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1950 Retro Hugo Candidates
by Rich Horton

Thrilling Wonder Stories The 1950 Retro Hugos are to be awarded by the 2001 World Science Fiction Convention, the Millennium Philcon. (Nominations for the Retro Hugos, and for the 2001 Hugos -- for works published in 2000 -- are due at the end of March. Interested people should check out the Millennium Philcon home page.) The Retro Hugos are awards for the best science fiction published 50 years prior to the year the current Hugos are being awarded for. That is to say, at the 2001 Worldcon, Hugos will be given for the best work of 2000, thus Retro Hugos will be given for the best work of 1950. They can only be awarded if no Hugos were given for that particular year, and they are only awarded if the Worldcon chooses to award them. The only previous Retro Hugos were awarded in 1996 at LA Con III, for the best SF of 1945.

Why aren't Retro Hugos always awarded? A lot of people don't think these awards are a good idea, and I have to say their arguments are pretty sound. There is no way we, in 2001, can reasonably simulate what voters in 1951 would have chosen as the best work of 1950. For example, stories by writers who established reputations that endure to this day will almost undoubtedly have an advantage over stories, possibly equally good or better, by writers who are forgotten or nearly forgotten 50 years later. What is worse is that Retro Hugos are (potentially) awarded in all the categories in which present day Hugos are awarded. The determined reader can do a pretty good job of evaluating the fiction from 1950 (as I hope to show in this essay). But it is a great deal harder to find old fanzines. And how are we to determine what was a "semiprozine" in 1950?

Galaxy A look at one of the LA Con Retro Hugos will help illustrate this point. Illustrate! Fine word choice: the 1996 voters awarded a Retro Hugo for Best Fan Artist to Bill Rotsler. Oddly enough, Rotsler also won the 1996 regular Hugo for Fan Artist. The problem is that while Rotsler's present day Hugo award may have been well-deserved, his work in 1945, knowledgeable people assure me, was in no way Hugo-worthy. Back then he was a teenager just beginning to contribute to fanzines. It's reasonable to suppose that he won the Retro Hugo because of his later work: the very same work, indeed, that led to his win of the 1996 Hugo.

I concede such points, and offer the following in defense of Retro Hugos (for fiction only!). Even if we concede that the current Retro Hugo choices will not be the same choices fans in 1951 would have made, who cares? In fact, there's a great deal to be said for the perspective of 50 years in judging a story. Let's just not forget that they are present-day awards for past work, and that they are by no means the same sort of awards as Hugos. Another look at the 1945 winners shows what the result of this latter day perspective can be: the Novella winner was George Orwell's Animal Farm. I think it's fair to say that it would not have entered the minds of fans in 1946 to consider Orwell's book for a science fiction award. But I also think it was very possibly the best novella-length piece of SF published in 1945. (For those who are interested, the other 1945 Retro Hugo fiction awards went to Isaac Asimov's "The Mule" -- a novel length section of Foundation and Empire which was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945 -- for Best Novel; to Murray Leinster's "First Contact" for Best Novelette; and to Hal Clement's "Uncommon Sense" for Best Short Story.)

Galaxy At any rate, given that Retro Hugos are going to be awarded, the best we can do is try to find as many good 1950 stories as we can, read as many as we have time to, and vote accordingly. That's the goal of this essay: to consider the novels and stories I have found that I believe deserve consideration for Retro Hugo nominations.

There are a number of reasonable sources of lists. In particular, the Millennium Philcon 1950 Retro Hugo page has some long lists of stories. Other good sources are anthologies from that day, particularly Everett Bleiler and T.E. Dikty's The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1951, and the much later selection by Isaac Asimov with Martin H. Greenberg: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 12 (1950). (The contents of these and many other anthologies can be found at the Locus Index to Science Fiction and at William Contento's Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections.) Armed with such lists, and one's memory, and access to good libraries and used book stores (and even old magazines!), and the help of people like John Boston and Dave Truesdale, it's possible to find a lot of the best SF from 1950.

Let's begin with novels. In those days, SF was a magazine field. In fact, 1950 is just about when book publishers began to discover science fiction. But most SF was short. There were a few serials, and a few novels published in book form, and there were books which assembled previous short stories into what one might charitably call "novels".

The Martian Chronicles The Dying Earth Four of the most famous eligible "novels" from 1950 fit that latter category: collections of linked stories. I am a bit conflicted as to the eligibility of these books for a best "novel" award: all are really better regarded as collections of stories. These would be Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, and A.E. van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle. On the grounds of the linking material included, I would be tempted to consider The Martian Chronicles for nomination, and on the ground that all of the stories in The Dying Earth first appeared in that book (i.e., it wasn't a collection of previous magazine pieces, though one story did appear in the December 1950 Worlds Beyond, probably after the book came out) I would be tempted to nominate it.

In the category of serials, Isaac Asimov published the final installment of his original Foundation Trilogy, the second part of Second Foundation, as a serial called "...And Now You Don't" ending in the January 1950 Astounding. Another 1950 Astounding serial was van Vogt's "The Wizard of Linn." One of my favourite novel length pieces from 1950 was Fritz Leiber's "You're All Alone," published in Fantastic Adventures in 1950, though I prefer the later expansion as The Sinful Ones (1953, revised 1980). But "You're All Alone" is still a fine story, and fairly easy to find in the 1972 Ace edition. And the very first three issues of the legendary Galaxy were published in 1950, and those issues serialized Clifford Simak's "Time Quarry."

