Sunday, August 21, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: The Winners

Well, here we are again.  That day in late summer when SF fandom blearily pries open its sleep-glued eyes after a long and dimly-remembered evening, and looks dizzily about itself to see just how bad the damage is.  Ladies and gentlemen, the Hugo awards.
  • In a brave but probably doomed attempt to wring something positive out Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear having been deemed the best genre novel of 2010, let me use that victory as a launching point for an intriguing question: is this the very worst best novel decision ever made by the Hugo voters?  You could argue, I suppose, that Willis's victory over what must be admitted was an uninspiring ballot is nothing to her 1993 win (shared with Vernor Vinge for A Fire Upon the Deep) for Doomsday Book, over both Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang.  On the other hand, Doomsday Book is well-regarded by a lot of people who are not me, whereas Blackout/All Clear has been poorly received even by some of Willis's fans.  Not to mention that nearly every reviewer who actually lives in the country where Blackout/All Clear takes place has taken it to task for its wildly inaccurate representations of that country and its history, and for treating that history as a theme park ride.  And, of course, there's the fact that by treating the book's two separately published volumes as a single work and awarding them the genre's highest honor, SF fandom has essentially turned to the publisher who sold them a $50 book and said "thank you, sir, may I have another?"  In other words, Blackout/All Clear's win not only rewards bad writing, it rewards cultural appropriation and exploitative business practices.  It definitely has my vote for the worst best novel Hugo choice ever.

  • On to the other fiction categories.  Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects is one of his lesser works (praising with faint damns, but still), and I would have preferred to see the Best Novella Hugo go to Rachel Swirsky.  Nevertheless, there's something to be thankful for in the fact that Chiang seems to have transitioned into that club of perennial Hugo favorites who are all but guaranteed a nomination and a win whenever they deign to publish (president: C. Willis): it means that there's at least one fiction category whose winner the fannish community has no reason to feel ashamed of.  I wish I could say the same for novelette and short story.  It's tempting to feel grateful that Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" doesn't have a Hugo to sit beside its Nebula (one wonders what role the outrage over the Nebula win played in denying Stone a Hugo), but let's not allow that to obscure the fact that Allen M. Steele's "The Emperor of Mars" is the kind of sentimental, backwards-looking, name-dropping pap that has been clogging up the award's works for too much of the last decade.  There's been a lot of work in the last few years to broaden the Hugo nominator and voter base, and it seems to have worked, but when a story like "The Emperor of Mars" wins the award, it just seems as if no matter how much you increase the voting base, you'll still end up with people who would rather look to the past than the future.  In short story, Mary Robinette Kowal picks up her first fiction Hugo, after winning the Campbell in 2008 and being nominated for "Evil Robot Monkey" in 2009, and thus cements my bewilderment at the popularity of her writing.  Short story was a weak category this year, but there were better stories on it than Kowal's.

  • Not content with the opportunities for stats geekery afforded by the nomination and voting breakdowns, Niall Harrison and Liz Batty have been checking how close the Hugo winners of the last decade came to failing the No Award test (at least 50% of the ballots must rank the winner above No Award).  Blackout/All Clear's No Award score is 11.5%, making it the third most controversial win in the last ten years, following Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids in 2003 (19%), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005 (14.7%).  The only other winner to score above 10% is The Yiddish Policemen's Union (10.2%).

  • Now on to the official stats geekery: like last year and unlike 2009, when most categories were won outright in the first round of vote-counting, several of this year's categories switched winners as votes were redistributed.  What's particularly interesting is that in most of these categories the switch occurs in the last or next to last round of redistribution.  The impression that forms is of very distinct voting blocs.  Randall Munroe, for example, had an impressive lead in Best Fan Artist all the way to the last round of counting.  So did Locus in the Best Semiprozine category, but when Lightspeed's votes were redistributed, less than a quarter of them went to Locus, putting Lightspeed's sister magazine Clarkesworld, whose former editor Sean Wallace now edits Lightspeed, in first place.  Mira Grant's Feed was in the lead for Best Novel until the votes for Cryoburn were redistributed--62 of them went to Feed and 146 to Blackout/All Clear, putting Willis in the lead as The Dervish House's votes split evenly between the two remaining contenders. 

  • Of course, the best known voting bloc in the Hugos is the Who contingent, who have turned the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category into the least interesting of the night.  What is interesting, however, is how the votes break down.  "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" started in first place and held that position until the third round of counting--not, in itself, a particularly encouraging statement about either the category or the state of genre television.  Meanwhile, the highest-ranked Who episode was actually "Vincent and the Doctor"--a more deserving winner than "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang."  Regardless of which of the nominees won, the entire voting fandom should hang its head in shame over the fact that The Lost Thing has an Oscar, but not a Hugo.

