Hugo Finalist Highlights – The Retros and the Campbell Award Finalists

This is going to be a bit rough, since I’ve been reading and taking notes like a mad thing to get through all of the categories. Silly me, forgetting to include the retros when I figured out how many weeks I’d need to review them all.

So. After going cross-eyed trying to read scans of 1940s publications that alas haven’t held up all that well (faded print is very much a thing), here’s the final batch of quick and dirty reviews. I didn’t compare numbers for the retros, since they don’t happen every year.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (1922 nominating ballots 2016, 851 in 2015) (Remember, this is not a Hugo, but it’s awarded and managed more or less at the same time by the same people).

  • Pierce Brown  – There wasn’t anything in the voter packet, so I trotted over to Amazon and used the Look Inside feature. I didn’t see anything that appealed to me, so that’s as far as things went.
  • Sebastien de Castell  – Traitor’s Blade – This work is competent, and starts with a decent sort of a problem for the main character to deal with, but I honestly didn’t find anything appealing. The characters didn’t gel enough to make this book something I’d look for. As always, of course, your mileage may vary, so if you haven’t read it yet, read, then make your decision.
  • Brian Niemeier – DAMN YOU BRIAN NIEMEIER! Okay. Now I’ve got that out of my system. I couldn’t stop reading Nethereal. The combination of fantasy styling over science fiction with an intricate layered plot and remarkably human characters sucked me in and refused to let go. Of note: Niemeier is the only finalist in his first year of Campbell eligibility.
  • Andy Weir  – Based on the Look Inside sample on Amazon of The Martian – It’s been a while since Man vs Nature (or Mars) showed up anywhere, that I recall. What I read was very well done hard science fiction of a man trying to survive in something close to the ultimate in hostile environments. It’s very well done, with an engaging narrator who doesn’t lecture or over-explain.
  • Alyssa Wong  – None of the stories in the sample worked for me. They were all well-done, but I found them dull with a kind of a nasty aftertaste.


Best Novel (352 nominating ballots)

  • Gray Lensman by E.E. “Doc” Smith (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Jan 1940) – Of all the Retro finalists I read over the last week, this is the only one whose language felt dated. The Lensman tales are good old-fashioned adventures in the traditional style, and Gray Lensman is a solid example of the type.
  • The Ill‐Made Knight by T.H. White (Collins) – Not in the packet
  • Kallocain by Karin Boye (Bonnier) – Not in the packet
  • The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson (Unknown, Mar 1940) – This is an old-school fantasy based on mythology, using figures from legend as its main characters. It’s a well done piece without doing anything exceptional.
  • Slan by A.E. Van Vogt (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Dec 1940) – For all that this work is regarded as a classic, I’ve got to say it left me cold.

Best Novella (318 nominating ballots)

  • “Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, July 1940) – This is not one of Heinlein’s best works. It’s too heavy-handed to work well, and the lecturing sticks in my craw. Yes, I actually do dislike politics overwhelming my stories. It has nothing to do with whether I agree with the politics or not.
  • “If This Goes On…” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Feb 1940) – THIS is the Heinlein the world needs. Frankly, this is the stand-out work of all the retro finalists across all the categories. It should be required reading for everyone – there’s a brilliant discussion of the mechanisms of tyranny wrapped in a tale of awakening that’s simple on the surface and layered many levels deep.
  • “Magic, Inc.” by Robert A. Heinlein (Unknown, Sept 1940) – Compared to If This Goes On, Magic, Inc. is really nothing more than a cute piece with magic as an industrial product. It’s a very well done cute piece, but it just doesn’t compare.
  • “The Mathematics of Magic” by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (Unknown, Aug 1940) – Pretty much everything I say for The Mathematics of Magic also applies to The Roaring Trumpet. The two works are in the same universe, have the same basic conceits, and are clever-funny, rather cute, and can be a bit difficult to get into because of the framing device.
  • “The Roaring Trumpet” by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (Unknown, May 1940) – As I said, ditto.

