Some Comments on the 1943 Retro Hugo Award Winners

Before the main event on Sunday, the 1943 Retro Hugos were awarded last night at WorldCon 76 in San José, California. The full list of winners may be found here. The full detailed results of the votes and nominations may be found here.

Short verdict: Wow, that’s a lot of Heinlein.

Longer verdict: That’s really a lot of Heinlein.

For my detailed verdict, see behind the cut.

The 1943 Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel goes to Beyond This Horizon by Anson MacDonald a.k.a. Robert A. Heinlein. This Heinlein win is utterly baffling to me, because frankly, Beyond This Horizon simply isn’t very good and contains a lot of Heinlein’s irritating habits that usually weren’t that notable this early. Oh yes, and that awful “An armed society is a polite society” quote that American gun fanatics are so fond of quoting? It’s from Beyond This Horizon, as is “The door dilated”, which Samuel R. Delany used as an example for how SF readers apply different reading protocols than mainstream readers. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that Beyond This Horizon wouldn’t have won, if anybody but Heinlein had written it (or if more Retro Hugo voters had bothered to reread it before voting).

I actually expected that either Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak (which finished in fourth place) or Second Stage Lensmen by E.E. Smith (which finished in second place) would win, though my personal number one vote was for The Uninvited by Dorothy MacArdle, but quiet domestic ghost stories probably aren’t to the taste of many Retro Hugo voters. And indeed, it finished in fifth place, which is really unfair. And while Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright was certainly ambitious, it really doesn’t have much in the way of a plot and promptly came in last. Ditto for Darkness and the Light by Olaf Stapleton, except that Stapledon finished in third place. It seems as if a lot of Retro Hugo voters voted by name recognition, because the two outsider finalists, Dorothy MacArdle and Austin Tappan Wright, finished last. And while I can understand that many people bounced off Islandia (I didn’t much care for it myself), The Uninvited really deserved to finish higher. If you look at the nominations, you’ll find that The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis got the second highest number of nominations, but was disqualified due to an earlier serial publication. Again, I suspect that the author’s name and reputation had a lot to do with this, because while I guess one could classify The Screwtape Letters as speculative fiction, considering it features letters between two demons, it’s basically religious fiction and a fairly preachy example thereof, too.

The 1943 Retro Hugo Award for Best Novella goes once again to Anson MacDonald a.k.a. Robert A. Heinlein for “Waldo”, only that this time around, I’m not overly surprised, because Heinlein and his pen names were the big favourite in this category. Even I placed a Heinlein novella in first place in this category (yes, I do appreciate Heinlein on occasion, just not all the bloody time), though I voted for “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” over “Waldo”. Because “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” still holds up well 75 years later, while “Waldo” has been visited hard by the suck fairy and the protagonist Waldo Farthingwaite Jones is pretty much a jerk (as is Hamilton Felix from Beyond This Horizon). But “Waldo” is still well remembered, because it coined a word, while “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is somewhat more obscure, insofar that any Heinlein story is obscure. I’m a bit surprised that “Nerves” by Lester Del Rey finished in third place, but then my personal dislike for stories about nuclear power may have influenced my judgment of this one. Though it’s interesting that American SFF writers of 75 years ago showed more awareness of the dangers of nuclear power than many of their modern colleagues. “The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher finished in fourth place, followed by “Asylum” by A.E. van Vogt (which I actually preferred to “The Weapons Shop”) and “Hell Is Forever” by Alfred Bester.

The 1943 Retro Hugo Award for Best Novelette goes unsurprisingly to “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov. It’s a highly deserved win, too, particularly considering how important the series that began with this little story would be for the genre as whole. Interestingly, the other Asimov novelette on the shortlist, “Bridle and Saddle”, landed in sixth place, even though it is the sequel to/second part of “Foundation” and most voters will probably have read them together in the first book of the Foundation trilogy. Perhaps many people have forgotten that “Foundation”, known as “The Encyclopaedists” in the collected edition, is merely the first part of the story. “The Weapons Shop” by A.E. van Vogt finished in second place. Now I don’t like the story and find it highly problematic as well, as explained here (though to be fair, neither Heinlein nor van Vogt can be blamed for 21st century US gun culture), but then it is a very well known tale. “There Shall Be Darkness” by C.L. Moore finished in third place. This is the story that deserved to win and probably would have, if it hadn’t been up against “Foundation”. And I have to admit that I placed “Foundation” first, too. For even though “There Shall Be Darkness” was objectively the better story, “Foundation” meant so very much to my sixteen-year-old self. “Star Mouse” by Fredric Brown, which I frankly found unreadable (Those faux Germanic accents! Also, how come that Disney didn’t sue Brown’s pants off for Mitzkey Mouse?) landed in fourth place. Heinlein, amazingly, finishes last with “The Goldfish Bowl”, even though I actually prefer that story to both “Waldo” and Beyond This Horizon.

