by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 20, 2018
Researching the most remembered short stories, novelettes, and novellas of science fiction for this site was one way of learning about science fiction history. Another way is to read An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton, at least for the years 1953-2000. It’s just out in hardback and Kindle editions. Many readers are asking why they should buy this book when it’s culled from Walton’s column at Tor.com. I got the Kindle edition because it’s easier to read and I can highlight all the stories I want to track down. When I’m through my Kindle will provide a “shopping list” stories I want to study, and maybe remember.
This book is for avid science fiction fans who are scholars or historians of the genre or wish to become one. If you’ve followed the Hugos for decades, it will also trigger a lot of great memories.
Walton’s book chapters on each year are somewhat different than just reading the columns online because she inserts her longer book reviews (also published at Tor) in the chapter year and selective reader comments each column received. I recommend following the link to the Tor.com site to test drive a few columns before you buy the book. Be sure and read the comments below each column, because Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, and many others fans, writers, and editors contribute their memories, knowledge, and feelings about the stories.
Walton warns that she has not read all the novels and stories nominated for the Hugos. That would be a tremendous project. I accepted that hasn’t read everything. However, I was still disappointed by this stance sometimes. For example, They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, the novel that won the 1955 Hugo. Walton tells about how this novel is considered the worst novel ever to win the award, and I ached to know her opinion. This occurs time and again. I understand she has her own novels and stories to write, but still, I hungered for her reaction quite often on the most famous stories. It goes to show you that even the most wide-read science fiction fans can’t read everything that common wisdom considers must reading.
Part of what Walton is doing is deciding if a story holds up over time. She judges this by whether it’s in print, at her library, or if people still talk about it. And that’s fine most of the time, but there are places in her narrative that I wished Walton had read a new book or story and given her us her thoughts. Luckily, her readers have, and their opinions from the site’s comment section help to satisfy my curiosity when Walton can’t. Still, I need to go read They’d Rather Be Right to find out why it’s so bad.
An Informal History of the Hugos is only going to appeal to a limited audience. I became aware of the SF digests, fandom, and Hugos in the mid-1960s, so reading Walton’s book is a wonderful stroll down memory lane. I’d say I remember something about all the novels and at least bit about two-thirds of all the stories. Like Walton, I haven’t read everything that was nominated or even won, but I have read a lot. Also, two of Walton’s favorite writers were Heinlein and Delany, and they were my favorites in the 1960s. So I resonate with many of her opinions about most of the stories. But she hates Philip K. Dick, who is one of my big favs, so that irks me at times. She tried a few PKD novels and now adamantly refuses to try any others. I can understand her reasons, but I still think she should read The Man in the High Castle.
Walton’s comments about awards contain a lot of fan gossip and history, as do comments from the people who posted replies to the columns. I’d expect younger readers who aren’t familiar with SF history from 1953-2000 will find this book a long litany of boring titles and names.
I suppose younger readers who want to study science fiction history could use this book as a guide for selecting what to read. But it will be slow reading. To give each year it’s proper due would require reading between 500,000 and 1,000,000 words, or maybe just a 100,000 if they’re only covering the shorter works.
This is definitely a book where you have to have some skin in the game to enjoy it.