Fiction: 'The Last Escapement' by James Smythe
Films of High Adventure: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Poking at Awards: The Early History of the Hugo and Nebula Awards

A few years ago, I stumbled on a copy of A History of the Hugo, Nebula and International Fantasy Awards by Donald Franson and Howard DeVore. It was published in 1978 by Misfit Press, and by "published", I mean this is actually mimeographed and bound with staples. It is wonderful.

It is also the gift that keeps on giving, especially when it comes to shining a light on the these awards' charming and chaotic early years. 

The Hugo Award

The first Hugo Awards were given out at the Philadelphia World Science Fiction convention in 1953. From the first, the awards were decided by popular vote. 

That said, the nomination procedure - and the definition of 'the populace' - changed from year to year. In 1961 the germ of the present system became codified in Hugo law, as the organisers of that year's convention still allowed for public nominations, but changed it so only convention attendees could vote on the final ballot. In 1963, this was changed futher - so that only members of the current or previous convention could nominate. This is largely the system we now have today. (Well, except in terms of governance - the new WSFS constitution came about in 1974 and changed the definitions of everything, although the theory is still the same.)

The number of prizes varied from year to year as the individual convention committees chose to add or subtract categories that they felt relevant. Other categories - such as Dramatic Presentation - came and went depending on interest. 

The other area of turbulence was regarding the 'fan-ness' of the Hugo Awards. As Franson notes, polls for Fans and 'fan achievements' have ever been present in science fiction, including a few nods to the amateur in the early Hugos. But it wasn't until 1968 - and the demise of the a proposed "Fan Achievement Awards" - that the fan categories were absorbed into the Hugos proper. 

There are also various "special awards", including the ever-perplexing John W. Campbell Award (for Best New Author BUT IT ISN'T A HUGO) and the now-non-existent-but-wonderfully-named Gandalf Award.

The Nebula Award

The early days of Nebula Award, presented by the Science Fiction Writers of America, were no less chaotic. According to Franson and DeVore, the Awards themselves had a particularly prosaic beginning:

"Shortly after the formation of the SFWA it became obvious to the officers that dues alone were not enough to support the organization, and that some additional revenue was needed. Taking the example of the Mystery Writers of America, whose Edgar Awards have been for many years a hallmark of excellence, they conceived the idea of an annual anthology, part of whose income would go into the SFWA treasury."

A sensible idea, although, rather ironically, the cost of the trophies and the awards banquet outstripped the SFWA's portion of the proceeds for the first few years.

The selection process was also impressively chaotic, and, over the years, took several different forms. Sometimes a single ballot was used. Sometimes there was a two ballot system, to strip down the number of nominations from the single ballot. Sometimes there was an Australian system (like the Hugos). Sometimes a combination of several of the above. Sometimes a single ballot was used with every nominated story appeared on it, but with no instructions on where to find those stories. All in all... messy.

Furthermore, although ostensibly for science fiction, DeVore notes that "no reasonable definition has have been offered" and has always been left up to the membership to decide. As DeVore concludes:

"Some authors have complained that the fans are constantly changing the rules, definitions of the Hugo Awards and were not very businesslike. After a dozen years of the Nebula Awards, it would appear the writers haven't done much better."

What's particularly interesting - at least from a historical perspective - is how close these awards were. Not only were there not a lot of votes in these early years, but often the winning work achieved its lofty status by the skin of its teeth. Still, as they say, the winners write history, and we're more likely to remember "who won" than "who snuck on the ballot by a single vote". 

An annotated timeline of the early Hugo and Nebula Awards

  • 1953 Hugo Awards: First Hugo Awards happen.

  • 1954 Hugo Awards: Second Hugo Awards don't happen, because... not sure. 

  • 1955 Hugo Awards: Resumption of Hugo Awards.

  • 1957 Hugo Awards: WorldCon takes place in London. The British irritate everyone by only having prizes for publications and stripping out the author and artist categories. Thus begins the long tradition of fun results for non-American WorldCons.

  • 1959 Hugo Awards: First year with shortlists. "No Award" wins the movie category, pipping The Fly, The Horror of Dracula and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in what is unquestionably the GREATEST SCANDAL IN HUGO AWARDS HISTORY. "No Award" had a good year overall, also taking home the "Best New Author" category (Brian Aldiss - 2nd).

  • 1963 Hugo Awards: "No Award" wins Dramatic Presentation again - this time beating out The Twilight Zone and The Day The Earth Caught Fire

  • 1964 Hugo Awards: There were a total of 164 ballots received. The winning novel (Simak's Here Gather the Stars) stormed to victory with 63 votes. Best Dramatic Presentation was dropped as a category because no one cared.

  • 1965 Hugo Awards: Gollancz makes the ballot for Best Publisher but loses to Ballantine. (Are they still around?). Best Dramatic Presentation is back! Even though it wasn't on the nominating ballot, everyone wrote in Dr Strangelove

  • 1965 Nebula Award: The first year of the Nebulas! There are four categories, and two of them are won by Roger Zelazny.

  • 1966 Hugo Awards: 6000 ballots were distributed by the convention... 160 were returned. Best Dramatic Presentation is dropped from the final ballot again, this time due to an "overwhelming 'no award' response" at the nominating round. A special award - The Best All-Time Series - was won by Foundation, although there's much debate over whether or not Lord of the Rings should even have qualified. (The Wheel of Time is still 24 years away from publication.)

  • 1968 Hugo Awards: All five nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation were Star Trek episodes. Harlan Ellison wins Best Short Story, is nominated for an episode of Star Trek and receives a special plaque for editing Dangerous Visions. Clearly an amateur, he's also a finalist for "Best Fan Writer" but then withdraws. (Glad to know that category has never made sense.)

