When The Received Wisdom Is Wrong

NyCon II (1956). Chair Dave Kyle, seated, wearing a bow tie and dark glasses; Larry Shaw at podium, John Campbell and Robert Silverberg to Kyle’s left.

This month fanhistorians were turned on their ears when a previously unknown shortlist of 1956 Hugo nominees came to light — unknown, despite the fact that it had been hiding in plain sight for over sixty years.

As the official Hugo Award site explained when they updated the entry for 1956

We thank Olav Rokne for bringing to our attention an article on page 15 of the 1956 Worldcon Progress Report 3 that included the names of the finalists along with voting instructions.

Yes, the information was in the Worldcon’s own publication. It doesn’t make sense that experienced fanhistorians were unaware of it, however, I think I’ve figured out why that happened.

First, until just a few years ago when Kim Huett started acquiring early Worldcon progress reports and making scans available through Fanac.org, few fans were in a position to consult the source material.

Second, by the time digital copies arrived online, longtime fans had no motive for checking on what seemed a settled question. Multiple fanhistories written by fans who had been active in the 1950s agreed that Detention, the 1959 Worldcon, was the first to institute a nominating ballot. Indeed, that remains true in a literal sense – it was the first use of a formal two-step process — but as we’re now aware NYcon II (1956) was the first Worldcon to issue a ballot containing a shortlist of finalists.

The authoritative A History of the Hugo, Nebula, and International Fantasy Awards (1971, 1976) compiled by Don Franson and Howard DeVore opens with an emphatic statement on this score —

In answer to the question “what and who were nominated for a Hugo?” the entire history of the awards themselves must be taken into account. For one thing, the first Hugo Award winners were not nominated….

However, before 1959, there were no nominating ballots (or if you prefer there was only a nominating ballot – there was only one ballot sent out.) Thus, there were no nominations to list here until the Detention in 1959.

Both Franson and DeVore were early fans reporting with the credibility of lived experience. So was Harry Warner, Jr. when he wrote in A Wealth of Fable —

The later year system of preliminary balloting to determine nominees followed by final voting didn’t exist until the Detention in 1959. One reason for the changeover was the apathy which the Hugo attracted during those early years. Not many people were voting, and there were many possible choices in the years without the nomination system.

Warner’s rationale for the change helps foster the impression that Hugo shortlists originated in 1959 by making no reference to the process followed by the 1956 committee, although he is literally correct that the two-step voting system was used for the first time in 1959.

So where did the 1956 shortlist come from?

NyCon II’s Progress Report 3 says on page 15:

All nominations were screened by a special committee in consultation with experts in the field to determine their qualifications… Those chosen represent the names with considerable support.

These days we would call that a juried shortlist.

Notwithstanding the shortlist, fans in 1956 were still allowed to vote for whatever they wanted:

Your ballot contains the name of each nominee with a box in the front. Either check or blacken in each box before the name of your choice. If you wish to write in the name of your choice which is not listed, do so on the black lines provided for you.

In contrast, the 1959 Hugo ballot explicitly disallowed write-in votes.

Franson, DeVore and Warner all passed from the scene years ago, so we may never find out why they all neglected to report the 1956 shortlist. The opening paragraphs of Franson and DeVore’s History stress that the Hugos are a popularly-voted award, unlike the International Fantasy Award, whose winners are also reported in the book. They may have considered a committee-created shortlist unworthy of canon. But that’s pure speculation.

The one thing we’ve learned for certain is that there was a gap in the fanhistories people depended on for the past few decades. That’s why I’m happy to know someone is looking at the origins of the Hugo Award with a fresh set of eyes.

25 thoughts on “When The Received Wisdom Is Wrong

  1. There’s a mention of the 1956 voting in C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary by Mark Rich p294 (this link may or may not work to get you a preview in google books). It has Silverberg reminiscing that in some categories they had to hold a run-off vote right there at the convention, the previously mailed-out ballots not having provided a decisive result. (Which makes me wonder what was necessary for a decisive result?)

    Incidentally, p14 of the first progress report contains a call for nominations, to then be screened by the committee mentioned in PR3. So while not actually the formal balloting process we know today, clearly some element of wider fan involvement than just a jury-style committee was involved.

