Rethinking the Retro-Hugos: How Should We Honor Past SFF?

[Editor’s Introduction: Dave Wallace left a thoughtful comment today about what he sees as the problems with the Retro-Hugos periodically given by Worldcons, and offered several proposals for change. He gave permission to republish the text as a post, which should allow even more people to read and engage with his ideas.]  

By Dave Wallace: I’ve been thinking about problems with the Retro-Hugos and what to do about them since the Dublin Worldcon. I was hoping I would get a chance to finish writing up the proposal I’ve been working on so that I could circulate it as a whole for comments rather than putting it out piecemeal. But since we’re discussing the topic now, let me share some excerpts from the notes I have on how we could better honor past work if we were to decide to discontinue the Retro-Hugos in their current form.

Issues with the Current Retro-Hugos

This list of issues with the current Retro-Hugos is a combination of thoughts that I’ve had and some of the comments I’ve heard from others:

1) They involve a lot of time and expense for the Worldcon putting them on, especially for the Hugo Administrators.
2) They are an all-or-nothing thing for a given year: either a Worldcon decides to host all the Retro-Hugo categories for a given year, or they won’t be revisited at all for another 25 years.
3) Lots of Worldcon members don’t participate, compared with the regular Hugos.
4) It’s a fair amount of effort or expense for many voters to track down all the finalists in a given category.
5) They are tied to a specific anniversary year in a 25 year cycle.
6) People vote for the one thing that is familiar, rather than thoroughly comparing finalists.
7) It’s hard to track down reproduction rights to form a Hugo Packet.
8) At 75 years, it’s hard to find representatives for whom the trophy is meaningful – lots of past Retro trophies are sitting in warehouses.
9) Modern categories may not fit historical SFF consumption well.
10) Retro-Hugos don’t have the same prestige as regular Hugos.

What Would We Need in a Different System to Honor Past Work?

Suppose we were to pass and ratify a constitutional amendment discontinuing the current form of the Retro-Hugos at the 2021 and 2022 Worldcons. Would that be the end of attempts to honor unrecognized work from past years?

It need not be. But I think that any replacement system must reckon with the central failure of the current Retro-Hugos, which is that they attempt to do too much in a single year. Trying to deal with a full second set of Hugo categories in addition to all the current year Hugo categories is a burden for voters and administrators alike, and means that few are able to devote the time to properly understand these works in their historical context. Thus the two key ideas that I would propose are to decouple historical awards from a specific anniversary year, and to host no more than one historical award category per year.

These two ideas are related. Doing only a single historical category per year reduces the extra workload on voters and administrators dramatically. Breaking the link to a specific anniversary eliminates the current pressure on Worldcons to either host a full set of retro-Hugos for a given year or accept that no works from that year can be honored for another twenty five years at the earliest, when they will be even further away from the people to whom those works were most meaningful. Instead, the focus can shift to asking what historical categories, if any, are most ready and appropriate to be honored now.

Outline of Proposal

I’m still working out details and looking for feedback, but the basic outline of the proposal I originally hoped to submit to the 2020 Business Meeting involved three constitutional changes:

1) We officially decide to stop holding the Retro-Hugos in their current form after 2020 (or maybe after 2022, if Chicago really wants to host them).

2) Instead, we add a provision that would allow each Worldcon to optionally add a special Hugo category for works from a specified past year to the regular Hugos, similar to the current provision for trial categories in section 3.3.19 of the WSFS Constitution. If they elected to add such a category, it would be a special category in the regular Hugos, such as “Best Short Story of 1948” – no need for a separate ceremony or the expense of a separate base design. This would also address concern #10 above.

3) Finally, we establish a new standing committee to propose and vet proposals for past year categories, so that future Worldcons will have a list of ripe proposals to choose from if they want to add a past year category. Two important criteria for them to consider in evaluating possible year/category combinations (suggested, not absolutely mandatory): (a): Can the Worldcon obtain the rights to distribute likely finalists in the Hugo Voter Packet, or otherwise make them available in an easily obtainable form, and (b): Is there a living person connected with the work who would appreciate having the trophy (and ideally, would show up to accept it)?

These two criteria are related: the existence of such a person can aid in getting the rights for the packet. If the original artist is no longer alive, it could be a family representative, literary executor, or publisher. Having most/all finalists available in the Voter Packet would make it more likely that voters would read and compare all the works on their merits, instead of just voting for the one name they recognize.

(I recently shared the above proposal outline in a twitter discussion with Hugo finalist Siobhan Carroll, who had her own similar proposals about the Retro-Hugos – twitter discussion here and here.)

I wish I’d had time to write this up more fully, but maybe the unfinished version makes it easier to incorporate feedback. What do others think?

81 thoughts on “Rethinking the Retro-Hugos: How Should We Honor Past SFF?

  1. Recapping from my comment on the prior thread:

    I don’t think the Retros should be a special category in the regular Hugos. I think that exacerbates one of the issues with the Retros (the “why are we giving Lovecraft a trophy” issue). There’s nothing particularly gained by actually coming to a final vote [eg the proposal above adds a way of making the trophy relevant to somebody, but that is putting the cart before the horse.]

    I do think limiting the retro categories in a given year and letting each Worldcon pick is a good idea. It will limit the amount of reading/watching anyone might have to do and it will give the Retros more focus.

    The test for a proposal should be whether it encourages engagement and interest.

  2. (1) Lots of things the Worldcon does take a lot of time and effort. Saying that the Retro Hugos do is useful as a point of comparison to other Worldcon activities — does it take more effort than an Art Display, or a Masquerade Ball? — more so than it is as an absolute statement.
    (3) Most Worldcon members don’t participate in the Hugos as well.
    (4) There’s no requirement that you have to read or see all of the nominees. Vote for the best thing you are familiar with. All elections work off incomplete knowledge.
    (6) This is only a problem if you think you know better how someone should vote than they do.
    (7) More and more, the expectations associated with Packets, and the inherent disadvantage associated with not being in it, make me think that Packets are bad for the Awards. The Hugo Awards worked quite well before Packets existed.
    (8) The value of the award is in no way dependent on whether someone receives a trophy.
    (9) This is a good point. The categories of the Hugos of the 1950s would be more appropriate than the categories of 2020 Hugos.
    (10) There’s no reason they should have the same prestige. Being 50 or more years after the fact, they tend to validate decisions that history has already made, while the Hugos are part of the decision-making itself.
    But I do tend to think that they have more prestige now, after they’ve been given out 8 times, than the Hugos did in 1961, when they had been given out 8 times.

