The Retro Hugo Awards must be fixed

Last year's Hugo Awards were so full of fun and screams that we just had to do it again, with the deadline to nominate works for the 2016 Hugos only a few days away. Already the drama has shifted into high gear with people arguing over nominations, engaging in name-calling, and debating whether or not recommendations are truly slates in disguise.

However, there's always more gasoline to throw onto a genre bonfire, so I want to raise an issue which hasn't yet been screamed about.

Namely: The current system by which nominations are made for the Retro Hugo Awards is a mess and must be fixed!

Retro Hugos? you ask. What the hell are those?

The Retro Hugos honor science fiction and fantasy stories and works from either 75 or 100 years ago when no Hugo Awards were given out. This means current members of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) are nominating for two different sets of Hugo Awards. The first is for works published last year, meaning the regular Hugos. The second or Retro Hugos are for works first published in 1940.

Before I proceed to my rant, know this: I think the Retro Hugos are a great idea. I love how the Retro Hugos seek to honor and highlight great works from our genre's long history. The awards are part history lesson and part memorial. We can't have a healthy genre without knowing our genre's history, so in that respect the Retro Hugos are a net positive.

However, despite these lofty ideals the Retro Hugos have descended into a crap shoot of a nomination process where only the most insider of genre insiders can take part.

Sure, everyone who is eligible to nominate for the Hugo Awards can also nominate for the Retro Hugos. But have you tried to actually nominate stories for the Retro Hugos? Think that's easy? Then quick, name some outstanding stories and authors from 1940. And if you can name them try to locate the eligible stories and authors so you can read them.

Not so easy, is it? I spent the last two weeks tracking down and reading eligible stories from 1940. I have access to two world-class library systems and a personal collection of Golden Age SF/F magazines. I'm also a bit of a genre history buff, so I'm familiar with the authors and stories and editors who are eligible for this year's Retro Hugos.

Despite all those advantages I still struggled to nominate works for the Retro Hugos. I also spent more time tracking down the stories and authors than I spent actually reading their works. I took the time to do this because I'm passionate about the Hugos, but I can easily see why most people wouldn't bother.

And because more people don't bother, only a small group of people will nominate for the Retro Hugos. That results in the nominated stories and authors having a good chance of not representing our genre's true history.

This brings me to the first thing Worldcon should do to fix the Retro Hugos: Make sure e-book editions of eligible works are available to all people nominating for the Retro Hugos.

E-book editions of eligible stories should be a no-brainer. And yes, a step toward something like this has already been taken in the genre, with groups putting together collections of public domain short stories published in 1940 (File 770 has a nice link to all the stories). In addition, Amazing Stories did a good roundup of the authors and editors and fiction eligible for the award. But all of that only scratches the surface of what's out there. And merely having the title of an eligible work means crap if you can't read that work.

If any particular Worldcon wants to give out Retro Hugos, then e-book and/or online anthologies of eligible authors and stories must be made available to those nominating for the awards. And that must include works which are not in the public domain. Yes, it would take time to do this but I imagine most publishers and/or author estates would be willing to make the stories available for members at no cost.

But even if voters have access to stories from decades ago, it's still unlikely that as many people will take part in the Retro Hugo nominating process as takes part in nominating for the regular Hugos. This, unfortunately, leaves the Retro Hugos open to missing important works and to being gamed.

To fix this here's my next suggestion: Use a combination of juries and regular Worldcon members to nominate works for the Retro Hugos. 

I know juries seem like the ultimate insider power play, but when you're dealing with stories published 75 or 100 years ago it can be useful to have experts in that genre time period also nominating stories. Perhaps the jury could nominate two of the five works in each category, and Worldcon members could nominate three of five. This also seems like a sensible way to make sure the nominated stories are truly the best that year has to offer.

And every Worldcon member would still be able to vote for the overall winner from the final Retro Hugo ballot.

The third thing Worldcon must do to make the Retro Hugos more credible is to give Retro Hugos for every year the original Hugos were not given out.

For example, did you know that while we're voting on stories originally published in 1940, under Worldcon rules you won't ever be able to vote for any SF/F stories published between 1941 and 1944 even though no Hugo Awards were given out in those years?

