Reviews of Hugo Nominees

Other Years:


Retro-Hugo Nominees 1951

Best Novel

  • The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (Hillman)
  • Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (Scribner's)
    Reviewed March 2007: The winner in this category is an iconic sf story that's probably been retold a hundred different ways before and since, but Heinlein's version stands apart. The first person narrative of Bill, the young Boy Scout who emigrates with his newly reconstituted family to Ganymede to reinvent himself as a homesteader, is told in the manner of an oral history, almost a chant-like recitation of the events surrounding his decision to move and what happens once he gets there. Heinlein pulls no punches in this supposedly YA narrative, lots of people die, there are numerous setbacks, and Bill is frequently questioning the wisdom of his choice. Without a lot of expository lumps, Heinlein is able to outline the basics for life on Ganymede, comparable to early pioneers but with the added wrinkle of overcoming weather challenges beyond what anyone would face on Earth. While even Heinlein questions the wisdom of population control through mass emigration, the basic idea that thousands of people could move to Ganymede and become subsistence farmers is somewhat ludicrous by today's standards, both in the technological challenges and in the general assumptions of human behavior. In true pioneer spirit, people are moving in faster than the infrastructure can support them, and some fairly important life support systems run without any backup. Heinlein manages to both extol the can-do attitude of humankind and provide some pointed barbs at the narrow-minded proletariat who at the same time don't quite appreciate what they're up against. The characters in Bill's family have some life but are basically stereotypes of pioneer archetypes, the dogged determination of Bill the farmer, his dad expecting to work in one profession but being forced into another, his stepmother adapting to life on the prairie without complaint, his stepsister unable to adapt to the thinner atmosphere and meeting an ignoble fate. Tacked onto the end is an extra couple of chapters where Bill joins an exploratory team that discovers signs of previous life on Ganymede, all while he has an appendicitis attack, neither of which really seems to fit into anything else. Also tacked on are the numerous scouting references (the story was originally serialized in Boys Life magazine), which seem quaintly anachronistic now and might have in 1950 also. But there are plenty of other nice touches, such as about meeting the weight limit to get on board the ship to Ganymede, and a few things that are mostly overlooked, like the much lighter gravity that you would think would be harder to get used to. In this book Heinlein achieves a clarity of purpose that is missing from his earlier long fiction, as well as a balance between story and didacticism that is much easier to take, particularly 57 years further on when most of his science has been superceded by newer information, leaving a seminal work that stands the test of time.
  • First Lensman by Edward E. Smith, Ph.D. (Fantasy Press)
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  • Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday)
    Reviewed January 2008: Asimov's first original novel (earlier books were actually fixups of stories published previously) may have a senimental cachet in the hearts and minds of retro-Hugo voters, but as with many first novels it's a bit diffuse, full of ideas but strung together by some whopping coincidences. For a man of science, Asimov plays surprisingly fast and loose with the time travel element that dumps his protagonist, Schwartz, 50 thousand years into the future literally in mid-step. He can be forgiven for thinking back then that a mostly radioactive Earth would still be inhabitable, but he's surprisingly tight-lipped about what caused it. Humanity has populated the galaxy, and the history of Earth has been lost, such that those who know of it at all think of it as a wasteland and are prejudiced against its citizens. While still a member of the Empire, it is basically run by an order of Ancients, more of a religious cult who seek to restore Earth to its former stature by releasing a virus to which Earthlings are immune but will wipe out the rest of the Empire. Schwartz's first encounter with his descendents leads him to become a test subject to a device called the Synapsifier that enhances his mind, such that he can advance the plot by quickly learning how to speak the new language and discover this genocidal plot through the newfound ability to read people's minds and influence their actions, another non-scientific idea that Asimov tapped into regularly. Teaming up with a random cast of characters, including Shekt, the physicist who did the experiment on him, Shekt's daughter Pola, also a scientist, and Bel Arvardan, a diplomat coincidentally sent to Earth to check things out as all this is unfolding, they have to convince the authorities of the threat before it's too late. Taken on its own terms, the book is an entertaining enough read, and you can see evidence of several other ideas and subgenres of SF, the Philip K. Dick notion of being displaced from your own time, the Logan's Run theme of mandatory euthanasia at a certain age, the notion of one man's ability or inability to change history, to overcome the insignificance of the eponymous "pebble in the sky" of his birth. As a small part of Asimov's overall Empire narrative, it holds a key to the greater whole, but as a standalone novel, it's a bit of a mishmash, without enough of a focus to stick with the reader for very long.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (Geoffrey Bles)
    Reviewed February 2008:This story can hardly be in the same category as the other nominees, as it is non-genre and has entered the general public consciousness in a way the other books can't. But it's basically a simple children's story about 4 kids who go exploring in a big old house they find themselves living in after being sent away to the country during World War II. Lewis makes no further mention of this displacement, but if you're looking for subtext you would think that some form of separation anxiety is what precipitates the discovery of this kingdom inside the wardrobe, where not only do the children have adventures but ultimately become its benevolent rulers for a number of years. Much has been made of the Christian allegory within this book, which while somewhat obvious in the idea of Aslan's seeking his own death as a means to come back even stronger (just like Tolkien did with Gandalf), but it's not really allegorical so much as borrowing a few metaphors of Christianity. Considering you're nearly a third of the way in before all four kids are in Narnia, the action moves along pretty quickly, really only a couple of days transpire until the witch is defeated. The final battle is very perfunctory, Lewis indicates the resurrection of Aslan as the climax of the story and the subsequent defeat of the White Witch and her army is from that point on a foregone conclusion. The last chapter fast forwards a number of years to find the children inadvertently discovering the way back through the wardrobe, having long since forgotten that's how they got there. Once returned, and children again, only a few minutes have passed in the real world, and they seem to have no trouble adjusting to any of this. These quick leaps of exposition, lack of repercussion and minimal violence make this more a story for young children, who won't be bothered by the parts that are left unsaid. Even Santa Claus bizarrely turns up at one point, obliviously handing out presents while everyone else is running from the White Witch. But somehow Lewis has distilled the sense of potential adventure that lurks behind every corner from a child's point of view, and managed to populate his sketchily drawn out world with enough mythical archetypes and talking animals to have almost accidentally created an enduring children's classic. Too bad he couldn't sustain this potential, the subsequent books in the series don't nearly measure up.
  • Best Novella

