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Hugo Rant Redux

Last September I posted an opinion piece in which I lamented the fact that World Science Fiction Conventions, since 2001, no longer reliably produce a Hugo award for best Science Fiction novel. There was a fairly spirited (for here) discussion regarding the relative merits of ensuring that SF retains a presence in the novel category of an award process that is traditionally and integrally associated with science fiction. Unfortunately, my participation in the discussion was cut short by the death of my father, and the discussion fell silent in my absence. When circumstances allowed me to return to the argument, the thread had drifted into archival irrelevance. When I left the thread, we had discussed the “why” of my position fairly comprehensively (with no clear resolution on its merit, IMO), but were just getting into the “how” that the regular repatriation of science fiction could be effected within the current award system. With the Hugo nomination deadline approaching tomorrow (I’m writing this on Friday, March 12), I decided to take another stab at making and defending the argument for a dependable presence of science fiction at the Best Novel level of the Hugo award process.

Since the inception of the Hugo awards process in 1953, every award ceremony at every World Science Fiction Convention in the 20th century bestowed its most prestigious honor (best novel) on a work of science fiction. From 2001 forward, the same award went to five works of fantasy and four works of science fiction. Of the five fantasy novels that won during the current decade, two were YA fantasy. The World Fantasy Convention considers only fantasy works for its highest award (the World fantasy Award, best novel), and the World Horror Convention looks exclusively at works of horror for the Bram Stoker award. I’m thrilled that the WSFC is more egalitarian than those bodies, but the frequent, recent exclusion of science fiction from the highest award platform seems, to me, to somewhat diminish the core identity of the WSFC’s fan base. And, it makes me uncomfortable on several levels when the novel that the World Science Fiction Convention offers up in recommendation, as the very best that our genres of focus have produced during the preceding year, is a fantasy novel targeted at adolescents. I’m fully aware that the WSFC’s bylaws do state (and have always stated) that works of science fiction and fantasy are eligible for Hugo nomination. I’m also aware that fantasy work occasionally won awards in the short forms prior to 2001, but there are multiple short form awards, and I don’t think that science fiction was ever frozen out of all of them during that span. My own for-pleasure reading consists of about a 50%/40%/10% mix of SF/Fantasy/Mainstream, so I don’t think I’m being an elitist in this matter. I know that we live in the millennium of glorious genre integration, and that the SFWA is now the SFFWA, Locus is now the “Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field”, and that (in the traditional publishing context) fantasy and YA literature are in the midst of a renaissance that makes science fiction (when you filter out media related works) appear, at best, static, or, more realistically, depressed. For as long as I can remember, some science fiction writers have supplemented their output with fantasy and, recently, a number of science fiction and fantasy writers have abandoned adult fiction for the more lucrative and welcoming venue of Young Adult fiction. But, the criteria for judging merit and quality in fantasy are different than those applied to science fiction, and YA fiction (fantasy or science fiction) possesses its own distinct characteristics. You can’t dump them all into the large end of a funnel and squeeze a homogenized, all-purpose paste out of the small end. If we keep comparing apples to oranges, especially when oranges are wildly popular, we risk the prospect of becoming another wannabe fantasy convention. Lest I be accused of mumpsimus or misplaced nostalgia, I would never suggest excluding fantasy or YA literature from consideration for the Hugo awards. These forms have become, increasingly, a large part of the culture of fandom. But I do believe that SF fandom has a rich history and sense tradition and identity that will, ultimately, begin to blur unless we can find a way to issue a best science fiction novel award at each World Science Fiction Convention.

Last September I had to leave this thread before I actually got to make any suggestions as to how this might be accomplished. One of the main questions asked was how genre affiliation of any given work would be determined. I agreed that any attempt to apply genre label by official committee fiat would be an unwelcome political disaster. Besides, the Hugos are a fan-based award system. The fans who nominate and vote in the award process are dedicated, intelligent, and willing to pay for the right to be involved. They are discerning, experienced readers, perfectly capable of determining genre affiliation in the nominating process–if that process is slightly amended. The current method of multiple, weighted nominations in each category works very well. The only problem I see with the current system (and this may well not be seen as problematic to others) is that there is only one nominating category for best novel. If we assume five weighted nominations for each submitted ballot, we can assume that many ballots contain ranked submissions of science fiction, fantasy, and YA novels. It’s theoretically possible that every ballot might have had SF novels in the top three positions, and fantasy or YA in the two lowest tier slots ( I did say theoretically, not probably). In that case, the ballots would have been overwhelmingly slanted towards science fiction, but if there was insufficient overlap among the top three choices across the entirety of ballots received, and a widespread overlap among the lowest choices, we could very likely have a fantasy or YA winner culled from the lowest positions on a majority of ballots. I know that this is the way the system is supposed to work, and I think that it’s a very good system–if you control for genre. The Locus Poll has four categories for best novel nominations. They are: Best Science Fiction Novel, Best Fantasy Novel, Best YA Novel, and Best First Novel. I’m not entirely sure that Best First Novel is as important as the genre-specific designations because we’ve seen that first novels can win in the overall novel category in the past. If the omnibus Hugo Best Novel Award were replaced with three awards for Best SF Novel, Best Fantasy Novel, and Best YA Novel, that would guarantee a science fiction presence at the top award level during the World Science Fiction Convention each year and help salvage the traditions and identity of SF fandom, thereby keeping the convention’s personality unique. Additionally, it would open up more spots for fantasy and YA works to be considered on their own intra-genre merits, without the complex cross-genre judgments that creep into the current process. If, as is likely, any given title receives votes in more than one category, all cast votes should be shifted to the category with the majority of the votes, e.g. if a book received 64 votes as best SF novel, and 12 votes as best Fantasy novel, that should count as 76 votes (weighted by their order of choice) for best SF novel. This method would produce three Best Novel Awards for publishers to trumpet, each culled from the ranks of similar works, proving the egalitarian nature of the WSFC and fandom.

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Posted in Books & Authors, Conventions & Fandom March 15th, 2010 by Shadow
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