Title: An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor Books
Did you know that in 1953 a Hugo Award was given out for "Excellence in Fact Articles"? (The
winner was Willy Ley.) Or that Brian W. Aldiss was up for a Hugo in 1958 for "Best New
Author"--and lost (to "No Award"!)? Did you know that one year the Hugo for "Best Dramatic
Presentation" was given to . . . news coverage? (It happened in 1970, for coverage of the Apollo
Trivia aside, if you care at all about the history of science fiction and how the tastes of the field's
community of readers and fans have changed over time, you'll want to buy this book. It delivers
exactly what the title promises: a chatty, highly personal review of nearly fifty years of Hugo
Awards--but much more than that, too.
Now, with any such project, a couple of questions immediately arise regarding our prospective
tour-guide through literary history: what are her qualifications, and what's her sensibility?
Regarding the first question: Jo Walton is herself a Hugo winner for the excellent Among Others
(2011) and has authored many other fine novels, as well as the recent What Makes This Book So
Great (2014), an impressive collection of informal essays on re-reading the classics of our genre.
She has read not only many, many novels and stories that won Hugos (and other awards), but also
many that were nominated or made other shortlists, and often she's read them more than once.
Admittedly, she hasn't read every nominee and every winner in the years under review, but she's
candid about this and explains why it is so. Perhaps as important as her first-hand experience with
the texts under discussion is her endless enthusiasm for science fiction. She's coming at this from
a place of love. Finally, another significant qualification is her willingness to state what kind of
books appeal to her and why, and conversely what books she tends to stay away from, and why.
This transparency is extremely helpful and leads directly to that second question of sensibility.
Walton's tastes are wide and varied. She is, to put it mildly, omnivoracious in the science fiction
and fantasy genres. But she is certainly a discriminate reader, and there are a few sub-genres or
modes that rub her the wrong way. She doesn't care, for instance, for the work of Philip K. Dick:
"I have read half a dozen assorted Dick novels and hated all of them," she observes. A few pages
later she adds: "I have no hesitation saying he's a good writer, as opposed to a bad writer; I'm
just not sure he's a good writer as opposed to an evil writer. The way he thinks--the kind of
characters he writes about, the kind of stories he tells, the kind of worlds he builds--repel me."
Other novels she hates (her word) include Martin Amis's Dead Babies, John Varley's Wizard,
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and Dan Simmons's The Rise of Endymion ("a book I really
hate"). She's also not into cyberpunk. When discussing the first ever Hugo-winning novel, Alfred
Bester's The Demolished Man, she says: "It has everything I don't like about cyberpunk:
unpleasant immoral characters, bribery, an underworld, a fast pace, lots of glitz, a metropolitan
feel, chases, and a noir narrative voice that doesn't want you to get too close." It's therefore not
entirely surprising that when we get to her discussion of the 1985 Hugos, she describes William
Gibson's Neuromancer as a "huge, important book and I hated it." It seems that she also has a
preference for upbeat novels (about Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun she says, "I
haven't read it, because it looks like a bit of a downer") that are, on the whole, positive about
humanity and technology. (When discussing, for instance, Michael Swanwick's Jack Faust she
notes, "It's beautifully written, as with all Swanwick, but it's negative about technology and the
possibility of progress in a way that makes it hard for me to like.") In summary, Walton's
sensibility doesn't align with mine; she unquestionably dislikes a number of works that speak
highly to me personally. In a sense, then, I'm a good test case for the proposition, "If I disagree
with Walton's tastes, will I still enjoy her evaluation of the Hugo winners and nominees?" The
answer is a resounding yes.
For one, though she may not like certain works, she doesn't devalue or demerit them on those
grounds. This is a significant point in Walton's favor, and one of many reasons it's a pleasure to
read her even when you're at odds with her perspective. Then too, identifying where you may
diverge from Walton's aesthetic preferences still leaves a ton of room for convergence in other
areas. Which brings us to one of this book's most endearing and helpful features, part of the
reason it's a standout volume: each of Walton's pieces, originally a Tor.com blog post, is
followed by curated comments penned by other subject matter experts. The two most distinctive
figures here, with a staggering, encyclopedic knowledge of the field, are Gardner Dozois and Rich
Horton, to whom the book--along with Kevin Strandlee--is dedicated. Their opinions help round
out Walton's views, and they often invoke texts that would have otherwise been missed. I truly
admire Dozois's acumen, candor, and humor, and I likewise appreciate Horton's
comprehensiveness within the genre and his inclusion of many mainstream titles with slight genre
Another big plus that takes this review of the Hugos far beyond what it might have been is the
inclusion of other awards and shortlists. In the early years there's not much else to discuss besides
the Hugo and the International Fantasy Award. But then, in 1966, the Hugos are complemented
by the Nebulas; in 1971, the Locus and the Mythopoetic Awards arrive on the scene; in 1973, the
John W. Campbell Memorial Award is launched; later still we get the World Fantasy Awards and
the Philip K. Dick Awards. Proceeding chronologically, as the book does, it's fascinating to note
not only the growth of awards and their various registers, but the concomitant multiplicity of
recommendations associated with their nomination lists. Another reason to cherish this book: it's
a treasure-trove of excellent suggestions for further reading, at every imaginable length and in
every conceivable style. I know I'll be dipping into it for years to come.
As far as Walton's own voice, she tends to speak plainly, and she's compulsively readable. If you
make your way through these pieces in quick succession, as I did, you do notice some slight
repetitions (every so often Walton mentions loving a book when she was fourteen, but not so
much anymore; she tends to gripe about the non-comparability of the non-fiction nominees; and
so on), but skipping around or pacing yourself, as most sane readers will do, this will likely not be
noticeable. The original posts, if you want to get a sense of the style, are still available online
here. But it's a singular pleasure to have them, slightly edited, and bolstered by a thoughtful
selection of comments, in book form.