  3. I agree with discontinuing the Retros in their present form. The modern categories are a mismatch for the forms of SF existing 75 years ago, while those who vote will vote for what is familiar or well known rather than what may actually be the best. (Being a subjective judgment, the last is a difficult argument.)
    The idea of honoring past works through the use of a special Hugo category merits further consideration.
    WSFS constitutional amendments take at least 2 years to be instituted. The soonest an amendment to abolish the Retros can pass is in time for the 2023 Worldcon (1st passage 2021, 2nd 2022).
    At this point there are 5 years left in the 75-year cycle. Discon III in 2021 will not have Retros, since the ones for 1946 were given in 1996. I don’t know whether or not Chicon 8 (2022) has decided to administer the Retros for 1947. At least one of the bidders for 2023 has stated they will NOT administer them, a decision the committees for 2024, 2025, and 2027 will also need to make either when bidding or after they’ve won.
    Besides amending the WSFS constitution to abolish them (which would at least kill the ridiculous 100-year cycle), it might also be worthwhile to try to convince the next few years of Worldcons to take a pass on them as well.

  4. I’m against. First, I don’t think the Retro-Hugos should have the same prestige as the regular Hugos. They are a fun exercise of What if…?, nothing more. Second, the Hugo’s shouldn’t be heavily tied to a freebie packet. As if what is free is automatically better.

    I’m more into removing the prestige of the Retro-Hugos, thus lessening the stakes and thus the anger. Keep the voting and finalists. Remove handing out trophies and the ceremonies. Have panels about the results instead. Let the Worldcon decide what categories to run.

    Most important is how to reduce load on administrators. Not handing out rockets should at least help somewhat.

  5. //Dave Wallace on August 22, 2020 at 12:05 am said:
    One possibility I suggested in one of the Twitter threads is that if reproduction rights for a given category are too expensive for a Worldcon to consider, it might be possible for the committee to partner with a commercial publisher to encourage publication of an anthology that would include many likely finalists for a category under consideration.//

    Just pulling this aspect from the other thread because I think it’s another aspect that I think could be good.

  6. we’re 7 years away from filling in the gaps, which was the original intent.

    instead of makng this whole thing take even longer, why not shorten it? compress it to voting on two or three years worth at three or two future Worldcons and be done with it.

    I agree with Bill’s points in a previous comment anjd will add that since most of the finalists to date usually reflect the already familiar and popular, its pretty easy to find many of those works out in the wild. Rights for a packet, admittedly not so much, but, if the nominating procedure is altered a bit, more time can be made to track that stuff down.

    say we do 1940, 1942 and 1947 one year and 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1952 another year. allow nomnations to take place in the normal fashion, but then allw two years before the finalist vote. present them off stage to save more time and expense.

    or make it a special event for the 2039 or 2043 worldcon, (calendrical or numerical 100th Worldcons respectively) and, starting 3 years previous, finish up all the missing years and be done with it.

    or reall cut to the chase, remove the voters and have a committe pick the winners.

  7. I think that familiarity is a problem with the Retro Hugos. It’s not such an issue with the main Hugos because everything that can be nominated is recent and readily available. (It is an issue but not so big that I’m very concerned about it)

    But that really isn’t the case with works that are 75 years old. Especially shorter works which were a larger part of the SF/F landscape back then. So you get fewer voters and more works overlooked. Campbell’s dominance is a case in point – is he winning so often because he really was that much better than his rivals or is his run of wins partly due to familiarity?

  8. @Camestros: Thanks for providing the link to my comment from the other thread. That comment was largely responding to some of the specific points Hampus raised, but I agree the anthology possibility is worth thinking about independently of that.

  9. @Paul King: Yeah, if we were to adopt my proposal or something close to it, I would be very reluctant to suggest doing a Best Editor category for one of the remaining Retro years unless someone was able to write a good survey article for the voter packet that could focus on what each editor did in the year in question. What new authors did they publish that year, what are the top few stories they published that year, what other contributions to the industry did they make, and what were they advocating in their editorials – that sort of thing. Campbell might still win, but at least we would have a fighting chance that the voters had been primed to think about and compare each editor’s contribution in the year in question, instead of just making it a life achievement award that Campbell wins every year by default.

  10. @steve davidson: If people mostly just want to finish filling out the original conception of the Retro Hugos and be done with past work forever, your approach has merit. Certainly introducing a gap of a year or two between nominations and voting would help consideration of the Retros, but it has the problem that the Worldcon of the final voting year might not agree with the project. I think it would be possible for one Worldcon to do the nominations and just leave them for a future (unspecified) Worldcon to decide to carry through with the voting part. In any case, it would require constitutional changes to implement.

    I think my approach could be readily adapted to other cases of honoring past work, if there is a desire to do so, and I think some of those cases might seem more compelling than just finishing the Retros. I guess the question is how many people would line up behind “Let’s find a better way to honor past work,” “Let’s finish out the Retro project more or less as originally defined,” or “Let’s just drop the whole idea now” as their preferred position. I don’t know how support for those different positions would break down.

  11. I have always thought the Retro Hugos were a TERRIBLE idea. The Hugos represent the tastes of current voters. What do the Retro represent? It’s really hard to tell. Generally, the writers current readers are familiar now with get awards, not necessarily the best writers of year X. I may have voted for retros once; but normally, I don’t. While understanding our history is important, the focus of SF should be the future, not the past.

