In a Business Meeting Far, Far Away

Worldcon is due to start in just a couple of days time. Kevin is on his way to China to keep some of the wheels of WSFS turning. Part of that, of course, involves the Business Meeting, which will have a very different flavour this year as the majority of attendees will probably be Chinese.

Chinese fandom has taken the whole thing very seriously. There are a whole load of new motions listed in the Agenda, many of which have been proposed by Chinese fans. Some of them are good ideas. For example, I’m very much in favour of adding a specific clause to note that works are eligible for the Hugos regardless of language. This has always been the case, but so many people refuse to believe it, and even firmly assert that it is not true, that we could do with some specific langauge.

It is also a good idea to have a specific rule about converting word counts into something that works in non-Western languages.

With several of the other proposals, I suspect that people will suddenly decide that the rule that changes to the WSFS Constitution must be passed by two successive Business Meetings is a good idea after all. But there is only one that I am actively worried about. That motion proposed deleting section 3.4.2 of the Constitution, which reads as follows:

3.4.2: Works originally published outside the United States of America and first published in the United States of America in the previous calendar year shall also be eligible for Hugo Awards.

The commentary on the motion reads:

The original clause reveals a tendency towards regional arrogance and a possibility of discrimination. We strongly recommend a revision to remove it, for impartiality.

I can quite see why the proposers of the motion should feel that way. It certainly seems odd that a particular part of the world is singled out in that way. It also looks like the rule favours American fans, because it gives them two opporunities to vote on a favourite book. However, that’s not what the rule is there for. The Hugo rules don’t, for the most part, care about fairness to fans. They do care about fairness to creators who might be eligible for awards.

The reason that 3.4.2 exists is because it is acknowledged that every year (possibly until now) the majority of voters in the Hugos are Americans. If a work in English is published in the USA, fine, no problem. The voters will have access to it. But if a book is published in the UK, in Australia, Nigeria, India, or any other country with a substantial English-language publishing industry, there is no guarantee that it will be published in the USA in the same year. If the book is successful in its home country, it may then be picked up by a US publisher in a later year, but by that time it will have burned its Hugo initial eligibility. No matter how much US fans like the book, they wouldn’t be able to vote for it if not for 3.4.2. And thanks to 3.4.2 it will have a much better chance of winning than it would the first time around.

No one really likes this rule. It would be much better if all books were published internationally at the same time. But that isn’t going to happen. Indeed, publishing seems to have got more insular of late, not less. So we are kind of stuck with it.

What I’m wondering is whether the same might apply to Chinese-language books. Suppose there was a science fiction small press in somewhere like Vancouver that has a large Chinese population, and it chose to publish a book in Mandarin. The book would sell very few copies in Canada, but it might be picked up by someone who took it back to China and showed it to a publishing house there, resulting in publication in China a year later. Chinese fans would find that they could not vote for it. If we are going to have a significant number of Chinese fans participating in the Hugos in years to come, the right thing to do might be to amend 3.4.2 to be about English language works published in the USA or Chinese language(s) works published in China. Longer term we might want to identify major markets for works in, for example, Spanish and Russian as well.

My hope is that, even if the motion passes in Chengdu, it will be kicked out in Glasgow. After all, Ken MacLeod is someone who has benefitted from 3.4.2. However, given the tendency of British fans to assume that the Hugos are rigged in favour of Americans, it would not surprise me to see the argument being put forward by the Chinese gain traction in the UK too. It would be ironic if a UK Worldcon did something that actively damaged the chances of UK authors winning Hugos, but it could happen.