First, this was in many ways a reread. Science fiction is an important part of my life, and I’d read 40 of the 65 Hugo Winners (counting ties) already. However, it was still a pleasure to go back and revisit old friends and personal touchstones like Dune, classic Heinlein, and Neuromancer. It was also a chance to find some new favorites, like Lord of Light and The Snow Queen. The Hugos are at the end of the day a fan award, a popularity contest among the very unique group of people who go to WorldCons, but they do have good taste. There are a lot of genre classics in there. I’d rate the Hugos as a better representative of what’s good in the field than say, the Oscars as a representation of cinema. Of course, as a popularity contest, it’s ultimately a reflection of mindshare. Some authors win because they have dedicated fan bases, or it’s “their time.” Only rarely does a new author break out with a Hugo. And then there are people like Robert Silverberg who were nominated year after year without winning anything.
So let’s take this in order. Back in 1954, the WorldCon organizers had no idea they were setting up an institution. There was no Hugo for 1955, and the next winner, Mark Clifton’s They Rather Be Right, is a hot mess of ambitious and poorly developed ideas married to terrible characterization. The field as a whole seems to be finding its feet in the transistion from the magazine and short-story dominated Golden Age of Astounding Science Fiction, and the new format of cheap paperbacks (see George RR Martin’s introduction to Rogues to get a sense of the era).
1969 seems as good as any point to mark the end of the first era of the Hugos. The post-modern fragments of Stand on Zanzibar and the gender-bending intrigue of The Left Hand of Darkness take a new approach to the question “what makes a great science fiction story?” It’s probably no accident that Brunner and Le Guin were the first foreigner and first woman to win the Hugo. There seemed to be a backlash against these unconventional stories, with the revenge of hard scifi based around extrapolating fantastic engineering from unconventional science. Niven, Clarke, and Asimov all picked up Hugos in this period, with grandmasters Clarke and Asimov getting it for subpar works.
The 70s were a slog, with a few good works (The Forever War, The Dispossed, Gateway), but I didn’t realize how depressing the decade was until 1984 with Brin’s Startide Rising. Startide is a silly book, featuring talking dolphins, young adult protagonists, and scenery chewing alien villains, but it was the first book in a long time that was actually fun, taking joy in the wonder of the universe, in adventure and defying death.
The mid 80s through the mid 90s saw a creative renaissance, with the debuts of talented and imaginative authors like William Gibson, Orson Scott Card, and Neal Stephenson. It also saw the rise of the mega-series as the new scifi format. Card was the first author to win twice in a run, and the first to win with a clear sequel with Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. Lois McMaster Bujold won three Hugos for her Vorkosigan series. Kim Stanley Robinson picked up two for his doorstopper Mars trilogy. The rise of the extended series as a format is something which the Hugos slowly adapted to. They only added a ‘best series’ category in 2016. The mid 80s through 90s is another period of great works, matched only by 60s for consistent quality.
2001 is a solid place to mark another turning point, with the Hugo going to the fourth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The boundaries of genre are fuzzy, but Harry Potter makes no bones about being fantasy rather than scifi. While I do think children’s literature can have literary qualities, this was a rare misstep. Goblet of Fire is simply a mess of an extended fetch quest that loses a lot the charm of the first three books. The 2000s seemed like they were going through an identity crisis, with classic scifi tropes discarded for the modern myths of Neil Gaiman, fantasy from Bujold, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The straight scifi works, Hominids and Spin, are cold and alienating, a fringe books for fans. The 2010s could make an argument that the popularity contest aspect of the Hugos have gone too far: John Scalzi won for Redshirts, a book that he admits is not one of his best, and Jo Walton’s Among Others is gratitutious fanservice for longtime fans.
Reaching the present, the state of the genre is strong. There are talented new authors emerging today, including N.K. Jeminison, Ann Leckie, and Paolo Bacigalupi. I was not personally a fan of The Three Body Problem, but it’s nice to see non-Anglo cultures represented. Clarkesworld regularly includes Chinese science fiction, which I find to be enthusiastically over-stuffed with technology and themes. They seem to be going through their own Golden Age when every idea is new and exciting, and could bear a little cooling off.
Closing thoughts: The Hugos represent the best of science fiction, a serious attempt to grapple with humanity’s place in the universe, and human qualities that change and stay constant with scientific and technological circumstances. The stories range from psychological dramas and character-driven comedies to fantastic extrapolations of technology and the workings of natural processes. At their best, they question reality, at their worst they inscribe the prejudices of bygone eras. The prose style ranges from merely workable to truly supreme, but these are all talented wordsmiths. I’d say that the Hugos trend conservative, with a strong preference for a self-defined “high science fiction”, but there are more than a few exceptions.
And should you read them? Well, all of the Hugos in order is a commitment, but I think I got something stepping outside of the classics I already knew. And while I’m no fan of nerd elitism, if you haven’t read Dune, or Neuromancer, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, you’re missing out.