Worldcon is almost upon us for another year. I am looking forward to having to be up half the night on Saturday to help Kevin and Mur Lafferty host the text-based coverage of the Hugo Award Ceremony. There will also, of course, be a Business Meeting, where thoughts once again will turn to saving Hugo.
Just about everyone is agreed, I think, that poor little Hugo needs to be saved from the Hideous Puppy Hordes. Unfortunately, just as no one seems to be able to agree on what Brexit means (other than that it means “Brexit”, as our Prime Minister so sagely put it), no one seems to be able to agree what saving Hugo means.
There are people who are perfectly happy with the status quo, pointing out that whenever a Puppy-dominated category pops up we can just whack it with a No Award. There are people who will be happy if there can just be one or two finalists in each category that are worth voting for. There are those who want all Puppy picks expunged from the ballot. And there are those who want the Puppies nuked from orbit, both in the present, at all times in the past, and in the future from now until eternity. The solutions required to produce these outcomes are not the same.
It is also true that people can’t agree on what a “Puppy pick” means. Does it include works promoted by the Sads? If so that can be a lot of potential finalists, as this year the Sads tried to do the right thing and build a recommendation list. Does it mean everything on the Rabids slate? That could be a problem, because VD has got into the habit of including some hot favorites on his list so that he can claim to have “won” when those works take the rocket. It is not an easy decision.
Sadly it is not possible to build an automated system that will correctly remove all Puppy picks from the ballot, if only because people can’t agree on what a Puppy pick is. There are those, of course, who think this is an argument for human intervention. “I know a Puppy pick when I see one,” they say. Well yes, you might, but does everyone agree with you?
All of this talk of having people whose job it is to decide which works are worthy of being a Hugo finalist and which are not makes me very nervous. Why? Because I remember people insisting that Emerald City be removed from the ballot. And then when it won demanding that the “Hugo Committee” correct the obvious error and take back my Hugo. Putting someone in charge of deciding what is Hugo-worthy and what isn’t will make it possible for those sorts of demands to be acceded to. Regardless of whether you think I deserved any Hugos or not, I hope you will agree that giving someone that power has the potential to go very badly wrong.
There is a proposal on the agenda (“Additional Finalists”) to give Hugo Administrators the power to add finalists to the ballot, which has less potential for abuse. I think it is important that these issues be debated, but I think they are way more complex than most people think. Currently Hugo Administrators are not expected to have any view on the merits of the works. Giving them that power would change the nature of the job, change who would want to have the job, and ask serious questions about how people were appointed to the job.
Another suggested means of combatting the Puppies is to place new restrictions on who is allowed to vote. There are two proposals aimed at stripping nominating rights away from some of the people who currently have them. Whether this would affect the Puppies or not depends on how willing they are to spend money to get their voting rights. If they are prepared to buy a Supporting Membership each year then it will not restrain them at all. We extended nominating rights to try to encourage more people to take part in the first stage of the ballot. If we take those rights away again, fewer people will nominate, and those people who claim that voting in the Hugos is too expensive will have more of a case.
Up for ratification this year are the two proposals from last year that aim to curtail the power of slate voting. These are “E Pluribus Hugo” (EPH) and “4 and 6”. It has been argued that “EPH” is the better of these because if the Puppies have enough numbers, money and discipline then they can still dominate the entire ballot under “4 and 6”. This is true, though we don’t know whether they are capable of doing that.
On the flip side, “EPH” is less transparent. I can guarantee that if it is implemented then in future everyone who has a beef about the final ballot will complain that they were unfairly discriminated against by it. I have no concerns about the math because I trust the people putting it forward, but I do think it is important that fandom understands what it will do. It is becoming clear that many people thought it would remove all of the Puppy picks from the final ballot, and that’s certainly not the case.
Then we come to a new proposal called “Three Stage Voting”. Do we really need another method to pick from? Well perhaps we do.
Before I get into discussing the details of the proposal I want to address the complaint that having three stages of voting massively increases the workload for Hugo Administrators. It will certainly mean another set of ballots to count, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a 50% increase in work load. Here’s why.
Counting should be a mostly electronic process. These days vast majority of ballots are submitted online and are validated and counted by software. Much of the work involved in Hugo administration revolves around checking eligibility of likely finalists, checking who should get the credit for those works, and sorting out situations where people have nominated the same work under a variety of different names. There have been some embarrassing screw-ups in these areas in the fairly recent past.
