Naming the Stars: The Awards of Science Fiction
By Greg Beatty
15 April 2002
Part 1 of 2
So you're in the bookstore, browsing the science fiction shelves, and a back cover blurb catches your eye. "Winner of the Sidewise Award!" Or "Nominated for a Ditmar!" Or "Two Time Winner of the Golden Duck Award!"
If you're like me, your first reaction is "Huh?" This might be followed by a somewhat more articulate "So what the heck does that mean?"
Well, most of the awards in science fiction are listed online by Locus. But that list, while recently updated, has long been incomplete, and provides only capsule summaries. What I'm going to do in these two paired articles is to talk about the awards given in science fiction and what they mean.
Before I do, however, a little bit about what literary awards mean in general. In a brief article about literary awards published last year in the New Yorker, Dr. Zhivago was discussed as an example of what literary awards can do. When it was first published in the United States, four thousand copies of the hard cover were printed. After Pasternak won the Nobel prize, over a million copies were sold in hard cover, and another five million in paperback. Now, the Golden Duck is not the Nobel, and even the Nobel does not automatically equate to that level of sales. However, there are a lot of good books out there, and, as it has become cliché to note, we are living in an Information Age, in which the biggest challenge is sorting what information is important. Fiction must compete with film, music, computer games, television, and other media for our attention. On the most basic level, an award is a way of distinguishing one work from another. If a work has won an award, it is more easily recognized as worth our time. In science fiction, which still has a tighter reading community than other genres, this effect is less marked than in mainstream fiction. However, as Orson Scott Card has pointed out, awards still have this effect in foreign markets; works that win awards see foreign sales go up.
A more interesting way to see awards is as a way of shaping and maintaining both communities and genres. That's the primary way I'll be looking at these awards in these articles. I'm going to group them loosely into awards that helped create science fiction, or that work to maintain an existing definition of the genre -- and awards that change it.
The Hugo Award is a pretty pure example of how an award defines a community. Groups of readers who had read everything that had been published in the science fiction magazines formed clubs. In addition to writing letters back to the pulp zines, and to the authors, they wrote to other fans. Writing led to visiting, and eventually to organizing the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in 1939 in New York.
The fans did, well, what fans still do today, albeit in a more concentrated and less compartmentalized fashion. One of those things is to vote for their favorite works of the year. At the 11th Worldcon, in Philadelphia, they gave a model of a space ship as part of this process; two years later, it was done again and became a tradition, stretching from 1953 to the present. The award is named after Hugo Gernsback, who founded Amazing Stories in 1926. The shape celebrates the drive towards exploration, especially space exploration, that defined early science fiction. Could there be anything more organic? Unplanned, growing out of pure enthusiasm, the Hugo is a straightforward vote from the readers to the writers.
Or at least, it was. Works now have to be nominated for the Hugo ballot. You now have to join Worldcon far ahead of time in order to nominate. This year nominations have to be in by March 31st for a convention five months later. You don't have to attend to vote, but you do have to join the World Science Fiction Society. It is still a vote by the readers -- but advice on how to lobby for the Hugo is available online. What's more important is the fact that the fans who attend conventions once represented the average science fiction reader. They don't anymore. Science fiction and fantasy have spread out to a larger base of readers, viewers, and gamers. The fans who vote on the Hugo represent science fiction's heritage; they don't necessarily represent its present. (See this site for more on the Hugo.)
Stories about the origins of the Nebula are similarly humble, similarly spontaneous. Damon Knight's introduction to the first collection of Nebula Award winning stories calls the award a "happy inspiration," and admits that the award was first proposed as a way to make money. Actually, the idea was to put out an annual anthology of the year's best stories to raise money for newly founded group SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America, the professional organization for science fiction writers created in 1965). Once the decision to select the year's best was made, it crystallized into an award. Kate Wilhelm, Knight's wife, drew a sketch of the award; Judith Ann Lawrence, who was married to James Blish, designed the statue of a spiral nebula encased in lucite.
The centrality of this award to the professionalization of science fiction, and to creating a genre community, cannot be overstated. Rather than being given for the most popular works, the Nebula is explicitly given for the best works; to qualify to join SFWA, one must have published at least three stories professionally, or one novel. SFWA was founded by Knight, who was also the organization's first president. Knight and Wilhelm taught at the Clarion Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy for 27 years, keeping a direct connection between existing standards of professional science fiction and emerging writers.
