What’s Being Done To Fix the Hugo Awards

It’s Wednesday afternoon at the World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon) in Kansas City, and I’m almost done with my first ever “Literary Beer.” It’s gone shockingly well, since I’m still just starting out as a writer—I’ve got a full table, and even a couple people there whom I’ve never before met. We’re winding down and I’m going back and forth with one of the guys I do know about the upcoming WSFS business meeting (more on that in a minute) and how hopefully we’ll manage to fix up the Hugo Awards this year. Then one of the new people—it’s her first WorldCon, bless her—asks, “What’s going on with the Hugos?”

There’s a moment of stunned silence. Then I laugh a little awkwardly and say, “Buckle up. This is going to be a ride.”

The Hugo Awards

So let me start at the beginning, before the Hugo Awards became something that attendees at WorldCon talk about “fixing” through teeth grinding at various levels from oh here we go again to I’m going to dislocate my jaw in a second.

The Hugo Awards have been around since 1955 with varying categories; the big ones (novel, novella, novelette, novelitesimal short story) are defined by word count. They’re given by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), an organization that has an ever-changing membership—literally, WSFS is made up of those who have purchased a membership in a given year’s WorldCon, which actually means you’re buying a year-long membership in WSFS with rights to attend their annual meeting. It’s the WSFS members as a whole who are empowered to nominated works for a Hugo Award, and the WSFS members who vote which works that have made it to the short list should win.

Thousands of people vote for the Hugo Awards every year—this year (2016), there were 3,130 voters who determined who won the awards. Previous years—like last year, which had 5,950 valid ballots cast, for reasons very pertinent to this post—have had even larger voting populations.

Everything Changed When the Puppies Attacked

Notice how I pointed out the thousands of voters who determined the winners in this and previous year? The number of people who nominate is normally much, much smaller. 2016 was kind of a weird year in that there were actually more nominating ballots (4,032) than voting ballots (3,130). A more typical year, before things started getting ugly, would have been like 2011—the Best Novel category had 833 nominating ballots versus 1,813 final voting ballots.

And consider, when people are writing up their nomination ballots, there’s normally a wide variation in tastes. What I think deserves a Hugo isn’t going to be the same set of books, short stories, or whatever that you think deserves a Hugo—and that’s okay! But this makes the nominations extremely susceptible to manipulation by what’s called a nomination slate. When you have a giant scatter of things people like across the field, a small group can have a surprisingly massive impact by getting together and deciding to all nominate the same things.

This is exactly what happened, starting in 2013. Some fans and writers, led by author Larry Correia, decided that they didn’t like what was ending up on the Hugo shortlist, with “politics” and “insufficient fun” being the two most commonly cited complaints. (For the purposes of keeping this from being even longer, I am not going to address the merit of those claims. If you’d like more details, this Wired piece is great.) Rather than taking an approach like a get out the vote effort, they started running nomination slates. The various nomination campaigns were called “sad puppies,” which ultimately became the name for the group.

In 2014, a lot of “sad puppy” slate works ended up on the Hugo short list. Speaking as a Hugo voter in that year who had an internet connection, there was some acrimonious back and forth, but the voters—many of us thoroughly annoyed by the blatant gaming of the system—mostly did our best to give the slated works a fair shake. I know I wasn’t alone in attempting to read them with an open mind. But it should be noted that nothing on the slate won that year. You can convince people to read things, but you can’t force them to like it.

Enter actual comic book villain Theodore Beale, whose C-lister internet handle is Vox Day. In a way reminiscent of those incredibly creepy parasitic wasps, he burrowed into the sad puppy slating effort, cannibalized the process, and split off into the “rabid puppies.” The stated purpose of which, rather than to nominate things at least one small group likes and thinks are good, is basically to ruin the Hugo Awards.

Which brings us to 2015—a year notable (in a sort of bemusedly horrified way) in the annals of science fiction for the remarkable number of nominations racked up by works coming from Beale’s own publishing company Castalia House, a Best Editor Short Form nomination for Beale himself, and a Best Related Work nomination for a book published by “Patriarchy Press.”

Then in 2016, the rabid puppies gave us a nomination for Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion in the short story category. While Chuck Tingle’s hilarious counter-trolling of the Beale faction cannot be discounted, it’s not exactly a boon to the reputation of the Hugo Awards or something that feels great for serious nominees to whom the award matters a great deal. And of course, Beale got his standard slated nomination this year for SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police in Best Related Work. Examining that entire category for 2016 is a bit like sticking your head into a dumpster full of medical waste that’s been baking in the desert for several days.

