Volume 32, Number 01, Fall, 2013

Opinion: Abolish the Hall of Fame award

By Anders Monsen

Let me state at the outset that the opinions expressed here are solely my own. The are not expressed lightly, but the result of built-up reflection over the many years. I think the time has come to abolish the LFS Hall of Fame award.

Since the LFS first announced the Hall of Fame in 1983 just under 200 novels, short stories, screenplays, movies, TV shows, music albums, graphic novels and anthologies have been nominated. There have been 36 winners during the past thirty years; two books were awarded the Hall of the Fame the first two years, possibly as a result of wanting to rush the recognition of some classic works.

Many of the books awarded the Hall of Fame deserve recognition. There are classic works of fiction. They inspired us as we read them, thrilled us, terrified us. We remember some of these books as vividly now as when we first read them. At least, some of them. However, already in 1986, three years after the award's inception, people in the pages of Prometheus asked why the same books were nominated time again. Now, 30 years later, we still pick through the tailings by simply nominating the same books. Despite expanding the category to include "novels, novellas, stories, graphic novels, anthologies, films, TV shows/series, plays, poems, music recordings and other works of fiction‚" we find the same handful of works racking up nominations year after year. Clearly something in the Hall of Fame process is broken.

The LFS may well be the only group that regularly awards a Hall of Fame award. The Hugos have awarded a few RetroHugos. Some awards exist for Lifetime Achivement. Why abolish, you may ask? Shouldn't we simply modify the rules? Maybe set a time limit like the baseball Hall of Fame, where eligibility terminates after 15 years from the first nomination? I think that might be a viable alternative, if we also increase the pool of finalists. To keep the award, but avoid the same works each year, we could look at restricting how many times something could be nominated. Or, we could add a time limit, so that if something appears on the list, it cannot appear for another five years. Yet who would police this? Would books get grandfathered into the cut-off ?

But I lean towards the more radical option.

Before I sat down to write this piece I analyzed the history of the Hall of Fame. I brought in every single nominee into a database, using as reference the web site's Hall of Fame page, as well as press releases and old newsletters. I ended up with 411 nominees for 192 unique works.

Top Hall of Fame Nominees

A Time of Changes Robert Silverberg 17
The Book of Merlyn T. H. White 12
Courtship Rite Donald Kingsbury 21
The Dispossessed *Ursula K. Le Guin 11
One Flew Over
the Cuckoo's Nest
Ken Kesey 10
It Can't Happen Here * Sinclair Lewis 9
Emphyrio Jack Vance 9
This Perfect Day * Ira Levin 8
The Lord of the Rings* J. R. R. Tolkien 8
Circus World Barry Longyear 8
“As Easy as A.B.C.” Rudyard Kipling 8
A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess 8
We * Yevgeni Zamiatin 6
Time Will Run Back Henry Hazlitt 6
That Hideous Strength C. S. Lewis 5
Oath of Fealty Larry Niven and
Jerry Pournelle
Falling Free Lois McMaster Bujold 5
The Syndic * Cyril Kornbluth 4
The Stars my Destination * Alfred Bester 4
Tai Pan James Clavel 4
“'Repent, Harlequin!'
Said the Ticktockman”
Harlan Ellison 4
Orion Shall Rise Poul Anderson 4
Lone Star Planet/
A Planet for Texans
H. Beam Piper 4
Darkness at Noon Arthur Koestler 4
Cryptonomicon Neal Stephenson 4
Blue World Jack Vance 4
We the Living Ayn Rand 3
Trader to the Stars Poul Anderson 3
The Weapon Shops of Isher * A. E. Van Vogt 3
The Star Fox Poul Anderson 3
“The Machine Stops” E. M. Forster 3
The Great Explosion * Eric Frank Russell 3
The Girl Who Owned a City O. T. Nelson 3
Riddley Walker Russall Hoban 3
Hardwired Walter Jon Williams 3
Ensign Flandry Poul Anderson 3
Anthem * Ayn Rand 3
Alongside Night * J. Neil Schulman 3
2112 Rush 3
winner *

To the right I have listed the top nominees by number of years they were nominated. Four out of the top five are bridesmaids, runners-up, also-rans, losers; they have never won the award, yet together they have a collective 51 years of nominations. That's an average of almost 13 nominations per novel, yet none have won the Hall of Fame.

Robert Silverberg's A Time of Changes is the Susan Lucci of the Hall of Fame (she finally won an Emmy after 18 years of failed nominations, so there is hope for this novel yet). In the 30-year history of the Hall of Fame, this book has been nominated a total of 17 times without winning. Other also-rans include Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite and T.H. White's The Book of Merlyn (12 nominations), Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (10 nomimations), Jack Vance's Emphyrio (9 nominations, all but one prior to 1997), Barry Longyear's Circus World; Rudyard Kipling's "As Easy as A.B.C."; Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (8 nominations). A handful of books have six, five or four nominations. A vast number have two or one (Thirty-six have been nominated twice, 116 were nominated once, though some of these won the first time they were nominated).

Now, the fact that they have never won the Hall of Fame does not mean they are not good books. Certainly, Ken Kesey's novel raises unique issues about control and willing servitude. T.H. White's The Book of Merlyn contrasts two imaginary societies, one collectivist and one individualist. Silverberg's and Kingsbury's books have both been hailed as good novels. Contrary to my comments above, I bear no ill will towards Silverberg's A Time of Changes, nor some of the other nominees. Yet if any of the books eventually wins through a campaign of attrition, what does this mean, for the book and for the LFS?

Despite a list of almost 200 works on the LFS web page to choose from (and possibly others that never have made the list), the same handful of books and stories appear each year. Why is that? Has it become just a habit to recycle the same items? Are only a few people nominating books and stories for the Hall of Fame? Where is the passion for our classic works of liberty and fiction? Why has expanding the category resulted in no new blood?

