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Friday 20 February 2004


The Best Science Fiction of 1953:
A Look a Potential Retro Hugos

by Rich Horton

This year Noreascon Four, the 2004 World Science Fiction Convention, is awarding Retro Hugos, for the best work from 1953. Retro Hugos are awarded at the option of the Worldcon Committee for any year either 50 or 75 years prior to the date of a given Worldcon, only if no Hugos were awarded at the Worldcon for that year. They have been awarded twice previously, in 2001 (for work from 1950) and in 1997 (for work from 1946). (Note that in general Hugos dated a given year are for work from the prior year.) 2004 is the last chance for Retro Hugos for at least 10 years, as Hugos have been awarded every year from 1955 on, so that the next potential anniversary is the 75th anniversary of the 1939 Worldcon (the first), in 2014.

Retro Hugos are quite controversial. Many people argue that they are inappropriate, because the present-day voting bloc both lacks sufficient knowledge of work from 50 or more years ago to vote sensibly, and will be voting based on the reputation a work (and author) has developed over time, rather than on the immediate impact it made. I can but acknowledge the force of those arguments: the results from 2002 were often simply silly. For example, Kelly Freas won for Best Pro Artist — he was eligible on the basis of one painting, a Weird Tales cover, his first sale. I would be very surprised if many voters had even seen a reproduction of that cover — the votes must have been based on his later (quite excellent) work. Anyone who has seen 1950 magazines illustrated by the likes of Virgil Finlay and Edd Cartier (and others, I cite only my favorites) will realize that, based on 1950 work alone, there were many artists far more deserving than Freas. Similarly, Damon Knight's enjoyable but rather slight "To Serve Man" beat out such brilliant work as Fritz Leiber's "Coming Attraction" for Best Short Story (to say nothing of a passel of wonderful Ray Bradbury stories that weren't even nominated, like "Ylla" and "Usher II"). I have to suspect that the Twilight Zone version of "To Serve Man" was uppermost in some voters' minds.

On the other hand, Retro Hugos are, quite simply, fun. And surely it is no bad thing to encourage more reading of fine old stories, and to encourage remembering the artists and fan writers of the past. And if one problem with Retro Hugos is that many voters are not sufficiently familiar with the works in question, then one solution is to bring said works to wider notice. Which is what I propose to do here, at least for the fiction.

As it happens, this is a propitious year for the Retro Hugos, at least the novels, for quite a remarkable set were published in 1953. This isn't simply a case of "there were giants in the Earth in those days" — not every year in the 1950s, indeed, I dare say no other year, had such a surfeit of SF classics. Take 1954 for an example of a weak year. Famously the 1955 Best Novel Hugo went to "They'd Rather Be Right", by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, pretty much the consensus choice for worst Novel Hugo ever. But if you look for an alternative you will find that choices are thin on the ground. Granted, one undisputed classic appeared in 1954: The Fellowship of the Ring. But this was a Fantasy (at that time much less likely to win a Hugo) and it appeared in England, thus would not have been seen by many of the (mostly American) voters. And, finally, it is only the first part of a novel (to say truly) that was not finished until 1955. Aside from Tolkien's book, the best choice may have been Poul Anderson's Brain Wave, an enjoyable enough book (and much better than "They'd Rather Be Right"), but rather slight, hardly an enduring classic.

Now let's look at 1953. I can readily list five books that are indisputably "SF classics", each book at least arguably its author's best novel, each author clearly a leading figure in the field. These books are The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke; Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement; and More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon. All but Sturgeon are SFWA Grand Masters, and surely Sturgeon would have been one by now had he not died in 1985 (I would guess that by 1990 for sure he'd have been selected).

These seem already a remarkable set of nominees! Asimov's novel remains the definitive SF mystery, as well as being an interesting portrayal of a crowded underground future. Bradbury's is one of those SF novels that has a mainstream reputation, and its message of the value of literature in a free society, if hardly subtle, remains potent. Both Clarke and Sturgeon deal with the future evolution of humankind, always a central theme of SF. And Clement's book remains an exemplar of the hardest of hard SF, as well as an engaging portrayal of aliens. My choice for a winner might be The Caves of Steel, though for craven reasons — it seems less ambitious than the others but more completely successful within the scope of its ambitions. But I could hardly argue with any other one of these winning.

But those aren't the only masterful books from Grand Masters that year! 1953 saw the first book publication of Robert A. Heinlein's "If This Goes On —", under the title Revolt in 2100 — and this version is greatly expanded and revised from the 1940 serial. It is also the version most of us are familiar with, and it is absolutely central to establishing Heinlein's Future History. In 1953 as well Fritz Leiber published the first book version of The Sinful Ones (much expanded from his 1950 short novel "You're All Alone"). I think The Sinful Ones is one of Leiber's best novels, a wonderful spooky tale of the few men alive among automatons — it reminds me in some fashion of the underappreciated recent film Dark City. That said, it's hard to be sure what readers in 1953 thought of the book, as the contemporary readers will have seen in the 1980 revision, which removed or altered some rather silly emendations by the original, rather low end, publisher. Heinlein and Leiber each also published another novel in 1953, both good books if not quite up to the level of those mentioned already: Starman Jones and The Green Millennium respectively.

