Toss Those Awards in the Trash?

Via SF Signal, I read a portion of Adam Roberts’ denunciation of awards:

But awards lists and best-ofs are rubbish […] The problem is timescale.

It is a convention, no less foolish for being deeply rooted, that the proper prominence from which to pause, look back and make value judgments, is at the end of the year in question. This is wrongheaded in a number of reasons. One has to do with the brittleness of snap-judgments (why else do you think they’re called snap?). Take those fans and [awards-panelists] of the 1960s and 1970s who really really thought that the crucial figures of the genre were the often-garlanded Spider Robinson or Mack Reynolds rather than the rarely noticed Philip K Dick. They weren’t corrupt; they just spoke too soon.

It wasn’t Roberts’ rejection of awards that set me off: they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. What hooked me into responding was his superior sneer at a false version of awards history.

Superior sneer: Should the Hugo and Nebula be condemned for failing to ratify Philip K. Dick’s current popularity 40 years in advance? These awards don’t exist to predict the literature that people two generations in the future will value, they celebrate what the current-day community of fans and/or pros value and admire.

False version of awards history: “…the often garlanded…Mack Reynolds”? He wrote hundreds of stories, received exactly one Hugo nomination and two Nebula nominations, and never won either award. And it seems rather sad to pick on Spider Robinson, since according to Dick’s bibliography, Dick had zero short fiction published in the three eligibility years for which Spider received nominations, so how did Spider’s name even enter this conversation? Of course, it’s easier to win an argument if you’re allowed to make up your own facts.

I also challenge Roberts’ belief that fans of the ’60s and ’70s overlooked Philip K. Dick.

Had they done so, it might have been because he did not worship at the altar of technological optimism. In fact, they didn’t overlook or ignore him, he was often up for awards. If he didn’t write Analog stories that was no detriment at all to his fame, merely his pocketbook. In the ’60s, psychological exploration and social satire abounded in sf, no physics degree required. Yes, Dick was pessimistic. Paranoid. It was impossible for Dick to think of something bad enough that the authorities would hesitate to do it, seductively using technology to make us betray ourselves. Yet anybody who thinks these things disqualified a writer from recognition in the ’60s has never seen the stacks of awards in Harlan Ellison’s office.

Now, as a fan who lived through the era in question, I can testify that I really enjoyed Dick’s stories. Time Out of Joint was the first of his novels I read: it was captivating. And when I was in college the SF Book Club brought out editions of his new novels, so I read them all as time went by. Somehow I managed to enjoy his stories without suspecting that he was a dominant voice in the literary dialog of the day. His latter-day reputation as a great sf writer has taken me by surprise, though as far as that goes, good for him! We can only wish he’d lived to enjoy it.

When I’m flying out of Denver there’s an airport bookstore I pass which has the names of top writers decorating the wall around the border of the ceiling. Philip K. Dick is up there. I pass it right before I enter the TSA security line. What could be more Dickian than the future I live in? No wonder he’s widely read.

Returning to Adam Roberts’ critique, he may have no idea who won the awards, but he is certainly right that Dick won very few of them during his lifetime. Was this actually an injustice? I’ll lay out the record, and you tell me if you disagree with my take on the question.

Dick won the first Hugo he was ever nominated for, The Man in the High Castle (1963). So I guess justice was done that year.

His novelette “Faith of Our Fathers” made the final ballot in 1968 and lost to Fritz Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones,” which I have always tried to like, and which must in some sense be a helluva story because it also beat “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” by Harlan Ellison who was winning everything in those days (such as the two Hugos his work did win in 1968 for “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever.”) Dick’s story wove together some wonderfully paranoid ideas. It seems to have haunted Dick, who wrote in 1977: “I think, with this story, I managed to offend everybody, which seemed at the time to be a good idea, but which I’ve regretted since. Communism, drugs, sex, God – I put it all together, and it’s been my impression since that when the roof fell in on me years later, this story was in some eerie way involved.”