Best Novelette (310 nominating ballots)

  • “Blowups Happen” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Sept 1940) – Not in packet
  • “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Oct 1940) – Not in packet
  • “It!” by Theodore Sturgeon (Unknown, Aug 1940) – This is an intriguing horror that successfully conveys a completely alien perspective.
  • “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, June 1940) – This one is a sparsely-written piece that hides some keen perspectives about how people work. The actual plot is rather heavily political (it being a bit challenging to keep politics out of an attempted revolution). Some of the themes here are also explored in Coventry, but done with a little less of a heavy hammer.
  • “Vault of the Beast” by A.E. Van Vogt (Astounding Science‐Fiction, August 1940) – Not in packet

Best Short Story (324 nominating ballots)

  • “Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Feb 1940) – This story was intriguing and very readable, but the end was a bit of a letdown.
  • “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Jan 1940) – Well done, but not really one of his best – I honestly found it rather forgettable.
  • “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, Sept 1940) – Normally Asimov’s characterization leaves me cold, but not in this work. It could have done without the pseudo-epilog, but it’s still a good piece.
  • “The Stellar Legion” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, Winter 1940) – This work started as though it would be a reasonably standard military-focused piece, but then it built into a rather powerful story about redemption
  • “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges (Sur, 1940) – not in the packet

Best Professional Artist (117 nominating ballots)

  • Hannes Bok – Interesting style – but since the only samples I found were from the Best Fanzine entry, I couldn’t say if they’re remotely representative of his professional output.
  • Margaret Brundage – Not in packet
  • Edd Cartier – Not in packet
  • Virgil Finlay – Not in packet
  • Frank R. Paul – Classic pulp with a sense of humor
  • Hubert Rogers – Also classic pulp

Best Fanzine (63 nominating ballots) Most of the samples are from the Fanac site.

  • Futuria Fantasia by Ray Bradbury – This zine has interesting mix of material and decent production values for hand-produced material
  • Le Zombie by Arthur Wilson “Bob” Tucker – This zine is rather newslettery, while being well done for its type.
  • Novacious by Forrest J Ackerman and Morojo – no sample available
  • Spaceways by Harry Warner, Jr. – It didn’t appeal to me, and the scans of hand-typed material which has aged rather poorly didn’t help much.
  • Voice of the Imagi‐Nation by Forrest J Ackerman and Morojo –Sadly, readability has suffered from time. Collected letters of fans.

Best Fan Writer (70 nominating ballots) Again, most of the samples are from the Fanac site.

  • Forrest J Ackerman – The examples I saw are well-written. I liked the sense of humor – which means that there are likely to be as many people who hate it.
  • Ray Bradbury – Quirky and kind of cute as editorials go – Bradbury’s editorial style bears very little resemblance to his novel style.
  • H. P. Lovecraft – This was a short story of classic Lovecraftian horror (yes, written by Lovecraft, so not exactly unexpected), with a little less verbal flailing than I’ve seen in the more well-known works.
  • Bob Tucker – The pieces I read were interesting and fun.
  • Harry Warner – The puns. Oh god, the puns. Hitting these an hour after I should have been asleep fried something.

And that’s the last of the finalist highlights. Voting ends in (counts) 5 days, so finish reading and then vote for the works that you believe are the best of the year in each category.

I personally will not be using No Award – I’d rather leave a category blank than deploy the category nuke effect of No Award – but for those who do use that option, please use it only if you’ve read all the finalists in that category and don’t believe that any of them are worthy of recognition.

My opinion is that even though some of the categories this year are a bit thin, all of them have at least one worthy entry.

31 thoughts on “Hugo Finalist Highlights – The Retros and the Campbell Award Finalists

  1. Gray Lensman by E.E. “Doc” Smith
    Readable, but definitely dated in style and execution. The Templar/Schutstaffel nature of the Lensmen bothered me even in junior high, along with the deterministic universe, which was obsolete even when Smith wrote the stories.

    The Ill‐Made Knight by T.H. White (Collins)
    Kallocain by Karin Boye (Bonnier)
    I’ve seen White’s name in passing, but I never heard of either story, or Boye.

    The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson
    I know I read that one years ago, but can recall nothing whatsoever of it.

