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.


  1. Have a lot of suggestions for other novels of the year:

    -- Michael Walsh

    1. I really enjoyed Jo Walton's series of blog posts on the past Hugos, but her selections for Hugos 1953 are based on the calendar year of 1952, not the actual eligibility period for those awards.