SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best

Hugo Awards

Hugo Awards

The online discussion on the Hugos kerfuffle is winding down into endless nitpicking between entrenched opponents. As a long-term reader outside the Con/Fan culture, I have a few observations about how new technology and mainstream success of SFF tropes has marginalized written SFF fan culture while exploding the number of choices available, and thus the reader’s problem of reliable guidance in choosing what to read.

Looking back, SF, and later Fantasy, was entertainment for people who wanted to dream of future technology and space travel. Pioneers like Jules Verne used predicted future science and technology as elements combining with more conventional adventure, romance, thriller, and mystery stories to create a mix that was intensely appealing to readers of a scientific and futurist bent, sometimes viewed as escapist because of the contrast with the everyday lives of the time.

As the science of science fiction turned to reality, SF readers evolved to appreciate more nuanced stories with more speculative human interest, with alien civilizations and future humans interacting to reflect issues of culture and politics; this broadening was reflected in “New Wave” science fiction, which also used the more complex literary forms and techniques of literary fiction.

One of the faultlines in readership was already visible: simple, strong stories with linear narrative versus more sophisticated but less broadly accessible storytelling. Where a simple story with many levels can entertain readers at all levels of sophistication (example: the Harry Potter books), a more literary and adult version of similar topics of magic and coming-of-age (example: Lev Grossman’s The Magician) is not going to be as widely read, and only advanced readers will be able to understand and enjoy all of it. Both types can be great achievements, but most people would say only the sophisticated form is “literary.”

So when we’re handing out awards, do we want to recognize just the more sophisticated, but less popular works? I think that should depend on the awards. In the case of SFF, we have the Nebulas as a juried award from an organization of writers, who should be well-suited to picking based on achievement of craft, the recognition of the skill of the writer and the polish of the work. While such a group may choose to recognize an exceptional work that is also accessible, it is more likely they will be impressed by a work that is novel — it does something different, or in a new way, that demonstrates creativity. There will be a natural tendency to award the more advanced and literary over even the most excellent popular work.

Again, look back: when the Hugos began in the 1950s, there might have been a few hundred thousand dedicated readers of SF. Media and communications limited contacts between fans so that face-to-face conventions and clubs were the primary medium to pass along reviews and recommendations. Mainstream media had only the simplest types of SF: space adventure serials and monster stories. Comics were disreputable, to be replaced by real books for young readers as quickly as possible.

This all changed in the 1960s, with Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits on television, then Star Trek and Star Wars, which made science fiction tropes mainstream. Children from then on were raised on simplified staples of science fiction, and this provided an expanded audience for a whole new media universe of movies, games, comics, and anime. Novelizations of already-popular science fiction worlds started to sell in larger numbers than original stories.

So the Hugos are represented as “science fiction’s most prestigious award.” Depending on who’s blathering about it, they are either awards for quality science fiction for all readers, or the award presented by WorldCons which has become prestigious because of its long history of highlighting quality works. There’s a tension between claiming ownership for just Con-attending fans and claiming it represents quality for all fans, including readers outside Con fandom.

One horror often mentioned is the idea of a People’s Choice Award, meaning the lowest common denominator, the hordes of less discerning fans, might overwhelm quality works and choose, for example, the (mediocre but very popular) Twilight series of sparkly vampire romance novels, beloved of teen girls.

The Hugos that I grew up with were useful guides for readers not in touch with Cons and fandom looking for a good book to read, something worth the money and time. Why might that have changed in the past few years, as the Puppies contend?

The explosion of popular interest in all SF media has meant younger fans are now flocking to Comicons and other new festivals, and online spending time talking about movies, games, and anime, far more than SFF books. While readership has stalled for books, participation in other forms has ballooned. For those of us who grew up reading SFF in the 1960s, there’s not a lot of original thinking in the other media, and so we tend to dismiss them as derivative — and they often are. But that is where the future readers went.

As a result, WorldCon attendees are older than SFF readers generally, and far older than the body of possible readers that could be drawn into reading science fiction and fantasy as a regular habit. WorldCon Fandom’s cherished culture is a mix of whimsy, counterculture from the 60s, and insider references. The cultural gulf between them and average readers, especially younger readers, is larger than it has ever been.

