Hugo Blogging: Retro-Hugo Novellas

I won’t be able to get all of the retro-Hugo material read before the closing date for voting (I’ve had health problems which mean my ability to concentrate has been diminished, and which also mean that I sadly won’t be able to vote for the Campbells, which I consider more important than the retro-Hugos) but I thought I’d at least get the short fiction done. I’ll review the novelettes tomorrow.

As always, these are ranked from best to worst.

Who Goes There? by John Campbell (writing as Don A Stuart) — this has to win, of course. It’s incredibly flawed as a piece of writing, between the lengthy passages of scientific exposition and the attempts at writing like Lovecraft (a clear influence on the story) with lines like “Nothing Earth ever spawned had the unutterable sublimation of devastating wrath that thing let loose in its face when it looked around this frozen desolation twenty million years ago.” And the ending is a massive cop-out.
But still… this is a great story. It’s lost a lot of its power through imitation, but here in this story of a thing from outer space frozen in the Antarctic, thawed out millions of years later, and taking over the bodies of the scientists at the base in such a way that none know who is human and who is alien, we have the basis not only of the three films that have been directly based on it (The Thing From Another World, the 1980s film The Thing and the 2011 film The Thing), but also much of Philip K Dick’s work, almost every Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story… even as recently as 2011 I voted for Peter Watts’ short story The Things in the Hugos, and that was just a (wonderful) inversion of this story.
Much like, say, Frankenstein, this is a story that has lost a lot of its power because the things it did first have been done better since, but one that still works well enough to show just how impressive it must have been seventy-five years ago.

A Matter Of Form by Horace L Gold — this reads like a story from the fifties, not the thirties. This is unsurprising — Gold was one of two editors (Fred Pohl was the other) who moved SF on in the fifties from John Campbell’s 1940s hard SF into something more literary. Which isn’t to say that this is itself literature — it’s full of stock characters talking in ways that no human would in order either to impart information to the reader or to cause otherwise improbable plot events — but there’s a slickness and readability here that’s lacking from most 30s SF.

The Time Trap by Henry Kuttner — Kuttner was a very good writer! But not this early in his career! This is a good old-fashioned pulp yarn! Clearly influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs! With plenty of exclamation marks and Barsoomisms! He would get much better! Once he started collaborating with his wife! In a year or two’s time!

No award

Sleepers Of Mars by John Wyndham — normally I wouldn’t rank this, as I haven’t been able to track down a copy, and while I did read it when I was a child (when I read everything Wyndham ever wrote) I don’t remember it particularly fondly. However, I wanted to make sure I could vote something else last.

Anthem by Ayn Rand — this is filth. It’s better written than some of the other storiess here, but all the more reason to rank it the lowest of the low. Rand’s “philosophy” is codified sociopathy, and everything she ever wrote was intended to turn people into sociopaths. In all too many cases, she succeeded. Filth.

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4 Responses to Hugo Blogging: Retro-Hugo Novellas

  1. CiaraCat says:

    LOL! Thank you for the note about Henry Kuttner! I won’t completely write him off just because I was unable to finish The Time Trap. :D

  2. CiaraCat says:

    Also – hope you’re feeling better!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks — just high blood pressure from stress making it difficult to think.
      As for Kuttner, I’ve only read a few of his more anthologised stories, but there is a *definite* change in his writing in the 40s and 50s, once he first got to know and then married CL Moore. Once they were married, they both collaborated on everything, whether it went out under his name, her name, or one of their joint pseudonyms like Lewis Padgett. He was a great ideas man, good at pulp adventure and humour, while she was better at stuff like writing well-crafted sentences and characters that weren’t complete ciphers. Everything I’ve read from them once they started working together was very, very good, but most of it’s out of print, and has been for most of my life, so I’ve only read stories in anthologies of golden age SF. The stuff I’ve liked best has mostly been what they wrote under the Padgett pseudonym, which often reads like the kind of thing Fred Pohl would publish in Galaxy magazine.

  3. plok says:

    Kuttner gets pretty out front of the pack pretty fast, indeed, when he and Moore get together. There are Forties stories that border on revelatory, even though (or, to be fair, maybe because) they’re mired in the SF idiom of that day…it’s weird to read an essentially pulpy story about Venusian mercenaries in an issue of Astounding and suddenly realize you’ve got your hands on something with genuine literary merit, that rises above idiom. Not that Kuttner is by any stretch the only of the pioneers who produced work that could stand up alongside anything from any era in SF! But he’s not like anybody else, either.

    Glad you mentioned this!

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