The 2020 Hugo Awards: The Political Hugo

We are a week from the end of this year's Hugo voting period (a rather shortened window, though the nominees have been known since April, and the Hugo Voter Packet has been around since late May). With everything else going on in the world right now--and with Worldcon itself going virtual this year--it's easy to lose sight of the award. Who gets to take home a rocket (or, well, have it mailed to them) suddenly feels a lot less important, even for people like myself who have been following and obsessing about the award for years. And yet, I also feel as if 2020 offers Hugo voters the opportunity to make a statement. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a wave of anti-racist protest, a blow to the world's economy (one whose full extent we are only beginning to comprehend), a reevaluation of our understanding of work, leisure, and education, and a challenge to long-accepted ideas on the role of government, policing, and social aid. It is, in short, a time of upheaval, exactly the thing that science fiction can and should engage with. It would feel fitting if this year's Hugo winners could reflect that fact. 

We're coming off a decade in which the Hugo struggled with its own definition, and with a troupe of interlopers who claimed to want to save it from those who would "politicize" it. It's a decade in which the award's diversity has advanced considerably, with more women, POC, and LGBT people being recognized than ever before. And yet at the same time, the Hugo can be inward-looking (some might say that this is inevitable, given its nature and voting system). Its politics are often internal politics--as much as it reflected trends in the broader political discourse, the Puppy debacle was the ultimate in inside baseball. I would like this year's winners to be more outward-looking, to reflect the upheaval in the world and the simple fact that we are all participating in that upheaval, whether we want to or not. What I want to write about in this post are the works on this year's Hugo ballot that, besides being excellent examples of their type, speak to some of the issues we've been seeing in the real world. 

(One point before we begin: I've restricted myself here to categories in which I've read widely. As is usually the case, that doesn't tend to include Best Related Work. A few weeks ago, D Franklin tweeted a thread in which they argued that Jeannette Ng's Campbell Award acceptance speech--which was directly responsible for the fact that the award in question is no longer named after John W. Campbell--should win because of its political significance. I can't argue with D's characterization of the speech--which has since only gained more significance as China has clamped down on pro-democracy activism and free speech in Hong Kong, as Ng discussed last year. But I also think it's time to talk about this category and who it should be for. Best Related Work is the only place where serious non-fiction about SFF can gain recognition, but work like that--this year's ballot includes biography, autobiography, and literary analysis--tends to get crowded out by shorter, more easily accessible nominees like Ng's speech, or even conceptual stuff like last year's win for the fanfic site Archive of Our Own. This feels increasingly unfair, and I think it's time to reevaluate what the category can and should be.)

Best Novel: For what I think is the first time in the award's history, all of the novels nominated in this category are by women. It is also, however, a pretty white shortlist, and extremely variable in terms of its political relevance. Two of the nominated novels--Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth and Seanan McGuire's Middlegame--don't have much of a political dimension at all. A third, Alix E. Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January, has a general theme of of liberation and resistance against a repressive, racist and sexist social order. Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire continues a streak that began with works like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice trilogy and Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire books, of poking at the core space opera concept of a space empire, particularly through an examination of cultural imperialism, and how empires define civilization by categorizing everything that doesn't come from them as uncivilized. And Charlie Jane Anders's The City in the Middle of the Night is a novel about the challenges of resistance in an autocratic society, one that has trained its citizens to think of socially-defined boundaries as natural ones, thus limiting their ability to rebel.

But for my money, the book that feels the most relevant and the most applicable to our current political reality on this year's Best Novel shortlist is Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade. Everything this novel is about feels like it comes out of our current political conversation--the corporatization of government, the increasingly conditional state of citizenship, the erosion of rights to the point that even wanting housing or healthcare is perceived as grasping and greedy, the cooptation of media to propagandize the populace into identifying more with their corporate masters than with the have-nots whom they are only a few bad days from joining. Everything in the novel feels like a more extreme version of where we are now, and in a segment near its end, in which its heroes violently suppress a protest by the underclass, not even that extreme. I can't think of a better choice for the 2020 Hugo than The Light Brigade.

Best Novella: Unlike Best Novel, if you're trying to make a political statement, there really feels like only one right choice in this category. Rivers Solomon's The Deep (based on the song of the same title by Clppng, itself a riff on ideas found in the songs of techno group Drexciya) starts with a gut-punch of a premise--what if mermaids are the descendants of the pregnant slaves who drowned when they were thrown (or jumped) overboard during the passage of the Atlantic? It then complicates that premise by adding the theme of memory and forgetfulness--the mermaids possess the memory of their enslaved ancestors' suffering, but they are so overpowered by this painful legacy that they suppress it, relegating to one member of the community the agonizing task of stewardship over the memories, while they live entirely in the moment. Finally, Solomon sets their story in a blasted, post-apocalyptic world, and slowly reveals how that catastrophe is related to the mermaids and their predicament. The Deep is a story about learning to shoulder a legacy of pain, and trying to make a better future by building on the past, not ignoring it or being overcome by it. It's hard to imagine a work that speaks more clearly to the weeks of anti-racist protests the world has been experiencing, or to the way that those protests have renewed and reinvigorated the conversation about the sins of the past, and how we can address them.

