I recently started a new project – my goal is to read all (or at least most of) the winners of the Hugo Award for best science fiction (SF) or fantasy novel! It will take quite some time, but I have no deadline.
It all started when I was learning about solarpunk. As Wikipedia conveniently explains, “solarpunk is a literary genre and art movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability, human impact on the environment, and addressing climate change and pollution”. It’s a relatively new term – you may be more familiar with steampunk, which imagines a present and future where steam has continued as the chief form of energy.
The concept of solarpunk strongly appeals to me and I’m keen to read books that fit this ethos. I’m a firm believer in speculative fiction as a powerful and useful tool for imagining various futures and inspiring us to take action now to choose the best alternatives. Sometimes, though, SF can be dystopian and depressing, and I’m not always in the mood for that! When I asked on the fediverse for recommendations of solarpunk writers, a contact suggested taking a look at the Hugo winners. They are by no means all solarpunk books, but the theory is that older SF may be less grim than more recent work.
The Hugo list
The Hugo Awards are given by the World Science Fiction Convention each year for the best work in SF and fantasy. There are various categories, but I’m sticking with my favourite format, the novel. When I first looked at the list of winners, I realised I’d already read some of the books and really liked them, so being a winner seemed a good recommendation for new authors I might like! That’s when the ambitious concept of reading all the winning books began. The awards began in 1953, but there have also been some ‘retro’ Hugos, awarded for books published in earlier years, or in some gaps in the 1950s, when the award was not yet annual. To date there are 70 Hugo winners, plus 8 retro-Hugo winners. That’s a lot of reading! Furthermore, some of the winners come partway through a series, and I’m one of those people who prefers to read a series from the beginning, so there will be additional books.
I’ve already read 9 of the 70 books, and in some cases I haven’t read the winner, but other books by the same author. I thought I’d write about those books and authors now, and later I’ll let you know what I thought of new things I read! I don’t expect to like all the books. I’m not a great fan of big space battles, or anything with lots of violence, and I suspect some of the early winners may be in that line. Also, some of the earlier writers had questionable behaviour, or philosophical beliefs that definitely don’t align with mine!
Please be warned that the links below to individual books are to Wikipedia and contain SPOILERS (I refuse to link to the evil company which is the world’s dominant bookseller).
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin is a two-time winner of the award, for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970, and for The Dispossessed in 1975. She is perhaps the most revered writer on the list, being both popular and acclaimed by literary critics. Her works appear on university syllabuses to an extent not often seen with SF writers. It is also notable that she wrote in both SF and fantasy genres and was successful in both. I first encountered Le Guin’s writing as a child, with A Wizard of Earthsea. When Le Guin died in 2018, I was prompted to re-read the whole Earthsea fantasy series, and thoroughly enjoyed that. I was struck then by the diversity of her central characters with respect to gender, ethnicity and abilities, and that is an important feature of her SF writing as well. I’ve enjoyed and been very impressed by both of Le Guin’s Hugo-winning novels. The Dispossessed features two contrasting societies – one is anarchist and possessions are insignificant, the other capitalist. Wikipedia describes it as an “anarchist utopian science fiction novel”. SF and fantasy writers invent entire imagined societies, species, planets or futures. Philosophies and political systems are inevitably part of that – indeed, that is why I find these genres so intriguing! Some writers are more explicitly political than others, and Le Guin is one of those, with The Dispossessed the outstanding example. The Left Hand of Darkness is, like The Dispossessed, set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe, where contact is made between humans living on various planets. It famously centres on gender – one of the societies has become androgynous, and humans from elsewhere struggle to deal with these ungendered people.
