Hugo Award Season 2014

So we’ve already begun the general award season, with top 10 lists galore peppering social media and publications, and the more formal awards shows are also getting underway (the Golden Globes are tonight, the Oscar nominations will be announced this week, and so on). For science fiction nerds, the Hugo award is generally considered to be the most prestigious, though the Nebula and Clarke awards also garner a lot of attention in certain circles.

Hugo voters must be involved in some way with the Worldcon SF convention that is held every year in a different location (this year is in London). It’s a populist award in that anyone can become a voter, they just need to pay for some level of membership. This strikes me as an interesting balance, as the cost of entry should ensure at least some measure of seriousness in the voters. The Nebulas are given by members of the SFWA, which is its own unique perspective, and the Clarke awards are given by a jury (there are other awards, but these seem to be the most respected, and they represent an interesting range of voting rules).

As I mentioned in my 2013 recap, one thing I was thinking of doing this year was to actually join and vote on the Hugos (at the very least, read all the fiction nominees and vote on them, though I’m sure I’ll be able to vote on TV and movie awards too). The nomination period has only just recently opened up, but in all honesty, I don’t believe I’ve read enough to give quality nominations. Excuding non-fiction, I’ve read 6 things that would qualify as a 2013 release, 2 being novellas (or novelettes?) and 1 being The Human Division, which is basically a series of short stories, novelettes, and novellas slapped together into one book. Of the remaining three, two have a pretty good chance of being nominated anyway and the other is arguably not SF/Fantasy (I’d probably put it in horror/thriller/mystery territory). Of those, I’d consider nominating:

The rules say you’re allowed to nominate up to 5 works in each category, but you’re permitted (and encouraged) to make fewer nominations (or no nominations) if you’re not familiar with that particular category. So I certainly could submit my nominations (provided I buy my supporting membership soon), but I’m not sure how I feel about doing so given my lack of depth in 2013. Of course, nominations are only due at the end of March, so I have some time to catch up.

In any case, I’m looking forward to participating in the process this year, and it appears that the annual awards grousing has already started, with Adam Roberts taking a two-pronged approach with his usual style and wit:

SF Awards have, as a rule, much to recommend them; but they have two big flaws. One is the loyalty implied in the descriptor ‘fan’, in which a shitty work by an author of whom (or a shitty episode of a show of which) one is a fan gets your vote because that’s what being a fan means — it means sticking with your team. Ditto: voting for an author rather than voting for a text. Here the niceness or popularity of a given author may overshadow the merits of the books said author has actually produced. …

The second flaw is the way people often vote for what is shiny and directly in front of their faces, not necessarily because they are idiots, but perhaps because their time is short, they want to be involved in the process but don’t want to bother researching the full gamut of possibles, because they don’t care all that much, or a hundred other explanations. It means that works can get onto shortlists not because they are necessarily very good, but merely because that have been dangled directly in front of people, by (a) expensive marketing campaigns, hype, or being on the gogglebox, or (b) the aggressive self-promotion of energetic authors strenuously seeking to maximize their online profile.

I think these are both fair points (and they demonstrate why I’m a bit hesitant to submit my nominations), though perhaps Roberts overstates their importance. Of the four nominations I would make, two are by authors I’d never even heard of, one is a relatively obscure piece of self-published short fiction, and the other is, well, John Scalzi (a frequent nominee that I suspect Roberts would point to as someone who gets works nominated because of who he is regardless of the quality of that particular work). But you’ll note that I absolutely won’t nominate The Human Division for best novel because it doesn’t work very well as a novel (nor, I think, is it really supposed to just yet). Scalzi has definitely been nominated a bunch of times where I don’t think the work warranted the inclusion (though Redshirts may not have been one of those times (as a winner, I’m not so sure…)). I’m as big a fan of Neal Stephenson as seems possible, but I doubt I’d have nominated Reamde a couple years ago, as it’s not really science fiction (debatable, I guess, but that’s definitely not the thrust). So yes, I’m a fan, but of the genre as a whole. I have certain preferences and blind spots, just like anyone else, but that’s fine when it comes to populist awards, as my votes get smeared across all the other votes.

As for marketing campaigns and self-promotion by savvy authors on the internets, I’m sure there is an element of that in play, but again, I think Roberts overestimates some aspects of this. Scalzi is a pretty interesting example, as he has a huge following online and engages in exactly what Roberts is decrying here. His books seem to sell well and I’m sure the publishers do a fair amount of publicity for them too. Fortunately, Scalzi has responded to Roberts (in a friendly, amicable way) and I find that I have little to add to that. I will note that I would never in a million years have found The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself if Ian Sales had not built up some form of online audience. It’s a self-published work with no expensive marketing campaigns or hype, and I think it kind of odd to begrudge him the notion of letting his blog audience know what is eligible (and in what category – I don’t even know if The Eye is a novella, novelette, or short story?)

These are, of course, not new complaints. Last year’s dustup made some pretty similar points, and the big issue here is that there’s not really a way around it. The Hugos are a populist award, so great but obscure stuff might not make the cut. It seems odd to criticize a populist award for nominating popular works, though I guess the Hugo’s position as the most respected SF award does warrant more scrutiny. But that’s just the way populist awards work, and that’s why awards like the Nebula and Clarke exist (each of which, by the way, are far from perfect in themselves). Anytime anyone puts together a best of anything list, there are bound to be dissenters and rules wonks who complain. In some ways, that’s part of the fun! I guess we’ll revisit this subject after this year’s nominees are announced (which should be sometime in early April). I hope to check in before then with what I’ve been reading (and I’m already behind on that, actually), so stay tuned.