A Different View of the Early Hugo Awards (Part 1.)

Chapter 1: Beginnings: 1953 & Before

Now before I go any further I would like to make it clear that this and subsequent articles are not about the award winners themselves but rather how the award system has evolved. As such I’m going to spend a lot of this first installment setting the scene. Hopefully this will help make clear why the awards developed in the way they did. Crossed fingers.

The first three Worldcons were held in 1939, the Nycon in New York, in 1940, the Chicon in Chicago, and in 1941, the Denvention in Denver (which just goes to show imaginative convention naming has never been a feature of the worldcon tradition). All three were relatively simple affairs as the practise of an annual get-together by science fiction fans was novel enough in itself to satisfy the majority of attendees. At the Denvention it was decided to award the next worldcon to Los Angeles. That what had already become the highlight of the science fiction year was allowed to stay on the west side of the US for a second year in a row was something of a surprise. For a start most SF professionals lived in the eastern half of the US due to the majority of magazine publishers being based in New York and the need to deal with editors via post meant the closer somebody lived to the editorial offices the better. Thus an eastern worldcon would find it easier to attract professional attendees than one based in the west, something most active fans would unsurprisingly prefer. As to whether more active fans lived in east than in the west I can’t say, but certainly that was the perception at the time and such perceptions can carry a lot of weight, especially with fans deciding where the worldcon should be held next.

And now for a rather self-indulgent digression.

I brought up the unlikelihood of LA being awarded the 1942 worldcon because this is one of those events authors like to latch onto when writing alternate history. The reason Los Angeles was awarded the fourth worldcon was that the Los Angeles Science Fiction League (which became the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in 1940) was considered to be the single most prominent and active SF club in the US. To visit the LASFS clubroom and spend time with Forry Ackerman and co was the dream of many. To quote Fred Patten’s history of Los Angeles fandom:

Ackerman was particularly active in helping the LASFL publish its own mimeographed fanzines. They were full of humorous, pun-filled reviews and parodies of current SF, as well as discussions of the LASFL’s picnics, holiday parties and group outings to scientific lectures at Cal Tech or the local planetarium in addition to the club meetings. These soon established the LASFL’s reputation throughout budding SF fandom as “Shangri-L.A.”; a paradise for young SF fans. This reputation helped L.A. fandom win the World Science Fiction Convention for 1942.

If Forry Ackerman and other LASFS members had been a little less popular, if the club had been seen as a less desirable destination, it’s possible that the worldcon would return east to be held somewhere like Philadelphia. As it was the LASFS were awarded the worldcon but long before LA could stage their event the USA was at war. Given the changed situation the LA fans felt it was necessary to canvas fandom at large to see what they would prefer happen. The LA committee offered three choices; hold the con in LA as planned, hold it in another city where the threat of Japanese air attacks was remote, or postpone the worldcon altogether until the war was finished. In the end the threat to the west coast of the US was never significantly realised (an excellent summary of the situation can be found here) but perception is a powerful force and after the attack on Pearl Harbour a similar assault on Los Angeles seemed all too possible. Eventually the committee announced that the preferred option was postponement and thus Pacificon didn’t happen until 1946.

Now if the 1942 worldcon had been awarded to a city back east or if the LA fans had decided to carry on regardless the history of the worldcon could potentially be very different. Indeed it’s not impossible that the gap between worldcons could of ended up to be much longer. If a worldcon had been held in 1942 it’s likely a lot of prominent fans and professionals would find themselves not able to attended due to being called up for service or some other side-effect of the war. In which case I could easily see it being agreed by whoever did attend to essentially put the idea into mothballs until the war was over as the problem of non-attendance was clearly only going to get worse. Even if in the unlikely circumstance the membership of this hypothetical 1942 worldcon had also chosen a city to host that eventual post-war convention whoever accepted the honour is unlikely to have had the same level of commitment as the LA fans did. After all, many LASFS members had been thinking about how to win the rights to the fourth worldcon for months prior to the Denvention and after winning it had spent more months planning their con before it was agreed to put it in mothballs. Any group selected at a hypothetical 1942 worldcon wouldn’t have the same opportunity to mentally commit themselves like LA. I doubt anybody attending this hypothetical 1942 worldcon would arrive confident that there would be another in the foreseeable future. Thus, even if some group then agreed to run a post-war worldcon they would surely have more pressing matters to attend to than a potential convention. In such circumstances I could see it very likely that the proposal would just trailing away to nothing due to a lack of commitment.

