Hugo Worthiness

Message fic or swashbuckling tales of spaceships and aliens? SF is often both at the same time and how a reader receives it may say more about the reader than the work.

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 yeartitleauthorpositionbasic themes
1953The Demolished ManAlfred BesterWproto cyberpunk/detective/space opera
1955They’d Rather Be RightMark Clifton and Frank RileyWimmortality
1956Double StarRobert A. HeinleinWpolitical
1957No Novel Awardnana
1958The Big TimeFritz LeiberWtime travel, military
1959A Case of ConscienceJames BlishWreligion, morality
1959The Enemy StarsPoul AndersonFspace opera, teleportation, time dilation
1959Who?Algis BudrysFmystery, cold war
1959Have Spacesuit – Will TravelRobert A. HeinleinFspace opera
1959Immortality, Inc.Robert SheckleyFimmortality
1960Starship TroopersRobert A. HeinleinWmilitary
1960Dorsai!Gordon R. DicksonFmilitary
1960The Pirates of ErsatzMurray LeinsterFspace pirates
1960That Sweet Little Old LadyRandall Garrerr and Laurence M JaniferFparanormal, humor
1960The Sirens of TitanKurt Vonnegut Jr.Ffree will, invasion
1961A Canticle for LiebowitzWalter M. Miller JrWreligion, post apocalypse
1961The High CrusadePoul AndersonFmilitary, humor
1961Rogue MoonAlgis BudrysFimmortality
1961DeathworldHarry HarrisonFspace opera, military
1961Venus Plus XTheordore SturgeonFgender
1962Stranger in a Strange LandRobert A. HeinleinWculture, religion
1962Dark UniverseDaniel F. GalouyeFpost apocalypse
1962Planet of the DamnedHarry HarrisonFmilitary, humor
1962The FishermanClifford D. SimakFparanormal, time travel
1962Second EndingJames WhiteFpost apocalypse
1963The Man in the High CastlePhilip K. DickWalternate history
1963Sword of AldonesMarion Zimmer BradleyFsword and planet
1963A Fall of MoondustArthur C. ClarkeFhard
1963Little FuzzyH. Beam PiperFfirst contact, humor
1964Way StationClifford D. SimakWcold war
1964Glory RoadRobert A. HeinleinFSword and Sorcery, parallel universe
1964Witch WorldAndre NortonFSF and sword and sorcery hybrid
1964Dune WorldFrank HerbertFecology, religion
1964Cat’s CradleKurt Vonnegut Jr.Fcold war, free will
1965The WandererFritz LeiberWpost apocalypse
1965The Whole ManJohn BrunnerFparanormal, humor
1965DavyEdgar PangbornFpost apocalypse
1965The Planet BuyerCordwainer SmithFspace opera
1966DuneFrank HerbertWecology, religion
1966This ImmortalRoger ZelaznyWubermen, post apocalypse, military
1966The Squares of the CityJohn BrunnerFclass warfare, politics
1966The Moon is a Harsh MistressRobert A. HeinleinFrevolution, space opera, AI
1966Skylark DuQuesneEdward E. SmithFspace opera
1967The Moon is a Harsh MistressRobert A. HeinleinWAI, revolution,
1967Babel-17Samuel R. DelanyFlanguage, military
1967Too Many MagiciansRandall GarrettFalternate history, mystery
1967Flowers for AlgernonDaniel KeyesFthe other, intelligence and morality
1967The Witches of KarresJames H. SchmitzFspace opera, humor
1967Day of the MinotaurThomas Burnett SwannFalternate mythology
1968Lord of LightRoger ZelaznyWreligion; immortality
1968The Einstein IntersectionSamuel R. DelanyFthe outsider, diversity
1968ChthonPiers AnthonyFlove of the other
1968The Butterfly KidChester AndersonFinvasion, humor
1968ThornsRobert SilverbergFgrowth requires pain
1969Stand on ZanzibarJohn BrunnerWdystopia, overpopulation
1969Rite of PassageAlexei PanshinFcoming of age
1969NovaSamuel R. DelanyFspace opera, cyborgs
1969Past MasterR. A. LaffertyFutopia, time travel
1969The Goblin ReservationClifford D. SimakFspace opera, time travel
1970The Left Hand of DarknessUrsula K. Le GuinWgender identity
1970Up the LineRobert SilverbergFtime travel
1970MacroscopePiers AnthonyFhealth and society’s roles in intelligence
1970Slaughterhouse-FiveKurt Vonnegut Jr.Ffree will
1970Bug Jack BarronNorman SpinradFimmortality, media
1971RingworldLarry NivenWspace opera, BDO
1971Tau ZeroPoul AndersonFtime dilation effects
