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07.21.04

The 1954 Racing Form, Sci-Fi Style

3. The Daily Double

Now I'm going to really tell you why the 1954 Retro Hugos are both the long-overdue correction to an (almost) oversight, and not really the same thing at all.

First, as I said, there are more of us, many many more, than there would have been of them, i.e. a theoretical bunch of voters in 1954. Go look at the attendance figures three years either side of that date.

Second, it was possible, then, to read every SF book that came out. There weren't that many of them. It was the exact opposite with the magazines. There were lots — too many, in fact, and the number would keep increasing, until just before the distribution bust of 1958, there would be 38 of them on the stands — monthlies, bimonthlies, quarterlies, annuals, and irregulars. Take a look at the fiction ballot: Three came form Galaxy, four from Astounding, two from F&SF, two from Star SF Stories, which was a paperback book. But two others came from Beyond Science Fiction one each from If, Authentic (which was Scottish, I think), Universe (ed. Larry Shaw) and Space Science Fiction. There were so many magazines they could theoretically all end up with something good in any given year. The problem today is wading through the merde meringue that is SF and Fantasy book publishing to find the good stuff; the problem then was looking for the good stuff in the pleroma of magazines. Even the most obscure could hold a few surprises (Three years before, Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" had come out in a semi-prozine with a newsstand distribution in the hundreds...) You could keep up with the books in those days — many reprint anthologies and novels (after serialization in the magazines) in hardcover; paperback reprints and originals — those were in every drugstore on a spinner-rack, or at the library. I was around eight, and I read everything I could understand at the Cooper Memorial Library in Arlington, Texas, in the bookcase with the rocket on it. (The word "fandom" was a mysterious one used occasionally by T.E.Dikty in his Year's Best SF and Novels series...)

Third: the fans who would have voted in 1954 were mostly, you know, guys. And younger ones at that. The average in fandom has risen, like everything else, with the postwar curve. Baby boomers like myself hadn't hit ten yet; the people doing the hypothetical 1954 voting would have been born in the 1930s (a 17-year-old in 1954 would have been born in 1937, the year Campbell took over Astounding.) Most would have been in their 20s and 30s; they would have grown up with SF as a magazine genre. They would have lived through WWII, and they would have been a generation older and more beat-up than their true years. And they were mostly guys. The great good influx of women in the field, both as fans and writers, didn't occur til the 60s and beyond. It changed both fandom and publishing. SF (with the, of course, usual exceptions) had been a Boys' and Old School Tie Club up until then (if you can think of the Futurians etc. being in any way characterizable by any collective noun...)

Fourth: we (the Now people who nominated the Retro Hugos) are not the people who would have done so in 1954. In no way, shape, or form. Probably half the nominators are female, older, and better educated than those guys would have been. The same with the guys, now. We are not the people of 50 years ago. The world has changed at least twice since then.

Fifth: we have 50 years of hindsight. We have read and seen everything since (influenced by the very works we here nominated.) The Clarke who wrote Childhood's End and "The Nine Billion Names of God" is the same Arthur C. Clarke who would write 2001: A Space Odyssey, only not even he knew that. We know that, and it influences our perceptions of the entity called Arthur C. Clarke and his presence on the ballot. The Asimov here had already done the Foundation series and most of the Robot stories; he was not yet the guy whose picture and name were on a magazine every month. The Philip K. Dick on the ballot had written about two stories: he was not yet the major writer he would become. These movies are not the ne plus ultra of SF cinema (except of course "Duck Dodgers..."), they were mileposts on the way to Star Wars (no matter what you think of that) and CE3K...

We know who will die, sooner or later, and when. We know what they will accomplish in the time allotted to them — whether they wandered off into the swamps (a couple) after doing the best works, or died with better works still ahead of them. As I said — there are seven living nominees, and we lost 6 more of them only within the last 5 years...

This is a burden on the voter. Every year, at all the awards, we're firing blind: is this the best thing this person is ever going to write/do? Should we give it to a geezer whose last shot this may be to see one, after a career of 2nd places? Do we honor longevity over skill? A further conundrum each year: is this story a fluke? Someone's had a mediocre career up to this minute and then does something truly good — is this the only time they'll ever do that? Are they young and have plenty of time, or are they young and will croak on a ham and cheese sandwich the day after we vote?

None of these apply to the Retro Hugos. Either they're still alive and kicking, or their careers stretched a large portion of the time between then and now. We know how each and every one of them turned out. There is no doubt Bixby never again wrote anything as swell as "It's a Good Life!", one of those perfect stories that come to a few writers once in a lifetime, and to most, never. We know that Campbell's best days had ended by the early 1960s — he still got the best work he was going to get out of his writers, and the first crawling-up-from-the-mud works of new writers, flawed as they were (mine). But there were too many competitors and too many writers who wanted to try something besides "the Astounding/Analog story"....

This puts The Burden of History on the voter (who is not the voter True History would have worked itself through.) Several times in that future, including a lot of the Eighties, and very, very recently, the voters embarrassed themselves and gave awards to pieces of fiction or individuals that will shame us ten, five, even one year down the pike. (Most notably two years on from this Retro Hugo when they gave it to Clifton and Riley's They'd Rather Be Right, and then with some of the joke-stories that won in the Eighties...)

This is the Watchbird watching the voters of the 80s. This is the Watchbird watching YOU vote the Retro Hugos in 2004....

Please do the Watchbird proud.

Given all this, how should you vote?

Do you honor the living, who have hung around to see this oversight partially corrected? Do you honor the living (as we hope) whose best work this is on the ballot? Do you honor the best work and be damned where the X-mark falls? Do you pay homage to the dead because, damnit, they didn't live to see the award? Do you try to Uplift the SF Race by voting the work that lit the fire in your mind, whether it's the proper, popular choice or not?

How do you rate what lives, what dies? (Remember — it's an US who chose this ballot not some THEM from 1954.) There's not a story on the ballot that isn't available in some anthology or collection somewhere. The fiction has lived this long. (Well, the novella versions of the Anderson and Blish have been subsumed in the novels, and the longer Sturgeon is a little harder to find than the short story...)

I do hope that if you're going to vote in the Retro Hugos you will give it Your Best Shot with (to mangle a metaphor) one eye on history, and one on the present, and with both your Janus-faces turned towards the Future...

Next time: Criswell Predicts!!!

 


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Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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