The 1943 Retro Hugo for Best Short Story goes to “The Twonky” by Lewis Padgett a.k.a. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, which coincidentally also makes C.L. Moore the chronologically first woman to win a Retro Hugo. It’s a good story, too, though I only placed it in third place. My personal number two (and the actual number three, it turns out) was “Runaround” by Isaac Asimov, which is coincidentally the story which introduced the Three Laws of Robotics to the world. Alas, the story itself is one of the weaker stories of the Powell and Donovan and Susan Calvin era and not even Asimov’s best robot story of 1942, since both “Victory Unintentional” and “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” are better. In the end though, I overcame my pro-Asimov bias and placed “The Sunken Land” by Fritz Leiber, an early Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story, in first place, because no matter how much my sixteen-year-old self loved the Asimov stories, “The Sunken Land” simply was the better story. And in fact, I had so much fun revisiting Fafhrd and Grey Mouser that I promptly read the rest of the collection, since I remembered the Lankhmar stories less well than Asimov’s robot stories. I’m actually surprised that “The Sunken Land” finished only in fourth place, but then none of several fantasy stories in the Retro Hugo shortlist managed to win. Number two is “Proof” by Hal Clement, a story I wasn’t familiar with before, but that was really good and also a typical Clement story. “Etaoin Shrdlu” by Fredric Brown finished in fifth place, but then “The Twonky” does something similar and better. It seems that stories about sentient appliances were a thing in 1942. “Mimic” by Donald Wollheim finished in sixth place. It’s not a bad story at all and was even filmed by Guillermo del Toro, but then someone had to finish last.

The 1943 Retro Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation unsurprisingly goes to Bambi. Okay, so Bambi‘s status as SFF is rather debatable, because it’s basically a naturalistic drama about woodland animals who happen to talk and is based on a novel, which was intended to be a realistic look at the lives of woodland animals aimed at an adult audience. On the other hand, it’s Bambi. It’s a film almost everybody has seen and remembers, a film that made generations of children cry. If it hadn’t won in this category, it would have been a miracle. Cat People, the other well known film on the shortlist, finished in second place. The live-action Jungle Book starring Sabu finished in third and the IMO underrated I Married a Witch finished in fourth place. The two inferior sequels, Ghost of Frankenstein and Invisible Agent finished in second to last and last place, which is not surprising, since neither of them was really Hugo-worthy.

The 1943 Retro Hugo for Best Editor goes unsurprisingly to John W. Campbell. Even I voted for Campbell in first place, because if you look at the finalists in the fiction categories, the vast majority of them were published in Astounding and Unknown. Whatever else one may think of Campbell and his impact on the field, he did have a great eye for stories in the 1940s. Donald A. Wollheim finishes in second place, which I found a bit surprising, because while Wollheim was a great editor later on, he wasn’t yet one in 1942. Again, I suspect that the name recognition helped here. Dorothy McIlwraith of Weird Tales finishes third, even though there is not a single Weird Tales story on the ballot. Raymond A. Palmer of Amazing Stories finishes in fourth place, which surprised me, given his bad reputation, but then the Shaver Mystery nonsense was still in the future. Oscar J. Friend of Captain Future, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories finished in fifth place, but then not everybody loves Captain Future as much as I do. And indeed, no Captain Future story or the entire series has ever made a retro Hugo ballot, though I keep nominating him, because the good Captain, via the 1979 anime series, was one of my foundational science fiction influences along with the original Star Trek, Raumpatrouille Orion, Time Tunnel and glimpses of Star Wars. Malcolm Reiss of Planet Stories finished in last place, which surprises me a little, because Planet Stories was pretty good in the 1940s.

Virgil Finlay wins the 1943 Retro Hugo for Best Professional Artist. It’s a deserved win, though I still wish that the Retro Hugo voters would have recognised Margaret Brundage, while it’s still possible. But then, I suspect Margaret Brundage’s nudes, often in bondage, are perhaps a bit too sexy for modern audiences. In fact, a self-published author could not publish a book with a Brundage style cover on Amazon today. And so Margaret Brundage finishes in third place, behind Hannes Bok and ahead of Edd Cartier, Hubert Rogers and Harold W. McCauley. Looking at the nomination talley, I fear that my Mom and I single-handedly knocked poor Earle K. Bergey off the shortlist due to EPH.

Le Zombie wins best fanzine, narrowly beating The Phantagraph. I have to admit that I don’t know a whole lot about this category, though I made an effort to check out scans of the nominated zines. Best fan writer, finally, goes to Forrest J. Ackerman. Once again, I guess Ackerman’s high name recognition is at least part of the reason for this. Coincidentally, Bob Tucker, another fan writer with a high degree of name recognition for coining the word “to tuckerize”, finished in second place and Donald Wollheim in third.

In general, it seems that name recognition was ultimately what decided the Retro Hugos, because a lot of winners were also the best known finalists in their respective categories, the stories and films that everybody knows, which gave them the edge over lesser known finalists. Nicholas Whyte comes to a similar conclusion in his analysis of the 1943 Retro Hugo results. It’s not exactly a new pattern with the Retro Hugos either, because the Retro Hugos tend to go to the biggest name and not necessarily to the best work.

The First Fandom and Big Heart Awards were presented yesterday as well. Some very good choices and highly deserving winners there.

In other news, WorldCon 76 also found itself accosted by an unwanted and already banned guest, because some people apparently just cannot take “no” for an answer.

ETA: Mike Glyer reports that Jon Del Arroz will be missing his own protest against discrimination of conservatives and pedophilia in fandom, because his child became unexpectedly ill.

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