Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part I: The 1943 Retro Hugos

So the finalists for the 2018 Hugo Awards and the 1943 Retro Hugo Awards were announced tonight, following some controversy, because the announcement happens to take place not just on Easter Saturday, but also on Passover. Coincidentally, it’s not a great time for me either – I just had a triple new release, plus it’s Easter and the end of the quarter, which means I have to do my quarterly taxes. But then, I doubt it’s possible to find a time to announce the nominees that works for all of fandom.

So let’s take a look at the nominees. Retro Hugos first, than the current year Hugos in part II:

The 1943 Retro Hugo ballot is – as usual with Retro Hugos – rather Heinlein heavy (well, even I nominated the two Heinlein novellas and I’m not a big fan of his). Best graphic story, best series and best dramatic presentation long are all conspicuous by their absence. Now I’m not surprised that best related work, best semiprozine, best fan artist, best editor long form and best fancast are missing, since nominating for the Retro Hugos in these categories is difficult to nigh impossible. But 1942 had some very good comics (Wonder Woman, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Superman, Batman, Captain America, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Tin Tin and you still couldn’t find anything to nominate?), some fine series (Captain Future, The Spider, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Lensmen, Jules De Grandin, Pellucidar, The Avengers, G-8 and His Battle Aces and once more not enough nominations?) and even a few dramatic presentations over 90 minutes. The Perils of Nyoka serial is still great, for example, and was one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones.

But let’s look at the categories which do have nominees:

The two fan categories – best fan writer and fanzine – are full of familiar names, who had a long career in fandom and also in the pro field. All look like solid choices. Alas, only one female nominee – Morojo a.k.a. Myrtle Douglas who co-edited a fanzine with Forrest J. Ackerman.

Best editor is also full of good choices: Whatever you think about John W. Campbell, Astounding and Unknown published a whole lot of outstanding stories in the 1940s. Dorothy McIlwraith is not just the lone female nominee in this category, but also did very good work at Weird Tales. Malcolm Reiss was the editor of Planet Stories, the home of planetary romance, which published a lot of highly enjoyable stories in the 1940s, including a lot of Leigh Brackett’s, C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s (either apart or together) work. I’m also really happy to see Oscar J. Friend, editor of Captain Future Magazine, here. I have a deep and abiding love for Captain Future (and keep nominating him for the Retro Hugos), because the 1979 anime adaptation of Captain Future was one of the properties that turned me into an SF fan in the first place. Raymond Palmer’s star has sunk somewhat in later years due to stuff like the Shaver mysteries, but that only started a few years later. In 1943, he did good work as the editor of Amazing Stories and Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Donald A. Wollheim is the only surprise in this category. Now Donald Wollheim was a fine editor, but in 1942 his only pro editing work was Stirring Science Stories, a largely forgotten short-lived science fiction pulp.

Best pro artist is also full of excellent choices: I’m particularly glad to see Margaret Brundage – resident cover artist of Weird Tales in the 1930s and early 1940s – nominated, because her art is still stunning (and so sexy that Amazon wouldn’t let an indie publish a book with a cover like that). Hannek Bok and Virgil Finlay also did excellent work on Weird Tales. Edd Cartier was mainly an interior illustrator and contributed his atmospheric artwork to Weird Tales and The Shadow (so why no best series recognition for The Shadow and Captain Future?). Hubert Rogers was the resident cover artist for Astounding Stories. Harold W. McCauley is an artist I mainly associate with later work on SF magazines and sleazy paperbacks in the 1950s, though he apparently did a few covers for Amazing Stories in 1942. He’s another artist specialising in scantily clad attractive women – well, it was the 1940s.

Best dramatic presentation short form is a bit of a mixed bag. Bambi, Cat People and I Married a Witch are all fine, if very different movies. The Ghost of Frankenstein and Invisible Agent are both lesser later entries in series (Universal’s Frankenstein and The Invisble Man respectively) and I’m actually surprised to see them nominated, since there were better choices in the respective year and category. Invisible Agent is a WWII propaganda film as well, but then WWII propaganda stuff is difficult to avoid in 1942. However, if people screech about the 1943 Münchhausen movie – which is not a propaganda movie, but only happened to be made during the Third Reich and involved a lot of people who were more or less openly anti-Nazi – I will point them at Invisible Agent. The Korda Brothers’ Jungle Book adaptation is the film that introduced Sabu to the world and is actually over ninety minutes long. It was eclipsed by the later Disney version, but it is still a good movie. Talking of Sabu, my favourite 1942 film starring Sabu and Jon Hall (who also stars in Invisible Agent) as well as Maria Montez, namely Arabian Nights, sadly did not make it. Now I have a deep and abiding love for the Maria Montez films of the 1940s, since they were a TV staple of my childhood, but I guess others don’t share that fondness.

