Sunday, August 23, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Thoughts On the Results

This year's Hugo results are a landmark occasion: they are the closest I've ever come to guessing the entire slate of winners.  In an informal poll last week among friends (which I'm now kicking myself for not putting on twitter) I guessed all but three of the winners, and in two of those categories, Best Novel and Best Novelette, I had the winner as a strong second choice (the only real surprise?  Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.  I was sure that the--inexplicable, to me--love for Doctor Who's "Listen" would carry the day, and didn't think Orphan Black would even be in the running).

I'm mentioning this not so much to brag, but to make the point that this year's results--in which the by-now infamous puppy campaigns were soundly defeated, with all five of the puppy-controlled categories coming back with No Award as the winner, most of the puppy nominees finishing below No Award, and the only puppy winner being Guardians of the Galaxy in Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form--were actually very predictable.  I'm usually pretty bad at guessing the Hugo voters' tastes, but this year, when the voting period closed and the Sasquan award administrators announced that they had received a record-shattering 5,950 ballots--a whopping 66% more than the previous record-holding year--it seemed pretty obvious which way the wind was blowing.  As several analysts pointed out, everything would depend on who those extra voters turned out to be.  If they were puppy or Gamergate supporters, the award would be theirs.  If they were regular Hugo voters who were ignoring this year's political kerfuffle, the results would be difficult to predict.  If, however, the influx of voters came from people disgusted with the puppies' tactics, and with their willingness to burn the Hugos down as "punishment" for not rewarding their favorite authors and works, then the only possible result would be the complete rejection of the puppy nominees.

And the thing is, once you phrase the issue that way, the conclusion becomes obvious.  Option 2 gets thrown out immediately; 3,000 extra people did not take the time to buy a membership (along the way making Sasquan, a relatively modest-sized Worldcon if you only count the warm bodies, the biggest in the convention's history) just so they could vote without regard to politics.  Something was clearly different this year, and so the question became: who do you believe actually cares this much about the Hugos, the puppies and Gamergaters and their fellow travelers, or the people who find those groups' politics, and the behavior resulting from them, disgusting?  I've been following the Hugos, in one form or another, for fifteen years.  I know the people who care about them, and the fandom they emerge from.  So yeah, I was absolutely certain that the huge increase in voters could only mean one thing: an anti-puppy backlash.

If you look at the voting breakdowns (PDF), this becomes even more obvious.  In normal years, you usually see a wide distribution of voter participation in the different categories.  A high percentage of the ballots received tend to include votes in the Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form categories, but categories like Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist receive much lower participation numbers (last year, both circled around 40% of ballots received).  This year, the lowest participation categories, Best Fancast and Best Fan Artist, came in at 57% and 58% respectively, and everything above the best editor categories (themselves not usually heavy hitters) came in in the 80s and 90s.  It's also interesting to note the breakdown of results in the Best Short Story category.  The puppies got a full slate in this category, but among those voters who read the nominees, there was some consensus that Kary English's "Totaled" was the best of a bad lot, and a passable nominee.  Some people were speculating that enough voters might be sufficiently swayed by its literary merits for it to take home the award.  And yet looking at the actual voting stats, "Totaled" never even came close to winning.  It had a little under 900 first place votes, against more than 3,000 for No Award.  Something similar happens when you look at the two Best Editor categories.  Despite the presence of recognized, respected names like Mike Resnick, Sheila Gilbert, and Toni Weisskopf, some of whom are previous Hugo winners, No Award took both of these categories by storm, without even needing to redistribute the votes.  (Weisskopf, in particular, should have a bone to pick with the puppy organizers.  If it hadn't been for her association with them, it's likely she'd be taking home a Hugo this year.)  There can be no question that, overwhelmingly, the people who voted for the Hugos this year did so with one goal in mind: to express their dissatisfaction with how the nominations shook out, and with the people who orchestrated them.

