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An Informal History of the Hugos

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The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been given out since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious award in science fiction. Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for Tor.com, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s i The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been given out since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious award in science fiction. Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for Tor.com, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s inception up to the year 2000. Her contention was that each year’s full set of finalists generally tells a meaningful story about the state of science fiction at that time. Walton’s cheerfully opinionated and vastly well-informed posts provoked valuable conversation among the field’s historians. Now these posts, lightly revised, have been gathered into this book, along with a small selection of the comments posted by SF luminaries such as Rich Horton, Gardner Dozois, and the late David G. Hartwell. Engaged, passionate, and consistently entertaining, this is a book for the many who enjoyed Walton’s previous collection of writing from Tor.com, the Locus Award-winning What Makes This Book So Great.


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The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been given out since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious award in science fiction. Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for Tor.com, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s i The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been given out since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious award in science fiction. Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for Tor.com, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s inception up to the year 2000. Her contention was that each year’s full set of finalists generally tells a meaningful story about the state of science fiction at that time. Walton’s cheerfully opinionated and vastly well-informed posts provoked valuable conversation among the field’s historians. Now these posts, lightly revised, have been gathered into this book, along with a small selection of the comments posted by SF luminaries such as Rich Horton, Gardner Dozois, and the late David G. Hartwell. Engaged, passionate, and consistently entertaining, this is a book for the many who enjoyed Walton’s previous collection of writing from Tor.com, the Locus Award-winning What Makes This Book So Great.

30 review for An Informal History of the Hugos

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

    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 XI mission.) Trivia aside, if you care at all about the history of science fiction and how the tastes of the field's community of rea 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 XI mission.) 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 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 elements. 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 [https://www.tor.com/features/series/r...]. 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 be backing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Krista D.

    What a fascinating series! Plus, this works as a massive Jo Recommends series, too; Walton doesn't shy from expressing her opinions (which improves the book, I think) and you can find a lot of books to read because of the comments. One thing that annoyed me was how many of the shorter works are impossible to find now. What a reprint anthology series opportunity there could be!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    I bought this book immediately upon publication because I loved What Makes This Book So Great, also by Walton and of a similar format, so much. I was looking forward to great SFF recommendations and book reviews from Walton. This book definitely has that, but it also has lists. Hundreds of pages of lists. And that's fine. I realize I came into this book expecting to find what it was never going to be. For what this truly is, An Informal History of the Hugos, it is a comprehensive look back at th I bought this book immediately upon publication because I loved What Makes This Book So Great, also by Walton and of a similar format, so much. I was looking forward to great SFF recommendations and book reviews from Walton. This book definitely has that, but it also has lists. Hundreds of pages of lists. And that's fine. I realize I came into this book expecting to find what it was never going to be. For what this truly is, An Informal History of the Hugos, it is a comprehensive look back at the award (and other SFF awards), its nominees and the evolution of SFF literature. But what I really wanted was to just hear Walton talk about books, which only happened half of the time. I also found all the novellas and short fiction, listed in the main body of the essays and in the included comments from the blog, a little frustrating because not all of them are easy to read today. It felt like hundreds of tantalizing works I'd never be able to experience myself. Overall, I'll keep this on my shelves and am pleased to have added so many SFF books to my Goodreads TBR because of An Informal History of the Hugos.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Marlene

