Goddess Save Us from Activist Administrators

Every so often when people are discussing problems with the Hugos someone asks why Administrators are not given more power, or don’t exercise the powers that they have. Surely, people argue, if there are problems with categories, all that has to happen is that the Administrator should make the correct decisions and all will be well. Sadly this is probably the worst thing that we could do.

One of the problems is that the Hugo Administrator changes each year. While some people have had repeat stints, many only do the job once. Opportunities for learning from your mistakes and retaining institutional knowledge are poor, especially because each individual Worldcon inevitably has some people on staff who are determined to re-invent every wheel in con-running to prove that they know better than everyone who has gone before.

The real problem, however, is that people don’t agree about what the “right” decision should be. This ought to be obvious. The chances of a Hugo Administrator agreeing precisely with you on all decisions is very small, and even if she does that just means that she doesn’t agree with the person next to you, because he almost certainly has different views to you.

This year’s Hugo Administrator was by no means the sort of activist that people have been calling for. He didn’t disqualify anyone, or move nominations between categories, in order to meet anyone’s fixed ideas of just how the Hugos should work. But he did adopt policies, and some of those policies appear to have been somewhat harsh. I don’t want to finger Jeff Orth in particular here. It was his first time in the job, and I think he was rather badly advised. Mostly he did a very good job. Mostly.

The main source of complaint with this year’s Hugos was to do with how nominations are counted. Inevitably some people are quite imprecise in how they make nominations. Some Administrators can be more forgiving than others.

I have to say that you folks don’t always make the Administrator’s life easy. Take the Editor: Short Form nominations, for example. Ann VanderMeer got 32 votes. Jeff VanderMeer got 19 votes. But 10 people voted for “Ann & Jeff VanderMeer”. What was the Administrator to do with those joint votes? Are they full votes each for Ann and Jeff; a half vote each for Ann and Jeff; or full votes for someone who is neither Ann nor Jeff individually, but only has existence as a partnership? As it turned out, it made no difference to the final ballot, but 10 extra votes could have lifted Ann from 8th to 6th in the nominees list.

That question is also more complex than it looks, because some of the people who voted “Ann & Jeff” might not have used all five nominee slots. In that case the Administrator might have taken a decision to split them; but if all five slots had been used that decision would be harder.

The big controversy this year, however, came in Graphic Story, and it was big precisely because it affected the final ballot. One group of people nominated Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain & MI13: Secret Invasion. Other people nominated just “Captain Britain & MI13”. Combing the two groups would have put Paul on the final ballot. Had a mistake been made? It certainly looked like it.

The explanation that came from Anticipation was basically all about the precision of people’s nominations. Secret Invasion was a specific story arc of the Captain Britain series. Other people had nominated individual issues of the comic, and even material from the comic that was ineligible. Jeff and his colleagues had ruled that a nomination for “Captain Britain & MI13” was too generic. It could have meant the Secret Invasion story; it could have meant in individual issue; and the nominator might even have been thinking of something that was ineligible. There was no way to tell, so the generic nominations could not be allocated to any specific legal nomination.

Jeff is perfectly within his rights here. There is nothing technically wrong with what he has done. However he has, perhaps prompted by his advisory team, taken a fairly strict view of what to do in this situation. Another Administrator might easily have taken the view that Secret Invasion is the story from Captain Britain that most people were supporting, and that a generic “Captain Britain & MI13” nomination should therefore apply to that story.

Thankfully Paul has been very understanding about the whole affair, however, until we got a full explanation from Jeff quite a few people were very annoyed (example). Neil Gaiman, who was Anticipation’s headline Guest of Honor, said on his Twitter feed that a mistake had been made. And as someone who had nominated the story I was pretty annoyed too (though I would have been sad to see Fables pushed off the ballot, which would have happened if Paul had been on it). Had Paul chosen to make an issue of this, which a less understanding person might well have done, it could have been very ugly.

Fortunately this particular matter is now closed, save for making sure that next year people are aware of the need to make sure that they are clear and precise in their nominations, and don’t nominate anything ineligible. But here’s the point I want you to think about. The decision that Jeff and his colleagues made was fairly minor, and absolutely within the rules. There’s probably even precedent for it. Imagine how much worse it could be if we had an activist Administrator who was trying to make policy (and maybe even change the Hugo Award rules) by ruling people ineligible or something equally drastic.

The fewer decisions Administrators have to make, the better it will be for us all.

8 thoughts on “Goddess Save Us from Activist Administrators

  1. The Ditmars in many respects resemble the Hugos in miniature, with a similar structure and similar problems. We’d had a lot of bad experiences with the same basic problem — each new administrator faced with issues of interpretation, and a lot of ongoing inconsistency in dealing with them. We just made the decision to move Ditmar administration to an ongoing committee, with representatives from past and future conventions, thus hopefully creating a mechanism for some consistency of interpretation. We’ve only run one year this way, though so its too early to say how it is going. But it is going to be interesting seeing how the new system goes.

  2. Yes, most probably the Ann & Jeff votes were mostly for the anthos we’ve edited together, and any individual votes for me are for that same antho work. But, even if it had affected the final ballot, I see no way any administrator could be sure about any of that, since a few Ann V votes would’ve been for the anthos or anthos and WT (although most I’d assume for her work on WT), etc., etc. Doesn’t bother me at all, personally. The second example, as you say, is the one that’s more problematic.

  3. “Inevitably some people are quite imprecise in how they make nominations.”

    In 1981, when Mike Glicksohn had become the administrator of the FAAN Awards for fanzine fandom, he was unable to continue that year, and passed the job onto me.

    I ended up encountering the above problem to such a degree that I gave up on issuing an award, an inadvertently killed off the FAAN awards for several years.

