Review copy provided by Tor Books.
Once upon a time there was a teenager whose physics research equipment was broken two summers in a row, and she was stuck with a library on Library of Congress system, which is great for organization but terrible for browsing. And this kid decided that if she was going to do this SF writing thing, she should take it as seriously as physics–and she was the sort of physics kid who had research jobs at ages 18 and 19 to go wrong, so that was how seriously she took physics. So…there was the list of Hugo nominees and winners. And the list of Nebula nominees and winners. And a lot of long summer hours reading them when there was no possibility of getting physics done. And a lot of wandering off down side tracks when I liked a particular author or work very much, or even just when the library had a lot by that person.
I sometimes refer to myself as my misspent youth, but it’s actually stood me in really good stead for the career I ended up having, which is 0% physicist and 100% SF writer. It also means that when I read a lengthy discussion of the history of the Hugos, I have a good grounding in who’s doing what when. This book was a kind of perspective all at once that I didn’t have, though, even with having glanced at the original Tor.com posts that comprise it. It was a fun, fast read despite its considerable size, and it left me with some thoughts I assemble for you here in no particular order.
Jo Walton is a nicer person than I am. Okay, I should have put in the disclaimer that she’s a dear friend, also, but that’s not why I’m saying this. Loads of my friends are not as nice a person as I am. (Not very nice to say that, but at the same time I can guarantee at least a dozen people are nodding happily along thinking, “She means me,” without the least trouble to their consciences.) But there were several places where Jo said, “I haven’t read this, but I’m sure it’s great,” and I said aloud to the book, “I HAVE and it’s NOT.” She gives a lot of wiggle room, a lot of benefit of the doubt. What she does not do is pretend to have read anything she hasn’t actually read, which is great, more people should be clear about what they haven’t read.
One of the fascinating things to me was watching the “I read this stuff when it was new” line kick in at a different place for Jo than it did for me. I knew hypothetically that books look different when they are ground-breaking for you than when they’re part of the status quo, but wow, there it all was. John Varley, for example, was always part of the world I could expect, one of the things stories just did–whereas for Jo and a few of the commenters who were adding to her posts, there was a period of adding those works to their world concept. It changes a lot. There are all sorts of definitions of a book “holding up” with time, many of which are discussed in this volume, but I think one of the interesting questions on that front is: how does it do as a novel if the concepts (stylistic or science fictional or whatever) that were startling have become familiar to the reader?
Another thing that became startlingly clear to me when I was seeing the lists of what came out in a particular year of my childhood all at once: it used to be that most of my reading was in one of two categories: the men I was reading because I was told they were the good stuff you read if you were serious about SFF, and the women I read because I found them on my own and wanted to. It was not quite that stark, but…it sure felt pretty stark when I was looking at the lists of Hugo nominees and thinking, oh yes, I remember reading that…and then looking at the lists of what else was published and thinking, oh, I loved that! oh, that changed my life!
One of the major questions Jo addresses in this book is: how representative was each slate of nominees of what the field was doing at the time? And this is a question that I found fascinating in this format and…literally could not care less about in real time. Reading about it in this format clarified how little I care about that. It was an interesting point of consideration academically; in the field, inasmuch as I care about awards at all, I care about people trying to give them to the things they like best, or to the things that fit some other criteria that is specified for the award. So: does it represent the field? Is it “the kind of book that wins a Hugo”? I don’t care. I literally could not care less. Award the books you think are good. Period and full stop.
This is the sort of book that makes more dent than the sum of its blog posts. It was different reading it all at once than once a week (or less, since I wasn’t totally assiduous about this). It’s the sort of thing that you should read if you want an overview of what’s been done and how it was valued in the 20th century, but especially if you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time talking about–arguing about–science fiction and fantasy. Because even if you’re not arguing much with Jo herself, the very substance of what she’s talking about here can start a hundred discussions–or arguments–if you want it to. Perhaps it will become a party book: take the book down, read a randomly selected entry, discuss. People have done stranger things. People in my social circles, even.
Please consider using our link to buy An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 from Amazon.