Given the distinction between the goals of these two major awards in the field -- the Hugo as the most popular, the Nebula as the best as chosen by professionals in the field -- there has long been some minor tension between them. However, one thing that unifies them is a kind of aesthetic conservatism; Card argues that traditional works win these awards, not experimental ones. Another is the increased level of formal attention and planning given to the awards; a glance at any issue of the SFWA Forum will show many pages devoted to tracking the year's nominations, what works are eligible, and so on. (See this site for more on SFWA and the Nebula.)
Philip K. Dick Award
After the Hugo and the Nebula, it is debatable which awards in science fiction are most important. The World Fantasy Award looms large critically, and the Campbell Award's self-description states flatly that "The John W. Campbell Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year is one of the three major annual awards for science fiction," but I'd like to argue that the Philip K. Dick Award is even more important in shaping genre identity -- or at least in acknowledging it.
My reasons can be found in the award's rules. The PKD is given to the best paperback original science fiction published in a given year. This point matters for several reasons. First, the paperback is the closest we have to the pulps. Statistically, it is far harder to get a story published in Fantasy and Science Fiction or Asimov's than it is to publish a paperback novel. And paperback is where the garish side of science fiction's past returns. How big a risk do any of the major magazines run with their stories, really? I'd say not much. But take a look at some of the paperbacks that were eligible for last year's award, and you'll see collections of strange stories that were published largely in the small press (not SFWA material first time around), wildly violent power fantasies, science fiction melding with mass culture paranoia -- the world of the paperback original is still a sloppy wonder.
But the award matters for other reasons as well. Both the Hugo and Nebula have sometimes been given to works of outright fantasy; the rules for the PKD require judges to determine if works are science fiction or not, actively defining the genre. And the PKD gives something that the Nebulas and Hugos don't: money. The PKD carries with it $1000, a sum that both helps out the struggling paperback author, and recognizes how long Dick himself labored in the paperback world for peanuts, science fiction's version of a genius starving himself in a garret. It also has a far more focused judging process, much closer to many mainstream literary awards. There is a panel of judges, who may be writers or academics. Judges must be nominated, and can only serve one year. This helps avoid the ossification that accompanies juries that stay the same year after year. (For more on the PKD, see this site.)
Writers of the Future
If the PKD celebrates one side of science fiction's pulp heritage, the Writers of the Future contest celebrates another side. Dick wrote hastily, but with a strikingly original vision that still influences us today. His name shows up in blurb after blurb; he is invoked as a patron saint of slipstream, and as an American magical realist. L. Ron Hubbard wrote some good works -- most notably, Final Blackout and Fear -- but he is best known for two other things: his tremendously high rate of literary production, and Dianetics. Perhaps "literary production" is the wrong phrase; logorrhea might be more accurate, given stories of Hubbard composing as fast as he could type (110+ words per minute), and the ease with which he moved from westerns to science fiction to men's adventure stories. (His official Web site credits him with 70,000 words a month, while writing only three days a week.) He was lively, but all genres were essentially one to him -- and I hope no one out there is actively modeling their fiction on Battlefield Earth.
And then there is Dianetics, and/or the Church of Scientology. Its followers credit it with helping them make tremendous changes in their lives. And I can't help but remember my first encounters with its overly earnest, overly persistent recruiters. Always nice, their claims seemed miraculous, just as the claims on the Dianetics Web site seem today. When the Writers of the Future Contest was begun in the 1980s, many were suspicious that it would be tied in to Dianetics in some way.
This has not been the case. The Writers of the Future Contest is open only to those who have not yet sold their third story and qualified thereby for membership in SFWA. Its quarterly contests provide an outlet for aspiring writers, and serve as a bridge from fan to pro; the list of honored authors, available on their Web site, includes many who have since gone on to successful careers. But it is worth noting that the award is rooted in SF's pulp origins.
The World Fantasy Award
The World Fantasy Award is not, obviously enough, an award for science fiction. However, its very existence helps solidify genre categories. While the Hugo has been given to works that are pretty clearly fantasy (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for example), the very existence of the World Fantasy Award is, at times, used to help distinguish one genre from another. As one of the judges for last year's PKD award, charged with deciding if a work was science fiction or not, I know that more than one of us took into account the fact that China Miéville's Perdido Street Station won a World Fantasy Award while making this determination.
