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Jo Walton

Fiction and Excerpts [14]

Fiction and Excerpts [14]

An Informal History of the Hugos

The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been given out since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious awards in science fiction.

Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s inception up to the year 2000. Her contention was that each year’s full set of finalists generally tells a meaningful story about the state of science fiction at that time.

Walton’s cheerfully opinionated and vastly well-informed posts provoked valuable conversation among the field’s historians. Now these posts, lightly revised, have been gathered into An Informal History of the Hugos, along with a small selection of the comments posted by SF luminaries such as Rich Horton, Gardner Dozois, and the late David G. Hartwell. We’re pleased to share Walton’s introduction to the collection below. Available August 7th from Tor Books.

[Read an Excerpt]

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning Is A Future Worth Having

I read Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning four times before it was even published.

It’s quite a common experience when you’re a teenager to read a book that blows you away, that causes the top of your head to come off and your brain to rearrange itself and be a better more interesting brain thereafter. I’ve talked about this a lot, both in posts here and also fictionally in Among Others, it’s one of the fundamental experiences of the SF reading kid. It’s a much less common experience when you’re grown up. I read books now and I think “Oh I like this! This is a really great example of that thing”. I may get immersed in a book and hyperventilate but I won’t finish a book and think “Wait, who am I? Why is the world like this? Do I even have a head?” This did that to me, it gave me that experience of reading SF when SF was new to me, the feeling that I am a different and better person because I read this, and not only that but a better and more ambitious writer.

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Read Jo Walton’s “Sleeper”

History is a thing we make—in more senses than one. And from more directions.

We’re pleased to reprint “Sleeper,” a dystopian science fiction short story from Jo Walton. Acquired and edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and originally published on in August 2014, “Sleeper” is available in Starlings, a collection of Walton’s fiction and poetry forthcoming from Tachyon Publications on February 13th.

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Bright the Hawk’s Flight on the Empty Sky: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin was of course immensely important to science fiction, and beyond that to literature. The wider world of letters has recognized her significance a little bit in the last few years, with the Library of America volumes, and with the National Book Award. Within the SF community she’d been recognised and appreciated for much longer. She was the first woman to win a Best Novel Hugo, for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, and the first woman to win it twice, with The Dispossessed in 1974. She widened the space of science fiction with what she wrote. She got in there with a crowbar and expanded the field and made it a better field. She influenced everybody who came along afterwards, even if it was a negative influence of reacting against her. Delany wrote Triton to argue with The Dispossessed. And all of us who grew up reading her were influenced. Even people who have never read her have been influenced by her secondary influence, in terms of how much more it’s possible to do because she broke that ground.

We all remake our genre every time we write it. But we’re building on what’s gone before. Le Guin expanded the possibilities for all of us, and then she kept on doing that. She didn’t repeat herself. She kept doing new things. She was so good. I don’t know if I can possibly express how good she was. Part of how important she was, was that she was so good that the mainstream couldn’t dismiss SF any more. But she never turned away from genre fiction. She continued to respect it and insist on it being respectable if she was to be seen so.

[She’s even greater than that.]

Shared History: Revisiting Long Book Series

I’m re-reading C.J. Cherryh’s Atevi books—there are nine of them, and another three promised, which makes them one of the longer SF series around. (Editor’s note: this article was originally published in 2008; as of 2017, there are 18 Atevi novels and 2 short stories.) I was thinking, as I made my way through book 2, Invader, that there are some things about a long series, any long series, that are quite different from an individual novel, perhaps in the same way an individual novel is different from a short story.

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Pastoral Apocalypse: Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow

When the 1956 Hugo nominees were rediscovered, I realised I’d never read Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow. I’d read other Brackett and not been very impressed, and never picked this one up. But since it was a Hugo nominee, and since I trust the Hugo nominators to pick the best five books of the year, most of the time, and since it was the first fiction nominee by a woman, and easily and inexpensively available as an e-book, I grabbed it. And as soon as I started reading, it grabbed me. It’s great. I read it in one sitting this afternoon. I couldn’t put it down and it has given me plenty to think about. For a fifty-two-year-old book, what more can you ask? I still think the voters were right to give the award to Double Star, but I might have voted this ahead of The End of Eternity.

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The Power of Princesses: Robin McKinley’s The Door in the Hedge

The Door in the Hedge is a collection of four longish short stories, all reimaginations of fairytales, and first published in 1981. I must have first read it not long after that. Way back then, not many people were retelling fairytales, and the only other such book I’d come across was Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The Door in the Hedge isn’t that at all, and it’s interesting to think why not. They’re both unquestionably feminist reimaginations of the same kinds of European stories. But Carter was dragging her fairytales kicking and screaming and thrusting them bloody before us, while McKinley wants them still to be fairytales. Just… fairytales where the princesses have agency, where they are active and do things rather than having things done to them, but where they can still, after all, live happily ever after.

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Revisiting the Recently Rediscovered 1956 Hugo Awards Ballot

When I wrote my post in 2010 about the Hugos of 1956, the nominees for that year were lost in the mists of time. Last month they were found again, by Olav Rokne in an old Progress Report, which is very exciting, because it gives me the chance to compare what I thought they might be to what they really were. It’s great to be wrong, and goodness me I was wrong!

