Reviews of Hugo Nominees

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Retro-Hugo nominees 1946

NOVEL

  • The Mule, Isaac Asimov (Astounding, November-December 1945; also published as Part II of Foundation and Empire)
    What became the latter two-thirds of Foundation and Empire is quite a bit different in style from the first third. Where "Dead Hand" is frought with existential pre-destination, and told in somewhat choppy, shifting viewpoints, "The Mule" is a more convential narrative form, central to one idea: what would it take for Seldon to be wrong. The artifice of the unseen character of the Mule is the central element around which the novel is built, and Asimov finally admits that psycho-history can be upset by one random event. Given the number of years the Foundation was supposed to preserve civilization, it seems the odds for this random event occurring are fairly short, but that's okay. The Mule sweeps through the remnants of the Empire, then in one fell swoop crushes the Foundation. The leaders of the Foundation don't seem to have much of an idea of what they're supposed to be doing, and immediately give up the ship on the basis of a rumored Second Foundation, which is so secret nobody anywhere knows whereit is, or even if it exists. The Mule could be Hitler, I suppose, but endowing him with essentially supernatural powers to control people's emotions seems a bit forced. Still a classic part of a classic series, though. The scene where Seldon's image starts talking about a crisis other than the one they're in the middle of is one of my favorites.
  • Red Sun of Danger, Edmond Hamilton (writing as Brett Sterling) (Startling Stories, Spring 1945; also published as Danger Planet, by Brett Sterling)
    I didn't really know anything about Captain Future until I read Allen Steele's novella nominated the same year in the regular Hugos, and after that I still didn't know too much. So this was kind of a fun introduction to the whole '40's space opera subgenre that everybody talks about but nobody reads. We would like to think that stories like Destiny Times Three and World of Null-A would have been nominated for Hugos if they had existed back in '45, but I suspect that more of these kind of stories would have been the ones to ultimately show up on the ballot, if only because there were so many of them. This one is a routine but well-told tale of Mr. Future and his Futuremen as they race to the planet Roo to save the universe's supply of vitron, the anti-aging drug that comes from there. Along the way there are the expected assortment of disguises, traitors, plans gone wrong, and even HP Lovecraft's "Old Ones" make an appearance (Hamilton calls them the "Kangas", but the relationship between "Kanga" and "Roo" is never addressed). Wish I had read this when I was ten, which in a way I suppose I did.
  • That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis (Bodley Head; Macmillan; etc.)
  • Destiny Times Three, Fritz Leiber (Astounding, March-April 1945; Galaxy Novels; Dell)
    A brief, sort of expressionist novel that is very interesting within the context in which it was written, with World War II still raging, perhaps more interesting than it was at the time it first appeared. It turns out a race of super-types have been manipulating earth's history and have diverged it into three separate realities. When they see which one turns out the best, they destroy the other two. But it turns out they're not destroyed, and the more aggressive realities figure out how to invade the more passive, yet "better" reality. Is this a warning against the isolationism that let Germany build up in the first place? An indictment against Naziism in general? The narrative isn't clear-cut enough to provide any answers, but it is an intriguing story that probably merits multiple readings.
  • The World of Null-A, A.E. Van Vogt (Astounding, August-October 1945; revised for book publication by Simon and Schuster, etc.)
    This is the classic that everyone loves to hate, and I can see why. Similar in some ways to Leiber's entry, Van Vogt gives us a headlong narrative that is thoroughly disjointed, confusing, elliptic, and downright muddled. And yet it is oddly fascinating in its own right. The protagonist, Gosseyn, finds himself on a quest for identity, after his presumed past is quite easily proven false. This quest leads him to discover an underground movement against the precepts of "null-A" or non-Aristotelianism, whatever that is. It develops that he is a major player in this struggle, without even realizing it. There is a definite sense of wonder to the whole thing, not so much on a cosmological scale as a metaphysical one, and just like there are three destinies in Leiber's book, there are three Gosseyn's in this one. This is a revised version, which makes you wonder how much more of a mess the original was, but it would bear some re-readings, and some further early Van Vogt perusals to assist in a potentially hopeless quest to make sense of this book.
  • NOVELLA

