Can we stop talking about the Hugos now?


This polemic will begin with something of a hyperbole.

The Hugos are utter twaddle.

Although the Hugos present the image of something more cosmopolitan or representative than the standard convention award, it’s becoming increasingly apparent every year that, despite being the most recognizable award in science fiction and fantasy cultural awareness, the Hugos are nothing more than an amalgamation of like minded WorldCon members, or agendized voting blocs, bent on vociferous back patting. I apply that statement broadly, although it is most obviously associated with the down ballot. Before I get too far into that rabbit hole, let me first place ‘best novel’ squarely in my sites where the only explanation is that the average Hugo voter reads somewhere been four and six novels a year.

Often when critics rail against the Hugo’s best novel category it’s to attack lack of sophistication. The Clarke Award, British Science Fiction Award, the Kitschies, Tiptree Award, Philip K. Dick Award, and others spend some time examining science fiction and fantasy literature through a critical lens. Anyone expecting that from the Hugo Award isn’t just off the mark, they might as well be trying to stick ‘it’ in the sarlacc.

No, the Hugo voter has a certain style it looks for in its fiction. Hugo-style, if you will, is like Gangnam-style only without the distracting Korean guy riding a horse, replaced with Charles Stross and Connie Willis on a podium holding a. . . rocket ship. I admit Gangnam-style doesn’t have nearly as much sex appeal. In other words, Hugo nominated books tend to be recognizable. On the one hand because they are mostly written by Stross, Willis, John Scalzi, China Miéville, Robert Charles Wilson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ian MacDonald, and active members of the Live Journal community, but also because they fit a certain motif that’s difficult to pin down. I’ll fall back on the old pornography argument, ‘I know it when I see it.”

None of this accusation of style is a criticism of the award, quite the contrary. I believe the populist nature of an award like the Hugo is vitally important. It captures the kinds of novels that more elitist awards fail to — books people love to read. I’ve tried several times to read John Crowley’s Little, Big (which was, ironically enough, nominated for a Hugo in 1982) and it just isn’t any fun. Like Little, Big though, the best novel category almost always has a wild card — something that doesn’t quite fit in to the Hugo mold — and sometimes they win. These winning standouts usually represent something that can’t be ignored for societal (Windup Girl), cultural (Among Others), or inferiority inferiority complexacle (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) reasons.

More often the wild cards finish at the back of the ballot, existing there at all by chance. N.K. Jemisin’s One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms two years ago, or Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber a decade gone, seem like reasonable examples. This year’s wild card has to be Saladin Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon — he is after all the only first time nominee for best novel. That said, it is quite frankly exactly the kind of novel that often appeals to the Hugo voter: wildly entertaining and nostalgic, but clever enough to give it the illusion of newness. I would argue that fact makes this quite possibly the most vanilla ballot in the history of the Hugo.

Among this year’s best Hugo-style books — things like Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, and NK Jemisin’s The Killing Moon — only one of this year’s nominees rank among them. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Books like Bear’s and Jemisin’s are missing not because they aren’t good enough or even because they aren’t the kinds of books Hugo voters support, but because of an impenetrable culture of voting habits that precludes them from being part of the discussion. Those habits involve Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, and (of late) Seanan McGuire who are as likely to be nominated for a Hugo as Barrack Obama is to be heckled at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

Lois McMaster Bujold is a beloved grande dame of science fiction. If she wins the Hugo this year, she will have as many best novel rocket ships on her mantle as Robert Heinlein. Should I repeat that or is everyone adequately perplexed by the notion that those two writers are even in the same sentence much less on par with respect to ‘best novels’? A few years ago she was nominated for Cryoburn, which by my count was her ninth (!!!) nomination for her Vorkosigan Saga. . . make that ten with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (2012). I enjoyed Cryoburn for what it was and since then I’ve dabbled in other Bujold stories. I find them generally similar — entertaining with a keen emotional resonance. But, calling them the best of a particular year has been a level of recognition that escapes me. And yet it’s become tradition that when Bujold releases a new novel in the Vorkosigan-verse she receive a Hugo nod. How do I reconcile that? I suspect that same way I reconcile the fact that every single piece of published fiction in Seanan McGuire’s Newsflesh world has been nominated for a Hugo over a three year period. And I reconcile that with laughter. Incredulous laughter.

I’m not laughing at McGuire and Bujold’s talents, but at the notion that everything they write by mere association is award worthy. I’ve read the first two novels in McGuire’s Newflesh trilogy. The best compliment I can give them is that they’re entertainingly competent. Sadly, I can identify twenty better novels from any year in which one of them has appeared even among the novels of interest to Hugo voters. In fact, with five nominations this year across several categories, including competing against herself in best novelette, McGuire has saturated the ballot to such a degree that Susan Lucci is starting to get nervous (Daytime Emmy joke, sorry).

