Women of the Retro Hugos

By Kris and Nisha

We are great lovers of book awards, we love to discuss them and look at them in depth. With the celebration of the well-deserved wins of women writers (predominantly women of colour) at the 2016 Hugo awards, the 1941 Retro Hugos were largely overlooked. On the one hand all the winners were white men but on the other in the majority of categories at least one female nominee made the top 10 (the drama, fan and graphic story categories lacked women created works).

Here I wanted to look at these texts in more depth and how well they shape up with the other nominees in this category.

Note: You can see more discussion of other eligible nominees at the Retro Hugo Women Livejournal

Best Novel

Top 10 by number of nominations:
1. Slan by A. E. Van Vogt
2. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith
3. The Ill-Made Knight by T. H. White
4. Kallocain by Karin Boye
5. The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson
6. The Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard
7. Twice In Time by Manly Wade Wellman
8. Typewriter In The Sky by L. Ron Hubbard
9. The Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
10. Captain Future and The Space Emperor by Edmond Hamilton

Thoughts on:
Kallocain by Karin Boye

Kallocain Karin Boye

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Kallocain lands right smack in the middle of the era of literary dystopias, but whilst it has resemblances to We and 1984, it asks the kind of interesting questions we more commonly associate with Kafka and Koestler (from the same year); principally what is the role of truth in a dictatorship? A scientist (Leo Kall) manages to develop a perfect truth serum, believing it will allow him to root out criminality and political dissidents, but he soon has to question everything as it becomes clear that no one is innocent of this kind of Orwellian thoughtcrime. Whilst reading this in translation makes it harder to judge the style, the Lannestock translation I read manages to perfectly balance a creeping sense of unease with the enthusiasm Leo feels for his discoveries. My only contention with it is that it is too short. At only around 200 pages it doesn’t really have the room to breathe and fully explore the ideas she sets down. But the bonus of this is that it doesn’t feel bloated with every moment carefully considered in order to generate the maximum effect.

Would it be a worthy winner?
This year’s nominees show an interesting combination of pulpy adventure, golden age science fiction, and non-American literary fiction. Kallocain is one of the most interesting of the latter. Of all the books nominated I would contend it is both the most literary and the most of its time, but as such it means it holds up the strongest. It is of a very specific genre asking very important questions that are still valuable today, and the shadow the events of the 1940s cast stop it from becoming purely a historical artefact. Also, as mentioned above, it lacks the fat of the events of some works from this period, being slim and direct with no florid prose.

The more pulpy writers (Smith, Williamson, Burroughs and Hamilton) offer little to appeal to me this year nor am I fan of Hubbard’s books (the views extolled in The Final Blackout leave a particularly bad taste in the mouth). White’s book suffers from being part of a series and from the loss of Merlin, meaning there are too many “humorous” asides and it lacks the focus of the earlier parts.  And whilst Twice In Time is interesting from a historical perspective once you work out the obvious trick (I think I did on page 10) it becomes a fairly dull plod.

For me the two which hold up best are Kallocain and Slan. Slan is easily the most influential work among the nominees and also feels the most contemporary. It is less meaningful than Kallocain but a lot more fun. For me both would be equally worthy winners.

In the final voting breakdown it’s notable 50% of voters did not state any preference for Kallocain, it is definitely a work that deserves much more exposure among the science fiction community.

Best Novella

Top 10
1. If This Goes On by Robert Heinlein
2. Coventry by Robert Heinlein
3. The Mathematics of Magic by L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt
4. Magic Inc. by Robert Heinlein
5. The Roaring Trumpet by L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt
6. The Wheels of If by L. Sprague de Camp
7. Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson
8. Soldiers of the Black Goat by Marian O’Hearn
8. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
8. The Mound by H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop

NB: By His Bootstraps by Heinlein also had 8 nominations but was released in 1941 so would have been ineligible

Thoughts on:
Soldiers of the Black Goat by Marian O’Hearn

This was not a story I was familiar with before this and has never been reprinted (although it did get, I would argue, the best cover art of the year):

Unknown Magazine Jan 1940

Image Credit: ISFDB

In the run up to the nominations phase I had tried to read O’Hearn’s other work from Unknown, The Spark of Allah, which left me decidedly unimpressed. This is certainly a better work than that, with a great deal of detailed description and a well-known setting to ground the tale in. And yet, it doesn’t really rise above that for me.

I am not really familiar with depictions of the Salem witch trials prior to The Crucible so it is hard for me to say how typical this kind of story is, but I feel that adding supernatural elements to this is a problem. Whilst it does not go as far as other works in negating the cause of real world tragedies, it does however remove the story further from reality by the inclusion of the fantastical.