    Originally published at Reading Reality I read these in reverse order. I started reading An Informal History of the Hugos while I was at Worldcon, anticipating the upcoming Hugo Awards ceremony. I was also looking for something big that I wouldn’t have to write up in the middle of the con, because that just wasn’t happening. But once I finished the book, especially after attending a panel hosted by the author that covered which great books in 2017 did not make the Hugo Ballot, I wasn’t ready to qu Originally published at Reading Reality I read these in reverse order. I started reading An Informal History of the Hugos while I was at Worldcon, anticipating the upcoming Hugo Awards ceremony. I was also looking for something big that I wouldn’t have to write up in the middle of the con, because that just wasn’t happening. But once I finished the book, especially after attending a panel hosted by the author that covered which great books in 2017 did not make the Hugo Ballot, I wasn’t ready to quit. And there was another book just waiting for me. Admittedly, it was just a bit surreal reading about what made older books so great while I was waiting for panels to start that talked about what new books were/would be so great. But it was a good kind of surreal. After one panel where I wanted to buy “all the things” and started doing so on Amazon as the panel was running, I finally figured out that might be a bit much, even for me. So I started a list that just got longer and longer and LONGER as the con went on. Something to look forward to. But right now I’m looking back at two very interesting books that just go together, not only because they were written by the same person. Both of these books are, in their own way, a bit meta. They are books that talk about books. They also talk about the joys of, and the experience of, reading. If either one of those is your jam, they make for marvelous reads. They are also great to dip in and out of. While both books are rather long, they are divided up into short, easily digestible – or dippable – sections. But while there are similarities, there are also differences. What Makes This Book So Great is very personal. The book is made up of a series of blog posts that were originally posted at Tor.com, but this is, unquestionably, the author’s point of view. Like all readers, she loves what she loves, and also hates what she hates. And isn’t one bit shy about explaining about either. Even when I disagreed with her, and I often did, this was fun to read because it felt like we had similar experiences of reading and thoughts about reading and its joys. Even if I occasionally wondered what she was thinking about certain books. There are some arguments I would just love to have, as well as some books I’ve passed by that suddenly sound awfully interesting. Among Others by Jo WaltonIf you read and loved Among Others, this book will feel strangely familiar. It was obvious in Among Others that this was an author who loved the genre and had read extremely widely in it. This book feels like just the tip of that reading iceberg – which must be enormous. An Informal History of the Hugos is a bit less personal, but no less interesting. The Hugos began in 1955, and have been presented annually every since. We know what won, and what it won for. For the past several decades we also know what was nominated. And it’s not difficult to figure out what was eligible in any given year, even those earliest years – even if it is a pain for the pre-internet years. This book does not set out to provide the author’s opinion about what should have won in any given year – not that we don’t get a lovely slice of that. Instead, it looks at what was eligible in each year, what got nominated (if available), what won other awards that year (if applicable) and what won the Hugo. And attempts to determine whether what appeared on the Hugo ballot was of decent quality and reasonably represented the state of the field that year. It makes for a fun to read time capsule of SF history. As someone who has been reading SF for a long time, but not for the span of the awards, I have to admit that the discussion of the earliest years felt a bit academic, or at least distant, at least to me. When the book really picks up for me turned out to be 1971. I was 14, reading more fantasy than SF, but some of each. And most importantly, had enough of an allowance to spend on books. So that’s the point where I remember seeing things in the racks, even if I didn’t buy them myself (or check them out of the local library). I was fascinated from that point forward, seeing what else was available that I missed or wasn’t ready for or couldn’t afford. And it was cool to not just read each year afterwards, but to see how many of the eligible books I had read at the time. It brought back a lot of fond memories. And I still have some of those books. The author stopped in 2000, ironically the first year I attended Worldcon. While her reasons make sense, a part of me wishes she had continued. I’d love to read what she thought of the nominees and winners earlier in this decade, during the puppy farrago. Maybe we’ll see those posts in another decade or so, after the dust has settled a bit. But part of what makes this book so fascinating is its premise – and her conclusions. Did the Hugo voters mostly represent the field? Were most of the nominees of high enough quality to justify their inclusion on the ballot? Were there some books that seem blindingly obvious in retrospect that were completely overlooked at the time? Did they occasionally miss the boat, or not merely the boat but also the body of water it was floating on? The answer makes for an interesting – and highly debate worthy – yes all the way around. Read it and see if you agree. Ratings: I’m not sure whether these qualify for “Escape” or “Reality” ratings. I was surprised at how much I lost myself inside each book. But at the same time, they are very meta, nonfiction about fiction. There’s no question that you have to be a genre fan to be interested in An Informal History of the Hugos. What Makes This Book So Great is mostly, but not completely, SF and fantasy. (I loved the commentary on one of my all-time favorite books, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers).It also has a lot to say about the joys and experience of reading, regardless of genre, so it will be of interest to anyone who likes to read about reading, and is open-minded, or at least less particular, about genre. Whether an escape, reality, or a bit of both, I put both of these books on the B+/A- fence. Happy Reading!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mitchell