So let’s take a look at the best short story nominees for 1943: “Runaround” by Isaac Asimov, one of his Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell stories, and “The Twonky” by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner are both classics and were on my ballot. I haven’t read these particular stories by Fredric Brown, Hal Clement, Fritz Leiber and Donald Wollheim (writing as Martin Pearson), but all are great writers with lengthy careers. I’m a bit sad that none of the Leigh Brackett stories that were eligible made it and that Isaac Asimov’s “Victory Unintentional” and “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray”, both of which are utterly hilarious, didn’t make it either, especially since I clearly remembered both stories thirty years after I first read them.

Best novelette has two absolute classics with “Foundation” a.k.a. “The Encyclopedists” and “Bridle and Saddle” by Isaac Asimov, the first two stories of what would eventually become the Foundation series. These stories blew my mind at 16 and I still love them at almost 45. “There Shall Be Darkness” by C.L. Moore is another fine story by one of the best women writers of early science fiction. “The Goldfish Bowl” by Robert A. Heinlein under one of his many pseudonyms was actually on my personal longlist, but did not make my final ballot. “The Star Mouse” by Fredric Brown I haven’t read (I haven’t read a lot of Fredric Brown, for some reason, though I generally liked what I did read). “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. Van Vogt, finally, is the most problematic nominee on the Retro Hugo ballot. Now I freely admit that Van Vogt’s fiction doesn’t work for me. I tried reading him repeatedly, but he just doesn’t work for me and I suspect he never will. However, the presence of “The Weapon Shop” on the Retro Hugo ballot doesn’t just bother me, because I don’t care for Van Vogt’s work. Because “The Weapon Shop” is basically an anti-gun control story, which was probably not that problematic in 1942, but is hugely problematic in 2017. I’m honestly surprised that this story was nominated, especially since the Parkland Shooting, which heated up the gun control debate in the US anew, happened in the middle of the Hugo nomination period. Okay, maybe all the pro-gun people nominated it. Once more, none of the three Leigh Brackett novelettes, which were eligible in 1942, made it, which is a pity, because Leigh Brackett was one of the best science fiction writers of the pulp era period.

The best novella category consists of two more Heinlein stories, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” and “Waldo”. Both of them are classics and coincidentally were also on my ballot. Yes, I do like some Heinlein works and in fact, my issues with Heinlein mostly involve his later works. A lot of his stories from the 1940s and 1950s were very good. It’s only with Starship Troopers that everything goes to hell. Though I’m surprised that Heinlein was so prolific in 1942, in the middle of WWII, since he worked as an engineer for the US Navy. “The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher is another fine story and coincidentally was also on my ballot. I also did nominate Alfred Bester in the best novella category, though I went with a different novella (“Push of a Finger”) than with “Hell is Forever”, the one that made it. I haven’t read the Van Vogt (like I said, not a fan) and Lester Del Rey stories.

So let’s take a look at the Best Novel category for the 1943 Retro Hugos: I’m really great to see The Uninvited by Dorothy McArdle, a classic gothic ghost story, nominated here. Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak is another classic, though probably better remembered via its film adaptation these days. Now I have to admit that I could never get into E.E. Smith’s Lensmen series, probably because by the time I tried to read them in my mid twenties, I had already read and seen plenty of imitators who took the ideas Smith pioneered and did something more interesting with them. Nonetheless, the Lensmen series was hugely influential and Second-Stage Lensmen is an obvious nominee in this category. One of Heinlein’s many pen names is once again present with Beyond This Horizon – again not an unsurprising nominee. Darkness and the Light by Olaf Stapledon I haven’t read, since Stapledon is another classic author who just doesn’t work for me. And while I tried to read Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright, I found it pretty boring.

