hugo-shortlisted novel that has the fewest ratings, reviews, comments or reads is Sylva by French author Jean Bruller. First published in 1960-61, the book was translated from the French by Rita Barisse and nominated for the Hugo in 1963. Although the official Hugo Awards page does not list Rita Barisse in its citation of the book, I would argue she deserves the recognition of being named, just as Ken Liu does for his work on Three-Body Problem.

Bruller published the weird, sexual novel under his nom de guerre Vercors.* It’s a story of a man torn between his love for two women, one of whom is a heroin addict, the other is half-human half-fox. It has not aged well.

But even though that novel has been mentioned by only 53 people on Goodreads, it might still not make Sylva the most obscure novel ever to appear on a Hugo shortlist. More than 200 copies are in various libraries in North America. The lack of Goodreads interest might be because it is more often read by Francophone audiences. Additionally, it was the first non-American, non-UK novel to be on the shortlist, and for 50 years remained the only translated novel to be shortlisted – this has at least in recent years made it appear in numerous articles discussing the Three-Body Problem’s historic Hugo Win in 2015.

The third progress report
of the Worldcon in 1956
lists the nominated works
for the Hugo Awards. 
Another good candidate for the most obscure Hugo shortlisted novel might be Michael P. Kube-McDowell’s The Quiet Pools, which was on the ballot in 1992. This little-remembered work appears on the shelves of 80 Goodreads readers. The conflict, which pits those who plan to explore space against those who want to put all their efforts into improving the Earth, is nicely explored, although a bit overwritten and didactic. But Michael P. Kube-McDowell still has his admirers and fans. And although he hasn’t published a new science fiction novel in almost 20 years, he’s still relatively young (63), tweets occasionally (@alternities), and from what I'm given to understand occasionally active in fandom. This makes it harder to judge The Quiet Pools as a truly obscure shortlisted work.

For our money, the most obscure Hugo shortlisted work is Call Him Dead by Erik Frank Russel. It’s
Remember this classic novel?
It was on the Hugo ballot
in 1956.
reviewed by barely 100 people on Goodreads, has no Wikipedia entry, and has been out of print for most of the past 30 years. Only 84 copies exist in North American libraries, according to

It is even omitted from most histories of the Hugo Awards, as many people believe there was no shortlist published in 1956. In fact, the only reference we could find to this work’s appearance on a Hugo shortlist came from reading page 15 of the third progress report of the 1956 Worldcon, which explained that year’s voting process, and listed the nominees.

In fact, a few years ago when Jo Walton** was blogging about previous Hugo novels, her post on the 1956 Hugo Award indicates the lack of a shortlist … and she omits Call Him Dead from her suggested reading list of novels from 1956.

However, the novel was on the ballot, up against more well-known nominees such as Isaac Asimov’s The End Of Eternity, Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow and Cyril Kornbluth’s Not This August. Heinlein, of course, took home his first Hugo that year for Double Star.

Later reissued as Three To Conquer, this book shows clear influences from Heinlein’s The Puppetmasters in a tale of an alien invasion by stealth. Russel, a noted paranormalist and contributor to various Fortean publications, made his alien mind-controlling parasites more subtle than Heinlein’s, and possibly even more chilling. Despite a level of implicit sexism that is occasionally appalling, Call Him Dead is well worth picking up.

Delving into the long history of the Hugo Awards is a good reminder that in any year there are more worthy works than can ever be honoured with the top prize in science fiction. Obscure often does not mean the same thing as low-quality.

In 70 years, one might hope that readers exploring the Wikipedia list** of Hugos will note that A Closed And Common Orbit or The Algebraist received a nod, track down a copy and discover something wonderful.

* This was literally his nom de guerre, as it was his alias when he was fighting as part of the French resistance during the Second World War. 

** Walton's series on past Hugo Awards is a must-read for any serious science fiction fan, as is her book of reviews "What Makes This Book So Great" 

*** Or the list on whatever system supplants Wikipedia.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The runners up for the 1953 Hugo Award

It is interesting to note that on purely technical grounds, there’s a case to be made that The
Galaxy Magazine had a
very good year in 1953.
(Image via Wikipedia)
Demolished Man
should not have received the 1953 Science Fiction Achievement Award.

Bester’s classic novel was first published in the 1952 January, February and March editions of Galaxy Science Fiction. Unlike the modern Hugo Awards, the eligibility of works was not based on the calendar year, but was instead (according to the ballot) works first published between August 1, 1952 and August 1, 1953.