  2. Mark-kitteh: It has Silverberg reminiscing that in some categories they had to hold a run-off vote right there at the convention, the previously mailed-out ballots not having provided a decisive result… p14 of the first progress report contains a call for nominations

    Interestingly, Silverberg didn’t remember there being a member-nominating step that year, either:
    “I don’t remember whether there was open voting in 1955, but there certainly wasn’t any preliminary nomininating, nor was there any in 1956,” recalled Robert Silverberg.

  3. @JJ

    Possibly Silverberg’s memory fails him, because he’s listed as a member in PR1 and so ought to have seen the request for nominations!
    Or possibly he doesn’t count that informal call for suggestions as equivalent to the system that evolved later. That would be pretty reasonable IMO.

  4. Interesting fanhistory.

    I’m not getting notifications on comments; only on news posts. This will not deter me from ticking the ticky box, and living in hope.

    It’s lack of sleep that will be the death of hope.

  5. Interesting bit of fan history in that fanzine, even beyond the revelation of the nominees for that year (the article on the death of Fletcher Pratt, for example). I read and liked his book on battles that changed history. He was interested in battles that “changed the tide” of ongoing conflicts and really weren’t just punctuations on already existing forces and trends, but game changers. Great book IMO.

  6. Lis, I haven’t gotten notifications on comments in months. Coincidentally, it’s gotten to be a lot of work to discover changes in posts. I’m ticking, too.

  7. Nicki and I published many articles in Mimosa by Dave Kyle (chair of the 1956 Worldcon) and Roger Sims (co-chair of the 1959 Worldcon). Roger has written that the Detroit convention was the first to use the new nominating ballot. The topic never came up with Dave but he never made any statement that the New York convention had done that. This new information is enlightening even though the New York convention procedure on getting nominations is not described. It would be very useful, for the purposes of this discussion, to see if PR #2 explicitly asked fans to submit nominations for a final ballot.

    It might be that the call for nominations was not widely disseminated. Or maybe that the committee and a small group of fans were the deciders on who would be shortlisted. I don’t think this is settled yet on exactly how it all happened, so I hope whoever has a copy of PR #2 can enlighten us.

  8. @Rich Lynch

    See all 3 PRs at this link. PR2 was a shorter publication and didn’t mention the awards. PR1, on the other hand, did explicitly ask fans for nominations, but provided no form. Presumably the expectation was that they would simply write in.

    Here’s the text (dodgy formatting due to OCR)

    No. 3—You Nominate Them

    Once again we plan to continue the Achievement Awards started in Philadelphia in 1953. The categories are: BEST NOVEL, BEST NOVELETTE, BEST SHORT STORY, BEST MAGAZINE, BEST ARTIST, BEST FEATURE WRITER, BEST FANZINE; and MOST PROMISING WRITER OF THE YEAR. (Nominations must be for work which has appeared from June 1955 to June 1956, based on magazine cover dates.)

    However, this time we’re going to try to get a more representative vote; we’re going to have nominations first. A committee will eliminate the unqualified and tally the nominations, then ballots with printed nominations will be sent to all convention members for final voting.

    Nominate as many as you want from each category. The per- son coming closest to the final selections will also get a prize which the committee will determine.

    As the membership list in PR1 is 143 people, I suspect that “not widely disseminated” is a fair summation.

    I don’t think any of this contradicts the assertion that “the Detroit convention was the first to use the new nominating ballot” – it appears to have been much more informal in ’56.

  9. Reading PR 3 is a fascinating look into fandom back then.

    Early booking into the hotel gets you one of the rooms with an air conditioner!

    And the incorporation of WSFS …. oh my.

  10. In 1953, Best Novel arguably could have benefited from a shortlist. Glancing through the magazines would have quickly produced a shortlist for best new author. (They weren’t called pulps for nothing.)

    In 1955, a can of worms was opened with three whole categories for works of fiction. Far too many stories to choose from. Was no one perplexed how “Allamagoosa” by Eric Frank Russell, though it’s fun, was “better” than “The Cold Equations,” and Bester and Sturgeon and Pohl and some wild Richard Matheson and Philip K Dick and and and and and. No wonder NyCon II felt compelled to forward the nominations to a “jury.” What could they do? It also kinda looks like qualifying publication dates were fudged to allow “ignored” works from the previous award period onto the new year’s shortlist – indicative of “jury” members’ feelings? (For example, Sturgeon’s “Who?” if I’m not mistaken.)

    In 1957, Loncon I dodged the whole issue through the drastic measure of eliminating all fiction, author and artist categories. Perhaps the efforts of that “jury” were not universally well received.

