Hugo and Nebula Award Trends

Hugo and Nebula Award Trends

Locus, Issue 218, Vol. 12, No. 3, January 1979, pp. 6, 8.

[Titles are capitalized as Locus was produced on a typewriter; italics were unavailable.]

No less than 184 writers have managed to make it on to the final Nebula and Hugo ballots. Far more writers have received nominations of one sort or another, but there are certain complications in considering nominations that do not appear on the final ballots. Before 1959, for example, Hugo nominees were not announced– all the glory was reserved for the winners. The Nebula nomination process, on the other hand, has led to as many as 31 novels, 15 novellas, 37 novelettes, and 111 short stories receiving preliminary nominations in one year (1972). Of this number, just 7 novels, 6 novellas, 7 novelettes, and 5 short stories turned up on the final Nebula ballot.

In collecting award nominations, as with money and power, the rich seem to get richer. The 184 nominees penned works accounting for a total of 679 nominations. Obviously a great many writers have been nominated more than once, and it would appear that the chances of getting a nomination are increased if an author has had such a nomination in the past. In fact, 97 writers have received 2 or more nominations, 44 have received 5 or more, and 15 have had 10 or more nominations. These top 15 authors, representing just 8.2% of all the nominees, are responsible for a staggering 256 nominations, or 37.7% of all the works nominated.

As might be expected, collecting numerous nominations seems to enhance a writer’s chances of winning an award. When the top ten nominees are compared with the top ten winners, a definite pattern emerges:

Nominees and nominations

Silverberg 32
Ellison 23
Leiber 22
Zelazny 22
Anderson 21
Niven 21
Le Guin 18
Delany 17
Sheldon/Tiptree 14
Wilhelm 13

Winners and awards

Ellison 9
Leiber 9
Anderson 7
LeGuin 7
Niven 6
Zelazny 6
Delany 5
Sheldon/Tiptree 5
Silverberg 5
(tie )Asimov 4
(tie) Clarke 4
(tie) Heinlein 4
(tie) Pohl 4

(In considering writing awards, Isaac Asimov’ s Hugo in 1963 for the FOUNDATION TRILOGY has not been counted, even though the Hugo was a writing award. Only the traditional award categories of novel, novella, novelette, and short story have been considered.)

This pattern is none too rigid, as Robert Silverberg’ s five awards out of thirty-two nominations illustrates. Michael Bishop’s experience also indicates that numerous nominations do not invariably a winner make: eleven nominations and no awards. Yet very few nominees win awards on the first try, so name recognition, in the form of multiple nominations, seems to increase a writer’s chances of ultimate success.

The rich get richer when it comes to winning awards, too. So far, 131 Hugos and Nebulas have been given for writing, but the winning stories were authored by just 52 individuals. Twenty-seven writers have won 2 or more awards, and 9 have managed to win 5 or more. The top 9 (4.9% of the total nominees) have won 59 awards (45% of all awards) — a most impressive record. Again, name recognition undoubtedly helps, though there are surely those who would argue that talent must play some role.

Interestingly enough, modern science fiction’s Big Three — Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein — are not exceptional award winners. As the most famous practitioners of this craft, one would expect them to have received the lion’s share of the awards, but such is not the case. Andre Norton and Ray Bradbury, ranking just behind the Big Three in terms of fame both in and out of the science fiction community, have been treated even more poorly. Norton’s production of science fiction and fantasy is so prolific as to make workaholic Asimov seem lethargic, yet she has received just two award nominations and no awards. Bradbury ‘s works are staples in almost all classes on science fiction, yet he has received neither an award nor a nomination. When it comes to handing out Hugos and Nebulas, fame appears fickle.

That just a few writers have dominated both the nominations and the awards may surprise some. Far more surprising are the themes of the winning entries. The field of science fiction is supposed to be noted for such things as robots, time travel, alternate worlds, and, more recently, such fantasy trademarks as wizards, magic, and sword-fighting superheroes. In reality, stories based upon such elements rarely win Hugo or Nebula awards.

Of the thirty-one novels that have won either award, not one has had much to say about robots. Robots may be mentioned, as in Clarke’s RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA (Nebula 1973, Hugo 1974), but none of these works could be called robot novels. Time travel is the apparent theme of THE BIG TIME, by Fritz Leiber (Hugo 1958), though it can be argued that this is actually an alternate world novel. Philip Jose Farmer’s TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO (Hugo 1972) deals with many elements found in time travel stories, yet it is most definitely not such a story itself. An alternate world is involved, in addition to THE BIG TIME, in just three novels: Asimov’s THE GODS THEMSELVES (Nebula 1972, Hugo 1973), THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION, by Samuel R. Delany (Nebula 1967), and Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (Hugo 1963), and one can quibble over whether Asimov or Delany’s novel should be so classed.

While wizards, magic, and such have been adopted into the genre, no novel with such ingredients has ever won an award. Even among those novels nominated for the awards, traditional fantasy subjects — dragons, say — are usually handled as rational possibilities and not fantasy, as detailed in Anne McCaffrey ‘s DRAGONQUEST (Hugo nominee 1972) or ROGUE DRAGON, by Avram Davidson (Nebula nominee 1965).

