Some Thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists, Part I: The 1944 Retro Hugo Awards

So the finalists for the 2019 Hugo Awards and the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards were announced today. This time, the announcement manages not to coincide with any major holidays of any world religion, though personally I really prefer it, when they announce on a weekend rather than a weekday. It’s also kind of annoying that the announcement for both sets of awards is made in the same post, which means that you have to scroll down past the current year Hugos to get to the Retro Hugos.

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

The most remarkable thing about the 1944 Retro Hugos is that there is no Heinlein. Not a single Heinlein story was nominated for the Retro Hugos this year, not because fandom has suddenly lost its taste for Heinlein, but because Heinlein was too busy in 1943 testing military equipment at the Navy Yard* to write science fiction. Also notable by his absence (except for one fairly obscure story) is Isaac Asimov, who was also too busy testing military equipment at the Navy Yard to write, though unlike Heinlein, Asimov didn’t have a choice, because he was at danger of being drafted and expected (not without justification) that he’d be killed if he were ever taken prisoner, as Alec Nevala-Lee describes in his (excellent) chronicle of the Golden Age and what followed Astounding.

World War II also took other Golden Age stalwarts such as Lester Del Rey (also busily doing something at the Navy Yard) and L. Ron Hubbard (busily shooting at phantom subs off the Mexican coast) out of the game, leaving the field open for other voices and the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists certainly reflect that. This is a good thing, because it means that writers who are not normally recognised by the Retro Hugo Awards (though some of them have been recognised by the regular Hugos) finally get their dues.

So let’s take a look at the individual categories:

Best Novel

In this category, we already see the names which will be popping up again and again on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. First of all, we have Fritz Leiber, who is represented with two novel, his proto-urban fantasy Conjure Wife and his far future dystopian novel Gather, Darkness. Both would be most worthy winners. The couple and writing team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, who will popping up both together and separately on this ballot several times, are nominated for Earth’s Last Citadel, a time travel novel where a group of stranded travellers from opposing sides of World War II (and remember that this was published in 1943) are whisked into the far future and must save the world. In fact, I just wondered how on Earth Moore and Kuttner got that plot past John W. Campbell only to realise that they didn’t, because it was published in Argosy.  Notably by its absence of C.L. Moore’s solo novel Judgment Night, an early example of a space opera written by a woman. Instead, we get The Weapon Makers by A.E. van Vogt, a sequel to last year’s Retro Hugo finalist The Weapons Shop. I no more like this world/series this year than I liked it last year, but then van Vogt has never worked for me in general. C.S. Lewis is another popular SFF author whose fiction has simply never worked for me and I doubt that Perelandra will change that. However, it was probably inevitable that Lewis would get a nomination, since he was (Northern) Irish and WorldCon is in Ireland this year. Rounding out the ballot is one of those left field finalists that the Retro Hugos occasionally recognise, namely Hermann Hesse for Das Glasperlenspiel. Now I’m really happy to see a Swiss-German writer recognised by the Retro-Hugos (in fact, Hesse might be the first German ever nominated for a Hugo and he’s very likely the first Swiss person), but I still don’t care for the book. Maybe it has improved since I found it on my parents’ bookshelf as a kid. On the other hand, the dismayed face that my Mom made when I told her that Hermann Hesse was nominated for a Retro Hugo was very telling.

Diversity count: 5 men, 1 woman, 2 international writers

Best Novella

The finalists in this category almost exactly mirror my own nominations, except that I picked a different Anthony Boucher novella. The prolific team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore is here again with “Clash by Night”.  However you feel about H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath” was an obvious finalists in this category. I have read neither “Attitude” by Hal Clement nor “We Print the Truth” by Anthony Boucher, though I’m sad that Boucher’s novella “One Way Trip” didn’t make it, because that’s a really good one. Finally, we have two more left field finalists, namely Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons by Mary Norton. Now Le Petit Prince is an acknowledged classic and probably the Retro Hugo finalist the average non-fan is most likely to recognise. But I’m really glad that The Magic Bed-Knob made it, especially since it’s probably better known for the film adaptation Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury these days.