That being said, it’s hard not to see that the high quality of Alfred Bester’s proto-cyberpunk novel helped legitimize the awards that would soon become known as the Hugos.

The Demolished Man is often held up as an example of Worldcon members choosing the most worthy novel of the year — and few would question the quality of this classic.

Well-known fan, Wilson
Tucker is remembered
for The Lincoln Hunters
and his Hugo-shortlisted
Year Of The Quiet Sun.
(Image via Wikipedia)
What is rarely considered, however, is what else might have been on the ballot.

As many fans will know, there was no Hugo shortlist for the first two years the award was offered (1953 and 1955), as there was no nomination process. Instead, for each of those two Worldcons, the third progress report included a ballot with blank spaces in which members could write in the names of their favourites. In each category, the person or work that was written in the most times was given the award. Unlike some subsequent Hugos, there was no qualifying or disqualifying by any committee of judges.

If there had been a nominating process, there’s no way to know for sure what might have been on it, but it’s possible to make a few informed guesses.

At the time of the fourth convention progress report, Wilson “Bob” Tucker’s Long Loud Silence was second in the vote count. The story — a character-driven conflict in a post-apocalyptic U.S. — is notable for its bleakness. It’s hard to root for a protagonist whose goal of getting out of the ruined Eastern U.S. would mean spreading a plague. It is an excellent novel by one of the central figures of early fandom.

For today’s SF fan, it’s surprising to think that both Long Loud Silence and The Demolished Man were ahead of the second volume of Asimov’s original Foundation Trilogy, Foundation and Empire. This is the high point in a series of novels that was named “Best All-Time Series” at the 1966 Hugos, and whose inferior sequel won the 1983 Hugo Award.

Clifford D. Simak’s popular stories about genetically engineered intelligent dogs in a post-humanity
The French translation of City
is called "Tomorrow, the Dogs."
(Image via Goodreads)
world were stitched together into a novel in 1952. Unlike many stitch-ups, City is greater than the sum of its parts, as the doggish introductions and explanations of how these stories fit into their oral history are delightful. The sixth and seventh parts, Hobbies and Aesop, become more than just poetic fables, but an exploration of this new culture, and these new beings who understand the world so much differently than humanity. Simak’s work has clearly influenced generations of writers, and foreshadows such diverse works as David Brin’s Uplift novels and Ian M. Bank’s post-scarcity Culture novels.

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, was serialized in Galaxy Magazine the three months immediately after The Demolished Man, with the final part appearing in the August edition. More successfully than most science fiction of the era, The Space Merchants explores the importance of marketing and corporate influence on societal trends.

It is one of the earliest works to depict a world in which nation states have become secondary to corporate influences — which some might consider a prescient warning. The novel is in some senses a parody, but it’s a parody with a lot of bite. The protagonist, a star copyrighter with an ad agency is at first on one side of an ad campaign, selling the idea of emigration to Venus — and then is forced to live the reality of what he was trying to sell. The language is breezy, but engaging. While the characters are occasionally a bit flat, the book comes alive through well-imagined details like the “United Slime-Mold Protein Workers of Panamerica, Unaffiliated, Chlorella Costa Roca Local.” There’s a good chance that this would have been at the top of our ballots, had we been able to travel to Philadelphia in 1953.

Looking back on the quality of science fiction that was published in 1952 and 1953, one can understand why the organizers of the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia chose to introduce an award recognizing excellence.

In any given year, there are probably more Hugo-worthy novels published than can ever earn the award, and 1953 is no exception. Had the administrators of the first award decided that The Demolished Man was ineligible, fans would have had no shortage of excellent options to hand the trophy to.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The science fiction art of Erik Nitsche

Erik Nitschke in 1996 at his
induction into the ADC hall of
fame (Image via

There was no Hugo Award given for Best Artist in 1957 at the 15th Worldcon in London. But since awards were given in other categories, there is no provision in the current rules of the WSFS constitution to award any Retro Hugos for that year. Which is a shame, because some of the finest work from one of the most innovative graphic designers of the era had started verging into the realm of science fiction in 1955 and 1956.

The name Erik Nitsche is rarely brought up in conversations of science fiction, but is well-known to historians of graphic design. In 1955, the Swiss-born designer had been hired by General Dynamics to create promotional imagery for the organization’s annual International Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (ICPUAE).

Given that many of these uses were purely theoretical (or classified military secrets), Nitsche had to conceptualize what these peaceful uses would look like. The results are a body of work that is deeply science fictional, imaginative, and well realized.

