Rapid unscheduled disassembly

The Hugo Awards controversy gets worse

Rapid unscheduled disassembly
Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket exploded during its debut launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on September 2, 2021. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Last week, writers Chris M. Barkley and Jason Sanford released a bombshell report about the 2023 Hugo Awards and the public relations crisis its administrators bumbled into. The report (which has been picked up by major outlets like The Guardian, NBC News, and The New York Times) helps answer a couple of questions that have lingered since the controversy, thanks to emails shared to the pair.

The short version of the story is that the awards were unveiled in Chengdu, China in 2023. Typically, the award's administrators will release a detailed list of voting statistics that shows how WorldCon members voted, and what other works were nominated by members, but which didn't make the finalist list. (This is how I learned that my book, Cosplay: A History got a handful of nominations). This time, that long list didn't come out until the end of January, and when it did, it showed that a handful of nominees were deemed "ineligible", including R.F. Kuang's novel Babel, Xiran Jay Zhao for the Astounding Award, an episode of the TV series Sandman, and Paul Weimer for Fan Writer.

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

Awards administrator David McCarty offered a wanting statement when asked by fans about the exclusions: "after reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible," and went on to stonewall and belittled fans who asked for clarification. He later apologized and resigned from his position as director of the WorldCon Intellectual Property corporation, and was censured by the organization for his actions.

Still, questions remained about the reasoning behind the exclusion, which threatened to undermine the faith in the award's long-standing fixture within the science fiction / fantasy community. The award is probably the most notable and visible award from SF Fandom: a book with "Hugo Award Winner" emblazoned on its cover is generally regarded as a sign of quality for readers, and it's a notable honor that includes some of the best writers in the genre within its ranks.

The leaked emails shared with Barkley and Sanford shed some light on the reasoning behind the decisions: McCarty directed his team to conduct additional scrutiny on potential nominees, saying in an email that because the convention was taking place in China, "we need to highlight anything of a sensitive political nature in the work. It's not necessary to read everything, but if the work focuses on China, taiwan, tibet, or other topics that may be an issue *in* China...that needs to be highlighted so that we can determine if it is safe to put it on the ballot (or) if the law will require us to make an administrative decision about it.”

From there, those administrators raised concerns about a number of authors who fans had nominated. Some of those authors, such as Kuang, Weimer, and Zhao were left off the final ballot, despite meeting the award's eligibility requirements. This vetting included looking into their respective works for which they were nominated, as well as their social media discussions. They went on to create a "validation" document to collate those concerns.

Additionally, the report notes that a number of works by Chinese authors might have been unilaterally eliminated in various categories, due to their appearance on a list from a Chinese magazine. The administrators characterized this as "collusion" and as a “slate", and removed them.

And it's unfortunate for the folks who took home awards last year. Sam Mills, winner of the Best Short Story category for her story "Rabbit Test", has said that she can't in good faith consider herself a winner of the award and described it as "ill gained." Adrian Tchaikovsky, who won for Best Series, issued a statement on his site in which he said "I cannot consider myself a Hugo winner and will not be citing the 2023 award result in my biographical details, or on this site."

At the end of the day, this situation appears to have been an effort of preemptive, self-inflicted censorship from McCarty and his team, either in an effort to keep the awards and convention from any potential or perceived problems from the Chinese government, or an act of sabotage to put their thumb on the scale to ensure that works by non-Chinese authors were on the final nominations list. However it was reasoned, these are actions that have a profound impact on this pillar of the SF community. It throws into question not only this particular set of awards, but the entire system that's been in place for the awards in years past.

And it goes beyond just the award and to me, speaks to a bigger picture within the larger world of SF Fandom: artist Meg Frank has a good series of observations about how Fandom is experiencing a generational divide of its own making, because traditions and unspoken rules are kept in place from year to year, which creates the perfect environment for people like McCarty to make these sorts of decisions. My entire time watching and attending conventions since 2008 or so has seen these sorts of environments and how unwelcoming they can be to new authors and fans.

