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What’s wrong with the Hugos

By / June 9, 2015 / no comments

Okay, I admit, I’ve been putting this off. Frankly I’m getting tired of the whole Hugo kerfuffle. Right now, no-one on either side is exactly covering themselves with glory. The whole mess has become a competition to see who can become most outraged at the least thing. It is not helped by the fact that the two sides don’t even seem to be talking the same language, so that even the most emollient statement becomes an excuse for somebody or other to claim they are being attacked. By the time the awards are actually presented, there’ll be two armed camps so divided that neither side will be able to see the other as even being human, and they will have forgotten what the cause of the war was in the first place.

The whole thing is pretty damned pointless. But then, these life-and-death struggles usually are pointless when you get down to it. It’s an award! And not even the richest or the most glamorous or the most prestigious award. It’s an award that’s been getting rather more tarnished than it used to be. Quite frankly, it’s an award that anyway has got so much wrong with it that the kindest thing we could do would be to take it outside and put it out of its misery. Honestly, the world wouldn’t come to an end if we didn’t have the Hugos for a few years while we re-thought them and rebuilt them from scratch and actually made them fit for purpose. But that’s probably not going to happen: too many people with too much invested, and far too much inertia. Fandom is remarkably resistant to change.

What’s wrong with the Hugos, you ask. Actually there’s so much wrong that it’s difficult to know where to start. So let me direct you to this post in which I talked about the history of the Hugos, and this post in which I suggest that the record of the Hugos isn’t quite as golden as we sometimes imagine, and while you’re getting up to date on the context I’ll try and get my thoughts into some sort of order.

Back? That didn’t take long. Okay, here goes.

What are the Hugos for? The official name is, or was, the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, although that name was quietly dropped a few years ago. What they supposedly do is recognise exemplary achievement in science fiction. Well there are plenty of ways of doing that, from Guest of Honourships to fan travel bursaries like TAFF and GUFF to selection for Year’s Best anthologies, but the easiest and most obvious way to do so is with an award, and science fiction probably has more awards than any other comparable body of literature. Some awards, like the Tiptree or the Kitschies, have a very specific remit, but the vast majority of them are just given to “the best”. The fact that it is still relatively rare for the same work to win multiple awards, and unknown for one work to win all of the awards, suggests that there is no general agreement what actually counts as the best.

(There’s also no general agreement on what constitutes science fiction. Juried awards, like the John W. Campbell Memorial Award or the World Fantasy Award, might limit their considerations to one particular form; but the popular vote awards, like the Hugo, Nebula and BSFA, have always explicitly or tacitly covered both sf and fantasy. I suspect this is because there is no way that they could police the boundary. I might draw the line between sf and fantasy in one place, you might draw it somewhere else, and a third person might believe there is no line at all; there is just no way that you could ever get a definition of science fiction or of fantasy that every potential voter in a popular vote award would understand, care about, or follow. It’s easier not to bother, let the votes go where they will.)

So we have no particular agreement about what is best, but lots and lots of winners for all the different awards. Is that a bad thing? Prizes for everyone. Check out any reasonably well established author and you’ll almost certainly find they picked up at least one award or other at some point in their career. It’s nice to get an award, it gives you a warm glow, so that can’t be bad, can it? Well, no, in that sense it’s not bad, though it makes for a pretty strange definition of the word “best”. However, there are two points to be made about this. The first, a very minor point, is that even if we didn’t have the Hugos there’d still be enough awards to go around for everyone.

The second is that the way we arrive at all of these varied ideas of best is where the problems with any award lie, and with the Hugos it is a particularly problematic issue.

The Hugos are decided by a vote of the members of the World Science Fiction Convention. There, that’s simple and democratic and uncontentious, isn’t it? The electorate is both self-selecting and ever-changing, but so is any electorate. And because they have gone to the expense of joining a convention, it suggests that they are committed to science fiction and therefore likely to be an informed electorate. Ah, here a little doubt starts to creep in. Yes, they will be, in the main, people who enjoy science fiction and have pronounced opinions about what works or doesn’t work, and that’s good. But with the best will in the world, how informed can they be?

For the first decade or so of the award’s existence, a determined reader would have to keep up with no more than a dozen magazines (some monthly, most quarterly or bi-monthly) in order to read just about everything published as science fiction. Hardly any science fiction novels were published that had not previously been serialised in one or other of the magazines; there were hardly any venues for short fiction other than the magazines;and the non-fiction was pretty well limited to reviews, commentary and science-fact articles in the magazines. It was possible for a determined voter to read everything that might seriously be in contention for an award, and probable that many voters did just that.

This year the Arthur C. Clarke Award (the only award I am aware of that releases this information) reported that over 120 novels were submitted for the award. In a good year I might get through maybe two-thirds of that number of books, but already I am sure to miss out on some books that might be in contention (even if I only read sf novels during the year, which I don’t). But that figure of 120 is only books published in the UK; and it almost certainly does not include every single sf novel published in Britain during the year, let alone the fantasy novels that tend not to be submitted for the Clarke. Many more books would be published in the US that do not see UK publication, and we should also count books published in Australia or Canada just to limit ourselves to the four main anglophone markets. Even if you read one novel every day, you would not be able to keep up with everything happening in science fiction, and which of us could afford the time or the cost of such an endeavour. But that is just novels.

