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Not A Book Review – My thoughts on “Hugo Award Hindsight” stories

Bottom Line: I recently did a post on “Hugo Award Hindsight“, stories that I concluded should have won Hugo Awards but did not between 1953 and 2000. This started with consideration of Jo Walton’s 2018 “An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953–2000”, which started as posts and comments at that led to the book. I just finished reading a few days ago the “Hugo Award Hindsight” stories that I had not read recently or ever. My overall, average rating for these 18 stories was a very good 4.12/5, which on my scale is definitely into “Superlative”. This was not a surprise to me, but it was fun to discover some great stories I had never read or heard of.

The Story: As noted in “Hugo Awards Hindsight”, Jo Walton wrote a great book, “An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953–2000” (2018, Tor). This book was based upon posts that she made at the website in 2010 and 2011, and upon expert comments by Gardner Dozois and Rich Horton.

I looked at the book and the posts and decided that I could identify a group of stories that I thought should have won Hugo Awards but did not by using the information in the book and on the website including the comments.

I grouped stories that a) were explicitly identified by Jo Walton, Gardner Dozois or Rich Horton as “should have won” or something like that, and b) had at least two out of three of them in agreement on that story.

I came up with 18 stories, as noted in “Hugo Award Hindsight”:

  1. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”, Roger Zelazny, SS (Walton, Horton & Dozois) 1964
  2. “Light of Other Days, Bob Shaw, SS (Horton, Dozois) 1966
  3. “The Star Pit”, Samuel R. Delany, SS (Dozois, Horton) 1967
  4. “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, Gene Wolfe NA (Dozois, Horton) 1972
  5. “Nobody’s Home”, Joanna Russ, SS (Dozois, Horton) 1972
  6. “Strangers”, Gardner Dozois, NA (Walton, Horton) 1974
  7. “The Eyeflash Miracles”, Gene Wolfe NA (Horton, Dozois) 1976
  8. “In The Hall of the Martian Kings”, John Varley, NA (Walton, Dozois and maybe Horton) 1977
  9. “The Screwfly Solution”, James Tiptree, Jr., NV (Walton, Dozois) 1977
  10. “Air Raid”, John Varley, SS (Walton, Horton, Dozois) 1977
  11. “Seven American Nights”, Gene Wolfe NA (Horton, Dozois)
  12. “The Very Slow Time Machine”, Ian Watson, SS (Walton, Horton) 1978
  13. “Slow Music”, James Tiptree, Jr., NA (Dozois, Horton) 1980
  14. “Hardfought”, Greg Bear, NA (Horton, Dozois) 1983
  15. “The Unconquered County”, Geoff Ryman, NA (Dozois, Horton) 1984
  16. “The Blind Geometer”, Kim Stanley Robinson, NA (Walton, Dozois) 1987
  17. “Great Work of Time”, John Crowley, NA (Horton, Dozois) 1989
  18. “Forgiveness Day”, Ursula K. Le Guin, NA (Horton, Dozois) 1994

Looking at these 18 stories, there were 9 that I had either never read, had not read recently or did not remember reading but had probably read. For stories that I had read recently (since I joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook in summer 2020), I did not reread those 9 stories.

Reading the other 9 was a lot of fun.

There were 5 stories that I discovered I had read before, generally a long time ago, but did not remember, either at all or with no real detail. These were:

  1. “In The Hall of the Martian Kings”, John Varley
  2. “The Screwfly Solution”, James Tiptree, Jr.
  3. “Slow Music”, James Tiptree, Jr.
  4. “The Unconquered Country”, Geoff Ryman
  5. “Forgiveness Day”, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Apparently, I had never read:

  1. “Strangers”, Gardner Dozois (It is not surprising I had never read this, with only one reprint since the original appearance in “New Dimensions IV”. My deepest thanks to NESFA and NESFA Press for the 2001 “Strange Days: Fabulous Journeys with Gardner Dozois” collection, it’s only the reprint. NESFA and their books are always worth a look see.)
  2. “The Eyeflash Miracles”, Gene Wolfe`
  3. “The Very Slow Time Machine”, Ian Watson
  4. “The Blind Geometer”, Kim Stanley Robinson.

My overall rating for these 18 stories was a superlative 4.12/5. I am really glad I read the 9 stories that I had not read recently or ever. The next two stories brought this average down slightly for me:

  1. “The Star Pit”, by Samual R. Delany, which I rated a “good” 3.5/5.
  2. “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, by Gene Wolfe, which I rated a “very good” 3.7/5.