  • The news from the Worldcon business meeting is all about the changes to the various publication categories, and there's been no word about whether the Best Graphic Story will live to embarrass us another year.  Phil and Kaja Foglio, whose Girl Genius has just won the award for the third year running, have announced that they will decline a fourth nomination.  Which is nice of them, but as I said last year when Patrick Nielsen Hayden made the same announcement about Best Editor, Long Form (which he acted upon this year), it shouldn't be the responsibility of the nominees to maintain the respectability of the award.  Best Graphic Story was a good idea, but if the same work has won the category in every year of its existence, then it is clearly not working, and it is long past time it was retired.

  • Not much to say about the nominations, except that three more votes to either Tobias Buckell's "A Jar of Goodwill" or Maureen McHugh's "The Naturalist" would have knocked Eric James Stone out of the novelette category, so that's a what if that will surely haunt us.  There's little else beneath the cutoff point of most categories that makes me cringe at the thought of it missing a nomination--either 2010 just wasn't a very good year for genre, or Hugo nominators aren't finding the good stuff.

  • In conclusion, I think this best sums up my reaction to this year's Hugo awards.

23 comments:

John Chu said...

Unlike Lightspeed and Fantasy, Clarkesworld is not published by Prime Books. Sean Wallace was a Clarkesworld editor until November 2010, but calling Clarkesworld Lightspeed's "sister magazine" may imply a closer connection than there actually is.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Dammit, I knew there was something I wanted to check before hitting publish. Thanks for the correction.

Liz said...

I think the Best Graphic Story sunset clause comes up in 2012 (I thought it was 2011 but google suggests I am wrong), so next year will be the test. The number of nominations is just so low I don't think there's enough interest in this category to make it viable, and it's a bit embarrassing that ten people managed to nominate last year's winner.

Alexander said...

One of the worst novel award winners, certainly, on at least three grounds: Dervish House not winning, a book by Willis winning and the particular publishing and aesthetic monstrosity that is Blackout/All Clear taking it. I don't think it's the worst, though--Hominids (2003) is a worse book with sloppier, preachier, less ambitious SFnal elements for my money, and that's a book that beat out among nominees Years of Rice and Salt and The Scar. Looking back I'm really not a Heinlein fan, so for both message and style (plot? What plot?) 1960's win for Starship Troopers probably draws more of my contempt.

This is certainly one of the worst decisions in a while, at least for Novel Category, and after last year framed one of the better decisions. In other matters, I see Inception took it in a landslide, two-to-one ratio in first round of voting over the second most popular, three-to-one advantage in nominating stage. Peh.

takumashii said...

Jo Walton wrote, There’s a kind of a trick fannish trivial pursuit question which is “Which is the worst book ever to win the Hugo?” The answer is They’d Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, 1955’s winner.. I haven't read the book myself, and have nothing to say about it.

Pretty disappointed that Blackout/All Clear managed to win the Hugo *and* Nebula, in any case. Once is an accident -- twice is carelessness.

Alexander said...

I've read They'd Rather Be Right--it's nowhere near as bad as Blackout/All Clear. Certainly it's awkward and hasn't aged well, but it serves as more of a general wiping boy among larger random, a book that's easy to cite as the total point of failure because it's largely out of print and lacks a continuing fandom that's liable to get offended if cited as the worst (unlike, say, Heinlein, Sawyer or Willis). If nothing else, They'd Rather Be Right is a lot shorter, far less derivative, and contains points of actual non-trite extrapolation. It also doesn't have large parts of the plot that depend on 2060 England still use cord phones in a piece of writing from 2010.

Which is part of the additional contrast. Willis' novel already looks hellishly old-fashioned and regressive. Exactly how pathetic and dated do we expect it to seem fifty years down the road?

King Rat said...

Sean Wallace isn't the editor of Lightspeed either. He's the publisher. John Joseph Adams is the editor of Lightspeed.

rachel-swirsky said...

Have you read Barry Deutsch's HEREVILLE? Four votes off the ballot.

Jed said...

(Apologies if this comment is a duplicate--I clicked Post, but nothing appeared to happen, and then I tried again and was told I didn't have permission to view the page, so I'm trying one more time.)

I disagree about Best Graphic Story.

