It’s that season again, and we’re having awards arguments 101 for the umpteenth year in a row. Nothing changes. I am tired of the same old same old, because nothing has moved forward one iota in all the time we’ve been having these debates. I thought about a magisterial silence, but that doesn’t really work. So I thought in the end that I would write a post to round up my discontents, so that in years to come I could simply point back to this post as my contribution to each new iteration of awards arguments 101. I am, therefore, writing this as a way of staying silent on the subject.
During the course of this discussion I may mention individual pieces or people that have been shortlisted for one award or other, but the post is not really about them. I do not intend an argument on the lines of: X should have won; Y should not have been allowed within a mile of an award. This is about the process, the nature, the character of awards; it is just that sometimes individual examples may help illustrate the point.
I have administered the Hugo and the BSFA Awards; I helped set up the Arthur C. Clarke Award, served on the jury for two years and later administered the award for a further 11 years; I have served on the juries of the Clareson Award, the Pioneer Award, the Tiptree Award and currently the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I have received both the Clareson Award and the BSFA Non-Fiction Award; and in addition have been shortlisted for the Hugo, BFS and Locus Awards, and for both the BSFA Short Fiction Award and the BSFA Non-Fiction Award. I have seen plenty of different awards from several different perspectives. This doesn’t make me an expert, I claim no special privilege in making these pronouncements, but it does give me some experience to draw on.
What are awards for?
This is the most basic question of all. Yet in all the award arguments, I have never seen it asked by either side. Perhaps it seems so obvious: an award is there to recognise the best.
But it’s never as simple as that. Let’s put aside for a moment the question of what we actually mean by ‘best’ (I’ll return to this in a moment); there are still a lot of other questions being begged here. Why should the best need to be recognised? Why is an award an appropriate way to offer that recognition? And, perhaps most relevantly, is that what awards are actually set up to do?
The more I think about it, the less I feel that honouring the best has much to do with awards. It is, if you like, the surface gloss, the easy explanation for public consumption, but it is not actually, or at least not wholly, the reason.
Now I do not know why the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, as the Hugos were originally called, were staged at the 1953 Worldcon, or why they were revived at the 1955 Worldcon and have been held every year since. I don’t imagine anyone much under 80 is going to have any direct personal memory of these events, or the discussions that led to them. But I am willing to concede that honouring the best writers, illustrators and what have you of the day was part of the thinking. This, however, is not necessarily as straightforward or as altruistic as it may appear today. The science fiction world of the early 1950s was much smaller than it is today; any moderately industrious fan had a reasonable prospect of reading everything published as science fiction during the course of the year. Despite the name (which apparently derived from the New York World’s Fair which coincided with the first Worldcon in New York in 1939), the Worldcon was primarily an American convention. The first to be held outside North America was Loncon in 1957, and the convention remained determinedly Anglophone until the Heidelberg convention of 1970. In this small world, therefore, when many of the most active authors had emerged from fandom and retained strong links with it, and when many fans had aspirations to become authors in their turn, the overlap between those who would vote on the award and those who might be eligible for the award was huge. In other words, honouring the best and congratulating ourselves can’t really have been that far apart.
I would also suspect that, from the point of view of the convention, the awards would make for a big set-piece event that would provide a focal point for the whole occasion.
And there may have been something else, something unstated and perhaps not consciously understood, but nevertheless something that might well have affected the thinking. As Samuel R. Delany has pointed out in Starboard Wine, the first university courses on science fiction began to make their tentative appearance at the beginning of the ’50s, that is, roughly contemporary with the establishment of the Hugo Awards. At the same time, mainstream publishers were beginning to produce hardback science fiction novels as a regular part of their output. The genre was starting to grow up and leave its childhood home of pulp magazines and the small circle of in-the-know aficionados. I wonder if, at the back of the mind somewhere, there was the sly little thought that other people were now getting to know sf, but we writers and fans were the ones who really knew the genre, so we should be the ones who decided what was best, and hence what science fiction really was. The award thus becomes a means of defining and staking ownership in the genre.
All awards, I would argue, are ways of asserting ownership by claiming the right to decide what is or is not to be acclaimed as the exemplars, the stars, the best of the genre.
Of course, once there is one award, the way is open for others to follow. By the 1960s, a divide was starting to open up between the professional and the amateur in science fiction. Though the overlap between fans and authors at the Worldcon remained high, the professionals now had their own organisation, the Science Fiction Writers of America (notice that this is still a North American thing), which was beginning to draw in authors who were not part of fandom. I suspect, therefore, that part of the (possibly unspoken) impetus behind the establishment of the Nebula Awards was the idea that defining what was best about science fiction should be something for the practitioners. Similarly, I am pretty sure that part of what drove the establishment of the BSFA Awards was the fact that British writers, and hence British science fiction, were not being represented in the Hugos. Purely coincidentally, the first British writer to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel was John Brunner for Stand On Zanzibar, which also happened to win the inaugural BSFA Award. Curiously, in an age of Amazon and ebooks, when it is supposedly easier for people anywhere to keep up with books from anywhere, the shortlists for the Hugo fiction awards (at least when the Worldcon is in North America) are comprised predominantly of America writers, while the shortlists for the BSFA fiction awards are predominantly made up of British writers, so some sort of transatlantic divide continues to this day.
