Many times this column has taken up the Bladder of Mockery to belabour pundits who condemn all science fiction on the basis of its worst examples. "I don't need to read Jane Austen to know she's rubbish – she writes romances just like that Mills and Boon stuff." Over a century ago, G.K. Chesterton deplored the fashion of sneering at popular genres and imagined an Elizabethan newspaper printing the sniffy comment, "Mr Shakespeare is fit for something better than writing tragedies." Some things never change.
So it's cheering to put away the bladder and award my Lollipop of Acclamation to Sam Jordison of the Guardian books blog, who decided this year to give SF a fair try ("Science fiction may be one of the defining literatures of the last century ...") and selected Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. Why that particular 1952 novel? Sheer logic, a rare thing in journalism: it was the first book to win the Hugo Award by popular vote of SF readers. Jordison liked it too.
The terrible sinking feeling came when our Guardian man added that he now looked forward to reading the second Hugo winner, They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. Oh, Mr Jordison, don't go there! That novel, also known as The Forever Machine, is reckoned the worst clunker ever to be voted a Hugo.
Nobody seems sure how this PR disaster happened. 1954 produced many other contenders: Poul Anderson's debut novel Brain Wave, Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, James Blish's Earthman, Come Home, Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, William Golding's borderline-SF Lord of the Flies, Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers (International Fantasy Award winner), Robert Heinlein's The Star Beast, Richard Matheson's thrice-filmed I Am Legend and Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. Strong competition.
Some paranoid fans blamed the weird 1955 Hugo result on Scientology. A likelier reason is that Mark Clifton was very popular for the short stories – far better than that novel – he was then publishing in the flagship magazine Astounding SF.
Like so much low-grade SF, They'd Rather Be Right isn't even bad in amusingly quotable ways. It has a vaguely interesting idea about a supercomputer called Bossy that can optimise your mind (like a hard-disk defrag) and give you eternal youth into the bargain, but only if you're ready to abandon all your favourite prejudices. Unfortunately the story's mostly told as flabby lecturing – "the public licked its lips in anticipation" – and the characters aren't so much forgettable as nonexistent. Reading the 1982 reissue, I realised there were good reasons why this, unlike its rivals above, had dropped out of print for 25 years.
A single bad apple in the Hugo barrel isn't a huge flaw – in fact it's pretty impressive when you think how many Nobel or Booker Prize winners are widely rated as unreadable. But other novels with "Hugo Winning Author" on the jacket may disappoint because they're from too early or, more often, too late in a writing career. "The Brain Eater got him," SF fans often say of some famous and elderly author who finds that he now has enough clout to indulge personal obsessions and overrule any input from mere editors. Other writers simply run out of energy, creating paler and paler xeroxes of their best work. You can hardly blame them. So many have miserably tiny pension funds and can't afford to stop.
All the same, we sometimes need a warning sticker: "Award-Winning Author But Crap Book". Why is everyone suddenly looking at me?
Hence my fondly imagined scheme to showcase memorably bad SF in a feature called the SFX Anti-Book Club – or perhaps Gollancz SF Bastardworks. A perfect source for traditional "turkey readings" at SF conventions! The first selection would inevitably be Jim Theis' legendary The Eye of Argon (1970), which I told you about in SFX 43. Fans suspected a sign of the End Times when this terrible fanzine samizdat was at last published as a real book, by Cosmos Books in 2006. (See Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.)
Further choices would include Lionel Fanthorpe's creative padding under many pseudonyms, James Grazier's Runts of 61 Cygni C ("a fascinating planet ... where one-eyed runts played endless games of sex"), and other fine literary coprolites selected by an expert jury of me. No popular voting allowed, in case the voters get it wrong and allow a good book into the SF Turkeyworks. That would be so embarrassing – just like the 1955 Hugo.
David Langford managed not to mention L. Ron Hubbard.