Sunday 4 June 2017

Retro Hugos 1947 (Part One: Novels)

If there had been Hugo awards presented in 1947, they would have been awarded at Philcon 1.
The fifth and possibly
largest Worldcon to that date
(Image via

The fifth Worldcon came to Philadelphia during a time of change and optimism for the city. The local baseball team, the Athletics, was in the process of snapping a multi-decade losing streak. The peace-time economy was providing new opportunities and prosperity to the diverse city. And the Philadelphia Free Library was experiencing an event of high psychokinetic activity that would later become known as the ‘Philadelphia Mass Turbulence of 1947.'

Science Fiction was at a turning point. Herbert George Welles, the titan of the genre, had just died. Up-and-comers of the pulp era were being discharged from the armed forces and returning to writing.

Three major figures in Science Fiction at the time worked at the Philadelphia naval yards: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague DeCamp, all of whom attended the convention.

Post-War Boom

The convention was possibly the biggest to date — the first one since the original Worldcon to break the 200-person mark in attendance.
Left to right, Heinlein, DeCamp and
Asimov in at the Philadelphia Naval
Yards in 1944. (Image via Wikipedia)

There were no Hugo awards presented at Philcon 1, as the awards wouldn’t be introduced for another five years, but it’s interesting to imagine the context in which these awards might have been presented. The awards would have recognized works published the previous year — the first year of post-war publishing.

Twenty-seven-year-old Isaac Asimov had written prolifically during the war, but only had one story up for consideration for the awards that year.  Robert A. Heinlein — in the middle of his second divorce — had turned his attention to political writing, rather than Science Fiction. Several other significant authors who served in the war weren’t able to return to writing until late 1946.

De Camp had only one short story to his name that year. James Blish published no novels that year. Nor did Nelson S. Bond.  Fritz Lieber’s name was not on any dust jacket.

Likely Nominations

Which would have left Hugo nominating committees with a dearth of works to recognize in the long-form categories. It would have been an unusually lopsided ballot, with three real contenders, and one truly outstanding work.  
A classic that is a product
of its time.
(Image via Wikipedia) 

The Skylark of Space was revised and expanded from E.E. Doc Smith’s much earlier short stories, and first saw print as a novel in 1946. It’s a deeply influential book, and was probably the most popular at the time. But it has aged more poorly than many books of the era, possibly betraying its earlier history from pre-John W. Campbell pulp magazines.

Canadian expatriate A.E. Van Vogt had moved to Hollywood in 1946, where he edited together his popular Slan stories into a novel that is an influential classic today. It is hard to imagine that it would have failed to make the Hugo shortlist had there been one, but since it won a Retro Hugo a few years back (for the serialized version in 1941), it is not eligible to be a contender for the 1947 Retro Hugo.

Which leaves Mervyn Peake’s masterpiece Titus Groan as the undisputed frontrunner for the 1947 Retro Hugo. 

Moody Masterpiece

Titus Groan — the first of the Gormenghast novels — is a singularly impressive book. The setting is richly imagined, evocative, moody and alive. The language is complex and nuanced (if a little florid and rococo at times).  The plot is ponderous, but well realized, and despite being unfinished because of Peake’s death, ultimately satisfying.
Image via

If we were to list the greatest books that are usually classified as ‘fantasy,’ Titus Groan would be challenged for the top spot only by The Fellowship of the Ring and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

But although it’s usually classified as ‘fantasy,’ Titus Groan (and the rest of the Gormenghast novels) do not contain any overtly fantastical elements.

It’s a series of palace intrigues set in a sprawling, arcane, labyrinthine castle, the likes of which does not, and has never existed. But it could have. The royal family is stranger and older than any medieval family — but not impossibly so.  Which begs the question: What is the edge of Science Fiction and Fantasy? Is this a book that we should be honouring with a Hugo Award?

Despite this major question, it seems inconceivable that Titus Groan should fail to garner both a Hugo nomination and the award. It’s just too good not to.

We look forward to voting for it on our ballot.

Do you have suggestions for works that might be worthy of consideration for the 1947 Retro Hugos that we may have missed? Please comment on this post. 

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