As he explained at the time, “I’m working with fantasy, with an idealistic image of the future, in which we are more or less involved.”

Servodynamics, 1956
Image via International Posters
A technically gifted painter and photographer, Nitsche was the son of two artists. He had studied in Switzerland, and worked as an advertising designer in Chicago. He had worked on Hollywood movies and on military brochures to help American soldiers recognize Nazi iconography during the Second World War.

Although he had been previously known for detailed and accurate representational work with Bauhaus influences, Nitsche produced dozens of poster designs from 1955-1960 that delved into the semi-abstract and conceptual.

His first dozen posters — produced for the first ICPUAE held in 1955 in Geneva — were vivid and bold works that offered visions of atomic-powered space planes (Astrodynamics, 1955) and genetic engineering (Radiation Dynamics, 1955). For the second ICPUAE in Washington in 1956, Nitsche’s vision was refined as he imagined the manipulation of the very basic forces of the universe (Basic Forces, 1956 and Servodynamics, 1956).

Nitsche’s understanding of the future is aligned with that of the technocratic school of hard science fiction. One can draw a straight line between Heinlein’s electro-gravatic technology from the novel Sixth Column and the way the very forces of nature bend to humanity’s will in Nitsche’s Atoms For Peace (1955).
Worlds Without End, 1958
Image via

Although in his later career he returned to more formal works, I would argue that Erik Nitsche is a name that belongs alongside those of Frank Kelly Freas, Virgil Finlay, and Ed Emshwiller as one of the greatest artists of science fiction.

His contributions to the genre are important. If there’s ever a decision to offer a 1957 Retro Hugo for Best Artist, it would be a good chance to recognize his contributions to the genre.

A selection of some of Erik Kitsch's work.
Image via Pinterest

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Review: The Stars Are Legion

Challenging and unsettling, The Stars Are Legion might not be to everyone’s taste. But it is
(Image via
impossible to deny the inventiveness and scope of Kameron Hurley’s ambitious novel. 

Set set in a bioengineered fleet of rival world-sized organic spacecraft inhabited by a multitude of societies, The Stars Are Legion is narrated by Zan, a soldier with amnesia, and Jayn a member of an aggressive and violent ruling class, as they undertake an ambitious plan that may hold the key to the fleet’s salvation. 

The overall arc of the story remains unclear for most of the first 150 pages as the chapters narrated by Zan are clouded by her amnesia, and those narrated by Jayn are clouded by ulterior motives, and what some of our group considered unsubtle foreshadowing. This is a book that builds slowly, layering the narrative with concepts as it builds towards a rewarding payoff.  

The fleet of worlds in which the story takes place are made of biological technology, but not the relatively clean biotech that most science fiction readers will be familiar with. This is diseased, rotting, ugly biological technology, and because of this, The Stars Are Legion is less space opera than it is body horror. Almost every page seems bathed in bodily fluids in a way that made even the most hardened of our group feel squeamish. 

As a Tiptree Award List alum, and the author of the Geek Feminist Revolution and God's War, it
The geek feminist revolutionary,
Kameron Hurley.
(Image via
should come as no surprise that Hurley continues to explore and challenge notions of gender. This work presents a diverse cast of female characters, but whether it fits as a work of feminist or queer fiction could be questioned as the societies depicted have no conception of masculinity or patriarchy. The Stars Are Legion is a world inhabited only be women, where the very concept of men is lost to the ages.

What is more interesting is the exploration of body horror, consensuality, and freedom, as the people who populate these organic world ships have their bodies used as breeding devices to birth both new generations of workers and the spare parts used by the world ships to repair themselves, becoming spontaneously impregnated by unknowable forces. Meditations on free will abound, not only because inhabitants are inexorably part of and trapped within the biological systems of their worlds, but also because the protagonists are swept along their conspiracy, unable to break free of their own machinations.

The language of the book, while not particularly varied, is effective and evocative. This book shines brightest when delving into the grotesque, such as the series of truly horrific yet fascinating scenes in which the core of the world - effectively it's digestive system - is explored as a character is discarded for "recycling" from the more civilized levels above by a rival invading force.

Some members questioned whether there was too little distinction in tone and language in the alternating first-person narratives, but others considered it a very successfully executed novel. Regardless, The Stars Are Legion will definitely be near the top our nominating ballots. It’s just too brilliantly inventive a novel to ignore.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Can We Categorize Clipping?