It's unfortunate, because it's been a body of people and a community that's not only incubated talent and authors, but provided the environment for countless stories and connections that helps make the SF/F world tick. I fear a cascading effect: fewer people who'll subscribe to short fiction magazines, fewer people who'll find the resources and connections to learn how to write, and a less vibrant scene. That's not all on this particular controversy, but it feels very much like it's a symptom of some larger, unaddressed problems.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

My to-read list has ballooned in recent weeks: I've been bouncing around this list as the mood takes me.

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden. This is one that I've been excited to read for a while: Katherine's a friend, and I went to her book launch for it last week. I've been reading and listening to this one, and I'm enjoying it so far.

Starling House by Alix E. Harrow. I really loved Harrow's novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January and some of her follow-up books, and have been really enjoying this one. It's a gothic horror set in Kentucky, and I'm about halfway through.

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez. This has been on my to-read list for ages: it's earned a ton of acclaim and accolades from other readers and reviewers that I trust. It's also a very ... unconventional book, and listening to the audiobook has been an interesting experience.

Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again by Shigeru Kayama, translated by Jeffrey Angles. I've been on something of a Godzilla kick recently: I saw Godzilla Minus One twice in theaters, watched Apple's Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, and have been rewatching some of the older films. This has been a fun read of the original novelization, translated for the first time into English by Angles.

The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler. Nayler's novel The Mountain in the Sea was one of my favorite reads of 2022, and I've been looking forward to this next book, about resurrected woolly mammoths.

Book Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea is an astonishing novel about recognizing and comprehending intelligence and our place in the world

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I noted on my Facebook page the other day that the book was published in 1937, and it reminded me that I've been meaning to re-read it. I started that the other night, and I'm remembering why Steinbeck's prose has stick with me ever since I first picked up the book back in high school.

Womb City by Tlotlo Tsamaase. This is a difficult book to read for me: it's a bit triggering on some specific anxieties, but Tsamaase is sketching out a pretty interesting (and disturbing) future and I'm going to try and stick it out.

System Collapse by Martha Wells. It's a Murderbot book. What can I say?

The Icarus Plot by Timothy Zahn. I ended up DNF'ing the audiobook for this, but I've been enjoying the story and world thus far.

Further reading

A decade stranded

Andy Weir's The Martian turned 10 the other week, and to celebrate, he penned a new diary entry from Mark Watney.

A decade stranded
Celebrate 10 years of The Martian with a new entry from Mark Watney

AI cringe. Tor's been dinged (again) for using AI in one of its covers.

February books

In case you missed it, here are the two book lists for February!

19 new sci-fi & fantasy books to check out February 2024
Books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Martha Wells, and many more to add to your TBR.

Django Wexler adaptation! This is a book that I've been keeping my eye on: Django Wexler’s How to Become the Dark Lord (and Die Trying), which is coming out in May. Legendary has snapped up the rights for an adaptation, with Godzilla vs Kong director Adam Wingard tapped to direct.

Marvel moves. Marvel's had a rough couple of years in theaters: its films have been underwhelming and the guy they tapped for its lead antagonist, Jonathan Majors, has been summarily booted after a criminal conviction. The Hollywood Reporter has a rundown on what the studio has been doing to retool and try and recapture some of its glory years: it looks like they're bringing in some new writers and are reworking some of those plans.

The studio did have a good couple of weeks: it (finally) announced the cast of the upcoming Fantastic Four film, unveiled a trailer for the upcoming Deadpool & Wolverine film at the Superbowl, and a trailer for X-Men '97.

Messy postmortem

I came across this excellent podcast by way of Mark S. in the TO Slack channel the other week, and ended up blowing through it: host Tansy Gardam took a deep dive into the productions of Rogue One and Solo, then took a detour into looking at how the 2007 writer's strike impacted Hollywood, and has done a couple of standalone episodes. It's a great look into the process of making films and TV, and I realized when I was done that it reminds me a lot of the deep-dive YouTube videos that channels used to do.

Messy postmortem
An excellent podcast takes a look at Rogue One and Solo’s troubled productions

Two sets of awards

Here are the finalists for the L.A. Times Book Awards and the Bram Stoker Awards.

Two sets of awards finalist lists
Here are the finalists for the L.A. Times Book Awards and the Bram Stoker Awards