Would that mean a permanent end to the idea? I doubt it as eventually some dynamic individual would whip their local club into a frenzy of enthusiasm and put on, if not something called worldcon, then something billed as a national convention. There would surely be something like this before the end of the 50s. It might even move from city to city and hand out annual awards. Just how close a format this annual event would have to the present worldcon it would be anybodies guess.

Anyway, to get back to the story proper, as previously noted the practise of holding worldcons resumed in 1946 and in due course the committees running them decided that the worldcon needed to be a more elaborate affair. This was partly inspired by the idea that a worldcon should not be a series of lectures given by various speakers as was done with conferences for professionals. There was a feeling that science fiction fans deserved something a little less dry and a little more open to participation by fandom at large. More importantly, committee egos were at stake as many involved were keen to make their particular version of the convention as memorable as possible. And if they really lucky one of their ideas would be adopted by later worldcons and made a permanent part of the annual event. So it was that committees began to throw multiple ideas against the programming wall to see what would stick.

Thus it was that an annual set of science fiction awards was far from the only idea committees began to toy with. For example, the 1950 Norwescon proposed a cabaret style masked ball and appointed a local fan, Jim Bradley as a Teen-Age Greeter. His job was to:

…make the younger delegates feel at home and to help them to find the things of particular interest to them.

In 1951 the Nolacon decided to explore more controversial waters by announcing a Dianetics Symposium. Less controversial but more ambitious was the Eleventh World Science Fiction Convention’s proposal in 1953 to have a science fiction movie premier in conjunction with the convention. In 1955 the Clevention committee announced their intention to stage a science fiction play which would be put on by a local semi-professional theatre group. They also put forward the idea of a Mystery Guest of Honour. (A rather complicated idea that I’ll not try to explain. If you want to know how the idea was suppose to work I’ve included a scan of the article explaining everything at the end of this article.) Which, if any of these ideas, came to pass I haven’t checked. The mere fact they were suggested is enough in this context.

As part of this search for immortality the Eleventh World Science Fiction Convention (only later known as Philcon II) also planned to award the First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards. The announcement of which appeared in the third Philcon II progress report. The fact the committee waited till this point to make such an announcement has me wondering. The fact they devote so much space to explaining the awards suggests to me that initiating them wasn’t an afterthought as I would otherwise assume. Could it be that it took so long to make an announcement because the various members of the committee couldn’t agree on what categories would be included? I really hope this was the case because that then means the fine old tradition of disagreeing about how many award categories there should be goes right back to year one. A thought which I like to imagine would put a warm glow in the heart of many an ex-worldcon committee member.

Anyway, here’s the article in question. It’s well worth reading if only to highlight how much the award changed since 1953:

1953 Awards 1

1953 Awards 2

If you have read the above announcement you’ll notice a number of interesting points. First of all the Eleventh World Science Fiction Convention committee called them the First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards and not the Hugo Awards. Officially they continued to be called the Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards for many decades. It wasn’t until 1993 that they were officially renamed the Hugo Awards. Exactly when fans began giving the awards the nickname of Hugo I can’t be entirely sure. However, the earliest mention of the practise I’m aware of appeared in the 1955 Clevention’s Progress Report #4. In an article about the physical aspects of the award appears the following comment:

A great deal of hard work, money and time went into the project of making this “Hugo”, as some people have already dubbed the trophy.