  12. I’m in the “Let’s find a better way to honor past work” camp. I’m skeptical that finishing out the Retro project in the current fashion will happen. If changes aren’t made, I think we’ll end up dropping the whole idea anyway. If Memphis wins 2023 with the stated intent of not having them, then I could see Chicago saying they won’t in 2022 as well. Then future bids may continue to feel they are not worth the trouble.

    As someone who has not participated in the Retros because I prioritize the current Hugos and just manage enough time for them, I am very interested in something along the lines of what Dave proposes.

  13. I enjoy the Retro Hugos and would like to see them continue for the small number of years in which we can still do them under the rules. There are only four more that could be run before the 2040s: 1947 in 2022, 1948 in 2023, 1949 in 2024 and 1950 in 2025. The Memphis bid already doesn’t want to do 1948, so if it wins that leaves three.

    For those who do not participate in them but want them to end, why should your feelings take precedence over those of us who do consistently vote and engage in discussions over the year about worthy works to consider? You could have addressed your concerns about the winners by voting.

    Ending the Retros doesn’t just prevent a reviled figure from winning. It also prevents overlooked people from being honored. As a Retro voter I love it when somebody is nominated or wins who wouldn’t have had a chance back then. It’s probably the biggest motivator among those of us who spend so much time on this part of Worldcon.

    If the concern is over the work required, I’m eager to volunteer as are others who’d like to see them continue.

  14. I like the idea of the Retro-Hugos, but agree that they are too cumbersome. And no need for trophies.

    I would suggest something like the redrafts popular in pro sports. Pick a time period like 25 years ago. Looking only at a small number of categories, say Novel, short fiction, Dramatic Presentation, take the existing Hugo ballot. Let people nominate additional works that didn’t make the ballot that year, up to a total of 10 nominees. Then then vote on the new ballot.

    So you’d end up looking at “What did we utterly miss on?”, “What has aged gracefully?”, “What has not?” And for the analytic oriented, you can look at total sales, Goodreads ratings, appearances in anthologies, etc. Someone mentioned having panels to discuss the results, an excellent idea. And don’t include in the Hugo packet. Let it be a fun exercise for those who care about older works.

  15. I think honoring past work is a worthwhile idea, but the Retro Hugos, as they have existed so far, have not worked well as a vehicle for such recognition.

    Shouldn’t a jury do the honors? The overwhelming majority of Worldcon members don’t care about work of 75, or even 50 years ago. And dump the trophies. There’s usually no one to give them to, anyway.

    I like the idea of abandoning the strict anniversary rule (multiples of 25), and I would add something that no one else (to my knowledge) has suggested:

    Why not retrospectively give appropriate recognition for years in which Worldcons were held, and Hugos were given? For example, there are a number of years where only a single short fiction Hugo was given, leaving many classic stories out in the cold. For example, if the short fiction Hugo winner was a novella (in modern terms), isn’t there room for some sort of recognition for the best short story and/or the best novelette of that year?

    What to call such “recognition” is up for discussion, of course. Hugos needn’t be given. It would be enough for winners to be announced and entered into the record books. Of course all sorts of complexities would be involved, but the Hugos have never exactly shied away from complexity.

  16. Shouldn’t a jury do the honors? The overwhelming majority of Worldcon members don’t care about work of 75, or even 50 years ago.

    A jury would be an even smaller group of Worldcon members.

  17. @rcade
    “For those who do not participate in them but want them to end, why should your feelings take precedence”
    Why should your feelings take precedence over those of us who don’t care who might have won, at a time before we were born? Maybe people who didn’t vote were expressing their feelings.

    Retro-Hugos are an okay once, maybe twice, thing. They don’t hold up as a frequent occurrence.

  18. steve davidson on August 22, 2020 at 1:02 am said:

    we’re 7 years away from filling in the gaps, which was the original intent.

    The original intent of the lead sponsor of the proposal (see p.12 of the linked PDF minutes of the 1993 WSFS Business Meeting) was to do it once and then never again, but it appears that Bruce Pelz figured that he’d never get it passed if it were written that way.

    “I expect the idea to be pretty much a Funny-Once, and that other Worldcons will not want to try this. But with a 1946-1996 Opportunity, I would like to be able to try it at least once.”
    — Bruce Pelz

  19. Why should your feelings take precedence over those of us who don’t care who might have won, at a time before we were born?

    There’s plenty going on at Worldcon each year that I don’t care about. I don’t try to stop those events from happening. Why do you want to kill something you don’t care about?

    “I expect the idea to be pretty much a Funny-Once, and that other Worldcons will not want to try this.”

    He guessed incorrectly. Seven other Worldcons have run Retros, so there’s clearly been some sustained interest in them.

  20. they could also be divorced from WorldCon’s schedule/physical presentation.

    I’d venture to guess that there are enough interested parties out there to crowd fund the making of the awards themselves, enough interested parties to serve as vetters, researchers and administrators, to have the retros handled as a separate project (under WSFS auspices), conducted at 2 or 3 year intervals, maybe even support an online awards ceremony.

    But finish it I think we should do, now that it has already begun and is at least 50% completed.

  21. Wow, I didn’t know that there are so few years for them. All Worldcons I have gone to have handed them out and I typically like their trophies better than the main Hugo’s. I’d also prefer to see them go after they are finished and would prefer some categories to be dropped.

    If you think that Campbell is going to win again, treat him as a puppy. You can No Award the Retros just like the Hugos saw No Award. And it doesn’t cost extra. Since there’d be trophies with nowhere to go in this case, auction them off for a fan fund or similar.

  22. To expand on what rcade said — the difference between the feelings of those who support the Retros and those who do not, is that actively pushing for them not to happen is the worst sort of gatekeeping. “I don’t like this, so you shouldn’t do it.”
    If you really don’t like them, you can ignore them, or you can work to make them better (I don’t support the bulk of David Wallace’s proposals, but I commend him for thinking about ways to improve the process).

  23. To be clear, even though I have not participated in Retro Hugos, I follow them and I’m not opposed to them. I just think that something needs to change in order to increase the likelihood of them happening again at all. And also to increase interest and engagement in them which will in turn make it more appealing for future Worldcons to have Retros or something similar.