One of the Puppy complaints is about the zealous progressive tendency they think has held back works that don’t advance that agenda, and authors who don’t represent “intersectional” minorities. There is probably some truth to that complaint — for example, “MilSF” (military SF), unless it is consciously antiwar (as in Forever War), is going to have a hard time winning over WorldCon voters no matter how good it may be, and the obvious fact that a lot of the subgenre is not very well written is used to denigrate all of it.

But the real problem is not political skew, that is a symptom. The issue is insularity, a consequence of the very small numbers of people who have been voting. Fans who are active in fan affairs are more likely to vote, and naturally favor friends, and publishers and writers work to befriend them. Publishers and writers who have an active Con and online presence are favored over those who do not, even when the works are of the same quality. The Brits as a class have been slighted for some time, for example, because they simply have less presence and contact with the bulk of US Fandom.

Honest WorldCon Fans can see that this criticism hits home, and this year’s kerfuffle should be used to advance the cause of more and broader participation. Someone pointed out that the Locus recommended list came close to predicting the nominations until recently, and the obvious reason is that it was one of the only guides to what qualified for nomination! So if anything one could celebrate the end of one magazine’s ability to determine the nomination list, and look forward to more lists of qualified works to guide the clueless on what to read and nominate.

“What to read next?” used to be answered, for me as an isolated reader, by looking through the list of new releases at Amazon. By scanning for authors I had read and enjoyed before, and occasionally taking a chance on a highly-rated book by an author new to me, it wasn’t hard to find good books. That began to change ten years ago, when the number of new releases began to grow and the quality of novels in general started to decline. This was before the explosion of self-publishing, which has made it worse, but the result was that the wheat was lost amid the surfeit of chaff. And the Nebula and Hugos each year were good guides to the best new fiction — this has also changed, as some recent winners were not all that satisfying to read or truly creative, from my point of view.

I think it was GRRM who recently observed that readers who didn’t regularly read fanzines were not committed enough to qualify as True Fans. Fanzines are certainly one way to communicate reviews and find better reading material; the fanzine for you is the one that shares your reading tastes, and so a curated list from a fanzine partly solves the problem of finding quality work, and could also be the key to suggesting lists of qualifying works for nominations. I have yet to subscribe to even Locus, and I probably should, but like everyone else I already have a vast amount of input to keep up with, and I suspect it would stack up unread somewhere. An online version that works with CSS might work for me, but I haven’t seen the right one yet.

From Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery: The Hugo Nomination Problem or, I Am a Bad Reader:

This is the point where I obviously speak only for myself, but what I need is help, to be honest. I don’t need someone breathing down my neck and telling me I need to nominate when I have no idea what the hell I’d even nominate. Some of it’s a self-actualization issue, where I need to just get off my ass and find the time to read more, and try to read things the actual year they come out. But it’s pretty overwhelming, guys. We are blessed to live in an age where your genre choices are not limited to what you can find on the spinny racks at the grocery store, or on that one shelf in your local library where the dude with the funny-smelling coat always hangs out. Which is awesome! But it also means that there’s so much coming out every day, at some point book mountain gets so high that you’re like fuck this, I don’t even know where to start so instead I’m going to make myself a cup of tea and play World of Warcraft while Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays on the TV in the background.

I’m sure this does not reflect on me well as a human being. I also know I used to read a hell of a lot more back before I didn’t have a full time job and a part-time writing gig and a daily commute during which reading tends to give me severe motion sickness. But here it is, the call for help. I seriously need some helpful soul, or maybe some kind of crowd-sourced thing that can tell me what I should be reading as things come out so I’m not floundering under drifts of pages on book mountain when the Hugo nomination period opens. Preferably some recommendation engine where my fellow writers, bless you guys I love you all but damn I know how we are, are not allowed to nominate or push their own books. I don’t want reviews, I don’t even want opinions, I just want a simple list or titles and authors and maybe a helpful link where someone can say hey, I think this book should totally get a Hugo, and then other people who agree can maybe give it a plus one, and that’s it. Let me form my own opinions.

