Saturday 30 September 2017

The Political Power Of Science Fiction

Political debates have simmered throughout the history of the Hugo Awards. This is because in some ways, science fiction is a more political form of literature than other genres. 

You cannot write about imaginary futures and different worlds without showing how their societies are different than our own; how they are better and how they are worse. In this sense, as others have observed, science fiction is a medium of utopias and dystopias. And the determination of what makes a society dystopic or utopic is inherently about political values.
Fascists, communists, libertarians and
religious groups have all embraced the
power of science fiction to shape society's
view of the future. (Image via  

If you believe that all humans are really created equal, your utopia likely won’t include a caste system. If you believe that humans have a right to privacy, a government surveillance state will be depicted as a dystopia. If you believe that the world needs racial purity and genetically superior heroes to save us from corruption, you might write a fantasy about a man of high Númenórean blood who is destined to reclaim the Throne of Gondor.

These are all political beliefs.

Practical politics is about changing the world. Science fiction is about exploring worlds that have been changed. The two are intertwined.

This is what the Futurians and their critics at the first Worldcon all understood: By imagining utopias
In the 1930s, Futurians (including Cyril
Kornbluth, Chester Cohen, John Michel,
Robert Lowndes and Donald Wollheim)
argued that SF has a responsibility to
help guide the way to better tomorrows. 
and dystopias, science fiction helps create blueprints that guide us towards, or away from, potential futures.

This political nature of science fiction is one of the reasons that political campaigning and organizing to promote a Hugo Award contender have been with us since the moment the awards were announced.

In early August 1953, Will Jenkins, one of the organizers of the First Annual Achievement Awards In Science Fiction (which would later become known as the Hugo Awards), endorsed political campaigning for the award, writing in the fourth progress report for the Worldcon in Philadelphia “There is still time to do a little campaigning to line up a solid bloc of votes for your favourites.”

The subsequent year, organized campaigning probably played a significant part in the honouring of oft-criticized second Hugo-winner They’d Rather Be Right. The book, which veers between
Image via
unreadability and sheer monotony, is a technocratic and ideological work that could only appeal to those who are deeply invested in its political ideas.

The committee organizing the Hugo Awards responded to the They’d Rather Be Right debacle by screening all nominations in 1956 through a “special committee to determine their qualifications.” While it’s good that this anti-democratic jurying did not become a permanent part of the Hugo Awards process, the fundamental issues of political factions was never fully addressed, and tensions simmered.

Over most of the history of the awards, these rivalries have been benign; such as during
The environmental activism of Rachel Carson
 and her book Silent Spring inspired 1977
Hugo Winner Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang.
(Image via island
the Hugo Award race in 1977, when the technocratic Frederick Pohl novel Man Plus was narrowly bested by Kate Wilhelm’s feminist oeuvre Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. It was a divisive Hugo Awards race between two books offering wildly divergent political views.

While the dispute was heated, nobody tried to claim the award was invalid, or tried to wreck the system. The argument was no longer a factor by the time Fred Pohl won for Gateway the next year.

Recent winners are neither uniform in their politics, nor narrow in their possible interpretations. There is an enormous ideological gulf between the The Fifth Season’s skepticism towards clerical authority, and the triumphalist worldview of The Three-Body Problem.

Both novels won in part because of how skillfully their authors built a utopia or dystopia from the philosophical underpinnings they believed in. Both novels are worthy winners that should be celebrated.

Today’s heated discourse over the futures that science fiction imagines — and creates potential blueprints for — must be seen in the context of science fiction’s inherent political nature.

Sunday 17 September 2017

The most obscure Hugo-shortlisted novel

One of the great joys of looking over the 64-year history of the Hugo Awards is discovering classic works of science fiction that might otherwise have been forgotten. Not all of these are spectacular – it seems clear that throughout Hugo history, niche elements amongst fandom have put forward works of marginal value – but most of them are well worth taking the time to track down and read.

Looking over the list of all the nominees, even someone who has delved deeply into the classics of
Second Ending lost in
1962 to Stranger in a
Strange Land.
(Image via Wikipedia)
the genre is likely to stumble across something of which they are unfamiliar. Second Ending by James White? A charming little book once we tracked it down. Edgar Pangborn’s Davy? Flawed, but worth your while. The history of the Hugo awards is littered with hidden gems like these.

What is the most obscure novel ever shortlisted for the Hugo Award?