Diversity count: 5 men, 2 women, 1 international writer

Best Novelette

This is another really strong category. Leigh Brackett, the queen of space opera, is represented twice with “Citadel of Lost Ships” and “The Halfling”, which – uncommon for Brackett – is a noir/SF mixture set on Earth. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore are also represented again with the classic story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”. Furthermore, Henry Kuttner is also nominated for his solo story “The Proud Robot”, one of the funny SF stories he wrote about the chaotic inventer Gallegher. We know that the Gallegher stories were Kuttner’s alone, because C.L. Moore confirmed it years later. “Thieves House” by Fritz Leiber is an early entry in Leiber’s longrunning Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series and a most excellent story it is, too. I think it’s the first Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story that is actually set in Lankhmar itself and so probably the first description of that famous fantasty city. And of course, “Thieves House” is the first time a thieves guild ever appeared in fantasy. Given how the Thieves Guild of Lankhmar fares in this story, we’re almost surprised the concept caught on. The sixth finalist in this category is “Symbiotica” by Eric Frank Russell, which I haven’t read.

Diversity Count: 3 men, 2 women

Best Short Story

This category contains the only nomination for multiple Retro Hugo finalist and winner Isaac Asimov for “Death Sentence”, the only story he published that year. Now I know that I must have read “Death Sentence”, because I read them all, but I needed a jolt to even remember what it was about. C.L. Moore is also nominated in this category, this time for her solo story “Doorway into Time”. Ray Bradbury, who was really beginning to come into his own at this time, is nominated for the story that was originally published as “King of the Gray Spaces”, though I have always known it as “R is for Rocket”. It’s only one of several excellent Ray Bradbury stories that came out in 1943. I’m also really glad that “Yours Truly – Jack the Ripper”, a creepy little horror story by Robert Bloch that Star Trek fans may recognise, made it. I may well have read “Exile” by Edmond Hamilton at some point, though I don’t remember it. “Q.U.R.” by H.H. Holmes a.k.a. Anthony Boucher I don’t know.

Diversity count: 5 men, 1 woman

Best Graphic Story

I’m really, really happy to see this category at all, since it often didn’t get enough finalists together in previous years. And a good set of finalists it is, too. The two science fiction stalwarts of the newspaper strip world, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, are both represented with “Fiery Desert of Mongo” and “Martians Invade Jupiter” respectively. The Flash Gordon story is excellent (haven’t read the Buck Rogers), though I’m a bit sad that Flash’s Defenders of the Earth pals Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom did not make it, but then not everybody loves them as much as I do. US comic books are represented by Wonder Woman and Plastic Man respectively. Early Wonder Woman is a tad bondage heavy, but usually good. I’ve never been much of a Plastic Man fan, I’m afraid, though the golden age Plastic Man stories have a good reputation. Franco-Belgian comics are represented by the (excellent) Tintin story “Le Secret de la Licorne” (The Secret of the Unicorn). The only unexpected finalist, at least for me, is Garth, the British time travel comic strip from the Daily Mirror. Now I’m familiar with Garth, but I mainly associated the strip with the 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t even know that it was already around in 1943.

Diversity count: 8 men, 2 international writers

Best Dramatic Presentation Long

Again, I’m really happy to see this category at all, since it didn’t get enough nominations last year. I’m also really, really happy to see Josef von Báky’s film Münchhausen nominated, especially since some people were making noises that they didn’t want to see a German movie made during the Third Reich nominated. Even though Münchhausen is not a propaganda film (unlike some other finalists I could name) and actually has surprising number of folks who did not get along with the Nazis among its cast and crew, starting with screenwriter Erich Kästner, who had to write the screeplay under a pseudonym, because he was officially barred from writing. Besides, Münchhausen is a really great movie. Finally, I’m happy to see a second German finalists and I’m happy to see the Hollywood stranglehold on any dramatic presentation category broken.

Talking of Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is a classic and worthy finalist. I’m also really happy to see that serial form finally represented at the Retro Hugos by the 1943 Batman serial. Though once again, The Phantom is robbed. The other finalists in this category are one of the many versions of The Phantom of the Opera, a Vincente Minelli musical called Cabin in the Sky and A Guy Named Joe, a story most people will probably know better under the title Always, as Steven Spielberg called his remake in the late 1980s. I do find it fascinating that three of six finalists in this category are movies about people who die and come back to finish unfinished business. I guess World War II made a lot of people contemplate their mortality.