Among the puppy contingent, there are already people claiming that this result and its obvious implications "prove" their point about the Hugos' corruption.  But the truth--if any of them are willing to see it--is that it does the exact opposite.  Of all the many claims and justifications offered by the puppies over the last four and a half months for their actions, the closest they ever came to a coherent claim--largely because it couldn't be immediately disproved, like so many of their other arguments--was that their organized slate voting was merely replicating a process already in place.  That the Hugos had already been corrupted by "SJWs" who were already gaming the vote in order to get work by and about people who were not straight white men on the ballot.  The puppies claimed that they represented "real" Hugo fandom, here to take back the award from a politically-motivated cabal that had commandeered it.

But the thing is, if that were true, it would be true.  If the puppies had truly represented "real" fandom, then "real" fandom would have turned up to vote for the nominees they put on the ballot.  Instead, the people who voted were, overwhelmingly, thoroughly pissed off and eager to kick some puppy ass.  The Hugo is a popular vote award, and what that means is that while it can be manipulated, it can't be stolen.  It belongs to whoever turns up to vote, and in 2015 the people who turned up to vote wanted nothing to do with the puppies' politics and tactics.  Despite the puppies' loudest claims to the contrary, 3,000 voters are not a cabal or a clique.  They are the fandom.

I'd like to believe that there are enough people among the puppy voters who are capable of seeing this.  There's been some debate today about what percentage of the Hugo voters actually represent puppies.  This analysis by Chaos Horizon suggests that there were 500 Rabid Puppy voters, and 500 Sad Puppy voters.  That's a big enough number to suggest that we could be looking at a repeat of this dance next year--another puppy-dominated ballot, another fannish outrage, another puppy shutout at the voting phase.  But to my mind, the real question is: how many of those thousand voters are willing to do that?  How many of them would rather destroy the Hugo than see it go to someone they disapprove of?  How many of them are able to ignore the undeniable proof that they've maxed out their support within the community, and that there simply aren't enough Gamergate trolls to make up the difference?  I'd like to believe that those people are not the majority.  That there are among puppy voters people who can grasp that if you want to win a Hugo, the simplest and easiest way to do it is to play by the same rules as everyone else: write and publicize good, worthwhile work, and do so with a genuine love for the award, not the contempt and resentfulness that characterized the puppies' behavior this year.

The truth is--and this is something that we've all lost sight of this year--no matter how much the puppies like to pretend otherwise, the Hugo is not a progressive, literary, elitist award.  It's a sentimental, middle-of-the-road, populist one.  I rarely like the shortlists it throws up, and am often frustrated by the excellent work that it ignores.  In fact, looking at this year's would-have-been nominees, I see some work that I loved--Aliette de Bodard's "The Breath of War," Carmen Maria Machado in the Campbell Award category--but on the whole it feels like a very safe, unexciting ballot that I would probably have complained about quite a bit if it had actually come to pass.  And for all the crowing about this year's winners being a victory for those who love the Hugos, some of them--particularly in the Best Novelette and Best Fan Writer categories--send as message that is, to my mind, far from progressive.  (Full disclosure: this year's nominating breakdowns reveal that, if it hadn't been for the puppies, I would have been nominated in the Best Fan Writer category.  I don't think I would have won, and all things considered I'm glad that I was out of that mess this year, but it's worth acknowledging.)  It's not that I've never felt the desire to burn the whole edifice down, the way the puppies say they do.  The difference is that I never thought that exasperation could be used to justify actually doing it.

At the end of the day, there are only two viable approaches to dealing with how frustrating we all find the Hugos: walk away in disgust, or keep nominating the things that you love, and encouraging others to do the same.  To be honest, I don't care which one the puppies choose, so long as they stop trying to ruin this for the rest of us.  But for those of us who care about the Hugos, and who want to see them recognize what is truly excellent in the field, we have our work cut out for us.  3,000 people turned out this year to slap down those who thought they owned an award that belongs to all of us.  I hope that enough of them stick around next year to do the harder, and yet so much more gratifying, work of nominating and celebrating the true breadth, diversity, and excellence of our genre.  Last night's results were about rejecting dogma and resentment.  Next year's work should be about embracing difference, and the full potential of our genre.

