Hugo Worthiness

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
1963 Sylva Vercors F apocalypse
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.

What else?

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.

MilSF tale of Lunar revolution, or social commentary?
MilSF tale of Lunar revolution, or social commentary?

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.

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  1. You can move Have Space Suit, Will Travel into message fic. It’s all about a proper education for a young boy (Heinlein was just discovering how poor US education was).
    Harry Harrison’s Death World is about colonisation and the response of native populations.
    No idea how Dragonsquest got into space opera: it’s a planetary romance with themes of over turning feudalism.
    Lord Valentine’s castle is also planetary romance. I don’t know it terribly well but it is also social revolutionary.

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