Just who was using the term and how widespread the practise was by this point isn’t made clear in this article. It could be that committee members were aware of the nickname being used elsewhere but I suspect such usage was confined to the committee itself. After all, given that at this point the awards had only been given once and then were seemingly discontinued it seems a bit unlikely that fandom at large had decided to give something they couldn’t be certain would ever be seen again a nickname. Moreover, given that the awards are then continually referred as Hugos in the rest of the article I rather suspect some or all of the committee had not only adopted the term but also wanted to push the idea of calling it that as one way to put their stamp on the awards idea. All speculation of course but it does make for an interesting theory.

Secondly, there are an ambitious number of categories listed. Nine different categories strikes me as far too many for a new award and I think this is further evidence that the committee couldn’t agree on what to include. That there were too many categories is far from idle speculation on my part as two of the listed categories, Short Story or Novelette & Fan Magazine were not awarded at the 1953 worldcon. This wasn’t because they had proved unpopular but very much the opposite. According to this quote from Fantasy-Times #185 (published in September by James Taurasi):

There no awards for short stories, novelettes or fan magazines, as there was no clear cut vote on these; too many named with too little vote for each.

Given the advantage of hindsight I would suggest the 1953 committee made four poor choices in regards to the way they set up these awards; too many categories, not making the voting for a calendar year, making the vote first past the post, and not making this a two stage process.

Of these four mistakes it’s pretty clear to me that it was the latter two which caused the most trouble because they ensured that voting was never concentrated. Now it could be argued that a two stage system as was employed by later worldcon committees is an artificial way of narrowing the choices and ensures winners that at the nominating stage did not have majority support. However, the alternative, one fan one vote as used in the early years of the Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards, is no more likely to be representative. As was apparently the case with the Short Story or Novelette & Fan Magazine categories the problem was the likelihood of the votes being divided among too many candidates for any one item to have a significant majority.

Also, because the vote was first past the post and (at least to the best of my knowledge) no details of the voting was ever released we have no way of knowing just how really popular the winners were. For example, it’s generally assumed that in 1953 the voters showed good taste in that the winning novel, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, is still considered a very good story. However, for all we know, only a minority of the votes were for The Demolished Man and it’s win came about solely because rest of the vote was split between too many other candidates. In this regard the decision to have the period of eligibility run from August to August (the period from worldcon to worldcon at the time it should be noted) could only confuse matters as without a nomination stage I think it likely there were votes cast for material that had appeared before August 1952. If Joe Kennedy could complain in his fanzine, The 1946-1947 Fantasy Review, that in regards to the polls he ran for top authors of 1945 and for 1946 some people voted on their of all-time best when that wasn’t what Joe had asked for, then it seems to me equally likely that some of the 1953 voters would be just as careless.

The above may seem to be edging towards nit-picking on my part but I think it’s worthwhile writing about these problems now because they were not going to go away and would once more come to the fore in 1955.

Before that though the First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards were handed out at the Eleventh World Science Fiction Convention in what seems to have been a rather low-key manner. As was normal practise at the time Fantasy-Times #185 (which was the Locus of it’s day) included a lengthy report on the convention. As can be seen from the quote below the handing out of awards wasn’t treated as something special to be commented on separately but simply mentioned as one of a series of events during the day. Heck, James Taurasi, who wrote the convention report, couldn’t even be bothered to give the awards their designated name:

The Winners of the Awards were:

#1 Fan Personality: Forest Ackerman, who turned it down and gave it to Ken Slater of England. Bert Campbell will bring it back with him and present to Slater.

Interior illustrator: Virgil Finlay.

Cover artist: A tie between Ed Emsh and Hannes Bok.

Excellence in fact articles: Willy Ley.

New SF author or artist: Phillip Jose Farmer.

Best Pro Magazine: a tie between Galaxy and Astounding.

