Stress test

The 2023 WorldCon and Hugo Awards are embroiled in controversy, but fixing the problems will be difficult

Stress test
Image: Andrew Liptak

If you pay any attention to the SF/F world, you've likely seen the news: last year's Hugo Awards are embroiled in a new scandal. This latest set of issues concerns a handful of folks who were nominated by members of the World Science Fiction Convention, but deemed "not eligible" by committee staff for a variety of suspect reasons.

The Hugos are one of the biggest awards in the speculative fiction publishing / fan scene. It's been handed out nearly every year since 1953, and the list of works that have earned the prize include some of the genre's best, interesting, and thought-provoking stories and authors. The award has come under fire in the last decade: a series of scandals from fans trying to game the system for their own benefit have undermined the prestige that it's accumulated over the decades, while a series of other awards have arisen within fan circles further reduces its significance.

This recent scandal threatens to do the same, and frustratingly, it's one that appears to be an unforced error on the part of the team administering the award.

Here's what happened: the 20232 World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) was held in Chengdu, China. It was the second time the convention was held in Asia (the first was Nippon 2007, held in Yokohama–thanks for the correction, James!), and had already encountered some significant headwinds. A number of authors and fans voiced their objections of the con's location and the country's history of human rights violations. The convention itself seemed as though it went through some organizational struggles: it was pushed back rather substantially to the end of October.

When the convention held its awards ceremony, there were a handful of other anomalies: the award's organizers didn't release the typical long-list of voting data that usually accompanies the awards. This information shows off the voting behavior and serves as a useful tool to see how the award's voting went down. It's a neat feature, one that helps with transparency and ultimately, a reassurance that the awards are fair. There were a handful of excuses: folks who were traveling back to the US and dealing with full time jobs, but it wasn't until last weekend that the information was finally released.

A handful of things jumped out immediately upon its release. At the time that the nominations came out, I noted the following:

My initial reaction to the list is that it's a bit of a perplexing one: the novel category has a bunch of books that I thought for sure would get a nomination but didn't, like Ray Nayler's The Mountain in the Sea, R.F. Kuang's Babel, or Simon Jimenez's The Spear Cuts Through Water, each of which have been fairly highly acclaimed within fan circles, and in the larger literary / reading world.

The longer nominations list shows that Kuang's Babel should have made the list under the Best Novel category: it garnered the third most votes, and should have made the list of finalists. Had it been there, I think there would have been a strong chance of it winning the category. Nayler's The Mountain in the Sea is also on the long list, but didn't get enough initial votes to make the final ballot. But Babel was labeled as "not eligible", with no further explanation.

A handful of other awards were also given the label:

  • "Color the World" by Mu Ming (Best Novelette)
  • "Fongong Temple Pagoda" by Hai Ya (Best Short Story)
  • History of Chinese Science Fiction in the 20th Century (Best Related Work)
  • Paul Weimer (Best Fan Writer)
  • Xiran Jay Zhao (Astounding Award for Best New Writer)
  • Sandman, episode 6 (Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form)

Some of those were given explanations for why they weren't eligible, such as History of Chinese Science Fiction in the 20th Century, whose author was was on the Hugo Committee. Another work, "Color the World", seems to have been published in 2019, and while I can't see if "Fongong Temple Pagoda" was published prior to 2022, it's included in an anthology of Galaxy Award (China's big SF award) published that year, so I'm guessing it was.

But that leaves Kuang, Weimer, and Zhao, all three of whom were left off the ballot for unknown reasons. Weimer noted on his Patreon page that he had no idea why he was left off, Zhao noted that they were specifically listed as an eligible author and had no explanation from the Hugo team, and Kuang says that she didn't decline, and that "I assume this was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility. Excluding 'undesirable' work is not only embarrassing for all involved parties, but renders the entire process and organization illegitimate. Pity."

The news has brought about a firestorm online, with Hugo administrator Dave McCarty issuing an evasive non-answer for a statement (“After reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible”) before going on to insult commenters who had questions about the process.

McCarty has pushed back on allegations that he and his team were pressured into removing the authors from the ballot, but it appears very much like this was a decision from the award's administrators to head off political issues, even if they weren't told to do so. That said, Cheryl Morgan pointed out on her blog that one of the con progress reports noted that the "The Chengdu organizing committee will review the nominated works and validate the votes," and that voters would be able to select "works and individuals that comply with local laws and regulations." Hm.

Over on his blog, author Charles Stross has a good rundown of the culture around WorldCon, and how the process got jammed up when Chinese fans were able to secure a site nomination: it boils down to a pair of cultures colliding in some predictable ways. The Guardian also has a high-level overview that highlights some quotes from the snubbed nominees. Transfer Orbit has not reached out to Chengdu, the Hugo committee, or McCarty, given that none have issued useful statements.

I've held off on writing about this over the last week: plenty of fellow writers have jumped in on the debate with their own takes and rundowns on the situation. The consequences are fairly clear: a handful of authors were removed and the larger body of SF fandom were denied an opportunity to make a fair selection.

