UW News

November 1, 2007

A sci-fi fan’s dream come true: Staffer wins a Hugo Award

As a kid, Randy Byers dreamed of winning a Hugo, the science fiction achievement award, for his writing. This year he realized his dream — not as a writer, but as an editor of a science fiction fanzine. Byers and his co-editor, Geri Sullivan, along with Editor Emeritus Lee Hoffman, were given the coveted award by the World Science Fiction Society for their work on the Science-Fiction Five-Yearly.

Byers, who is senior computer specialist in the Office of Academic Data Management, is a longtime science fiction fan who has been reading fanzines for years. He and two friends edit another one, called Chunga, which has twice been nominated for a Hugo but has not won.

“It was an amazing feeling getting the Hugo,” Byers said. “Because Chunga had been nominated and had not won, I just refused to believe that Science-Fiction Five-Yearly would win. I was shocked when the news came. It really was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”

Fanzines, Byers said, have been part of science fiction since its early days as a formal genre. The first one was printed in 1930, and they have thrived ever since, although these days many of them are migrating to the Web. The publications include everything from reviews of science fiction books to humorous essays, artwork and musings on life in general. They often include what might be characterized as insider jokes.

Byers’ issue of Science-Fiction Five-Yearly, for example, opens with a mock detective story: A private investigator is hired to find a missing person — a writer who was supposed to turn in a story for the fanzine. When the writer is found, he sits down in the middle of a party and writes the story, just in time for the deadline. Immediately following this story is the actual story the writer was turning in — the final episode of a serial for the zine that comes out every five years.

Science-Fiction Five-Yearly was founded by legendary fanzine publisher Lee Hoffman in 1951, and its every-five-years frequency was kind of a joke,” Byers said. “But it kept going. The issue I co-edited was number 12.”

It was also the final issue, because Hoffman died last February (the award came posthumously), and although work on the publication has been done by guest editors for a number of years, it was always considered to be Hoffman’s zine.

Fanzines, Byers explained, have that kind of connection to their editors because they’re more about science fiction fan culture than they are about the literature. In the early days, he said, they were the primary way that fans communicated with each other, and the publications themselves were labors of love.

“A fan or a group of fans would produce a zine on their own nickel and then give it to their friends,” Byers said. “Typically, they were produced on typewriters with hand drawn artwork and then mimeographed and mailed.”

Science-Fiction Five-Yearly preserves that “look” while using more modern technology, but putting it together still required a considerable amount of work. Byers and Sullivan solicited work from writers and artists, then consulted with them as they prepared the material for publication. When it was time for production, Byers flew to Massachusetts, where he and Sullivan printed and assembled the zine with the help of the New England Science Fiction Association.

The Hugos are given out at the World Science Fiction Convention, better known as WorldCon. People who attended the previous year’s convention are eligible to make nominations for awards, and those who attend the current year’s vote on the winners. WorldCon, held from Aug. 30 to Sept. 3, honored publications from 2006. Byers wasn’t able to attend the convention — which was held in Yokohama, Japan — though he has attended earlier ones and hopes to get to next year’s event in Denver.

Conventions, he said, are simply places for science fiction fans to get together and socialize. Typically there are panels, there are readings by authors and there is a masquerade at which fans can dress up as favorite characters and have their costumes judged. The convention is also a place where fans often get to talk to their favorite authors. Byers recalls a smaller, local convention at which well known writer Ursula Le Guin “worked on her knitting and made wry comments from the back of the audience.”

Between conventions, Byers continues to read science fiction, though lately, he said, he’s been concentrating on some of the founders of the field — like H.G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo awards are named. As for the future, he and co-editor Sullivan are talking about producing a collection of Lee Hoffman’s writing, and he’ll continue participating in the production of Chunga — which by the way is named for an old Frank Zappa album.

It’s all about fun. “The science fiction subculture is really my social life,” Byers said. “It’s where all my friends are from. It serves all the functions of a community.”