  • 1968 Nebula Awards: A WOMAN WINS A NEBULA! In the prize's fourth year, Anne McCaffrey picks up Best Novella for "Dragonrider". The glass ceiling is broken and science fiction immediately transforms into a shining bastion of equality for all time. 

  • 1968 Hugo Awards: A WOMAN WINS A HUGO! "Weyr Rider" wins Best Novella (a tie with Farmer's "Writers of the Purple Wage".

  • 1970 Hugo Awards: A WOMAN WINS BEST NOVEL! A mere 17 years after the first Hugo Award, a woman claims the best novel category. The Left Hand of Darkness earns Ursula LeGuin the Best Novel.* [This has been edited, as I'd missed out on Anne McCaffrey's 1968 novella win - see comments. ] 

HALTIME. Here are some fun facts while the kettle boils:

The next woman to win a Hugo in one of the writing categories? Ursula LeGuin! (Novella, in 1973. And then Short Story in 1974. And then Novel again in 1975).

The next female author not named "Ursula" to win a literary Hugo was James Tiptree Jr in 1974 (...who wasn't revealed to be Alice Sheldon until 1977).

The next woman who wasn't either Ursula Le Guin or writing under a male pen name to a writing Hugo was Kate Wilhelm, in 1977.

  • 1970 Nebula Awards: The awards introduced a multiple ballot system, where there are preliminary nominations and then the final ballot. Joanna Russ' And Chaos Died received the most preliminary nominations (9!), but lost the final vote to Larry Niven's Ringworld. Only 9 novels received multiple preliminary nominations. Ill Met in Lankhmar won the Novella category, despite receiving a single nomination. "No Award" won Best Short Story. DeVore noted that many SFWA members said that were confused by the ballot and thought they were abstaining - oops.Donald Westlake's "The Winner" received 3 preliminary nominations in the Short Story category, but did not make the final ballot. Meanwhile, Locus appears on the "Fanzine" ballot for the first time.

  • 1970 Hugo Awards: The winner of Best Dramatic Presentation was the "news coverage of Apollo XI". This is kind of awesome. Also an interesting precedent.

  • 1971 Hugo Awards: 732 final ballots! A computer was used! Locus wins.

  • 1971 Nebula Awards: Only four novels received multiple nominations in the preliminary voting. Robert Silverberg later won both Novel and Short Story - but in the preliminary balloting, both works only had a single nomination. (Hmm....) The Exorcist was also nominated, but did not make the final ballot.

  • 1972 Nebula Awards: The eventual winner, Asimov's The Gods Themselves, also received the most preliminary votes (17). Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives (1) and Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (3) also received nominations, but not enough to make the final ballot (7 needed). Joanna Russ picked up Short Story for "When It Changed" (only 3 preliminary votes - trailing, amongst others, her own "Nobody's Home" [4]). Rather amusingly, it seems that every story in Again, Dangerous Visions was nominated either 3 or 4 times. 

  • 1973 Hugo Awards: George R.R. Martin loses the inaugural John W. Campbell Not-Hugo Award for Best New Writer to Jerry Pournelle.

  • 1973 Nebula Awards: Gravity's Rainbow receives 7 nominations (tied with Rendezvous with Rama) and makes the final ballot before losing (to Rama).

  • 1974 Hugo Awards: 930 final ballots! Time for a bigger computer!

  • 1974 Nebula Awards: A new system - works are nominated throughout the year, then a jury (LeGuin, Niven, Herbert, Joe Green, Carol Emshwiller) selects items for the final ballot. LeGuin wound up winning both novel with The Dispossessed (the most nominated novel, with 19) and short story  ("The Day Before the Revolution"). Scandal! Also remarkable: there was a novel on the final ballot called The Godwhale.  Even more remarkable: Woody Allen wins a Nebula. 

  • 1975 Hugo Awards: The convention was in Australia - there were 267 nominating ballots and 600 final ballots. Young Frankenstein won best Dramatic Presentation (the competition was Zardoz). The Dispossessed won with a simple majority: ironically, the Australian balloting method wasn't needed. 

  • 1975 Nebula Awards: Jury again - this time composed of Ted Cogswell, Frank Herbert, George RR Martin and Vonda McIntyre.

  • 1976 Hugo Awards: Tanith Lee was disqualified from the Best New Writer Not-Hugo because she had been previously published. Phil Foglio appears on the ballot for the first time (Fan Artist - 2nd place finish).

  • 1977 Hugo Awards: Tanith Lee was disqualified again from the Best New Writer Not-Hugo. Phil Foglio, however, wins Fan Artist. Star Wars is given a special award for being Star Wars. However, the Best Dramatic Presentation category goes to the classic "No Award" (losers include: Carrie, Logan's Run and The Man Who Fell to Earth.)

  • 1978 Hugo Awards: 540 nominating ballots and 1246 final ballots. The Already-Hugo-Award-Winning Star Wars wins best Dramatic Presentation Hugo (with a majority on the first count). Orson Scott Card wins the Best New Writer Not-Hugo, pipping Stephen Donaldson (2nd), Jack Sterling (3rd), Elizabeth Lynn and Bruce Sterling. [Also worthy of note - if I'm reading the footnotes correctly, this year the category was officially changed from "Amateur Magazine" to "Fanzine". (I may be misunderstanding DeVore notes, but this would be interesting to confirm as the whole "Fanzine" vs "Blog" discussion continues.)]

  • 1979 Hugos: 1160 final votes.  Stephen Donaldson wins the New Writer Not-Hugo on his second try. David Langford was a finalist for the first time for best Fanzine and best Fan Writer. (He would go on to be nominated every year until 2009, with 19 straight wins between 1989 and 2007.)