So, Hugo Award nominations. Every year, it seems to be both an invitation to bellyaching among those who want the award to take itself more seriously, to again become a fair and trustworthy snapshot of the genre’s best year-in-and-year-out, and an everybody-hug-circlejerk-ignore-the-trolls-you-deserve-this-i-voted-for-you twitter fun factory between nominees. Fun times, especially for frustrated Internet pundits like myself. This year’s ballot was particularly blah, though. I won’t go through each category because, well… I don’t have an opinion on a lot of it. But there are a few spots I’d like to explore.
My first thought on the list of nominations for the ‘Best Novel’ was a tepid lack of inspiration. The inclusion of Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (REVIEW) is the lone bright spot, and also the only novel from my list of nominations to appear on the final ballot. Redshirts (REVIEW) is entertaining, but no more worthy of a Hugo than a fourth-or-fifth episode of Dr. Who appear in the ‘Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)’ category; I’m not surprised to see it there, but I am disappointed that another of Scalzi’s wash, rinse, repeat efforts was rewarded with a nomination. The novels from Bujold and Grant are included, for all intents and purposes, because of the name on their cover, rather than the text inside. I’m sure they’re both fine novels, but neither made waves in fandom or genre discussion this year. Kim Stanley Robinson is another Hugo darling, and 2312 was at least a significant release in Science Fiction, which, alongside David Brin’s Existence (a novel that some will should have been included instead of Robinson’s), reopened a style of hard Science Fiction that has a long legacy in the genre but little recent activity.
It’s a crying shame, in my opinion, and something of an embarrassment that Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (REVIEW) and The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (REVIEW) were left off the list. Both were progressive, balanced novels that moved the genre towards greater inclusiveness, while paying respects to the genre’s long history and evolving adventurous Fantasy. Both are worthy novels to be remembered decades from now as representatives of what genre was like in 2012.
Julie Dillon showing up on the ballot for ‘Best Professional Artist’ is a wonderful thing. I nominated her, but, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting her to make the ballot, despite support from several other corners, including Clarkesworld. I hoped to bring some awareness to her work and thought she might have a shot next year. I’m ecstatic to be wrong about that.
Every year, my bread and butter is the ‘Best Fan Writer’ and ‘Best Fanzine’ categories. So, let’s hop over there.
In ‘Best Fan Writer,’ you have: Christopher Garcia, James Bacon, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Mark Oshiro and Steven H. Silver.
Garcia and Bacon are what they are. Steven H. Silver edits a decent site, but it’s been a few years since I’ve felt that SF Site had much in the way of relevance, and Silver’s personal writing only really seems to appear in a small corner of the web. SF Site inspired me to start writing about SFF online, but I’d be surprised if many people know who Silver is.
If you’re not familiar with Tansy Rayner Roberts, she wrote a very good piece called Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That. Go read it.
Mark Oshiro, editor of Mark Reads and a handful of sister sites, is an interesting addition to the ballot. I’ve only discovered him recently, but reading through his back catalog of writing, it’s clear that he’s an intelligent and, more importantly, lucid and amusing writer that balances sharp wit with insight. In many ways, he’s exactly the sort of fan writer and commentator I’ve been hoping to see on the ballot since I first started paying close attention to the awards several years ago, and certainly since I started writing about them. Mark’s writing and genre observations are unique to him and, because of this, he’s created a niche for himself in fandom and I take no issue with it being rewarded with a Hugo nomination. He’s good.
Prompted by Justin Landon’s recent rant-by-essay response to this year’s underwhelming and frustrating ballot, I think it’s worth more closely examining some of the voting behaviour in these categories, and also in the Hugos as a whole. In years past, I’ve discussed the sundry issues surrounding the ‘Best Fanzine’ and ‘Best Fan Writer’ awards, and, while they still exist, there has been some forward movement in these areas, which, on the surface, look promising, but, as Landon suggests in his response, illuminate another entire set of problems. Landon points to two particular authors, both popular and less-than-shy in promoting their friends and themselves for nomination, Seanan McGuire (who herself is nominated for five awards this year, including twice in the same category), and Larry Correira.
While it’s easy to complain mightily against the old Hugo crowd (that’s the one that ensures Lois McMaster Bujold is on the ballot every year or two, continue to vote for Ansible and File 770, and moan about their unsuccessful bids to ban sites like SF Signal and Elitist Book Reviews from the ballot) from our seats here at the bleeding edge of fandom, it’s also important to continue to examine ourselves and ensure that we don’t fall prey to the same insular behaviour that has caused the issues that we’re fighting against in the first place. As suggested by Landon’s research, block voting is very much alive and well in the newer Hugo voters, and writers like Mark Oshiro, and bloggers like Elitist Book Reviews likely have Seanan McQuire and Larry Correira as much to thank for their nominations as they do their persistence, talent and body of work, which might be Hugo-worthy in-and-of-itself. It’s always who you know, isn’t it?
So, instead of Elitist Book Reviews being included on the ballot because they’re insightful reviewers (which they are), or have impacted the overall genre discussion (which they have, though maybe not sweepingly), or, in Correia’s words, “because I think they are the best review site on the internet, and they deserve some respect. Seriously, take a look at EBR and compare it to the review places that normally win. EBR has more, better reviews, and doesn’t limit themselves nearly as much as some of the “prestigious” (i.e. snooty) places,” they’re on the ballot, marking the most prestigious writing that SFF fandom offers, because Steven Diamond, editor of the site, is a writing partner of Correia’s.
Oh, and, by the way, Mark is in the middle of a long-running chapter-by-chapter review of Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy. And, according to Facebook, left his job in 2012 and appears to run his ‘Mark Does Stuff’ sites full time, at least enough to justify a month-long cross-country tour. Anecdotal evidence, though, so… *passes salt*.
