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Steven S. Long is a writer, game designer, and all 'round great guy. According to the secret files of the KGB, he once singlehandedly defeated the Kremlin's plot to attack America with laser-powered Godzillas.

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Tuesday
Feb102015

The Hugos: Do They Choose The Classic Novels?

Earlier today Gray Rinehart, an accomplished Science Fiction writer and editor, worte what I consider to be an insightful blog piece about current controversies surrounding the Hugo Awards. (You can read his entire blog post here if you like, and I definitely recommend that you do.) As part of that blog post he considered the issue of “whether the Hugo Awards adequately represent the preferences of the SF&F-consuming public.”

He suggested several criteria by which someone might conduct a statistical analysis of that question. In commenting on his blog via Facebook, I suggested an additional one: “track which award winners ... of Best Novel, are still known, read, and regarded as “classics.” Would the average SF&F fan know about them? Have read them? Are they still activtely in print? That sort of thing.”

Of course, that’s not entirely a scientific way to go about things. Assessing what qualifies as a “classic” is in some ways subjective — one critic’s list of classics may have little in common with another’s. Neither popularity, nor sales, necessarily make a novel a “classic,” or deprive it of that status. (I’m lookin’ at you, Fifty Shades Of Gray.) But as someone who’s interested in the genre and has written about it (at least in a gaming context), I’m going to take a brief stab at it. After all, it was my suggestion, so I might as well put my star credits where my mouth is. ;)

For these purposes I’m going to look at the winners of the Hugo for Best Novel from 1953 (the first year it was given) until 1980. I don’t want to go beyond that because it usually takes some time before literary critics can objectively analyze whether a book qualifies as a “classic,” and 1980 seems like a good cut-off point to me.

So to start with, here’s a list of the Hugo Best Novel winners. Forgive me if the formatting doesn’t hold up well; I’m not exactly a whiz at HTML.

1953 The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester

1954 No award given due to invasion of WorldCon by bears

1955 They’d Rather Be Right (a.k.a. The Forever Machine), by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

1956 Double Star, by Robert Heinlein

1957 No award given due to the insidious machinations of two rival ninja clans

1958 The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber

1959 A Case Of Conscience, by James Blish

1960 Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein

1961 A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

1962 Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

1963 The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick

1964 Here Gather The Stars (a.ka. Way Station), by Clifford Simak

1965 The Wanderer, by Fritz Leiber

1966 Tie: Dune, by Frank Herbert, and ...And Call Me Conrad, by Roger Zelazny

1967 The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

1968 Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny

1969 Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner

1970 The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

1971 Ringworld, by Larry Niven

1972 To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip Jose Farmer

1973 The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov

1974 Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

1975 The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin

1976 The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

1977 Where Late The Sweet Birds Sing, by Kate Wilhelm

1978 Gateway, by Frederick Pohl

1979 Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre

1980 The Fountains Of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke

That’s 27 novels (counting the 1966 tie as two books). In my judgment (by which I do not intend to cast any aspersions whatsoever on any of the other novels), several of them unquestionably qualify as classics:

The Demolished Man

Starship Troopers

A Canticle For Leibowitz

Stranger In A Strange Land

Dune

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

The Left Hand Of Darkness

Ringworld

The Forever War

That’s nine of 27, or 33%. I think one could at least argue for “classic” status for several others:

The Man In The High Castle

Lord Of Light

Stand On Zanzibar

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

The Gods Themselves

Rendezvous With Rama

The Dispossessed

That’s another seven. That would make a total of 16, or 59% of the winners qualifying as classics. Not too bad, given the way the Hugo winners are chosen. Thirty-three percent is a little more dubious, but not horrible as these things go.

But there’s another step to perform in the analysis: what lost? Did the voters pick a non-classic novel while ignoring one that went on to become a classic, for some reason? I’m not going to list all the nominees for every year they’re known, since that’s a lot of tedious work and you can easily look up the list online if you’d like. Instead I’m simply going to comment on several years where a (by my judgment) non-classic was picked:

1964: I’ve never even heard of the Simak novel that won, but it beat out Heinlein’s Glory Road, Norton’s Witch World, and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, any one of which I think an SF&F fan in 2015 would know about and be likely to have read.

1972: Farmer’s novel, while not necessarily obscure, doesn’t seem as well-known and “classic” to me as several it beat out: LeGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonquest, and Zelazny’s Jack Of Shadows.

1974: Like most of Clarke’s novels, Rendezvous With Rama is a great read — but is it necessarily more “classic” than Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love? I don’t think I can answer that question; I’d want to look at sales figures and other information as I considered it. (Though of course, sales alone don’t confer “classic” status on any work of art.)

1977: Children Of Dune isn’t nearly as good as Dune itself in my opinion, but I think it’s probably got more “classic” cachet than the novel that won.

1978: Pohl’s novel is another I’ve never heard of. It beat out Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, a great post-apocalyptic story that I think most modern SF&F fans at least know about.

1979: Again McCaffrey loses, this time with The White Dragon. I’m betting that McIntyre’s novel, as good as it might be, doesn’t have anything close to the following McCaffrey’s Pern novels do today. (Though popularity, like sales, doesn’t necessarily make a novel a “classic.”)

1980: I love Arthur C. Clarke’s work, but I have a hard time seeing how this novel should’ve won compared to Patricia McKillip’s Harpist In The Wind. (That leads me to wonder if Science Fiction novels tend to have an edge over Fantasy novels. But that’s a subject for another time.)

So that’s seven years where I think an arguable classic lost to a non-classic. Subtract that from our original nine and the Hugo voters’ record drops to a miserable 7% success rating (or 33%, if these seven cancel out the seven possible classics I listed).

But let me hasten to add: this is one man’s, one fan’s, opinion. Ask another fan and you may get a radically different analysis — I’d love to hear yours in the comments, if you feel like taking the time to write it up. A professor who studies these things might have a very different take on the whole matter, too.

Coming up in my next blog post: I tackle the same question with regard to the Nebulas. Stay tuned. ;)

References (1)

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Reader Comments (1)

Interesting analysis. The only one I'd strongly disagree on is 1978 - something like Lucifer's Hammer may be a strong example of a type, but Gateway was something kinda different, a novel of character/psychology (well, an attempt anyway) wrapped up in (well done) sci-fi mystery trappings. I think it earned classic status, if only in furthering the idea that striving for certain literary values wasn't entirely incompatible with good ol' SF.

In '79: Dreamsnake ought to be better known and appreciated today than it is, but while I'm kinda dumbfounded how Pern just kept going and going, The White Dragon might have been a good point at which to recognize it.

And I'll underline your 1980. I HOPE the, uh, classic-ness of McKillip is acknowledged today.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Landis

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