This is due to the inane way the Retro Hugo Awards are set up. Instead of giving out Hugo Awards for any year in which the Hugos weren't awarded, the "WSFS Constitution gives Worldcons the right to award Hugos for a year 50, 75 or 100 years in the past, provided only that there was a Worldcon in that year but no Hugos Award election happened that year."

This year is 75 years after the 1941 Worldcon, which didn't award any Hugos for works published in 1940. But due to World War II there were no Worldcons held in the years 1942 to 1945, meaning no Retro Hugos for those years even though no Hugo Awards were originally given out.

Which is a shame. While 1940 saw the publication of a number of genre classics, the following years were truly the start of the Golden Age of SF. But until Worldcon changes their rules the World War II years will remain a Hugo Award no-go time zone.

So to fix the Retro Hugos and make the awards truly accessible and representative of our genre, Worldcon should:

  • Make sure e-book editions of eligible works are available to all people nominating for the Retro Hugos.
  • Use a combination of juries and regular Worldcon members to nominate works.
  • Give Retro Hugos for every year the original Hugos were not given out.

This should be an issue which unites the genre community. After all, one complaint of last year's puppy campaign was that the Hugo Awards were an insider's game and too easily controlled by a small group within fandom. While I personally don't believe that complaint was true about the current Hugo Awards, it is a fair summary of the Retro Hugos.

Our genre's history belongs to all of us. Worldcon should ensure the Retro Hugos also represent everyone, not merely those few with the knowledge and resources to nominate works from decades ago.

Bonus: My Retro Hugo Ballot  

In the interest of giving more attention to works eligible for this year's Retro Hugos, I've pasted my nominating ballot below. Some of these stories I read ages ago; others I read over the last two weeks.

Note that this isn't a slate and also isn't my final ballot for the Retro Hugos because I'm still adding and subtracting stories. If anyone has suggestions or thoughts on alternate stories and works, let me know ASAP and I'll consider them.

Best Novel

  • If This Goes On— by Robert A. Heinlein, Astounding Science-Fiction, February – March 1940 (A minor and early Heinlein novel.)
  • Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard, Astounding Science-Fiction, April – June 1940. (Look, most of Hubbard's writing was crap, but this novel was his best and is quite good.)
  • Slan by A.E. van Vogt, Astounding Science Fiction, September – December 1940. (One of the classic works of science fiction. Highly influential, even if it hard to read today.)
  • The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson, Unknown, March 1940. (Been a while since I read this but it did stick in my mind when I was a kid.)

Best Novella

  • Soldiers of the Black Goat by Marian O'Hearn, Unknown, January 1940. (Let's be honest: 1940 was a crap year for novellas. But this novella is good and definitely the best up for consideration. It's also online.)

Best Novelette

  • "The Roads Must Roll" by Robert Heinlein, Astounding Science-Fiction, June 1940.
  • "Fruit of Knowledge" by C. L. Moore, Unknown, October 1940. (Adam and Eve as retold by one of our genre's classic authors.)
  • "It" by Theodore Sturgeon, Unknown, August 1940. (A highly influential story in the genre.) 
  • "Vault of the Beast" by A. E. van Vogt, Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1940.
  • "The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years" by Don Wilcox, Amazing Stories, October 1940. (Likely the first-ever generation ship story. Holds up well.)

Best Short Story

  • "Strange Playfellow" (also titled "Robbie") by Isaac Asimov, Super Science Stories, September 1940. (The first of Asimov's famous robot stories.)
  • "The Stellar Legion" by Leigh Brackett, Planet Stories, Winter 1940. (Brackett's first Venus story. An early story of hers but still good and shows why she was known as the "Queen of Space Opera.")
  • "The Automatic Pistol" by Fritz Leiber, Weird Tales, May 1940. (An eerie fantasy very much in the mold of Weird Tales.)
  • "The Valley of the Undead" by Helen Weinbaum, Weird Tales, September 1940. (Another eerie fantasy from a Weird Tales author more people should read.)
  • "Hindsight" by Jack Williamson, Astounding Science-Fiction, May 1940. (A disturbing story from a SF master.)