The utopian novel is supposedly another member of the science fiction club, yet only one such work, and an “ambiguous” one at that, can be found among the award winners, Ursula K. Le Guin’s THE DISPOSSESSED (Nebula 1974, Hugo 1975). Only two novels have dealt, to any significant extent, with religion: A CASE OF CONSCIENCE, by James Blish (Hugo 1959), and Walter M. Miller’s A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (Hugo 1961). Often seen as a cousin to the utopian novel, it is taken for granted that the religion-in-the-future story will be filled with dozens of kinky ideas on the nature of man, God, and worship. Blish and Miller do write of man, God, and worship, but the only kinky component is man.

Perhaps the first science fiction stories were the ancient epic tales of adventure. Such stories are still written, though only one such novel has won an award, Larry Niven’ s RINGWORLD (Nebula 1970, Hugo 1971). Another standard theme, the colossal disaster, is the subject of Leiber’s THE WANDERER (Hugo 1965), but the disaster itself is quite untraditional. Superhuman powers are an old science fiction subject, and such works do receive recognition, as Frank Herbert demonstrated with DUNE (Nebula 1965, Hugo 1966). More often, however, superpowers are explained as products of science, as in Roger Zelazny’s LORD OF LIGHT (Hugo l 968).

In short, award-winning science fiction is not typical Buck Rogers stuff. Hugos and Nebulas have been awarded to stories which, on the surface, at least, have stereotypical plots. THEY’D RATHER BE RIGHT, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley (Hugo 1955), Heinlein’s THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS (Hugo 1967), and Frederik Pohl ‘s MAN PLUS (Nebula 1976) and GATEWAY (Nebula 1977, Hugo 1978) all deal with intelligent “super” computers. Yet are any of these computers bent on taking over the world? Are they interested in the extermination of man, or in his regimentation? Are they beyond human control, dedicated to goals incompatible with those of humanity? No.

Only half of the award-winning novels mention alien beings or artifacts. Just a third of the novels state or imply the existence of faster-than-light travel. And fully two-thirds of the novel s take place on Earth or within our solar system.

Science fiction, as a literature looking (usually) to the future, is often seen as being more vulnerable to “dating” than most literature. Science and events are in constant motion, threatening to turn today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s quaint, implausible tale, of interest only to scholars. Yet of the thirty-one novels that have won either the Hugo or the Nebula in the past quarter century, just one — Clifton and Riley’s THEY ‘D RATHER BE RIGHT — is seriously dated, the victim more of changes in the English language than flaws of plot or theme. All the other works are regularly re-issued, even though some are over twenty years old. Few best-sellers, or even Pulitzer Prize winners, have demonstrated such longevity.

Though mention has been limited to just novels, the same general observations — original plots and themes, lasting literary worth — can be applied to Hugo and Nebula short fiction. Frequently ignored — by critics and readers alike — the award-winning stories of less-than-novel length are in many respects far more innovative and far more powerful than the better known novels. Zelazny’s “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” (Nebula 1965, novelette) has such a richness of detail and color that no one, except some benighted troll, could object to it on the grounds that we now know it to be impossible. The melancholy aura of Clarke’s “The Star” (Hugo 1956, short story) is as intense toddy as it was two decades ago.

Short fiction is also more rewarding than is generally thought. Reputations are made with novels, or so the claim goes, yet Harlan Ellison has won a warehouse full of awards without ever having written anything but short fiction. Poul Anderson is an energetic novelist, but all of his awards have been for short fiction. Mary James Raccoona Tiptree Sheldon, Jr., has arisen from pseudonymous obscurity to award-winning renown; short fiction, once again, was the vehicle.

One curious aspect of Nebula and Hugo short fiction is the apparent need for titles, that in and of themselves, are short stories. Novels can make do with short titles such as BABEL-17, DOUBLE STAR, DUNE, THE DISPOSSESSED, GATEWAY and THIS IMMORTAL. Short stories seem to thrive on lengthy phrases which, if strung together, can actually form decent, if cryptic, sentences. An example: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman, ” “Or All the Seas With Oysters” formed “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” and ruled by “The Queen of Air And Darkness,” will carry you “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38°54′ N, Longitude 77°00′ 13″W,” where you shall learn that “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death,” and that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” must face “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” never to discover that “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” is the “Good News from the Vatican.”

If there is any subject which has been slighted by the Hugo and Nebula awards it is humor. Sex, after many neuter years, was eventually recognized as a suitable story topic. Race, politics, religion, philosophy, and all other topics forbidden at the dinner table have won proper laurels. Humor, though, has yet to win enough respectability to warrant a Hugo or Nebula. Perhaps in future years, when science fiction is more generally perceived as something other than sub-standard, formula fiction, the readers and writers will take courage and give laughter its due.

Reputations, themes, and formats aside, the one consistent ingredient found in all Hugo and Nebula stories is excellent writing. That these tales are science fiction is secondary; in each case, the emphasis is placed upon transforming paper and ink people, human or otherwise, into living creatures, their destinies of concern and interest to the reader. As long as the Hugo and Nebula awards promote and reward such craftsmanship, the field of science fiction, and literature in general, will thrive.

–Lawrence I. Charters

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