  24. Exactly what Bill says. Cancelling the whole Retro-Hugos just because some people can’t be bothered to vote No Award isn’t the best of ideas.

  25. There’s been a lot of speculating and assuming in trying to explain the results of the Retro Hugo voting; assuming that voters voted for what they were familiar with, rather than reading the nominees or following the guidance of the well-informed. Would it be feasible to survey the voters and get some clearer insight there? I suppose the Retro-Hugo administrators or someone they trust and select could design the survey and tabulate responses. (This might not be allowed by the WSFS constitution or by-laws, if it violates any confidentiality rules, but then the Admins already know who voted.) Relevant survey questions could include stuff like: Did you read all nominees? Did you read any reviews of eligible material? Etc.

  26. @rcade

    There are only four more that could be run before the 2040s: 1947 in 2022, 1948 in 2023, 1949 in 2024 and 1950 in 2025.

    You missed one. 1952 in 2027.

  27. For those who do not participate in them but want them to end, why should your feelings take precedence over those of us who do consistently vote and engage in discussions over the year about worthy works to consider? You could have addressed your concerns about the winners by voting.

    Ending the Retros doesn’t just prevent a reviled figure from winning. It also prevents overlooked people from being honored. As a Retro voter I love it when somebody is nominated or wins who wouldn’t have had a chance back then. It’s probably the biggest motivator among those of us who spend so much time on this part of Worldcon.

    If the concern is over the work required, I’m eager to volunteer as are others who’d like to see them continue.

    Yes, this.

    There are a lot of things going on at Worldcon that I have zero interest in. For example, I’m not a gamer, so I have zero interest in the gaming events. I also have zero interest in meditation for Trekkies, linining up for hours to have GRRM sign a book and lots of other things. However, that doesn’t mean that I want these things gone, just that I have no interest in them. And the beauty of Worldcons is that there is something for every interest.

    I’m also not a regular YA reader and usually leave the Lodestar finalists for last, because they’re quite a bit of work, even if YA books are on average shorter than adult books, and I really don’t have a lot of interest in this category. And while I actually enjoyed most of the 2020 Lodestar finalists, getting through the 2019 Lodestar finalists was a slog for me, because I didn’t like most of those books and three of them had the exact same plot, only in different settings. However, I don’t want to see that Lodestar gone, because I know that YA SFF is important to a lot of people, even if it’s not my thing. And so I simply don’t vote for the Lodestar, if I can’t get through the finalists. So why are so many people here eager to destroy something that other people enjoy?

    Also, the argument that Retro Hugo finalists are difficult to find is bunk. The more famous stories (which aren’t necessarily the best) have been reprinted umpteen times. And pretty much every SFF magazine of the pulp era is available on the Internet Archive these days. Those novels that were not published in pulp SFF magazines are usually available as e-books for a reasonable price. Best related work finalists may be found in libraries.

    I reviewed more than 30 Retro Hugo eligible stories and novels for my Retro Review project, including some which have never been reprinted at all, and also provided a link to where to find the story in question. Steve J. Wright reviewed another thirty or so. Paul Fraser went through the Internet Archive and put up links to every single eligible story at SF Magazines. The good people at compiled all the eligible fanzines and put up links on their site.

    There was the crowdsourced Retro Hugo Recommendation spreadsheet where we had recommendations for every viable category. Some of us checked university libraries for obscure non-fiction books for the Best Related Work category. We checked the eligiblity for Best Series (and ironically, the Cthulhu Mythos is listed as “eligibility unclear”, because it wasn’t clear whether the whole series was really 240000 words by 1944). So the information was out there, compiled by several people who put a lot of work into this. You chose not to pay attention, but then felt the need to complain that you didn’t like the winners.

    We would also have made the information, links, etc… we unearthed available to CoNZealand members. I explicitly offered CoNZealand to scan my copy of an elusive Best Related Work finalists, but they declined. I’m pretty sure that someone would also have written an article for the CoNZealand site highlighting eligible works, including the difficult editor category. They didn’t even ask.

    Also, we only have a few more years of Retro Hugos left. And 25 years are a long time, so if we don’t hold them now, some of those who do care about the Retro Hugos may no longer be around to see them awarded.

    Besides, as I said on the other thread, Lovecraft will never win a Retro Hugo again, unless some future Worldcon thinks that pre-1939 Retro Hugos are a good idea. Lovecraft died in 1937 and by 1945, August Derleth had published the last unpublished scraps of his work. And the Chthulu Mythos won’t gather another 250000 words in the years that are still left. Campbell will continue to be eligible and may continue to win, unless people start paying attention to the work other editors did.

    Also, the most problematic Retro Hugo finalists are generally to be found in the Dramatic Presentation and Graphic Story, where we had such “gems” as a blatant propaganda cartoon, a racist Batman serial and a racist Wonder Woman comic, which even won in 2019. And where was the outcry then? Not a peep to be heard.

    I agree with Hampus, Cam and others that the Retro Hugos don’t necessarily need trophies or a separate ceremonies and I have sympathy that con coms worry about the cost and the time and effort required of the Hugo admins. But that doesn’t mean that we have to ditch them, especially since a lot of people already poured a lot of work into sifting through eligible works, checking eligiblilty, etc…

  28. The retro-Hugos were never a good idea, and the problems you outline were not unknown even when they were created. At early retro-Hugos some of the recipients were still around, and that was nice, but this becomes less and less true as you get to 75 and 100 year anniversary awards. I don’t agree with those who dislike the award simply because they disagree with how fans are voting, and you didn’t list that as a reason, but it’s been one of the reasons that has prompted others to suggest this.

    If the recipients are gone, and it’s more a measure of what people today have read of the past, I agree they should be made more simple. No statues or ceremony.

