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What’s wrong with the Hugos, part 2

By / June 11, 2015 / no comments

I hope this is not going to be as long as the last part, but let us push on a bit. Last time I made the claim that science fiction is now too big for the Hugos. Part of that is down to the ambition of the awards: the desire to be the awards for the entirety of science fiction, when nobody today can have any chance of knowing the entirety of science fiction. But part of it is down to our second problem:

Problem 2: The Award bureaucracy is inappropriate

The way the awards are managed is fine for a much smaller award, but for something this big it is clumsy and ill-formed.

Let me explain: the Hugos are governed by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), which basically consists of anyone who turns up at a Worldcon. WSFS meets just once a year, at the Worldcon (the way it is constituted means that there is no way it could meet more frequently). WSFS meetings also tend to be very long, lasting many hours sometimes spread over several days of the convention. Unless you are devoted to the bureaucratic cut and thrust of such meetings (to give you an idea, the rules of procedure, which are strictly applied, are pretty much identical to those of the civil service) it is a huge chunk of time out of your convention, so most Worldcon attendees don’t go to these meetings. So although WSFS is theoretically open to everyone, governance of the Hugo Awards is, like so much else, limited to a relatively small self-selecting group.

The rules of the meetings are such that any proposed rule change for the Hugo Awards will be debated and may be approved at one meeting, but must be ratified at the next meeting, which will be a year later and may be on a different continent. If you have a passionately-held idea for how the Hugos should change, you have to be prepared to spend the time and money to go to several successive Worldcons if you want a hope of being able to push it through onto the statute books. Of course, if someone at that second meeting wishes to amend or otherwise change the proposal, it could be a further year before it can come into effect.

Let’s put this in perspective. It is probably inevitable that at this year’s Worldcon, proposals will be put forward to try to prevent something like the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates. If the proposal goes through without a hitch, it will not come into effect until the 2017 Hugos at the earliest. But can you honestly see such a proposal going through without a hitch? I have already seen perhaps as many as half a dozen different proposals, each of which contradicts the others, and with no real sense of which will most effectively achieve the desired end. On top of that, there are sure to be people at the meeting who support the Puppies and who will argue against any rule change. I don’t imagine that getting an anti-Puppy rule onto the books is going to be at all a straightforward job.

So the first problem with the Hugo bureaucracy is that it is slow.

Other awards can respond to changing circumstances much more quickly. The Nebulas and the BSFA Awards have someone running them day to day, and they can go to their governing body (the SFWA and the BSFA, respectively) with a rule change whenever it is felt necessary. They may need to get the change ratified at a subsequent meeting, but essentially the change can be made whenever needed. Other awards can do it even more quickly. The Tiptree Award has a Motherboard of around half a dozen people; one conference phone call and the deed is done. The Clarke Award has an administrator whose job it is to make any such change if it is necessary.

If the Puppies had found a way to subvert any one of these awards this year, by next year a rule would have been in place to deal with it.

The second problem with the Hugo bureaucracy is that it is a bureaucracy.

Not only can it not respond quickly to any altered circumstance, but it cannot respond radically.

When I said, above, that those who take part in WSFS meetings tend to be a self-selecting group, what I meant was that there is a preponderance of people who enjoy arguing over precise wording and fine detail. Much of the time this is good and worthy, but it does mean that if you want to win majority approval you are more likely to get it for a change in the detailed word rather than a radical overhaul of the entire award structure. This means that we get sticking plasters on the rules, rather than a new fitter leaner set of rules. It means that any change to the rules tends to add complexity rather than simplifying them. Every one of the proposals I have seen so far for dealing with the problem of the Puppies would add extra details to the rules.

The existing rules are already many pages long, with clauses and sub-clauses all over the place; these proposals would simply add more clauses, add more pages. If the rule as it stands is already complex and confusing, then that is how it would remain; it is just that something else would be added to it that would make it that bit more complex, that bit more confusing.

And yet the Puppies were able to do what they did by exploiting the complexity of the rules, by finding loopholes that will always exist where rules are long and ponderous and multi-part.

A wholesale revision and simplification of the Hugo Awards would not only be probably the best response to the Puppies, but would help to make the Hugos more relevant. But we are not going to get such a change the way the Hugos are governed at the moment.

One of the ways that the Hugo bureaucracy tends to complexify rather than simplify the Awards is demonstrated by the proliferation and the nature of the categories. But that is a problem in its own right, and I’ll come to that next time.

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