Revisiting the Hugos

Hugo Nominees: 1981

The 1981 Hugo Awards were handed out in Denvention II in Denver, and shoot me now because this is the year when I don’t like anything.

The best novel award went to Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen. It’s science fiction that uses the Hans Christian Anderson story of “The Snow Queen” to shape the story and for resonance, and I really ought to love it but in fact I’ve never been able to force myself through it. Maybe I am too young for it, but I tried it again last year. It’s a beloved classic for many people, but it just does nothing for me. I’m sorry. I’m quite prepared to see this as a flaw in me rather than a flaw in it. It’s in print and it’s in the Grande Bibliotheque of Montreal (henceforth “the library”) in English. I’ve heard people talking about it recently. It has definitely lasted. And despite not liking it, I think it was the right winner.

There are four other nominees and I’ve read them all. I hate three of them and I’m tepid on the other.

Frederik Pohl’s Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is the sequel to his brilliant Gateway (post). It has a wonderful title. And it’s in the Gateway universe? What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything. This is one of the most disappointing books I have ever read, because I had such high hopes for it. It is not as bad as the later sequels, and it is enlivened by Pohl’s always delightful prose, but…Gateway did not need sequels, and this book isn’t only bad, it spoils what went before. If the Lacuna Corporation ever really advertised their memory blocking, the memory of these sequels would be one of the first things I’d erase. (“Then you’d read them again,” my son said. And he’s right. I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.) It’s in print from Tor (notice how we have free speech on this site) and it’s in the library in French only.

Next the one I’m tepid about. Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle is what I’d probably have voted for if I’d had a vote in 1981. It’s the first of Silverberg’s Majipoor books, introducing the world which feels like fantasy but is science fiction. It’s a huge sprawling picaresque adventure about a man who loses his memory and his body. I liked it when I was fifteen, but it hasn’t worn well and I have come to feel that it’s one of Silverberg’s weaker books. I don’t care for the sequels and it doesn’t re-read well. It doesn’t seem to be in print, but it’s in the library in English and French.

Larry Niven’s The Ringworld Engineers is the first sequel to Ringworld, and it has some of the same flaws as Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, explaining things best left unexplained, revisiting characters whose stories were finished. It’s in print from Orbit, and in the library in French and English. I’ve also heard people refer to its word for inter-species sex fairly recently, so maybe everybody else likes it.

Which brings me to John Varley’s Wizard, which is just—spare me. I hated this so much I didn’t ever read the third one.

So four men and one woman, all Americans, all science fiction, one book I can’t read, three feeble sequels, and one okay book by an author who has done much better. I understand why the Vinge and the Silverberg got nominated, but the rest of this is a mystery to me. Wasn’t there anything better available to represent 1980 than this collection of warmed over stuff?

The Science Fiction Writers of America gave their Nebula Award to Gregory Benford’s Timescape, a solid work of hard SF, which would have been a good nominee. They had three non-overlapping nominees—Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, a work of sufficient outstanding excellence that it should have made the Hugo ballot in any year, and two books I haven’t read Walter S. Tevis’s Mockingbird, and Robert Stallman’s The Orphan.

The World Fantasy Award went to The Shadow of the Torturer. Good. (Though it’s SF, you know.) Their other nominees were Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Aristo, Parke Godwin’s Firelord, Stephen King’s The Mist and Peter Straub’s Shadowland.

The Campbell Memorial also went to Timescape, for once a book Campbell would have liked, with Damien Broderick’s The Dreaming Dragons in second place and The Shadow of the Torturer third.

The Locus SF Award went to The Snow Queen. Nominees not already mentioned: C.J. Cherryh’s Serpent’s Reach (post), Stephen King’s Firestarter, Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast, Philip Jose Farmer’s The Magic Labyrinth, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Two to Conquer. Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed (post), Alfred Bester’s Golem 100, Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, Marta Randall’s Dangerous Games. Norman Spinrad’s Songs From the Stars, Orson Scott Card’s Songmaster, Michael Bishop’s Eyes of Fire, Ian Watson’s The Gardens of Delight, Keith Roberts’s Molly Zero (post), James P. Hogan’s Thrice Upon a Time, M.A. Foster’s Waves, Jean Lorrah and Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s First Channel and John Shirley’s City Come a Walking.

My opinion is that you could throw a dart into that paragraph anywhere and find a better nominee than the ones we have. The ones I’ve written posts about would clearly be my choices, along with the Wolfe. Oh dear, Hugos, you are letting me down badly here.

Locus Fantasy Award went to Lord Valentine’s Castle — it feels like fantasy, in the same was as Lord of Light and for that matter The Shadow of the Torturer. But they are all three SF.

Nominees not mentioned so far: Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Wounded Land, Roger Zelazny’s Changeling, Elizabeth Lynn’s The Northern Girl, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity, Ursula Le Guin’s The Beginning Place. Suzy McGee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry, Tanith Lee’s Kill the Dead and Sabella, Fred Saberhagen’s Thorn, Manly Wade Wellman’s After Dark, M. John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings, William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, Glen Cook’s All Darkness Met, Basil Cooper’s Necropolis, and Lyndon Hardy’s The Master of Five Magics.

