Awards Happen

I was up late last night waiting to see if Coraline would win in the Golden Globes. It didn’t — it lost to Up — but Neil and Amanda got to schmooze with the Hollywood glitterati and Amanda got to be dead on the red carpet in a totally speccy dress so I’m sure that the evening wasn’t a total bust,

Then I went to sleep. When I woke up I discovered that Avatar had won Best Motion Picture and people are now talking about it as a hot tip for the Oscar. That would be a first for a science fiction movie. But were the people I’m following on Twitter happy? No, of course not. They would have preferred to see another movie win than to have the prize go to an SF movie with a weak script.

It reminds me a lot of the interminable arguments over the Hugos. The bigger an award becomes, the less likely it is that quality writing will win out. And awards reflect the concerns of the people who give them. It didn’t surprise me at all to see Hollywood ignoring scriptwriting and giving one of their top awards to a movie with ground-breaking effects work that made a humongous amount of money.

I’ve not actually seen Avatar, and I probably never will, but I’m pleased for Norm Cates and the other folks at Weta that their awesome work is once again blowing Hollywood away. I also think that having a science fiction movie win major awards is yet another sign that we have won the culture war. It will help sell science fiction books.

People will, of course, still complain: about the Golden Globes, the Oscars and about the Hugos. I will mostly beg to disagree. I’m sure that there are plenty of people out there who think I only defend the Hugos because I have won two, and there’s nothing I can say that will disabuse them of that notion. For myself, however, I’d be quite happy to see my name expunged from the Hugo record if only it would stop people running the awards down all the time.

Of course it wouldn’t, so instead I put a lot of time and effort into promoting the Hugos, Worldcon, conventions, fandom and the science fiction industry. I do that partly because I love SF, and partly because I’m pretty much unemployable so I might as well do something with all of my spare time. And, as it turns out, once you get a reputation for doing hard work for free, there’s always a queue of people expecting you to do more. Often these are people in the industry who want me to work for free to help promote the work that they get paid to do.

So I spend a lot of time promoting and defending the Hugos because I believe that they are good for SF. There will always be plenty of things to complain about. The Hugos have a bunch of problems and the process of fixing them is long and tortuous. Also fans will never agree on what is “the best,” so there will always be complaints about who wins. Mostly they will be because the people in question care deeply about the works that didn’t win.

With industry professionals it is a bit different. Firstly they tend to have a much bigger audience, so what they say matters more. Secondly they often get paid for what they write, so if one digs up a tired old complaint about the Hugos that has been thrashed to death over the years and presents it as a shiny new controversy you are never quite sure if this is real or just someone shilling for eyeballs.

Also they should know better. It is not just that having a high profile set of awards is good for the industry in general, it is a question of understanding the process. These days industry professionals are very fond of complaining that fans and wannabe writers don’t understand how the industry works and make unreasonable complaints and demands for change. Mostly I support that. But in return if professionals want to criticize Worldcon or the Hugos or any other fannish endeavor they should at least find out a bit about how it works before lobbying for changes that have about as much chance of happening as tigers becoming vegetarians.

So if you are an industry professional and you are thinking of writing something that trashes the Hugos, here are a few things I’d like you to remember.

Firstly it won’t change anything for the better. The majority of Hugo voters will ignore you, and those who do like and admire you, or are convinced by your rant, will probably stop participating, meaning that fewer people who share your views will be involved in the process.

Secondly, having high profile awards is one of the best ways of getting the media to talk about your industry. By trashing the awards you are trashing something that is valuable to the industry as a whole.

And finally, when you trash the Hugos, you are making unnecessary and depressing work for me and people like me who give our time for free to promote the industry that pays your salary. You can be sure I’ll remember that next time you ask me to work for free on some commercial project of yours.

17 thoughts on “Awards Happen

  1. The way I see it, CORALINE, an excellent fantasy, lost to another excellent fantasy. If you have not seen UP, it is a charming and sweet story that has no relation to reality. The house lifts intact because of a bunch of helium balloons tied to it. The dogs talk; leaving aside the science fictional nature of the mechanism of the voice simulator, they can use grammar and syntax. An explorer pursues a nonexistent bird. It’s total fantasy!

