Saving Hugo

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:

  1. Voter tastes can vary widely, leading to a large number of works all getting a small number of nominations;
  2. This makes the process possible to game by a small, determined group who decide to all vote for the same works;
  3. 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:

  1. 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;
  2. We postpone ratification of the other one until next year so it can be implemented for 2018 if required;
  3. 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.

13 thoughts on “Saving Hugo

  1. I love everything you’ve written here! It’s clearly well thought out and well explained. I have to disagree with making the YA award “not a Hugo” – it hurts the YA market from the perspective of those shoppers who are looking for a “Hugo award winner” and it suggests YA is somehow not “Hugo Worthy” to both the general populace and the writers. I understand it’s a problem to define YA, but that’s a job that should be done so that those writers can be honored with a Hugo as well. I’m sad that that’s the proposal of the YA Committee. It’s an unfortunate choice for writers and readers of YA.

    1. Things might be different where you are, Sue, but I can assure you that hardly anyone I know who buys YA is looking for a “Hugo Award winner”. They mostly have no idea what it means, and if they do they associate with a bunch of right wing jerks.

      1. American school librarians, in my experience, while looking for academic awards, will also use Hugo as a purchasing tool (easier to explain to the principal – look, it’s award winning!). Beyond that, If the work is of a comparable level, as a YA writer I would want my award to be of the same stature. We don’t give kid’s cartoons “jr emmy’s” if they warrant an emmy; I don’t see why a YA novel should get a “jr hugo” – and “it’s easier than defining YA” seems a poor answer.

        1. Write a technical definition of a YA fiction award that doesn’t leave the same work eligible in two categories simultaneously and doesn’t come down to “what I personally consider a YA work” and submit it. I’m not being sarcastic. Dozens of people have been trying to do this for years and nobody has come up with a definition that can muster enough votes to pass. That’s the practical politics of the matter.

      2. The Nobel prize for economics is not strictly speaking a Nobel Prize, but a workaround called the Nobel “Memorial” Prize. But since most people can’t tell the difference, it hardly matters. It’s treated and received as though it were a regular Nobel prize. I expect this is what could happen with a not-strictly-Hugo-but-much-like-the-Hugo YA award. It would only really matter if the same book were also nominated for a Hugo (which I believe would only happen with a truly outstanding and exceptional book). I highly prefer such a solution to the current situation, where YA books are overlooked altogether.

        1. Thank you. You might also have used the example of the Norton, which is Not A Nebula. No one seems to complain about SFWA doing this.

          1. Status quo bias. People are much quicker to point out faults in proposed changes than in what is already in place.

    2. The definition problem is a show-stopper. Now maybe you don’t think it’s a bad thing for the same work to be potentially nominated in two different categories simultaneously, but I’m pretty sure that this is a sufficiently large issue to prevent the passages of a “YA Hugo.” How can you write the definition? Who decides? And what if some people nominate a given work as YA and also in Best Novel, but neither get sufficient nominations to make the ballot — but if their split votes had been combined, it would have been on the ballot? There’s a pretty strong feeling against allowing the same work to be eligible in two categories at once. The proposal before the bar this year avoids this problem entirely: Any given work could be a finalist in (say) Best Novel and also in the WSFS Award for Best YA (whatever we end up calling it). That’s no different than author being a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award and having a story by the same author be nominated for (say) Best Novella. When dealing with WSFS rules, never let the Perfect destroy the Good Enough. It’s attempts at reaching perfection that have led to a decade of argument over this category.

      1. I get that it’s hard – but good lord, we’ve defined ALL the OTHER categories and some of those were hard as well. Devaluing the YA category because it’s hard is just wrong. And making it NOT a Hugo IS devaluing it from at least a common perspective. “Oh, YA, Yea, they don’t get Hugo’s – must not be as good writing”. This isn’t about “perfect”, this is about making the YA book equal to the “adult book” in the eyes of the public, from where I sit.
        I don’t argue that this is a difficult “category” – but if we’ve been able to define all the others, we should be able to define this one as well.

        1. The other “story” categories are defined by length. Deciding what is science fiction/fantasy is mostly left up to the voters. Remember, YA fiction is already eligible, and works of YA fiction have already won Hugo Awards.

          You can technically define Novels, Novellas, etc., by word count. You cannot technically define YA fiction. It’s a subjective judgement.

          All of the other category definitions work because they are primarily technical in nature, not subjective. Prose stories (including those in audiobook form) aren’t movies, and neither of them are graphic stories. I personally don’t think it’s possible to write a technical definition for YA that doesn’t leave the same exact work eligible in two categories simultaneously. There’s no overarching rule that requires that works not be able to be in multiple categories simultaneously, but it’s a difficult sell.