Best Novelette: This is a strong category on its literary merits, but with not a great deal to say about politics (though I have to confess a great fondness for Siobhan Carroll's "For He Can Creep", a cute cat story that works because it captures the cat's mingled arrogance and courage). The one exception is N.K. Jemisin's Emergency Skin, in which a human colony in the far future sends an envoy back to Earth to retrieve some badly-needed supplies. Though the colony's mythology teaches that Earth is a wasted, lifeless husk, the envoy discovers not only life, but a society that is much freer and more welcoming than the one he left. There's a strong streak of didacticism running through the story, and I'm not entirely persuaded by its argument that it is possible to weed traits like selfishness or a lust for power out of human society. But at its core is an counter-argument to a foundational SFnal trope--the idea of an ark that gathers the worthiest and fittest of humans for an escape from a dying planet, leaving the rest of us to die--that is long overdue for reconsideration. It ends on a note of rebellion against entrenched power structures that feels entirely necessary right now.

Best Short Story: In this category, on the other hand, we are practically spoiled for choice. Nearly every nominated story on this ballot has a strong political theme (no offense to the one outlier, Fran Wilde's "A Catalog of Storms"). There's Nibedita Sen's "Ten Excerpts From an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island", a short piece about colonialism and how it misunderstands and warps the societies it encounters, a damage that can take generations to come to even a partial healing. S.L. Huang's "As the Last I May Know" imagines a society that has come up with a gruesome but highly effective method of discouraging its leaders from using weapons of mass destruction, but focuses on its heroine's growing realization that she is a pawn between warring political forces. And Rivers Solomon is here again with "Blood is Another Word for Hunger", a magical-realist tale about slaves taking revenge on their enslavers that is cheerfully unapologetic about its characters' resort to violence, while also discussing the difficult path back from that violence and towards a worthwhile life.

If I'm picking the story that feels most relevant to this present moment and its political conversations, however, it has to be a tie between Shiv Ramdas's "And Now His Lordship is Laughing" and Alix E. Harrow's "Do Not Look Back, My Lion". The Ramdas is a tale of supernatural revenge set during the Bengal Famine, and it relates directly to conversations we've been having recently about the papering over of historical atrocities, even as their architects--in this case, Winston Churchill--are valorized. The Harrow is a story about being a peaceful, timid person in a society that is going war-mad, sacrificing its young people for the sake of ever-expanding conquest, and denigrating and marginalizing anyone who doesn't celebrate that sacrifice. Nobody who has watched the world descend further and further into far-right and fascist thinking, who has watched their country fall for the promises of a strongman who invents enemies to distract from their graft and incompetence, can help but recognize themselves in the heroine's despair.

Best Graphic Story: I have well-documented reservations about this category, and the fact that it tends to keep nominating the same series again and again is near the top of the list. So I think I would have been inclined to place Nnedi Okorafor's LaGuardia, a self-contained comic and a fresh face on the ballot, at the top of my ranking even if I weren't trying to prioritize political stories. But while most of the other nominees on this shortlist have political subtexts--Monstress is about a decades-old war and the damage it has wrought on an entire society; Paper Girls and The Wicked and the Divine are about a generational divide that eventually spills over into open conflict, as the old try to devour the young; Mooncakes features a young queer person running away from an emotionally abusive upbringing--LaGuardia is the one that is most clearly a response to real-world politics. That response leaves the comic, which is set in a world colonized by alien plants that can infect and form symbiotic relationships with humans, feeling already a little dated, as its story, centered on the titular airport, is very clearly a riff on the protests that erupted in response to the Trump administration's Muslim Ban in 2017. But this also makes LaGuardia exactly the sort of thing I've been looking for in this post--science fiction that engages directly with the central political issues of its day.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Now more than ever, it is to be regretted that HBO's Chernobyl did not make it onto this shortlist (but I guess we really needed those slots for such towering works of science fiction as [checks notes] Avengers: Endgame and The Rise of Skywalker). It's not just that Chernobyl excelled at depicting a nuclear disaster in the most SFnal of terms, as a sort of wound on the world whose environment is not just hostile, but alien. But it is difficult to imagine a more relevant work of political fiction for our present moment. Too many people writing about Chernobyl in 2019 mistook it as purely a historical narrative, designed to castigate the failures of the Soviet Union. In 2020, it should be obvious even to people who missed this the first time around that Chernobyl is about what happens when an unaccountable system that is mostly chugging along encounters a black swan event that exposes the deep flaws of corruption, lack of preparation, and disdain for expertise that have been festering at its core. The applicability to the way that so many democratic societies that have been captured by an anti-government, anti-taxes, anti-social-services mentality have catastrophically mishandled the COVID-19 crisis couldn't be any clearer, and it is a great shame that the Hugos will not be able to recognize this fact in this year's ceremony.