Locus First Novel Award went to Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg. Other notable nominees are John M. Ford’s Web of Angels, David Brin’s Sundiver, Rudy Rucker’s White Light, Joan Slonczewski’s Still Forms on Foxfield, and Gillian Bradshaw’s Hawk of May. If the Hugo list had been five of these I’d still have been asking where the Wolfe was, but otherwise I’d have been happy.

The Mythopoeic Award went to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, which seems a little recursive—it’s for work “in the spirit of the Inklings.” Nominees not previously mentioned Joy Chant’s Grey Mane of Morning and Morgan Llewellyn’s The Lion of Ireland.

So, was there anything else? There’s Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, (post), and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, (post) both published as mainstream but wonderful readable genre books that would have graced the Hugo ballot—and I expect they’d have had some chance of being nominated for the Nebula if they’d been American books.

So this was a great year, with lots of good books, and there’s no excuse for nominating the feeble offerings that made the ballot.

Other Categories


  • “Lost Dorsai,” Gordon R. Dickson (Destinies Vol. 2, No. 1, Feb.-Mar. 1980)
  • “All the Lies that Are My Life,” Harlan Ellison (F&SF Nov 1980; Underwood-Miller)
  • “The Brave Little Toaster,” Thomas M. Disch (F&SF Aug 1980)
  • “Nightflyers,” George R. R. Martin (Analog Apr 1980)
  • “One-Wing,” Lisa Tuttle & George R. R. Martin (Analog Jan/Feb 1980)

You know, whatever happens with the novels, the novella category always seems to have great stuff. It’s true that this is where a lot of the life of the genre has always been.


  • “The Cloak and the Staff,” Gordon R. Dickson (Analog Aug 1980)
  • “The Autopsy,” Michael Shea (F&SF Dec 1980)
  • “Beatnik Bayou,” John Varley (New Voices III)
  • “The Lordly Ones,” Keith Roberts (F&SF Mar 1980)
  • “Savage Planet,” Barry B. Longyear (Analog Feb 1980)
  • “The Ugly Chickens,” Howard Waldrop (Universe 10)

On the other hand, one of the best Varley stories ever, a great Roberts story and an awesome Waldrop one and they give it to one of Dickson’s more forgettable pieces? Maybe the nominators and voters at Denver were an odd lot.


  • “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” Clifford D. Simak (Analog Apr 1980)
  • “Cold Hands,” Jeff Duntemann (Asimov’s Jun 1980)
  • “Guardian,” Jeff Duntemann (Asimov’s Sep 1980)
  • “Our Lady of the Sauropods,” Robert Silverberg (Omni Sep 1980)
  • “Spidersong,” Susan C. Petrey (F&SF Sep 1980)


  • Cosmos, Carl Sagan (Random House)
  • Di Fate’s Catalog of Science Fiction Hardware, Vincent Di Fate & Ian Summers (Workman)
  • Dream Makers, Charles Platt (Berkley)
  • In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978, Isaac Asimov (Doubleday)
  • Walter A. Willis, edited by Richard Bergeron (for Richard Bergeron)

I want to say I’d have voted for the Asimov, which in fact I didn’t read for another seven years, whereas I did read Cosmos then and it was good. Again, these things are not much like each other and make an odd kind of category, hard to evaluate.


  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Cosmos (TV series)
  • Flash Gordon
  • The Lathe of Heaven
  • The Martian Chronicles (TV series)


  • Edward L. Ferman
  • Jim Baen
  • Terry Carr
  • Stanley Schmidt
  • George Scithers


  • Michael Whelan
  • Vincent Di Fate
  • Steve Fabian
  • Paul Lehr
  • Don Maitz


  • Locus, Charles N. Brown
  • File 770, Mike Glyer
  • Science Fiction Chronicle, Andrew Porter
  • Science Fiction Review, Richard E. Geis
  • Starship, Andrew Porter

File 770 is nominated this year too. Good for three decades.


  • Susan Wood
  • Richard E. Geis
  • Mike Glyer
  • Arthur D. Hlavaty
  • Dave Langford


  • Victoria Poyser
  • Alexis Gilliland
  • Joan Hanke-Woods
  • Bill Rotsler
  • Stu Shiffman


  • Somtow Sucharitkul
  • Kevin Christensen
  • Diane Duane
  • Robert L. Forward
  • Susan C. Petrey
  • Robert Stallman

I think Somtow is an excellent winner, as I said last week. I also talked about Duane last week.

Robert Forward was an aerospace engineer who wrote excellent hard SF for years—he was a mainstay of Analog until his death in 2002.

Susan Petrey had a Hugo-nominated short story in 1981, but she was already at the end of her short career, she died in 1980. There’s a scholarship fund named for her that raises money to send young writers to Clarion.

Robert Stallman had a 1981 Nebula nominated novel that I haven’t read, and I’m not familiar with his work generally.

I know nothing at all about Kevin Christensen.

So three good nominees, one career cut sadly short, and two don’t knows.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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