The 2016 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Winners

A month ago, when I posted here to remind people that the Hugo voting deadline was coming up, it was with a bit of trepidation.  Last year, when puppies of various stripes decided to get their jollies by trying to tear down this award, we saw a huge influx of new voters who showed up to make it clear that this was unacceptable behavior.  That the Hugo belongs to the people who care about it, not people who try to use it to score outdated, bigoted political points, or further their fevered personal agenda.  This year, it was clear that a lot of those same voters weren't coming back.  They had made their point, and were, quite reasonably, moving on to the things that interested them.  It's a funny fact about people who spend their lives concentrating on the things they care about, not the things they'd like to destroy, but it's usually a lot harder to corral them into action against the latter.  Which is great, but also potentially worrying, because if the people who had nothing better to do with their lives than try to destroy the Hugos outnumbered the ones who do, we could have ended up with some depressing Hugo results.

I should have known better.  The one thing I keep learning, again and again, as I study this award is that, much as it frustrates me, much as it throws up shortlists that disappoint me, much as it often seems stuck in a middlebrow rut, the Hugo is always what it is.  It doesn't take thousands of new voters to keep the Hugo true to itself, because the people who vote for it every year will do that job themselves.  With something like half the voters we had last year, we still managed to send the same message: that we have no patience for astroturf; that we have no time for writing that embarrasses the paper and ink used to print it; and that this is an award that can be gamed, but it can't be stolen.  This year's Hugo voters had no trouble telling junk from serious nominees; they saw the difference between the nominees being used as shields by the puppies and the ones that truly represent their literary tastes and politics.  And even more importantly, in the best novel and best novella categories in particular, Hugo voters recognized some of the finest and most exciting work published in this genre in years.  That Vox Day's second swat on the muzzle came in the form of a Hugo award for N.K. Jemisin is extremely satisfying, but that's just icing on the cake of handing the Hugo to The Fifth Season, a genuinely brilliant, defining novel.

Now that we've established that the Hugo can take care of itself, what next?  The voting and nominating breakdowns published this morning paint an interesting picture.  The bump caused by 2015's influx of voters is very noticeable.  If you compare this year's nominating numbers to last year's, it's interesting to note the huge surge of nominating ballots required to get on the final ballot, even among non-puppy nominees.  In 2015, for example, Laura J. Mixon, the highest-ranked non-puppy nominee in the best fan writer category, got 129 votes.  This year, that wouldn't have been enough to get her on the ballot.  In fact, my 141 nominating ballots (50 more than last year) would have left me below the threshold, even if there had been no puppy nominees at all.

That in itself is unsurprising, but what's interesting is how that effect disappears when you move to the voting phase.  Pretty much across the board, the total number of valid ballots in each of this year's categories represents a 50% drop from last year.  In other words, and as I noted above, most of last year's protest voters exercised their right to nominate in this year's Hugos, but they didn't stick around for the voting phase (for which they would have had to pay extra).  This is equally true of the puppy voters.  In its analysis of this morning's stats, Chaos Horizons theorizes that there were approximately 450 puppy nominators for this year's awards, but that only about 160 of them stuck around for the voting phase.

What this means is that the puppy problem is, to a certain extent, self-correcting.  For all their bluster last years, it's clear that most of them weren't interested in undergoing a repeat performance, and moved on to other, easier trolling targets.  That's no reason to get complacent, obviously, but it's an important data point that we should pay attention to as we seek to reshape the Hugos in order to prevent another Puppygate.  To that end, two proposals were passed in today's WSFS business meeting.  The first was the second-year ratification of E Pluribus Hugo, the complicated vote-counting algorithm intended to counter the effects of slate voting.  In preparation for discussion of this proposal, the award's administrators ran anonymized nominating data from 2015, 2014, and this year's awards to see what effect EPH would have on the resulting ballots.  The results aren't exactly encouraging: EPH does some good in this year's ballot, but hardly any for last year's, where the problem was a great deal more pronounced.  It is, at best, a partial solution. 

(I'm less bothered than some by the fact that EPH also changes "organic" ballots.  For one thing, I think that was a highly predictable outcome, and it was perhaps naive to assume that such profound changes to how we count nominating ballots wouldn't have any undesired effects.  And for another, I don't see anything "unfair" about this sort of change.  If there's a system and everyone knows how it works, then the fact that it produces certain shortlists is perfectly fair.  To complain about that strikes me as not unlike the occasional outrage you get when someone realizes that a certain nominee got the most first-place votes before the lower tiers were redistributed, and starts screaming about unfairness because that nominee didn't end up winning.)

Another proposal, which passed on the first vote, and needs to be ratified next year, is Three Stage Voting.  This would add a longlist stage to the nominating procedure, allowing voters to weed out astroturf--or just plain bad--nominees.  I think this proposal has the virtue of being straightforward and transparent to the voters, but it also has the problem that any additional encumbrance to voters will naturally suppress participation in the award.  It will also make it harder for voters to make informed choices, since in the second voting phase they'll have less time in which to read more nominated works, and this will naturally benefit more popular work by more visible writers. 

As I wrote above, I'm no longer convinced that this kind of fiddling with the Hugos is even necessary anymore.  In general, it feels as if there's a movement towards limiting access to the Hugos, after more than a decade of moving in the other direction--one proposal raised before the business meeting was to eliminate nominating rights for members of the next Worldcon, and I've seen people suggest that members of the previous Worldcon should be stripped of nominating rights as well (at the moment, members of the current, previous, and next Worldcon can nominate for the current Worldcon's ballot, but only members of the current convention can vote on the winners).  I can certainly understand why this shift is happening, but I think it's important to remember that the Hugo's relevance and legitimacy rest, in part, on the breadth of participation in it.  We don't want to go back to the days, not at all distant, when the award was handed out based on the votes of fewer than a thousand people.  This year's nominees and winners are far from the ideal situation, but as always, it's worth remembering that there is no ideal with the Hugo.  At its best, it will always be a compromise award, one that often fails to recognize the boundaries of the genre, even when they're where the most interesting work is happening.  Instead of trying to legislate that fact away, we should be coming up with more constructive ways to deal with it--and, eventually, accept it.


maimed autarch said…
Do you think that the Fifth Season is significantly better than Jemisin's other work? I have been meaning to read something by her for some time now. I was leaning toward the Inheritance trilogy because it is already completed.
Of Jemisin's previous novels, I've only read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and that was several years ago so I don't remember it very well. It obviously didn't strike me as powerfully as The Fifth Season did, though that's partly because of its focus. TFS is interested in several topics that I find very interesting (chiefly the way it interrogates some of the superhero-adjacent tropes that inform a lot of current SF, filtering them through issues of race and oppression). The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was more romance-focused (though also touching on these subjects). Which is fine for what it is, but not of interest to me.
ca said…
I think Fifth Season is significantly better than Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I didn't think was that great -- whereas I thought Fifth Season deserved its award. The writing's better, the plotting's better, the worldbuilding is better, the character development is better.

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