    I actually think that it makes sense to have “retro” Hugos going into the more recent past, where the fans care and recipients care, whose job is to see what fans now recognize with a decade of reflection. I would construct 1 or 2 awards which are “Best X of the decade from now-15 years to now-5 years” and X would cycle through 10 things. So this year might award “Best novel of 2005-2015, and next year might do “Best short story of 2006-2016” and then “Best series primarily in 2007-2017” and “Best novel that didn’t win a Hugo 2008-2018” and so on. This is actually what might have been a better choice than best series as a yearly award. Or frankly, a better choice than many of the yearly awards that are in fields that don’t have 6 excellent new candidates each year and thus get the same set each time.

    With 2 such awards you effectively have 20 categories, which reduces Hugo inflation as everybody pushes to add their own particular category, and these awards, I suspect would award true greatness — both because they find the best in a decade, and because they are done with reflection of a modest among of history. You can tweak the distance in time if needed to make that better. It doesn’t add a lot of time to the ceremony or the work.

    I am particularly enthused at the idea of awards for “best work that didn’t win” or even “best work that wasn’t nominated” (though there is a risk of awarding works for the later success of their creator, as has definitely been the case in the retro hugos.) There are years where the #2 work is better than many of the #1 works from surrounding years but those #2 works go unrecognized.

  29. I actually loved the idea of the Retro Hugos the first time I encountered them, which was the 1941 Retros in 2016 at MidAmericon II (my second-ever Worldcon). I was able to read all the finalists in the shorter fiction categories, and some of the novels, and I loved the way I was able to get better perspective on Heinlein’s early career by reading the other works that were up against his two stories on the ballot from the same year. He really was writing dramatically differently (and IMHO, better) than his contemporaries. I’ve also noted that the high point of the Retro ceremony for me was seeing van Vogt’s granddaughter accept the trophy on his behalf for Slan, a moment that almost didn’t happen. I went away from MidAmericon II talking about what a great idea the Retro Hugos were.

    But I haven’t gotten that feeling from any of the Retro Hugos since then. In thinking about the difference, I’ve realized that the biggest factor was that I spent a lot less time on the regular Hugo reading in 2016. There were fewer categories on the ballot, each category only had five finalists instead of six, and so many entries were blatant garbage from the Rabid Puppies that I didn’t need to spend much time reading a lot of those entries to determine that they were in no way Hugo-worthy. So I was able to spend a lot more time chasing down and reading the Retro finalists to be able to compare them.

    Since then, we’ve added the Lodestar and the Best Series categories, which have highlighted a lot of good work, but have also sucked up a lot of the available oxygen in the room in terms of reading time if you want to be able to evaluate them fairly. I’m not really complaining that there’s so much more good stuff to read on the contemporary Hugo ballot, but because I tend to prioritize the current stuff, I have a lot less time to track down and read the stuff on the Retro ballot, and I often wind up voting for the one or two things in a category that I’ve read or remember reading, which contributes to problem #6 and is a lot less satisfying than what I was able to do in 2016.

    In 2019, I managed to buy, read, and vote for the one novel that turned out to be the winner, and I’m glad I did – but there are two other Retro finalists I bought that year that are still sitting on my Nook unread, and three others that I never got around to tracking down at all. I also really enjoyed Cora’s review of the Baron Munchausen movie and wish I’d been able to watch it during the voting period so I could have ranked it, but I ran out of time and haven’t gotten around to watching it since. This past year I had even less time available and I just skipped the Retros all together.

    Also in 2019, I had or heard a bunch of discussions in Dublin about some of the problems with the Retros, and I was initially surprised by how many people seemed to be ready to just get rid of the Retros completely if there were problems. I remember how magical that 2016 experience of the 1941 Retros felt, and I’d like to be able to experience something like it again. So this particular proposal comes out of thinking about these problems and trying to find a way to recapture the part that was magical for me in a world where a lot of us have a lot less time available to track down older work. I’d also like to be able to share that magic with some of the other Worldcon members who don’t find the current format appealing.

    If you are someone who likes the current Retro format, and may be feeling hurt that other people are considering discontinuing it, I’d like to hear more about what you love about the current Retros, and also the parts that don’t work as well for you. Maybe there’s a way to capture more of that magic and make it available to a broader Worldcon audience.

  30. Some alternative thoughts —

    If I were king of the Retro-Hugos, these are the changes I’d think hard about making:

    Eligibility. A number of people who have won multiple Hugos have removed themselves from consideration for further awards, so I think it would not be inappropriate to make a rule that said “anyone or any work which has previously received a Retro-Hugo in ineligible for more Retro-Hugos.” I personally think that if a work is the best of the year, it should be honored as such no matter how many times its creator has been previously honored, but I also recognize that something many look for from the Retros is a chance to discover new creators and their work, and that doesn’t happen as much if Heinlein or Campbell wins yet another rocket. This also might tend to placate those who think Campbell (and Asimov, and Ackerman, and others) shouldn’t win any awards at all because of the kind of person they were, by removing those people from future consideration. (My own response to them would be that the award is for the work, not the person, but that argument hasn’t flown so far.)

    Scheduling. The mutiple-of-25 rule must have made sense when it was made; now, the long wait between the last possible 75th anniversary and the earliest possible 100th anniversary means that some holes in the record won’t be filled for a long time. So, new rule: “Starting with the 2028 Worldcon, a Worldcon may elect at its discretion to hold Retro-Hugo Awards for any year after 1939 for which no Hugo or Retro-Hugos have been awarded, until all such possible years have been so recognized.” (I personally would think about extending the dates back to the beginning of Gernsback’s tenure at Amazing; others may disagree.) This means that if committee decides not to hold an award, as is their privilege, those of us who enjoy the Retro-Hugos don’t have to wait a quarter-century for that omission to be rectified.

    Categories. Keep Novel, Novella, Novellette, and Short Story. Keep Best Related Work, Best Fan Writer, and Best Fanzine. I don’t understand why so little interest exists in Best Fan Artist, but it historically has been dropped often, so might as well make it official and drop it. Drop Graphic Story, Fancast, Semiprozine, Best Editor Long Form. Change Dramatic awards to “Best Theatrical Feature Film”, and “Best Dramatic – Other” to capture possible theatrical shorts, radio, tv, plays, etc. (I expect that in some (most?) years, the “Other” category will be dropped for lack of interest.) Keep Best Editor Short (and possibly change it to “Best Magazine Editor”, or even “Best Magazine” and award it in the name of the editor). Allow Committees to add 1 Retro-Hugo at their discretion, analogous to what they can do with Hugo Awards.

