There’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!
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.
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.