Besides these products of Grand Masters there were fine novels by John Wyndham (The Kraken Wakes aka Out of the Deeps), Ward Moore (Bring the Jubilee, one of the seminal works of Alternate History), as well as Wilmar Shiras's Children of the Atom, a fixup of a number of Astounding pieces about genius children.

There were also a surprising number of "classics" that saw first book publication in 1953 but which are substantially the same as earlier magazine versions. Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon was first published as "Sea Kings of Mars" in 1949. Charles Harness's The Paradox Men was first published as "Flight Into Yesterday" in 1949 (and indeed the 1953 book was also called Flight Into Yesterday — the first use of the now standard title The Paradox Men was in the 1955 Ace Double edition). Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night first appeared in a magazine in 1948. And Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation originally appeared as two separate stories in 1948 through 1950: "Now You See It ..." and "... And Now You Don't". (The latter was even a Retro Hugo nominee in 2001.) All these are enduring SF classics that first became books in 1953, but none are eligible for this year's Retro Hugo.

What about the short fiction? There are relatively few 1953 novellas that impress me from this remove of years. Best by far, in my opinion, is Charles Harness's "The Rose", from the British magazine Authentic. It likely would have had no chance to win back then, due to its obscure place of publication, but by now its value is clear — a fascinating and compelling dreamlike story of science vs. art. The other main contender in my view would be Damon Knight's "Double Meaning", about a morally superior alien visitor dealing with Earth's imperialism. Other interesting novellas included Katherine MacLean's "The Diploids", Theodore Sturgeon's "... and My Fear is Great", Poul Anderson's "Un-Man", H. L. Gold's "The Man With English", and T. L. Sherred's "Eye for Iniquity".

Likewise the novelettes aren't an imposing group. One shows up in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IIB: James Blish's "Earthman, Come Home", one of his Okie stories. There are a few that might be familiar in distorted form to recent moviegoers, all from Philip K. Dick: "Second Variety", "Impostor", and "Paycheck" — the first of these at least is first rate work. One of Isaac Asimov's better lesser-known stories is "Belief", about a skeptical scientist and psi powers — unfortunately John W. Campbell messed with the ending, and Asimov's preferred version didn't appear until much later. Poul Anderson's "Enough Rope" is an amusing story of a Galactic "police force" that cannot use violence. Even better, though, is Anderson's "Sam Hall", about a created rebel in an oppressive future USA. One of Alfred Bester's glorious run of 50s stories is "Time is the Traitor", a madly odd story of obsessive love. Mark Clifton was very popular at the time — for the most part he hasn't dated well, but one can be sure that "What Thin Partitions" and "Crazy Joey", both written with Alex Apostolides, would have been Hugo contenders at the 1954 Worldcon. Ward Moore's "Lot" is an effectively cynical post-holocaust story. James Blish published "A Case of Conscience" — its later novel expansion won a Hugo. But I think the best novelette of 1953 was Damon Knight's "Four in One", one of the more effective stories of real alienness, about a monster and the people it eats — and, also, about the future of humanity.

If perhaps the novellas and novelettes were a bit weak as a group, 1953 was nearly as good a year for short stories as it was for novels. Two of the best originally appeared in the first issue of the first ever original anthology series, Frederik Pohl's Star. Later they appeared back to back in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I: "The Nine Billion Names of God", by Arthur C. Clarke; and "It's a Good Life", by Jerome Bixby. Perhaps Bixby's story should be the odds-on favorite — like the last Retro Hugo winner for Short Story, it became a famous Twilight Zone episode. The great Robert Sheckley debuted in 1952, and in 1953 he published an incredible 28 stories (that's according to the Internet Science Fiction Database; there may well have been more). Many of them are outstanding — in particular I would mention "Seventh Victim", "Warm", and one of my favorites, "Specialist". Theodore Sturgeon also published a number of first rate stories: at the time "The World Well Lost" may have got the most attention, but I've always preferred the clever "A Way of Thinking" and especially the wrenching "A Saucer of Loneliness", one of the best four or five Sturgeon stories ever. William Tenn is a Noreascon Four Guest of Honor, and he published one of 1953's best shorts: "The Liberation of Earth", a mordant tale of humanity caught between Galactic powers. There were also good stories by Jack Vance ("DP!"), Fritz Leiber ("A Bad Day for Sales", "The Night He Cried"), and even the well-known poet and translator of Dante, John Ciardi, who published "The Hypnoglyph" in F&SF as by "John Anthony". But I think the best story of all may have been James Blish's "Common Time", an audacious Joyce-influenced story of the effect of interstellar travel on a man's consciousness.

(Editor's note: Charles Harness's "The Rose" has most recently been reprinted in NESFA Press's collection An Ornament to His Profession. Both Damon Knight's "Four in One" and James Blish's "Common Time" are available in Robert Silverberg's anthology Science Fiction 101, originally published as Robert Silverberg's World of Wonder. Cover images of these books are shown above. To track down availability of other stories, see The Locus Index to Science Fiction.

For information on Retro Hugo voting, see Noreascon Four Hugo Awards. The voting deadline is March 25.)

Rich Horton contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found on Tangent Online and SF Site. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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