The Retro Hugo Winners for 1939

The London Worldcon announced the winners of the 1939 Retro Hugo Awards, an award I was particularly eager to see, what with my interest in the Golden Age of science fiction. I was particularly interested in the winners for Best Novella and Best Novelette.

In the Best Novella category, “Who Goes There?” by Don A. Stuart won the retro-Hugo. Stuart, of course, is the pseudonym for none other than John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. It was the last, and in my opinion, the best of Campbell’s fiction. In later years, three movies would be based on the premise of the story, perhaps most famously in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

For more than a year after the story was published, the letter columns in Astounding were frequently populated with letters asking for more Stuart stories. Campbell would reply that he had it on good authority that Stuart was permanently retired from fiction-writing, and that apparently, was no lie.

In the Best Novelette category, “Rule 18” by Clifford D. Simak won the retro-Hugo. I don’t think “Rule 18” is nearly as good a story as “Who Goes There?” but it has an important place in science fiction nevertheless, as it helped to establish Isaac Asimov’s friendship with Simak. Asimov used to write critiques of all of the stories that appeared in Astounding,  and he gave “Rule 18” a particularly bad rating. Simak wrote Asimov to ask what he felt was wrong with the story so that he might improve in the future–and thus, a lifelong friendship was established.

I like the idea of the Retro Hugos, if for no other reason than it provides a mechanism for keeping some of these old stories from disappearing from our collective memory. I also wonder, from time-to-time, what Campbell or Simak or Clark or Virgil Finlay might have thought if someone told them that their work would still be remembered (and honored with an award) three quarters of a century later.


  1. I’m happy with the novella winner. It was the obvious choice, and the correct one. The other two short category winners underwhelmed me. I don’t have the Simak story anywhere, so I can’t say whether it’s any good, but I do know that this is the story that attracted Asimov’s pre-friendship criticism of Simak.

    “Seeds of the Dusk” by Raymond Z. Gallun is the only novelette of 1938 (the eligibility year) that I can find in my library. I remember it as being a fair read in a year when there wasn’t much major competition. But of course, it wasn’t nominated.

    The short story winner has to be down to the Brit vote. I have it, but haven’t read it. But I’d be surprised if it’s better than “Helen O’Loy”, which may be quite dated, but it’s a Science Fiction Hall of Fame story, after all. 1938 is much too soon for an award to go to a Clarke story. And on that subject: Ray Bradbury’s 3rd place in the short story category for an amateurish fan piece is just ridiculous.

    If there are Retro Hugos next year, the works of the key year 1939 will be under review. Let’s hope the Spokane voters get it right!

    Jamie, you could perhaps use your contacts to encourage the offering of Retro Hugos for the next six years? The years 1939 – 1945 are the absolutely prime Golden Age years, so it’ll be a fascinating exercise.

    1. When I saw that this year was the retro Hugos for 1939, I initially thought it meant 1939 stories, as opposed to the 1939 Hugo for which 1938 stories qualify. I have a long list of possibilities for stories from between 1939-1944. I’ve read every one of them that has appeared in Astounding, at least. They are stories and writers with whom audiences will be more generally familiar, although for me, at least 1 of the 3 best stories of 1939 (in my opinion) was from someone I had never heard of before (“Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam).

    2. Oh, and I’d agree with you on “Helen O’Loy” although I actually think that Kelleam’s “Rust” the following year (also a robot story) outdoes del Rey’s story. That said, del Rey’s “The Day Is Done,” published in May 1939 is one of the finest stories of that year. (The letter columns didn’t like it because it was “barely” science fiction. Meaning, it didn’t have space ships or aliens. But it was a phenomenal story.)

      1. The Great SF Stories, Volume 1, is the go-to book for stories published in 1939. I’ve been working my way through it (excruciatingly slowly) and agree about “That Day Is Done”. haven’t got to “Rust” yet!


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