    Slan by A.E. Van Vogt
    Like with so much of van Vogt’s work, there are multiple versions of that story. Each time it got longer, it got more rambly and incoherent. van Vogt could come up with great stuff, but he never hooked up with the kind of editor who could make him deliver a coherent story.

    1. The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson

      I’ve read it but don’t remember how good it was.

    2. Well, since I couldn’t stand the protagonist of Slan, I doubt any of the versions would appeal to me.

  2. Leigh Brackett always writes an engaging story. Even her stuff that comes across dated is still well written and better (in my opinion) than most of the stuff touted as “OMG I couldn’t put it down” today.

  3. Note that these are not recommendations, but bibliographic information to help people find more of the Retro material.

    “The Roaring Trumpet” and “The Mathematics of Magic” were collected as a fixup novel, _The Incompleat Enchanter_. That novel has also been reissued as part of several collections, usually with some variant of “incomplete” and “enchanter” in the title.

    Hannes Bok had published cover art on the March 1940 and May 1940 issues of Weird Tales. There are thumbnails of the covers for those issues on’s entries for those issues. Both of those issues are also available on Ebay, with larger versions of the covers online.

    Margaret Brundage had published cover art on the July 1940 and November 1940 issues of Weird Tales. See the comments about Bok for views of the covers.

    Edd Cartier had the covers for Unknown in Feb, April, and June 1940, as well as interior work for more than a dozen stories during that year, mostly in Unknown. The covers are, as above, on, and all of those issues are on sale on Ebay. There is also a pinterest page of Edd Cartier illos, both cover work and interiors.

    Frank R. Paul did cover work for a number of different magazines. As above, there’s an isfdb entry with small versions of his covers.

    There are 4 Rogers covers (all from Astounding) in the packet. He had ten covers for Astounding that year, and there are thumbnails for all of them at isfdb.

    I hope this helps people look at the art from the people nominated in the Pro Artist category.

    1. Good public service, there Ben. There is really no good reason that the packet didn’t mention ISFDB for the cover art. (Most of them aren’t exactly thumbnails, either – they’re certainly big enough to appreciate, or hate, the art involved.)

    2. I read “The Incomplete Enchanter” when I was quite young and was underwhelmed. I’m sure it would be a riot for anyone familiar with Norse mythology or Spenser’s writings, but de Camp didn’t fill in enough background for a reader unfamiliar with those to get much traction.

      I guess it would be like reading “Bored of the Rings” if you hadn’t read Tolkein.

      1. I should probably reread that now when I have more knowledge of both. Or not. Like you, I was somewhat underwhelmed…

        (For humor and Norse mythology, I’ll stick to the “Pyramid” book. Now, that was a riot…)

    3. Thank you for the extra information, Ben.

      At least half the shortness in my little thumbnails is entirely my fault – I completely forgot to pull the Retro finalist packets so I didn’t realize how much I was leaving to review until the final week.

      Yes, I read all that in a week. While working my normal job and getting citizenship and and and and…

      If I’d thought about it, I’d have given myself more time and been able to go hunting for samples.

    1. It was more that I just didn’t have the time to read the entire novel – I had to read enough of everything in the post to put together a reasonable thumbnail review, and losing a day to one novel…

      Not like I haven’t done this before. There’s a reason a small number of authors are saved until I have the time to read them.

  4. Please note “Kallocain” is in the public domain and thus can be found online entirely legally.

    For those interested, here’s how I voted:
    1. “The Ill-Made Knight”. Now, I’ve read the entire Once and Future King series and my feelings are a bit ambivalent. I feel I’d have liked it more if I had been familiar with “Morte D’Arthur” beforehand. Still, “The Ill-Made Knight” about Lancelot’s tragedy is well-written and interesting enough that I gave it first place.
    2. “Kallocain”
    3. “The Reign of Wizardry”
    4. “Gray Lensman.” OK, while the Lensman novels are considered the archetypal Space Operas, I couldn’t really get into them. Maybe it’s because the ever-present 40’s slang, and the way the heroes keep just pulling out new technology out of their backsides, keeps me from really getting into the books.
    5. “Slan.” Some people will probably want to tar and feather me for that, but from what little I’ve read of Van Vogt, I honestly think he’s a terrible writer. He’s got a lot of ideas, but his style is horribly grating. “Slan” is still tolerable, but at the bottom of my list.

