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