One of my favorite classes in college was an elective class I took on History and Film taught by Carlos Cortés. The essence of the class was that films reflect the times in which they were made. As one example, we watched Henry V starring Lawrence Olivier, and followed that film with Henry V starring Kenneth Branagh. Olivier’s portrayal of Henry in the former film was strikingly different to Branagh’s “Harry the King” in the latter. Each film told the same story, using the same dialog, but the pictures we get of the two Henrys were very different. Those films tell us a lot about the times in which they were made.
When I read earlier today of a proposal for yet another genre award that, in part would allow judges to
Disqualify any work they find to have an emphasis on other than telling a good SF/F story.
I kind of rolled my eyes. Aside from the mechanics of ensuring that judges based their decision solely on an unmeasurable criterion (“The Judging Committee will use the quality of SF/F storytelling as their sole criterion.”) it ignores the fact that most awards reflect the society at the time the award is given.
Fiction, like film, reflects the society we live in
How many genre readers today bemoan the fact that Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s novel They’d Rather Be Right actually won a Hugo award (in 1955). It might not meet our standards for a Hugo today, but it reflects the standards for the award that was given in 1955.
Had the Hugo existed in the mid-to-late 1930s, I have no doubt that E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories would have one more of the awards to their name. We can discount the fact that “Galactic Patrol” lost the retro-Hugo for 1939 because it was a 2014 audience that voted.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels feel dated today because the Cold War is thing of the past. You can’t get away from the fact that an award reflects the society in which we live, because the definition of “good story telling” changes as society changes.
I have a feeling that most genre readers today would not consider Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series as the Best All-Time Series. But in 1966, Asimov was given a special Hugo for Best All-Time Series, beating out Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and J. R. R. Tolkien. In 1966 that was how fans felt. Today, feelings have evolved, and not just because there is a half-century more fiction to consider. Fiction reflects the society we live in.
Genre awards are not unique in this respect
Derek Jeter never won an MVP award, but he is considered to be one of the greats of the game of baseball. Put together the number Jeter put in his career, with the intangibles he brought to the game, and its hard to believe he never won an MVP. Compare him to past winners, and it is even more remarkable.
But awards reflect the society we live in. Maybe Jeter would have won an MVP if he’d played for the Yankees in the 1960s. The criteria for Most Valuable Player changes with time. The same is true for most awards. Science fiction and fantasy films have been among the most popular and successful films for decades, but it wasn’t until 2004 that a fantasy film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, took home an Oscar for Best Picture.
No award system is perfect. But one of the things I have always enjoyed about our genre awards is that they are a good reflection of the times at which the award was given. Look at the awards given in the late 1960 and compare them to the awards given in the late 1970s. They encapsulate a sea-change within the genre. It is good to see change. It means our genre is evolving along with the rest of society. As much as I enjoy Golden Age stories, I don’t want to see us mired in a nostalgia for the past. I want to see our genre moving forward toward bigger and better things.
What I have seen is that we are slowly, but steadily moving toward a place where our best stories reflect the diversity of the genre as it is made up today. We still have a lot of ground to cover. A new award that tries to filter out anything that isn’t good storytelling is a nonstarter. Such an award won’t give us better stories. It will simply provide another window into how our culture thinks about stories, how it classifies them, and ultimately, how part of that culture is desperate to cling to the past.