    Process, Trophies, and Ceremony: The administering Worldcon need not be responsible for any research other than considerations of eligibility like date of publication and word-count, which should be crowdsourced as much as possible. Explicitly forbid the Committee from assembling reader packets (although all involved should tacitly encourage fans to identify potential nominees, the locations of works online, or other ready sources such as anthologies, etc.) Drop the trophies, and skip looking for someone to receive them. The Retro-Ceremony should be a series of announcements. If a descendant of an awardee is present, the Worldcon might recognize their presence and their ancestor with a plaque or some similar token. These changes should remove much of the administrative burden, reducing it to simple ballot tabulation, and much of the cost (although, after looking at a couple of Worldcon Budgets, I think the cost issue is somewhat overblown).

    Note: I am much more satisfied than some about how the Retros are going, and don’t have the misgivings about some winners, for either reasons of repetition or character. I don’t necessarily even encourage all of these changes. But they are changes I could live with, in order to garner more support from the community.

  31. Dave suggests as a criterion for whether or not to run the Retro Hugos for a particular year:

    Can the Worldcon obtain the rights to distribute likely finalists in the Hugo Voter Packet, or otherwise make them available in an easily obtainable form[?]

    That’s an easy one. The answer will always be “no”, certainly in the time constraints currently available, and probably at all. Identifying rights-holders for finalists (let alone potential finalists, which is what seems to be being proposed) and then sorting out terms of payment is not something that can be done overnight. It’s not a question of having enough volunteers, it’s not having enough time and budget.

    I sympathise with those who respond that if the Retro Hugos are not viable without a further massive injection of time and money from the hosting convention to produce a voter packet, well, maybe that means they are not viable. (If.)

    In any case, as Cora quite rightly says at greater length above,

    the argument that Retro Hugo finalists are difficult to find is bunk

    Cora also says:

    I explicitly offered CoNZealand to scan my copy of an elusive Best Related Work finalists, but they declined.

    I am sorry to have to tell you all that that kind offer did not reach the Hugo team, or at least it did not reach me. I am sorry about that, but not very surprised.

    I am not quite sure what we would have done with it in any case. Ian Moore, my fellow Deputy Hugo Administrator, did publish links to as much of the material as we could find (featured here on File 770 and by the convention’s own social media).

    But there is a limit to the obligations of the Worldcon to generate interest, especially balancing that against the potential legal and reputational blowback from endorsing sources whose copyright status may be unclear.

    Dave Wallace’s latest comment makes a point that echoes my own thinking.

    we’ve added the Lodestar and the Best Series categories, which have highlighted a lot of good work, but have also sucked up a lot of the available oxygen in the room in terms of reading time if you want to be able to evaluate them fairly.

    That’s a really important point. There are many diligent voters, and the Hugo ballot is making ever greater demands on their time.

    I think we also have to address the fact that the Retro results have become less exciting as the years went on. The first year that they were done, the fiction winners were “The Mule” by Isaac Asimov; Animal Farm by George Orwell; “First Contact”, by Murray Leinster; and “Uncommon Sense”, by Hal Clement, and the Best Dramatic Presentation Work went to The Picture of Dorian Gray – unchallenged classics, every one of them. I honestly don’t think you could say that this year’s winners are in the same league, taken as a whole. The fact that very few of the choices are already familiar to readers itself creates a barrier to participation. Bug, or feature?

  32. I find I keep reading Cora’s comments as saying “I and others did all this work to make their homework easier, and I resent that other people did not then do the hours and hours of further homework they had to do to make it worthwhile.”

    I am aware that this is unfair, but I do want to note that there is also a fact here: Doing the work to make the works available STILL leaves a whole lot of reading time that it will be hard to persuade others to do if they already have reasons to be disinterested in, tired of, or wary of, the “Golden Age”. That time could be spent on current books people want to read for their own sake (and for – present day – Hugo consideration secondarily if at all).

    Personally, I have neither beef with the retro Hugos nor any tiniest bit of interest in participating, partly BECAUSE of the work involved. I think my only issue even with this year’s awards was how it seemed to undermine the Julius Vogel awards by appending them, and that was a bad administration choice, and not technically the fault of the Retros for existing.

    I DO like the idea of panels discussing the older work. I have gotten something out of discussions of obscure older works in panels, and of how that expands our ideas past the Campbellian (And apparently Lovecraftian) about what was done even in early years. Even in cases where I have only ended up writing downt he name of, and reading, one of the works in question.

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  34. Bill said:

    To expand on what rcade said — the difference between the feelings of those who support the Retros and those who do not, is that actively pushing for them not to happen is the worst sort of gatekeeping. “I don’t like this, so you shouldn’t do it.”

    I rarely agree with Bill, but on this I’m with him 100%.

    I personally don’t especially care about the retros, and I don’t vote in them or make the time to read the nominees. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to take away someone else’s ball.

    As somebody pointed out, there’s only a few more years of these available, and it seems to me that it would be a shame to leave holes in the award years just because some of us don’t care about things that others of us do care about.

  35. @Nicholas Whyte

    I honestly don’t think you could say that this year’s winners are in the same league, taken as a whole.

    Of course, the world was somewhat distracted by current events in 1944. Look at the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels for 1941-1945 — they are underwhelming compared to what immediately preceded them (Grapes of Wrath) and what immediately followed (All the King’s Men).

    @Lenora Rose — If I see any resentment in Cora’s posts, it is with those who say “It’s too hard to find the old stuff” –her work has made it comparable in difficulty to reading contemporary material for the Hugos; and with those who criticize the Retro-Hugos or the winners but don’t participate themselves.

  36. One of my tests for what makes a good award is the famous phrase, “It is an honour just to be nominated.” For an award to make sense, you want this to be clearly true.