His third and last Hugo nomination was for the 1975 novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It finished behind Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I found the Dick novel a more entertaining read, but (confession time) I felt the same way about Anderson’s Fire Time and Niven and Pournelle’s A Mote in God’s Eye. On the other hand, there seemed a general agreement among the rest of fandom that Le Guin’s novel was the most substantial and ambitious, the most deserving of the award. The same Dick and Le Guin novels faced off for the Nebula, with the same result. Does anyone today think Flow My Tears surpasses The Dispossessed? Let’s hear from you.

Philip K. Dick’s problem with the Nebula, the first time he was nominated, is that he had to compete against a great classic of the genre. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Dr. Bloodmoney both received Nebula nominations in 1966. They lost to Frank Herbert’s Dune. I hope nobody’s complaining about that.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? made the 1969 Nebula ballot (though not the Hugo final ballot) and lost to Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage. Consulting the fanzine I was publishing at the time, I see that Richard Wadholm and I never ran out of critical things to say about the Panshin book. On the other hand, I regarded John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar as the novel of the year, not Dick’s story, and Brunner won the Hugo (with no help from me, I didn’t have a vote in 1969). If there was a great schism in the awards scene that year, it had nothing to do with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I’d say that the ultimate reason Philip K. Dick won few major awards is not because the voters were blind or ignorant, it’s because he wasn’t the only person writing excellent stories in those years.

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5 thoughts on “Toss Those Awards in the Trash?

  1. Mike,

    I really appreciate the deconstruction of the argument, but really, all you had to say was:


    This so reminds me of every other ‘politically correct’ argument on the books: we’ve got to censor Twain now ’cause he uses words that were perfectly acceptable back in his day but not now. Might offend someone.

    Heinlein’s women are SO 50s. (They’re not but..) DUH! Yes. Despite some excellent stories, the man DID NOT have a time machine. I guess his works really do suck, seeing as how he wasn’t able to write from a 21st century perspective back then.

    On the other hand, maybe its time for fandom to go the other route. Instead of offering up CS Smith Rediscovery Awards and Retro-Hugos, maybe we ought to have the PROGNOSTOS and vote on the as-yet non-existent authors and stories that will win awards in the future.

    Only problem with that is, anyone writing now would be stupid not to vote the award to themselves for the “5 Years On the NY Times Best Seller List”, “Soon to be a major blockbuster series of movies” and “Now in its tenth season on television” (buy the plushies and the branded skateboard) story they’re going to write next decade.

    I’ll take the award AND my check now, please.

  2. Another thing to bear in mind is that awards are biased by the categories they come in. Hugos and Nebulas each have 3 short-fiction categories and only one novel category, thus stacking the deck against an author like Dick who wrote mainly novels. And with eligibility being measured in time-based chunks, the likelihood of winning an award depends not just on the quality of your own work, but on that of the other works happening to be published that year.

    You don’t go into the matter of Spider Robinson, who had 3 award-winning stories over a period of 7 years: respectable, but not an overwhelming dominance. And while the readers I knew enjoyed his work, he hadn’t earned a respect equal to that of Phil Dick, whose work was profoundly admired. As a distinctive voice and deep thinker in the field, Dick was up there with Cordwainer Smith, who never won any awards at all.

  3. David – When I was writing this yesterday I assumed that since Dick didn’t die until 1983 or so, he must have had some new short fiction published contemporaneously with Spider’s nominations, so it would all boil down to a matter of taste. However, your comment prodded me to research the question and, lo and behold, Dick had nothing new out in the three years Spider was up for Hugos. Now I have no idea why Roberts was slagging him.

  4. I suspect I hit the nail on the head for Roberts’ motivations when I commented (#17 on his post) that his essay was, “…a variant of George W. Bush’s appeal to history: “Future readers will value my work more than you callous idiots do now!””

    But then, looking over the comments as a whole, the signal-to-whinge ratio displayed is distressing.

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