Oct 31 2010 10:14am

Hugo Nominees: 1955

1955 Hugo Awards trophyThere’s a kind of a trick fannish trivial pursuit question which is “Which is the worst book ever to win the Hugo?” The answer is They’d Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, 1955’s winner. I don’t know if the book deserves this reputation because I have not read it, because when absolutely everybody tells me that the jar contains marmelade all the way down, I don’t feel compelled to take the lid off. I have never heard a good word for this book—“Sometimes these things worked and sometimes they didn’t. This one didn’t”. The book is generally believed to be so awful that there are conspiracy theories about why it won. Goodness knows what the voters at Clevention in Cleveland in 1955 were thinking. The most sensible suggestion I’ve heard is Dave Langford’s—Clifton had written good short stories, the voters hadn’t read the novel and were going on past performance. In which case, oops. It isn’t in print. It is barely in the memory of having been in print. It’s quite clear that this has not stood the test of time.

1955, like 1953, did not release a list of nominees, so any guess as to what was in the voters minds is just a guess. The International Fantasy Award that year went to Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror For Observers. This is a brilliant undescribable book that would have been a solid Hugo winner—one of the best five books of any year. It’s in print in a gorgeous small press edition from Old Earth Books. The runner up was Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity! How could they not have voted for Mission of Gravity—sometimes described as the only genuine hard science fiction novel? It’s in print in an Orb edition, along with some stories set on the same planet.

Looking at 1954 novels on Wikipedia, I am instantly struck dumb with amazement. Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave, and The Broken Sword! Asimov’s The Caves of Steel! The Fellowship of the Ring! Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. Pohl and Kornbluth’s Search the Sky!

In young adult I see Heinlein’s The Star Beast, Norton’s The Stars Are Ours, Eleanor Camerson’s The Wonderful Flight To The Mushroom Planet, and C.S. Lewis’s The Horse And His Boy.

Also in SF I haven’t read but wouldn’t be surprised to see on a Hugo shortlist, E.E. “Doc” Smith Children of the Lens. L. Ron Hubbard’s To the Stars.

I could easily compile a Hugo shortlist out of these books—either a “Jo’s favourite five books published in 1954” or “What I imagine other people would have preferred” but in fact, any five of the books listed here would seem to me to be a pretty decent Hugo ballot that had stood the test of time. I’d somehow imagined with 1954 must have been a poor year, but it wasn’t, it was a vintage year. Wow.

The actual voters at Clevention inexplicably turned away from all these great things and chose They’d Rather Be Right. But the good news is, nobody has to argue about what the worst book to win the Hugo is. Ever. I’ve been in Hugo loser parties where people aren’t happy with what’s won, and then somebody mentions They’d Rather Be Right and we all cheer up, because at least it’s better than that.

Other Categories

Novelette: Walter M. Miller The Darfsteller. This is an absolutely brilliant short story from a writer on top of his form. Great choice. And hey, introduction of short fiction categories, what a good idea!

Short Story: Eric Frank Russell’s “Allamagoosa.” Absolute classic, one of the best short stories of all time. Does the excellence of the short fiction winners make the novel choice better or worse?

Magazine: Astounding, John W. Campbell. Astounding published both short fiction winners...and the novel winner.

Artist: Frank Kelly Freas.

Fanzine: Fantasy Times, James V. Taurasi and Ray Van Houten

The categories are getting to look a bit more like the categories we still know and love!

Next week, 1956, where we still don’t have nominees.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, 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.

Lil Shepherd
1. Lil Shepherd
I actually have a copy of "They'd Rather Be Right" on the shelves, and have read it, but can't remember anything about it except that it isn't half as good as Clifton's other famous novel, "Eight Keys to Eden" - and that both are well, rather Campbellian.
Vicki Rosenzweig
2. vicki

I've loved A Mirror for Observers for a very long time, and am glad it won the International Fantasy Award, because that helped keep it visible long enough for me to find it (sometime in the early 1980s). It may be time to reread that; it has the advantage of being a paperback and not 500 pages thick, so easier to carry around.