    The problem was that the pool of nominator was sufficiently small — I don’t recall at this time precise numbers, but under 60 people — and the number of alternatives in how people phrased their nominations, meant that every single award “winner” choice would have been purely dependent on how I decided to interpret each nomination, along the lines of the problems you describe.

    For best zine, some people put down a person’s name: that person had done multiple zines. Or they’d put down the name of one person for a co-edited zine. Or they’d list multiple zines in one nomination slot.

    For categories for person, they’d list co-edited zines.

    Some nominations were for work that had been done only in previous years. Some people attributed works to the wrong people, and vice versa. And so on and so forth.

    So the final results, in my view, would have been meaningless. I would have been personally de facto, picking the winners in every category.

    Post-internet, I would have consulted with all involved to come up with a consensus of methodolgy.

    Or would have had to write back to two-thirds or more of the voters who submitted a ballot, asking for clarifications on each point.

    In typewriter and snail mail days, I put the thing aside to deal with later, and this coincided with another rise in my recurring Major Clinical Depression, and I never got back to it.

    Everyone else involved had become sufficiently apathetic about the whole thing that no one did anything about the FAAN Awards again until 1994. What the approach has been since then, I have no idea. But I have to suspect a lot of the same problems continue to exist behind the scenes.

    The matter of lack of clarification of intent in nominations is a problem for any “mass,” non-juried, award, where ambiguity is possible, although the overall problem becomes less significant the larger the pool of voters is.

    Though then there was the large pool of voters in a balloting in Florida in 2000….

    Paul Cornell also makes a vital point in the post of his you link: “Also, this will mean that I’ll have to tout my wares come Hugo nomination time in rather an unseemly fashion, just to make it very clear to potential nominators the exact wording they have to use. It’ll look a bit awful, frankly.”

    And thus we again cross further and further into the unseemly realm of Hugo-campaigning, sigh.

    He goes on to say “Finally, I think the Hugo team need a comic specialist to call on.”

    At this point, it seems that all, or at least most, of the other-than-fiction categories could use a specialist advisor or advisors, to be, well, best-advised. The field has become too diverse for any given Hugo Administrator to know what they’re talking about as regards the other-than-fiction categories when possible controversy arises. (And that’s assuming the Administrator is sufficiently familiar with the issues regarding fiction.)

    Or so it looks like, potentially, at my considerable distance.

    Of course, this is part of why we had Hugo sub-committees, before the decison was made to go to single/double Administratorships.

    Each method has some drawbacks, to be sure.

    “…save for making sure that next year people are aware of the need to make sure that they are clear and precise in their nominations, and don’t nominate anything ineligible.”

    It’s impossible to eliminate that. Impossible. Lessen it, maybe. But people will always be imprecise, and new people will always be voting, and tend to be even more imprecise.

    There is no perfect voting system. Cue digressive mention of Arrow’s impossibility theorem.

  4. Gary:

    Many Hugo Administrators have not been terribly well versed in the field of fiction, at least not to the depth required by the job. They have in the past called upon the services of an expert in the field. That person was a Mr. Charles N. Brown. He will be difficult to replace.

    Actually we still use Hugo sub-committees. If you look at this year’s results you’ll see that they are all mentioned, although Jeff Orth did most of the work. In other years the lead Administrator’s fellow committee members have preferred to remain anonymous.

  5. Is the current definition of the Graphic story category posted someplace? I’m having a lot of issues thinking about it still. I mean, there are comics that are indeed episodic, like Paul’s, and then there are ongoing storylines, like Terry Moore’s new series, Echo. Nominating a single volume of that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially when multiple volumes come out in a year. And it’s very much a single story, so no matter what anyone puts on the ballot it seems like nominations should be merged for something like that.

  6. “Is the current definition of the Graphic story category posted someplace?”

    Normally one would see WSFS, and specifically the general rules and more specifically the WSFS Constitution, which include the Hugo rules.

    You probably know this. But the Graphic Story Hugo was in the “special category” each Worldcon is allowed to temporarily create.

    3.3.15: Additional Category. Not more than one special category may be created by the current Worldcon Committee with nomination and voting to be the same as for the permanent categories. The Worldcon Committee is not required to create any such category; such action by a Worldcon Committee should be under exceptional circumstances only; and the special category created by one Worldcon Committee shall not be binding on following Committees. Awards created under this paragraph shall be considered to be Hugo Awards.

    And this year was the first.


    […] The motion creating the best Graphic Story category was ratified. That category is therefore in effect until at least 2012, when it is due to be revisited to check it is working well.

    Final answer:

    […] Best Graphic Story

    Moved to amend the WSFS Constitution by adding the following:

    3.3.X: Best Graphic Story. Any science fiction or fantasy story told in graphic form appearing for the first time in the previous calendar year.

    Provided that this category shall be automatically repealed unless ratified by the 2012 Business Meeting.

    If I’ve gotten any of this wrong, I’m sure Cheryl, or Kevin Standlee, will let us know. 🙂

  7. Your criticism of the advisers in this context is without merit. We did not consult the advisers on specifics. The cases you site, though somewhat controversial, were all decided in committee. At the time the nominations were tallied there was maybe 5 minutes pause over both the Ann & Jeff querstion and the Captain Britain issue. It was obvious that the “Voter intent” was either (in the case of the Vandermeers) present and the two things did not equal each other, or absent (in the case of Captain Britain) and we moved on. In the case of Graphic Story, at least, the nominations were tallied by two people independently and the same result (with a couple of inconsequential variations) was achieved.

    Also your categorization that I did most of the work is also incorrect. While I made myself the target for most of the tough decisions it was a team effort and there is no way I would have been able to do this on my own.


  8. Jeff:

    When I said you had been badly advised I meant the rest of your committee, some of whom have been involved in the Hugos before.

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