    I loved, it, by the way, partly because the little boy Russel is Asian and chubby and no one ever mentions either statistic.

    1. Well, partially I hate going to movies on my own, and I’ll have no one to go with for another 7 weeks. Also by that time I suspect it will be only available as 2D, and almost everyone says you really should see the 3D to get the full experience. But mostly because I don’t think I will ever have the time. There are more important things in my life than watching movies. Reading books, for example, which I am having trouble finding the time for right now.

  2. My problem with Avatar winning, SF aside, does come down to it not being remotely close to being the best film on the list. It’s a spectacle for sure, and you see where the $300M went, but the story lets the ride down badly.

    I am glad I saw it in 3D at the movies but that’s pretty much where it ends.

    I enjoyed District 9 a LOT more.

    1. Yes, at least District 9 had me thinking during and after the movie, unlike Avatar . . .where I just wanted to leave.

  3. but I’m pleased for Norm Cates and the other folks at Weta that their awesome work is once again blowing Hollywood away.

    Norm is currently in ‘decompress’ mode, and is a fine shot with a water rifle!

  4. Cheryl–you know I am your friend and admire all that you do, but it’s rubbish to say we shouldn’t criticize a crap movie. Avatar is a crap movie, and it’s depressing to have that piece of crap out there as an ambassador for SF. Besides, who cares if we “win” or not? What does that even mean? And what kind of SF books does Avatar sell? And how do you know that? You don’t. This is a false argument, a false Us versus Them. It’s the same old tired battle that those in the mainstream could give two shits about and some of us in genre spend too much time thinking about–thus making all of this self-defeating.

    As for the Hugos, no, you can’t say that because you are too heavily involved in it, too invested. It gives you very little distance.

    Your friend,


    1. Jeff:

      Most people I wouldn’t take that from, but you are a friend and I respect your opinion. If you think that I am useless as an advocate for the Hugos because of my close involvement with them then I am going to very seriously consider stopping doing what I’m doing. It will at least give me a lot more free time.

  5. In other words…was the Hurt Locker a better movie than Avatar? Hell yes it was. And so were the other nominated movies. I’m a movie watcher, not a SF movie watcher. If the genre movie’s good enough, great! If it’s not, it shouldn’t win. This seems like a simple and honest concept.


    1. I have no idea which was the “better” movie. I know nothing about movies – hardly ever watch them. But the little I do know suggests that Hollywood people judge them by different criteria to writers, so I’m not surprised by the result, or by the complaints.

  6. I am actually excited that Star Trek and Avatar has a chance to get on the Oscar Best Picture ballot. Avatar shouldn’t be thought of as something that will sell books (except for Art of Avatar books). It seems like I am in the minority in the fannish community on this.

    A movie should make me care about the characters besides just wow me with special effects. Avatar didn’t and it probably won’t be on my Hugo ballot for that reason. District 9 made me think. 9, Up and Coraline were all very good along with Moon. Hugo fans are pickier than Oscar fans, I think. That is why their is no talk about Avatar being on the BDP Long Form ballot.

    This is probably one of the better years for the BDP Long Form nominations in several. There is a good chance that no superhero fantasy gets the nomination. Watchmen has the best chance.

    1. I think you have it pretty much right about why our community isn’t fond of Avatar. We like things that make us things. Hollywood, on the other hand, is more impressed by things like technical innovation. With Avatar I suspect a lot of them are just sitting back thinking, “wow, how did he do that?” Also they are very impressed by films that make huge amounts of money.

      As to selling books, if the film just sold Avatar books that would be very sad. What I think will happen is that the success of the film will make it cool for kids to read SF again. Many of them, of course, won’t read the sort of SF we like, but some will. And in any case publishers need to be kept in business. Remember, 90% of everything is crap, and without that 90% there’s nothing to keep the 10% of good stuff in business.

      1. That would be good to get more readers into Science Fiction. It may also be good if the industry did some support by saying here are some books that may help you get into Science Fiction. Comic Books publishers offer a $1.00 books and free books around Free Comic Book Day. Why can’t the Science Fiction publishers work together on a Free Science Fiction day with a major retailer (Forbidden Planet or Barnes and Noble)?

