Before there were countless stories of how Luke and Leia save the New Republic, or how Drizz't had to deal with the angst of being a drow elf for the umpteenth time, printed science fiction and fantasy chugged along in a non-spin off world populated by books with names like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, The Uplift War, Foundation (read review), The Zero Stone, Stand on Zanzibar, and The Left Hand of Darkness. To navigate their way through the countless unrelated titles and with luck help them separate the good ones from the bad ones, genre fans had (and have) an ever increasing array of awards to guide them. Countless science fiction and fantasy novels have covers that feature something like "Hugo award winner", "Nebula award nominee", or even something somewhat deceptive in the vein of "Locus award winning author"1. Now, despite having to share shelf space with the spin-off newcomers, independent speculative fiction is still thriving, with titles like The Windup Girl, The Last Colony, Anathem, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union. The authors and titles have changed, but speculative fiction chugs on.
The list of awards that a science fiction or fantasy author can receive is quite large – there are no fewer than ten awards that are considered "major" awards including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Campbell Award (not to be confused with the similarly named Campbell Award for Best New Writer), more than a dozen regional awards including the Aurora Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Dittmar Award, a similar number of specialty awards such as the Sideways Award for alternative history, and the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction, a half dozen awards aimed at new writers such as the aforementioned Campbell Award, a half dozen reader's polls, including the massive Locus Magazine poll, and other reader polls conducted by Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov's Science Fiction. And this doesn't begin to scratch the surface: there are career honors, academic awards, discontinued awards, and on and on and on. And not only do most of them honor different things (even if the differences are very slight), they all have at least different eligibility requirements and use a wide variety different selection processes to choose nominees and winners. The end result is that while this situation is probably good for authors and publishers (since they are more likely to be able to win an award and put cool stuff on the covers of their books), someone looking to find worthwhile printed science fiction is probably hard-pressed to sort through the chaff and find the wheat.
Starting now, I'll be working my way through the major science fiction and fantasy award winning novels ranging from the earliest genre award granted (I believe this to be the 1951 International Fantasy Award bestowed upon George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (read review), although older books have been honored via "Retroactive Hugos") up to the most recent. I'll be taking on as many of the different award winning science fiction or fantasy books, and then dissecting and reviewing them. Some of the books deserved their awards. Others didn't. Some of the books published decades ago hold up even now. Others have aged badly. Some of these books have sunk into well-deserved obscurity, while others have been forgotten and should not have been. Some have become controversial, igniting raging debates among science fiction fandom (Starship Troopers, I'm looking at you right now). By walking through the awards from earliest to most recent, each book can be put into context, compared to its contemporaries, and the trends in genre fiction as it has evolved over the last half a century laid bare.
Members of past and current years' World SF Convention nominate up to five items per category. The top five items in each category are placed on a final ballot, which is voted on by current members. Final results in each category are determined via the "Australian ballot preference system": all first-place votes are tabulated; the entry with the fewest votes is eliminated; second-place votes from eliminated ballots become first-place votes; this is repeated until a nominee achieves a majority. For second-place, the winner's votes are dropped, and second-place votes from those ballots become first-place votes, and the process is repeated. And so on for third and fourth places.
The Hugo award categories originally varied from year to year, and among the enduring categories are Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novellette, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, Best Graphic Story, Best Dramatic Presentation, Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form, Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, Best Semiprozine, Best Professional Artist, Best Editor, Best Fan Artist, and Best Fan Writer. While many of the winners in the various shorter categories are quite good, and would be interesting to examine, the novel length is the only form of fiction that is reliably honored by most of the speculative fiction awards. Periodically I hope to be able to go through collections like The New Hugo Winners and review a number of the winners in the short fiction categories, but my focus will primarily be on novel length works starting with the very first Hugo Award Best Novel winner The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (read review). For those who absolutely have to start at the very beginning, even if that beginning was retroactively created in 1996, can instead start with the review of The Mule by Isaac Asimov (read review) which later became the second half of Foundation and Empire. Though I'll certainly mix in a few other books along the way, I'll be focused on taking a trip through the history of award winning science fiction (and eventually fantasy) novels.
Review of 1946 Retro Hugo Winner for Best Novel: The Mule by Isaac Asimov
1Deceptive because even though the author may have won the award described on the book cover, they didn't win it for writing that book. If they did, then the cover would say that the book itself had been awarded the honor. The book you are holding may be really good as well, or it might be something that is really crappy that happens to have been written by an author who had a single moment of clarity and produced one good book to go with a pile of bad ones.
2The International Fantasy Award is technically older than the Hugo Award, as it was first awarded in 1951, in contrast to the first Hugo, which was awarded in 1953. However, the International Fantasy Award was only awarded for six years and then discontinued. The Hugo, on the other hand, has been awarded in every year since 1955 and has influenced the creation of most of the other speculative fiction awards. As a result, the Hugo is the grandaddy of speculative fiction awards, and the International Fantasy Award is more like the long dead bachelor uncle of speculative fiction awards.
3Oddly, despite Hugos being awarded in a number of categories at the 1957 Worldcon, no award for Best Novel any other fiction categories was presented in that year.
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