Monday 10 August 2020

Moving Forward on Looking Backwards

Among the controversies to emerge from this year’s Worldcon was the honouring of two disgraced
Say what you will about the
honourees, these are some of
the nicest-looking Hugo bases
ever designed. 
(Image via
former titans of the genre, as both John W. Campbell Jr. and H.P. Lovecraft were selected to receive a Retro Hugo for the year 1945.

Their malignant racism is well documented, and does not need to be re-litigated here. Instead, we would like to take the regrettable outcome of these two awards as a case example of structural biases inherent in the Retro Hugo Awards.

The Retros Hugos sometimes stumble. It is worth asking whether they should continue, and if so what form they should take.

Retro History

The original proposal for the Retro Hugos came from long-time SFF fan Bruce Pelz during the lead-up to the 1996 Worldcon in Los Angeles. The Retros were initially intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1946 Worldcon which had also been held in Los Angeles. Pelz initially proposed that Retro Hugos would only be presented if a Worldcon was happening in the exact same place on a 50th or 100th anniversary.

The location requirement was dropped during debate because it was felt to be too restrictive. But it was still not anticipated that the Retro Hugos would become something that was done on a regular basis.

Here's what Pelz said in 1993 while introducing the idea of Retro Hugos: "I expect the idea to be pretty much a Funny-Once, and that other Worldcons will not want to try this. But with a 1946-1996 Opportunity, I would like to be able to try it at least once."

To date, Retro Hugos have been awarded on eight occasions. According to the WSFS constitution, they can only be awarded on the 50th, 75th or 100th anniversary of a year in which the Hugo Awards themselves did not occur.

Of the eight Retros, three were on the 50th anniversaries, and five have been on the 75th anniversaries.
Bruce Pelz speaking at Noreascon One. 
(Photo by Jay Klein via
Looking at the lists of finalists, it seems evident that there is a difference between the awards at the 50-year mark (1946, 1951, 1954) and the awards presented at the 75-year mark. That additional 25 years of distance in the cultural memory is significant; it is not particularly unusual for a fan to attend two Worldcons 50 years apart, but it is almost unheard of for someone to attend conventions 75 years apart. The prospect of awards given out to works a full century after they were published — as might occur in 2040 — gives us trepidation.

Structural Biases

Because they are voted on primarily by people who were born decades after the original publication dates, the Retro Hugos are less likely to recognize work that has not been reprinted. This means that the average Retro Hugo voter inevitably experiences the works they’re voting on through a filter created by the intervening generations. 

Additionally, it is impossible for Retro Hugo voters to be unaware of what various writers might
Even if you can travel in time like the folk
from Journey Galactic, it's difficult to 
experience the stories in their original context.
(Image via Hugo Book Club Blog)
accomplish later in their careers. When Robert A. Heinlein’s debut novel Beyond This Horizon was on the Retro Hugo ballot, could any of us consider it without being aware of his long career and relevance to the field?

The effects of these systemic biases will naturally be most pronounced in the categories in which it is most challenging for the average Hugo voter to make an informed decision: the editing category, and the best series award.

The Invisible Editor

The value of talented editors can not be overstated. One only needs to look at the “Un-Edited” editions of Stranger In A Strange Land and The Stand to see that the professional editors who worked with Robert A. Heinlein and Stephen King made significant changes to these iconic novels. But other than these few examples where we can compare the texts, the value added by the editor is usually invisible to the reader. This presents a significant challenge to Hugo Award voters who take the task seriously.

With contemporaneous Hugos, we often rely on word of mouth and on reputation to make informed decisions, as well as a general awareness of what works those editors have had a hand in. But given the nature of the Retro Hugo Awards, the people who have worked with the editors nominated for the award aren’t around to inform the discussion. Thus, votes are cast based on little more than historical reputation.

The invisibility of editors’ work is a significant exacerbating factor to the reputational biases of the Retro Hugos. No matter how flawed a historical nominee may be, when voters don’t have the tools to judge the nominees work, name recognition becomes paramount.