Best Novel: The Demolished Man.

That the awards didn’t immediately light up fandom is hardly surprising. At the time I doubt the First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards came across as much different from the various science fiction polls that had gone before. The awarding of them certainly didn’t result in any comment I’ve yet to find (though I can’t believe that absolutely nobody had something to say about who won and who didn’t)

So, as yet the awards were no more that a one-off novelty. To be any more future worldcons would need to step up to the mark, and that wouldn’t prove to be an obvious move, as I’ll explain next time.

 

And as a special reward for those of you who made it this far here’s…

Clevention Mystery Guest

London Calling

‘Cause in sleepy London town,
There’s no place for a street fighting man!

Harlan Ellison

Feel free to guess who this is.

So lets start with some background.

The Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation was first presented in 1958. It doesn’t appear to have been an especially popular addition as ‘no award’ topped the list in 1959 and again in 1963. This is perhaps why in 1964, Pacificon II, the worldcon held in Oakland, California added the category of Book Publisher and dropped Dramatic Presentation. The folowing year, Loncon II, the 1965 worldcon held (not surprisingly) in London, England, left the Book Publisher Hugo in place of the Dramatic Presentation Hugo on their nomination ballot. This was possibly done because the Loncon II committee had assumed that the Pacificon II committee had made a formal change to the Hugo categories. It’s also possible that the Loncon II committee felt the Book Publisher category would be of more interest to the largely British membership of the con.

In November 1964 the fiftieth and final issue of Ron Ellik’s newszine, Starspinkle, was mailed out with the Loncon II nomination ballot included. At least one person was not happy to see that…

The following was written by Ron Ellik and appeared in Vair-Iner, a fanzine published by him as part of the going away celebrations being held in honour of the fact that Ellik was about to move to move from LA to Washington). I’ve edited it slightly to remove a few details not relevant to the story but otherwise this is how Ron wrote it:

On the night of the Go Away party, Harlan called me. He had just received the fiftieth, final issue of STARSPINKLE, and he was upset.

“Ron! Harlan! What’s this goddam Hugo nomination ballot I just got? Who sent this out? What happened to the nominating committee? Why didn’t London contact anyone on the study committee? Who do I talk to?” That was about how his part of the conversation went, an all I could do was explain that the London convention committee has decided to ignore the two motions regarding Hugo Award nominations passed at the Oakland business session, and as far as I could tell they were within their legal, if not their apparent, rights. He wanted to complain directly to the London group, and I apologized for not having Ella Parker’s phone no. He assured me he could get it from Information. We said good-bye, and as I came back into the room to tell the assemblage what all that had been, I suddenly realized the time – it was 6:26 pm Sat 7 Nov, Pacific Standard time. By all rights, it should be 3:26 am Sun 8 Nov, Greenwich Mean Time – an hour at which Miss Ella Parker would give Harlan an extremely Mean Time if he woke her.

There are events in the tide of history with which man may not interfere. I sat back into the Brag game, and when I had lost another 17¢, the phone rang.

“Ron! Harlan! I just talked to Ella Parker!”

“At 3:3O am” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, with (I swear it) a touch of quiet apology in his tone, “and I wish I’d thought of that. You know, Ron, she’s an extremely unpleasant woman.” I relayed sections of this to the rest of the group, who were gasping with the exertion of silence amidst their gigantic laughings.

It seems Harlan presented his side of the story, and Ella informed him the London committee had voted on these matters, and elected to continue traditional methods of Hugo nominating– and, further, to drop the drama award., installing the Best Publisher award in its place. Ella, of television sf shows, said, “You know, we don’t see any of those things over here, anyway.” Harlan can be a tremendous mimic, and by this time I, too, was almost vainly attempting to control my laughter.

We are going to do this and that, Harlan had told her, and she informed him she had better things to do than stand around just before dawn and argue this sort of thing. He said something I shall not quote, which he quoted to me, and Ella hung up.