If we’re basing our definition of obscurity on the metrics provided by the book-related social media site Goodreads, the Hugo-shortlisted novel that has the fewest ratings, reviews, comments or reads is Sylva by French author Jean Bruller. First published in 1960-61, the book was translated from the French by Rita Barisse and nominated for the Hugo in 1963. Although the official Hugo Awards page does not list Rita Barisse in its citation of the book, I would argue she deserves the recognition of being named, just as Ken Liu does for his work on Three-Body Problem.

Bruller published the weird, sexual novel under his nom de guerre Vercors.* It’s a story of a man torn between his love for two women, one of whom is a heroin addict, the other is half-human half-fox. It has not aged well.

But even though that novel has been mentioned by only 53 people on Goodreads, it might still not make Sylva the most obscure novel ever to appear on a Hugo shortlist. More than 200 copies are in various libraries in North America. The lack of Goodreads interest might be because it is more often read by Francophone audiences. Additionally, it was the first non-American, non-UK novel to be on the shortlist, and for 50 years remained the only translated novel to be shortlisted – this has at least in recent years made it appear in numerous articles discussing the Three-Body Problem’s historic Hugo Win in 2015.

The third progress report
of the Worldcon in 1956
lists the nominated works
for the Hugo Awards. 
Another good candidate for the most obscure Hugo shortlisted novel might be Michael P. Kube-McDowell’s The Quiet Pools, which was on the ballot in 1992. This little-remembered work appears on the shelves of 80 Goodreads readers. The conflict, which pits those who plan to explore space against those who want to put all their efforts into improving the Earth, is nicely explored, although a bit overwritten and didactic. But Michael P. Kube-McDowell still has his admirers and fans. And although he hasn’t published a new science fiction novel in almost 20 years, he’s still relatively young (63), tweets occasionally (@alternities), and from what I'm given to understand occasionally active in fandom. This makes it harder to judge The Quiet Pools as a truly obscure shortlisted work.

For our money, the most obscure Hugo shortlisted work is Call Him Dead by Erik Frank Russel. It’s
Remember this classic novel?
It was on the Hugo ballot
in 1956.
reviewed by barely 100 people on Goodreads, has no Wikipedia entry, and has been out of print for most of the past 30 years. Only 84 copies exist in North American libraries, according to

It is even omitted from most histories of the Hugo Awards, as many people believe there was no shortlist published in 1956. In fact, the only reference we could find to this work’s appearance on a Hugo shortlist came from reading page 15 of the third progress report of the 1956 Worldcon, which explained that year’s voting process, and listed the nominees.

In fact, a few years ago when Jo Walton** was blogging about previous Hugo novels, her post on the 1956 Hugo Award indicates the lack of a shortlist … and she omits Call Him Dead from her suggested reading list of novels from 1956.

However, the novel was on the ballot, up against more well-known nominees such as Isaac Asimov’s The End Of Eternity, Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow and Cyril Kornbluth’s Not This August. Heinlein, of course, took home his first Hugo that year for Double Star.

Later reissued as Three To Conquer, this book shows clear influences from Heinlein’s The Puppetmasters in a tale of an alien invasion by stealth. Russel, a noted paranormalist and contributor to various Fortean publications, made his alien mind-controlling parasites more subtle than Heinlein’s, and possibly even more chilling. Despite a level of implicit sexism that is occasionally appalling, Call Him Dead is well worth picking up.

Delving into the long history of the Hugo Awards is a good reminder that in any year there are more worthy works than can ever be honoured with the top prize in science fiction. Obscure often does not mean the same thing as low-quality.

In 70 years, one might hope that readers exploring the Wikipedia list** of Hugos will note that A Closed And Common Orbit or The Algebraist received a nod, track down a copy and discover something wonderful.

* This was literally his nom de guerre, as it was his alias when he was fighting as part of the French resistance during the Second World War. 

** Walton's series on past Hugo Awards is a must-read for any serious science fiction fan, as is her book of reviews "What Makes This Book So Great" 

*** Or the list on whatever system supplants Wikipedia.

Thursday 14 September 2017

The runners up for the 1953 Hugo Award

It is interesting to note that on purely technical grounds, there’s a case to be made that The
Galaxy Magazine had a
very good year in 1953.
(Image via Wikipedia)
Demolished Man
should not have received the 1953 Science Fiction Achievement Award.

Bester’s classic novel was first published in the 1952 January, February and March editions of Galaxy Science Fiction. Unlike the modern Hugo Awards, the eligibility of works was not based on the calendar year, but was instead (according to the ballot) works first published between August 1, 1952 and August 1, 1953.