Unintended Consequences

When the Retro Hugos were first conceived in the early 1990s, the Hugo for Best Series was not a consideration because that category did not exist. More recently, in all the WSFS business meeting debates surrounding the creation of a Hugo for Best Series, we cannot find one reference to how the new category would be handled in the Retro Hugos.

The Retro Hugo for Best Series therefore seems like an unintended consequence of multiple rule changes.

The amount of reading that Hugo voters need to do to make informed votes in the best series category is an issue that has been brought up repeatedly in discussions of this category. This reading burden is exacerbated when trying to make informed votes about long-out-of-print series.

If there’s a series on the Retro Hugo ballot that is still inspiring works in the new millennium, that series will have an obvious advantage, even if the works written 75 years ago were racist, misogynist, and mediocre.

A Silver Lining

The selection of H.P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell Jr. as Retro Hugo recipients in 2020 has
On its original publication, Leigh Brackett's
Shadow Over Mars was in Starling Stories.
The fact that editor Oscar J. Friend
commissioned Virgil Finlay to illustrate the
story is an indication of the high regard
readers had for Leigh Brackett's writing.
(Image via
unfortunately overshadowed several ways in which the 1945 Retro Hugo awards have been successful.

The recognition of Leigh Brackett as a foundational figure in science fiction by awarding her the Best Novel award and Best Related Work award for 1945 will help ensure her work continues to be read. Recognizing the work of Margaret Brundage in the Best Professional Artist category is an excellent move by Hugo voters, and overdue. Significant credit for these successes should be paid to fan writer Cora Buhlert for her efforts over the past year to elevate the level of debate and dialogue surrounding the Retro Hugos.

Moving Forward on Looking Backward

There will be no Retro Hugos in 2021, given that the 1946 Retros were handed out at L.A. Con III in 1996. This is good because it gives the Worldcon community a chance to pause and reassess the value of continuing these retrospective awards.

The distorted perspective of voters who are living 75 years removed from the context of the matter being voted on means that some Hugo categories don’t work very well for the Retro Hugos. Is it time to abandon some categories in the Retro Hugos?

Additionally, when applied to works from a time before living memory, the Hugo nomination process seems to draw in works that have no business being celebrated: one can point to last year’s Retro Hugo-shortlisted movie Batman (1944). It’s a racist dumpster fire that deserves to be forgotten. Perhaps due to the nature of the award, different nomination rules for Retro Hugos should be considered?

Or perhaps the Retros can be salvaged through the work of bloggers like Buhlert, and by engaging a broader swath of Hugo voters in discussions about the less-savory aspects of fannish history.

For the Retro Hugos to be relevant and worthwhile awards, we as members of the World Science Fiction Society need to wrestle with why the awards need to exist. Is their intent to reproduce the racist tastes of the past or can they help focus a critical lens on the history of the genre and help us discover works that might have been overlooked?

There is a way to re-envision the Retro Hugos as progressive and constructive. We must look forward on looking backward, but that will take effort and commitment. If we aren’t willing to put in that effort, perhaps 2020 should be the last time Retro Hugos are presented. 


  1. This post is so good, so well argued.

  2. I largely agree with what you say here, noting only that despite Campbell's clear shortcomings as a man, and acknowledging that even as an editor, his influence was not always good, it is hard to see that anyone else could have been honestly chosen as Best Editor of 1944. Just as we should, for example, recognize Robert E. Lee for the racist and traitor that he was, we should still be able to acknowledge that he was a pretty good General.

    I've been making many of these points -- especially about the ignorance of current fans about what was good back then -- for years. And, ahem, there ARE other people who have read 1944 magazines cover to cover! For instance me.

    1. One of the things that I took away from Alec Nevala-Lee's book is that people aren't fixed points; the person that Campbell was in 1944 is not the same person he was in 1964. Over time, fame enabled him to become the worst possible version of himself.

      And I'm sorry that my co-writers and I made the joke about how few people have actually read a 1944 pulp magazine cover-to-cover. That line has annoyed a few people (such as Mike Glyer).