If you don’t live and breathe fandom and live in a commune of SFF fans, this is a problem for you, too. One suggestion I have is for WorldCon people to join with others to develop their web presence and nominations booklet into something like a compendium of reader recommendations and a bundle for sale to give some revenue back to the nominees and their publishers for making their work available, as the Nebulas do with their yearly anthology. And this could be combined with some reforms in award categories to allow self-published works to have time to overcome obscurity when they are really good; it is a travesty, for example, that The Martian was disqualified for having been published in obscurity a few years ago even though it is recognized this year — following mass-market success — as one of the best novels widely read and *noticed* last year.

The idea is to take WorldCon into the future — to make it both a face-to-face and virtual presence, allowing much broader participation, and to start accepting the new media fans as they mature and want more advanced kinds of science and story. The problem of small groups destabilizing the awards goes away if participation is broadened, while the idea of ring-fencing the awards to keep out barbarians will ultimately continue the relative decline of WorldCon and old-school fandom into old age and irrelevance.

On File770, one longtime WorldCon supporter quoted me and commented:

JJ on April 29, 2015 at 8:02 pm said:

Jeb Kinnison: “I think we can get most reasonable people to agree that an award that supposedly recognizes the best SFF should be more broadly representative of the readers, including the vast majority who can’t take time out from busy lives or afford to go to conventions. Having a tiny in-group select award winners from their friends and people they know leaves out most of the writers, and almost all of the readers.”

Here is yet another person claiming that an awards program which was created and lovingly nurtured by Worldcon members for decades should somehow “belong to everyone” — without explaining how that’s actually supposed to work. Will “everyone” be putting in hundreds of volunteer hours every year to continue the program? Which day of Worldcan can we expect this “everyone” to be showing up to help?

It’s incredibly ironic that a bunch of self-described conservatives and libertarians think that they should be free to take for themselves, and give away, the labors of someone else’s initiative and ceaseless hard work, isn’t it?

Well, that was emotion-tugging. “Ceaseless hard work” is a bit hyperbolic. I don’t think anyone wants to take away the credit due to the WorldCon volunteers past and present for their hard work, or suggest taking away the awards for themselves. On the contrary, by developing non-attendee memberships and online voting, WorldCon already recognized that the views of the community that cared enough to pay and vote even when they couldn’t attend are important, and WorldCon reps have commonly told outsiders that not only are the Hugos the most prestigious award in SFF, but also are supposed to represent all readers’ interest in quality SFF. His suggestion that “showing up to help” is required to have any stake in the process is emotionally understandable, but not practical if there is to be wide participation.

So the classes of people who read SFF include:

The outer circle who like SFF ideas and stories but take them in the form of movies, games, and comics. This class includes several billion people, mostly young, across the world, and should be a primary target of recruitment to increase numbers of book readers and sales. I was recently contacted by a Chinese media company who wanted to sell my books translated into Chinese to their customers who largely read on their phones.

A hundred million people read some English-language SF. They never go to cons or read fanzines; they pick what they read by store display, word of mouth, or Amazon listing, and follow up on authors they like, and they are also fans of other media SFF which is widely promoted; it is impossible not to hear about the latest Marvel-universe movie, for example.

A few million read mostly SF. They may occasionally read fanzines or io9-like sites, but again have little contact with Fandom. I was in this class, and haven’t read an SFF magazine since Omni.

A few hundred thousand obsessively read SF and may account for about half of sales. These are the readers who are committed enough and knowledgeable enough to nominate, and many do go to regional Cons (but only a small number to Worldcon). Many are also game, anime, and film fans, and those under about 50 are likely never to have been involved with Fandom.

Remember there are ten times as many regular readers of romance. Romance mixed with paranormal (like Twilight) or science fiction (Hunger Games) sells to YA readers in large numbers; they are mostly female. Science fiction which feeds their romantic interests can bring them into more advanced science fiction.