Out of the works that are nominated, however, the most politically relevant is Jordan Peele's Us. Though not as sharp or as immediately parseable as Peele's previous movie Get Out, Us is a story about the rise of the underclass that only feels more relevant in light of the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic--and more importantly, by governments' refusal to give their citizens the support they need to weather it. The protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd's murder have been so resilient and long-lasting in part because many of the people participating in them no longer have any place to be. They remind us that people who have nothing to lose sometimes start a revolution, which is exactly what Us is about.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: HBO's continuation-slash-fanfic of Watchmen may have ended up being a mixed bag, but its sixth episode, "This Extraordinary Being", was worth the ride in its own right. It's probably the biggest no-brainer in this post (and the only one of my choices that I think was always going to win), but it's worth reiterating just how much its storyline presages many of the conversations we've been having recently. It's a story about the toxic, abusive relationship between African-Americans and the police. A story about a legacy of oppression and genocide that continues to reverberate through its victims' and their descendants' lives even as the white society around them allows itself to forget. A story about how heroism is perceived differently--and often with hostility--when the heroes in question are black. And a story about how supposedly well-meaning white liberals can end up siding with white supremacy because doing so is easier than taking a risk for their alleged ideals. Along the way, it also manages to sneak in a jab at Donald Trump's father. What more could you ask for?

Comments

stevea said…
I was looking for a way to contact you to challenge you over to reviews you wrote in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and have just read your observations on the Hugo Awards. The same flippant, dimissive tone I found in your ESF reviews I find again here. Here it's about the shortlisted books being relevant to the current political situation, what ever that means. Surely these books, short stories etc have been chosen because they are science fiction first and foremost not that they are relevant to any political, social, economic or any other situation that is current when they find themselves published or produced in. Let the works be presented for their literary and cinemagraphic value not your perception of what is worthy to your view of " current political situation ".
Thank you for going to so much effort to let me know your considered opinion. Here's my response: nobody cares.
Devonin said…
"Surely these books, short stories etc have been chosen because they are science fiction first and foremost not that they are relevant to any political, social, economic or any other situation that is current when they find themselves published or produced in."

Do you...not know what Science Fiction is?
janedotx said…
Lmao that this dude went through the effort of finding Abigail's blog to give the most boring opinion possible
Z said…
As a Hugo voter outside the USA I'd like Hugo as a long-standing literary award, so in ten years 2020 winners will be viewed as the SFF books to read for anyone interested in the genre across the world. After all it is the World Science Fiction Convention, even if majority of voters is from the US
I am, of course, also a Hugo voter from outside the US, and most of the issues I've mentioned in this post are relevant globally, not just matters of American politics.
Z said…
True, I maybe was too harsh in my statement. However, for me SFF since my teens was first of all a way to escape. Therefore, while I fully agree that there are widespread issues, that should be improved upon, do you think that say Light Brigade in 60 years will be as important for the genre as Starship Troopers (with which it debates) that was published in 1959 and won Hugo in 1960? I admit that that Heinlein's work is dated and biased, that now it would have been read better, with greater respect etc., but if you take a look on fresh 2020 reviews of it on Amazon or Goodreads - people still actively read it
I really have no idea what I said in this post that makes you think I don't consider the works I highlight important and enduring. Will they still be read in sixty years? I have no idea, but the answer is no for most Hugo winners so I'm not sure why that matters.
Z said…
I don't think that you highlight unimportant works, I apologize if you received such message, it wasn't intended. I just assumed that when you choose between more or less politically relevant works, which for me is not the same as the most enduring.

I am biased by my desire to see how the SFF genre developed, so I used a list of Hugo/Nebula/Locus/Clarke nominees and winners as my to-read list. I've read over 1/2 of all H/N winners to date and I consider over 80% of them as enduring classics (with nominees the share is smaller, but still high, above 60% I guess)

I guess different people expect different things from awards and that's ok, for people are different too
Andrew Hickey said…
Many of the enduring classics of SF are intensely political, though, and based on the political concerns of their age. H.G. Wells' novels were about eugenics and imperialism, 1984 is basically Orwell's response to the political theories of James Birnham, Campbell-era Astounding/Analog had an explicitly conservative political outlook, and Galaxy under Fred Pohl and the later New Wave authors were making an explicitly socialist response to that.

Looking at Hugo-winning novels, Starship Troopers was written just as the Vietnam War was escalating, A Canticle For Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic novel at the height of Cold War tensions, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are two of the most explicitly political things Heinlein ever wrote, Stand on Zanzibar is about overpopulation, The Left Hand of Darkness is a feminist novel, The Forever War is about Vietnam...

The books which actually endure the most tend to be the ones that have something to say about the times in which they were written and about the political questions that were debated at the time. Even when those political questions fade from relevance, a story which engages with those things is likely to have more relevance and resonance than one that doesn't. This is why Heinlein and Orwell are still read, while Doc Smith is now unreadable.
Aonghus Fallon said…
I'd wonder about the award's credibility - certainly in terms of past winners. I'm sure it's changed now, but my understanding is that originally there were two rounds of voting - the first round was confined to members of the WSFS, the second round - the decider - to those WSFS members attending Worldcon. So you paid to vote. The more you paid, the more your vote counted. This was the only criteria. Leaving aside how it turned the pool of voters into an exclusive club, it obviously made gaming the system all too easy.

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