Continuing my account of the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, this episode is mainly concerned with the Hugo Awards and the New Wave of Science Fiction.
The Hugos loomed large over my Friday at Worldcon. I had assisted with the preparation work for the Hugos in their earlier stages (doing the barest minimum quantum of work that counts as doing “something” rather than “nothing”). I also assisted on the day with a last-minute re-check of the ceremony’s In Memoriam scroll. At one point I was also going to be the person who clicked the next button on the ceremony’s PowerPoint scroll, but wiser counsel prevailed.
For various reasons I saw very little of the day’s programme stuff, being particularly disappointed to miss a discussion on The Prisoner. I did however make it to a session of the academic track that looked at the New Wave of Science Fiction. This began with a discussion by Päivi Väätänen on the influence of the New Wave on the fiction of Samuel R. Delany. Delany is one of those writers who sounds fascinating but whose work I have never got round to. The discussion focussed on two novels, The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Väätänen said that the two books are thematically somewhat similar but the second is much more experimental and “difficult”, with the difference arising from Delany’s discovery and embrace of the SF New Wave, in which ideas from modernist fiction and the counter-culture invaded Science Fiction.
The New Wave is again one of those things that I am interested in but have not read that much of. I know that some old school SF fans were very dismissive of the attempt to import modernism into Science Fiction (Kingsley Amis is very eloquent in this regard) while others saw the New Wave as a necessary reaction to a creeping formulaicisation of the genre. The New Wave opened the floodgates for stylistic experimentation and exploration of new themes in 1970s SF but in retrospect it seems sometimes to have been a failed experiment, with the rise of cyberpunk in the 1980s putting SF back into less literary and experimental territory. The 1980s was a decade of reaction so it is not too surprising that this was the case in SF too.
Coming away from this particular discussion I found myself thinking that it really is high time I actually read something by Delany and perhaps also the Gollancz SF Masterworks reprint of the Dangerous Visions anthology of New Wave short stories.
Then Audrey Taylor discussed Decision at Doona, an early novel by Anne McCaffrey that is apparently more formally interesting than McCaffrey’s later works (books I have a perhaps unfairly low opinion of). This one is about human-alien first contact on a planet called Doona, with deliberate misdirection being used in the chapters to mislead as to whether we are following events from the human or alien point of view. Taylor suggested that, unusually for McCaffrey, this showed the influence of the New Wave (or the ideas outside SF that gave rise to the New Wave).
Taylor asserted that normally in this kind of book we are presented with a Cowboys and Indians In Space setup where the human colonisers are portrayed as the good guys while they roll over the aliens. I felt like calling out “!” here, as I am unaware of books that take this line, being more used to books portraying colonisation as bad thing (which might be an effect of living in a country that was colonised). Be that as it may, in Decision at Doona the focus is more on the humans and aliens fumbling towards an accommodation and being determined not to repeat adverse events in their own histories of interaction with other species, all the while hampered by their difficulties in understanding each other.
The book sounded intriguing, playing with ideas of the kind of character who gets to be the hero and subverting normal plot models by having non-confrontational but still difficult resolutions of problems. I see also from looking at covers of the book online that the aliens are anthropomorphic cats, which makes this surely a book ripe for rediscovery as a lost classic.
That really was it for me until the Hugo Awards ceremony itself. Like many awards ceremonies, theses went on a bit. I am something of a slow reader so I had read none of the winning works or any of the nominees. I was a bit disappointed that Chuck Tingle did not win though I can see why voters might have decided to pick someone who had a more direct relationship with SF. Clipping did not win either though they did receive one of the biggest cheers of the evening. The most amusing moment at the awards ceremony was when the name of sinister dipshit Vox Day was read out as a nominee in best editor category; a couple of people clapped politely and then trailed off, with the other nominees all receiving thunderous applause. However the best bit was hearing my own name read out from the stage, though of course next time this will be because I have swept all the fiction categories.
For all that the Hugo Award ceremony goes on a bit, it nevertheless felt like an important celebration of the greatness of Science Fiction. These awards are voted by the fans and they reiterate the community aspect of SF. On that basis I have decided that I broadly approve of the existence of the various fan categories.
I must also praise the performance of Karen Lord as the Hugo Awards toastmaster. I would support having her do this at every Hugo Awards ever. I would also love to tell you about what happened at the post awards party in a Helsinki steampunk bar but Chatham House rules apply.
Decision at Doona image source (Science Fiction Cover Art; artist: Bruce Pennington)