Harlan wanted to publish this outrage in STARSPINKLE, but it is folded; I suggested the Hugo Study Committee (of which he is an appointed member) was the best outlet for him – if he could convince the other two US committeemen to act, they could speak as an official body of some sort of other. He thanked. me, and I went back to tell everyone what they had missed, and then we played cards some more.

When I had lost perhaps half a dollar, Harlan phoned again. He read me a letter. He had talked to two dozen people since his trans-Atlantic call – other Study Committeemen, convention committeemen from past years, etc – and this letter, signed by Harlan, cited these several people as being, each, in at least passive agreement that London should not do this thing. In conclusion, Mr. Ben Jason and the group producing the physical Hugo trophies had agreed with him to withhold the trophies from the London convention.

We eagerly await news of London’s answer.

And there you have it folks, if you want to be a successful squeaky wheel then you need to really apply some of that old-fashioned elbow grease. Ah, I hear you ask, and was Harlan, that tiger of the telephone, a truly successful squeaky wheel? Well, yes. To quote various issue of Ron Bennet’s newszine, Skyrack:

Skyrack #72 (November 1964)

Further to the Hugos there’s a funny story going the rounds at the moment. Following the example of the Pacificon II, the London Worldcon Committee has decided against presenting an award for a dramatic work, such as a film or TV show. It is understood that a certain Committee member recently suffered a three a.m. phone call from an irate writer who stated that he had spent over $300 in publicity for his own dramatic work, who asked how could he possibly win a Hugo for this work if one wasn’t to be presented and who announced that unless this decision was retracted he would not join the convention. I tell you putting on a Worldcon is great fun.

There is incidentally some little discussion going on behind the scenes about the manner of balloting for the Hugo awards and there will possibly be a change in the system employed by future conventions. London is employing the old well-tried system, and had agreed to do so before the storm broke over our heads. Some very sensible comments have been made by both sides in this argument which has happily not degenerated to personalities. Let’s keep it that way.

Skyrack #73 (December 1964)

The last issue ran a story about an author phoning a London WorldCon Committee member in the middle of the night. It is now common knowledge that said author was Harlan Ellison who phoned Ella Parker from New York to complain about the London decision not to award a Hugo for a dramatic presentation. The position has been greatly complicated since then by various fans, Harlan among them, publishing reasons why London should or should not abide by its Committee decision.

Skyrack #79 (May 1965)

The London Worldcon Committee, which originally followed the lead of last year’s Pacificon in dropping the drama award, have bowed before the general feeling prevalent in fandom and have heeded what has been a significant number of write-in nominations regarding this category. The Committee is undoubtedly to be congratulated, not only upon the reversal of its original decision, but upon the admirable manner in which it has conducted itself in the entire matter. Despite obvious provocation from certain sources, the Committee has not responded in kind, resorting to personalities. Well done, London!

However, despite the above Harlan didn’t have it all his own way. Like that 3am phone call it’s also common knowledge that he was trying and win a Hugo for one of the two 1964 episodes of The Outer Limits for which he had provided the script; The Soldier and Demon with a Glass Hand. It was not to be though, despite Ron Ellik himself producing two special issues of Starspinkle to promote Ellison’s work. Instead fandom chose to nominate Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and The Seven Faces of Dr Lau. In the end it was Dr. Strangelove that received the the rocket in 1965. Harlan had to wait till the following year for Hugo glory. That was when he won the Short Story Hugo for ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.

I imagine the wait was worth it.

Hugo, Where Art Thou?

Rocket, rocket, who has the rockets.