    Every year, there should be a wide variety of candidates for the award, of which we can find 5 (or 6) excellent ones, of which one can be given the mantle of greatness. The body giving the awards should generally feel that any of the shortlist might be a reasonable winner. While the idea of “No award” exists in theory, it is rarely applied in practice, and in recent history only because of attempting to cheat, not because of its purpose.

    What this principle says is that if you’re only getting a small number of nominees you should not do the award. If the nominees are always the same you should not do the award. If the winner is always the same, you should not do the award. If there are nominees that are clearly not of top quality on the ballot on a regular basis, you should either not do the award, or reduce the number of nominees. (The Hugos have a nomination threshold rule which is rarely applied, and perhaps should have its threshold raised in some categories.)

    If few want to bother nominating or voting, you can do the award, but it should be clear it’s a minor award, and should not be given the same name as a major award, or it will cheapen the “brand.”

    Being nominated, and certainly winning, should be a mark of high distinction. That’s what awards are about.

  37. Brad Templeton:

    As we already have concluded, administration may remove categories if they get too few nominations.

    Otherwise, you seem to argue for the removal of the Graphic Novel category.

  38. Indeed, and they did remove categories this year. I make no comment on Graphic Novel. While understanding the idea that if people want to do the work, others should generally let them, it is still the case that you want to strive for a reputation for excellence. If you allow a reputation for excellence to be diluted, it hurts the whole system. That’s why you want to have a standard to help people decide what promotes and what dilutes such a reputation. Or you can decide that you don’t care and just want to have fun giving awards, and if people don’t like them that’s their problem. Both are valid viewpoints, though I hold the earlier one. I want the Hugo awards to say, “Here is the finest the field could produce” and thus my feeling that it should be an honour just to be nominated and all that entails. To that I would mainly add that you want to focus on awards that are relevant to the community giving them — a literary convention might eschew awards for media, or it might embrace them, depending on its sense of identity. I have always been concerned that many of the nominees for dramatic presentations don’t seem to feel it’s much of an honour to be nominated, even if we think it is.

    Indeed, I found the OP’s point that in 75 and 100 year retro awards, with the nominees and their heirs all dead, they won’t feel any honour in the nomination.

  39. I find I keep reading Cora’s comments as saying “I and others did all this work to make their homework easier, and I resent that other people did not then do the hours and hours of further homework they had to do to make it worthwhile.”

    Nobody is knocking people for choosing not to participate in the Retro Hugos. The criticism is for people who don’t participate and want to take them away from the people who do.

    As a fan of the Retros I understand that a lot of Hugo voters aren’t going to be interested in reading such old works. But as a longtime WSFS nerd I was excited to learn about the Retros when I first became a supporting member of the con. It’s a worthy tradition I’ve had a lot of fun with over the years.

    It’s ironic that there’s more talk about the difficulty of participation now when the works have never been more available.

  40. @Lenora Rose
    I don’t have a problem with people chosing not to participate in the Retro Hugos or not to read the finalists. However, I do have a problem if people who did not participate then turn around and complain about the winners and demand that the Retro Hugos be abolished. I also have issues with people complaining that the Retro Hugo finalists are difficult to find, when that’s patently not the case.

    Now shockingly, I actually enjoy reading older SFF, so I make time for the Retro Hugos. Meanwhile, I’m far more likely to ditch the Lodestar, if I don’t have the time for it, because it’s a category that takes a lot of time and one I don’t particularly enjoy. However, if I don’t vote for the Lodestar (and I voted the past two years, though I have to admit that I skimmed several of the 2019 finalists, because they were not my cup of tea at all), I don’t get to complain that I don’t like the winner. Also, if I don’t get around to reading the Lodestar finalists, I just leave the category blank and don’t no award it.

    Part of the beauty of the Hugos (and Retro Hugos) is that even if I decide to ignore a given category for lack of time or interest, people who are knowledgable about that category and care will generally will come up with worthy finalists and winners.

    @Nicholas Whyte
    I offered the person who coordinated the regular Hugo voter packet to scan the Leigh Brackett essay, because it was not easy to find and also not something where copyright issues would arise, since that essay was mainly of historical interest and had zero commercial value, for interesting as tips about submitting to various pulp SFF magazines are, no one is going to get a response except “Return to Sender” if they were to submit a story to Planet Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories.

    Though the publisher of Windy City Pulp Stories, which was the one place (except the 1944 copy of Writers Digest and a pricy hardcover collection) where that essay was to be found, did make a bit of extra money of people purchasing the book to read the essay.

    Also I don’t mean to knock your or Ian Moore’s efforts. You’ve always been supportive and even reviewed a potential dramatic presentation finalist.

    As for whether the 1945 Retro Hugo winners are less notable than the 1946 winners, I did find the novella and novel category in general a tad weak this year (and neither “Trog” nor “Intruders from the Stars” really belonged on the ballot), but short story and novelette wee both strong and there were a lot of excellent stories in both categories which didn’t make it. Also, WWII paper shortages meant that there were fewer magazines in general and the ones who survived published fewer issues, so there was less material to choose from. Also, I’m pretty happy with the 1945 winners. Shadow Over Mars gives Leigh Brackett her long overdue Hugo nod, “Killdozer” and “City” are both classics and “I, Rocket” is an interesting, if minor Ray Bradbury story. Curse of the Cat People and The Canterville Ghost are both fine movies and sadly The Uninvited fell prey to the lack of viable dramatic presentation long finalists. The graphic story winner is apparently a classic early Superman comic

    Meanwhile, for 1946 I think that The Mule, Animal Farm and The Picture of Dorian Grey are all excellent winners. I’m not so happy with the Leinster and Clement, but that may be my personal bias, because I’m not a fan of either author. I also note that the 1946 ballot is very Astounding heavy with Startling Stories and Amazing getting one fiction finalist each. Weird Tales, Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Famous Fantastic Mysteries are not represented at all.

