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.