Otherwise I found it unremarkable. Even rereading it I found my mind wandering and trying to work out if I was rereading passages or merely if there was a lot of repetition. There is much to recommend in the prose style itself but I am not certain if there’s really much behind it.

Would it be a worthy winner?

This is a very top heavy category this year. The top seven (of which all but one are either by Heinlein or de Camp) together have 611 nominations, way above any other category (the novel category is next with 576 eligible nominations) and If This Goes On appearing on 72% of ballots (only beaten by the 80% for Fantasia). Yet then it falls to below 10 nominations for all the rest of the field.

This is to be expected as outside of these seven few of these have been collected or reprinted often (The Mound and The Invention of Morel being exceptions) and those available are often extremely problematic. From the Magic Native American tropes of The Mound, through the cultural appropriation of The Green Lama to using slurs I hadn’t even heard before in But Without Horns, it was in many cases a choice between lesser evils.

As such Soldiers of the Black Goat is better than what could have been on the ballot as it is at the very least inoffensive. But there seems to me more to recommend the other works with the thrilling dystopias of Heinlein (and one interesting piece of right-wing argument), the amusing fantasies of de Camp and Pratt or the literary writings of Casares. This renders it unremarkable.

Best Novelette

Top 10
1. The Roads Must Roll by Robert Heinlein
2. Farewell To The Master by Harry Bates
3. Blowups Happen by Robert Heinlein
4. It by Theodore Sturgeon
5. Vault of the Beast by A. E. van Vogt
6. Fruit of Knowledge by C. L. Moore
7. Into The Darkness by Ross Rocklynne
8. The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox
9. Half-Breed by Isaac Asimov
10. John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs & John Coleman Burroughs

Thoughts on:
Fruit of Knowledge by C. L. Moore

Unknown Fantasy Fiction October 1940

Image Credit: ISFDB

The best way to describe this is beautiful. Even for Moore, a master of beautiful prose, has painted this like a great renaissance fresco.  This represents part of Moore’s movement away from the adventure fantasies she wrote in the 30s, like Jirel and Northwest, and into writing some of the greatest philosophical stories of the golden age.

This retelling of the Garden of Eden is interesting as it moves it away from the more cosmic to much more of a personal drama on the flaws of people, even if they are figures such as God and Lilith. However, with the possible exception of Lucifer, everyone involved is displayed as sympathetic and just wanting simple happiness. They did not expect to be involved in the troubles to come; Lilith fell in love, Adam had someone created from him, Eve barely existed in the world when she came between all these people and God wanted to create something new.

Would it be a worthy winner?

This is an extremely strong field, I would argue the strongest of the year.  As such the Heinleins are probably the least remarkable. Whilst well written (and avoiding some of the problems of his other work) they are very much standard formulaic works in the future history series. It is a brilliantly creepy horror tale for Sturgeon. Vault of the Beast is classic van Vogt. Farewell to the Master is a fascinating look at our conceptions of who controls whom. Wilcox’s Voyage is one of the best generation starship stories I have ever read.

As such trying to sift through this field is tough; in terms of craft Moore certainly wins out whilst Sturgeon is a master of atmosphere, Wilcox and Bates are more of the experimental side.

As an aside, on my ballot I did not include this work, (along with seven other people) instead I opted for All Is Illusion. I’d be interested to know if any of the other voters put both works on the list or if this split kept Moore out of the final five.

Best Short Story

Top 10
1. Requiem by Robert Heinlein
2. Robbie/Strange Playfellows by Isaac Asimov
3. Martian Quest by Leigh Brackett
4. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges
5. The Stellar Legion by Leigh Brackett
6. Let There Be Light by Robert Heinlein
7. Quietus by Ross Rocklynne
8. The Bleak Shore by Fritz Lieber
9. Hindsight by Jack Williamson
9.  Song in a Minor Key by C. L. Moore

Thoughts on:
Martian Quest/The Stellar Legion by Leigh Brackett

Martian Quest by Leigh Brackett

Image Credit: Baen

If this were the results at the time it would be certainly said that Brackett made a stunning debut. In her first year of publishing two of her four short stories were shortlisted and a third longlisted. If the John W. Campbell award was part of the Retro Hugos she would be likely be competing mostly with second years (Heinlein, Asimov, Vogt and Bester all being previously published). These early stories both point to her keen future influence but also show the rougher edges of a newer writer.

