Revisiting the Hugos

Hugo Nominees: 1953

Between 1953 and 1958 the Hugo Awards were fairly disorganized. The categories weren’t fixed, and there was only one round of voting—no nominees were announced. The 1953 first ever Hugo awards were presented at Philcon II, in Philadelphia.

The winning novel was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. (Review here.) It’s not in print, but it was recently, in Gollancz’s Science Fiction Masterworks series, and it’s never been hard to find. I read it when I was reading my way through science fiction in alphabetical order when I was twelve. It’s an examination of how it might be possible to commit a murder in a world of telepaths where not even your thoughts are private. There are some aspects of it that seem dated, but I’d say it was an enduring classic, and a worthy winner.

So, what else might have been considered?

The International Fantasy Awards for 1953 had three nominees, all of which I think might well have been Hugo nominees too. The winner was Clifford Simak’s City, one of his best books, a gentle pastoral typically Simak story of post-civilization. It was a fix-up of short stories published in the forties, put into novel form for the first time. It’s in print in a beautiful small press hardcover from Old Earth Books.

The other nominees were Kurt Vonnegut’s first and very science fictional novel Player Piano, and C.M. Kornbluth’s Takeoff. Player Piano, like most of Vonnegut, has leanings towards both surealism and science fiction, but was published as mainstream. It is still in print. Takeoff was one of Doubleday’s early attempts at doing hardcover science fiction. Takeoff is not in print, and isn’t one of Kormbluth’s best known works. I honestly can’t remember if I’ve read it or not. I think I have but I don’t remember it. The interesting thing about both of these is the reminder that there really wasn’t much science fiction being published in book form back then—the real action was still in the magazines. It’s interesting that the Hugos emerged just as science fiction book publishing was getting established.

The 1954 International Fantasy Awards considered The Demolished Man and Sturgeon’s More Than Human. More Than Human should definitely have been a Hugo nominee if it was eligible. It’s another enduring classic, Sturgeon at his best and on his favourite topic.

It’s worth noting here that the Hugos and the International Fantasy Awards, a juried British award started in 1951, were the only awards there were in 1953, according to Locus’s awesome database. It’s easy to lose sight of that with the huge number of awards there are today.

Looking at the Wikipedia list of novels published in 1952, I see a few other things that might have made the shortlist. Asimov had two adult books out that year: The Currents of Space and Foundation and Empire. Both of them had had earlier magazine publication, both of them are in series, which might have impeded their chances. But they’re both in print, and I think they’re both fairly well known almost fifty years later. There was also A.E. Van Vogt’s gloriously pulpy The Weapon Makers. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this on the shortlist.

If we allow young adult and fantasy the way we do these days, then possibly E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader might have made it on. In straight SF juveniles we have Lester Del Rey’s Marooned on Mars, and Rocket Jockey, Clarke’s Islands in the Sky, Heinlein’s Space Family Stone (aka The Rolling Stones) or Asimov’s David Starr, Space Ranger.

Other possibilities about which I know nothing: John Taine The Crystal Horde and Raymond F. Jones This Island Earth.

So, did a good book win, worthy of the Hugo? I’d say yes. Was it the best book of the year? Well, arguably. I’d argue for City or More Than Human, or Foundation and Empire, but I certainly don’t have any problem with The Demolished Man is a winner. Was anything left out of the shortlist? Well, since there was no shortlist, everything was.

Other Categories

Best Professional Magazine was won by Astounding and Galaxy—clearly a tie. The interesting thing to me is that there isn’t a category for professional magazines today. But Campbell’s Astounding and Gold’s Galaxy were unquestionably the best magazines of 1953. I think the real reason for stopping giving this award is that there just weren’t enough professional magazines at the time to make a good shortlist. You don’t just need five nominees, which they might have managed, you need a tail of things almost good enough, or which might be good enough next year. There should be at least ten worthy nominees for there to be a category.

There were two art categories, Best Interior Illustration, won by Virgil Finlay, and Best Cover Artist, won by Hannes Bok and Ed Emshwiller. My only comment is that this is another indication that we are still in the time of magazine prominence here. We don’t divide art by “interior” and “cover” any more.

Best New Author or Artist was Philip Jose Farmer, who had recently burst onto the scene and taken science fiction by storm. He wasn’t brand new in 1953, indeed he wouldn’t have been eligible by today’s Campbell rules as he’d been publishing for longer than two years. But he was a good winner nevertheless, as he certainly was near the start of his career and he became a major science fiction writer.

Excellence in Fact Articles went to Willy Ley—whose scientific articles were in fact excellent. No argument there. I’m not sure who any other nominees might have been—had Asimov started writing his Fantasy & Science Fiction science essays then?

And Fan Personality went to Forry Ackerman, who certainly was a memorable fan personality, who was a prominent fan then and remained a prominent fan until his death two years ago. So the Hugos certainly recognised lasting ability with this one.

There were no Hugo awards in 1954, so the next post will cover 1955.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. 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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