I can entirely see why they didn't vote for The Fellowship of the Ring, not because it's fantasy but because it's only part of the story.
David Dyer-Bennet
3. dd-b
The excellent short fiction choices don't make the novel choice better, but they do provide some evidence that the voters had a modicum of taste (or agreement with us).

What voting system was used that year? If it was a simple single non-transferrable vote, possibly the large number of excellent choices split the vote so widely that a dark horse slipped through. Ah; several comments online give the attendance of the convention as 38. That makes vote-splitting theories much easier to believe (though there could have been MORE voters than that, if they had supporting memberships back then, or even just if balloting by full members was done by mail in advance).

This book is actually cited in a Guardian blog entry at (which also takes for granted that it's the worst Hugo winner ever).
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
DD-B: I'm not sure what voting system was used. I heard a rumour that it was done at the Worldcon by show of hands! Very much not like today.
Mark Yon
5. Mark
Jo: the book is available under an alternate title: The Forever Machine. This is cut down from the original version in Astounding which was over 4 issues. Here in the UK we didn't see it in the UK editions until January-April 1955.

(I find it quite amusing to find there in the January 1955 UK edition an unintentionally humourous editorial titled, 'My Willie can do anything!" - not what you might think, but about Society and the Hydrogen Bomb!)

It is no doubt that as a Campbellian style story (and published in Astounding) it is pretty typical of the stories around it: Campbellian heroes, long on talk about the future, who solve issues through Science. Here the issue is of Bossy the hyper-computer and human fear of automation. There is an element of telepathy, very much a Campbell interest at the time. There is a Frankensteinian moment as Bossy finds a means of making humans near-immortal. The ending is typical Campbell: a lengthy speech declaring to the world that 'Bossy is only a tool' and that our future destiny lies not with Bossy but with what humans decide to do with Bossy.

Perhaps we should not be too hard on it with the benefit of our hindsight, especially when only 38 voted: it is a product of its age when Astounding reigned supreme - though it is that same hindsight that moves many of those you mention - for me, like you it seems, many of the others you mention are all well loved.
Lil Shepherd
6. Rob T.
It should be mentioned that Mission of Gravity was nominated for a Retro-Hugo in 2004 and "To the Stars" (as a novella) in 2001, both on the basis of appearances in Astounding in 1953 and 1950 respectively. Those magazine appearances make determining eligibility in a given year tricky, don't they? But I am loving this series, please don't stop!
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Mark: What do you mean "available"?

It's not in print under that title, though Amazon claim to have it available for $138.

This is a book that's about as out of print and unavailable as books get.
Lil Shepherd
8. RandolphF
They'd Rather Be Right is leavened by Clifton's humanism, but it is a very bad book. There is some parallel with Mirror there, but Mirror is a much better book in other respects. Clifton was far better at shorter lengths, perhaps because his novels did not get competent editing, though When They Come From Space still has a great deal to say about US politics. Clifton was a personnel manager for an unnamed computer company in Tennessee, and was right on the border of the conflict of between new and old worldviews there. I am guessing he worked for one of the firms associated with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and I would really like to know what firm it was.
Lil Shepherd
9. RandolphF
Oh, one correction to the above. Clifton used "humanist" to denote a worldview which put human egotism above reality. I am using the word in another sense, but would, if I had thought fast enough, used another word. He would not have been pleased to be described as a "humanist." For which, my apologies to his shade.
Mark Yon
10. Mark
That teaches me to write shorthand: I meant 'Available', as in that should you wish to read a version of it, it is still about as a book retitled The Forever Machine, though admittedly that is an edited version of the original. Last time I looked it was there at Amazon (other retailers are available.)

The original is 'available', with a bit of searching, as a PB copy under the Starblazer label.

