Thursday, 7 December 2017

Retro Hugos 1943: Novels

It was with no small degree of excitement that we greeted the news that there would be Retro Hugo awards presented at next summer’s Worldcon. Just on principle, we love Retro Hugos, and will take any opportunity to do a deep dive into the science fiction published in a particular year. The Hugo year of 1943 (which would cover works published in 1942) has some excellent novels to choose from. We will explore other fiction categories for these awards in later posts. 

Legendary science fiction pioneer Olaf Stapledon has never been nominated for a Hugo
Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) has
never been nominated for any
Hugo Awards.
(Image via Futurism.com)
Award in any category. The author of Last and First Men, Star Maker, and Odd John had published most of his major works prior to the first Worldcon, so even with Retro Hugos, there hasn’t been much opportunity to honour his works with the genre’s top award. Although Darkness And The Light is not one of his most well-remembered works, and although it has some flaws, it is still one that should be considered for the award.

In his previous books, Stapledon had created epic narratives about the long-term future of humanity. These are beautiful, idealistic, and sweeping stories, but as Robert Silverberg noted at last summer’s Worldcon “In The Last And First Men, every time Stapledon makes a prediction about the future, he gets it wrong.” By 1942, events had overtaken Stapledon’s most famous works. He had failed to predict the Second World War and Darkness And The Light is his response to this omission.

In Darkness And The Light, he charts two divergent paths for humanity, one that leads to a destructive and controlling empire which flickers out and dies, the other a “Tibetan Renaissance” and an eventual utopian revolution. Neither of these futures is as well developed as those in his previous works, and the writing seems more trepidatious than one might expect from an author who wrote inaccurate predictions with fearless confidence in Last And First Men.

Even if it is sadly one of Stapledon’s lesser works, the book still warrants an inclusion on our nominating ballots.

Patron saint of the Hugo Awards Robert A. Heinlein’s first novel was serialized in April and May of
We love Vincent Di Fate's cover art
from the 1979 Signet edition of
Beyond This Horizon.
(Image via Amazon.com)
1942. Beyond This Horizon is a comedic novel in which a man who is genetically near-perfect struggles to find meaning in his life in a utopian society that has solved poverty, want, and greed. While the weird social mores of this future society include a libertarian attitude toward firearms and sex, their economic system is something between communism and fascism, though without the coercive oppression that these systems have often used in the real world. In many ways, it is unlike anything else Heinlein would ever publish — David Brin provocatively describes Beyond This Horizon as "Heinlein's most fascinating novel." 

Many of his more utopian ideas from the book look naïve in retrospect, but Heinlein got some interesting details right about the future. He managed to describe a device that closely resembles an internet-connected personal computer, alludes to the atomic bomb years before it was realized, predicted the waterbed, and even offered the rise of video game arcades as a plot point.

The first half of the book sees the protagonist Hamilton Felix swept up in an authoritarian plot by people disenchanted with utopia, while the second half features the birth and childhood of Hamilton’s messianic superkid. There’s an odd side plot about a man from 1926 who is unfrozen and introduced to this new world, though he seems only to exist so Heinlein can explain his ideas to a modern audience.

Revolution, freedom, tyranny, telepathy, and economics are all themes that Heinlein would explore more thoroughly and successfully later in his career. Although Beyond This Horizon is a deeply flawed, scattered book that seems to meander in a variety of directions, it’s one that is hard not to love for its optimism and joyfulness.

We’d like to see it get a nomination, but there are much more artful works that should be considered for the award.

For Hugo voters who are of the Christian faith, one might suspect that C.S. Lewis’
C.S. Lewis writes some of the most
memorable — and old-school —
devils in fiction.
(Image via Bristol Radical History)
classic apologetic text The Screwtape Letters will hold particularly strong appeal. Like Beyond This Horizon, it is a comedic novel with a prescriptivist view about the world, however, it is far more focused, direct, and structured.

The work takes the form of 31 letters from a demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, whose job is to tempt a middle-class British man towards a life of evil. Every letter highlights Lewis’ views on morality, and what he sees as the consequences of straying from the Church.

Every novel Lewis wrote had significant Christian religious themes – from Aslan’s resurrection to the importance of theology in his Space trilogy – but The Screwtape Letters is one of his most overtly theological. What made The Screwtape Letters such a successful book is that the narrative framework allowed Lewis to use humour to make his point. Writing from the demon's perspective, the book doesn’t come across as preachy. It's an extremely clever way to write about theology. The Screwtape Letters is an excellent bridge between Lewis' apologetic essays and his fantasy fiction, as it's written like a series of essays but viewed through a lens of fantasy.

Even those who don’t share Lewis’ faith are likely to be impressed with the quality of his writing, his wry wit, and the charm of this novel. This is a novel that deserves strong consideration for the Hugo award, and it is almost unthinkable to have a 1943 shortlist that does not include it.

But there was some debate within our book club about whether The Screwtape Letters should be the winner, or whether the award should instead be given to Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi horror classic Donovan’s Brain. This evocative and moody classic of the sub-genre about a disembodied brain with malicious intentions has been adapted to the radio multiple times, turned into a movie on no fewer than three occasions, and heavily praised by Stephen King in his Hugo-winning non-fiction tome on the horror genre Dance Macabre.

The protagonist, Dr. Patrick Cory, is a researcher who saves the brain of criminal millionaire
Steve Martin parodied Donovan's Brain
in his 1983 film The Man With Two Brains.
(Image via EmpireOnline.com)
W.H. Donovan after a plane crash. The brain, sitting in a glass jar, connected to wires, has no sensory inputs, and no way to communicate. But soon, Cory begins to realize that he is being controlled by the mental powers of the brain. First he is forced to write names he knows nothing about, writing with his left hand although he is right handed. Then, he starts to discover that he’s doing things in his sleep … terrible things, and committing terrible crimes beyond his control. What compounds the creeping sense of dread is the horror of metacognitive discomfort the protagonist feels as his thoughts are taken over by the will of Donovan’s disembodied brain.

For several of our book club members, our first experience of Donovan’s Brain was from the superb 1944 Orson Welles radio production, which effectively conveys the creeping terror of Dr. Cory’s slow loss of personal agency. The tone and tenor of that production is so rich that reading the book decades later, one can hear Welles’ somber intonation in every line.

One of the challenges that Retro Hugo voters often have is how influential some older works have been – if you read Donovan’s Brain for the first time in 2017, many of the writing techniques and ideas may seem overdone, or overly familiar because so many of us are familiar with the works inspired by the original.

Donovan’s Brain is one of the defining works of horror and is a work of science fiction that would be a worthy addition to the ranks of Hugo Award Winners. Works like this are one of the reasons we love the Retro Hugos, and we hope that it is on the final ballot.

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