Other awards are set up for still other reasons. The Tiptree Award was set up with the polemical purpose of drawing attention to the way gender is depicted within science fiction. It has a political purpose unrelated to notions of ‘best’.
As for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, about which I can speak from personal knowledge, that was set up because Clarke wanted to put something back into British science fiction. He originally wanted to sponsor a magazine (on the model, one presumes, of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), but was persuaded that the British market would not have supported another magazine to rival the well-established Interzone. Among the alternative ideas proposed was the idea of sponsoring an award. Again there was the problem of a pre-existing award, the BSFA Award, so it was decided to give the Clarke Award a different character by making it a juried award. Only then, after the fact and the character of the award had been established, was there any discussion of the purpose of the award. As a result, the primary purpose of the Arthur C. Clarke Award is not to honour the best, but to promote British science fiction.
What is an award given for?
Before I begin, I should point out that in this section I am primarily concerned with arriving at a shortlist. Going on to pick one work from that shortlist as the actual winner is, in a sense, just a refinement of the process, since everything on the shortlist should be presumed to be an equal contender for the final title.
One of the things that I was at pains to point out to every Clarke jury that I chaired was that the award was ostensibly for the best science fiction novel of the year, but in fact we had not defined what was meant by ‘best’, by ‘science fiction’, or indeed by ‘novel’. All of these were down to each jury to decide among themselves each year. In my experience, this did not lead to broad philosophical discussions, but rather ad hoc debates about particular books. There were, presumably, inconsistencies of approach, but I think the juries ended up with shortlists that fitted their various ideas of science fiction widely but coherently.
However, it is incontrovertible that you could not map what one jury considers best or science fiction onto the shortlist of another jury. Each year a different notion of ‘best’ was applied to a different notion of ‘science fiction’. What this means is that one year a jury might take a radical or progressive view as to what constitutes science fiction and the next jury might take a safe and conservative view.
Such relativism is built in to the structure of the Clarke Award (and is, presumably, why it is one year an award to cheer and another year an award to excoriate), but I suspect it is part of the warp and weft of every other award. On the Campbell Award jury, for instance, we have a fairly clear idea of what we mean by science fiction, which tends towards the traditional, scientifically rigorous line that would have been familiar to Campbell. But there is still enough leeway for us to argue endlessly about whether particular books conform to, or explore, or extend this notion, or what we might consider makes them the best. There is enough give and take in notions of what constitutes science fiction and best, therefore, for novels like Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo or Christopher Priest’s The Islanders to win the prize.
Notions of ‘best’ and ‘science fiction’ are incredibly fluid. Consider that we do not actually have a generally agreed definition of science fiction (and actually I hold that such a definition is impossible), and that best is such a subjective concept, and we see how unstable is the basis on which most awards are established. (This, incidentally, is why I am coming to think that awards with a more specific agenda, such as the Tiptree or the Kitschies have the potential to be more interesting and, perhaps, more enduring.)
Within a jury, this fluidity of notions can be debated within a small group, all of whom have notionally read the same books. (In practice, it is more likely that everyone will read some of the books, but others will be read by one or two members of the jury who will triage the submissions.) The smallness of the circle and the similarity of reading experience mean that it is possible to arrive at a consensus. In a popular vote award, this option is not available.
The way a popular vote award like the Hugo, BSFA or, with a slightly more limited universe, the Nebula Awards works is that the universe of eligible voters is asked to nominate works for the shortlist. While there might be some discussion among various segments of the voting population, which means that certain groups here or there might have arrived at a rough consensus as to what is meant by ‘best’ or ‘science fiction’ or whatever the criteria for the award might be, the basic underlying assumption of the award has to be that there is and can be no such discussion, no such agreement. Such definitions, therefore, have to arise out of the nominating process; if sufficient people agree on the worth of X so that X ends up on the shortlist, then we behave as though everyone nominated X for the same reason and ask no further questions. Of course, in reality that is highly unlikely; in fact it is far more likely that people have nominated X for antithetical reasons. What I like about X you hate, what you like I hate, but we both like it sufficiently to nominate it. What a popular vote award is actually honouring, therefore, what precisely is meant by ‘best’, can never be clear.
