What’s the Retro Hugo Point of it All?

There is a long and lively discussion at File 770 about the Retro Hugos provoked by the 2023 Mpehis Bid announcing that if they are selected they won’t run Retro Hugos that year: http://file770.com/memphis-worldcon-bidders-wont-run-retros-if-they-win-address-diversity-and-inclusion-policies/

I don’t normally vote in the Retro Hugos. There’s too much reading to do and I really don’t feel like I have a sense of the context of the works. Even so, I think they are interesting and there is a lot to be said about engaging with the past. Around the time of the 2020 Retro Hugo results being announced I intended to write about them but I spun off on tangents about canonical works. Knowledgable people did write about them though eg Cora http://corabuhlert.com/2020/08/03/more-reactions-to-the-2020-hugo-ceremony-and-a-bit-about-the-retro-hugos/ & http://corabuhlert.com/2020/07/30/some-thoughts-on-the-1945-retro-hugo-winners/ and the Hugo Book Club Blog http://hugoclub.blogspot.com/2020/08/looking-forward-on-looking-backwards.html

One broad point I want to touch on is the culture-war aspect of the Retros. Of course Retro Hugo’s going to H.P.Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Best Editor Short Form going to John W. Campbell, Jr. overshadowed other wins (Margaret Brundage, Leigh Brackett) but the past is political just as the present is and just as the future is. There’s an aspect of the reaction to Campbell that I’ll summarise as a strawman that I can more easily knock down (i.e. I’m not saying this is an accurate summary of any given individual) that we don’t need past works and that the genre and people who make up fandom have moved on. The details of that idea have been argued over but an aspect I want to emphasise is that the right in SF have actively tried to colonise the past and claim it as their own. Seeing the pulp era only in terms of the problematic aspects of the times concedes the pulps to the right of science fiction which has, as an overt program since at least 2015, declared the era has their territory and literary legacy. In doing so, they seek to further normalise the problematic aspects of the times (the racism, the sexism etc) as the standard of science fiction and erase the broader aspects of the field and the more progressive legacy of the past.

What I really want to ask is what is the point of the Retro Hugo Awards? Functionally what do they do that is good and positive? Because if we can answer that question in terms of roles and outcomes and functions we can better address how to achieve this without more negative consequences.

It is easier to start with what they can’t be. They clearly aren’t there to reward creative people for their efforts because the winners are almost exclusively very dead (it’s possible for a living person to win a Retro Hugo but they needed to start young). Perhaps then they are a kind of memorial for past “greats”? Maybe, and I think critics of Campbell’s win saw it partly that way (although, the primary objection was that the win looked very much like a rebuff to name change of the Astounding Award — a conclusion strengthened by the repeated praise for Campbell during the main Hugo Ceremony). If the Retro’s do serve as a kind of memorialisation then that’s an aspect that I think can only work badly.

There is a very simple positive aspect that sounds trivial but which shouldn’t be ignored: that they are a bit of fun. In this view of the Retro’s they are a kind of parlour game asking who should have won a Hugo in a year when there wasn’t a Hugo. Yet, if anything, this aspect is undermined by the awarding of very real trophies. The counterfactual question of who won a Hugo in 1945 if people had won Hugos in 1945 doesn’t have an answer and that’s the fun of the question. It’s like asking whether Spider-Man can beat Batman, the point is to have the stupid argument (because that’s fun) not determine a definitive answer. I don’t think the Retro Hugos are awarded ironically but awarding a trophy in this framing only makes sense if done ironically. John W Campbell really didn’t win a Hugo for Best Editor in 1945 and the question of who would have won a Hugo in 1945 for Best Editor if there had been a Hugo for Best Editor in 1945 is an open one. I don’t think the intent of the Retro Hugos is to kind of close that argument with a definitive answer but within this framing that’s what it does.

Even so, there is a positive quality and a particularly fannish quality to treating the Retro Hugos as a debate about a counterfactual question. Let’s look beyond that though.