There is a long tradition of pop stars getting their geek on by recording high-concept sci-fi-inspired
Clipping frontman Daveed Diggs will
have to wait another year to complete
his EGOTH. Photo from Worldcon 75.
albums, from David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars to Stix’s Mr. Roboto to Rush’s 2112 to Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk. While some of these works have been celebrated by music critics and the broader public, until this year they’ve been largely overlooked by the Hugo Awards process.

Splendor and Misery from L.A.-based experimental hip hop group Clipping is an ambitious and challenging work that is an exemplar of this tradition. In the 2017 Hugo Awards, it became only the second such work to be nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award (after the 1971 album Blows Against The Empire by Jefferson Starship, which finished in the voting below ‘No Award’).

However, Splendor and Misery failed to generate much popular support among voters, placing last amongst other nominated works in the category and losing to Leviathan Wakes from the TV series The Expanse. While Leviathan Wakes is an awesome bit of television (and is the work that we voted for) it is kind of a shame that there isn’t a good category to recognize eclectic and unusual works in the Hugo Awards.

Format-Agnostic Awards

At a panel at Worldcon75, we were impressed by the Hugo Awards administrators’ commitment to the idea that anything with merit and the necessary nominations deserves to be on the ballot, regardless of format. There was some discussion about the inherent strength and flexibility of current categories, which could accommodate works like board games, as an example.

However, at what point does flexibility begin to take away the original meaning of a category? Perhaps there should be scope for more opportunities for the Hugo awards to present special
As has been noted earlier on this blog,
a lot of great SF from 1972 was not
recognized at the Hugo Awards.
The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust
is another example of this.
(Image via
recognition for science fictional or fantastic works that defy easy categorization into one of the traditional awards areas. Or perhaps Hugo Administrators might be given the discretion on an as-needed-basis to offer a grab-bag format-agnostic category for works that fall outside the standard mold. If any genre can handle liminal works based on merit, not format, it should be SF and fantasy.

It would be foolish, however, to suggest that there should be a Best Album category at the Hugo Awards. The longstanding unofficial rule of thumb is that there should be a good expectation in any given year that there are at least 15 worthwhile nominatable works to make a category viable. In most years, there would be far fewer science fiction or fantasy concept albums to choose from.

Unfair Comparisons Shortchange Odd Nominees

Under the Hugo Award rules as they currently stand, science fiction concept albums clearly fall into
The Archandroid is the second of seven
planned albums chronicling the story
of Janelle Monáe's time-travelling
android alter-ego Cindy Mayweather.
(Image via 
the category of short-form dramatic presentation. But since the Best Dramatic Presentation category was split into long-form and short-form categories, the short-form category has been dominated by television episodes.

In most years, the only shortlisted works for best dramatic presentation short subject are television episodes. In 2011, Janelle Monáe’s exquisite album Archandroid – which told the tale of an android messiah fighting to restore freedom, love and unity to a robot metropolis – wasn’t on the ballot, while three episodes of Doctor Who competed against each other.

But how can you compare Archandroid to The Pandorica Opens, the Doctor Who episode that won the category that year? Should the liner notes be considered when judging an album’s merit?

The pop album and the video are mediums so disparate that how one judges the success of either one as art – or as science fiction – are completely different. There isn’t a reasonable grounds for comparison.

Comparing Apples And Orions

One might note that, as a group who are united only in their love for science fiction and fantasy as a
We suspect that Splendor and Misery
would have fared better at the Hugo
Awards if the related music videos
had explicitly been part of the nomination.
(Image via YouTube) 
genre, Hugo voters are an incredibly diverse group who might not all share the same taste in music.

Which brings us back to Splendor and Misery. Hugo voters are not an audience that is known for their love of experimental rap. However, when Clipping performed a concert at this year’s Worldcon in Helsinki, the response was electric. It is clear to those of us who were at the performance that Clipping’s inclusion on the ballot meant something both to the band, and to the audience.

A evocative tale of slavery, isolation, and yearning for freedom, Splendor and Misery is elevated by the richness of the language, and the deftness of Daveed Diggs’ delivery. This should be remembered as a great work of science fiction, regardless of how it was adjudicated at the Hugo Awards this year.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire

Given John Scalzi’s track record, high profile, and vocal fan base, it seems likely that
The awesome cover art
for the North American
edition should garner
award consideration
for Nicholas Bouvier.
(Image via
The Collapsing Empire will be given a fair amount of consideration on many 2018 Hugo nominators’ lists.

Based on how fun this book is at times, that consideration is probably warranted.