The tale in its Astounding form is about relatively cheaply in second hand copies of the 4 issues of the magazine - certainly cheaper than $138.
Lil Shepherd
11. Nicholas Waller
The book is pretty easily available second-hand: for The Forever Machine there are 23 copies on, some as low at $3.98 and ten under $10. As They’d Rather Be Right there are 43 results, one or two being various of the issues of the original serialisation.
Lil Shepherd
12. Neil in Chicago

If you want to decide on the must *unlucky* or ill-starred Hugo nominee, I champion Don Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (1982).  I really like it, but it was up against Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein . . . and Wolfe and Cherryh.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Neil: It'll be a few weeks yet before we get to 1982.
Lil Shepherd
14. Ramenth
Why do you hate Marmalade?
Bob Blough
15. Bob

You are absolutely right about the short fiction winners. "Darfstellar" is the short story from the Asimov collections that made me want to read all the nominees. And the novel is terrible - but it has been reprinted in the 80's I think so not that hard to find. But don't bother. It's right up there with the hugo nominated "Black Genesis" by L. Ron Hubbard. (Another "do not read" book- thank goodness it didn't win in 1987.)
By the way Lord of the Flies came out in 1954. Some people consider that to be fantasy/science fiction. John Clute considers it a classic of SF.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Ramenth: I think it's the way "orange" doesn't combine well with "sweet", but the peel also isn't doing it any favours.

Bob: Lord of the Flies is SF, because I don't get to say things I don't like aren't SF any more than mainstream people get to say things they do like aren't. But it wouldn't have been nominated for a Hugo in any normal year, because SF readers generally hate it.
Cathy Mullican
17. nolly
Well, I haven't yet read They'd Rather Be Right in any incarnation, but it would have to be pretty dreadful indeed to be worse than The Wanderer, which is one of the most dreadful books I've ever read, and certainly the worst Hugo winner I've read so far.
René Walling
18. cybernetic_nomad
I think I fall in the group of SF readers who don't like Lord of the Flies, in fact, I use it as an example to explain why I prefer SF to mainstream fiction when I talk with readers who don't read SF.

That said, I do recognize its qualities as a book, it's just that they're not what I'm looking for.
j p
19. sps49
nolly @17- If we mean Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer, I think it was a first novel to postulate a first contact to whom we didn't really matter to, making humanity appear insignificant.

Jo- I have read and re-read the Lensman stories, and I love them, but not even the closing book, Children of the Lens, shoud win a Hugo. Fun, imaginative, big damn objects and big damn events piled atop each other are there, but everything is right there on the surface- there isn't much depth or implied meaning.
jon meltzer
20. jmeltzer
Mark Clifton was this year's winner of Readercon's Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, so his career will be reviewed at next year's con.  I expect an "is this really the worst book ever to win a Hugo?" panel  ... 
Joe Romano
21. Drunes
Jo -- I love SF and love Lord of the Flies. I never considered it SF, though. I'm not even sure I consider it fantasy.
Cathy Mullican
22. nolly
sps49: Yes, that's the one, and that explains it a bit. But there's no excuse for the scene which includes this exchange:
male general, after ripping her blouse open: I thought you were a lesbian.
female colonel: I am. But that's not all I am.

The scenes ends with them drowning while choking each other while having sex.

It's just horrid.
Jo Walton
23. bluejo
Drunes: It's definitely not fantasy by any rational definition, but speculation set in the future is SF. It's meant to be the near future of 1954. There's an unsubtle parallel that they are left on that island rediscovering savagery because there's a nuclear war in the wider world rediscovering savagery on a larger scale. (In the nicest possible way -- This is the kind of thing you miss by skimming.)
Joe Romano
24. Drunes
Jo -- Believe it or not, I read Lord of the Flies long before I discovered the joys of skimming so I read every word in it. It's also one of the few books I've re-read. I attended Catholic high school and it was required reading in religion class not English. The religious symbolism is so great in this book that I guess I missed the SF content and can't think of it as anything but a modern parable on the fallacy of civilization. (This is a joke to myself more than anything else: kyrie eleison. )