Astounding Astounding Novels published as books in 1950 include Asimov's first true "novel," Pebble in the Sky. And speaking of items in the sky, Robert Heinlein published one of his justly famous juveniles in 1950, Farmer in the Sky. Theodore Sturgeon's The Dreaming Jewels is one of his better novels. (It has also been published under the title The Synthetic Man.) And there is one fabulous fantasy from outside the traditional genre sources, Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake.

In sum, not a very inspiring year for SF novels, due, I think, to the fact that the genre remained primarily a short fiction genre at that time. My personal choices for the Retro Hugo ballot will be the Bradbury, Vance, Leiber, Sturgeon and Peake selections.

Now to the short fiction categories, beginning with novellas. The current official Hugo and Nebula rules define a novella as anything between 17,500 and 40,000 words. There were no such strict definitions in the 1950s. Indeed, the early Hugos had widely varying categories: in some cases no short fiction award was given, and quite often there was only one award, covering all three current categories. The magazines often divided their stories into categories, typically "short story," "novelette," and "short novel," but the definitions of these categories weren't very strict. For example, Planet Stories called anything longer than about 16,000 words a novel (or "A Thrilling Novel of Space Adventure!"), while Astounding didn't seem to call something a "short novel" unless it was 20,000 words, and magazines like Startling Stories published true book-length novels, up to 60,000 words, in single issues.

Astounding I've found only five significant novellas from 1950 (each a novella according to my approximate word count). Of this list, only two were first published in magazines. One of these is Poul Anderson's very pulpy but exciting and thought-provoking "Flight to Forever," from Super Science Stories. The other is a very well done example of what Galaxy, in a famous advertisement, denigrated as "Bat Durston" stories: Westerns transplanted to Space Opera. This story is not well known, but it's a fine story: "Paradise Street," by Lawrence O'Donnell (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore -- though in this case the story is said to by mainly by Moore.) The other novellas I recommend were first published in books. "Guyal of Sfere" is the last (and, I think, best) section of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth. "The Man Who Sold the Moon" is the title story of a fine collection from Robert A. Heinlein. And from outside the genre proper, 1950 saw the publication of the first of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which at just over 30,000 words is a novella by current rules. These are all probably worth nominating, and my personal favourites are "Guyal of Sfere" and "The Man Who Sold the Moon."

It seems novelette is always a crowded category, and such was the case in 1950. There were a host of fine novelettes (7500 to 17,500 words). For example, two stories that ended up in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame were published in 1950 magazines: C.M. Kornbluth's mordant time travel piece "The Little Black Bag," and Cordwainer Smith's first story under that name, one of the most auspicious debuts in SF history: "Scanners Live in Vain." James Blish published in Astounding the first of his "Okie" stories that became his series Cities in Flight: "Okie" and "Bindlestiff." Charles Harness published one of the few "Adam and Eve" stories that actually works: his wild "The New Reality." Probably the best of James Schmitz' Agent of Vega stories is "The Second Night of Summer." The first issues of the great magazine Galaxy appeared in 1950, and in the very first one there were two fine novelettes: "Contagion" by Katherine MacLean, and "The Stars are the Styx" by Theodore Sturgeon. Add fine stories from Poul Anderson, Eric Frank Russell, and Lawrence O'Donnell and you have almost an embarrassment of riches. My personal vote for best novelette of 1950 is clear: "Scanners Live in Vain" was audacious and different from other SF, as announced in the opening sentences: "Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger." And this was the first story from one of the most original and important writers in the field.

Galaxy The short story field in 1950 is similarly crowded, and it also, to my mind, has a clear front-runner. This is Fritz Leiber's shocking "Coming Attraction," from the second issue of Galaxy. This is one of the few stories from 1950 that even today reads as if it could have come straight from a current magazine. But if that single story is for me the clear winner, there is a writer who published a truly impressive array of shorts in 1950: Ray Bradbury. While I don't think any of his stories are quite as good as "Coming Attraction," many are very good indeed, and as a cumulative selection they are really striking. I'd mention three stories from The Martian Chronicles that date to 1950 (many stories in that book were published in earlier years): "Ylla," "Usher II" and "There Will Come Soft Rains," as well as two more fine pieces which ended up in The Illustrated Man: "The Fox and the Forest" and "The Veldt."

"Coming Attraction" ended up in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and so did one further short story from 1950: Richard Matheson's horrific "Born of Man and Woman." 1950 also featured one of the best SF stories from a writer who became much more famous for his mysteries: a virtual reality story, "Spectator Sport," by John D. MacDonald. Two of Damon Knight's more gimmicky, but still very memorable, stories also date to this year: "To Serve Man" and "Not With a Bang." C.M. Kornbluth was at the height of his powers, and besides "The Little Black Bag" he also produced "The Silly Season" and "The Mindworm" in 1950. Alfred Bester didn't really start writing his very best work for another year or two, but "Oddy and Id" (in Astounding as "The Devil's Invention") was a harbinger of his extraordinary mid-50s stuff. And A.E. van Vogt was at the end of his most productive period, but he did publish two of his best works: "Enchanted Village" and "Process."

My nominations will be the Leiber, the MacDonald, a couple of Bradbury pieces (probably "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "Ylla," though "Usher II" is also tempting) and maybe the Kornbluth or Vance.

From the perspective of fifty years, 1950 seems quite an impressive year for short Science Fiction. If the novel crop is disappointing, that's understandable given the SF publishing environment of that time. The Retro Hugos might be controversial, but there's no reason they can't award fully deserving stories.

Copyright © 2000 by Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.

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