What else is working? Engaging with and discussing the past isn’t for everybody but then there’s no aspect of fandom that is for everybody. Fandom arises out of niches and it grows them fractally. The past is one of those niches and not only does it bring joy to many people (including myself, even if isn’t a major interest) but as I suggested earlier it isn’t something we should concede to the far-right (any more than we should concede medieval history to their re-writings and appropriation of it).

We’ve seen some really fascinating engagement with past-fandom over recent years including Galactic Journey, Cora Buhlert’s pulp work, Alec Nevala-Lee’s history of the Campbell era Astounding. We’ve seen writers use the most objectionable aspects of H.P.Lovecraft’s work and views to not erase the legacy but to engage and examine it to create new and better works including The Ballad of Black Tom, Lovecraft Country, The City We Became, and the Dream Quest of Vellit Boe. Critically engaging with the past can be both positive and very productive.

However are the Retro Hugo’s achieving that kind of engagement with the past? Partly but if we were to say that is the main function of the Retro Hugos then we can conclude that the Retros are broken. They only partly achieve that and we can easily see the mismatch between the final results and disappointment often among people who have engaged most with the relevant works. Because main Hugo reading is already extensive, the extra set of Retros finalists are difficult to engage with in depth and hence many people (i.e. myself most years) don’t engage with them at all. That’s a pity because then the Retros don’t end up even doing the minimum of raising awareness of past creatives well.

Here are some parameters. The Retro Hugo should:

  • Engender a fun counterfactual discussion about past winners.
  • Create an opportunity to critically engage with past works and creators including problematic ones.
  • Raise awareness of important but perhaps forgotten or overlooked people within SFF’s past.

The Retro Hugos shouldn’t:

  • Be about creating memorials for ‘greats’.
  • Be seen as establishing what is or isn’t SFF canon (I don’t think anybody really sees them that way though).

I don’t have a remedy for all of those things but looking at them I can see a role for the nomination process and I can see a role for activities around the finalists but I just don’t see that the final vote, the award ceremony or the trophies serve a positive role other than to provide an end point.

That gets me to an unfinished and half-baked proposal (my favourite kind!): keep the Retro’s, ditch the finals. Don’t have a final vote, don’t have a Retro Award ceremony and don’t have Retro trophies. Do something else instead. I don’t know what the something else might be.

[ETA: This comment at File 770 takes the next step http://file770.com/memphis-worldcon-bidders-wont-run-retros-if-they-win-address-diversity-and-inclusion-policies/comment-page-2/#comment-1210347 ]

8 thoughts on “What’s the Retro Hugo Point of it All?

  1. Thank you. I think the Retro Hugos deserved this kind of thoughtful analysis. It’s important to remember our past in someway while acknowledging that it wasn’t roses without the thorns.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it is worth engaging with the past but I am not at all sure that mimicking the Hugo process is the best way to do it.

    Because of the distance in time I think a juried element could help. Perhaps some places in the short list could be selected by jury. Perhaps we could remove some of the less popular categories and replace them with juried awards. A Jurors Choice for best novel, for instance.

    And how about a Rediscovery Award, restricted to works that have been out of print for some minimum period?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m more into “don’t ditch the finals, but ditch the award trophies and the ceremony”. I.e skip the parts that will take the most work. Instead publish those in a newsletter (or something) and have panels to discuss the finalists.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. It’s a good thing there’s a blog where people can have a thoughtful discussion.


  5. I read the title and said “Because it’s fun.”

    And sometimes I learn stuff.

    These seem sufficient reasons to me but YMMV.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Dave Wallace had a lengthy comment over at File770 which I received in email, but I’m not seeing it online. (Maybe he deleted it in the edit window? Maybe Mike is planning to give it its own post?) I think it’s a very promising proposal for the Retros. He also gave a link to a thread on Twitter about it:


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