1971Tower of GlassRobert SilverbergFDefinition of humanity
1971The Year of the Quiet SunWilson TuckerFtime travel
1971Star LightHal ClementFhard sf, high gravity aliens
1972To Your Scattered Bodies GoPhilip Jose FarmerWresurrection
1972The Lathe of HeavenUrsula K. Le GuinFnature of reality, free will, religion
1972DragonquestAnne McCaffreyFspace opera
1972Jack of ShadowsRoger ZelaznyFscience vs magic
1972A Time of ChangesRobert SilverbergFtelepathy, identity
1972The World InsideRobert Silverbergdeclinedoverpopulation
1973The Gods ThemselvesIsaac AsimovWparallel universe, sexuality
1973When Harlie Was OneDavid GerroldFartificial intelligence, meaning of humanity
1973There Will Be TimePoul AndersonFtime travel, genetics, racism
1973The Book of SkullsRobert SilverbergFimmortality, morality
1973Dying InsideRobert SilverbergFtelepathy, aging
1973A Choice of GodsClifford D. SimakFpost apocalyptic, longevity
1974Rendezvous With RamaArthur C. ClarkeWBDO, space opera
1974Time Enough for LoveRobert A. HeinleinFimmortality, sexuality, time travel
1974ProtectorLarry NivenFspace opera, alternate evolution
1974The People of the WindPoul AndersonFclash of cultures
1974The Man Who Folded HimselfDavid GerroldFtime travel, paradox
1975The DispossessedUrsula K. Le GuinWutopia, language’s influence on culture
1975Fire TimePoul AndersonFmilsf, hard sf
1975Flow My Tears, the Policeman SaidPhilip K. DickFdystopia, alternate history, identity
1975The Mote in God’s EyeLarry Niven and Jerry PournelleFspace opera, overpopulation
1975Inverted WorldChristopher PriestFperception, culture, questions of reality
1976The Forever WarJoe HaldemanWmilitary, time dilation
1976Doorways in the SandRoger ZelaznyFimmortality, crime, comedy
1976InfernoLarry Niven and Jerry PournelleFreligion, fate, free will
1976The Computer ConnectionAlfred BesterFAI, immortality
1976The Stochastic ManRobert SilverbergFpredestination, politics,
1977Where Late the Sweet Birds SangKate WilhelmWpost apocalypse, cloning, reproduction
1977MindbridgeJoe HaldemanFspace opera, telepathy, milsf
1977Children of DuneFrank HerbertFreligion, milsf
1977Man PlusFrederik PohlFhumanity, cyborg
1977Shadrach in the FurnaceRobert SilverbergFimmortality, ethics
1978GatewayFrederik PohlWspace opera, BDO
1978The Forbidden TowerMarion Zimmer BradleyFwomen’s role in society, societal progress
1978Lucifer’s HammerLarry Niven and Jerry PournelleFapocalypse
1978Time StormGordon R. DicksonFtime travel, alternate realities
1978Dying of the LghtGeorge R.R. MartinFspace opera, cultural change
1979DreamsnakeVonda N. McIntyreWpost apocalyptic, drugs, sexuality, tribalism
1979The White DragonAnne McCaffreyFcoming of age
1979The Faded Sun: KesrithC. J. CherryhFspace opera, coming of age, milsf
1979Blind VoicesTom ReamyFidentity, culture
1979Up the Walls of the WorldJames Tiptree Jrwithdrawntelepathy, invasion, sentience
1980The Fountains of ParadiseArthur C. ClarkeWhard sf,
1980TitanJohn VarleyFspace opera, BDO, AI
1980JemFrederik PohlFapocalypse, colonization
1980Harpist in the WindPatricia A. McKillipFhigh fantasy
1980On Wings of SongThomas M. DischFreligious fundamentalism
1981The Snow QueenJoan D. VingeWcoming of age, identity
1981Lord Valentine’s CastleRobert SilverbergFBDO, space opera
1981The Ringworld EngineersLarry NivenFBDO, space opera
1981Beyond the Blue Event HorizonFrederik PohlFBDO, space opera
1981WizardJohn VarleyFBDO, space opera
1982Downbelow StationC. J. CherryhWspace opera, gender roles
1982The Claw of the ConciliatorGene WolfeFheroes journey, resurrection
1982The Many-Colored LandJulian MayFutopia, time travel, xenophobia
1982Project PopeClifford D. SimakFreligion, robots
1982Little, BigJohn CrowleyFnature 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.

Related articles


  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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.