Saturday 20 May 2017

1973: The Worst Hugo Award

1973 was a very good year. Income inequality was at its historical lowest in America, union density was at its highest, major victories were happening in civil rights.

But in the world of science fiction, it was the year that one of the worst novels ever to win the top Hugo award was honoured for all the wrong reasons.
In 1973, this was considered fashionable.
(Photo via Todd Elhers

Solid Nominees

Let’s take a quick look at the six books on that year’s Hugo novel short list:

When Harlie Was One by Tribbles-creator David Gerrold is an excellent novel about an artificial intelligence and a psychologist whose job is to evaluate it. It’s a book that is rich with insight about what it means to be human, has well-developed characters, and a compelling story arc. It’s definitely Gerrold’s finest work.

Time travel aficionado Poul Anderson explored some of his well-worn themes in There Will Be Time. But he did so in interesting ways, weaving in ecological themes, cultural diversity, and human evolution. The result is a fine novel that holds up well today.

Long before Raymond Kurtzweil or Vernor Vinge made the technological singularity a literary trope in SF, Clifford D. Simak explored the concept through the eyes of a tribe of Native Americans left behind after the rest of the human race disappears. It’s an interestingly weird novel that foreshadows The Peace War, Marooned In Realtime, and other singularitarian works.

The Year Of Silverberg

Robert Silverberg became the only author to have two novels shortlisted for the Hugo in the same year, with both The Book Of Skulls and Dying Inside in contention. Over his career, Silverberg has racked up nine total nominations for best novel without having ever won, but these two should have been his best chances.  

The Book Of Skulls — about four college students vying for immortality at a high cost — is probably the weaker of the two.

Dying Inside is a sublime novel, understated yet rich. The prose is light and effective. The protagonist
Dying Inside is more than just
a genre classic.
(Image via Wikipedia
David Selig is a telepath living in modern-day New York, whose mind-reading powers have left him a wreck of a human being. He has no close friends, no real career, and makes a living helping college students cheat. The novel details how he is losing his “gift,” the one thing that makes him who he is. I still cannot believe that Dying Inside didn’t win the Hugo that year.

Nostalgia Triumphs

So what did take home the prize? The mostly forgotten Isaac Asimov novel The Gods Themselves. It’s a stitch-together of three short stories about an interdimentional energy crisis. Hard to deny that it’s an ambitious work, and it’s hard to deny that some of the science-fictional physics are interesting. But it’s dull. And plodding. And ungainly. It has not aged well, and it is not Asimov at his best.

So why did it win? Probably because Asimov had never won the best novel Hugo at that point. And probably because it was Asimov’s first original science fiction novel in more than a decade (his previous SF novel being a mostly-forgettable movie adaptation of Fantastic Voyage in 1966). And possibly the Silverberg vote was split between two worthy nominees.

Beyond just the misstep of having the worst nominee win, there were several memorable omissions from the shortlist — the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic is now considered a must-read classic. John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up looks better every year. And Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is a hilarious takedown of right-wing misogynist SF tropes that seems relevant to today’s Sad Puppies imbroglio.

1972/73 was a year with a lot of great science fiction novels. That year's Hugo Award Winner isn’t among those.


  1. A lot of discussion in the fanzines and at cons at the time concerned Asimov's bold strides in the genre in this novel, largely owing to its sexual content.
    Sure, there was some nostalgia going on...give Ike his novel Hugo...but as I recall, there was a lot more discussion along the lines of - Foundation...menage-a-trois...!

    1. That's fair. It's an ambitious novel, and way outside of Asimov's comfort zone, but ambition isn't enough to make something good. It's so stilted and dull.

      Read it for the first time as a child, because I was working my way through the classics of SF. As much as I loved almost everything Asimov had written, that one left me cold. Returned to it decades later as an adult, because I assumed that I'd missed something on my first read through, and was left just as cold.

      I think it's aged more badly than the other books on that year's short list.

  2. oh, and that pic of what was fashionable...its a "bit" over stated