I realize that these are both considered to be classics by many people, but I was not as enthralled. I would not have voted for these two stories for Hugo Awards, but that is just personal taste.

Detailed Reviews and Comments, in order of release (SPOILERS FOLLOW):

  1.  “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”, a short story by Roger Zelazny, F&SF 11/1963. A great story, HOF, a classic. Protagonist is an asshole, but does change. He goes to Mars as a poet and translator, and is used by the surviving Martian females to breed and revitalize the race. Rated 5/5.
  2. “Light of Other Days”, a short story by Bob Shaw, Analog, 8/1966. This is one of the stories where I know what it is about, and I remember the emotional impact issues when I read it. Regardless of that, it’s still a lovely story with one of the biggest emotional impacts of any short SF/fantasy story I have ever read. The key is slow glass – a made up glass that can display pictures from the past, with how many years of the past variable. I do like the characters of the glass buyer and his wife – neither of them is very appealing in some ways, but they feel very real to me. Yeah, it should have won some awards that year, but I do think this would be up for SF HOF consideration if anyone were to revisit that. Classic! Emotional impact and straightforward narrative. I rated this 4.9/5.
  3. “The Star Pit”, a short story by Samuel R. Delany, Worlds of Tomorrow, February 1967. Interesting story, and it makes a bit more sense the 2nd time through. An immature and damaged man flees/is kicked out of a group marriage, and ends up in the Star Pit, where he tries to help others in the end. Golden insane people that can leave the galaxy. Just not my favorite. Rated 3.5/5.
  4. “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, a novella by Gene Wolfe, 1972, Orbit 10. This is where I show my shallowness as a reader of SF. For me, this leans rather more towards the literary end of SF. Great writing here, interesting characters and setting, and a very gradual (but hinted) reveal on the clones. I did enjoy “Mr. Million”. At the same time, I found the story dragging a bit. I found the drugged interviews rather opaque in terms of why they were happening, although I agree that the search for identity was in play. This is definitely where Wolfe first showed what a great writer he would be but the story is not among the best of all time for me. Rated 3.7/5.
  5. “Nobody’s Home”, a short story by Joanna Russ, New Dimensions II: Eleven Original Science Fiction Stories, 1972. I think I’m with Rich Horton on this one. I love this story. It certainly seems to be a much more New Age narrative and structure. I really liked the integration of the teleportation with a post-scarcity society, and also liked how the society was sketched out. The discussion of what to do with “Leslie Smith”, how she comes into the story, and why she does not fit is rather heart-breaking. Rated 4.1/5.
  6. “Strangers”, a novella by Gardner Dozois, New Dimensions IV, 1972. A story that is hard to find, with only a reprint in the NESFA retrospective “Strange Days.” I’m sure Dozois was too modest to say anything in the “Revisiting the Hugo” discussion for Jo Walton, but I agree with Horton and Walton that this story should have won a Hugo. A dense, engaging and horrific story of love, death and life on a distant planet. An Earth man marries a humanoid native from a very private culture. With help from the superior biosciences of that culture, she becomes pregnant. Things turn out badly. Hugo finalist. I rated this 4.2/5.
  7. “The Eyeflash Miracles”, a novella by Gene Wolfe, Future Power, 1976. This is one hell of an interesting story. A little boy is blind and on the road. He meets Nitty and Mr. Parker. Miracles occur around him at times, and sometimes he is somewhere else and can see. His father reappears to and he hears that he may be the result of genetic modification. Very interesting style and content , with great characters. I can see why both Horton and Dozois loved this story. Nebula finalist, Locus #5. I rated this 4/5.
  8. “In The Hall of the Martian Kings”, a novella by John Varley, F&SF 2/1977. I assume I had read this before in Varley’s “A Persistence of Vision” but don’t remember it. A great story of a crew of Mars explorers, accidental death and an inability to return home, survival, and Martians. A totally different take on the same subject as Andy Weir’s “The Martians”, with a smidge of Leiber”s “A Pail of Air.” Hugo runner-up. I rated this 3.9/5.
  9. “The Screwfly Solution”, a novelette by James Tiptree, Jr., Analog, 6/1977. I believe I own and had read this issue of Analog in 1977, but I remembered very little 45 years later. Wow. This is a scary, superlative story of the end of the human race by biological jiggering of the adjacency of sexual and violence urges in men by an alien species, leading to the killing of all women. Outstanding writing, voices and characters. A great and chilling last sentence in the book, regarding the aliens, “I think I saw a real estate agent” for those who will take the planet. Nebula winner, Locus runner-up, and #3 Hugo. I agree it should have won. I rated this 4.3/5.
