Secret Histories

As usual, many glittering prizes were handed out at Noreascon, the 2004 World SF Convention in Boston. I acquired my 24th Hugo award (by proxy – thank you, Martin Hoare) and wandered around for days with a big silly grin. Additional Hugos were awarded for the SF achievements of 1953 ...

SF fans are kind-hearted folk. If you miss your Hugo opportunity, you may get another turn. Because US voting dominates the award, recent Worldcons have thoughtfully given books published outside America a second chance when there's a US edition. M. John Harrison's Light, for example, appeared in Britain in 2002 but didn't reach the States for two years – so it has another shot at the Hugo in 2005.

2004 also brought a surprise announcement that despite US publication or distribution in 2003, certain very wonderful British books about SF had "limited availability", and are eligible for the Best Related Book Hugo in 2005. These are Edward James's and Farah Mendlesohn's The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Andrew M. Butler's and Farah Mendlesohn's The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod, and (a massive surprise) my own critical collection Up Through an Empty House of Stars.

Yet another quirk of the Worldcon constitution gives an extra bite at the cherry to SF that missed its Hugo half a century ago, or longer. In 2004, for the third time, the Hugos for the previous year's SF were supplemented by Retro Hugos for 51 years back.

According to the rules, Worldcons can present these golden-oldie awards if no Hugos were given at the corresponding event 50 (or 75, or 100) years before. Retros were first issued in 1996 for the best of 1945: the novel winner was Isaac Asimov's The Mule, part of Second Foundation. Then, perhaps because intervening Worldcons disliked the hassle and expense of additional trophies, nothing more happened until 2001 and victory for Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky.

Another gap followed. Retro awards weren't allowed in 2003, because the first "real" Hugos were in 1953. No Hugos in 1954, though, allowing Retro Hugos to fill this gap in 2004. The real Hugos have been presented every year since 1955, so now there can be no more Retros until 2014, the 75th anniversary of the first ever Worldcon. Do you get the idea that SF fans love complex and tortuous rules?

A few of the 1953 Retro Hugo nominees were still with us in 2004 to receive that rocket-shaped trophy: Ray Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451 as best novel, Arthur C. Clarke for his famous short "The Nine Billion Names of God", and Wilson "Bob" Tucker (ninety in November 2004) as fan writer. US astronomer Fred Whipple, co-author of the nonfiction winner Conquest of the Moon, had died just four days before the presentation.

Besides Clarke's win, the 2004 Retros saw another British – or rather, Irish – success for Slant (1948-1953) as best fanzine. This was laboriously typeset, using real lead type, by editors Walt Willis and James White (now best known for his Sector General space-hospital saga). As Willis liked to explain, "My grandfather was a printer, and I simply reverted to type."

By happy coincidence, one of the guests at Worldcon 2004 was the Brit whose auto-parts company actually manufactures the Hugo rockets: Peter Weston, who published the multiply Hugo-nominated fanzine Speculation, founded the Birmingham SF Group, chaired the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton, and has been known to lie awake brooding morbidly on the percentage of his Hugo production run that ends up on my mantelpiece.

Always a cheery conversationalist in convention bars, with an endless supply of scabrous SF anecdotes, Peter is now making his own diabolical bid for the 2005 Best Related Book trophy with a science-fictional autobiography – With Stars In My Eyes: My Adventures in British Fandom. Out of sheer self-interest I should refrain from plugging this, but it's a jolly good read and I get lots of mentions in the index.

With Stars In My Eyes takes us behind the scenes of British science fiction long ago, beginning in early-1960s desolation when SF could be found only in tatty pulp magazines bought at shops miles distant, uphill both ways, etc. There are many tasty stories of SF writers duelling in print, locking each other in hotel wardrobes, and worse. Countless names are dropped, often in something very smelly. Learn how to get on to the Hugo shortlist, how to bid for and run a Worldcon, how to become the world's sole manufacturer of Hugo rockets (By Appointment) ...

Peter's publishers are the New England SF Association, who ran the 2004 Boston Worldcon and produced a book for each guest of honour. See for details. Another of the guests was some chap called Terry Pratchett, whose Worldcon special is called Once More* With Footnotes – a reprint collection of short stories and nonfiction, including the introductions to three books by D. Langford. I wouldn't dream of gloating.

Some early Pratchett pieces are cautiously omitted, like his second fiction sale "Night Dweller" in New Worlds, generally acclaimed by critics as Not His Best. (My copy is stored in a safe deposit for blackmail use.) But Terry's debut story "The Hades Business" is in there. Don't all rush, now.

This has been an unpaid plug, and I didn't even get around to plugging my own book ...

David Langford is running short of mantelpiece space.