“Curating” means selecting for quality and audience. WorldCon has been tending to curate for a small and eccentric audience, and favor-trading, log-rolling, and political prejudice has been apparent since… forever. WorldCon has already recognized the outreach possibility of the Internet. There is no longer a reason for what purports to be *the* award of SFF fans, not Worldcon attendees, to be closed to the fans who can’t be there, or as GRRM remarked, aren’t fannish enough to regularly read fanzines. If the award is to be chosen by small groups with a certain Fannish mindset, then it’s not *the* award of SFF readers and not a useful guide to quality for those who don’t share the mindset. And it will tend to slight publishers and authors who haven’t sucked up to the attendees and “curated” their online presence to groom their own fans. Some decry the possibility that the Hugos might become a mere popularity contest, with “Twilight”-ish popular works swamping the less-accessible quality fiction; but that ignores that the status quo prior to Puppies was a popularity contest among a small and not necessarily representative group shot through with personal conflicts of interest and logrolling.

We can honor all the work of the elders who curated and nurtured the Hugos when there was no other way for fans to get together. We can also open up the nominating and voting to committed readers who haven’t been Fannish, and the effort involved is more about software and thinking about systems than sitting at tables and handing out papers while chatting with passersby. There are problems with nominating voters being unaware of what qualifies, and problems with qualifications — suggestions about more classes for long works and allowing small pub and self pub books more time to be discovered are good.

As a new author, I’d like to preserve a large market for fiction because it is inevitable that larger media productions will be unable to pioneer new ideas or truly eccentric new virtual worlds — there are just too many people involved in these larger productions to take as many risks on unique visions, and until the tools for game storytelling, for example, are easily accessible and usable by singleton game authors, games won’t be the medium to create the experience of the great novel or story. Opening up the Hugos and doing more outreach to fans of other media would help a lot in renovating fandom and bringing in more new readers. And if the field doesn’t start gaining more readers, it will die, since it is already harder to make a living writing SFF than it used to be. If the only writers left working are supported by academia or other jobs, the field will lose its finest future works.


  1. Um, how much of a fault-line can there be when the Worldcon membership has awarded a Hugo to a Harry Potter novel and a Campbell to Lev Grossman?


    1. Um, how much of a fault-line can there be when the Worldcon membership has awarded a Hugo to a Harry Potter novel and a Campbell to Lev Grossman?

      Which is as it should be. I was just explaining why this faultline exists and that those two are good examples of the difference between a great popular work and a great literary work in SF&F. I imagine there was some resistance to giving the award to Rowling, but it was overcome because it was so obviously excellent (as well as popular.)


  2. Why would we want to do outreach to other media? The story GRRM told of the Locus Awards moving from DragonCon to its own event shows why it doesn’t make sense. WorldCon shouldn’t try to compete with the other larger cons. They are arguably all spin-offs of WorldCon, and its nice to know that WorldCon has played a special role in the formation of all the fandoms.

    But I love WorldCon and my local con (FogCon) becuase they are all about books. That’s why I want to go to them. If I wanted to go to DragonCon or ComicCon instead I would do that (in fact I do want to go to DragonCon at some point.) Those cons exist and authors even go there. I don’t see really where fandom has a need for ‘renovation’.

    Of course GRRM is a sign of how reaching out to other media can work: by producing it. I’m sure part of what made LonCon 3 the biggest ever was that local Londoners came by for GRRM specifically. I hope some of them found a new author to read as well. No ‘opening up’ of the Hugo needed.

    I agree that WorldCon is greyer than average. It’s no anime con. At LonCon (my first WorldCon btw) one of my fun memories is when Robin Hobb was late to her reading and a bunch of high school students (or whatever they are called in Britain) started giving their own panel. WorldCon might consider a more Unconference style to make such happenings more common. Part of why I support Helsinki 2017 is that it might be one of the cheaper WorldCons in decades (government funding!) and there’s just a culture of summer festivals up there that could bring in a lot of new blood. I would like gladly pay a premium to see deeper discounts for those <25.