Hugo 1953 Astounding
1953 Hugo Award for Astounding Science Fiction

While writing about the Hugo situation in 1955 the other day I mentioned that Ron Smith won a Hugo in 1956 for his fanzine, Inside. This particular award is of special interest to me because as far as I’m aware the rocket Ron was awarded is the only one that has had a long-term residency in Australia. I’ve read that it was displayed in the window of Merv Binns’ Space Ago Books in Melbourne for many years after Ron Smith moved to Australia in, I think, the early sixties. I can’t vouch for that because I only managed to visit Space Age a couple of times while the store was still a going concern and was too eager to get inside to be concerned about what might be in the window display. Space Age Books is of course has long been a thing of the past now and presumably Ron Smith has passed away too so that makes me wonder what happened to his rocket? I’m assuming that when Space Age Books stopped being a bricks and mortar establishment the rocket went back to Ron (if not before that) but I can’t be certain. Hopefully somebody living in Melbourne reading this will know the answer to my query or perhaps be able to dig an answer out of Merv.

Anyway, having begun this line of thought I started to wonder if anybody has made any attempt to track down the location of the various Hugo statues that have been handed out in the past 65 or so years. I’m not thinking so much about those awarded in recent decades as I assume all those recipients are still alive and have their rockets somewhere safe. On the other hand I don’t think many of the award winners prior to 1970 other than Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison are still with us. Now in some cases, Robert Heinlein, Philip Dick, and Frank Herbert for example, I imagine their rockets are safe with whichever organisation their papers were donated to, but what about those authors like Mark Clifton or Eric Frank Russell who drifted away from the field before they passed away? For that matter a quick count shows 17 Professional Magazine, 16 Professional Illustrator, 21 Fanzine/Fan, 8 Dramatic, and 13 Miscellaneous Hugo Awards were handed out prior to 1970. I have to wonder how many of those rockets do we know the location of?

This strikes me as a useful project to tackle. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be curious to know where they all those awards ended up.

Any answers?

They’d Rather Be Right

So just what happened in 1955?

Despite the battle in recent years over what works should be on the voting shortlist the Hugo awards have been relatively free of controversy since they were first awarded at the 11th Worldcon way back in 1953. Sure, I doubt there’s ever been a Hugo awarded in any category that absolutely everybody thought was well deserved. I don’t rate that as controversy though given the Hugo Awards are decided by popular vote and the disparate individuals who have voted on them each year naturally held many divergent opinions as to what constituted the best. To rate as controversy in my book there has to be some disagreement about how the awards have been run or how a particular winner was decided.

Off the top of my head I can think of only two instances that came anywhere close to plunging even a tiny slice of all fandom into war. One involved a well-known and extremely volatile author who became upset in the sixties because a particular worldcon committee was planning to not include the Dramatic Presentation Award (the committee eventually changed their minds). The other was a negative reaction in the seventies to what was seen by some as block voting for a particular fan artist (the artist decided to remove himself from future award contention).

Given all this perhaps it’s not surprising that the typical reaction to the most inexplicable TRBRHugo winner of all time, the novel They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, has been more one of sorrow than anger. In the years since this novel was given the Best Novel Hugo in 1955 there have been two schools of thought in regards to They’d Rather Be Right. One is that it’s a mediocre novel that didn’t deserve to win a Hugo and the other is that it’s an underachieving novel that inexplicably won a Hugo.

Back in February of 2011 Rich Coad published Sense of Wonder Stories #5 and in that issue of his fanzine he included a cleaned up version of an e-list discussion in which the participants discussed Mark Clifton, Frank Riley and even made some attempt to explain why They’d Rather Be Right won the 1955 Hugo. It’s quite an interesting discussion despite the way (or perhaps even because) it rambles from topic to topic so if you’re interested a PDF of Sense of Wonder Stories #5 can be found on eFanzines.

Anyway, after reading that e-list discussion I did some research of my own and eventually developed a theory (oh what a surprise) which I’ll share with you here. First though I’d like to point out that while I’ll make what I think are some interesting points, these can only be considered tentative without any input from the fans who voted in 1955. Unfortunately asking those fans is a tad difficult given most of them are no longer alive enough for the likes of me to bother them. What I did instead was the next best thing and examined the historical record. In other words I went and looked through all the fanzines I have in my collection to see what was being written about They’d Rather Be Right back in the 50s.