Wow, Mr. Noah Ward does good work

In the entire history of Hugo Awards prior to 2015, “No Award” had been given in a category a total of five times. The most recent “No Award” had been in 1977.

In 2015, “No Award” was given in five categories; each of those categories was composed of nothing but nominees from the “rabid puppies” slate. In 2016, “Mr. Ward” racked up two more trophies, for similar reasons.

Unsurprisingly, the WSFS members who make up the Hugo voters don’t like slates. Particularly not when it’s a slate being put forth for the stated purpose of breaking something we all love: the Hugo Awards.

This isn’t sustainable. It’s an immense strain on the community of fans (2015 just boiled with ugliness, and while 2016 has been quieter, it’s a grim sort of quiet) and it’s not a lot of fun for the writers who keep getting turned into political footballs by someone whom they wish would just leave them the hell alone.

But the good news? We can fix this. Maybe.

The Business Meeting

Thursday morning at WorldCon. I’ve dragged myself out of bed and made sure my laptop has a full charge so I can sit in a crowded room and watch a bunch of science fiction fans wrangle via parliamentary procedure, Robert’s Rules of Order style. And trust me, ain’t no one can rules lawyer like a nerd.

Over the course of the rest of the con, I spent 12 hours total in this way: the WSFS Business Meeting.

Your yearly membership in WSFS doesn’t just entitle you to attend WorldCon and nominate and vote in the Hugos. It also makes you part of the committee of the whole that makes up the WSFS Business Meetings held at each WorldCon. And in those meetings, you get a voice in modifying the WSFS Constitution—part of which is what determines the rules for the Hugo Awards themselves.

Fixing the Hugo Awards

By the WSFS Business Meeting in 2015, there was a sense of supreme urgency. Someone was actively trying to damage the 60-year reputation of the Hugo Awards. Something needed to be done. And something could be done—if we agreed on what that something was, voted on it, and convinced the people at the next WorldCon to ratify it.

I’ve only been attending the WSFS Business Meetings since 2013, so my experience is severely limited. But 2015’s meeting was something special in terms of the sheer maneuvering, arguing, and high-running emotions. There was yelling. There was crying. There was a debate point made in song. Multiple proposals were made with the purpose of trying to prevent people from gaming the nominations system.

Two amendments for the WSFS constitution eventually made it through: 4 and 6 and E Pluribus Hugo (EPH). The former is a simple fix that would at least make slate nominating require more organization—everyone only gets to nominate four things per category, and each category has six finalists. The latter is a statistical processing method that is supposed to detect ballots that showed slate nominating and at least prevent them from running an entire category.

And then we waited to see what would happen next. Neither thing approved in 2015 would make a difference in 2016. There were worries that maybe the puppies would quiet down for a year, and people wouldn’t think we needed to make a fix any more. Then we all opened the worse-than-an-ugly-sweater-at-Christmas present of the 2016 Hugo finalists lists. Sleeves were metaphorically rolled up across the internet.

2016’s WSFS Business Meeting was no less raucous, with another anti-slating measure proposed, called Three Stage Voting, which passed its first consideration. This new proposed amendment would create a semi-final stage of nomination, during which voters could look at the nomination long list and basically indicate which of those items they would “no award” out of principle. The amendments from 2015—EPH and an amended 5 and 6—were both ratified and will take effect next year.

And now all we can do is wait again and see what those will do to the spread of finalists in 2017.

What Does the Future Hold?

Will this work? We don’t know.

Emotions were running high on Sunday, when we considered these possible fixes. There was more shouting, including one person who kept getting in close to the head table and had two rather hostile conversations. I think part of why the tension ran so thick in the meeting room is because none of us know what the future is going to hold, and this matters.

Will it be enough? Will it be too much? Will there be unintended effects? We won’t know until it’s the last day of WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, and even then we’ll probably still be arguing about it.

Ultimately, this shows the importance of the Hugo Award to the fans, and the strength that will help it weather this crisis. It’s an award that’s under the administration of fans, with fans nominating and voting in it. And because of the unique setup for the award and the nature of WSFS, it’s in our power to change the award, to fix it, or potentially to break it worse—though mercifully nothing is ever irrevocable in this process.

It’s our award. It’s our way to recognize what we think is best in the genre, to celebrate those who create it. It’s our history that adds even more weight to that iconic rocket ship trophy and our legacy that will be passed on to future fans. And we don’t appreciate a wannabe big fish in a small fannish pond messing with it.

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