    Exhausting. And I'm glad to be done with it. But was it good. Was it readable. Mostly it was a book of lists. Lists of nominees and winners for the hugo. Lists of books that got nominated for the nebula and locus and eventually other awards. It was definitely better at the beginning of the book. As time went on and more recent times were reached, it was just less interesting. And then there's the shorter works. I have read a bunch of shorter sf and fantasy work, I've got a whole book case of the Exhausting. And I'm glad to be done with it. But was it good. Was it readable. Mostly it was a book of lists. Lists of nominees and winners for the hugo. Lists of books that got nominated for the nebula and locus and eventually other awards. It was definitely better at the beginning of the book. As time went on and more recent times were reached, it was just less interesting. And then there's the shorter works. I have read a bunch of shorter sf and fantasy work, I've got a whole book case of them. But they generally don't stay with me except for a very few of the bigger works that I've read multiple times and seen discussed. So a lot of the book was okay but not all that interesting. It was kind of neat to see writers appear on the scene and in context. And I appreciate Jo Walton having a point of view even if her opinion of many authors were based on reading an early work and never giving them another chance. I did agree with her with lots of other works. But was this book actually good? I kind of want to use it to update my goodreads lists and my to-read lists. But basically I can use the online nominee lists without this book. But it was fun to spend the time in this space.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    Jo Walton's review of what won the Hugo (and several other awards) and what else could have been nominated, from 1953 - 2000. This book contains a series of blog posts along with some of the comments that were made in response to them. I loved it! It felt like a knowledgeable, opinionated (in a good way) person taking my hand and leading me through all the good stuff that was out there. Jo's writing is so easy to read and enjoy - it feels like a chat with the author. I've read pretty widely in sc Jo Walton's review of what won the Hugo (and several other awards) and what else could have been nominated, from 1953 - 2000. This book contains a series of blog posts along with some of the comments that were made in response to them. I loved it! It felt like a knowledgeable, opinionated (in a good way) person taking my hand and leading me through all the good stuff that was out there. Jo's writing is so easy to read and enjoy - it feels like a chat with the author. I've read pretty widely in science fiction and more so in fantasy, but there's always more to dive into. I'm planning to turn around and re-read this soon while making a list: TBR stack, watch out!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nina

    It's not a history of the Hugos, informal or otherwise. It's just a compilation of Waltons' columns for Tor.com essentially listing the books, stories, people nominated for Hugos, year by year, with Walton's opinions on whether the awards given were justified. Useful as a reference on what books and stories were considered worthy each year, but Walton has little actual history to impart. Unless you're specifically dying to know what Walton thinks about certain books you could save time and money It's not a history of the Hugos, informal or otherwise. It's just a compilation of Waltons' columns for Tor.com essentially listing the books, stories, people nominated for Hugos, year by year, with Walton's opinions on whether the awards given were justified. Useful as a reference on what books and stories were considered worthy each year, but Walton has little actual history to impart. Unless you're specifically dying to know what Walton thinks about certain books you could save time and money by just visiting thehugoawards.org

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    This was a fun read strolling down the memory lane of Hugo awards. However, I wanted a lot more from this book. I was expecting more literary analysis. It's really just lists and lists of titles with some annotation from memory Jo Walton's memories. What really adds to the book are the comments by Gardner Dozois and Rich Horton. An Informal History of the Hugos is mostly interesting if you like to think about how novels and stories are remembered. Which I do.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Very entertaining listing and critiques of Hugo (and other) award winners from 1953 to 2000. Includes several essays on Hugo winners and comments from others to Walton's original posts. I think at least one author/title index, and preferably novel and non-novel indices, would be useful for browsing old favorites and new want-to-reads, and for referring back to comments.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Erin Boyington

    Just as with ‘What Makes This Book So Great,’ there’s an overwhelming number of good old books to track down. There are also many MANY long lists of titles with zero context, which I find less useful. But maybe someday I’ll be as well-read as Walton and her commenters.... All I have to add is thank God for interlibrary loan!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    Jo and I aren't always on the same page vis a vis our favourites and tastes but this is a fabulous social document showing the evolution of the genre and it's trends.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Cait

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  15. 5 out of 5

    heartmint

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

  18. 5 out of 5

    Rachel (Kalanadi)

  19. 4 out of 5

    Heather

  20. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

  21. 4 out of 5

    Queen

  22. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn Hogan

  24. 5 out of 5

    Heather Jones

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mira

  26. 4 out of 5

    Dennis Henley

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Summers

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mike N

  29. 5 out of 5

    Julia Rutledge

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly

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