An Informal History of the Hugos: A good SF reference work

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An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000 by Jo WaltonAn Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000 by Jo WaltonAn Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000 by Jo Walton

Jo Walton has long been one of the more popular bloggers over at Tor.com thanks to a winning combination of literary insight, genre knowledge, and enthusiasm. A few years ago, she published a collection of her posts on rereading some of her personal favorites under the title What Makes This Book So Great. Now she’s out with another collection of blog posts (these from 2010-2013) entitled An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000.

More than just a survey of her personal reading experiences with Hugo winners, An Informal History of the Hugos is a broader survey of the genre as a whole in each of those years, as Walton examines other award nominees, such as the Nebulas or the World Fantasy Award. Just as importantly, she takes a look as well at novels and stories that didn’t make the lists for any of those awards, since what was ignored is just as telling as what was honored with regard to the state of the genre at that particular time or over time.

Being a (lightly edited) collection of blog posts, An Informal History of the Hugos has all the plusses and minuses one would expect from that format. On the positive side, there’s a cheery, engaging intimacy to Walton’s posts, her personality coming out clearly and forthrightly. Sometimes that takes the form of a self-deprecating sense of humor, as when she notes that she could tell us the names of a particular spaceship crew, “but I’d have to walk over to the bookshelves.” Sometimes the humor is pointed outward, as when she informs us that the International Fantasy Award, after giving its highest honor to The Lord of the Rings, promptly “expired, presumably considering that with the publication of LoTR, fantasy was now over” (I laughed again just typing that line).

Walton makes no pretense at any sense of “objectivity;” this is a highly personal, idiosyncratic, highly subjective look at works of fiction. When she loves something, as she often does, you get an earnest paean to the particular work or author that is infectious in its enthusiasm and might even have you clicking “buy now” before you realize you’ve opened up your browser to your favorite book-shopping site. When she doesn’t like a work or an author, she’s just as clear. For instance, I don’t know if it was intended as a running gag, but it became one for me as each time William Gibson gets a nomination she tells us she didn’t read that book “because of truly disliking Neuromancer.” If you walk away remembering one thing from this collection, I’m pretty sure it will be that Jo Walton is not a fan of Neuromancer.

While the blog format is a benefit with regard to tone and style, it is a negative when it comes to depth. The chapters are, by nature of their original form, short, and even that is made up mostly of lists of titles. Walton does offer up an essay on a single book for most of the years, but most of these are only 1 ½ pages long. When the analytical essay stretches out on occasion to as many as three pages, as it does for instance with Vernor Vinge‘s A Fire Upon the Deep, if you’re like me you’ll find yourself heartily wishing that was the standard length rather than the exception. For example, when Walton points out that while “science fiction went straight from Multivac to cyberpunk, without really pausing at the stage of breadboards and CPM handwritten word processors … Fantasy, however, did,” you want that sort of insight to be both more frequent and more followed up upon. This, of course, isn’t so much a flaw of the book but a feature of the original blog posts.

On the other hand, with regard to substance, while the analytical depth is a bit wanting, one can’t fault Walton with regard to the thoroughness and breadth of coverage. Which is why I see An Informal History of the Hugos as more of a reference work and recommendation resource than anything else, particularly with regard to shorter works. The novels are so well known, typically, even those that didn’t win (though there are, of course, exceptions), and have been so often discussed, that there isn’t a lot of discovery to be done for those, let us say, of a “certain age” (cough cough 50s or older), though younger readers will probably find some new material. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with and/or remember all the novellas, novelettes, and short stories published each year, even those that win the awards, let alone those that are left off of even the nomination lists, and it is here that this book really shines. I’ve got a huge list of works to find and read, and it’s hard to imagine that any reader will finish this book without the same.

One reason the short fiction aspect of this book is so strong is because Walton wisely chose to enhance her own content by adding selected commentary from the posts on Tor.com by two stellar editors — Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois (who sadly passed away earlier this year, a real blow to the genre). And I don’t mean a line or a paragraph or two — each of them is regularly good for one to four pages of additional commentary. So substantive is their contribution that I actually wondered if their names should have appeared on the cover (Walton does highlight their contribution in the introduction). Aside from their deep, deep knowledge of the field, each (especially Dozois) offers up some personal memories of actual award votes, award banquets, or conversations about the awards with both the winners and losers. I cannot over-emphasize just how much they add to the book’s impact.

So long as one is aware of the source material for An Informal History of the Hugos, and so comes to it with all the accordant expectations for a series of blog posts, they’re likely to find the collection more than satisfying as a pleasure read, a fond walk down memory lane with an engaging, cheerful guide. But even better is what it offers in terms of a resource for what to read (and, perhaps, what not to), particularly in terms of shorter genre works. In that area, it’s a supremely welcome addition to the field.

Published August 7, 2018. Engaged, passionate, and consistently entertaining, An Informal History of the Hugos is a book about the renowned science fiction award for the many who enjoyed Jo Walton’s previous collection of writing from Tor.com, the Locus Award-winning What Makes This Book So Great. The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been presented since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious awards in science fiction. Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for Tor.com, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s inception up to the year 2000. Her contention was that each year’s full set of finalists generally tells a meaningful story about the state of science fiction at that time. Walton’s cheerfully opinionated and vastly well-informed posts provoked valuable conversation among the field’s historians. Now these posts, lightly revised, have been gathered into this book, along with a small selection of the comments posted by SF luminaries such as Rich Horton, Gardner Dozois, and David G. Hartwell.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. This does sound like a good reference source! (Pity about the bloggish tone and slight repetition of Neuromancer dislike, though.)

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