Hugo Myth Season Again

Voting is open for this year’s Hugo Awards, and consequently I need to get back to dispelling the strange ideas about the Hugos that seem to proliferate at this time of the year.

This post has been inspired in particular by the latest episode of the Coode Street Podcast where Gary and Jonathan do their usual fine job, but don’t quite get everything right.

Something that they do get right is the “I haven’t read enough” myth. Every year people trot out the idea that if you haven’t read “everything” then you are not eligible to nominate. This is nonsense. Jonathan and Gary make two very good points. Firstly they talk about some categories in which they feel they don’t know enough, but that isn’t stopping them from nominating in other categories. Nor will it stop them from looking at the nominees in those categories once the finalists are announced.

Secondly Gary notes that he has not yet read a number of very high profile novels, including the latest books by Ann Leckie and NK Jemisin. Gary is a novel reviewer for Locus, and has been for decades. It is his job to read novels. But there are so many that he hasn’t had the chance to read these two obvious contenders. I have read them, but because of the Tiptree reading I haven’t yet read the 2017 novels by Cat Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, Kim Stanley Robinson or Nick Harkaway (sorry guys, I have bought them). Both Gary and I will still nominate in the Novel category. No one can read everything.

There is some discussion in the podcast of the Series category and the question of how many words have to have been published for a series to qualify. That limit is 240,000 words. I’m afraid that Nnedi will have to write at least one more Binti book for the series to be eligible.

The other new award is the YA Book. There is no word limit for this. That decision was made deliberately because many YA books are much shorter than books aimed at the adult market. Jonathan mentions the possible overlap between the YA award and Hugo categories. Yes, we know. One of the main reasons why the YA Book Award is not a Hugo is precisely because there was potential for overlap. That was done deliberately. So I’m afraid saying that you won’t nominate a book in both the YA Book Award and a Hugo category is a bit pig-headed.

Where there may be a possibility for overlap is between Novel and Series. NK Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is in line for Novel, and the Broken Earth trilogy is eligible for Series. It would be an amazing achievement if Nora was to win Hugos for all three books in a trilogy and for the series as a whole, but it is possible.

Finally we come to the bit where the podcast goes totally off the rails. Jonathan resurrects one of the best known zombies of Hugo lore, the idea that the Hugos were once for science fiction only and were later changed to include fantasy. This is not entirely Jonathan’s fault. He got the story from Justin Ackroyd. I have had this discussion with Justin before. He was wrong then and he is still wrong now.

The usual “proof” of this myth is that the Hugos used to be known as the “Science Fiction Achievement Awards”, and also affectionately as the Hugos. WSFS made the official name of the awards the Hugos because it was not possible to register a service mark for “Science Fiction Achievement Awards”. Quite rightly that was deemed too generic by the US mark registration people. The phrase “Science Fiction Achievement Awards” was later mostly eliminated from the WSFS Constitution as it was no longer relevant. (The official renaming was ratified in 1992 and, according to the Business Meeting minutes, was passed without objection.)

However, this change does not mean that the Hugos were once “officially” only for science fiction. The oldest version of the WSFS Constitution that we have available is from 1963. You can read it here. If you look at the definitions of the categories (Section 2) you will see that they use the phrase “science fiction or fantasy” (or, in the case of Amateur Magazine, “science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects”). This was long before “Science Fiction Achievement Awards” was dropped from the Constitution. There was, as far any anyone can remember or records show, never a time when the Hugos were exclusively for science fiction.

Of course this doesn’t stop people from nominating only science fiction if that is what they want to do. However, it is a bit disingenuous to compare the Hugos to things such as the World Fantasy Awards (which are exclusively for fantasy) or the Locus Awards (which have separate categories for science fiction and fantasy novels). The reason that those awards are able to make such distinctions is that they have management structures in place that can make those decisions. There is no “Hugo Committee” that is empowered to decide whether a work is science fiction or fantasy. The Hugo Administrators are just administrators and would run a mile from any suggestion that they should make such a decision. To have an award just for science fiction you would have to institute a process for deciding what qualifies, and that process must not devolve down to a popular vote.

12 thoughts on “Hugo Myth Season Again

  1. I accept the correction happily. I’ll try to remember to do an update that. However, I think I’m still going to only nominate science fiction for the Hugo. Everyone else’s mileage may vary, but that’s my approach. As to Binti, I know the second and third books are much longer, but I don’t think the series does top 240,000, so you’re right there too.

    1. Of course. Nominate whatever you want. But sadly in these days of people threatening to sue Worldcon unless they get their way we do need to make it clear when the process has been very inclusionary.

    2. I don’t have the exact numbers handy, but I believe the first two Binti books are under the 40,000 novella upper limit and the third is only slightly over — around 45,000? At any rate, the third was published in 2018.

      I looked at the Penric books, and they didn’t quite make the word count at 6 installments. A couple of them are just over the novella length as well. So this year you’d need to nominate the main World of the Five Gods series with the latest Penric books as the 2017 installments.

  2. As always, thanks for the clarification, Cheryl. I do make an effort to read the novels I haven’t yet read, once the finalists have been announced, but it seems quixotic to try to keep up with every possible nominee before nominations are due. Your point about the YA/Best Novel overlap also makes sense, and I’ll keep that in mind as well.

    1. The point I tend to make is that the Hugos are open to works in all languages, so to have truly read everything you have to be able to read every novel, etc. published that year, in whatever language it was published. That’s not gonna happen.

    1. Not necessarily. Administrators have disqualified works in the past because they rules they weren’t sufficiently “related” to SF/F. The legislative history following those decisions implies that WSFS doesn’t want Administrators to make those kinds of decisions, but rules can be changed. If WSFS were to try to narrow the definitions, there would surely be those who think the Administrators should take a more active role — until an Administrator made a decision with which those “we need activist Administrators” people disagree, of course.

  3. I was thinking about this issue recently, in terms of whether Hugos have always, de facto, been open to both SF and fantasy. I think the answer is that they have, but in their first decade or so, SF books, at least (maybe not short fiction), so outnumbered fantasy books, that the lists of winners are finalists were still overwhelming SF. Look back over that first decade or so, and two short fiction titles stand out as fantasy: Davidson’s “Or All the Seas with Oysters”; and Bloch’s “That Hell-Bound Train” — which won. Among novels, wasn’t Andre Norton’s Witch World fantasy? I’ve never read it myself… One more: the all-time series category in 1966 included, among the finalists, The Lord of the Rings.

    1. It’s not that they were merely de facto open to SF/F — the Hugo Awards have always been open to SF/F de jure according to all of the documentation that I can find. (Bear in mind that for many years, the Hugo Awards didn’t have written rules; it was far more wide-open than it is today.) Now if the members of Worldcon declined to nominate works of fantasy, that’s up to them, but it’s never been the case, to the best of my knowledge, that nominations for fantasy would be thrown out. I sometimes wonder if people assumed that there used to be a rule prohibiting fantasy works from the Hugo Award because they personally didn’t want fantasy messing up their nice SF, and they assumed that everyone else shared exactly the same definition of the difference between the two. Also, I seem to recall hearing a story that Hugo Gernsback said of the first few Awards given in his name that nearly none of them were what he personally would have considered to be SF.

  4. Justin may have once had the view that the Hugos were originally for sf only though I haven’t heard him express that so explicitly. One thing he does believe in is to only nominate sf works for the fiction categories. And I have some sympathy for him in that regard. You’ll have to ask him about how he votes but I will just consider the ballot as it appears, try to get all of it read in time, and vote for whatever I think best.

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