Correia defends this behaviour by, oddly, agreeing with Landon’s judgement of the awards and indicting the nomination procedure, indicating that in addition to being ‘shameless self-promotion,’ it was also something of a social experiment to determine the severity of the issues with the awards, which he explains:
Now I like Seanan personally. I think she’s pretty cool in person and she’s a solid writer… Was every novel, short, novella, and novelette she wrote one of the best five things in the world this year? Probably not. But she is popular with the SMOFers [Secret Masters of Fandom -ed.], ergo she is nominated. You preach the right kind of message fic, you can get nominated. You get popular with the right crowd, you can get nominated. If you are popular enough with the right crowd the Hugos will even tweak which category you fit in so that their two favorites don’t have to go head to head and both can win Hugos, or if you are a SMOF favorite, they’ll even tweak your eligibility so that if you’ve been writing novels for several years, you can still be a Campbell nominee, and they’ll just say they “weren’t genre enough”.
Now me trying to work the system by getting my non-Worldcon attending fanbase to vote offends you? Oh well. Of course I’m not pure as the driven snow. Duh. I think the system is stupid and I think it deserves to be broken and rebuilt into something that is more than a Doctor Who club of fan wankery.
And you’ll note that I’ve said all of that on my blog publically for the last couple of years, and did again during the Sad Puppies campaign. Do I get shameless self promotion out of it? I sure do! That’s what makes it worth the time to screw with it.
Unfortunately, the result of his experiment is that Correia has simply shifted the issue to another group of block voters, another group of friends. Instead of addressing the issues and educating his fanbase on how they can drive forward towards real change within the nomination process, he just listed off all of his eligible buddies and managed to get nearly all of them included on the ballot. Very noble.
While I admire that Correia and I have similar goals to see “non SMOFers [nominated] in several other categories who would otherwise have been ignored,” he admits that “shameless self promotion is what the Hugos are all about now. You want to win a Hugo, you appease a SMOF faction, become one of the cool kids, and they vote for you. If you aren’t one of the cool kids, you will never win an award. Doesn’t matter how freaking brilliant you are.” There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with suggesting that your fans might like the work of your friends, Correia does nothing to hide his relationships with the other people he’s suggesting be nominated, but, with great power comes great responsibility, and if someone like Correia decides to promote their friends, knowing that their suggestions will influence the ballot enough to place them among the nominees, they should do so with some respect towards the process. Isn’t effort better spent at fixing a system you think is broken, rather than abusing it? Does Correia simply beleive that, outside of his friends, there is no Hugo-worthy writing going on? If you want to inspire change, why not suggest and nominate more than one ‘Fanzine’? Block voting is bad, period. Whether it’s old fans or new.
Looking at the rest of the nominations for ‘Best Fanzine,’ I still feel like three traditional Fanzines is too many. There is good writing there, but, with every year that passes, their relevance to the overall discussion lessens. Even Christopher Garcia, nominated twice as editor of The Drink Tank and Journey Planet, admits that The Drink Tank, which I’ve periodically written for, isn’t really Hugo-worthy. And yet, here we are, with voters happy to include the duo again-and-again. Multiple times each year. And great fannish writing, like that of Liz Bourke, Jared and Anne at Pornokitsch, and Kirsten’s work on Fantasy Cafe, continues to go unnoticed and unrewarded.
There is enough content out there — novels, films, writers (professional and fan), publications, artists and everything else — that we shouldn’t be seeing the same names recycled again and again. Fantasy and Science Fiction, by the very nature of their speculative roots, should reward diversity and celebrate the wide ranging imaginations and opinions that make up a vibrant fandom. There’s no excuse for novels like Range of Ghosts to be left off the ballot in favour of the 22nd Vorkosigan novel by Bujold. Like Neil Clarke and Jim Hines in the past, who both withdrew their names from eligibility after winning their Hugo awards, it would be great to see some of these familiar faces take a bit of responsibility themselves and encourage voters to look to new, exciting members of the community to celebrate. Fantasy and Science Fiction is often about exploring the boundaries of imagination, these authors are known for it, and yet traditional fandom, or at least the majority of Hugo voters, appears to be the least imaginative group of people on the planet.
The point isn’t to replace one group of insular group of friends with another, it’s to create a more inclusive award that widely represents the best the genre has to offer not because of its heritage, but because, as it was in the ’60s and ’70s (and correct me if I’m wrong, of course, I wouldn’t yet be born for another 15 or so years), it has the ability to again be a central facet of fandom with wide-reaching and holistic suggestions of the achievements in SFF in any given year. Is this naive and silly of me to think? Likely so, given the circumstances of the semi-closed nomination and voting system used to govern the award. The current group of voters isn’t going to change because some grumpy bloggers write about these issues. My solution will be to continue to encourage fans to vote, honestly and widely, and to engage with the nomination process. Think about your vote. Respect your vote. The Hugos are starting to show some sign of life, the award handed out to SF Signal last year prove that, but there’s still such a long way to go. The only other option as I see it is to stop treating the Hugo awards like the Oscars and relegate it to where it now appears to belong: the top shelf alongside awards given by bloggers, that thing they do on Reddit, and the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for writing the best Warhammer novel with the biggest fanbase. Because that’s all it will be worth if things don’t change. Like Landon, I wonder if the Hugo voters, those who continue to demand change, wouldn’t be better served by letting the awards fade into the irrelevancy that they seemingly desire. Like a sinking sun long faded into twilight, the Hugo awards are at a pivotal moment when they must decide whether its time to rise again with the morning, or leave the world behind with nothing but a memory of its once great warmth.