What is clear is that such definitions will change, will indeed become less identifiable, over time. This is not just because the nature of the genre or individual matters such as taste change over time (though that is certainly a part of it), but is largely a consequence of the circumstances of the award changing over time. If I use the Hugos as an exemplar here, you must understand that comparable developments apply in the case of the BSFA Awards, the Nebula Awards and all other popular vote awards.
Let’s go back to the beginning. When the Science Fiction Achievement Awards were first launched, the voting universe was small. The membership of the 1953 Worldcon was 750, in 1955 when the Hugos were revived the membership was 380. It is likely that most of the members knew, or knew of, most of the rest of the members. They were a coherent group, much more united in taste, interest and experience than any Worldcon we are likely to encounter. And science fiction publishing meant that any one of them might have been able to keep up with every piece of science fiction that came out that year. In these circumstances, the eligible works would be known to just about all of the voters, and the voters would be making their choice based on a shared experience of science fiction. But such circumstances do not last.
20 years later, in 1972 the Worldcon had over 2,000 members; in 1992 it was over 6,000; Worldcon attendances have started to decline since then, and in 2010, the last year for which I have seen figures, total attendance was over 3,000. The volume of science fiction published in any year has expanded and contracted in a similar fashion (I don’t know if anyone has ever mapped publication figures onto Worldcon attendances, but it might be interesting to do so at some point). What is inescapable is that the electorate has grown to the point where it cannot possibly cohere in terms of taste, interest, experience or reading; while at the same time the amount eligible for any award has grown to a point where it is physically impossible for anyone to keep up with it all. Thus, while it may be possible to argue that the very earliest Hugo Awards emerged from the equivalent of an extra-large jury where we might safely assume similar knowledge of the field and a rough consensus on what counts as best, that is patently not the case in any year since at least the 1970s. No voters would know the entirety of the field, and no consensus of exactly what they are looking for in a work could possibly emerge. To use the word ‘best’ to describe any Hugo winner since that time is simply meaningless.
What, then, is being honoured in a popular vote award (and remember, though I am using the Hugo Awards as an exemplar here, much the same argument applies to other similarly constituted awards)? The obvious, and probably correct, answer is popularity. But even this is problematic. All awards, to some degree or other, honour popularity. If a work is popular with the members of a small jury, then that work is likely to do well in that jury’s deliberations. Sometimes individual works are widely popular, sometimes a very popular author will attract votes even for a less than stellar work. I imagine there are occasions when works have received votes even though the voter hasn’t actually read them, based on liking the author, or liking earlier works by that author, or being intrigued by what reviewers have said, or any of a host of other imponderable reasons. ‘Popular’ is thus no more coherent, cohesive or explicable than ‘best’ as a description of what the award is honouring.
More than that, as the field grows so that no-one can possibly be aware of its entirety, so popular becomes at best a partial term. People will vote for what they know in their own cantonment within the federation of sf, because that is the science fiction they know. But they may be totally unaware of what is happening in the next canton; they may have no interest in those happenings; developments in canton B might be the most exciting things that have ever happened in science fiction to the inhabitants of canton B, but to the inhabitants of canton A they are of no relevance whatsoever. To put it another way, the bigger the voter universe the more likely people are going to feel discontented with the award because it is not addressing their own particular part of the sf spectrum.
On top of all that we have the impact of the internet, which has made it easier for people to promote their own work or to log-roll for others. As the nominating window opens for the Hugo Awards in particular (but for other awards as well), places like Facebook and Twitter become almost impossible to navigate because of people proclaiming: this is what I have done that is eligible. What it indicates, of course, is that the field is so diverse that people are terrified that their own work is going to disappear in the mass. What actually results is that those people with a more dominant web presence are consequently more likely to be noticed and hence attract nominations and votes. This is not a hard and fast rule, there are plenty of examples that count both for and against this suggestion, but it is part of the confusion of what is meant by ‘popular’ in a popular vote award.
How does the process affect the award?
As I have said, what I wrote above may have focussed on the Hugo Awards but the general points apply, to a greater or lesser extent, to other popular vote awards. What I want to do now is turn to a specific issue with the Hugo Awards (although it is possible that at least part of this may come to apply to other awards in future). I am aware, in writing this, that I am treading on the toes of Jonathan McCalmont who wrote a post about the Hugo Awards with which I am in almost complete agreement. I have somewhat different points to make, but they should be seen as complementing what Jonathan wrote.
For me, the most dramatic illustration of the point I was making above about the diffusion of the genre and the cantonisation of sf readerships is the short story shortlist for the 2013 Hugo Awards. Only three works were shortlisted because of the 5% rule, which states that any work on the shortlist must attract at least 5% of all nominations in that category. If 100 people nominated short stories this year, there were only three stories on which any five voters could be found to agree.