    1. “The Roaring Trumpet”
    2. “Magic, Inc.” – I think this is a precursor of modern urban fantasy? Or have there been other such stories before this one?
    3. “If This Goes On–”
    4. “Coventry”
    5. “The Mathematics of Magic” – This has the same problem as “Ill-Made Knight”; to enjoy the story properly you really need to know the original material, in this case “The Faerie Queene”. Heck, I’d say it’s borderline fanfiction.

    1. “It!”
    2. “The Roads Must Roll”
    3. “Farewell to the Master”
    4. “Blowups Happen”
    Below No Award: “Vault of the Beast” – Did I mean I dislike Van Vogt? Well, this one was terrible. The typical grating, artificial style, and ridiculously stupid “science”.

    Short Stories:
    1. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
    2. “Robbie”
    3. “Requiem”
    4. “Martian Quest”
    5. “The Stellar Legion” – Really disliked this one.

    Graphic Stories:
    1. “Batman #1”
    2. “Introducing Captain Marvel!”
    3. “The Spectre/The Spectre Strikes”
    4. “Origin of the Spirit”

    Short Dramatic Presentation:
    1. “Pinocchio”
    2. “You Ought to be in Pictures”
    3. “A Wild Hare”
    4. “The Baby from Krypton”

    1. Gutenberg has some of van Vogt’s stuff online now. They’re the original magazine versions. Most of them are *much* better than the expanded book versions; he actually could write a coherent story in short form.

  5. More (and larger) magazine cover art pieces can be found at (you’ll need to click on the magazine title entry, but the Astounding, Weird Tales, Unknown and Amazing Stories entries cover most of it. Phil has an amazing resource of pulp magazine covers, nearly complete.

    A collection of 1940 covers by the eligible artists (eg – all of their published cover work for the award year) can be found here:

  6. For the Campbells, I agree with your assessment of Alyssa Wong. She’s a very good writer, but she writes horror, which I don’t like. So vote for the best writer, or the best writer of stories I like?

    Otherwise I could not get into Brian Niemeier. Not sure why, the start of his first novel didn’t appeal to me. I also wasn’t impressed with Pierce Brown, but I’ve read one too many dystopian novels of this sort and didn’t get very far into Red Rising. Sebastien de Castell provided a solid novel in Traitor’s Blade. Not sure I’ll go on to the rest of the series though.

    Andy Weir is, in my opinion, the best of the group. The Martian is well written and funny, a great book at any level. Hopefully Mr. Weir will succeed again if he publishes another novel.

    1. Weir is the clear choice. They Scalzied him out of Best Novel. If he loses the Campbell, any shred of credibility the Hugos had left is gone for good.

    2. I did like the start of The Martian.

      There’s always going to be a degree of personal taste in something like this, which is why I’ve been saying all along that people need to read the works themselves and make their own decisions.

  7. “Blowups Happen” is primarily how excessive stress in the workplace can lead to mistakes. Honestly, the closest modern job would be an air traffic controller. A lot of the stress in the story is removed by the modern knowledge that a nuclear pile meltdown would not destroy the world.

    1. To enjoy a lot of the older stories, one does have to “turn off” chunks of your knowledge.

      Of course, to enjoy a large part of the modern stories, one has to do the same thing. Viewed with a eye that is using only what is known and soundly theorized right now, you would have to eschew the majority of the Baen catalog, for instance (yes, including 163x).

      That’s why I put “The Hot Equations” far down on my ballot last year. Yes, technically accurate (although I found at least a half-dozen ways to answer some of the objections to “space stealth”). But technically accurate stories are not the only thing I want to read. (Or write. The restrictions are extremely cramping on actually getting to the “meat” of a story.)

      1. Sometimes I like my ‘science’ so soft that I can run it through a fine sieve without changing it in any measurable way.

  8. Kate, I found Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Trilogy to be three of the best novels I’ve read in ages. The story is both an overcoming all adversity adventure and a slap at everything progressive (e.g., eugenics, intellectual oligarchs), but without being at all preachy. While I enjoyed reading The Martian, my first vote goes to Brown.

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