I've spent the last couple of days trying to think about how to think about this latest issue and why this feels like a notable point in the history of the awards. On its face, there's the general news interest for a community of readers invested in the award because they're a part of it. But that's a relatively small community, especially when you zoom out to look at fandom writ large: the horror community has its own awards, the crossover between the fandoms of the larger science fiction franchises and SF fandom feels as though it's growing further and further apart, and for the lay person, this sort of incident is the most inside of inside baseball in the science fiction fan/publishing/writing world, incomprehensible if you're not in the community.

But what I keep coming back to is that this feels like it's part of a larger, systemic issue within fandom, and how the community's traditional institutions and traditions feel ill-prepared for a world that's vastly changed in the seven decades since the first Hugos were announced.

This isn't the first crisis that the awards have experienced in the last decade: between 2013 and 2017, a group of fans launched a right-wing, anti-diversity campaign called "Sad Puppies", which exploited some of the rules to place their preferred nominees on the finalist ballots, before some safeguards were put in place.

While these two issues aren't linked in any meaningful way, both situations have arisen because WorldCon and the Hugo Awards are volunteer organizations run on string, superglue, and lots of unpaid hours from passionate fans. As Stross noted in his piece, the World Science Fiction Society is something like a parasite that gets glommed onto a convention that wins a WorldCon site bid, with those teams then taking on the responsibility of administering the awards and programming for the event.

The WSFS and Hugo Awards are guided by some overarching guidelines and constitutions, documents that have grown up alongside both institutions over the decades, and they function because fans have generally approached them in good faith: they understand how the rules work, vote accordingly, and accept the results. It helps that the Hugos have a fairly transparent voting process, and it's that faith in the system that has allowed the awards to remain a centerpiece in the science fiction publishing world.

It's these instances where bad-faith actors find ways to manipulate the vote, or where a democratic process runs full-tilt into an author-minded system that we can see some of the breaking points in this sort of patch-work organization: if the Hugos and ancillary fandom relies on a measure of good faith for the system to work, it breaks down when it's not able to operate in those environments. Things get even more problematic when the administrators in charge use the rules and environment to make the sorts of unilateral decisions that leave potential nominees off the ballot.

The resulting consequences feel like they'll be something of a downward spiral: as SF fandom loses trust and faith in the strength of the award and its institutions, they'll become less relevant – the creators and works that receive them won't garner the same respect as their predecessors. There's considerable value that'll be lost: not only as a sales and marketing tool for those authors, but because it's an award that holds particularly significant meaning and recognition for not just fandom, but for folks outside of the community as well.

Place this in an environment where there are more awards and diverse fandoms than ever: there are the Ignyte Awards, the Dragon Awards, the Goodreads Choice Awards, and so forth, which capture a significant number of participants that go far beyond SF fandom. The bigger comic cons pull in massive numbers of participants, while there are enormous dedicated fandoms that arise for various multimedia franchises, films, shows, games, and comics. Platforms like TikTok have brought about the rise of phenomenon like BookTok that have brought about a resurgence in interest in books of all types.

I think that there's much from the literary traditions that captivates SF Fandom that would appeal to the much wider networks of fans out there, and that Fandom can and should grow beyond the traditional networks of local conventions, blogs, and in-person social networks that have existed for nearly a century. It has a lot that it can learn from the other fandoms, institutions, and organizations that are out there.

Walled gardens
Fandom often has some significant blinders when it comes to adopting or authors and books

The next couple of years will be worth watching, to see how the next couple of conventions – Glasgow in 2024 and Seattle in 2025 – will react to this situation and contend with potential problems that arise. But even if these conventions go out of their way to ensure that there aren't problems with nominees, it's still a decentralized system, and there's still the potential for problems moving forward.

A big part of this problem comes from the structural nature of the World Science Fiction Society, and how it's not an organization that directly oversees conventions or awards, but handles the administrative elements. Transforming this organization (or phasing it out and replacing it with a successor) into one that has more control over its programming strikes me as a way to remove some of the uncertainty and bring about a more professional approach to the planning and administration of the awards, one that would prevent folks from gaming or meddling with the awards, and restore some element of trust into them by actually being able to enforce its rules and constitutions with its conventions. It needs administrators that do more than throw up their hands and give non-statements to a frustrated group of people.

That wouldn't be an easy thing to do (Morgan posted a blog about it on her site) – fans and organizers can be decidedly finicky about the nature of the conventions they're running and taking part in. But at some point, the entire system will have to contend with the understanding that there will be actors and organizations that will find ways to hijack the system and institutions for their own purposes, and will need to plan accordingly.

An aside to all of this: I was pleased to see that my book Cosplay: A History showed up in the longer list of numbers: 16 people nominated it for Best Related Work, and while it was knocked out of contention in the runoff, it was still neat to see it listed there. Thanks to those 16 people! Congratulations are also in order to Aidan Moher, whose book Fight, Magic, Items was also on that longer list with 25 initial votes.