Whither Hugo?

The Hugo AwardThe Hugo Award winners for 2015 will be announced tonight at the World Science Fiction Convention, “Sasquan,” in Spokane, Washington. It’s been a particularly fractious year for the Hugos, with fans dividing up into two armed camps across an ideological chasm. You can find my earlier thoughts on the situation here.

I think you can find legitimate concerns and honest brokers on both sides, but the voices of reason have been mostly drowned out by a multitude of shrill demagogues who have dominated the conversation online and in the press. One thing both sides do agree on is that the genre, and the fanbase that supports it, is in trouble, though they violently disagree about the nature of that trouble.

I spent some time this week watching YouTube videos of the early arrivals at the convention site and the business meetings on Thursday and Friday. Some things stood out:

Science fiction has a diversity problem, but I don’t think it’s so much a lack of talent or availability of great stories from women and international authors, or failure to promote and publish them. Watch the videos. The Worldcon business meeting is dominated by men and women of a particular racial and generational demographic. One delegate bemoaned the fact that there were only 200 in attendance from a membership population around 10000. “We’re the ones who really care.” Another made the remarkable statement that the business meeting attendees constituted the elected representatives of all those who didn’t attend, just because they showed up. A proposal to expand the use of electronic signatures to facilitate voting and ratification of Worldcon business (where the Hugo administration and election machinery is constructed) beyond the convention was on the agenda, and a bright young person came to the podium urging members to pass it, citing the fact that people who didn’t have the means to travel or were living in countries far away from the convention site were effectively being disenfranchised. “If we want to keep the World in Worldcon, we need to do this.” The measure was defeated, and several of those opposed cited fear of a Sad-Puppies-style takeover of processes beyond Hugo voting.

The Hugo Award process is broken. Again, almost everybody agrees about this but are in violent disagreement about how it’s broken. The Sad Puppies supporters see an insular process too easily swayed by a small fraction of the fanbase and informed primarily by political affinity. They got organized and used that fact to dominate this year’s nominations, which only required 250-or-so concerted votes to change the outcome. The folks on the other side cried foul, but all the Puppies really did was get out the vote and demonstrate how easy it was to influence the results, in a particular advocacy group’s favor, within the rules. While many wanted to blame the Hugo administrators or individuals in the Sad Puppies camp, one delegate at the business meeting acknowledged the root issue: “We’re having a lot of these problems because we didn’t step up and nominate.” Past Sad Puppies efforts were thwarted in the final voting, but this year’s ballot threatens to yield one or more Sad-Puppies-favored winners unless the convention voters unite to deny any winner in some categories, adding weight to the Puppies’ claim that the voting process favors insiders. This year’s business meeting is heavy on proposals designed to change the future nomination structure, another outcome that appears designed to protect the status quo.

There’s panic in the air. Much of the sentiment expressed by members at the business meetings reflects a great fear of what might come to pass if the Hugo vote goes the wrong way this weekend. Or even if it doesn’t. People fear damage to the credibility of the Hugo Award as a measure of excellence in speculative fiction. They’re afraid the barbarians are at the gate, ready to burn and pillage their community. They’re afraid an event they cherish is about to be destroyed. They’re afraid their aspirations will be crushed by an influx of disinterested, lowbrow outsiders who don’t understand or care about their fandom. Whether or not these fears are justified, I think it’s certain that clear, rational analysis and decision-making cannot happen in an atmosphere dominated by anxiety over what might happen. Fear of the future is a particularly crippling ailment for people who write and promote science fiction.

So, what’s going to happen tonight? I don’t know. I don’t think extending the Puppy War is in anybody’s best interest, and I don’t think the Hugos or Worldcon are best served by trying to build a bigger, better wall to keep the barbarians out. We all know how well that worked for the Romans. I think the young woman at the business meeting had the truth of it. If the delegates really care about diversity and global involvement in science fiction fandom and Worldcon, they need to tend to their own house first and lower the entry barriers for those who want to participate substantially in fandom and the convention but can’t afford to jet off to London, or Helsinki, or even Spokane every year, people who might not be on a first-name basis with the convention organizers and their circle of close friends. People who might prefer a different style of science fiction or whose politics might rub influential folks the wrong way. Maybe even young people.

By all means, let’s get serious about keeping the World in Worldcon.

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2 thoughts on “Whither Hugo?

  1. Thanks for another great rundown on this issue Fred. It’s very disheartening to see such terrible infighting in a group, though I always find it darkly humorous in a way, considering it’s the sort of thing religious people have been going through for centuries (proving yet again that human conflict is an innate quality of the fallen world we live in, not something that can be limited to one specific creed/culture).

    I think a big part of the problem comes down to exactly what you referenced: not everyone has the freedom/means to travel to a specific location once a year for a convention. When voting limited to a specific population subgroup of a certain social/economic status, then certain views are going to be more prevalent than others. In the past that smaller group may have predominately favored certain types of stories, now “they” may favor other types; regardless of intention, small groups of like-minded individuals tend to move to a consensus on certain things, culture just being one of them.

    A bigger group is harder to manage and can quickly become unruly, undisciplined, and will most definitely harbor greater disagreement regarding what is “good.” In demographic societies, we’ve made a wager that greater representation, even with the resulting conflict, is good for governing a country (whether that’s actually a good bet is a debate in and of itself). If the Hugos are meant to represent the “voice” of the general community, they’ll have to take on the “bad” with the “good” with the belief that the “good” will win out (I leave it for readers to determine what those two words mean in this context for themselves). If the Hugos are meant to be a judgement made by experts based on a set of governing principals, then they should reorganize and make it clear what those principals are.

    Personally, I have a place on my bookshelf for both new diverse voices like Aliette de Bodard and “old white men” like, say, Fred Warren. 🙂 I actively seek out international literature because it’s novel and fresh, but also love old classics, even ones with Martian princesses. If there’s any genre that should have a place for both, it’s the speculative field.

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