I'm a little confused by your saying that it "was a good idea, but [...] it is long past time it was retired." The award is only three years old; are you saying that it should have been retired after only one or two years? I don't feel like one or two years is enough time to gather evidence about whether a category works or not.

And I don't see the domination of one winner as strong evidence of a bad category. There've been a lot of categories that have had spans of years with the same winner: Fan Writer (Langford, 1989-2007), Fanzine (Locus, 1980-1983), Semiprozine (Locus, 1984-1992 and 1996-2004), Pro Artist (Whelan, 1980-1986), Pro Editor (Dozois, 1988-1993 and 1995-2001), probably others. I don't see those as bad categories, at least not for that reason.

I overheard someone yesterday saying something like "It's not that Best Graphic Story is a bad category; it's that Girl Genius is just really good." I'm inclined to agree. I adore Girl Genius, and I read all of the other nominees this year and didn't especially like any of them. (I think I voted GG, one other one, and then No Award.)

Which, I hasten to add, is not in itself evidence of a bad category; there are other graphic stories that I think should have been on the ballot but weren't. (Especially Darths and Droids.)

Anyway, I guess my real point is that I think the category needs a little more time, especially more time without Girl Genius. If there turns out to be little interest in it next year, then I may well agree with you.

owlfish said...

"Regardless of which of the nominees won, the entire voting fandom should hang its head in shame over the fact that The Lost Thing has an Oscar, but not a Hugo."

It's not quite that bad; Shaun Tan did go home with a Hugo for his work even if his work itself did not.

Omer said...

I can't pretend I've read all the Hugo winners, but "Foundation's Edge" would be my choice; ruining one of the greatest SF series, and setting up the stage for yet worst efforts. Asimov won lots of nostalgy-induced awards, but I'd argue this is the worst one.

Anonymous said...

Liz says "it's a bit embarrassing that ten people managed to nominate last year's winner."

Embarrassing, but understandable. I would think these ten people, who maybe weren't aware of this category before, simply thought Girl Genius was really good, so checked what the last book they bought was and nominated that, job done. No doubt as far as they were concerned, it was the last book published, so there was no need to check the previous winners. Because unless you read the Girl Genius website, or pay very picky attention to the rules, you don't realise that the rules go by the original web publication date of the material and not the print publication date. So on those grounds, I can understand people making that mistake.

Jed says " I don't feel like one or two years is enough time to gather evidence about whether a category works or not."

Sorry, Jed. Abigail's right on this one. There's an absolute tonne of evidence that the category is not working at all well right now. There's the awful inertia in having the same winner every year, there's the fact that people have real difficulty knowing what to nominate because the rules are less than clear, and there's the fact that people who campaign for the award have a massive and unfair advantage over the people who don't. There seems to be no interest in fixing any of these things, either.

"It's not that Best Graphic Story is a bad category; it's that Girl Genius is just really good."

Girl Genius is good, but it's not *that* good. There's a wealth of good science-fiction comics out there, and it speaks of a lack of imagination or awareness within voters that they haven't picked anything else to win. And, of course, the two things aren't mutually exclusive. Girl Genius can be really good AND the category can be really bad. I'd restate my reasons, but you can just read the above paragraph again.

"If there turns out to be little interest in it next year, then I may well agree with you."

You don't really need to wait until next year. Track down the nominating stats for each of the three years the award has run so far and look at the numbers there. Outside of the works that campaign for the award, the numbers are low, and not getting any higher.

I'm of the opinion now that there perhaps needs to be a few years of 'graphic stories' getting more coverage throughout reviews sites and things like that, to raise general awareness, before perhaps trying with the award again some time in the future.

Nick H.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alexander & takumashii:

In fairness, I haven't read enough Hugo winners to truly say which is the worst decision. I missed Hominids, for example, which is getting so much hate here and in other places where the question has come up for discussion that I'm almost perversely tempted to read it. As you both say, conventional wisdom is that They'd Rather Be Right is the worst Hugo winner, but I suspect that Alexander is correct that this has more to do with reputation and fannish tradition.

King Rat:

Gah. I should have just deleted that whole sentence.

Rachel:

I'd heard about Hereville (under its subtitle How Mirka Got Her Sword) when it participated in the Tournament of YA Books, though at the time I didn't realize it was a graphic novel. It sounds like a lot of fun, and in theory exactly what the category should be highlighting.

Jed:

As Nick says, there's a heap of evidence that the Best Graphic Story category isn't working, and to me the most damning is that when Hugo nominating season comes around all the people who talk about their Hugo ballots invariably say that they have no idea what to nominate in it. I don't see that another year will fix this problem, which is clearly an issue of a voting base that just isn't knowledgeable enough about this field to justify the award.