And thanks for the gentle ribbing -- I probably deserve it.
J Wilson
25. bluestraggler
I know we're on a publisher website and all, but whenever you talk about a book not being available because you can't buy it, check with your library. WorldCat shows hundreds of academic and public libraries with a copy. Though based on this post I'm not sure it's worth it even for free...
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
Bluestraggler: I am one of the most enthusiastic users of libraries in the world, I adore libraries and I thoroughly recommend using them to everyone who doesn't hurt books and can return them safely. (If I had to choose between libraries and bookshops I'd choose libraries. But I'm glad I don't have to.)

My point in re availability here isn't whether it's possible to find a copy -- it's whether the book has stood the test of time. Being in print is a fast and dirty measure of whether people still think it's worth reading. It isn't an infallible one -- some excellent books are out of print. But it is a useful indicator all the same.

(Having just checked, They'd Rather Be Right, or the Forever Machine isn't available in my library system either.)
Lil Shepherd
28. Raskonikov
I've read They'd Rather Be Right. It's not hugely good, and has become very dated, but it's not terrible.

Quite unlike Starship Troopers and Stranger in A Strange Land, for instance. I have to regard claims of Clifton's as the worst Hugo winner ever as totally bonkers. At least it has a half-way credible attempt at characterization, which is certainly more than can be said of Heinlein's "classics".
29. jonasc
hate to keep veering away from the topic, but it's a huge weight off my chest to see that others didn't like Lord of the Flies either. I felt like I was the only one in my English class that didn't like it... I remember we had a debate with me trying to explain my point of view and two dozen other people telling me I was wrong.
Lil Shepherd
30. Robert Tout
"Mission of Gravity" should have won, but the judges would rather be right--- even though they were WRONG!
Cathy Mullican
31. nolly
I liked, but did not love, Lord of the Flies, but I last read it in high school, and missed the nuclear war part. I wonder if it's more subtle to those of us who grew up without nuclear war being as imminent a threat? The cold war was still on when I was in elementary school, but the Wall fell when I was in junior high, and the Soviet Union collapsed before I started college. Even in elementary, we didn't do "nuclear drills" or whatever, though that was probably as much because the science had advanced enough that they knew such things were useless.

Or maybe I just wasn't reading deeply enough at that age.
René Walling
32. cybernetic_nomad
@30.Robert Tout

There are no judges who decide who wins the Hugo Awards, they are voted on by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention (aka Worldcon). The only thing you need to do to vote is become a member of the Worldcon (you don't even need to show up, but I can tell you it's more fun if you do ). More information on the nomination and voting process may be found here.

You can get more information on the 2011 Worldcon here, if you do want to become a member and take part in the nominating and voting process for next year's Hugos.
Ron Hogan
33. RonHogan
Moff read They'd Rather Be Right for io9 last year, and makes it sound at least somewhat interesting, especially the juxtaposition with Atlas Shrugged as an example of "The Novel with a Message."
Lil Shepherd
34. HaveSomeRespect
I think its pretty poor of Jo Walton to report this book as the worst Hugo winner and at the same time glibly say she has not read it! I am not sure that making a weak parallel to a jar of marmalade really justifies a lack of research, let alone supports the idea that this series is a review . . . If you haven't read it, just report others as thinking its bad - don't make a hoop-la about it based on what others have said.
Jo Walton
35. bluejo
HaveSomeRespect: I think you've misunderstood the purpose of this series. This isn't a set of reviews of Hugo winners -- there are others I haven't read -- it's a set of posts about how well the winners (and nominees) represent their years. As I said in the introduction, if I haven't read them I will say so and I will say why. Saying "I haven't read this because it is widely reputed to be terrible" is making a statement about how posterity has judged this book.