The novel is set in an interstellar empire tied together by limited faster-than-light traderoutes known as ‘the Flow.’ This empire — The Interdependency — has lasted for millennia because of the economic dependence of its member worlds to each other.

The key protagonists are the new Empress of the Interdependency, and the son of a scientist on a distant world whose father has spent decades discovering that the flow is going to collapse.

The overaching plot — which has some parallels to Asimov’s Foundation— is expertly constructed and well-paced. Although the characters all seemed to speak with a similar voice, their motivations were clear, and the conflicts felt natural.

Dangerous knowledge

We are certainly not the first readers to note the parallels between the problems facing The Interdependency in The Collapsing Empire and global climate change in our own world. And, similarly, it is clear that incomplete knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge.

In addition, one of the major plot points — that one of the rival factions in the political structure of the Interdependency has misunderstood important scientific research — is a nice reminder about the value of the peer review process.

There are wonderful ideas that leaven the story — the Emperor’s ability to speak to computer simulations of previous emperors and to learn from their experiences is a brilliant bit of imagining that allows the author to delve into the history of the Interdependency.

The problems of keeping a diverse empire together despite delays in communication are well thought through.

However, The Collapsing Empire has significant flaws. For example, there is a lack of described detail in how these ideas are communicated — palaces are ‘baroque,’ but we are offered nothing beyond that. This leads to some very spare and sparse writing which moves at a fairly fast pace, but the dearth of imagery was actually distracting at times.

Who is telling the story?

This lack of detail brings us to a major tonal issue with the storytelling in the novel. Specifically, there is dissonance between the world Scalzi has built and the voice of the narration. This is an epic imperial tale that reads like it is being shared by a high-achieving millennial.

The third-person omniscient narrator has a lot of personality — which seems very odd. The narrator sounds a lot like Scalzi’s blogging persona, speaking with breezy pop-cultural grammatical constructions. We wondered if this was a deliberate style choice.

Although The Collapsing Empire is clearly written with possible sequels in mind, there is enough of a conclusion to the narrative that it could stand on its own. That being said, we’re leery of nominating a work that is bound to receive a number of follow-ups; perhaps it is now better to wait a few years so the overall work might be considered for the new Best Series category.

While we aren’t going to complain if The Collapsing Empire makes it onto the Hugo shortlist next year, we have already read stronger works that will be placed higher on our ballots.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

It’s OK when your favourite book doesn’t win.

With the full perspective of history, it would be difficult to argue that Warren G. Harding was a better presidential candidate than his opponent James Cox.

The two Ohio-based newspaper publishers faced off against each other a century ago in the presidential race of 1920 — Cox, a capable, well-liked reformer losing in one of the all-time landslides against a mediocre and unchallenging man who would go on to lead the most corrupt
James M. Cox (left) and his would-be
vice president. Whatever happened to
that guy? (photo via
administration in U.S. history.

It’s a good reminder that democracy doesn’t always get it right — and that’s as true in presidential elections as it is in science fiction awards. But it’s a system that gets it more right, more of the time than any other, and it’s one of the reasons why I love the Hugo Awards.

Tomorrow night

With the Hugo Awards set to be presented tomorrow, here in Helsinki, I think that it’s an important thing to think about. Especially in light of some of the negativity surrounding the awards in recent years.

In our beloved democratic traditions of the Hugo Awards, sometimes the book you love isn’t going to win.

When I look over the awards, I’d probably say that my favourite books won on only a handful of years — and that’s just fine. A whole lot of amazing, excellent books that I would never have voted for have won, have found new readers, and have been celebrated.

The Big Time was good,
but On The Beach also
came out the same year.
(Image via Wikipedia)
The point is that an award is not undermined by a failure to recognize a great work … because they can’t all be honoured.

It can't all win

There is more great science fiction than can ever be recognized. In any given year, there are dozens of novels that deserve to win the Hugo Award, and you can’t give the Hugo to all of them. In 1958, Fritz Lieber deserved the Hugo Award for The Big Time … but so did Neville Shute for On The Beach, and Alfred Bester for The Stars My Destination, and Robert A. Heinlein for Citizen of the Galaxy.

Do I sometimes wonder why The Big Time got recognized at the expense of The Stars My Destination? Of course. But at the same time, it doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of the award or the process.

Maybe at the Minneapolis Worldcon in 2073, fans will be questioning how we voted in 2017. But I feel confident that they’ll respect the process, and continue to celebrate the excellent works that have been nominated.