14 comments:

Yusef Stuart said...

Your blog is my only look into the critics' corner of literary fantasy and sci-fi. This "puppies" thing seems so absurd from the outside. It is impressive how well you and the other critics have handled yourselves in taking them down.

Especially puzzling are the complaints afterwards by Beale that "science fiction has been politicized and degraded by their far left politics". As if their tactics weren't the worst kind of political gamesmanship.

Anyway, thanks for covering what must have been an exhausting and heated issue for someone so close to the issues. God willing the Hugos will not be like this next year.

dave said...

If the sad and rabid puppies make up 1000 of the nominating block, it will take a lot more than 3000 defenders to keep them from doing the very same thing next year. Unless they too use a slate, which would also be terrible.

I'm afraid whatever happens, next year will be a repeat. Only once EPH passes again will this furor die down.

Migly said...

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post.

Standback said...

@dave: Even EPH might not be enough; it depends highly on whether the non-Puppy nominations manage to cluster around some popular candidates, or whether it'll all be tiny isolated pockets that the 1000 Puppy voters will beat even under EPH.

Best Novel will probably be OK, but the short fiction categories may be in trouble - remember that even without the Puppies, we've already got trouble with the 5% rule there.
On the other hand, maybe getting back Best Novel will be enough to put a dent in the Puppies' enthusiasm. That is The Big One.

scipiosmith said...

@Standback: As I understand the byzantine methodology of EPH, it essentially comes down to Proportional Representation: you get the slots in proportion to the size of your faction (I'm not saying there are factions, but the new system essentially assigns you into a voting bloc based on your choices); so they may well get one or two slots a year, but I don't think it's mathematically possible to claim all the places without also having all the votes under EPH. And if they have the numbers to get two slots, then they deserve two slots on the ballot.

rinolj said...

You covered this so thoroughly that I'm struggling to find something worthwhile to add, except that things looked pretty much the way you describe from my position as a Sasquan staffer and attending member.

The sentiment is widely felt that the best solution to the entire problem is broader participation in Hugo nominations -- which is obviously true but easier said than done. The data nominators need is perceived as unavailable without excessive time commitment, and so most voters punt and let nominations be Somebody Else's Problem, year after year.

Further development of recommended reading lists like BASFA's, and access to credible (and there comes the politics) reviews would likely help those who'd gladly nominate if they felt confident about making an informed choice without needing a second career.

L'hitraot,
Rick Moen
rick@linuxmafia.com

Standback said...

@scipiosmith : My understanding is quite incomplete as well, but I think you're mistaken. What you're failing to factor in is that the distribution of the non-bloc nominations is at least as important as their number.

A trivial case is this: Let's imagine there's one voting bloc that interests us, which is voting a straight slate. Let us imagine that, for all works in a particular category that aren't slate recommendations, the most popular one receives a total of N nominations. And furthermore, let's imagine the the number of members in the voting bloc, who actually nominate, is at least 5*N.
In this case, all the bloc nominees will get EPH scores of at least N (because that's 5N voters, giving 1/5 of a point to each nominated work - in the first pass).
Whereas the strongest non-bloc candidate will get an EPH score of at most N (if, by the last passes, that candidate gets a full point from every person who nominated it).
In this case, the bloc dictates the entire ballot.
Notice that at no point did we need to know the number of non-bloc members. The percentage of bloc-voters vs. non-bloc-voters doesn't matter; e.g. if you had 10N non-block members, the bloc would be 33% of the voting membership. What matters is how big a cluster the non-bloc-nominators manage to form - which depends on how diverse and obscure the nominators' tastes are.

scipiosmith said...

@Standback: I understand you're point, though I think that it is unlikely that a lockstep slate could raise five times as many votes across the board as the highest voted non-slate item (I don't think the nominations this year were that bad).

But, more importantly, I realised that we've both forgotten that 4 and 6 was also passed this year, and will hopefully be ratified next year along with EPH. So, to expand on your example: a bloc vote of 5N, where N is the highest vote gained by a non slate item. The next highest non-slate item gained 0.9N votes.