Nominees are chosen by members of the World Fantasy Society. Winners of this award, first given in 1975, are chosen by a panel of judges. The award itself -- a bust of H.P. Lovecraft designed by Gahan Wilson -- indicates the distance between it and the Nebula. Rather than astronomical grandeur, they chose Lovecraft, the tangled visionary of American weird fiction, to represent them, and Wilson, the wonderfully twisted cartoonist of the whimsical fantastic, to design it.
With the Bram Stoker Award for Horror, the World Fantasy Award provides a publishing style triad of the genres of the fantastic. As such, it replicates some of the assumptions and misconceptions that shape the world in which writers and readers meet. Horror is more of an emotion than a genre -- but the Horror Writers Association exists, and they write everything from delicate ghost stories to naturalistic but gooey splatterpunk. Finally, this award has occasionally been given to a work that speaks to a fantastic sensibility, but with no overt element of the fantastic, such as Peter Straub's Koko. (See this site for more on the World Fantasy Award.)
The John W. Campbell / The Theodore Sturgeon / The Arthur C. Clarke / The James White
While each of these awards is valuable in its own right, I list them this way to accent their shared characteristics. Each award is given to recognize a specific type of achievement in the field; each is also given in memory of a giant in science fiction. Given the origins of the field, these awards are all named for white men. I know, I know, we're all tired of hearing about that, but hear me out. In a genre where a great like Alice Mary Norton wrote as Andre Norton, it matters. Every attempt to keep a heritage alive, as these do, must take historical change into account. The very act of selecting one portion of the past to highlight, and not another, shapes the genre's present and future.
The James White Award is a competition open to non-professional writers -- non-professional by SFWA standards. Someone who made his or her living writing, but hadn't published three pro SF stories, could still compete. White, best known for his fun Sector General stories about a space hospital dealing with scores of different aliens, followed a classic career path in the field, first active as a fan, then moving on to professional status. This award in his honor helps others follow a similar path.
The Arthur C. Clarke Award is a juried award given to the best science fiction novel published in Britain each year. It isn't, however, necessarily given to a Brit; Bruce Sterling won in 2000 for Distraction. The award used to include a thousand pounds sterling, but in 2001 the award went up to £2001 (to acknowledge the centrality of Clarke's 2001), and it will increase a pound a year to keep pace with the year. For those keeping track, at time of writing, this year's award was running at $2,856. And, while Clarke is known for writing some pretty pure science fiction, the award has a history of selecting from a far broader range of the fantastic than that. However, as I write this, a letter-war is occurring on the Locus Web site, in the wake of Adam Roberts' suggestion that this year's nominees for the Clarke are barely science-fictional, essentially too mainstream and almost ashamed of their fantastic elements.
The Campbell Award is for the best science fiction novel published in the United States in the preceding year. It was created in 1972 by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison to honor John W. Campbell, who had recently died. Campbell was editor of Astounding from 1937 through 1971, and a powerful influence on science fiction during that period, suggesting ideas to writers, nurturing new writers, and in general editing very actively. (The centrality of Campbell to the development of science fiction is marked by the fact that there is another, unrelated award that bears his name. The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, sponsored by the publishers of Analog magazine, is given to the best new writer whose work appeared in the past two years.) For a number of years the award has been given at the University of Kansas, where James Gunn runs his Center for the Study of Science Fiction. The awards ceremony occurs just before the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, a two week blitz for academics who want to teach science fiction. Gunn, a writer who is also a scholar in the field, has worked tirelessly to get science fiction accepted by mainstream academics; having the Campbell Award given here establishes it as a bridge from the genre's pulp roots to its academic acceptance.
The Sturgeon Award was established in 1987 as a short fiction equivalent to the Campbell. Both awards are selected by a panel of judges. Information on both awards, and on the summer intensive course, is available at this site.
The SFRA Awards
The Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) was created in 1970, and is devoted to improving classroom teaching and supporting research related to the fantastic. (See their Web site for more details.) While the various individual awards are interesting -- The Pilgrim, for lifetime contributions to scholarship in the fantastic, The Pioneer, for the year's best essay-length work in the field -- what's more important is that SFRA exists at all, or that other organizations, like the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, exist. Their very existence marks a decided change in the nature of science fiction.