And speaking of the Hugos--come next year's awards, I know one non-fiction book I'll certainly
Title: Alien Virus Love Disaster Stories
Author: Abbey Mei Otis
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Philip Roth would sometimes quote Chekhov's observation that the job of the artist is "the proper
presentation of the problem." If that's indeed the case, then Abbey Mei Otis's highly artistic debut
collection, which gathers a dozen dazzling tales, tells me we have quite the problem on our hands.
The majority of these stories--eight previously published, four original to this volume--revolve
around dystopic or depressed futures wherein rampant angst, alienation, decadence, and physical
suffering seem like the only logical outgrowths. I use that word deliberately, as Otis has a
particular knack for details that anchor her characters in their physical predicaments. In the
collection's eponymous tale, for instance, one of my favorites, the inhabitants of a small town, in
the aftermath of an accident involving alien technology in a nearby lab, develop bumps on their
bodies and must be evacuated. These protuberances--which "feel hard and round like
everybody's got ping-pong balls buried inside them"--are bad enough, but there's an almost-throwaway line early on that well illustrates Otis's attention to physicality: "He digs at the sole of
his bare foot, peels off a big nugget of callus and flicks it onto the rug." The "Moonkids" of the
next story, rejects from a lunar colony who are outcast to Earth at the age of sixteen if they fail to
achieve specific test scores, experience immense discomfort in our higher gravity and must
undergo difficult procedures: "Your muscles learn differently in moon gravity. Your bones form
light like a bird's. Used to not even be possible to make the transition, you'd touch down into
earthpull and collapse like fast-melting candles. Too many fractures for all the king's horses and
all the king's men. Way, way too many for Earth doctors to deal with. (Earth doctors are known
for not giving a shit.) Now, though, they've got ways around it. They've got operations and stuff.
Every moonkid's got incision scars in the same places." Despite these treatments, though,
"Earthpull is fickle like a trickster gnome. Sometimes even after months and months it sneaks up
behind you and punches in your knees." The name of the game, thematically speaking, is not so
much adapting as surviving.
Anatomy is even more foregrounded in the third story, "If You Could Be God of Anything", in
which a bunch of kids discover a sex robot that has literally fallen from the sky, one of countless
discarded objects from the "skyways" air traffic. In the fifth, "Blood, Blood," quasi-disembodied
aliens derive observational pleasure from humans performing mundane activities, but they seem to
become especially aroused by fighting. The sixteen-year-old narrator, who engages in these
tussles, longs to escape her life and body. Guilt, she tells herself, is "just another trapping of the
flesh." Again the body becomes a world, now made alien by a kind of ultra-sensitive latex
encasing, in "Sex Dungeons for Sad People."
As this first batch of stories readily makes clear, the problematic worlds in which Otis's characters
find themselves are not only globally insoluble but, more often than not, personally untenable.
This doesn't always lead to tragedy; sometimes the possibility of transformation is enough to
sustain hope. In other instances, such as "Teacher" or "Sweetheart," a retreat into surrealism
seems like the only appropriate response. In yet others, such as "Rich People," the successful
incursion into a different realm of class or status only opens up even more nauseating vistas.
Readers who enjoy traditional narratives may struggle with Otis's work, which celebrates voice
above all else. Though there are plenty of science-fictional and fantastic elements here--rising sea
levels, moon colonies, gene modifications, robots, virtual realities, even ghosts of a sort--they
typically comprise the background, rather than the foundation, of the stories at hand. Otis displays
enormous skill in first-person narration, and she relies on it almost exclusively, trapping us in an
array of colorful subjectivities. Her characters, frequently youthful, tend to speak in a highly
idiosyncratic, mordant, colloquial way. Otis's deliberate cadences and repetitions in sentence
structures result in a kind of hypnotic poetics of the mundane. Privations--physical, mental,
spiritual--are a constant focus in these stories, and those elements are immediately accessible, but
their contexts often remain oblique. Consider, for example, this nugget of description about the
aliens in "Blood, Blood": "They speak, or rather do not speak, in streams of thought directed
toward our minds. Look at one straight, it's like the sunlight that plays on the hull of a boat in a
lake. Only no boat, no lake, no sunlight."
"If You Lived Here, You'd Be Evicted by Now" and "Ultimate Housekeeping Megathrill 4," the
volume's two closing stories, are longer than most preceding pieces and in some ways stronger.
There's more room to explore the crevasses of Otis's thoughtfully-constructed worlds, and more
time to engage with the characters' plights. There's also the opportunity for some truly amazing
stylistic flourishes, such as the following, which occurs three paragraphs into the penultimate
Let's say there's no money in this world. Let's say if you want to
obtain something, like rice or photocopies, you have to give
somebody a handjob. Only nobody wants to give a handjob in the
grocery store or the copy shop, so instead at each register, in a clear
glass tank, they have one of those giant clams from the Pacific
Northwest, which is a symbol for genitalia. In lieu of payment you dip
your hand into the cold salt water and caress the clam: once, twice.
Just kidding; of course there's money. Casey and Stacy both work in
If you get the sense that Otis's stories may provoke strong emotions in you, and disturb you,
you're probably right. But I don't believe Otis's focus is on being transgressive per se, rather on
illustrating how, for many, transgression has already become a cornerstone of everyday reality.
Otis doesn't use science fiction to lift the veil of the familiar and peer at what's beneath. Instead,
with great shrewdness and courage and originality, she reveals that the veil was itself an illusion,
and the familiar a construct of anything but.
Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro