Sometime last year as we were recovering from Puppy War 1 and heading into Puppy War 2, there was a fair amount of discussion about the quality of Hugo Worthiness.
Self-referentially, this is meant to represent the quality of works that are both worthy of being nominated for a Hugo and worthy of winning a Hugo.
The online discussion generally centered on whether or not certain works nominated by the puppies were of the same standards as the body of work that had previously been nominated and awarded, which is of course the only standard we have to go by.
This is, obviously, a highly subjective measure, made doubly and triply so by the fact that the worthiness spans 7 decades (1954 to the present) and represents the collective wisdom of an ever-changing membership.
Consider that those voting for the award may represent as many as five different generations; that the nominating pool has consisted of tens to thousands and that great changes have been wrought not only in the field of science fiction, but in publishing and in society as well, and you’ve got a situation in which it is clear that any subjective judgment will have changed.
Perhaps the most significant change over that time span has been the increase in volume of material to judge: through the 70s, perhaps even as late as the mid-80s, it was possible for an individual to “keep up with the field”; there were no Hugo packets, but the magazines were readily available on newsstands (and in libraries) and a handful of annual best anthologies that received decent distribution were common. Now, of course, we rely on the packet, and nominations for shorter length works run into the hundreds.
One of the regular arguments advanced in favor of Puppy intervention is the “message fiction” charge (SF used to be swashbuckling adventure tales, now they’re all about advancing an SJW political agenda); accompanying that argument is another that states that certain kinds of SF are no longer considered.
I thought it might be interesting to try and get a handle on the major themes of those works that have been nominated and won the Best Novel category as a way to attempt to put some rigor behind the subjectivity.
This is a starting point (I’ve not even finished assessing all of the works), but it’s far enough along that I think it worth writing about now; perhaps others will want to pick up where I’ve left off and make this investigation as robust as possible.
Going in, I had no idea what I would find, other than a suspicion that the contention that ‘good ol’ spaceships on the cover’ SF and ‘political message’ SF have gotten mixed support throughout the history of the award and that the themes represented in those works have been all over the map, as opposed to representing a kind of monolithic support for one kind of theme or one kind of SF.
I think that the results shared here already amply demonstrate that adventure SF and message-fic SF have both always been with us and have both been nominated for and have won the award.
In assessing the “main” theme of each work, I used publicly available, online assessments where they were available (Google searches for “main theme of [novel’s title]”; sources were Wikipedia, Goodreads, Amazon reviews, online reviews and author’s own websites.
In the cases where I was personally and intimately familiar with a work, I used my own recollections of the main theme and then attempted to verify that with searches.
I looked at all the nominees for a given year, not just the winner, as I believe that the 4,5 or 6 works that made the final ballot in any given year are probably representative of the fannish zeitgeist for the preceding year.
Here’s the raw data:
|award year||title||author||position||basic themes|
|1953||The Demolished Man||Alfred Bester||W||proto cyberpunk/detective/space opera|
|1955||They’d Rather Be Right||Mark Clifton and Frank Riley||W||immortality|
|1956||Double Star||Robert A. Heinlein||W||political|
|1957||No Novel Award||na||na|
|1958||The Big Time||Fritz Leiber||W||time travel, military|
|1959||A Case of Conscience||James Blish||W||religion, morality|
|1959||The Enemy Stars||Poul Anderson||F||space opera, teleportation, time dilation|
|1959||Who?||Algis Budrys||F||mystery, cold war|
|1959||Have Spacesuit – Will Travel||Robert A. Heinlein||F||space opera|
|1959||Immortality, Inc.||Robert Sheckley||F||immortality|
|1960||Starship Troopers||Robert A. Heinlein||W||military|
|1960||Dorsai!||Gordon R. Dickson||F||military|
|1960||The Pirates of Ersatz||Murray Leinster||F||space pirates|
|1960||That Sweet Little Old Lady||Randall Garrerr and Laurence M Janifer||F||paranormal, humor|
|1960||The Sirens of Titan||Kurt Vonnegut Jr.||F||free will, invasion|
|1961||A Canticle for Liebowitz||Walter M. Miller Jr||W||religion, post apocalypse|
|1961||The High Crusade||Poul Anderson||F||military, humor|
|1961||Rogue Moon||Algis Budrys||F||immortality|
|1961||Deathworld||Harry Harrison||F||space opera, military|
|1961||Venus Plus X||Theordore Sturgeon||F||gender|
|1962||Stranger in a Strange Land||Robert A. Heinlein||W||culture, religion|
|1962||Dark Universe||Daniel F. Galouye||F||post apocalypse|
|1962||Planet of the Damned||Harry Harrison||F||military, humor|
|1962||The Fisherman||Clifford D. Simak||F||paranormal, time travel|
|1962||Second Ending||James White||F||post apocalypse|
|1963||The Man in the High Castle||Philip K. Dick||W||alternate history|
|1963||Sword of Aldones||Marion Zimmer Bradley||F||sword and planet|
|1963||A Fall of Moondust||Arthur C. Clarke||F||hard|
|1963||Little Fuzzy||H. Beam Piper||F||first contact, humor|
|1964||Way Station||Clifford D. Simak||W||cold war|
|1964||Glory Road||Robert A. Heinlein||F||Sword and Sorcery, parallel universe|
|1964||Witch World||Andre Norton||F||SF and sword and sorcery hybrid|
|1964||Dune World||Frank Herbert||F||ecology, religion|
|1964||Cat’s Cradle||Kurt Vonnegut Jr.||F||cold war, free will|
|1965||The Wanderer||Fritz Leiber||W||post apocalypse|
|1965||The Whole Man||John Brunner||F||paranormal, humor|
|1965||Davy||Edgar Pangborn||F||post apocalypse|
|1965||The Planet Buyer||Cordwainer Smith||F||space opera|
|1966||Dune||Frank Herbert||W||ecology, religion|
|1966||This Immortal||Roger Zelazny||W||ubermen, post apocalypse, military|
|1966||The Squares of the City||John Brunner||F||class warfare, politics|
|1966||The Moon is a Harsh Mistress||Robert A. Heinlein||F||revolution, space opera, AI|
|1966||Skylark DuQuesne||Edward E. Smith||F||space opera|
|1967||The Moon is a Harsh Mistress||Robert A. Heinlein||W||AI, revolution,|
|1967||Babel-17||Samuel R. Delany||F||language, military|
|1967||Too Many Magicians||Randall Garrett||F||alternate history, mystery|
|1967||Flowers for Algernon||Daniel Keyes||F||the other, intelligence and morality|
|1967||The Witches of Karres||James H. Schmitz||F||space opera, humor|
|1967||Day of the Minotaur||Thomas Burnett Swann||F||alternate mythology|
|1968||Lord of Light||Roger Zelazny||W||religion; immortality|
|1968||The Einstein Intersection||Samuel R. Delany||F||the outsider, diversity|
|1968||Chthon||Piers Anthony||F||love of the other|
|1968||The Butterfly Kid||Chester Anderson||F||invasion, humor|
|1968||Thorns||Robert Silverberg||F||growth requires pain|
|1969||Stand on Zanzibar||John Brunner||W||dystopia, overpopulation|
|1969||Rite of Passage||Alexei Panshin||F||coming of age|
|1969||Nova||Samuel R. Delany||F||space opera, cyborgs|
|1969||Past Master||R. A. Lafferty||F||utopia, time travel|
|1969||The Goblin Reservation||Clifford D. Simak||F||space opera, time travel|
|1970||The Left Hand of Darkness||Ursula K. Le Guin||W||gender identity|
|1970||Up the Line||Robert Silverberg||F||time travel|
|1970||Macroscope||Piers Anthony||F||health and society’s roles in intelligence|
|1970||Slaughterhouse-Five||Kurt Vonnegut Jr.||F||free will|
|1970||Bug Jack Barron||Norman Spinrad||F||immortality, media|
|1971||Ringworld||Larry Niven||W||space opera, BDO|
|1971||Tau Zero||Poul Anderson||F||time dilation effects|
|1971||Tower of Glass||Robert Silverberg||F||Definition of humanity|
|1971||The Year of the Quiet Sun||Wilson Tucker||F||time travel|
|1971||Star Light||Hal Clement||F||hard sf, high gravity aliens|
|1972||To Your Scattered Bodies Go||Philip Jose Farmer||W||resurrection|
|1972||The Lathe of Heaven||Ursula K. Le Guin||F||nature of reality, free will, religion|
|1972||Dragonquest||Anne McCaffrey||F||space opera|
|1972||Jack of Shadows||Roger Zelazny||F||science vs magic|
|1972||A Time of Changes||Robert Silverberg||F||telepathy, identity|
|1972||The World Inside||Robert Silverberg||declined||overpopulation|
|1973||The Gods Themselves||Isaac Asimov||W||parallel universe, sexuality|
|1973||When Harlie Was One||David Gerrold||F||artificial intelligence, meaning of humanity|
|1973||There Will Be Time||Poul Anderson||F||time travel, genetics, racism|
|1973||The Book of Skulls||Robert Silverberg||F||immortality, morality|
|1973||Dying Inside||Robert Silverberg||F||telepathy, aging|
|1973||A Choice of Gods||Clifford D. Simak||F||post apocalyptic, longevity|
|1974||Rendezvous With Rama||Arthur C. Clarke||W||BDO, space opera|
|1974||Time Enough for Love||Robert A. Heinlein||F||immortality, sexuality, time travel|
|1974||Protector||Larry Niven||F||space opera, alternate evolution|
|1974||The People of the Wind||Poul Anderson||F||clash of cultures|
|1974||The Man Who Folded Himself||David Gerrold||F||time travel, paradox|
|1975||The Dispossessed||Ursula K. Le Guin||W||utopia, language’s influence on culture|
|1975||Fire Time||Poul Anderson||F||milsf, hard sf|
|1975||Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said||Philip K. Dick||F||dystopia, alternate history, identity|
|1975||The Mote in God’s Eye||Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle||F||space opera, overpopulation|
|1975||Inverted World||Christopher Priest||F||perception, culture, questions of reality|
|1976||The Forever War||Joe Haldeman||W||military, time dilation|
|1976||Doorways in the Sand||Roger Zelazny||F||immortality, crime, comedy|
|1976||Inferno||Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle||F||religion, fate, free will|
|1976||The Computer Connection||Alfred Bester||F||AI, immortality|
|1976||The Stochastic Man||Robert Silverberg||F||predestination, politics,|
|1977||Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang||Kate Wilhelm||W||post apocalypse, cloning, reproduction|
|1977||Mindbridge||Joe Haldeman||F||space opera, telepathy, milsf|
|1977||Children of Dune||Frank Herbert||F||religion, milsf|
|1977||Man Plus||Frederik Pohl||F||humanity, cyborg|
|1977||Shadrach in the Furnace||Robert Silverberg||F||immortality, ethics|
|1978||Gateway||Frederik Pohl||W||space opera, BDO|
|1978||The Forbidden Tower||Marion Zimmer Bradley||F||women’s role in society, societal progress|
|1978||Lucifer’s Hammer||Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle||F||apocalypse|
|1978||Time Storm||Gordon R. Dickson||F||time travel, alternate realities|
|1978||Dying of the Lght||George R.R. Martin||F||space opera, cultural change|
|1979||Dreamsnake||Vonda N. McIntyre||W||post apocalyptic, drugs, sexuality, tribalism|
|1979||The White Dragon||Anne McCaffrey||F||coming of age|
|1979||The Faded Sun: Kesrith||C. J. Cherryh||F||space opera, coming of age, milsf|
|1979||Blind Voices||Tom Reamy||F||identity, culture|
|1979||Up the Walls of the World||James Tiptree Jr||withdrawn||telepathy, invasion, sentience|
|1980||The Fountains of Paradise||Arthur C. Clarke||W||hard sf,|
|1980||Titan||John Varley||F||space opera, BDO, AI|
|1980||Jem||Frederik Pohl||F||apocalypse, colonization|
|1980||Harpist in the Wind||Patricia A. McKillip||F||high fantasy|
|1980||On Wings of Song||Thomas M. Disch||F||religious fundamentalism|
|1981||The Snow Queen||Joan D. Vinge||W||coming of age, identity|
|1981||Lord Valentine’s Castle||Robert Silverberg||F||BDO, space opera|
|1981||The Ringworld Engineers||Larry Niven||F||BDO, space opera|
|1981||Beyond the Blue Event Horizon||Frederik Pohl||F||BDO, space opera|
|1981||Wizard||John Varley||F||BDO, space opera|
|1982||Downbelow Station||C. J. Cherryh||W||space opera, gender roles|
|1982||The Claw of the Conciliator||Gene Wolfe||F||heroes journey, resurrection|
|1982||The Many-Colored Land||Julian May||F||utopia, time travel, xenophobia|
|1982||Project Pope||Clifford D. Simak||F||religion, robots|
|1982||Little, Big||John Crowley||F||nature of reality|
Award Year – year that the work was nominated/won
Title – common title, may be different in UK, elsewhere
Author – who wrote it
Position – W = Hugo Winner: F = Hugo Finalist
Theme – a very high level, general assessment of the primary subject of the work. (BDO = Big Dumb Object; others should be generally obvious).
127 of the current total of 303 Finalists are represented here.(almost 42%).
And what does this reveal?
Well, among other things, SF and fantasy novels are complex. Most touch on multiple themes – but that shouldn’t surprise any readers.
20 works are of the “space opera” variety
9 contain specific military SF elements
6 deal with time travel
11 deal with aspects of religion
24 includes elements that might be considered “message fiction” – sexual identity, multi-culturalism, morality, overpopulation, gender, ecology, class warfare, diversity, what it means to be human
8 touch on immortality
14 are apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic or dystopic
8 involve BDOs
84 have primary themes that are NOT space opera, military SF, Hard SF or BDOs, while 43 do.
This would tend to suggest that themes that can more easily be thought of as “message fiction” (depending upon the received wisdom of the reader) are represented in 2/3rds of those works that were nominated for the Hugo Awards from 1953 until 1981.
On the other hand, it also suggests that good ol’ pulpy, sciencey, rockets-n-robots SF has been well-represented over the years as well.
Of course these are not necessarily mutually exclusive: Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress contains commentary on the role of women in society, instructions on how to run a revolution, an exploration of what self-awareness is, penology, an analysis of the US Constitution, interplanetary warfare, marriage, justice, and a host of other subjects, both major and minor. One could argue that this work supports the contention that novels like this one represent the puppy world view and can also support the contention that Hugo nominated works have always been “message-fic”.
One conclusion that I’ve come to will probably a be received as a bit harsh by some: a lot of these previously nominated works can only be read as “adventure fiction” if the reader is either not sensitive to deeper meanings and themes, or is incapable of recognizing them for what they are.
That may not be a problem of anything other than exposure: who expects a ten year old (or 16 year old) to be applying critical literary analysis to the fantastic story they’re reading?
It may prove to be, in the long run, that the divide in the reception of these works is due to the age of maturity and the level of sophistication of the reader.
Note: This is very preliminary, as I stated previously. I would welcome hearing from those who see different themes expressed by the various works.