As I understand it, the proposal is that the long list generated by the new stage of voting could be less thoroughly checked, and that fandom at large could have some input into the checking process. This would actually reduce the work for the Administrators. In addition, of course, any withdrawals would take place at this stage rather than the final ballot.
One of the proposed benefits of the new system is that it could potentially remove all of the Puppy picks entirely. That’s because it allows the voters, all of them, to make that decision as to whether a work is worthy or not. I think that’s a solution that is far more in keeping with the traditions of the Hugos than appointing a jury. It has been argued that under this system the Puppies would be able to vote off any works they didn’t like. However, that assumes that the Puppies make up at least 60% of the people voting. If that’s the case I think they have won anyway.
By the way, I don’t think that down-voting is a necessary part of the proposal. As long as the majority of voters are non-Puppies, up-voting should be sufficient to produce a decent final ballot when there are only 15 choices. Down-voting will, of course, make those people who want to the ability to vent happy.
However, the thing that interests me most about this proposal is that it directly addresses the problem with the current system, which is not the Puppies, but the way in which the nominating ballot works.
All awards need a means of getting the list of finalists down to manageable proportions. There are vast numbers of novels published each year, and even more short stories. In the case of the Hugos, because eligibility extends to works published anywhere in the world, in any language, the pool of potential finalists is truly vast.
Different methods are used to thin the herd. The British Science Fiction Association and British Fantasy Society allow their members to make the picks before opening voting up to a wider pool of convention attendees. The Clarke Award charges publishers for the right to enter their contest. The Locus Awards has a pool of experts (of whom I am one) charged with picking the long lists. The Hugos use the nominating ballot, and this does not work well for a variety of reasons:
- Voter tastes can vary widely, leading to a large number of works all getting a small number of nominations;
- This makes the process possible to game by a small, determined group who decide to all vote for the same works;
- Every year, despite being continually reassured that this is not the case, large numbers of people recuse themselves from voting claiming that they are “not qualified” to participate.
The three stage system won’t do away with the problems of the nominating ballot, but it will provide a filter on the results of that ballot to control which works get onto the final ballot. Because people will have a limited number of items to vote on, we won’t have the issue of way too many things to pick from. The power of block voting will be much reduced. And most importantly potential voters won’t get that “rabbit in the headlights” feeling they have when faced with an entirely blank nomination ballot. In the second stage, no one will have to “be familiar with the entire field” (as if anyone ever could be), and that should encourage participation.
People have often asked why WSFS doesn’t produce an official recommendation list. The answer is that we’d have to appoint someone to compile it. What three-stage voting does is turn the nominating ballot into a process to create a crowd-sourced recommendation list. Just as works with get the fewest nominations of the finalists can go on to win once more people are aware of them, so I think three-stage voting will allow some of the works in the 6-15 positions in the nominating ballot to gain more attention and possibly make the final ballot.
I’m not 100% convinced by any of these solutions, if only because I don’t think fandom really knows what sort of a fix it wants. Given that, I think it is more important that we give ourselves options to react quickly next year if whatever gets implemented this year doesn’t work out as intended. I can’t be at the Business Meeting, but if I could be this is what I’d be advocating:
- We decide which of “EPH” and “4 and 6” to ratify for next year (I prefer 4 and 6, but your mileage may vary), but require it to be re-ratified next year;
- We postpone ratification of the other one until next year so it can be implemented for 2018 if required;
- We pass “Three Stage Voting” as well so that is also available for implementation in 2018.
Kevin notes that “EPH” and “4 and 6” are not incompatible. We could pass both. I’m not competent to judge whether this would result in elimination of more Puppy picks than “EPH” alone, but I am sure that someone can work it out.
I note in passing that the three-stage voting proposal effectively makes nominations “5 and 15”.
There are lots of other items of business on the agenda. My very best wishes to Jared Dashoff who has a challenging task ahead of him in his first time as Chair. I don’t have firm views on all of the measures, but I do have a couple I would like to highlight.
Firstly please do ratify the “Electronic Signature” motion, which will allow online voting in site selection. It is ridiculous that we allow online voting for the Hugos but not for site selection.
Secondly I’m really impressed with the creative solution that the YA Hugo Committee has come up with. Doubtless some people in the YA field will get all irate about their award being “Not a Hugo”, but by making a proposal for a separate award the YA Committee has neatly sidestepped all of the arguments about exactly how a YA category in the Hugos should be defined, and how to avoid a work winning two Hugos in the same year. I’d like to see their proposal given a try.