This is not a universe of knightly heroes and moustache-twirling villains, this is disgusting and messy. The descriptions of the violence and warfare are harsh and brutal, with the sense at the end of not a great adventure but a morose senselessness, that in the future people will be just a cruel as they are today.

At the same time they very much date themselves with lines straight out of dime novels like:
His own holster was empty. MacIan got slowly to his feet, raking the white hair out of his eyes, and he said, "You dirty little rat!"

However, when things sparkle it is in her understanding of character and the willingness to explore themes like colonialism and class divides which are largely ignored by the big names like Burroughs, Smith and Williamson.

So as such, these may not be the quality of work that would yet make her immortal but it points the way she will travel to get there.

Song In A Minor Key by C. L. Moore

Northwest of Earth

Image Credit: ISFDB

From the start of a series to the end of one. Two years after the previous adventure of Northwest Smith (Werewoman) Moore returns to the character one last time. However, this is barely a story, instead only in a vignette in a fanzine, not even 800 words long. In many ways it almost feels like Moore’s goodbye to the pulp era. Smith is not finding himself involved with the monsters of legend but in a science fiction setting, he is instead sitting alone thinking about his choice in life:

If he were the boy again knowing all he knew today, still the flaw would be there and sooner or later the same thing must have happened that had happened twenty years ago. He had been born for a wilder age, when men took what they wanted and held what they could without respect for law.

Whilst it is shorter and there is less to discuss than in her other Northwest Smith stories, I couldn’t help but find this a much more interesting piece. In many ways it feels like the post-modern reflexive takes contemporary writers like to take on classic characters, giving more depth and nuance whilst questioning the underlying premise of what they are doing. Here it is even more interesting that it is being conducted by the original writer.

Would they be worthy winners?
These three all have the same kind of gun-toting off-world adventures. Whilst these are interesting adventures, and Brackett’s work is certainly influential on what was to come, I think it is safe to say they are edged out in the extremely strong top three, but rise above much of what is below.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is one of the most important short works of literary fantasy, exploring the importance of ideas and the relationship between work, reader and author among a host of other themes.

Robbie (AKA Strange Playfellows) is the first of Asimov’s Robot stories and possibly the most well known. Whilst it does occasionally feel a little less of a mature style than we would be used to later from Asimov it highlights the importance of him as a writer

Requiem is probably the best of Heinlein future history series, as it still uses the formula of a great business man being put down by powerful people with vested interests, this is instead does it as a character piece. Just an old man who wants to go into space but can’t because it is too detrimental to his health. It’s a fun and heart-warming runaround as they try to get him to go on his final trip.

So whilst Brackett and Moore’s works are interesting they are not quite able to compete with the short works that would come to define the genre for years to come. However I would be willing to argue these works are superior to some of the other lower nominees.

Best Editor (Short Form)

Top 10
1. John W. Campbell (Astounding/Unknown)
2. Frederick Pohl (Astonishing/Super Science)
3. Raymond A. Palmer (Amazing/Fantastic)
4. Mort Weisinger (Captain Future/Startling/Thrilling Wonder)
5. Dorothy McIlwraith (Weird Tales May-Nov)
6. Malcolm Reiss (Jungle/Planet)
7. Farnsworth Wright (Weird Tales Jan-Mar)
8. Mary Gnaedinger (Famous Fantastic Mysteries/Fantastic Novels)*
9. Charles D. Hornig (Future Fiction/Science Fiction)
10. Martin Goodman (Mystery Tales)

*I have not reviewed Mary Gnaedinger’s work as the fantastic magazines are predominantly reprints nor can I see the formatting of a copy to make a general judgement. However, I will say that they help promote and share these works to a wider audience and should be applauded for that.

Thoughts on:
Dorothy McIlwraith (Weird Tales)

This is McIlwraith’s first year at Weird Tales so she only has four issues published to her name. Unfortunately she has taken over in the magazine’s Annus Horribilis. With Howard and Lovecraft’s passings in ’36 and ’37 very little of their work was left to be published and Clark Ashton Smith had retired from fiction writing as a result. Further many of the major writers, in particular C. L. Moore, had moved to writing primarily for Astounding and Unknown.

Previously there was little competition in the fantasy field, with titles like Strange Tales, Fantasy Fan or Oriental Tales never really producing the same breadth or quality of fiction Weird Tales did. However, Campbell’s Unknown was a step above with de Camp, Sturgeon, Leiber, Van Vogt, Kuttner and Moore all producing some of their most interesting fantasy work. Even though it did not sell well it sucked out a lot of talent from the field. This can be seen if we look at the work that is regularly reprinted from the era. Whilst in the early 30s around 3 stories an issue have been subsequently regularly reprinted, this fell in the late 30s to  just over 2 an issue. For 1939, only 6 stories were reprinted one per issue.

