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Considering the Hugos 2

By / June 1, 2015 / no comments

Could “Vox Day” be right? Oh I don’t mean about race or gender or even science fiction. On anything serious his pronouncements mark him out as nothing but a comic book Hitler whose opinions seem to have been formed sometime in the neolithic (if that isn’t too insulting to our ancestors). But sometimes, on a small and inconsequential matter, I find myself wondering: maybe it is time to burn the Hugos to the ground and start again from scratch. Of course, the problems I have with the Hugos are nothing like the complaints “Vox Day” has. He hates the Hugos because the voters placed No Award above his story last year; for me that is a cause for celebration. He hates the Hugos because they no longer reflect his atrophied view of the genre; for me that is also cause for celebration. I think the Hugos are broken and have been for years, and on current evidence we have no real mechanism for rendering them fit for purpose; he thinks the Hugos would be perfect if they just went to the writers he likes, and if they don’t he’ll destroy the awards in revenge.

His attitude is simply destructive.

I just happen to think the awards are not fit for purpose, but I still think that purpose is worth fighting for.

So, a few days ago I gave you a quick run-down of the history of the Hugo Awards. In all the current kerfuffle the one constant refrain you’ll hear is that of course the Puppies are wrong because of how many Hugo winners are classics of the genre. The process as is, they say, gets it right more often than not. And in a sense they are right. If you want a canon of the very best science fiction, you won’t go far wrong with a list of Hugo winners.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Dune by Frank Herbert
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
Neuromancer by William Gibson

A pretty impressive list, yes? If you’re going to give anyone a list of the classic science fiction they absolutely have to read, these would pretty well be guaranteed a place.

So the Hugo hit rate is pretty impressive. Or it is so long as you draw a veil over winners like They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley, or This Immortal by Roger Zelazny, or The Gods Themselves or Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov.

And then there are all the books that the Hugos missed.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Anything else by Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly etc, etc, etc.)

These, and many more that are now considered absolutely essential works of sf didn’t just miss out on the award, they didn’t even make the shortlist.

Maybe not so impressive a hit rate after all.

Okay, no award gets it right every time. The Hugos have quite a few classics among their winners, but also a lot of decent, readable novels that by no stretch of the imagination are among the best of their year, and rather too many books that deserve oblivion rather than an award. (One of the abiding problems with popular vote awards is that sentiment often plays a part and a popular writer is likely to win out over a deserving work. I am convinced, for example, that the reason The Gods Themselves won is nothing to do with how good a book it is, and everything to do with the fact that Asimov had never won a Best Novel Hugo and repeatedly made that point.)

And I think the hit rate gets less impressive the closer we come to the present. One of the things you’ll notice among all of those vocally defending the Hugos against the Puppies is that their list of great winners that demonstrate just how important the Hugos are tends to peter out sometime during the 80s or 90s. Now it is necessary to get a little historical perspective to see which works really will stand the test of time, but even so there seem to be fewer books that seem destined to be always in our thoughts (Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, Among Others by Jo WaltonRedshirts by John Scalzi? I don’t think so).

In other words, if the Hugo Award is still the bellwether for the state of science fiction, then science fiction is in decline.

But I don’t think the Hugo Award is the bellwether any more. It once was, and I think it could be again, but right now, no!

However, I do not believe that what is wrong with the Hugos is that they are picking the wrong winners. (That, I believe, is the position of the Puppies, but it is a wrongheaded and simplistic.) Rather, I believe that the fact that they are picking the wrong winners is symptomatic of what is wrong with the Hugos.

So next time I want to start talking about some of the things I think are wrong with the Hugos.

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