    Solacon in 1958 invited members only to write in (one author’s name each) for two fiction categories, “Author of the Best Novel or Novelette” and the “Author of the Best Short Story.” Must have seemed short and sweet. Now Fritz Leiber (THE BIG TIME) was perhaps not in hindsight the best in that year; he was at least a strong contender, and the number of strong contenders in novel/novelette was reasonably small. But in what sense could Avram Davidson possibly be “The Author of the Best Short Story” from mid-1957 to mid-1958? I like Avram Davidson. It isn’t a popularity contest.

    [Tentative hypothesis: there were tense undercurrents to all of these attempts to create an equitable system for multiple short fiction categories, and so the early fan histories avoided discussing it much.]

    In 1959, they really needed a jury again. But Detention didn’t want another jury. Their Hugo nomination ballot is very specific about what they did want:

    The Detention Committee have discussed previous policies and procedures and have decided to revise these in hopes of making the awards more meaningful and more representative of fandom’s and the general reader’s opinion.

    We do not believe that any group smaller than the whole of fandom can produce a truly representative list of nominations and of course this same group must be allowed upon the nominations. Nothing less could be fair to the persons and publications involved.

    In the hope of making the “Hugo” awards more representative of the best judgement of ALL of fandom we urge everyone, convention members and non-members alike, to send us their nominations. Up to three in each category will be accepted from each person. In most cases five to ten nominations, depending upon the responses and subject, will be listed on the ballot. The nominees will of course be those most frequently named.

    These documents hold clear arguments for either admitting defeat, throwing in the towel, and going (back) to a juried shortlist, or else opening nominations to as many past, future and potential Worldcon members as possible (and perhaps anyone at all), while also giving Worldcons some flexibility to extend the number of finalists, in order to reflect “the best judgement of ALL of fandom.”

  11. I’m amused by the description of DeVore as credible based on lived experience; in the 1998 edition of his History, his comment about the 1989 Hugo mess is bull. I would not assume his accuracy about anything — especially when writing a decade or more later.

  12. Lis, I’ve long believed that some undiagnosed sin of mine must be causing this inconvenience. No idea why you should have to suffer, though. (Shakes fist lightly in a general upward direction.)

  13. Thanks. I really enjoyed seeing this post, Mike.

    Stumbled on the shortlist while researching a post for my blog. The subject that I was trying to figure out is when the eligibility period for Hugos became standardized to the calendar year (I.E. in ’53, the rules say that it’s for novels published August 1 1952-August 1 1953, but in ’56, it’s for those published June 1 1955 – June 1 1956 … ).

    Had to double check with a couple of people (Thanks to Bradford L.) to make sure I wasn’t wrong about this shortlist issue. Then contacted Kevin Standlee.

    Very glad to have noticed this, and to bring the 1956 shortlist to light.

  14. @Chip Hitchcock:

    I’m amused by the description of DeVore as credible based on lived experience; in the 1998 edition of his History, his comment about the 1989 Hugo mess is bull.

    What happened with the 1989 Hugos (that was before I was involved in fandom – though it looks like I read a lot of the works nominated).

  15. Chip Hitchcock: I’m amused by the description of DeVore as credible based on lived experience; in the 1998 edition of his History, his comment about the 1989 Hugo mess is bull. I would not assume his accuracy about anything — especially when writing a decade or more later.

    Among the principals there are three main schools of thought about the 1989 Hugo mess, and the way to find out which school a fan belongs to is to ask him why he thinks the mess wasn’t his fault.

  16. Any chance of getting a representative from each to provide their perspective? I’m really curious now!

    (I had no chance of paying attention at the time, since at most I would have been a newborn, depending on when in August the Worldcon happened.)

  17. Meredith, here’s Kevin Standlee’s version:

    In 1989, a bunch of seemingly-identical ballots turned up, cast in a very suspicious pattern. Look, if you receive a large number of identically marked ballots, all paid for by consecutively-numbered money orders from the same post office, and all apparently cast at the same time, it is likely to look suspicious. The Administrators were worried about this one. (Incidentally, one reaction to the 1989 affair was to move the deadline for becoming a member eligible to nominate back so that it was before the deadline for casting ballots.)

    In light of what we know now, a case could have been made for discarding the questionable ballots on the grounds that they were not cast by the people whose names were attached to them. I understand that some of the people in question were surprised when they started getting convention material, because as far as they knew, they’d never joined Noreascon Three.