There've been a lot of categories that have had spans of years with the same winner

Yes, and to my mind that's as strong an argument against their existence as it is for Best Graphic Story - it indicates that voters have a narrow vision of the field, that they may be voting based on personal connections rather than merit, and that the field may simply be too narrow to warrant its own award. I would have been happy to lose Best Semiprozine - a ridiculous, made-up term - either when the category was up for retirement in 2009 or as a result of the redefinition of the publication categories this year, but to my mind the strongest argument for its continued existence is the fact that in the last few years Locus seems to have released its stranglehold on it.

owlfish:

True, but there were a lot of people besides Tan involved with The Lost Thing. Not to mention that it was actually the best nominee - the first time in several years that there's been something on the BDP-SF ballot I actually would have liked to see win.

Anonymous said...

"bewilderment at the popularity of her writing . . ."

What you are missing is Kowal's popularity as a person. She is pretty, nice, a SFWA officer, and successfully markets herself, as does Catherynne Valente. Quality is subsumed by personal popularity.

There is so much out there to read that these awards (Hugo and Nebula and WFC) appear to be dwindling to authorial popularity contests. (WFC is a slightly different demongraphic; because Clute hangs out with Hartwell, for example, you are sure to see Elizabeth Hand winning yet again, though nobody else seems to be reading her work.)

Anonymous said...

I've read They'd Rather Be Right and it is as bad as they say - but as for that - I often disagree with the Hugo winners (and I have read all of them, nominees and winners, in all the fiction categories from 1953 - 2011). I am one of those Connie Willis lovers(and she deserved that Hugo for Doomsday Book) but agree that Blackout/All Clear would not have even reached my top five this year. I believe The Dervish House will be read and remembered in years to come - just as River of Gods and Brasyl that didn't win in their respective years will as well.

Other awful winners for novel (some of which are important novels to the history of genre but I find harder to read than this year's winner):

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (won the
Nebula, too)
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
(again Nebula, as well)
Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (Nebula, too)
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scot Card
(another Nebula)
The Uplift War by David Brin
The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold (I actually like this author and would gladly award her one or two Hugos - but 4?)
Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

Not all the other winners deserved it, but at least they were worthwhile books to read.

I guess what I mean from all this is that the Hugos have always had problems - sometimes things won when there just weren't very good choices, sometimes famous writer's win (Heinlein, Willis, Bujold), sometimes very good things lose to just good things. It's a snapshot of the time that will prove itself or not in the future. And that's what makes these awards all interesting. To be able to see what was nominated and won in each year is always fascinating. Jo Walton has been going over the Hugos year by year on Tor.com. Very interesting discussions. Check it out.

I have to say it should have been The Dervish House and the Swirsky novella that won this year. The nominations in Novelette and Short Story were among the weakest of any year.

Bob Blough

Alexander said...

Abigail:
I think you'd find enough wrong in Hominids to make for an engaging rant for the rest of us, though I'd be shocked if you didn't hate the experience. Much of Sawyer's work here and elsewhere is just painfully mediocre, but in that particular novel there are also some infuriating gender representations under the form of a faux-progressivism. Very much the form of the white SF geek-liberal writing about male abuses in extremely essentialist terms.

Most recent anonymous poster:
Agree with almost all of your list for poor Hugo winners. Not quite as harsh on the Bujold and I have enough liking of Brin's worldbuilding to overcome some of the hesitations towards plotting of Uplift War.

Second most recent anonymous poster:
I think you do Valente a disservice by putting her in the same category as Kowal--pleasant person, networking, not very high quality works. There are a lot of people in that vein, and some have succeeded enough to make a regular spot on the ballot, Scalzi, McDevitt, Stross. Valente hasn't even been that frequently nominated, and for my money does offer a lot of substance. Palimpsest merited its nomination, IMO.

Jed:
There's been some dispute already on the Girl Genius issue. To add a bit more specifics, I was a Hugo Voter this year and read the sample packet on Girl Genius, and don't see the argument that it's actually good enough to keep winning for the same story. Yes, the artwork is decent, but the plotting is so filled with 'actually, my secret agenda is...' and 'surprise family disclosure!' that it becomes an unfunny satire of itself.

The Unwritten should have won from the nominees for this year. More broadly the problem is how much good stuff isn't getting nominated--Hellblazer and DMZ come to mind. There are good comics being put out there in genre, but one would scarcely know it from the start of the Hugo now. Best to retire it now, I'd argue, rather than continuing in the hope that it spontaneously improves.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post and discussion -- thank you all.

