The Book as Archive: An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

Collecting the column series that ran from 2010-2013 on Tor.com, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 contains Jo Walton’s original year-by-year exploration posts, brief essays on select nominee novels, and occasional threaded comments from regular contributors such as Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, and Rich Horton. The result is a hefty, handsome hardcover that physically archives a digital experience. The crossplatform hybridity of the book is in and of itself fascinating and makes for a dragonfly-in-amber effect on reading.

It is not, then, a nonfiction book about the history of the Hugo awards (though of course it also is) but the archive of a conversation that has historical and critical resonances, a “personal look back” that doubles as a valuable reflection on an otherwise insufficiently documented moment in time. Since the original column ran the field has also lost David G. Hartwell (2016) and Gardner Dozois (2018). Their contributions here are preserved from the changeable digital medium, their voices in conversation surviving for future audiences.

Walton’s columns stopped at the year 2000, a wise choice that she explains as twofold: necessary both because that is around when she begins to enter award eligibility herself and because it’s impossible to approach recent events with the perspective of time. Those awards were given eighteen years ago now—and, for the record, I was only ten in 2000. This book’s span of coverage runs right up to the border of when I, to steal Walton’s own framing, began to read “adult” science fiction books.

From that angle, An Informal History of the Hugos is both a survey and a reflection: imprecise but full of affect. For me and certainly for a large contingent of readers and writers, the perspectives offered in conversation between Walton, Horton, and the late editors Hartwell and Dozois are invaluable. Those are the people themselves—the editors who were working with these pieces, voting in the award categories, attending the conventions and seeing the human moments on the floor. Those are bits of information that cannot be gleaned from a traditional survey approach like reading the winners or novels for each year in order, as Walton considers and discards in her introduction. Other comments are also occasional preserved as well, sometimes with screenname attached, where the contributor offered context or reflection to expand Walton’s own observations.

The personal and the critical are after all inseparable. In a textually mediated field, in literature as a whole, the recollections of the participants gain the heft of practice. These are people used to creating detail, structuring narrative, recording the emotion of the thing. Turned inevitably inward, this creates something like An Informal History of the Hugos. It is factual and the central column for each year contains little criticism. It’s primarily lists and the general commentary from Walton where she has something to note. However, it is this broad approach that gives the most useful stance from which to do critical work.

The purpose of the columns on original run was to survey not our contemporary response to the prior winners but to look at context: the context of other awards, other titles that didn’t get on the shortlist, other categories and squabbles and concerns in the process of awarding itself. Walton’s contribution here is to illustrate and flesh out the ground underneath the bland record of nominee-and-winner. I was particularly intrigued by the portion where Walton considers other novels and stories published during the eligibility period to see if something had been missed.

The evolution of the taste in nominees is also relevant to struggles continuing today between conservative or reactionary offshoots of the genre and progressive extrapolation—and, in a more general sense, the cultural movements reflected in the writing of the time. Art reflects culture and culture reflects art. The constant push and pull of creation and subversion has no start or close but it is visible in the nominee lists. Octavia Butler’s science fiction appeared with unfortunate frequency in the “what else might voters have chosen?” lists, though Walton also notes as time goes on that the Hugo voters do seem to begin to evolve out of the habit of nominating disappointing books by genre luminaries in favor of original voices.

Walton is also conversational in her critical approach. She notes which books she has not read, whether they’re in her local library and in what languages, whether she has contemporaneous memories of things people were discussing surrounding the stories. The open and honest admission of subjectivity is refreshing; so often critical or historical surveys fail to acknowledge that objectivity is more fantastical than dragons. Walton is open about disliking famous books, makes regular asides to her irritation with the “dramatic presentation” categories, admits a total disinterest in the sort of characters Phillip K. Dick writes about, and is unafraid to throw her hands up in despair at the nominees voters chose in some years.

The elisions and gaps in coverage, the personal approach to the short essays on books Walton has read and the things they offered her either at the time or on rereading, contributes to the sense of this project as an archive. It is a unique, individual, time-limited aggregation of a conversation between people about their memories, their books, their passions, and their pasts together with those things. As such, it also creates a history—one that is valuable to the field for its personal approach as much as its factual observations. I’m glad to have this physical text to memorialize and maintain the digital web that it flattens and pins to the board for collection. The hardcover is a different art object than the columns and their lengthy threads of comment and conversation, but it’s a static snapshot of those things for posterity, and that’s useful as well.

An Informal History of the Hugos is available from Tor Books.
Read the introduction to the collection here.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone TellingClarkesworldApex, and Ideomancer.

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