There is an exception to every rule, perhaps. Ursula K. Le Guin's dystopian/utopian novel The Dispossessed finally entered the Hall of Fame after being nominated 11 times. Yet never has any single book generated as much controversy and passion on either side as The Dispossessed. Several LFS members, including Victoria Varga, Robert Shea, and Samuel E. Konkin III all wrote lengthy essays arguing why this book deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. Other people wrote letters against the book; one person declared they would vote it down every time. No other single nominee has received a fraction of this attention or discussion. Yet still these same books just appear on the ballots, year after year, despite not gaining enough votes to win. Given the 15 year limit I suggested, Le Guin's book still would have made the Hall of Fame.

Yet is is comfortable to see the same books and short stories again and again? Does this truly recognize the books that deserve recognition? If the Hall of Fame awards the pinnacle of libertarian fiction, where then, is Karin Boye's Kallocain, a classic in dystopian fiction published in 1940, nominated only once, in 2011. Where is Kurt Vonnegut's individualistic short story, "Harrison Bergeron"? It has been nominated a total of zero times. What of Cecilia Holland's anarchist novel, The Floating Worlds? How does Time Will Run Back and Oath of Fealty receive more nominatins than We the Living? Prose quality must count for something.

Rather than continue arguing with what could be termed "argument by preference"—de gustibus non disputandum est, after all—I point once again to the distribution of nominees. Out of the 36 winners, the average number of nominations is just under three (3)—2.86. The vast majority (77%) were nominated three times or fewer before they won, and yet we have books each year lately nominated time and again with no fresh blood. If a book/story has not won after three times as a finalist (with very few exceptions), will it ever gain enough votes to win? This tells me that either only a small segment of the LFS membership cares about the Hall of Fame, or we are scraping the bottom of a very selective barrel.

It's almost as if the Hall of Fame now simplly exists as a force of habit, a perpetual motion machine. Like a temporary government measure no one wants to be the one to kill it. The words "abolish" and "kill" are indeed harsh words. I employ them partially for effect. Perhaps "retire" would be more appropriate. The award seemed to serve its purpose well the first decade; true classics dominated the first ten years's winners. Most got in fairly quickly. Lately that doesn't seem to be the case. And now, in 2013, the youngest work published wins.

When Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, nominated for the 2000 Best Novel award a decade later wins the Hall of Fame, does this mean we have moved to recognized runners-up to the best novel award as classics? "Oh, sorry you didn't win for best novel. In a few years you get to go again." Is that right? Is that fair? But wait, you say, J. Neil Schulman's Alongside Night set precedent by being a finalist for the best novel in 1982, then received the Hall of Fame in 1989; F. Paul Wilson's An Enemy of the State was a best novel finalist in 1982 and then a Hall of Fame winner in 1991. Although I still remember vividly Schulman and Wilson's novels, despite not having read either one in over two decades, I believe they were Prometheus nominees, another book won, and it ends there. That doesn't diminish their worth. There is no post-Oscar award, no post Hugo award, why a post-Prometheus award?

What happens next? Do we return to older books, or should more recent novels get more attention? Or, what happens if we abolish or retire the award? Does the LFS suddenly lose visibility or viability by removing an award that recognizes older works? The award that gains the most attention each year is for best novel, as nominees like Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, James Hogan, Ken MacLeod, L. Neil Smith, Brad Linaweaver, F. Paul Wilson, and others, have publicly and proudly mentioned their books being nominated for the Prometheus award. When they say "Prometheus award," they mean best novel. The best novel is the face of the Prometheus award, not the Hall of Fame.

Eliminating the Hall of Fame is a non-issue for the LFS in terms of the outside world. However, another problem is that voting for the Hall of Fame is tied to Basic membership. If the Hall of Fame no longer exists, this benefit vanishes, and with it the very definition of Basic membership. What about letting all members now vote on the best novel award, or expanding the awards category to include other "best" options, or changing the entire membership structure in some way to still find a benefit.

In fact, as I found out when I asked the Hall of Fame chairperson William H. Stoddard, very few people actually submit nominations. Stoddard mentioned that on average only five to seven people send in nominations, and usually none of these are Basic members. Rather, nominations come from people who are active in LFS committees. This seems to show that people who already have a vested interest participate in the process.

Rather than wonder about benefits for membership types, should we instead ask, "How do we get people more involved?" Are Basic members content simply to vote for the stories and novels that are placed on the ballot, even though each year (lately) these are the same set of stories and novels? Why are there so few new nominations for the Hall of Fame? Again, do we continue merely out of habit and tradition?

The choice to abolish the Hall of Fame and restructure membership is not up to me or one single person, but rather the entire executive board of the LFS, and subsequently, the membership. My proposal is a radical proposal, since it tries to change 30 years of tradition (although in 1998 Sam Konkin proposed the same action, that we abolish the Hall of Fame). And yet, unless more life is breathed into the Hall of Fame, and new and fresh titles show up as finalists, what happens when we run of those same novels? This, in my opinion, makes the Hall of Fame a second-rate award.

To keep the LFS and the Prometheus award relevant, I believe we need to declare that the Hall of Fame fulfilled its role. Good books might be missing from the list, maybe even great books, but the time for the Hall of Fame has passed. Let us honor those books and stories already in the Hall of Fame by abolishing this category. The alternative becomes keeping alive a hollowed-out zombie of an award.

While I think some books in the Hall of Fame do not deserve to be there, and others should have long since been voted in as a classic of libertarian fiction, I for one am at peace with the idea that my taste in fiction does not always mesh with the majority. But I think we deserve better.

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