    Despite all of this, the 1989 Hugo Award Administrators (which were actually the entire Board of Directors of the convention’s parent corporation) decided to not discard the ballots, but instead to allow six finalists, without saying which nominee was the one with the suspicious voting pattern. Subsequently, P.J. Beese and Todd Cameron Hamilton withdrew their novel The Guardian from the shortlist. It does not appear that Beese and Hamilton had anything to do with the campaign in question, and that the campaign was the the result of “a group of enthusiastic New York area fans,” according to Locus.

    As I heard it, when Beese and Hamilton found out what had been done on their behalf, they were embarrassed and/or horrified, and requested that their work be withdrawn from the ballot.

  18. @JJ: Thanks for the link to Standlee’s version. I do remember hearing something about that, but I had forgotten that it was 1989.

  19. @JJ: there are a lot of debatable-to-erroneous items in Kevin’s summary, but I do not have the spoons to provide corrections with sufficient rigor and the gist of his text (massive fraud) is correct. What set me off in this thread was that the initial fraud was followed by massively bogus letter purporting to explain how a bunch of people from Chicago and points south and/or west had had memberships paid for in a NYC post office; DeVore (1998 edition) claims this letter was a full explanation, which makes me doubt any of his alleged witnessing of history.

    And since you’ve demanded credentials before: yes, I was on the deciding body (the corporation, MCFI — there was no “board of directors”). No, I still don’t know what was the best thing to do; the administrator was a rigorous and intensely honest person who was far more familiar with WSFS rules (such as they were then) than I will ever be, but neither of us claimed to be able to read minds to determine the truth.

    @OGH: only three sets? That seems small, considering the number of directions the shit was flying. Care to elaborate?

  20. Chip Hitchcock: And since you’ve demanded credentials before

    This is a false statement. I didn’t “demand” anything; you previously attempted to bludgeon me with your credentials when I did not agree with your opinion on something.

    Based on the accounts I’ve read from various people, I have little doubt that this was an organized campaign which used the names of known fans to register fake memberships for the purpose of bloc nominating. (I seem to remember someone saying that several fans from the opposite side of the country, who had declined to purchase memberships in advance because they did not know whether they would be able to attend, showed up at Noreascon to purchase memberships, only to be told that not only had they already purchased memberships, they had nominated and voted in the Hugos as well.)

  21. No, yours is a false statement; you demanded credentials in the argument over the sources of the pins associated with the World Fantasy Award.

    I won’t argue over the at-the-door facts you propose; I was a little busy during N3 due to the explosion of a safety issue, and never discussed this directly with Registration.

  22. Chip Hitchcock: No, yours is a false statement; you demanded credentials in the argument over the sources of the pins associated with the World Fantasy Award.

    Once again: I didn’t “demand” anything. Your continued attempts to retcon history about that, as well as your repeated attempts to bludgeon me into serving as a spokesperson for the people who complained about the LARP at Worldcon 75, have convinced me that you do not act in good faith.

    I do find it really interesting, however, that you seem to remember occasions where people who disagree with you as “demanding your credentials”.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I go by the veracity of what people say, not by how many credentials they brandish. And I suspect that’s what really gets your goat: that I judge you by what you say, rather than just accepting you as an unimpeachable expert based on what you perceive to be your impeccable “credentials”, the way that you seem to expect me to do. 🙄

  23. Meredith: I was more interested in how the stories would vary than anything else.

    Mike will have to answer that, but from my reading it seems clear that each of the following scenarios has its adherents:
    1) The beneficiaries of the bloc nominating were aware that it was being done, if not directly responsible for instigating it, and the Noreascon 3 concom handled it in an appropriate manner.
    2) The beneficiaries of the bloc nominating were not aware that it was being done, but it was within the bounds of acceptable nominator behaviour anyway, and the Noreascon 3 concom wrongly cast public aspersions instead of quietly checking with the nominators before saying anything.
    3) There was fraud involved in the bloc nominating, with an unknown number of people being falsely used as “nominators” without their knowledge, and the Noreascon 3 concom is unfairly being blamed despite handling it in the most fair way they could do so.

    The letter from the 17 people struck me as being an extremely complex version of “the dog ate my homework”, which required such extensive contortions in order to explain all of the numerous suspicious circumstances that its credibility frankly beggars belief.

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