  7. “The bigger an award becomes, the less likely it is that quality writing will win out”

    I’m not entirely sure that I agree with that. I’m sure there is some truth there, but I think the same argument has been bandied about regarding the Hugos for years and I personally find that when I take the time to go back and read classic and more recent Hugo and Nebula winners that more often than not I am interested in what I am reading. It may not be the very best of those nominated, I think that is open to a lot of conjecture, but often the writing is above par.

    Which is why it makes Avatar winning a Golden Globe for best drama a supreme disappointment. It is a beautiful film to see and deserves any and all technical achievement awards, but the story is so weak and cliched and in need of editing that it is sad to see it praised above other films with quality writing (assuming there were some last year) just because it is a box office phenomenon.

  8. Responding to various points:

    Avatar is a great movie because the technology redefines the boundaries and technique of suspension of disbelief. FWIW, I will likely nominate it for a long-form (movie) Hugo. “Story” is only one element of the experience of a film and I think it’s fair to not have this be a gatekeeping consideration when so many other aspects of a film are so groundbreaking. After all we are (or at least I am) a science fiction fan partly to be exposed to new ideas, new experiences, and new possibilities. Avatar raised the bar for what can be done with storytelling. That’s worthy of recognition, IMO.

    Having said that, it would surprise me if Avatar won the Hugo. The Hugos have always been the awards of the literary side of science fiction fandom, such that story is weighted more than it would be for other awards. I’ve often pointed out that science fiction fandom is the community of the literature of ideas, so there’s nothing wrong with our awards being about story and ideas.

    I think you do a great job promoting the Hugos. It’s worth doing and the reminders you give everyone are worthwhile. Maybe you are “too close” to things; you come across sounding a little too authoritative, and you should step back and be more careful to make your opinion sound like it’s your opinion, not just the way things should be (not least because people who care about this stuff often don’t agree with your agenda). That is very small feedback that does not detract from the quality and quantity of effort you provide.

    As for you being “unemployable” I would have to disagree. You sometimes have a tendency to see a situation in the most negative light. This leads you to conclusions that aren’t always warranted, including in this case. You write in a clear and understandable way, and I’m sure you are bright enough to tailor your writing to the needs of a particular audience, community, or employer. Which is to say I think you’re probably better qualified than many people who get paid to do technical writing or web content. I’ve been telling all my friends and I’ll tell you too that 2009 was a horrible year for finding and keeping jobs, and 2010 should be a lot better. It’s possible you’d do better with freelance contracts than going to some office for a “job”, but I don’t know your non-fannish resume well enough to give real advice about that.

    Anyway, I get not seeing movies alone, but Avatar is a technological achievement you should not miss if you want to properly understand what people are talking about. Seeing it on a 2-D screen would be like trying to appreciate a Harry Potter movie by reading the screenplay. Personally I think Avatar is the beginning of the end of two-dimensional mass media (I’ve heard that ESPN is planning a 3-D channel). That’s what makes it worthy of note, from a science fiction perspective, so that’s why I think you should see it. On IMAX. 😉

    1. Alex – Thanks for the vote of confidence. However, my unemployability has little to do with my skills. It has a lot more to do with age, gender, and with my skills having been learned on the job rather than through formal qualifications. Freelance is definitely the way to go. Indeed, it is how I survive. But it is not making me rich, just cynical and disinclined to chase work I may not get paid for.

  9. “The bigger an award becomes, the less likely it is that quality writing will win out”

    The way I see, the bigger an award becomes, the greater your work has to be to over-come the politics.

    With the Oscars, there’s the Next Year phenomena. Nicole Kidman is the best example of that. She should have won for her role in Moulin Rouge, instead losing out to a rather political win for Halle Berry (she was good in Monsters Ball, but really Kidman gave a much more impressive performance). The next year, she gives what I consider to be her finest performance in The Hours and manages the win, even with all sorts of political favoritism for other nominees.

    It’s a tough thing, but you can point out that sort of thing in pretty much every award there is.

    Sorry if this is disjointed, Love Will Tear Us Apart came on Pandora and I had to rock out.

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