Science Fiction Awards

There’s been a little more outside notice of the Hugo award, its results, and its selection process in the last couple of years, or at least I’ve been seeing more of it since I read the LiveJournal of the chairman of the WSFS Mark Protection Committee (and rail-fan, and unit of measurement). Also I’ve been finding the award-winners (both Hugo and Nebula) less interesting over the years; I used to consider them very important, good guides to good reading. So I’ve been percolating some blather about the general subject area for a while.

The Awards

Most of these awards are given for more than just prose fiction; but I’m only discussing that aspect of them. The Hugos for fan activities, the Nebula for best screenplay, are not of interest right now.

The Hugo Award

I feel safe in calling this the big daddy of SF (and fantasy) awards. It’s the one I’ve known about for the longest, and the one I’ve seen mentioned on book covers most often. The Hugo is selected by the members of the World Science Fiction Society, meaning the members of the current Worldcon.

The Nebula Award

The Nebula is selected by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, the largest and oldest by far of the SF writer’s organization. It’s the other one you see mentioned on book covers.

The Locus Award

The Locus award is a reader’s poll by Locus magazine, which continues to dominate the semi-pro category of the Hugo awards. It was started as a way to prepare readers to nominate and vote for the Hugos, but evolved into an award in its own right.

The Locus award is the most broad-based and democratic award (least barrier to getting your opinion counted there).

Other Awards

There are a huge number of awards being given out these days. Most of them are completely irrelevant to me as a reader, but some of them are very important in their special niches, and most of them are at least fairly gratifying to those who win them. AwardWeb and SF Awards Watch can give you a good overview.

Argument for the Status Quo

Despite my waning interest in the awards, I’m largely happy with the ones that are important now, and how they are selected, and how they govern themselves. My complaints are generally at the level of “I don’t like the results,” rather than anything substantive about how the selection process is organized.

I’m primarily (by interest, at least) a science fiction reader, so the Hugo and the Nebula are the two big awards in my world. In broad general terms, I don’t know how to improve on them. The Hugo gives us the opinion of a group of people I believe to be very knowledgeable about and interested in science fiction (and I don’t know how to find a better group to poll). The Nebula gives us the opinion of the people who write science fiction.

Most of the criticisms that I find at all valid have to do with the relatively low number of people from the pool who choose to participate. I view this the same as I do voting in real-world elections—I don’t really want those who can’t be bothered to vote under current conditions to have much influence on the outcomes (but I’d object strongly to big artificial barriers).

The Nebula is theoretically unassailable, there just isn’t another pre-made group to poll to get anything more closely resembling the opinions of the practitioners of the art.

The Hugo, though; the Hugo has a potential voting pool in the middle thousands (Worldcon membership count), but never gets more than half that many total Hugo ballots, and more commonly gets maybe 20% (the total votes in any given category are even lower than that). One could argue that this was deficient performance, and that that was too few people to decide an award whose mission statement involved being the fannish view.

The thing is, people will keep doing what they want to do instead of what I want them to do. We can’t force people to spend time thinking about SF and voting on awards, no matter how much we’d like to. Furthermore, the value of the Hugo voting pool comes largely in my opinion from precisely the self-selecting nature that prevents me from improving it.

Various groups make various efforts to either (both) encourage Hugo nominating and voting or get more people to vote for the things they like (legitimate efforts; there are also the occasional attempts at fraud, but luckily those seem to be rare, at least the ones that get caught). The Locus Poll started that way, NESFA has an organized process (duh), and so forth. I don’t even think these have much of anything to do with the results I don’t like.

My strongest evidence that the Hugo award is still doing its job well is this: the Locus poll started in 1971, which is plenty long enough ago to build a reputation. It’s more democratic (it cost a stamp to be involved; these days it’s even cheaper online) and more broad-based (more participants) than the Hugos in recent decades. And yet I have never once seen “Locus Award Winner” on a book cover. Whereas the Hugo and Nebula are so strong that they sometimes spill over onto the covers of other books by the same author (and recently pedants have been claiming that’s an abuse of the trademark, because the award is officially for the work and not for the author).

The Worldcon isn’t as important in the fannish landscape as it used to be; there are far more local and regional conventions than anybody can attend (I attend fewer than half of the conventions in my home city, and haven’t gone to an out-of-town convention for…er, a month, but before that it was years ago; I used to go to three or so a year). SF is more mainstream, so we have big-time fans of SF who aren’t actually so fannish (that is, they don’t like and value the same things I do) so much. And short SF has to some degree wandered off into literary lala land (and a number of other places); it’s certainly no longer the heart and soul of the field. I myself have wandered away from the Worldcon (haven’t thought of myself as a regular attendee since 1976, though I got to three in the 1980s). And so, in general, the people voting for the Hugo now are diverging somewhat from my own tastes, whereas before they were pretty reliably accurate. I don’t think there’s anything to “fix”, just some things for me personally to be dissatisfied about. (The question of the long-term development of SF fandom is a much bigger question which I will not address here, except to say that basically it’s not my problem.)

Other Awards

I want to maunder on a bit about a couple of the minor awards.

The Philip K. Dick Award

First of all, I’m so pleased somebody had the balls to name an award the “Dick”.

Second, I miss the mass-market paperback form-factor. It’s the easiest size book for me to read (only ebooks are easier) and it packs the most densely. The reality of publishing has changed enough that essentially nothing important is published as a paperback original any more, and I find that very sad. The hardcover (or, even worse, the vile trade-size paperback) has become the standard format for small-run publishing.

The World Fantasy Award

The World Fantasy award has the distinction of being selected by a panel of judges, and is presented at the World Fantasy Convention. It’s the least democratic of the awards, and is the only award I’ll be discussing that is not open to both SF and fantasy.

It holds the reputation for being the ugliest award.

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