Unfortunately my collection is not nearly so complete that I can describe the results of this search as being definitive but I do like to think that what I did discover carries some weight. For starters I was only able to find two references to They’d Rather Be Right but interestingly they’re both at odds with the more recent opinions. In Fantasy-Times #214 (January 1955) Thomas Gardener in his annual review of print science fiction describes They’d Rather Be Right as the best novel of 1954 and in Etherline #45 (1955), ‘So far, it’s excellent!’ is the opinion of Tony Santos in regards to the first instalment of the serial in Astounding. Now two positive comments isn’t a lot to go on but it still suggests the novel had a few fans back when it was first published.

GalaxyAdmittedly, as my friend Mark Plummer has pointed out, all the professional reviewers in the science fiction magazines had something to say, but how much were their reviews duty and how much real enthusiasm? Look at the review by Floyd C. Gale published in Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1958 to the right. Hardly a ringing endorsement, is it?

Okay, so if the enthusiasm for They’d Rather Be Right melted away faster than an ice cream on Venus then why oh why did it manage to win an award?

The Sense of Wonder Stories discussion touches on three possible reasons as to why They’d Rather Be Right won despite so little evidence of enthusiasm for it. Of these I don’t find the suggestion that it was carried over the line by a block vote from the Dianetics supporters very convincing. Given Dianetics was going through a very exciting early growth spurt at this point I doubt anybody but those members who were also science fiction fans would be concerned about a fledgling set of science fiction awards. I’m willing to believe that some, if not all, the various fans who were also into Dianetics could and did vote for They’d Rather Be Right but that’s all. I’m pretty sure that if any of them had tried to organise a block vote there would be some evidence of that. I’ve seen no mention of anything like a push to secure a Hugo for They’d Rather Be Right in any fanzine I checked and I’m certain that if anybody had tried to organise such a push rumours about the attempt would be published everywhere regardless of proof.

On to the second possible reason and not having access to any issues of Astounding from the relevant period I don’t have any evidence that John Campbell actively promoted They’d Rather Be Right for the Hugo (besides which, it wouldn’t be a good look to offer too much support) but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he at least put in a good word for it. Even putting his infatuation with Dianetics to one side, a win for a novel serialised in Astounding wouldn’t hurt his ego. Winning awards, even vicariously, feels good and is also the sort of news an editor likes to pass on up the corporate ladder to those paying his wage. I still doubt there was anything approaching a block vote for They’d Rather Be Right but if the novel was suggested for the award anywhere it was probably in the pages of Astounding. If nothing else John Campbell would surely be happy to stop Horace Gold, his editorial rival at Galaxy and regular sparring partner, from winning with the Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth novel, Gladiator At Law.

This brings us to the third and most interesting suggestion, that They’d Rather Be Right gained the inside running because the overall vote was split between multiple candidates. This idea wasn’t properly pursued in the Sense of Wonder Stories discussion, mostly I think because so few possible alternatives to the Clifton/Riley novel were brought up in that discussion. However that paltry list of rivals was based upon two false assumptions, that what fans in 2005 remember as being the good novels of 1954 were the same as fannish opinion in 1955, and that voters in 1955 had a clear idea of what was eligible. This is where a little more research can make a lot of difference (even if your references are incomplete like mine).

For a start the picture I received by looking through my fanzine collection is that the field of potential candidates was much larger than assumed in the e-list discussion. During 1954/55 the following novels received positive book reviews in at least two different fanzines: Gladiator At Law by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, Messiah by Gore Vidal, Hell’s Pavement by Damon Knight, Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Fury by Henry Kuttner, West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn, The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and A Mirror For Observers by Edgar Pangborn. I’ve not read everything on this list but of the novels I have read there are none I would rate as unworthy of a Hugo nomination.