And much of what has remained is more noteworthy for the author than the actual writing itself. Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories were rejected and picked up by Unknown with the more bizarre Automatic Pistol picked up instead. And Lovecraft’s Mound is among his most boring and problematic.

As such McIlwraith was facing undeniable challenges in taking over Weird Tales. We would definitely see interesting work come out of the title in the future, with Bradbury, Bloch and Derleth in particular, but it had quite a few bumps to get over.

Best Professional Artist
Top 10
1. Hubert Rogers (Astounding)
2. Virgil Finlay (Weird Tales/Famous Fantastic Mysteries/Fantastic Novels/Startling Stories)
3. Margaret Brundage (Weird Tales)
4. Edd Cartier (Unknown)
5. Frank R. Paul (Famous Fantastic Mysteries/Fantastic Adventures/Fantastic Novels/Future Fiction/Science Fiction)
6. Hannes Bok (Astonishing/Futuria Fantasia/Planet/Polaris/Super Science/Weird Tales)
7. Robert Fuqua (Amazing/Fantastic)
8. Howard V. Brown (Startling/Thrilling Wonder)
9. Earle Bergey (Captain Future/Startling/Strange/Thrilling Wonder)
10. J. Allen St. John (Fantastic/Tarzan/Barsoom)
10.  J. W. Scott (Future/Marvel)

Thoughts on:
Margaret Brundage (Weird Tales)

(all below image credits to ISFDB)

Weird Tales Brundage

According to ISFDB Brundage only created three works this year (two Weird Tales covers and one piece of interior art) so really this has to be considered to be a career nomination.

Brundage’s work is extremely emotive- the phrase “a picture tells a thousand words” is thrown around a lot but, in some cases, it isn’t true of artwork relating to stories. Brundage’s art, however, seems very good at drawing the theme and feel of the stories and presenting them in a wordless form. The drawing style, the colours, and even the detail in the facial expressions- they all come together in perfectly succinct works that any author would be pleased to have to illustrate their work. The two examples that spring to mind are Oriental Stories Spring 1932 (Spring Garden) and Golden Fleece; two very different pieces set in two contrasting settings, and Brundage very skilfully captures the essence of both.

GOlden Fleece Brundage

That being said, I do feel some of the work is very charged- sexually and racially. For starters, I noticed several “bad guys” depicted to appear a lot like a stereotypical depiction of a black or Asian man. Some may be a reflection of the time or piece, but it still comes across as offensive, especially the picture for The Black Gargoyle.

Brundage Weird Tales

Additionally, whilst the darker women are shown as depictions of strength and grace (which I do think is a good thing), the white women in the artwork are almost always shown as stupid, helpless and/or needing the protection of a man who, for the most part, seems to also be white (or at least very fair). Again, this could still be indicative of the stories more than the artist’s personal philosophy, for which I commend the artist for conveying the content so strongly.

Another thing I noticed was the prevalence of naked breasts. Whilst I am aware this is a common trope in sci-fi, fantasy and horror, I got a little exhausted seeing it over and over again. After a certain point, it feels like nudity for its own sake especially in light of the complete absence of male nudity. It was quite refreshing to see artwork where the woman was clothed and it felt like more attention was being given to her as a character in her own right. Although I do wonder if this observation would be better placed in a discussion of the representation of women in these genres and era rather than a critique of the artist. Regardless of the possibly questionable content, the artist’s work is evocative and beautiful, working as standalone art as well as illustrating the respective stories.

Brundage Weird Tales

Would it be a worthy winner?

The long list for this year is a bit of a disappointment as there are a lot of weaker artists to my eye whilst some of the more interesting artists of the year were the emerging talents who were ignored. I find Finlay’s work this year to be overly busy and confusing, where some simplicity would suffice. Rogers, conversely, is overly dry and clinical, often lacking a real sense of excitement. Paul’s work in many cases seems to have moved toward Brundage’s style (being very different from his early work on Wonder and Amazing Stories) and, as such, has many of the same problems. Among these top nominees she fits in quite well within this mixed bag.

The real standout of the year is really the emergence of Hannes Bok who along with other more forgotten artists like H. W. Scott are producing art that still feels contemporary, and really makes you want to discover what is inside the magazines.

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