Monday, August 17, 2015

Hugo Awards 2015: What Is To Be Done?

So, the time has come for me to unload on the subject of the Hugo Awards.  If any of my five (that many?) readers don't already know the details of the screaming match that's been unfolding within SF fandom since the Hugo Award shortlist was unveiled in April... well, that's not exactly startling.  It's of minor interest in real terms, as I'll suggest below.

The short version is this: a small cabal - consisting of a fascist troll and his dupes/friends - didn't like the Hugo Award shortlists that were being produced by democratic means, attributed the results to political bias on the part of the nominators and voters, and started a politically biased campaign to force a shortlist that they did like.  They published online two broadly similar slates - that is to say, entire proposed shortlists - to give their supporters something to rally behind.  The slate personally touted online by the fascist included several items published by his own small press and was aggressively pushed as something that his supporters should replicate as part of a concerted political operation.  (Hilariously, he prefaced this demand with the words, "We of the right do not march in lockstep.")  The other slate was presented with a more publicly palatable air of wanting to suggest something that disillusioned right-wing SF fans might want to consider when nominating, and did not include a lot of the small press material.  However, the more extreme wing of the campaign was more successful - roughly two thirds of this year's Hugo Awards shortlist are a dead match for that version of the slate, small press picks and all.

I'll repeat that: two thirds of the Hugo Award shortlist were dictated by a fascist and forced through by his lockstep-marching goons.  Yay, science fiction.

Reasons given in defence of the slate campaign have varied over time as the situation requires, and have all smacked of attempted justification after the fact.  The simple truth about the slate-makers and their motivations can easily be discovered by measuring their rhetorical posturing against their actions: they're full of shit.  Their whole campaign has been built on hypocrisy, delusion and self-importance.

The prime motivation behind this campaign, so far as I can tell, has been a desperate desire for attention, which the slate-making cabal have been receiving in spades.  For that reason, I don't propose to provide names or links here.  Let's face it, anyone who does already know and care about this will already know the names and will probably have seen the relevant blog posts too.  If there's anyone reading this blog who hasn't already given the slate-makers the undeserved attention they crave, good.

So how did a fringe group like this manage to hijack the Hugo Award shortlist?

Part of the problem is that only a couple of thousand SF fans in any given year actually put in nominations for the Hugos.  Participation is sufficiently low that a small organised lobby (estimates vary between 200 and 400 individuals - more meaningful statistics should be released after Worldcon) can influence the shortlist out of all proportion to their actual significance within the broader fandom.  In other words, the Hugos themselves are of active interest to only a minority of fans.  Most fans probably take no interest at all in Worldcon or the Hugo Awards; of those that do, to the extent of actually attending Worldcon or buying a supporting membership (typically in the region of 5,000 people in recent years), most appear willing to vote on what's put in front of them but are not sufficiently motivated to put in nominations.

This isn't a political problem, or an ideological problem, or a "clique" problem.  Everybody's welcome to nominate whatever they like from the previous year's SF output, provided only that they're a member of that year's or the previous year's Worldcon, or a pre-supporting member of the following year's Worldcon.  Nobody's gatekeeping, nobody's vetting the nominators or their nominations - there just isn't the will among fans who've already paid their fees to get up and nominate.  Even this year, before anyone particularly cared about this, the number of fans who were eligible to nominate works for the Hugo Awards must have been many times more than the number that actually nominated.

But this isn't even (well, only partly) an apathy problem.  The real problem, I would say, is one of wealth.  Leaving aside the question of having to pay for Worldcon membership, keeping up with all the latest books and films is a rich person's game.  I'm personally in the habit of waiting for books to become available cheaply, even if that only means waiting a year for paperback editions of new books I already know about and really want; borrowing from friends or the library is financially less punishing, but depends on friends or the library buying those books instead.  As for films, waiting for them to appear (if at all) at the rental store is only marginally a better arrangement than paying cinema prices.  And who has the time to spare for all of this stuff?

Increasing participation at the nomination stage is clearly desirable, but it requires a larger number of fans who are prepared to pay top dollar to consume brand new SF material on a regular basis in the hope of finding something that they're prepared to nominate.  Voting is less burdensome - by that point the entire mass of the previous year's output in any given category has been whittled down to just five items that can either be found in the digital voters' packet or picked up at cheaper year-old prices.  Even so, not many fans bother - last year fewer than 4,000 fans voted, and that was an abnormally high number, with around 2,000 ballots cast in 2013 and typically only as many as 1,000 ballots in previous years.  (This year should see an all-time record number of ballots, but only because of the highly visible shitstorm around this year's awards.)  And beyond that, I would guess that only a trifling minority of people who consider themselves to be SF fans have ever been near a Worldcon or the Hugo Awards, or spend much of their time and money on keeping up to date with this year's eligible material.

If there is a problem with historical nomination patterns in the Hugo Awards, none of the campaigning and reaction around this year's Hugos has come anywhere close to addressing it.

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