That being said, it’s hard not to see that the high quality of Alfred Bester’s proto-cyberpunk novel helped legitimize the awards that would soon become known as the Hugos.

The Demolished Man is often held up as an example of Worldcon members choosing the most worthy novel of the year — and few would question the quality of this classic.

Well-known fan, Wilson
Tucker is remembered
for The Lincoln Hunters
and his Hugo-shortlisted
Year Of The Quiet Sun.
(Image via Wikipedia)
What is rarely considered, however, is what else might have been on the ballot.

As many fans will know, there was no Hugo shortlist for the first two years the award was offered (1953 and 1955), as there was no nomination process. Instead, for each of those two Worldcons, the third progress report included a ballot with blank spaces in which members could write in the names of their favourites. In each category, the person or work that was written in the most times was given the award. Unlike some subsequent Hugos, there was no qualifying or disqualifying by any committee of judges.

If there had been a nominating process, there’s no way to know for sure what might have been on it, but it’s possible to make a few informed guesses.

At the time of the fourth convention progress report, Wilson “Bob” Tucker’s Long Loud Silence was second in the vote count. The story — a character-driven conflict in a post-apocalyptic U.S. — is notable for its bleakness. It’s hard to root for a protagonist whose goal of getting out of the ruined Eastern U.S. would mean spreading a plague. It is an excellent novel by one of the central figures of early fandom.

For today’s SF fan, it’s surprising to think that both Long Loud Silence and The Demolished Man were ahead of the second volume of Asimov’s original Foundation Trilogy, Foundation and Empire. This is the high point in a series of novels that was named “Best All-Time Series” at the 1966 Hugos, and whose inferior sequel won the 1983 Hugo Award.

Clifford D. Simak’s popular stories about genetically engineered intelligent dogs in a post-humanity
The French translation of City
is called "Tomorrow, the Dogs."
(Image via Goodreads)
world were stitched together into a novel in 1952. Unlike many stitch-ups, City is greater than the sum of its parts, as the doggish introductions and explanations of how these stories fit into their oral history are delightful. The sixth and seventh parts, Hobbies and Aesop, become more than just poetic fables, but an exploration of this new culture, and these new beings who understand the world so much differently than humanity. Simak’s work has clearly influenced generations of writers, and foreshadows such diverse works as David Brin’s Uplift novels and Ian M. Bank’s post-scarcity Culture novels.

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, was serialized in Galaxy Magazine the three months immediately after The Demolished Man, with the final part appearing in the August edition. More successfully than most science fiction of the era, The Space Merchants explores the importance of marketing and corporate influence on societal trends.

It is one of the earliest works to depict a world in which nation states have become secondary to corporate influences — which some might consider a prescient warning. The novel is in some senses a parody, but it’s a parody with a lot of bite. The protagonist, a star copyrighter with an ad agency is at first on one side of an ad campaign, selling the idea of emigration to Venus — and then is forced to live the reality of what he was trying to sell. The language is breezy, but engaging. While the characters are occasionally a bit flat, the book comes alive through well-imagined details like the “United Slime-Mold Protein Workers of Panamerica, Unaffiliated, Chlorella Costa Roca Local.” There’s a good chance that this would have been at the top of our ballots, had we been able to travel to Philadelphia in 1953.

Looking back on the quality of science fiction that was published in 1952 and 1953, one can understand why the organizers of the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia chose to introduce an award recognizing excellence.

In any given year, there are probably more Hugo-worthy novels published than can ever earn the award, and 1953 is no exception. Had the administrators of the first award decided that The Demolished Man was ineligible, fans would have had no shortage of excellent options to hand the trophy to.

Friday 8 September 2017

The science fiction art of Erik Nitsche

Erik Nitsche in 1996 at his
induction into the ADC hall of
fame (Image via

There was no Hugo Award given for Best Artist in 1957 at the 15th Worldcon in London. But since awards were given in other categories, there is no provision in the current rules of the WSFS constitution to award any Retro Hugos for that year. Which is a shame, because some of the finest work from one of the most innovative graphic designers of the era had started verging into the realm of science fiction in 1955 and 1956.

The name Erik Nitsche is rarely brought up in conversations of science fiction, but is well-known to historians of graphic design. In 1955, the Swiss-born designer had been hired by General Dynamics to create promotional imagery for the organization’s annual International Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (ICPUAE).