What in God’s name is going on here? Seanan McGuire for all her talent is not the second coming of Ursula K. LeGuin. What I’m witnessing is a dedicated fan base of her’s, or a subculture of which she is a part, that’s skewing the nominations to a phenomenal degree. Am I shouting in to the dark here? Does anyone else care that the only award that the average reader (genre or otherwise) recognizes as significant is becoming marginalized by its own adherents? Can anyone make a reasonable case that a reader fifty years from now looking back to see what was important about 2012 should consider Blackout and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and Redshirts and Throne of the Crescent Moon the canonical tales?

No. They should not.

Putting aside best novel for a bit, I feel compelled to carry the discussion down the ballot to several awards that should be put out of their misery — euthanized to preserve some semblance of value to the rest of the award slate.

For example, best dramatic short form can be summarized in one sentence: why does an award exist when 60% of the nominees year in and year out are from one creative enterprise?

Normally I would be levying this same criticism against the Fan Writer category, which once again nominates Steven Silver (12 times!!) and Christopher Garcia (7 times!!). However, it also includes the aforementioned Mark Oshiro who, perhaps owing a great part of his nomination to Seanan McGuire, is a very worthy nominee. It’s also nice to see Tansy Tayner Roberts who is a (gasp) new name (and one we’re pleased to be including in SpecFic ’12). Both Oshiro and Roberts are from the blogging world, a step in the right direction for a category that’s been stuck for far too long in traditional fandom. Of course, I would very much like to see Silver and Garcia replaced with Bourke (Liz) and Hurley (Kameron), but I’m willing to settle for incremental gains. Like dramatic short form though, the history of the Fan Writer award begs the question why does it continue to exist when it recognizes the same individuals year in and year out?

The same is true of FanZine which again nominates The Drink Tank (7 times!), Banana Wings (8 times!), and Journey Planet (2 times). I mentioned Journey Planet sans the exclamation point with only two nominations thus far, but it bears mentioning that Christopher Garcia and James Bacon are listed as the editor for both Drink Tank and Journey Planet, making the entire category farcically incestuous. Of course, SF Signal appears again and has to be considered the odds on favorite to win a second straight year. I’m now going to drop in a paragraph break to talk about the ‘out of nowhere’ FanZine nomination, Elitist Book Reviews.

Thus far I’ve been a little harsh toward Seanan McGuire and her fan base. Next up? Larry Correia who mounted a rather uncomfortable campaign for his own work and dropped in some love for Steve Diamond’s Elitist Book Reviews, editor Toni Weisskopf, Schlock Mercenary, the Writing Excuses Podcast, and artist Vincent Chong. I’m not sure Schlock and the Writing Excuses crew needed the help, but Correia’s success rate for nominating ran nearly 100%, with only his own work failing to make the ballot. Toni Weisskopf received eighteen nominations a year ago, with thirty-seven required to make the ballot. Likewise Vincent Chong fell about forty votes shy in 2012, before making the leap this year. Given Correia’s very engaged fan base, much like Seanan McGuire’s (although composed of a rather different dynamic I would say), there’s no doubt his campaign greatly aided these folks.

Looking at Correia and McGuire and the obvious (to me) impact they’ve had on the ballot leads me to believe that the Hugo Award, which has always been an insular convention award at its best moments, has become an easily manipulated (not maliciously mind you) process that provides undue efficacy to small and dedicated fan bases. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t particularly bear any ill will toward these fan bases, or the authors who engender them, but under this fundamentally flawed regime I ask myself. . . why does anyone care about the Hugos? Whys are often elusive, but the answer is they shouldn’t.

But. And it’s a big one by my estimation. The literary community at large recognizes the Hugo. As Larry Corriea puts it, “The Hugo awards are the most prestigious thing you can get in sci-fi/fantasy (other than fat royalty checks, obviously).” Even Brandon Sanderson who is one of those who receives the fattest of royalty checks seems rather bent on winning a Hugo for The Emperor’s Soul, so much so that he gave away copies to anyone who could nominate. I can pretend all I like that the Hugo is just some award that should be ignored, but I can’t, and neither will anyone else.

The only solution is a complete excoriation of the existing Hugo bylaws, a reordering on par with the British Fantasy Award that collapsed under its own skein of controversy a year ago. Or. . . the formation of a new award at WorldCon, one that truly represents not the whims of voting blocs, but the genuine interests of forwarding the genre. This award should recognize all the various forms of contributions in all the ways the tired mechanisms of the Hugo fail to. To put it even more bluntly, it’s time for the most significant award in science fiction and fantasy be awarded not to the most convincing cult leaders in fandom, but to the individuals doing the best work. If we give a shit enough to try.

Until then, I’m done talking about the Hugos.

Written by justin


Justin is the Overlord of Staffer’s Book Review. When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.