Still, it’s a pretty good ballot for the 1943 Retro Hugos, even with no Leigh Brackett and no finalists at all in the best graphic story, best series and best dramatic presentation long form categories. I wonder what the puppy types will make of this, especially since many of them claim to champion pulp era science fiction and keep complaining that Heinlein couldn’t get nominated for a Hugo these days (he only got nominated four times) and that authors like C.L. Moore are completely forgotten (two Hugo nominations, one joint and one on her own, are not bad for a forgotten author.

Hit rate: 23 out of 54 in the categories that actually have nominees, i.e. 42%, which is pretty good actually. My Mom got 8 out of 54, but then she only nominated in a few categories, including series and graphic story, which have no nominees.

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10 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part I: The 1943 Retro Hugos

  1. Arno says:

    I, too, am disappointed that there is no graphic story category. There were plenty of newspaper strips that could have been nominated, e.g., Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Superman, possibly Orphan Annie or Dick Tracy (Buck Rogers did not have a story arc that finished in 1942). Original comic book stories were still not quite as popular, but you rightly point out that there were plenty that could have been nominated. I don’t think voters in 1943 would have been familiar enough with Tin Tin to make the ballot.
    In addition to the series that you list possibly Oz and Amtor/Venus could have been considered. I don’t think The Spider, The Shadow, and G-8 were science fictional enough to be nominated, although there were sf elements in them from time to time.
    In the DP-Long category there could have been radio serials, but those are largely forgotten and hard to find nowadays.
    It was slim pickings for dramatic presentations in 1942. Past Bambi and Cat People, I didn’t see anything really worth nominating, let alone winning, although voters in 1943 might have been less jaded about some of the other finalists. I’ve never seen Invisible Agent, and have so far been unable to find it anywhere on streaming services or DVD, which tells me it’s really not worth pursuing.
    At least there is no fan fiction by future big names as there has been in many of the previous Retro Hugo finalist lists.

  2. DD says:

    Invisible Agent can be streamed or downloaded from the Internet Archive.

    The Trailer is here (1:44):

    And the film is here (1:21:05):

  3. Paul Fraser says:

    Thanks for the roundup—I wish I had your knowledge of this period.
    One nitpick though—I’m not sure that I would describe van Vogt’s ‘The Weapon Shop’ as “anti-gun control” as the weapons will only operate in certain ethical circumstances, i.e., in self-defence, they cannot he used offensively. Further, the Weapon Shop organisation operates as a justice organisation that helps citizens against a corrupt and evil Empire while stopping short of active resistance. All of which makes them quite pacifistic in my book, and I suspect the series has been tarred by the hijacking of its “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free” motto.
    I have a variable attitude to vV myself, but if there is one story of his that is worth reading it is probably this one: not only is it one of his best, but it would let you make your own mind up about the above issue—I’m not sure the description of these stories on Wikipedia is entirely accurate.
    As to the movies, I just don’t get why viewers rate ‘Cat People’. I thought it was quite poor, although not as bad as ‘The Invisible Agent’.

    • Cora says:

      Upon actually reading “The Weapons Shop” it turns out that it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared, though I still find that “weapons equal freedom” message troubling. Though considering it was the middle of WWII, it’s probably understandable. Not to mention that the pro-gun folks in the US have gotten a lot nuttier since 1942.

      “Cat People” is fairly understated for a horror film, even for a one from the 1940s. Plus, there a lot of soap operaish domestic melodrama, which isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Plus, there is the “female sexuality is dangerous” subtext. “Invisible Agent”, meanwhile, is just bad and really not Hugo worthy.

    • I was amused when I read F. Paul Wilson’s THE TOMB and found a Van Vogt Weapon Shop reference:

      • Cora says:

        The Repairman Jack stories have been on my “Check this out sometime” list for a while now, but you know how it is: So many good books and so little time.

  4. I’m conflicted with these RETRO HUGO AWARDS. On the plus side, they recognize writers and stories that deserve attention. On the minus side, many contemporary readers will find some of these works–like the LENSMEN series–dull.

    • Cora says:

      In general, the Retro Hugos get fewer votes and attention than the regular Hugos and I suspect most of those nominating and voting are fans who love older work. Regarding Lensmen, it is hugely important for the history of the genre, because it introduced so many tropes and inspired so many other works. But I found it dull even when I first read it 20+ years ago, because there have been so many other writers since then who built on what E.E. Smith did and did it better that the original paled in comparison.

  5. Pingback: Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part I: The 1944 Retro Hugo Awards | Cora Buhlert

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