The Hugo Awards also ask us to judge the best novellas, novelettes and short stories. Again, there is the problem of keeping up. The people whose job it is to be aware of all of the short fiction published in any year, the editors of the numerous Best of the Year anthologies, do not read every story published. They cannot. Instead they rely on recommendations from fellow editors and others and they still know that they are likely to miss stories they would otherwise certainly have included. The remarkable lack of overlap between the various Year’s Best anthologies isn’t just down to differences of taste, it’s also because editor a will have looked in places that editor b missed, and vice versa.

There’s another indication that we cannot keep up with all of the short fiction published. In three of the past five years, fewer than five stories appeared on the short story shortlist (I suspect it might have happened again this year if not for the success of the Sad/Rabid Puppies slate). This is because of an arcane part of the Hugo rules called the 5% rule. No work can appear on the shortlist unless it has gained at least 5% of all nominations in that category. It is actually a sensible rule, as long as it isn’t applied, and for much of the life of the award it hasn’t needed to be applied. The shortlists were always composed of works that a substantial proportion of the electorate considered deserved their place. As soon as the rule is applied, however, it becomes a senseless rule: why, howl the protests, exclude a story just because not that many people have nominated it.

What the repeated application of the 5% rule indicates is that voters cannot keep up with short fiction. Every year there are more potentially eligible stories published in more and more venues, ranging from prestigious publication like The New Yorker to short-lived on-line magazines, and of course nowadays there are more and more stories being self-published by authors on their websites or blogs or as ebooks through Amazon. It is near-enough a full time job just keeping up with all the myriad venues for short fiction these days, let alone reading the stories. So no-one will read more than a very small spectrum of what is available, and that spectrum will be shaped by a range of issues of which quality plays little if any part. So when people are nominating for the Hugo short fiction awards, there is no consensus as to where the good stuff might be found, let alone what that good stuff actually is. Hence the decreasing likelihood of any stories receiving more than 5% of the nominations.

I have a sense that as long as the Sad Puppies slates do not continue to distort the nominating process, the 5% rule will come into play increasingly not just for short stories but for novelettes and novellas as well.

It is, therefore, impossible for the voters to make a fully informed choice about novels, or short fiction, let alone these four categories combined with all of the other categories. What this amounts to is:

Problem 1: Science fiction is now too big for the Hugos

Well, not science fiction exactly (sf on its own, and strictly defined, is, I feel, contracting), but the universe of all works eligible for the Hugos is now too big and getting bigger.

Other awards have mechanisms for coping with this. They might restrict the universe: the Aurealis Awards are limited to Australian works, the BSFA Awards are limited to books published in Britain. They might limit eligibility: the Philip K. Dick Award is for paperback originals only. And juried awards have various ways of limiting what is considered, or spreading the load among the various jurors. None of these mechanisms are available for the Hugo Awards.

Moreover, the Hugos are so intent on being the big award for the entire world of science fiction that not only do they deny themselves any limiting mechanism, but they keep expanding the universe, adding more categories. (This, of course, is a problem in its own right which I’ll come to later.)

Why this is a problem comes down to the simple fact that the quality of any award is a direct consequence of the way the winner is decided. The more trusted and reliable that way is, the greater the perceived quality of the award.

But the fact that the universe of eligibility is far far bigger than any voter can be properly aware of undermines that trust and reliability in a number of ways. (Curiously, for several years past I recall increasingly strident discussions whenever the Hugo nominations were announced complaining about the unsatisfactory, populist, safe or unexciting nature of the list. That discussion signals an increasing dis-ease with the nature of the Hugo Awards. It did not take place this year only because there was a bigger topic for discussion. Suddenly, because the Hugo Awards are seen to have an enemy bent on their destruction, all those vocal critics of the Awards are leaping to its defence.)

One of the things that happens is such circumstances is that nominations are made (and the problem here lies particularly in the nomination process) on the basis of reputation rather than familiarity.

Furthermore, the electorate fragments; votes represent not some general consensus view of quality, but rather views from different parts of the sf spectrum. Thus, at one time, one body of voters might have favoured work x while another favoured work y, but the majority of them would have been familiar with both x and y and therefore would have weighed the two against each other in making their choice. Now, it is more likely that the majority of those who favour work x will have no familiarity with y, and vice versa. So the choice is made not on a weighing of quality but on a weighing of group dynamics. (In a sense this is exactly what the Sad Puppies are complaining about, but their solution has been to make the sectarian divisions even more pronounced.)

And, all in all (there are other forces at work here, but this post is already getting far too long), what this comes down to in the end is a sense that what is driving the voting in the Hugos is something other than quality. If the voters can only know a fraction of science fiction (and a fraction that is getting smaller year by year), then what drives their choices will not be what is best but what best catches the eye. And as this perception spreads, then there will be a corresponding decline in the reputation of the awards. It may not be much at the moment, though it is certainly happening, and it is likely to accelerate.

But that is only the first, though perhaps the most fundamental, of the problems with the Hugos. However, since this is already far longer than anyone could really want to read, I’ll take a break here and return with more problems in the near future …

 

 

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Paul

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