A nonfiction book by science fiction and fantasy writer, poet, and critic Jo Walton, subtitled "A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000."
The Hugo Awards recognize the best works of science fiction and fantasy -- mostly novels, short stories, and other literary forms. The first of them were handed out in 1953, and they're usually hotly debated -- did the winner deserve to win? Who else should have been nominated? Are the voters a band of blithering idiots?!
So along comes Jo Walton, at the time writing on the Tor.com website, who put together a series of articles between 2010-2013 that did a deep dive into the Hugo winners and nominees and all the books that could've been nominated, and whether the Hugos of each year did a good job of representing the state of science fiction. She wrote about every Hugo slate from 1953-2000 -- partly because she felt she couldn't judge whether more recent nominees had stood the test of time -- and partly because Walton was nominated for her first Hugo in 2001 and felt it'd be weird to write about her own books.
The columns were collected in 2018 by Tor Books, supplemented by short essays by Walton on certain noteworthy books as well as by comments by a host of fans, critics, editors, and writers, taken from the original columns on the Tor website.
What we get is, as the title states, informal -- and subjective and incomplete by design. Walton gives us every winner and nominee in every category, but we don't get a full breakdown and analysis of all the categories. Best Professional Editor, Professional Artist, Fanzine, Semiprozine, Fan Writer, and Fan Artist tend to pass with no comment, while the categories for Best Dramatic Presentation and Best Nonfiction Work are mostly ignored (Walton is not a fan of the Dramatic Presentation award, and generally feels that the Nonfiction nominees are too difficult to determine which nominees are most worthy).
Walton goes into serious detail when discussing the Best Novel winners. She doesn't give complete reviews of each novel -- in fact, she hasn't even read all the nominees and acknowledges that she has no desire to do so -- but she does give a brief plot overview for all of the books, along with her opinion on how good it was, whether it's still remembered today, whether it's still in print, and whether it's available in her local library.
She also takes abbreviated looks at the winners and nominees of other important sci-fi awards, including the Nebulas, the Locus Awards, the James Tiptree Jr. Awards, and the Philip K. Dick Awards, to see what other books were being recognized -- and she looks for prominent novels that somehow got overlooked by all the awards. Would any of them have been worthy nominees?
The categories for novellas, novelettes, and short stories get almost as much discussion as the novel category, as does the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2019).
Each chapter also includes selected comments from the Tor website -- and considering these comments come from writers, editors, and critics like Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, David G. Hartwell, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, James Davis Nicoll, and more, they're certainly more insightful than most website comments. Many of the comments focus on the best short fiction offered every year, whether or not it was nominated for a Hugo. The comments are also where you often learn about some of the trivia of every year's nominees and ceremonies -- why there were no fiction categories at all in 1957, why certain authors requested their nominations be withdrawn, why some groundbreaking novels may have been ignored when it came to nominations, why the worst Hugo winner ever actually managed to win...
I enjoyed this one a lot. There are a lot of places you can find lists of the Hugo winners and nominees, but this one has the best and most enjoyable analysis of the winners. It has some similarities to "What Makes This Book So Great," Walton's previous book of essays on science fiction novels, just with less laser-focus on individual books.
It's wonderful to have a book that analyzes all the winners and nominees and presents the author's informed opinion on whether they all deserved to be nominated and whether they all remained worthy of the nominations today. There was a period where Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, and Isaac Asimov got nominated for almost anything they wrote, and nowadays, the nominated works often don't hold up, compared to some of the works that were neglected by the voters. At the same time, some of the nominated works have been almost entirely forgotten -- sometimes because they were never that good, sometimes because even great novels can be left behind when popular tastes change.
But what's really useful about this book is the discussions about what other books and short stories could have been nominated for the Hugo, because you get to learn about books you've never heard of before and which sound cool enough to track down and read. Lots of books never got as popular as the long-lasting classics, but they still sound interesting. The real heartbreakers are categories like Best Novella -- Walton and most of the commenters think this category was consistently fantastic almost every year, but you have to really go digging to find novellas and short stories that may have only appeared in old magazines...
All in all, this is a book worth reading -- both for the high quality of Walton's writing and analysis and for the recommendations for other books to put on your Must-Read list.