I count myself as a serious Connie Willis fan who nonetheless really, really disliked Blackout/All Clear. If it had been cut by at least 40%, and the characters had been given more depth, perhaps I'd have loved it -- it's hard to tell. In any case, I admit I was astonished that it even earned a nomination, and quite dismayed when it took the Hugo. (I was rooting for Jemisin.)

I did have the rather depressing feeling that folks this year were voting on popularity. "Oh, Willis is always good, so even though I didn't have time to read her 1100-page work, I'll vote for it. I hear it took her eight years to write it -- what dedication!"

I think my last-place votes won in four categories. Sigh. I thought the Kowal was the weakest short story offering. I thought this installment of Girl Genius, though I love the series, was weak and confusing -- and no one needs to win every year anyway.

And what's with the Doctor Who bloc? I've thought for YEARS that most of those voters do not watch any other SFF television, and then smugly tell themselves it's because they have taste as they fill their voting slates with Doctor Who. I really become hot under the collar when I think how Doctor Who inevitably sucks up three out of every five nominations year after year, and takes the win 3/4 of the time, when fabulous shows like Farscape, Pushing Daisies, and Supernatural never received a single nomination... (When "Planet of the Dead" got a Hugo nomination, I knew we were doomed.) And I actually really like Doctor Who...but it's not the only show out there. (And the Shaun Tan should have won, hands down.)

Kiki

David Moles said...

Unlike Jed I'm not at all a fan of Girl Genius but like Jed I fail to see how the performance of Best Graphic Story over the past three years makes it any worse than the average Hugo category. It would be nice if it behaved like a fiction category, but it doesn't. There's no argument for getting rid of it that doesn't also apply (at minimum) to DPSF, fan writer, and semiprozine.

Dan said...

I have to agree with David Moles. The Hugos as a whole have become useless. They only serve to generate column inches, nostalgia, and frustration.

It would be nice to see a new (non-Hugo) award for SF short stories - the most important category where no really good alternative award exists.

Alexander said...

I think there's a case to be made for the Graphic Story category producing worse candidates than others. Not that there aren't severe problems in Best Novel, but there seem to exist more resources for discussing and being aware of actually good books. The last three years has seen nominated among the dross Palimpsest, Dervish House, Windup Girl, Anathem, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It's outweighed by the mediocre or flat out terrible (Little Brother and Wake in particular) but there seems to be enough works with claims of real quality to not utterly write off the whole sphere.

Graphic Story, though? Across the equivalent time there's three Girl Genius nominations, three Fables, three Schlock Mercenary. The only flat out great work, IMO, has been the finishing of Y: The Last Man, and to a lesser extent the Unwritten. Beyond that you have stuff less deserving than Girl Genius showing up--this year's Grandville and 2009's spinoff from the horrible Dresden Files comes to mind.

It seems that minimal numbers of Hugo voters give much attention to graphic stories, the result is a lot of specific fanbase blocs and highly mediocre shortlists. Continuing the category as is seems unlikely to change things, perhaps putting Graphic Story on ice until there's serious enthusiasm and a basis for more assessment of quality.

Agreed on the potential value in some kind of Clarke equivalent for short speculative fiction. Arguably Related Work as well--I don't think it's been mentioned much in most Hugo reaction posts, but there was a pretty immense step down in this year compared with the last as well. I'm sure there's a lot of great stuff being done, but at present I'm aware of it only through following specific authors or seeing personal recommendations.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I said to Jed, David, I think semiprozine has improved immeasurably in recent years now that it's no longer a lock for Locus (one positive result of the absurd vote-counting policy for the Locus award, I suppose), and I've been seeing the same change in fan writer. BDP-SF is, it's true, a Who-esque wasteland. To be honest I'm starting to come around to Jo Walton's way of thinking, frequently expressed in her Hugo posts, that the BDP categories should be abolished.

Dan said...

I should clarify that when I said the Hugos were "useless", I meant that in the precise sense of them supplying no useful information: the fact that a book or story makes it onto a Hugo shortlist does not increase the probability that it is of above-average quality. (Which is not to say that great books never make it onto the shortlist, of course - simply that using Hugo shortlists to winnow the pool of possible reads is no longer helpful.)

Rob Randall said...

The Hugos are useless... not only that there ara sometimes bad works between the winners, normaly there are very, very terrible texts between the nominated novels.

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