I'm not going to be reading anything new for this -- there have been plenty of projects where people have read all the Hugo winners. This is something else. If it's not what you want, try the io9 Hugo series.
Lil Shepherd
36. That Neil Guy
It's available as a kindle download for less than five bucks, if you want to take a chance on it:
Michael Walsh
37. MichaelWalsh
Hey, thanks for the kind words about my reprinting of Pangborn's MIRROR. The book is printed on acid-free paper, sewn signatures, cloth binding. It will last longer than you!

As for questions regarding how voting was done and the size of the Worldcon that year, let me note that the official Worldcon site indicates a memberhip of 380, not 38 as one of the correspondents mentioned above. See: for details.

As for the voting system, all is revealed here: .

Until about 1963 the rules for categories, who could nominate and vote, all was left up to the Worldcon for that year.
Michael Walsh
38. MichaelWalsh
... and as for reading They'd Rather Be Right, I read it ... er ... ages ago, and while it wasn't great (and really should not have even been nominated) I don't recall throwing it against the wall; something I have done with just one book.
Clark Myers
40. ClarkEMyers
19 - nolly @17- If we mean Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer, I think it was a first novel to postulate a first contact to whom we didn't really matter to, making humanity appear insignificant.

I'd have said The Wanderer is one in a long line (cf The Black Cloud from 1957).
I'd go on to say that it seems to me the Hugo, particularly the earlier Hugo was an idiosyncratic award by a small group and like many small group selections swings, even gyrates, widely - selecting first for one thing then another -
Thus a particular year might choose a Hugo winner for novelty and another year might choose a Hugo winner for familiarity.
- I'd have no problem giving a Hugo as a fan favorite to E.E. "Doc" Smith -see e.g. The Number of the Beast for a brief introduction to some youthful favorites likely to be familiar to fond readers of Mr. Heinlein - I'd suggest the Hugo could be thus seen in contrast the Nebula Award (beginning in 1965). Similarly among early best of selections Judith Merrill's selections tended to be much more literary for some values of literary - these might be compared with say best of Astounding/Analog collections. All this eventually leading to a New Wave. Thus a particular year might choose a Hugo winner for novelty appeal and another year might choose a Hugo winner for familiarity.
Lil Shepherd
41. HaveSomeRespect
>>HaveSomeRespect: I think you've misunderstood
>>the purpose of this series. This isn't a set of reviews
>>of Hugo winners -- there are others I haven't read
>>-- it's a set of posts about how well the winners (and
>> nominees) represent their years.

Ok - I apologise if this comment was off-kilter. But it still seems a bit odd to review books on hearsay: whether it is to judge their quality, which you have implicitly done here by reporting other's opinions without investigating them - or to review the book for how well it represent its year without reading it . . .
Lil Shepherd
42. Shirley Dulcey
As somebody pointed out, magazine serializations can make it difficult to figure out eligibility of a lot of older titles. Brain Wave, Children Of The Lens, The Caves Of Steel, Mission Of Gravity, and To The Stars were all serialized earlier and thus ineligible to compete in 1955. (The Caves Of Steel and Mission Of Gravity were both on the Retro Hugo ballot for 1953 books at Noreascon 4, losing to Fahrenheit 451. The ballot also included Childhood's End and More Than Human. Now THAT was a year!)

One book that IS eligible is Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers, serialized in 1954 and published as a book in 1955.

LOTR wasn't well known to US fans in 1954, most probably didn't consider Lord Of The Flies to be SF, and I don't think they were paying much attention to Pangborn. (The Hugo voters may not have also cared much for LOTR; they were more hostile to pure fantasy back then.) That leaves us with such stellar works as Operation: Outer Space (Murray Leinster), plus the books you mentioned in your post.

So the honest answer: They'd Rather Be Right probably won because of the lack of options that the SF fans of the time considered better. The available choices were fantasy (which they didn't like or hadn't heard of) and second-rate titles by authors who had done better work (Search The Sky, all of that year's juveniles).

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