Given that many of these uses were purely theoretical (or classified military secrets), Nitsche had to conceptualize what these peaceful uses would look like. The results are a body of work that is deeply science fictional, imaginative, and well realized.

As he explained at the time, “I’m working with fantasy, with an idealistic image of the future, in which we are more or less involved.”

Servodynamics, 1956
Image via International Posters
A technically gifted painter and photographer, Nitsche was the son of two artists. He had studied in Switzerland, and worked as an advertising designer in Chicago. He had worked on Hollywood movies and on military brochures to help American soldiers recognize Nazi iconography during the Second World War.

Although he had been previously known for detailed and accurate representational work with Bauhaus influences, Nitsche produced dozens of poster designs from 1955-1960 that delved into the semi-abstract and conceptual.

His first dozen posters — produced for the first ICPUAE held in 1955 in Geneva — were vivid and bold works that offered visions of atomic-powered space planes (Astrodynamics, 1955) and genetic engineering (Radiation Dynamics, 1955). For the second ICPUAE in Washington in 1956, Nitsche’s vision was refined as he imagined the manipulation of the very basic forces of the universe (Basic Forces, 1956 and Servodynamics, 1956).

Nitsche’s understanding of the future is aligned with that of the technocratic school of hard science fiction. One can draw a straight line between Heinlein’s electro-gravatic technology from the novel Sixth Column and the way the very forces of nature bend to humanity’s will in Nitsche’s Atoms For Peace (1955).
Worlds Without End, 1958
Image via

Although in his later career he returned to more formal works, I would argue that Erik Nitsche is a name that belongs alongside those of Frank Kelly Freas, Virgil Finlay, and Ed Emshwiller as one of the greatest artists of science fiction.

His contributions to the genre are important. If there’s ever a decision to offer a 1957 Retro Hugo for Best Artist, it would be a good chance to recognize his contributions to the genre.

A selection of some of Erik Nitsche work.
Image via Pinterest

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Review: The Stars Are Legion

Challenging and unsettling, The Stars Are Legion might not be to everyone’s taste. But it is
(Image via
impossible to deny the inventiveness and scope of Kameron Hurley’s ambitious novel. 

Set set in a bioengineered fleet of rival world-sized organic spacecraft inhabited by a multitude of societies, The Stars Are Legion is narrated by Zan, a soldier with amnesia, and Jayn a member of an aggressive and violent ruling class, as they undertake an ambitious plan that may hold the key to the fleet’s salvation. 

The overall arc of the story remains unclear for most of the first 150 pages as the chapters narrated by Zan are clouded by her amnesia, and those narrated by Jayn are clouded by ulterior motives, and what some of our group considered unsubtle foreshadowing. This is a book that builds slowly, layering the narrative with concepts as it builds towards a rewarding payoff.  

The fleet of worlds in which the story takes place are made of biological technology, but not the relatively clean biotech that most science fiction readers will be familiar with. This is diseased, rotting, ugly biological technology, and because of this, The Stars Are Legion is less space opera than it is body horror. Almost every page seems bathed in bodily fluids in a way that made even the most hardened of our group feel squeamish. 

As a Tiptree Award List alum, and the author of the Geek Feminist Revolution and God's War, it
The geek feminist revolutionary,
Kameron Hurley.
(Image via
should come as no surprise that Hurley continues to explore and challenge notions of gender. This work presents a diverse cast of female characters, but whether it fits as a work of feminist or queer fiction could be questioned as the societies depicted have no conception of masculinity or patriarchy. The Stars Are Legion is a world inhabited only be women, where the very concept of men is lost to the ages.

What is more interesting is the exploration of body horror, consensuality, and freedom, as the people who populate these organic world ships have their bodies used as breeding devices to birth both new generations of workers and the spare parts used by the world ships to repair themselves, becoming spontaneously impregnated by unknowable forces. Meditations on free will abound, not only because inhabitants are inexorably part of and trapped within the biological systems of their worlds, but also because the protagonists are swept along their conspiracy, unable to break free of their own machinations.

The language of the book, while not particularly varied, is effective and evocative. This book shines brightest when delving into the grotesque, such as the series of truly horrific yet fascinating scenes in which the core of the world - effectively it's digestive system - is explored as a character is discarded for "recycling" from the more civilized levels above by a rival invading force.

Some members questioned whether there was too little distinction in tone and language in the alternating first-person narratives, but others considered it a very successfully executed novel. Regardless, The Stars Are Legion will definitely be near the top our nominating ballots. It’s just too brilliantly inventive a novel to ignore.