On August 18, 2019, at Worldcon 77 in Dublin, Mary Robinette Kowal was awarded the Hugo Award for the Best Science Fiction Novel for The Calculating Stars, published by Tor. Becky Chambers, whose novel A Closed and Common Orbit impressed me when it was shortlisted for the Hugos in 2017, won Best Series for her Wayfarers series, of which A Closed and Common Orbit is a part. The shortlisted writers and the winners were not unexpected – more interesting to me was that three days prior to this event, the 1944 Retro-Hugo Awards were announced, and those made me feel a real sense of déjà vu and belated recognition.
The Retro-Hugo Awards
When I first read the books listed for this year’s Retro-Hugos I never thought of them as outstanding Science Fiction (SF) works of the 40s. I just read them because I was told I should – since they were, by then, highly-rated works. In fact, I did not even realize they were SF – to me they were just stories. It is a truism, but hindsight really is 20/20. I sometimes haul a ratty old book off my shelves and realize, oops, it would have been worth quite a bit had it been in better condition – and had I anticipated how famous the book would become. (For example, all my first editions of the James Bond novels. Sadly, they have been read to bits.)
Like many must-read or prescribed novels which students are told to work through, such books remain a pain until one day you reread them and realize how good they are. It often means that, in order to relate to the story, the reader first has to have lived a bit.
Big hits from 1944
Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (Unknown Worlds, April 1943) – Described at the time as Gothic Horror
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Reynal & Hitchcock) – Is it a philosophical treatise, a cry for help from the author, a satire or a fantasy?
Mimsy Were the Borogoves, by Lewis Padgett (the pen name of C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner) (Published in Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
BEST SHORT STORY
King of the Gray Spaces (“R is for Rocket”), by Ray Bradbury (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, December 1943) – Well of course. Bradbury is the Grand Old Man of SF.
BEST GRAPHIC STORY
Wonder Woman #5: Battle for Womanhood, written by William Moulton Marsden, art by Harry G. Peter (DC Comics)
BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM
Heaven Can Wait, written by Samson Raphaelson, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, 1943 (20th Century Fox) – Heaven Can Wait (1978), starring Warren Beatty, is unrelated to the film that won the Retro-Hugo. It is a remake of an entirely different film, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which was based on a 1938 stage play originally titled Heaven Can Wait.
BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, SHORT FORM
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, written by Curt Siodmak, directed by Roy William Neill (Universal Pictures)
BEST EDITOR, SHORT FORM
John W. Campbell
BEST PROFESSIONAL ARTIST
Le Zombie, edited by Arthur Wilson “Bob” Tucker
BEST FAN WRITER
Forrest J Ackerman
A little peculiar – Mimsy Were the Borogroves
The most interesting one on the list is Mimsy Were the Borogroves, by Lewis Padgett. The title comes from a poem by Lewis Carroll called Jabberwocky. It is a nonsense poem about the killing of a creature named the “Jabberwock”. It was included in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I learned to recite Jabberwocky mainly to keep proving to myself that I can – since it sounds like some tongue-twisting witches’ incantation.
Jabberwocky – Verses 1 and 2:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
What has that got to do with an SF novelette? The short, short novel is about an unfortunate mixup with time-travel and two boxes. The second box arrives from the far, far future in 19th-century England and is found by a child named “Alice” (possibly Alice Liddell), who one day recites a verse that she learned from the contents of the box to her “Uncle Charles” (Charles Dodgson, better known today as Lewis Carroll). So that is where the title comes from.
Lewis Carroll was an Anglican deacon, a mathematician, a photographer and a writer. His “Alice” books contain many hidden meanings and references, and some analysts have found Freudian concepts about the subconscious, as well as satirical comments on mathematical advances of the time in the books. There are whole scientific works dedicated to the psychology, philosophy, algebra and chess references in the books, while, on the surface, it is just a children’s story.
As for Mimsy Were the Borogroves, it is, on the one hand, just a bit of dry humour and a ridiculous fantasy. On the other hand, it is about a “time-space equation” for building a time travel machine. Oh dear. That’s complicated. What makes the story more bearable for a Bear of Little Brain like myself, is that the audio edition of this novel is read by William Shatner, one of my favourite Canadians.
He recorded the reading in 1976. Yes, that long ago. While he already has that famous velvety, smooth delivery, honed on stage in classical plays, he speaks a lot faster than he does today. The famous “Shatner Pause and Alternative Emphasis” has not yet developed. But he still makes every word sound profound.
Listeners have to keep their ears pointed to not miss a word. Shatner reads long sentences without taking a breath, yet his words roll out like honey around a teaspoon. What seems an obtuse scientific plot becomes interesting (and moderately exciting) when he reads it.
The original recording is hard to get these days, but it is on YouTube in 6 parts. Below is an mp3 file of part 1. The fact that Shatner, who was by then already famous, recorded the audio book, shows that thirty years after its publication the little novel by C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner was also already famous. More than 70 years later, the Retro-Hugo award just confirms that.