Last year's International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts included a panel on "A True History of Science Fiction." The room was packed, because the panel consisted of important authors, critics, scholars, and editors in the field: Tom Disch, Brian Aldiss, David Hartwell, John Clute, Brooks Landon, and Gary Wolfe. The discussion was lively, the comments interesting and at times contradictory. But one exchange stands out in this context. A comment was made about how younger readers had it easy, and how they didn't understand how much fans used to have to struggle to read science fiction. People spoke of hiding science fiction magazines inside other books, like pornography. These stories were told with a mix of pride and longing. The very dedication it took to read science fiction helped define the genre. It helped create those awards, and led to fans growing up to fight for the right to teach science fiction in the classroom.
But their very victory transformed the thing they were defending, wounding it almost to the death. If something is required reading in the classroom, it cannot be the coin of private community creation. If everyone is reading it, it can't be special, private, and forbidden. Many science fiction readers, even those who read only science fiction, are not fans, and don't attend conferences. More specifically, one can now study science fiction as an academic, and build an entire career out of doing so. What's more -- and this is crucial -- one can do so as an outsider to the genre, bringing new critical tools to bear on science fiction, and reading it as an object of study, not as an object of pleasure and identity formation.
This does many things, among them producing a sort of academic canon of science fiction, works that in some way are a better fit with mainstream literature or current pedagogy. In classes that are only ten or sixteen weeks long, it also means, quite simply, that works are usually read independently of their genre context. I saw this at James Gunn's summer intensive course on teaching science fiction; students in the course who were genre readers had a completely different response to the stories they read from those who were prospective teachers experiencing the field for the first time.
In other words, even actions taken to prevent change create change, and attempts to maintain a closed system always leak, both outward and inward. This should come as no surprise to science fiction readers, but somehow it has at times, producing cries of outraged dismay from the faithful.
I'd like to close by briefly noting how these awards align with the genre's history, and with larger American history. Hugo Gernsback started Amazing in 1926; the Hugo was first given in 1953, after the nation moved to normalcy in the wake of World War II. The Nebula in 1965, the Campbell in 1973, the World Fantasy in 1975, the Dick in 1983, the Writers of the Future in 1985, the Sturgeon and Clarke in 1987. Campbell died in 1971, Dick in 1983, Sturgeon in 1985. However spontaneous the decision to give each award was, these awards group strikingly.
The first wave of awards emerged when the field itself had matured enough to self-recognize, and when it sought to raise its reputation. The next wave recognizes the founders of the field, and was often started by the following generation (or surviving members of the first generation) as homage to those who had guided them. They were also started in the wake of the New Wave, and can be seen as an attempt to create a "real" lineage of science fiction by establishing awards that made the old guard into a canon, something that would have been unheard of in its early days; it was the mainstream that had canons of literature. Science fiction was fun! Since this later wave of awards was instituted after the changes in the educational system of the 1960s and 1970s, it meant that science fiction was in some ways going in opposition to current literary trends -- that it was establishing canons as the mainstream was disassembling them -- and in some ways depending on them, as they opened the door for the study of popular culture.
As the list of awards and deaths indicates, these awards also recognize a sort of passing of the guard, a sense that the early founders are passing on and that their memories should be kept alive. This is a very human response to mortality and change. However, it is, in a way, anti-science fiction. It focuses on maintaining what is inherited from the past, rather than seizing the future. The result is, at times, a confused tension over what is and isn't part of the field. This tension is increased by some of the awards that are consciously trying to change the genre, awards like the Prometheus, the Tiptree, the Sapphire, the Best of Soft Science Fiction, the Lambda, and, yes, the Golden Duck, which I will address in the second half of this article.
Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
Asimov, Isaac, ed. The Hugo Winners: Volumes One and Two. Garden City, Nelson Doubleday, Inc., 1962.
Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati, Writer's Digest Books, 2001.
Knight, Damon, ed. Nebula Award Stories. New York, Pocket Books, 1966.
Surowieki, James. "The Financial Page: The Power of the Prize." The New Yorker. June 18 & 25, 2001: 67.