  • "...And Now You Don't" by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction Nov 1949 - Jan 1950)
  • "The Dreaming Jewels" by Theodore Sturgeon (Fantastic Adventures Feb 1950)
  • "The Last Enemy" by H Beam Piper (Astounding Science Fiction Aug 1950)
  • "The Man Who Sold the Moon" by Robert A. Heinlein (The Man Who Sold the Moon Shasta Publishers)

  • "To the Stars" by L. Ron Hubbard (Astounding Science Fiction Feb-Mar 1950)
  • Best Novelette

  • "Dear Devil" by Eric Frank Russell (Other Worlds May 1950)
  • "Okie" by James Blish (Astounding Science Fiction Apr 1950)
  • "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith (Fantasy Book #6)
  • "The Helping Hand" by Poul Anderson (Astounding Science Fiction May 1950)
  • "The Little Black Bag" by C.M. Kornbluth (Astounding Science Fiction Jul 1950)
  • Best Short Story

  • "A Subway Named Mobius" by A.J. Deutsch (Astounding Science Fiction Dec 1950)
  • "Born of Man and Woman" by Richard Matheson (F&SF Summer 1950)
  • "Coming Attraction" by Fritz Leiber (Galaxy Nov 50)
  • "The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out" by Reginald Bretnor (F&SF Winter-Spring 1950)
  • "To Serve Man" by Damon Knight (Galaxy Nov 1950)