    But in general, the Retro Hugos don’t do too bad a job picking good winners, even if the voters like Campbell and Heinlein a little too much

  41. @Cora,

    OK, that explains it – the packet coordinator was under instructions from us that we were doing only a 2020 packet, so presumably did not feel this needed to be referred up to us. And to be honest it would have been awkward organizationally to fit a single piece (or even several) from 1944 into the packet. We could have looked at other options if we had known, though.

    In any case, she won even without our help.

  42. Many good points raised here, not least in the original post. I would point out that the expense of the Retro Hugos is not solely borne by the Worldcon committee. If I understand correctly the expense of rocket production, postage, etc. is enough to impact the gate cost for attending members, the vast majority of whom don’t participate. The ceremony takes an auditorium offline for a period of time which could be filled with alternate content which might please more or fewer people.

    My suggestions are:
    1) For goodness sake, give out a cheaper memento, like a plaque.
    2) Take the Retro Hugos out of Worldcon by finding another convention, preferably at a different time of year, to host them. Continue to allow Worldcon members to vote. This boosts attendance at a smaller convention and neatly solves the burden and timing problems.
    3) The 25-year restriction is a cute idea but obviously does not serve. Dump it.
    4) For heaven’s sake don’t slow down the process by giving one award per year. Doing a full slate every other year could make sense if it would lead to material improvements.
    5) I believe those suggesting restricting nominations to “lesser-known” works underestimate the extent to which the classics are poorly known or remembered by younger members of the community like me. And I’m almost 50. What standard would you use? Prohibit all grand masters? Delegate control to a jury that vows to produce a contrarian slate? Counter proposal: why not just advocate for the nominees you feel are worthy.

  43. Kevin Black: First, let me say I found all of your comments interesting.

    It occurred to me that one of the points could be tested — how much does it cost?

    The cost of CoNZealand’s Retro Hugo bases was no more than $250 each — according to the terms of the design competition. Then there would be something more for the metal rockets.

    How much is that in proportion to the overall Worldcon budget? It’s too early to get that for CoNZealand. The financial reports submitted to the 2020 Business Meeting by Worldcon 76 (2018) and Dublin 2019 show that the total expenses of the WSFS divisions (all Hugo bases and rockets, and anything else they had to pay for) amounted respectively to 1.5% and 1.8% of the convention’s total expenditures. So less than two percent for the whole shooting match.

    However, you’re right from an accounting standpoint that the use of facilities for an award ceremony represent a cost and the information available doesn’t go into enough detail to allocate that.

  44. Different Worldcons break out budgets to different levels of detail. To the extent I can find information, in recent memory the direct costs of Retro Hugos are typically on the order of $5000 or less (cost of statues, cost of mailing unclaimed ones, etc). Worldcon budgets approach $1M, so we’re talking 1/2 of 1% here.

    Of course, it might also be appropriate to consider indirect costs, to the extent that they can be calculated. If a Worldcon gives out 24 Hugos and and 8 Retro-Hugos, then 1/4 of the costs of doing Hugos is fairly attributable — rental on the ceremony hall; cost of streaming; expenses of ballot distribution and counting; etc. (I would suggest the marginal pro-rated share of indirect costs would be the appropriate number, if considering whether to keep or drop the Retros. That is, if it costs 30,000 in indirect costs to do a Hugo ceremony, and 32,000 to do a Hugo + Retro, then $2k is the correct number to apply, not 8/(24+8) * 32,000 = 8k ).

    Regardless, though, I think the direct plus indirect costs of doing Retro-Hugos is small compared to a convention budget, and 10 years after the event, is a significantly larger part of a Worldcon’s legacy than its actual costs reflect.

    The biggest cost, though, is probably the opportunity cost — if the conventions weren’t doing Retro-Hugos, what could they do instead with the time, space, and money? And I doubt that is calculable in any sort of objective way. It is a decision that each Worldcon makes on its own.

  45. Mike Glyer: However, you’re right from an accounting standpoint that the use of facilities for an award ceremony represent a cost and the information available doesn’t go into enough detail to allocate that.

    The cost of the trophies is just the most obvious bit. Say — very conservatively — $250 for the bases, another $50 for the rockets, another $50 for the shipping. For 12 categories, that’s $4,200.

    Then there’s the time and effort involved in the trophies. It is incredibly difficult to find artists who are willing to design the bases for the Hugo Awards, because they are also responsible for the manufacture of them — and that manufacturing has to be within a very tight budget allocation. Most artists aren’t willing to do such a huge task for such small returns, and who can blame them for that? And when cons run Retro Hugos, they have to find TWO artists who are willing to do this. Someone behind the scenes has been working their ass off  trying to find Hugo trophy base designers. (There’s a reason why calls for Hugo base designers frequently have the deadline extended.)

    Then there’s all the time that the Hugo team has to spend verifying eligibility and trying to contact family members of finalists. Both of these are significant time and effort costs.

    And then there’s the cost of actually putting on a ceremony, with all of the facilities, sound, lighting, video, and other technical resources which are required. This is not an insignificant expense, either in terms of money or in volunteer time and effort.

    I will give CoNZealand credit — I think that they really tried to do justice to the Retros (although sadly, this came at the expense of the SJVs, and it shouldn’t have). But the Dublin ceremony was an absolute travesty. Most of the acceptances last year were done by SMOFs who grabbed at the chance to put on a fancy dress and strut around on stage, but didn’t even bother to research the people for whom they were assigned to accept, or write a few paragraphs about them and their work. I was appalled at the lack of care put into the speeches at the Retro ceremony last year. It was incredibly disrespectful, and the people to whom I’m referring should be ashamed of themselves.

    I honestly believe that in order for the Retro Hugos to continue in a viable manner, the ceremony and the trophies should be scrapped, and it should be more of a celebratory program track. If you take the big time/energy/money drain from the Retro Hugo ceremony and the trophies out of their equation, future Worldcons might be more amenable to running them.

  46. Oh, and in the rare cases when there’s a descendent alive who would treasure the trophy, give them one of that year’s trophies.

    The fact that there is a rented storage unit full of boxes and boxes of expensive, unclaimed Retro Hugo trophies is damned near criminal.

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