Best Dramatic Presentation Short

Compared to how strong Best Dramatic Presentation Long is this year, Dramatic Presentation Short is really weak, even though it’s usually easier to find finalists for this category for the Retro Hugos due to the shorter movie running times during the 1940s. Let’s start with the two highly deserving finalists, the two horror movies I Walked With a Zombie (a Haitian zombie, not the brain-eating type, which didn’t come in until twenty-five years later) and The Seventh Victim. There are also two other horror finalists, the forgettable Bela Lugosi film The Ape Man and the equally forgettable sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Finally, we have two animated cartoons, which normally would be reason to rejoice for me, since I always nominate cartoons in this category for the Retro Hugos and they rarely make it. And indeed, I have absolutely no problem with Super-Rabbit, a Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny cartoon, though it wasn’t my personal choice. However, the Donald Duck cartoon Der Führer’s Face is just terrible, not to mention bloody offensive. Now propaganda movies are sadly a fact of life, when dealing with stuff from World War II, but couldn’t they at least have kept the propaganda out of children’s cartoons? Worse, Der Führer’s Face was still in regular circulation during afternoon children’s programming, when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, long after most (if not all – I did see some of them as a kid) Warner Bros’ “censored eleven” had been withdrawn from circulation. I remember watching it as a kid on TV and it was like a slap in the face, because here was a cartoon – and I loved cartoons – basically telling me that Donald Duck and Disney hated people like me. Coincidentally, my Mom immediately knew which cartoon I was talking about and just said, “Oh God, I hate that one.” Yes, I know that it won an Oscar, but a lot of crap wins Oscars or do you really think that Green Book was the best movie of 2018? Also, while “Der Führer’s Face” winning an Oscar might have been inevitable in 1943, do we really need to award offensive propaganda cartoons in 2019?

Best Editor Short

There are no real surprises in this categories. John W. Campbell, Dorothy McIlwraith, Mary Gnaedinger, Oscar J. Friend and Raymond A. Palmer are all obvious finalists. Donald Wollheim isn’t quite so obvious, at least for 1943, since the only thing he apparently edited that year was an anthology called The Pocket Book of Science Fiction.

Diversity count: 4 men, 2 women

Best Professional Artist

Again, this is a fine category. Virgil Finlay, Margaret Brundage and Hannes Bok have all been nominated in this category before and are most excellent choices. J. Allen St. John is the man who illustrated most of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ covers, including a couple of Tarzan editions and a Barsoom story, in 1943. William Timmins was Astounding‘s cover artist for most of 1943 and 1944, Hubert Rogers apparently being otherwise occupied. Finally, I’m really happy to see Antoine de Saint-Exupéry nominated in this category for his iconic illustrations for Le Petit Prince.

Diversity count: 5 men, 1 woman, 1 international artist

Best Fanzine

This category is mostly a repetition of fanzines we have seen nominated in this category before, all of them deserving. YHOS, edited by Art Widner, is the only one that’s new to me.

Best Fanwriter

Again, this category contains a whole lot of familiar names, though I’m happy to see Myrtle Douglas a.k.a. Morojo recognised

Diversity count: 5 men, 1 woman

So let’s take a look at my hit rate: I nominated a staggering 35 out of 66 finalists, that’s a 53% hit rate, so I did really well. My Mom got 13 out of 66, i.e. a 19.7% hit rate.

And that’s it for my comments on the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists. In part II, I’ll tackle the 2019 Hugo Award finalists.

Comments are off.

*I have no idea if the Navy Yard where Heinlein, Asimov and others worked during WWII is the same Navy Yard that is frequently mentioned in NCIS or if there’s more than one place with that name.

ETA: Mike Glyer confirms that the Navy Yard where Heinlein, Asimov et al worked is/was in Philadelphia, while the one from NCIS is in Washington DC. Apparently, there is also at least one more in Boston.

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