  10. “Air Raid”, a short story by John Varley, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Spring 1977. Wow. A powerful story, still as good as ever. A dying, threatened future, with people mutated and degraded, uses time travel to extract people from the past who will die anyway (airplane crash, say). The extracted people will be put on a starship to hopefully help the human race survive on Alpha Centauri. The story is of one such raid/rescue. Hugo, Nebula, Locus nominee. Dozois Best Of. Rated 4.1/5.
  11. “Seven American Nights”, a novella by Gene Wolfe, Orbit 20, 1978. A great story of an Iranian visiting a ruined US, after it’s downfall. He has an affair with an American actress, but realizes she may be deformed or horrific as well. The story is framed as a partial diary of his visit to the US, delivered to his family who still hope he is alive. Nebula, Hugo, Locus nominee, Dozois and Carr Year’s Best. Rated 4/5.
  12. “The Very Slow Time Machine”, a short story by Ian Watson, Anticipations, 1978. An outstanding story of very slow time travel, perhaps. A man may be God, or crazy, as a time traveler. Definitely an unreliable narrator going backwards and forwards. This felt rather post-modern, although not as incoherent as some. Hugo finalist. I rated it 4.1/5.
  13. “Slow Music”, a novella by James Tiptree”, Jr., Interfaces, 1980. Wow. A very different Tiptree story, very gentle and ultimately sad. Some kind of interstellar “River” has been sweeping through Earth, allowing people to join the River and live forever in a different way. The last man on Earth is journeying to the River to say goodbye to his father. He meets perhaps the last woman on Earth who wants to stay and repopulate the Earth. I know I read this in “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” about 30 years ago, but I don’t remember it. Rated 4/5.
  14. “Hardfought”, a novella by Greg Bear, Asimov’s, 2/1983. Wow. One hell of a story of far future conflict, with lovers who will always be together. Two races that become more alike as time passes. A phenomenal story, Nebula winner, Hugo runner-up, Locus #5, Dozois and Carr Best Of. I don’t think I’d ever read this before. Rated 4.1/5.
  15. “The Unconquered Country”, a novella by Geoff Ryman, Interzone, #7 Spring 1984. A great story, and one I did not remember previously read; looking around, I have the pb copy of the novel, which is very, very, very similar to this story, so I guess I have. A younger sister, Third, lived in a country which has never been conquered by others. That changes, and Third’s life improves (with a boyfriend/fiancée), and then gets worse (boyfriend dies). Finally, the rebels win, in some ways, and Third goes home. I love the writing and the characters. I am not sure if this is SF or fantasy, and maybe it does not matter. Rated 3.9/5.
  16. “The Blind Geometer”, a novella by Kim Stanley Robinson. An outstanding story of a blind from birth mathematician, involved in a plot against his will, who finds love. The plotters are hoping to use his geometric skills to draw power for a particle beam weapon. I assume Robinson did massive research on being blind and living blind. I see from the pb afterword by Robinson that this was set in an imaginary Cambodia, which was not obvious to me reading it. Nebula winner, Hugo #3,  Locus runner-up. I rated this 4/5.
  17. “Great Work of Time”, a novella by John Crowley, Novelty, 1989. This just became one of my favorite time travel stories. A secret brotherhood founded with funds from the estate of Cecil Rhodes is bent on world peace and the British Empire. They use a genius’s “orthogonal logic” for time travel in support of these goals. In the end, it all comes to naught as the future world is not one that should ever have existed and must be undone. Great plot and characters. Wow. I am not going to claim that the issues in play are novel, but the execution is astounding. World Fantasy Award, Nebula and Locus finalist. Dozois Year’s Best. Rated 4.3/5.
  18. “Forgiveness Day”, a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, Asimov’s, 11/1994. I am sure I have read this great story before, either in the 1985 Le Guin collection “Four Ways to Forgiveness” or the Dozois 2007 “Best of the Best Vol 2…”. A young representative of the Ekumen and her Werel bodyguard are kidnapped by revolutionaries. He is a very conservative soldier who fought the Yeowe asset revolution and survived, while his wife died on Werel. They must figure out how to get along to survive. Great characters and plot. Gender roles are a challenge to both. Locus and Sturgeon winner, Hugo and Nebula finalist. I rated this 4/5.

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