A Hugo Cautionary Tale

First up today, if anyone has actually come here from Larry Nolen’s blog wondering what I have to say about a Hugo for Genre Poetry, all I can say is that McCalmont is wrong, as usual, (and check the date on Larry’s post).

Rather more seriously, I am continuing to see rumbling about the Short Story situation. I’d like everyone to bear three things in mind:

1. There is no secret conspiracy to defraud short story writers of the nominations that are their right.

2. There is nothing new in Short Story having a very broad pattern of nominations. This sort of thing has happened before.

3. It is not the job of the Hugo Administrators to fix the result of the ballot to give the results that other people might want, it is their job to follow the rules.

Here is a cautionary tale (now somewhat edited – see Kevin’s comment below for an explanation).

In 1994 we had exactly the same issue as we have this year – the 5% rule resulted in only three short stories being eligible for the ballot. The reason that we don’t see that in the historical record is that the Administrators did what some people are yelling to have done this year – they fixed the results to get nominees. It was all very legal, and I’ll explain how they did it, and what the consequences were, shortly.

First, however, I want you to note that this was 1994. Most people hadn’t even heard of the Internet. There were no online short fiction magazines. 13 of the 16 short fiction nominees came from the big three fiction magazines, and 2 from Ellen Datlow’s Omni. So if you want to spin a story about how what happened this year (and the 4 Short Story ballot of 2011) is all a result of online magazines, you have to explain how they managed to travel through time to 1994, or provide an alternative explanation for what happened then. Having watched the Hugos closely for almost 20 years, my view is that a broad range of nominees is inherent to the Short Story category, not something that has only just happened.

OK, so we are back in 1994 and we only have three short stories on our ballot. What can we do that is legal? Consider this:

3.2.9: The Worldcon Committee may relocate a story into a more appropriate category if it feels that it is necessary, provided that the length of the story is within the lesser of five thousand (5,000) words or twenty
percent (20%) of the new category limits.

Back in 1994 the 20% option didn’t exist, so the Hugo Administrators could re-allocate novelettes to Short Story if they were less than 12,500 words. As it happened, there were a couple of novelettes below that limit that would get 5% of the vote if they were in Short Story, and sufficient remaining novelettes for a full ballot in their category too. So the Hugo Administrators (David Bratman, Seth Goldberg, Peter Jarvis, Athena Jarvis and Kevin Standlee) decided to move the two short novelettes and make a full ballot.

You can see how I know about this. Kevin didn’t take that decision himself, but I can assure you that he’s been scarred for life by the experience. Fandom was furious. The professional writers were furious too. One of the moved novelettes won the category. I understand that Mike Resnick, who had an actual short story on the ballot, was hopping mad. (Mike, if you are reading his, feel free to explain how you saw it.)

That year the Business Meeting was packed. You couldn’t change the results, but the 1994 Hugo Admins were left in no doubt that fiddling with the ballot, even if it was completely within the rules, would not be tolerated. And that’s why, to this day, whoever is in charge simply enforces the rules. Activist Administration is simply not worth the risk.

So, as I said yesterday, if you want something done about the 5% rule (and I think that may be wise, because of the increasing number of voters, not because of any seismic shift in the nature of the field), then get the rules changed. Please don’t yell “shame” or “conspiracy”. All we can ask of the Administrators is that they implement the rules correctly.

12 thoughts on “A Hugo Cautionary Tale

  1. Since you asked: Yes, I was annoyed. It’s hard enough to write the short story that garners the most votes on the Hugo ballot without having to compete against a novelette that is naturally going to be more complex since it contains close to twice the wordage. I’ve lost a lot of Hugos without ever getting mad, but when the 1994 ballot was announced all 3 short story writers were angry, because we knew it was rigged for our stories to lose to a novelette — and let me tell you, it’s very frustrating to be the author of Best Short Story But Only Second-Best Nominee.

    Ah, well, it was a long time ago, and I’ve certainly won my share. Truth to tell, I hadn’t thought about it in probably a decade until this year’s ballot came out, and my first reaction was “Why the hell didn’t they do that in 1994?”

    1. Thanks Mike. I suspect that most of the people who are saying that “something should have been done” are either short story writers who didn’t make the ballot, or people who have not considered the impact that arbitrarily changing the rules would have on those who qualified legitimately.

  2. This doesn’t take away from your point one bit, but I think the year in question was 1994? (“Death on the Nile” which won the Best Short Story Hugo in 1994 was also nominated for a Nebula in the novelette category that year. “Even the Queen” which won the Best Short Story Hugo in 1993 really is, AFAIK, a short story.)

    1. Whoops, my bad. David, Seth, and I were the Hugo administrators in both 1993 and 1994, and when I re-told the story recently, I mixed up the years. Sorry about that!

      The WSFS Business Meeting in 1994 was, in no small part due to this issue, the best-attended I’ve every been at (particularly considering it as a percentage of total convention attendance), and I’ve attended every single meeting since 1989.

  3. Glad you took the AFD post with grace and humor! 😀

    On a more serious note, I didn’t know that about the short story ballot, so your explanation does clarify matters more. Am curious though about how many might have made it onto the ballot if the floor had been 4% instead of 5%. Guess that’ll be announced right after the winners?

    1. I figured that was better than threatening to sue you for associating my name with Jonathan’s. 😉

      The point I was making the other day is that the more people vote in the awards, the less likely it is that there will be a huge log jam for 5th place in Short Story. We may be at the point where we can add an option of a minimum number of votes for qualification alongside the 5%.

  4. Thanks for this article. Agreed that the three nominee-ballot for this year should stand. I do feel the rules should be changed for the future. The industry and the authors and readers are better served by a five story ballot. It’s more fun!

  5. At first sight, the 1994 situation is mathematically impossible. Even if every single nominator nominated the three successful nominees, the remaining two choices per nominator, spread around just thirteen other candidates, should have guaranteed that at least two of the other nominees passed the 5% mark.

    Of course, there’s a false assumption there – that every nominator used all their available nominations. In fact, it is clear that a majority of nominators must have confined their nominations to one or more of the top three nominees. One difference between 1994 and 2013 is that the number of different short stories being nominated these days is high enough to make it not only possible but even just about plausible that only three stories broke the 5% barrier despite every editor using all their nominations. Though, in practice, I suspect that a large proportion of nominators are still making only one or two nominations in the category.

    Solutions? I think that the 5% or 30 suggestion, or something very similar to it (I personally think that 20 or 25 would be better), is the best practicable one. Mathematically, some kind of logarithmic formula would be better – except that everyone except mathematicians would dismiss it as “too complicated”, and the results would probably be broadly similar to “5% or 30” until the number of nomination ballots started hitting five figures. For a completely different alternative – keep the 5% but allow each nominator to propose an unlimited number of short stories. But while this might help a bit, in practice I suspect that not enough people would want to take advantage of it to make a serious difference.

    1. Peter: I think you’re misunderstanding the counting. There were far more than thirteen individual short stories nominated in 1994. I don’t have the numbers with me, but there were probably a couple hundred; there usually are. That’s why there’s such a long tail. I’m not exactly sure where you get “thirteen other candidates.”

      1. I think the confusion comes in at the distinction between “short fiction” (encompassing short stories, novelettes, and novellas) and “short story”.

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