    Of course I'm talking about how to bring new folks into capital-F Fandom, because it's fun. Not just voting in your every-more-populist Hugo awards. The entire issue has been authors like yourself who see the Hugo award as some sort of career milestone that should be justly awarded rather than the supposed-to-be fun event that it is. So much is going on in scifi/fantasy that it's nice to have the conversations the Hugo awards creates. However your entire blog is about optimizing the Hugos for its supposed role as representing as many readers as possible. If we can't agree that the Hugos should be about having fun then there's nothing we can agree on.


    1. More carefully worded, I was going after reaching out to prospective readers who enjoy SF&F ideas in other media. Some fraction of the young people into movies and games could become readers of SF&F as they mature, but they won’t if they aren’t given a good on-ramp, a welcoming community and pointers to the best reading material *for them*. The tendency is for the aging community to ignore the failure to recruit very many young people and look inward, which in the long run means losing much of the next generation of fans.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That all makes sense, though given how vibrant and scifi-oriented YA books are I don’t think it is a concern. Young folks are reading probably more than ever if anything. However getting them into Fandom proper is something we can’t take for granted.

        I don’t think the Hugo award has any sort of important responsibility to point out good works for newcomers. The Hugo award as a reading list is only less relevant now with the Internet making the “what should I read next” question easier than ever. (Which is good, it isn’t great at that.) But it’s role of encouraging a coherent conversation in Fandom is more important than ever.


      2. It’s interesting to look at the YA bestsellers and try to imagine how you would get their enormous readership to continue with something more adult. Hunger Games and Divergent both feature strong-willed young women who use skills, smarts, and virtue to accomplish change, which is a vast improvement over Twilight’s emo goth heroine who just has to be helpless and pretty to attract the paranormal hunks. But all have romance as a core attraction. What’s one step up from there? Three or four steps up you have Honor Harrington and the like.

        Young men are preoccupied with games now. Game-world novels might be the easiest way to reach them and get them to read more. Something to think about.


      3. Alll good thing to think about but nothing that concerns the Hugos IMO. If you are a publisher or an agent looking to ride the next wave certainly something to think about. That’s their job, it’s not the Hugos.

        Broadly game tie-ins have been a thing since the 80s. Nothing new there. Kids who grew up with video games have been having their own kids for years now, nothing new there either.

        When I was age of the YA target demo (the late 90s!) outside of Harry Potter, YA didn’t exist as the massive entity it is now. I just read Asimov and Pratchett (pre-Tiffany Aching) so I survived somehow. 🙂 So “YA” is a new thing admittedly, the castle Rowling built. Rowling also introduced Fantasy to the Hugos. Rowling should get more credit than she does for really shaking things up, I guess she has to be content with her billion dollars.

        Anyways Young Adult is such an amorphous thing that I think it’s wise the Hugos don’t attempt to give it a category.


  3. I think that’s a good overview of some of the history and dynamics that have led to the current state of affairs.

    They’ve already lost a generation-plus of fans. Most of the roads to fandom no longer run through the written-word community, and even fewer through the “literary” written-word community.


    1. If the other fandoms are not reading SF, why should they be interested in what is primarily a literary award?


      1. The issue of the Hugos as an award suggesting a guaranteed good read in high-quality SF is one thing, only somewhat related to the problem of drawing in new readers. One way to look at it: “Hugo” sticker on book gets a future reader to buy it; future reader, though primed for some depth with his/her entertainment, is disappointed; and future reader goes back to reading Urban Fantasy-ish material. With a weaker gold standard that appeals to mostly old Fans of a certain cultural background, the award is not as useful in getting people started. The real problem under that is a declining writer base — writers who need to make a living at it are not going into SF as much, so the SF being produced is not as good, on average, as 20 years ago. Presumably the unexpected (even to them) success of the SP-RPs will get interest up in bringing in more people to get involved in voting.


  4. You should write up your proposed changes to the existing Hugo rules, and take them to the WSFS Business Meeting at a future WorldCon.


    1. I won’t be at one until KC. No doubt no one at all would listen to my actual suggestions; this post is to provoke people to think about the problems.


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