This state of affairs has been, inevitably, controversial. But all of the complaints I have seen have been along the lines that those stories that could only attract four nominees have somehow been cheated out of a place on the shortlist. At first I found this response baffling, until I realised that in the scramble to get noticed being on the Hugo shortlist was a win whether or not the story deserved its place within the rules of the award. Now, I think the Hugos have too many rules, and too many of the wrong rules, as I will explain in a moment, but as long as there are rules in place they should be followed. Just because you can’t get four people in a hundred to agree that your story deserves a place on the final ballot is no reason to ignore the rules.
Now I am sure that the 5% rule was put in place on the understanding that it would never be needed. It is there simply as a safeguard to ensure that works that don’t have wide popular support don’t find their way onto the ballot. But the fact that the 5% rule has had to be invoked this year is very revealing to me. What it suggests is that there are too many people nominating too many stories with no clear consensus on what qualities they are voting for. With the profusion of online (often short-lived) venues for stories, with the explosion of self-publishing, with stories being made available at knock-down prices or even for free on the Kindle and its equivalents, the number of short stories appearing each year is not about to go into a sudden and rapid decline. Since it is already impossible for anyone to be aware of everything that is out there, I predict that the 5% rule will need to be invoked with increasing regularity over the coming years.
There are two possible responses to this. In the first place we might see it as evidence that the Hugos are losing their relevance as a measure of the genre. Alternatively, if we assume that the relevance of the Hugos must be unquestioned, then we will get increasing calls for the 5% rule to be scrapped. I am not honestly sure that I see either happening.
The Hugos are the most bureaucratic awards I have ever known, in or out of the genre. They are hedged around with pages upon pages of rules, which are in turn closely guarded by a body that meets once a year at the Worldcon. The WSFS business meeting is open to any convention attendee, so theoretically it is possible for any of us to go along and initiate changes. But it is not quite as simple as that. Any change proposed at one meeting must be ratified at the next before it can come into force. Which means that anyone looking to change any Hugo rules must be prepared to attend two consecutive Worldcons, which could well be on different continents. Speaking personally, I am not sure that I will be able to afford to attend the London Worldcon which is taking place just 70 miles from my home. So this is something that requires a perhaps considerable investment of money and time, and in fact the way these things work you would probably need to attend one or more other meetings simply to get any change onto the agenda.
I have attended one of these business meetings, which I am assured was typical. I remember just two things from that meeting, which lasted, as I recall, pretty well half a day. First, there was a long, open-ended debate about how long should be devoted to debating the next item on the agenda. Second was walking out of the meeting at the end and not being sure whether anything substantive had actually been decided. Most things, as I recall, had been deferred until later meetings.
The consequence of this devotion to civil service routines and behaviours is two-fold. Any changes that do get passed tend to increase rather than decrease complexity. Thus, new categories of awards are added (there are currently 16 different categories, not counting the Campbell Award for new writers, which we are repeatedly told is not a Hugo though voting is done alongside the Hugos, it is presented along with the Hugo, and it is promoted just as the Hugos are, so that any distinction is liable to be lost on the outsider); or existing categories are made more complex (music has now apparently been added to the Related Work category, which means that voters could now find themselves having to make an impossible choice between a work of criticism, a collection of artwork, and a piece of music). And changes are slow, at least two years and usually more from conception to execution. Which means that the Hugo Awards cannot react quickly to changing circumstances. Let us imagine that, at this year’s WSFS business meeting, the issue of the controversy aroused by the 5% rule is considered. If it is decided that the rule needs to be looked at, a proposed change could be put forward at the next Worldcon, it would be ratified at the Worldcon after that, and come into effect for the following year’s Hugos. That is, the quickest response possible to a controversy in 2013 would not result in any substantive change until 2016 at the earliest. It is a procedure that militates against change, and encourages patching what is there rather than making any more radical alteration.
It is this bureaucracy, as much as the problems generated by the size of the constituency and the fragmentation of knowledge of the literature, that convinces me that the Hugo Awards are no longer fit for purpose. Size and bureaucracy obviously exaggerate the problems that the Hugo Awards face, but similar problems could confront the other awards, especially the popular vote awards. Of course, so far as I am aware none of these is hampered by quite the complexity of Hugo Award governance. I don’t know how the Nebula Awards are governed, but the BSFA Awards can be changed by a meeting of the BSFA committee, which meets several times a year, making it far more responsive to changing circumstances. I once sat in on a meeting of the Tiptree Motherboard, which was less than half the length of a Hugo Award meeting and far more effective, since any change would be immediate. Similarly, the Clarke Award can be changed quickly by the administrator working with the various bodies that provide the judges.
What we consider science fiction to be is changing rapidly. Its borders are becoming vaguer and further away, there’s more being published than any of us can ever be aware of. I suspect that any award that attempts to cover the whole field and be all things to all people is already doomed to irrelevance. I think the awards that are likely to continue to engage our interest are those that are able to react quickly to the changing character of the genre, and particularly those that have a focus we can recognise and share.