The way I see it there are two possibilities:

Option 1: the slate puts up four items in line with the new voting restrictions. In this case each of the slate items will get the equivalent of 1.25*N votes in the first pass, giving them four slots on the final ballot while the remaining two slots go to the non-slate items with N and 0.9*N votes, assuming that other non-slate items don't overtake them in subsequent passes.

Option 2: the slate puts up six items in line with the new number of final ballot slots, and slate voters have to choose which four of six to support. Assuming an even split, we should see an overlap where two items get all the votes, and four items get half the total slate votes.

This means that two slate items would get 1.25*N votes, while the other four would get 0.63*N (2.5/4, remember the slate vote has been split in half across six items). Now, the two items with 1.25N will get two slots on the ballot and then...I don't know what EPH does in the event of draws. Will some of the 0.63N items get eliminated, the votes going to other items on the slate, or will they all be eliminated. If the former, then two items will be dropped and we will get two more slate items on the ballot with 1.25N, if the latter then we will get four non-slate items on the final ballot.

So in the worst case scenario we are, as far as I can tell, guaranteed to get at least two non-slate items on the ballot provided that 4 and 6 passes. In the best case scenario we will get four. Even two is at least enough for a contest rather than a coronation.

And I apologise to Abigail for taking up her comments with stat geekery.

Standback said...

Abigail, if you want us to stop, we'll stop :)

@scipio: I'm much less confident than you are.
The nomination numbers aren't too bad, but they're out of date. Both Puppies and non-Puppies have increased their numbers substantially. Chaos Horizon estimates 500+ of each for the Sad and Rabid Puppies.
And here's the problem: being an effective pro-slate nominator is way easier than being an effective anti-slate nominator. There is absolutely no reason for existing pro-slate Puppies not to nominate by the recommended slate. Meanwhile, I sincerely doubt we'll see even half as many nominating ballots from non-Puppies as we had voting ballots - it's just much more effort to make up a meaningful list. That still gives the non-Puppies a huge numerical advantage - but with non-Puppy votes scattered all over the board (which is as things should be), a 1-to-5 ratio in favor of a block of 500 or 1000 Puppies seems like a fairly plausible scenario, particularly in the short fiction categories.

4/6 is a different issue; I'm actually pretty much against it. It forces slates to split, which is nice, but it doesn't really mitigate the underlying problem. Again, we've already got two different slates, each a bloc of 500+ members strong. 4/6 is a quick band-aid, but it solves very little, IMHO.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Feel free to keep discussing this here, guys - I'm sorry that I haven't been able to keep up with the conversation this week.

I confess that I haven't taken the time to really figure out EPH. At some point in the near future, Sasquan is supposed to release the anonymized nominating data, and the proposals' sponsors have promised to run that data through EPH to see what ballot would have resulted. I think that might give us the best indication of whether EPH is any good and what, if any, effect it will have on future slates.

My focus, however, is less on the stats side, and more on the human aspect (which is partly what this post was aiming at as well). Standback is right that the thousand voters who supported the Sad and Rabid puppies this year will be tough to beat no matter how you change the voting system, but what I'm hoping is that some of them, at least, take the time to consider that this is also a losing strategy for them. Do all of these people really want to keep playing a game where they keep us from getting the nominations we want, and we keep them from getting awards they don't deserve? Not to mention that it will be harder to get authors to agree to be on the puppy ballot next year.

There's clearly a contingent among the puppies who are perfectly happy to destroy the Hugo if it doesn't give them exactly what they want (assuming that what they want isn't to destroy it). But I'd like to believe that that's not all or even most of them. If next year the puppies do what I do every year, and put up recommendation lists and spreadsheets and wikis and encourage wide-ranging reading and broad participation in the Hugos, well, I probably won't be happy with the results, but at least they won't be as obviously, offensively rigged as they were this year.

Guy Middleton said...

"3,000 extra people did not take the time to buy a membership ... just so they could vote without regard to politics.”