Now the key fact to note here is that until 1959 there was no filtering process in place to winnow down the number of options. It wasn’t till then that a worldcon committee decided to have voters first nominate which novels should appear on a short-list and then vote on that. Before that each committee would simply include ballots in their progress reports. The example I have here is a 1953 ballot taken from Progress Report #4 published by 11th Worldcon. By the way, the progress report I took it from was addressed to T.L. Sherred but couldn’t be delivered for some reason and was returned to sender. Thus I was the first person to lay eyes upon this ballot since it was originally sent out all those years ago (I do hope T.L. Sherred still managed to get his vote in). Anyway, as far as I can tell the 1955 ballots were essentially identical to this 1953 example:

1953 Hugo Ballot Side A

 

1953 Hugo Ballot Side B

Now, given such a crude system I can see how those novels listed above probably took votes away from each other. Books like Messiah or I Am Legend had no chance of winning but that doesn’t mean they didn’t receive a few votes regardless.

Now of course some of you will be falling over yourselves to point out to me that not all the novels listed above were eligible for the 1955 Hugo and you will be right. This indeed was surely part of the problem because those who voted in 1955 didn’t have access to most of the references we do. For example a quick search online shows me that The Kraken Wakes was first published in 1953 and thus was ineligible (depending on whether the Cleveland Committee counted foreign publication or not). Somebody who bought their copy of the Wyndham novel from one of the book dealers listed in Fantasy Advertiser might not be aware of this and vote mistakenly. Even if we assume every voter did a little checking and took care to not choose any clearly ineligible novels I bet errors were still made. As Mark Plummer notes in his Sense of Wonder Stories #6 letter, the period of eligibility wasn’t a calendar year but ran from August to August. That would be easy if all the above examples had seen magazine publication but as some hadn’t voters would have to decide eligibility by whatever year was quoted in the copyright notice at the front of whichever book they happened to possess. I expect the Cleveland Worldcon Committee culled out any errors they spotted since I assume they knew what was eligible and what wasn’t but that doesn’t entirely negate the problem. Every mistaken vote cast reduces the (probably) small number of votes and makes it just that much easier for John Campbell to potentially encourage the readership of Astounding to roll right over the rivals to They’d Rather Be Right.

It has become clear to me that the key to the win by They’d Rather Be Right was the mechanics of the voting system. I see that Mark Plummer also mentions in Sense of Wonder Stories #6 how Nycon II, the 1956 worldcon, wanted ‘a more representative vote’, which I suppose could mean anything but which I suspect is a tacit admission that the 1955 votes were spread between too many candidates. It’s not too hard to imagine the Nycon II Committee hearing from the Clevention Committee about how They’d Rather Be Right beat out out the likes of Gladiator At Law despite the latter being a better regarded novel because so many other books received votes. It’s also possible that some of the Clevention Committee didn’t approve of certain novels getting voted for at all, Messiah and I Am Legend come to mind in this regard, and wanted something done to discourage future voting for novels like those.

On a side note it’s worth noting that as per speculation in the Sense of Wonder Stories #5 Mark Clifton had a pretty high profile in 1955. Not only had he written a number of well liked stories but he also had an article about writing science fiction in the ninth issue of Ron Smith’s fanzine, Inside (May 1955), a fanzine to which fandom was clearly paying attention as it won the Fanzine Hugo in 1956. Oh, and according to various issues of Fantasy Times Mark Clifton attended several conventions in the mid-fifties and was announced as one of the speakers at the 1955 Worldcon. I’ve no idea if he did turn up and speak but just the news that he would be there no doubt helped ensure that nobody forgot he existed.

So let that be a lesson to you all. Regardless of how you feel about the current nominating and voting process for the Hugos you still have it better than they did in 1953. I suggest you lull yourself to sleep at night with that thought.