Connie Willis has won the Hugo three times: in 1993 for Doomsday Book, in 1999 for To Say Nothing of the Dog, and in 2011 for the two-volume work Blackout/All Clear. I first heard of Willis from a friend’s brother-in-law, an American astrophysicist and SF reader, who thought an historian would particularly enjoy her books – he was right! I mean, what historian wouldn’t want to travel back in time to do field work? That is the premise of the world Willis has created in all of these loosely-linked Hugo winners. In the mid-21st century, Oxford University has access to time travel and uses it to send historians to various eras for research. As with all good time travel fiction, there are various paradoxes and complications – in Willis’s imagined world time travelers are unable to change significant events (there’s no going back to kill Hitler). I’ve read and loved all of these books, along with some others by Willis. They have great plots and characters, but one of their most impressive features is the historical worlds they recreate. Doomsday Book is set during a medieval plague, while Blackout/All Clear are set in an embattled World War II England. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a comic novel where a time-travelling historian unexpectedly ends up in Victorian England – it’s a fond tribute to Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I highly recommend all of these books, especially to historians – we seldom find our kind as central characters in fiction!
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson won in 1994 for Green Mars and in 1997 for Blue Mars – together with Red Mars they make up his Mars trilogy. KSR – as I often see his name abbreviated – is a writer who, as far as I am aware, fits pretty well into the solarpunk category. He is deeply concerned about climate change, ecology and social justice, but the futures he writes explore solutions to our problems and are more utopian than some other SF. Like Le Guin, KSR is known for being on the left of politics. He is quite a new writer to me, and it was only this year that I read him for the first time with the Science in the Capital series (conveniently rewritten in an omnibus condensed version, Green Earth), which I liked very much. I look forward to getting into the Mars trilogy.
J.K. Rowling won in 2001 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in her Harry Potter series. What can I say? Like millions around the world I read and enjoyed this series, but since Rowling, a woman with huge cultural power, began speaking against the rights of trans people, I can no longer support her.
Neil Gaiman is a two-time winner, for American Gods in 2002 and The Graveyard Book in 2009. Gaiman is a great fantasy storyteller and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books, though not yet The Graveyard Book, which is now on my reading list. I loved the premise behind American Gods – old gods follow migrants from their old world to their new, and struggle to survive in that new environment, which is also influenced by new gods (for example Media, the goddess of pop culture). As well as being a ripping adventure yarn, it is a thought-provoking book about religion and migration.
Susanna Clarke won in 2005 for her historical fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I started reading this years ago, but abandoned it for reasons I can’t recall. Since then I’ve read her 2020 novel Piranesi, which I loved. It’s hard to describe – a beautiful, strange, slow, absorbing book unlike anything else I’ve read. A friend pointed out that not only do Susanna Clarke and I share a surname, but we also look alike! So there are various reasons for me to give Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell another go.
N.K. Jemisin was the first (and to date, only) writer to win for each of the three volumes of a trilogy independently – a very high accolade. The Fifth Season won in 2016, The Obelisk Gate in 2017, and The Stone Sky in 2018. Together they make up the Broken Earth series. (Coincidentally, a new Hugo Award category for best series was commenced in 2017). I’ve recently read the first two books, and I’m about to launch into The Stone Sky. Jemisin is a brilliant world-builder with a distinctive writing style and strong characters – it’s an absorbing and thought-provoking series. People’s intervention in the environment is a major theme, but so is the interaction between species (some with superhuman powers) and ethnicities, and the building of communities. Notably, Jemisin is the first black writer to win the award, although another African American woman writer I love, Octavia Butler, has won the other major SF/fantasy novel award, the Nebula, and has won in other categories of the Hugo Award.
A warning – the Broken Earth series is set in a very geologically-active world and that’s an important part of the plot. There are frequent earth tremors, along with major quakes and volcanic eruptions. As a resident of the ‘Shaky Isles’ I found this disturbing at times, and I suspect the series would be best avoided by anybody who has been traumatised by quakes or eruptions.
The rest of the list
The rest of the list now beckons! I don’t plan to read them in any particular order, but just as the mood takes me. Happily almost all of the books from the 1970s onwards are available in my local library, which clearly has an enlightened policy when it comes to SF and fantasy, so this won’t be an expensive project. I’ve already picked up a few of the others in cheap second-hand versions, as you’ll see from the photo. Do let me know if you have any particular favourites among the Hugo winners!