I am reasonably confident that some fraction of those 3,000 did so. I for one was not aware of how easy it is to vote for a Hugo — all you need is a US$40 supporting membership in Worldcon. The public spat over the slating of the nominations was enough to bring this to my attention and for me to buy my membership.

I voted in categories in which I had read the works, as it did not seem fair to vote No Award without reading the stories. GRRM on his blog urged his readers to vote on merit rather than, to No-Award simply as a riposte to the Puppies. Given his very large popularity and well-known concern for the integrity and reputation of the Hugos, I am certain that he persuaded many people to do the same.

Although editorially I have to say that there were categories in which one or more of the stories was so bad that I could not finish it, and still I voted.

scipiosmith said...

@Standback: Well, I just found out on File770 that 4/6 only passed by four votes, so it may well fail as you hope. On the other hand, I also found out that Kate Paulk is apparently going to run a crowd-sourced top ten list for Sad Puppies 4, rather than a slate of five, so that should halve the overall Sad Puppy voting power even if everyone votes only for items that appear on the list.

That just leaves the Rabid Puppies, and while 500 of them are certainly formidable...I think the community has been energised by all this, and I think we'll see a lot more nominators going forward.

I also think the biggest danger is the short fiction categories. Best Novel, Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) even Best Editor seem to establish a sort of consensus as to the kind of works that 'deserve' to be nominated, and I think it would be hard for even a block vote to push all those choices off under EPH (they didn't even manage Best Novel under the present voting system). But in the short fiction categories there are just so many diffuse choices that a decent-sized reading group voting in step could dominate the ballot in an ordinary year. So if the danger remains, that is where it will be concentrated.

scipiosmith said...

@Abigail: " Do all of these people really want to keep playing a game where they keep us from getting the nominations we want, and we keep them from getting awards they don't deserve?"

Leaving aside those puppies who just want to destroy the hugo awards and strike a blow for...yeah, I think that this is the sticking point and it comes back to a question you've raised more than once: what are the hugos for? And what does it mean to be deserving of an award whose only barrier to entry is to have fans willing to put down cash to get it to the final?

One of the less helpful things about this year's debate, IMHO, was the way that the legitimate point that the puppies had stolen the award was often conflated with the less legitimate point that the things they had put on the ballot were not very good.

And, honestly, criticising people for liking work that you do not steers a little too close to personal taste as moral failing for my liking (I'm actually opposed to No Award in normal circumstances for that reason). The problem was not that things they liked got on the ballot, it was that they didn't let anything but things that they liked on the ballot, and, see my post above, that might not be such a big problem next year. I've no problem with John C Wright or Tom Kratman on the final ballot as long as the people who put them there were sincere in it and played the game as it is meant to be played.

Standback said...

@scipio: I absolutely agree, it's the short fiction categories that are vulnerable. It just so happens that the short fiction categories are the ones I love most, the ones that are really important to me - precisely because the field is so diffuse, the Hugos are usually the one time short fiction gets serious attention and discussion. So, yeah :)

> One of the less helpful things about this year's debate, IMHO, was the way that the legitimate point that the puppies had stolen the award was often conflated with the less legitimate point that the things they had put on the ballot were not very good.

I see what you're saying here, but I think it's hard to make that distinction. The real bone of contention here is: Are the Sad Puppies a group of people who really liked that list of works, who rallied around a great list of recommendations in a field that's been neglecting them? Or did they mostly nominate sight-unseen, with no consideration of the actual pieces, primarily to express dissatisfaction or to annoy the existing voting body?

That's trying to judge intent, which is, well, really hard. Especially since it's a big group, and different members had different intentions. But it's very natural that the argument "But look, the stories on the list were really bad and didn't actually seem to be anybody's favorite" will be employed to try and demonstrate that the intent was deliberately hostile. (I'd rather not address the accuracy of this argument here and now, but I do think the Puppies would have gotten somewhat more respect than they did if they'd spent a tenth of their blogging wordcount talking about how awesome the stories they nominated were, instead of how awful the SJWs were.)

Post a Comment