  • "Dead Hand", Isaac Asimov (Astounding, April 1945; also published as Part I of Foundation and Empire)
    This is surprisingly taut Asimov prose, a definite reminder that the guy could write in spite of everything he produced the last 15 or so years of his life. The Foundation has survived three "Seldon crises", but always with the help of brilliant leadership. Now there are no leaders, and the Foundation has brought enough attention to itself that it is dragged into war with the Empire it was created to replace. For such a large subject, Asimov handles it in a surprisingly short space, and like the previous tests of psychohistory this one turns out to have a forgone conclusion regardless of what the protagonists did or didn't do. Hadn't read this in 15 years or more, and it was kind of fun, although the politics and intrigue is enough to make your head spin, not much removed from the Van Vogtian morass of World of Null-A.
  • "Giant Killer", A. Bertram Chandler (Astounding, October 1945)
    A well-told story that maybe wasn't quite so obvious fifty years ago. Chandler sets up a society of mutants who live in fear of the "Giants", but you know right away by the lack of description of either race that there's something going on here. But he gives just the right amount of detail and delineates a very alien-seeming society before it turns out at the end that the mutants are rats in the cargo hold of a space freighter, and the Giants are the humans of course. These aren't just ordinary rats because they carry spears and everything, but other than the supposed revelation at the end there doesn't seem to be much of a point to the story. Still, it's very engagingly told and if it is the archetype of this style of story it is worthy of being remembered at least for that.
  • Animal Farm, George Orwell (Secker and Warburg; Harcourt Brace; etc.)
    Of course this is a classic, and of course it is better than the other entries in this category. But it's not science fiction. Just because all the animals talk and the pigs walk upright doesn't mean that this story would have been nominated if there had been Hugos in 1945. Having never read it before, though, I thought it still had a tremendous impact, particularly towards the end as the society of the farm starts to revert to the same form of oppression that had existed at the beginning, but now their own members are the ones doing the oppressing. As satire or allegory it's obvious, but given that it was written during a period where America thought Russia was wonderful, it must have come as quite a shock. The major impact for me is that Orwell gets the reader to empathize with the animals, and then you realize that they are just stand-ins for real human beings that went through this same kind of life under Stalin. The changing commandments on the wall is quite chilling, as well.
  • I Remember Lemuria, Richard S. Shaver (Amazing, March; Venture Books)
  • NOVELETTE

  • "Pi in the Sky", Fredric Brown (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Winter 1945)
    Brown's conversational style serves him well in this tale that can only be described as Sense-of-Wonder Interruptus. A few stock characters notice that the stars are starting to move much faster than they really should be. Questions about our notions of physics and the vastness of the cosmos are wrestled with until it is revealed that an eccentric inventor has come up with a way to make the stars look like they're moving (which is never, of course, explained adequately) until they form a giant advertising slogan in the sky for his company, albeit with his name spelled wrong. Yes, it's silly, but well told and just long enough. You'll notice this story was not from Astounding.
  • "Into Thy Hands", Lester del Rey (Astounding, August 1945)
    A jumpy, confusing story about three robots left behind after the destruction of humanity who end up recreating the human race and acting out the roles of Adam & Eve. Del Rey said that this story was originally twice as long, but Campbell made him cut it down so it would fit in a particular issue, and it shows. I had to read most of it twice to figure out what was going on at all. The idea of robots taking their programming to literal extremes was apparently a novel one at the time. The Adam robot gets religion, but because his model number is SA-10 he thinks he is "Satan". The other robot who was chartered to protect mankind has to literally recreate humanity after they die out from war. Lots going on, most of it barely coherent, does this mean it's a classic?
  • "First Contact", Murray Leinster (Astounding, May 1945)
    A few categories in the Retro-Hugos have what Bruce Pelz and others characterized as "800-pound gorillas", that is that one of the nominees is far and away the favorite in its category. John Campbell is the 800-pound gorilla of the Best Editor category, and this story is for novelettes. Although one might question the likelihood of the resolution of this tale of deep space first contact between two races who don't want to reveal their home planets to each other, it does set up a memorable premise (which Leinster points out over and over was "something no one ever considered", which seems somewhat self-congratulatory). In this non-computerized future, destroying all evidence of your homeworld's location may have been easier, or maybe not, but I'm willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story on its own merits, although I did correctly guess the ending.
  • "The Piper's Son", Lewis Padgett (Astounding, February 1945)
    Reviewed 5/03: Probably the most thought-provoking story in this category, at least when it was published, is the first of the "Baldy" stories which were anthologized and fixed-up for years afterwards, and deals with the relative new idea of genetic mutation as a result of nuclear war, which in this case makes certain people telepathic. The ramifications of having a small but significant fraction of the population able to read people's minds is explored, and given the plot of the protagonist's son, who as he gets older starts to exhibit certain antisocial tendencies which are thought to be caused by being the child of a telepath, but turn out to have more sinister origins. Mutants have of course been done to death since then, but this gets beyond the "wouldn't it be cool" approach into the more realistic sociological implications, long before the X-Men ever came along.
  • "The Mixed Men", A.E. van Vogt (Astounding, January 1945; revised for book publication in The Mixed Men (Gnome); cut version titled Mission to the Stars)
  • SHORT STORY