  2. Thoughts from a distance:
    1) Seems to me the Committee’s in the same position as developers trying to write anti-virus software: the clever virus makers will come up with a way around it. Are you confident a new system will not be susceptible to abuse? Won’t you just be entering into an arms race?
    2) Rather than decreasing the slate power by one or more of the mechanisms listed above, what thought has been given to increasing non-slate nomination participation? (I haven’t followed the debate that closely recently, so I guess this has been canvassed.) Perhaps the initial threshold could be reduced even further? I suppose the ‘supporting membership’ exists for time-honoured reasons, but I can’t help feeling that becoming more permissive would leave a better taste than denial.
    3) How long do we think the Puppy phenomena will last? If they achieve a measure of ‘success’, will they say ‘job done’ and relax all this slate business?

    1. Russell:

      Seems to me the Committee’s in the same position as developers trying to write anti-virus software: the clever virus makers will come up with a way around it. Are you confident a new system will not be susceptible to abuse? Won’t you just be entering into an arms race?

      There isn’t a “Committee” (i.e. the “Hugo Committee”) that is writing the rules. The rules are written by the members of WSFS. Every attending member is eligible to participate. It’s not a small select committee make the rules, but hundreds of people participating in an open meeting. WSFS is a direct democracy, with no Board of Directors and no President. There is no Strong Man Who Gives Orders, which dismays a lot of people, who in my opinion wanted a Strong Man to Give Orders last year.

      There is of course the problem that people who are trying to game your system may adjust their behavior to find a new way to game it. But I think that line of thinking leads to the conclusion, “We’re doomed, there’s nothing that can be done, let’s shut everything down and go hide under the bed.” I’m not prepared to do that just yet.

      2) Rather than decreasing the slate power by one or more of the mechanisms listed above, what thought has been given to increasing non-slate nomination participation? (I haven’t followed the debate that closely recently, so I guess this has been canvassed.)

      Yes. Indeed, this year, because of the huge surge of membership generated by last year’s controversy, all of whom were eligible to participate in the nominations this year, there were twice as many people participating as ever before, and the eligible electorate was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 people. It not only doesn’t solve the problem, it probably makes it worse. To be on the short list, you have to be one of the top five finishers. Increasing the electorate simply spreads out a very long tail and makes the system more susceptible to a relatively small group (estimated at around at most 400 people) to concentrate their votes all in one place, while thousands of other people spread out over hundreds of works.

      Perhaps the initial threshold could be reduced even further? I suppose the ‘supporting membership’ exists for time-honoured reasons, but I can’t help feeling that becoming more permissive would leave a better taste than denial.

      The purpose of a supporting membership is to support the Worldcon. This isn’t an internet poll of every person in the world who has consumed SF/F pop-culture entertainment. It’s a vote of the membership of the World Science Fiction Society. To become a member of WSFS, like many other clubs, you have to pay membership dues to the society. The Supporting Membership is your annual dues in the World Science Fiction Society. The difference between Supporting and Attending Membership is the “convention supplement” that members of WSFS pay to attend the society’s annual convention. This is no different than many other organizations whose membership hold annual conventions of their members.

      As a courtesy, WSFS has extended nominating rights to members whose dues were paid either last year or next year but not for the current year. The organization is contemplating withdrawing that courtesy and only allowing members of WSFS to vote on the awards presented by WSFS.

      Making voting even cheaper, or even free as some have suggested, is more likely to simply encourage “freeping,” and given the identification of the RP leader with American Right Week Culture Warriors, the chances of such freeping becoming even more virulent goes up as the barriers to voting go down.

      3) How long do we think the Puppy phenomena will last? If they achieve a measure of ‘success’, will they say ‘job done’ and relax all this slate business?

      That’s a good question; however, the RP leader has stated his intention of “burning the Hugo Awards to the ground,” it seems unlikely that he will stop until he either achieves his goal or his adherents get tired of following his marching orders and wander away. Right now, they can effectively control >90% of the shortlist by paying $40-$50 once every three years, and it’s likely that the few hundred of them necessary to do this don’t consider that a lot of money. Would doubling or tripling the cost to keep trying be enough to discourage them? That’s hard to say without trying it.

      At the very least, making them have to pony up every two years or even annually should have the admirable goal of making it easier to actually run the Worldcon. Remember that each Worldcon is a legally and financially separate entity. With exceptions, neither surpluses nor losses are shared from year to year. Last year’s Worldcon had a considerable windfall in extra memberships, and that ended up making the convention significantly easier to run. This year’s Worldcon has had no such windfall, suggesting that most of the RPs are coasting on the memberships they bought last year. Kansas City has been scrambling on budget, which has led to thinks like there being no water at the head table of program items (until Tor Books came in and sponsored it) simply because it was going to cost money that the 2016 Worldcon couldn’t afford to spend.

      1. Thank you so much for taking the time to give such comprehensive answers. I do not envy those who have to make these decisions.

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