Here’s my thinking on Best Novel, from 2010:

Looking at the Wikipedia article on 1955 novels, I think there are six other likely books that might have been nominees: Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity (post), Frederic Brown’s Martians Go Home, Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight, Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s Gladiator-at-Law,  J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (post). All of these have since become classics, they’d all have been very worthy nominees. I don’t think any of them are better than Double Star, or likely to have been more popular.

[And here’s the rediscovered actual list of nominees…]

Series: Revisiting the Hugos

The Merry World of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a children’s book, for one thing, and it talks down to the reader. It’s not quite set in Middle-earth—or if it is, then it isn’t quite set in the Third Age. It isn’t pegged down to history and geography the way The Lord of the Rings is. Most of all, it’s a first work by an immature writer; journeyman work and not the masterpiece he would later produce. But it’s still an excellent book. After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.

If you are fortunate enough to share a house with a bright six year old, or a seven or eight year old who still likes bedtime stories, I strongly recommend reading them a chapter of The Hobbit aloud every night before bed. It reads aloud brilliantly, and when you do this it’s quite clear that Tolkien intended it that way. I’ve read not only The Hobbit but The Lord of the Rings aloud twice, and had it read to me once. The sentences form the rhythms of speech, the pauses are in the right place, they fall well on the ear. This isn’t the case with a lot of books, even books I like. Many books were made to be read silently and fast. The other advantage of reading it aloud is that it allows you to read it even after you have it memorised and normal reading is difficult. It will also have the advantage that the child will encounter this early, so they won’t get the pap first and think that’s normal.

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A Moment in a Life: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Day Before the Revolution”

I have always loved “The Day Before the Revolution,” now online to celebrate the Library of America two volume edition of Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories.

I first read it in the British collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters Volume 2, in 1979, where it is the concluding story and the best of a very very good set of stories. I had already read The Dispossessed and was thrilled to find this story set in the same world. But that’s not why I loved it.

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Why is Genre Fiction Obsessed with Belisarius?

I once wrote jokingly here that there are only three plots, and they are Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, and Belisarius, because those are the ones everyone keeps on reusing.

There is a conference in Uppsala in Sweden the weekend before the Helsinki Worldcon called “Reception Histories of the Future” which is about the use of Byzantium in science fiction. The moment I heard of it, I immediately started thinking about our obsessive reuse of the story of Belisarius. (I’m going. Lots of other writers are going. If you’re heading to Helsinki, it’s on your way, and you should come too!)

It’s strange that science fiction and fantasy are obsessed with retelling the story of Belisarius, when the mainstream world isn’t particularly interested. Robert Graves wrote a historical novel about him in 1938, Count Belisarius, and there’s Gillian Bradshaw’s The Bearkeeper’s Daughter (1987), but not much else. Whereas in genre, we’ve had the story of Belisarius retold by Guy Gavriel Kay, David Drake (twice) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and used by L. Sprague de Camp, John M. Ford, Jerry Pournelle, Robert Silverberg, and Isaac Asimov. So what is it about this bit of history that makes everyone from Asimov to Yarbro use it? And how is it that the only place you’re likely to have come across it is SF?

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Complicated Simplicity: Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep

It’s not that I think A Fire Upon the Deep is perfect, it’s just that it’s got so much in it. There are lots of books that have fascinating universes, and there are lots of first contact novels, and there are lots of stories with alien civilizations and human civilizations and masses of history. The thing that makes A Fire Upon the Deep so great is that is has all these things and more, and it’s integrated into one thrilling story. It has the playful excitement and scope of pulp adventure together with the level of characterisation of a really good literary work, and lots of the best characters are aliens.

It really is the book that has everything. Galaxy spanning civilizations! Thousands of kinds of aliens! Low bandwidth speculation across lightyears! Low tech development of a medieval planet! Female point of view characters! A universe where computation and FTL travel are physically different in different places! An ancient evil from before the dawn of time and a quest to defeat it! A librarian, a hero, two intelligent pot plants, a brother and sister lost among aliens, and a curious mind split between four bodies. And the stakes keep going up and up.

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The Tremendous Continuity of Science Fiction in Conversation With Itself

Please enjoy this encore post on this year’s science fiction, originally published August 2016.

Reading Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please,” which just won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, I was reminded of both John Varley’s 1984 “Press Enter” and Isaac Asimov’s 1956 “The Last Question”, as well as its direct call out to Bruce Sterling’s 1998 “Maneki Neko”. The narrator of “Cat Pictures Please” is consciously aware of its predecessors and engaging directly with them. That’s not to say it isn’t saying anything original. It could have been written at no other time and place and by no other person: it’s an original story by a terrific writer. But it’s adding another voice to an existing dialog, laying another story on the tower of work that precedes it, and in a way that shows how aware Kritzer is of all that preceding work. We’ve had a lot of stories about secretly emergent AI, all written with the technology and expectations of their times. This is one written now, with our technology, a new angle, a wider perspective, and a definite consciousness of what it’s adding to.

There’s a tremendous continuity within science fiction, where the genre constantly feeds on itself, reinvents itself, and revisits old issues in new ways as times and tech change. It’s fascinating to consider how today’s new stories are all things that could never have been written at any earlier time and simultaneously deeply influenced by everything that has come before. The old work of the genre is the mulch out of which the new work grows. A great deal of science fiction is about the future—a future fleshed out in the present, and built on the bones of the past. Every present moment has a different imagination of the way the future might play out, and that gives us constant novelty. But because many of the issues and tropes of science fiction remain relevant, there is also a constant process of reexamination, a replacement of old answers with new answers to the same questions.

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