  • "The Waveries", Fredric Brown (Astounding, January 1945)
    If a story's likelihood of winning can be predicated on the number of times it has been reprinted, then this one wins by default. Not having read much Brown at all, I was surprised by his premise: the aliens that come to earth are actually sentient radio waves that consume all electrical impulses. That in itself is kind of fun, but Brown extrapolates from this that the world ends up in a veritable utopia afterwards, as people can't waste their time listening to those darn radios anymore and take up community theatre and reading and all sorts of other lofty pursuits. And the air is cleaner because there is no internal combustion engine (although he doesn't say anything about coal). I like the first idea better, which must have been very intriguing in its day, that those radio waves we've been producing for (then) 40 years are the first indication to the outside universe that something's going on here, and what if they attract somebody's attention enough to come investigate?
  • "Uncommon Sense", Hal Clement (Astounding, September 1945)
    Clement's folksyness comes through in this My-Problem-And-How-I-Solved-It tale about a stranded spaceman who makes ten story-pages worth of observations of an alien race before killing enough of them to unstrand himself. Very xenologically incorrect, but given the date of the story still kind of fun. Clement's clunky, flat prose barely intrudes because he is so singularly dedicated to the task at hand. A classic example of this type of story, but a classic in its own right? Maybe, maybe not.
  • "Correspondence Course", Raymond F. Jones (Astounding, April 1945)
    Reviewed 5/03: Jones is probably not remembered the most for writing the original story for "This Island Earth", but he also wrote a bunch of other novels and some short fiction before fading into obscurity in the sixties. This story is a very nicely wrought, appropriately evocative tale about a disabled war veteran (presumably from the present time), who decides on a whim to take a correspondence course in a new form of power generation. He becomes curious enough about the company providing the course that he travels to their home office, only to find that no one knows anything about it. A second trip reveals there's more to the course provider than he would've imagined, resulting in a personal kind of "Childhood's End" for the main character. Some of the motivations are a little forced, and the double meaning of the title is not really that significant, but still this is a story worthy of remembering and its a shame it was so obscenely difficult to find.
  • "The Ethical Equations", Murray Leinster (Astounding, June 1945)
    Reviewed 4/03: Leinster has two stories nominated from the same year, and they're both about first contact. It's hard to compete with the eponymous first contact story listed above, which is more focused and, with hindsight, a classic. This one seems to anticipate a little bit of Godwin's "The Cold Equations", which didn't appear until 1954. An object has been found hurtling towards Earth, and the powers-that-be are obligated to send out its discoverer as the head of a team to take a look, even though he's not part of the old-boy network. They assume its just a rock. As it turns out, the object is really an alien artifact, consisting primarily of element isotopes not found on Earth, which will make everyone rich when they get it back home. But the "ethical equations" of whether it really belongs to them come into play and things don't work out as planned. The equations are referred to several times but never really explicitly stated, nor does he say much about their origin or why they're so ingrained in the crew. The story would've basically been the same without mentioning any equations at all, and while the scenario may have been thought-provoking or groundbreaking in 1945, it doesn't hold up particularly well today.
  • "What You Need", Lewis Padgett (Astounding, October 1945)
    Something about this story rang a bell, but I don't think I'd ever read it before. There's a shop that advertises in the window "We have what you need." The proprietor meets a very nosy customer who is fascinated by what the shop is really selling, which turns out to be things that help the customers get past some sort of personal problem or crisis. The shop owner can see into the future via some invention, and therefore knows in advance what the customer will need to survive. Of course the customer gets greedy and wants the machine for his own ends, but the owner sees this in advance and gives him something that ends up killing him, thereby saving the owner's life. No science involved in this story, but so what? The whole "greater good" thing has been done to death, but who cares? Just a nice, tight no-frills yarn that gets my vote in this group.

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