Hugo Blogging: Retro-Hugo Short Stories

I will not publicly be blogging about the best semiprozine and best editor short form categories in the Hugos, as I occasionally submit stories to those markets, and it would feel like a conflict of interest. I’ll be voting for them, but if I write anything about them it could look like I’m either giving them good reviews in order to curry favour, or bad reviews because they’ve turned down my work. So other than a review of Ancillary Justice and the Campbell award books, which will come up in the next week or two, I’ve covered all the Hugo fiction categories.

However, this year we also get to vote on the retro-Hugo awards — if it’s 75 or 100 years after a year when the Hugos weren’t awarded, they get retroactively awarded, and this year we get to choose which stories from 1938 get the award.

The retro-Hugos are going to be interesting for me, as I’m fairly ignorant of 30s SF. Other than the early work of Asimov and Heinlein, I’ve never had much time for Campbellian SF or the earliest works of the genre — for me, SF of the type I’m interested in really starts in 1950 with Galaxy magazine. So while I’m obviously familiar with some of the stories in the various fiction categories, because they’ve been so heavily anthologised, a lot of the people nominated for the retro-Hugos are either names that I know but whose work I’m unfamiliar with, or people nominated for juvenilia whose later work I admire. So it’s interesting to see how much this fits my preconceptions about thirties SF.

Today I’ll be looking at the short stories, ranked as always best to worst:

Helen O’Loy by Lester del Rey is one of those stories that’s generally considered a classic of the genre. The sexual politics of the story are completely horrific in every way (and this is almost certainly the first appearance of that unfortunate SF staple the sexbot), but there’s a germ of a better story here (and the odd detail, like the doctor who’s narrating being hired to provide hormone treatments to stop a rich teenager being in love with a poorer woman, which suggests that del Rey was trying to write that better story). It’ll definitely win, and deserves to, even though I dislike it intensely.

The Faithful by Lester del Rey is, unlike all the stories below, clearly the work of a professional writer. The story, about uplifted dogs and apes in a post-apocalyptic society, is nothing special, but it hasn’t aged badly at all.

No Award

How We Went To Mars by Arthur C Clarke is Clarke’s second published story, and was published in a magazine called Amateur Science Fiction Stories, and both of these show. A rather laboured attempt at humour, full of newspapers called the Daily Drool and people named Admiral Sir Horatio ffroth-ffrenzy, this does show some signs of Clarke’s later writing ability, and a couple of good lines (“We decided unanimously (only Guzzbaum dissenting), that Mr Guzzbaum should be detailed to enter the air-lock and sample the Martian atmosphere.”). I suspect it would be funnier for the members of the nascent British Interplanetary Society, at whose ambitions this is clearly poking affectionate fun.

Hellerbochen’s Dilemma by Ray Bradbury is Bradbury’s first published story! It is written in short sentences! The sentences are declarative! Many end in exclamation marks! The idea has some merit! But the writing style is unreadable!
Bradbury was only 17 when he wrote this, and he got much better very quickly, but given that there were professional writers working in 1938 who could actually craft a sentence, it’s unthinkable that this was one of the five best short SF stories written that year. Like the Clarke story, it’s clearly been nominated because the voters know Bradbury’s name for his later, good, work, and hadn’t read anything from the year in question.

Hyperpilosity by L. Sprague de Camp is just a bad piece of work. It’s a supposedly-comic story, and it follows the old formula of having one man telling a tallish tale to a group of others, this time while playing poker. The problem is that in this case the story that’s being told is a gigantic infodump about events that everyone being told the story would remember (everyone on earth developing a thick coat of fur, including themselves), there’s no real exploration of the idea, and it’s full of stuff like:

“But say, isn’t that rather unusual for a Mexican?”
“You’re jolly well right she ees,” retorted the sufferer, “Like most natives of my beautiful Mejico, I am of mostly Eendian descent, and Eendians are of Mongoloid race, and so have little body hair.”


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