The 2017 Hugo Awards: Why Hugo?

There's just over a month left in the nominating period for this year's Hugo awards, and if you're hanging out in the same fandom spaces as I do, you've probably made the same observation I have: the conversation surrounding this year's Hugos has been surprisingly muted, to the point of nonexistence.  Certainly when you compare it to the veritable maelstrom of public commentary (including in venues well outside of fandom and penetrating quite deep into the mainstream press) that accompanied the awards in 2015 and 2016, when the Rabid Puppies succeeded in infesting the nominations with barely-literate garbage that reflected their fascist, racist leanings, only to get smacked down during the voting phase.

There's obviously no mystery as to why the Hugos aren't really on anyone's mind this year.  Not only did the results of last year's voting phase indicate that the Puppies and their legions of flying monkeys had grown tired of a game in which the prize was clearly never going to be theirs, but there are, unfortunately, much bigger things to worry about.  We're living in the midst of tremendous social upheaval, with racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric gaining terrifying inroads on many stages--in the rise of the far-right in Europe, in the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim violence that followed it, in the consolidation of power by wannabe tyrants like Putin and Erdogan.  And, of course, in the US, with the election of Donald Trump, who has amassed around himself a coterie of shady characters with strong roots in fascist and neo-Nazi groups, and who has galvanized his followers to racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim violence throughout the US.  Every day seems to offer more proof of the weakening of democracy and the rule of law, next to which a fandom award that is of interest to perhaps a few thousand people world-over seems pretty damn trivial.  Like a lot of critics, I'm having trouble justifying to myself the choice to write about the latest film or TV show, much less the inside baseball of Hugo commentary.

At the same time, however, I think a big part of why we're not feeling motivated to talk about the Hugos this year has to do with how connected they are to everything that's happening around us.  I wasn't the only person to say, on November 9th, that the Hugo voters in 2015 and 2016 showed more good sense than the American electorate--see, for example, N.K. Jemisin's blistering commentary, which draws the same connection.  As many people have pointed out and demonstrated since then, there's a line that connects racist and misogynist geek groups like GamerGate and the Rabid Puppies to the American alt-right and its bases in websites like Breitbart.  All of these groups root their appeal in the curdled, unjustified entitlement of white men who believe the world owed them something, and who are willing--happy, even--to burn it all down if they don't get it.  For probably a large confluence of reasons, the voters for the Hugo award were able to look at this group and see them for exactly what they were (even when provided with cover by groups like the Sad Puppies and their leaders).  The American electorate, for an equally large confluence of reasons, did not (or, at least, a sufficiently large margin in a few key states didn't--the electorate as a whole rejected Trump quite decisively).

The issue, therefore, is this: it's not just that the Hugos are trivial, but that the Hugos are solved.  If last year and the year before, we had a strong argument for seeing participation in the Hugos as an important and even progressive act, this year it seems largely meaningless, precisely because the difference between the best-case and worst-case outcomes is so small.  Let's say the Rabid Puppies come back for a third try this year, and manage to get their trash on a lot of ballots.  So what?  They'll just get knocked down in the voting phase again, and the only people it'll really matter to will be the ones who lost out on a nomination--and I say that as someone who did lose out on a Hugo nomination, twice, as a result of the Rabid Puppies' actions.  Given the current state of the world, lousy Hugo nominations are pretty far down my list of things to get upset over.  And on the other hand, if the Puppies have given up (or, more realistically, moved on to greener pastures, of which there sadly seems to be an abundance), I think we all know by now that the result will not be some progressive, radical-lefty shortlist.  The Hugo will go back to what it has always been, a middle-of-the-road award that tends to reward nostalgia and its own inner circle.  Yes, there has been progress, and especially in the shadow of the Puppies and their interference--2015 best novel winner Cixin Liu was the first POC to win in that category, and 2016 winner N.K. Jemisin was the first African American.  But on the other hand, look at the "first"s in that last sentence, consider that they happened a decade and a half into the 21st century, and then tell me that this is something to crow about.

After having said all this, you're probably now expecting me to make some huge turnaround, to explain to you why the Hugos still matter, and why it's still important to talk about them and nominate for them.  But the thing is, I can't.  I still care about the Hugos.  I'm going to nominate this year, and around the beginning of March I will, as in previous years, post my own ballot for those of you who are interested in my suggestions.  And I think that you should try to nominate too, because there was a lot of work in 2016 that deserves recognition.  But if you're looking for me to make an argument for why nominating for the Hugos is important, I can't.  Because it isn't.

What I can say is this: last week I saw the movie Hidden Figures, which I enjoyed a great deal and definitely recommend.  I've seen some people talking about nominating it in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category, and having seen the film, I think it would be a perfect fit.  Not only would nominating Hidden Figures be totally consistent with Worldcon's decades-long love affair with the space program (which led, among other things, to Apollo 13 being nominated for a Hugo in 1996), but it would be just the right film to nominate in the (knock wood) post-Puppy world.  Hidden Figures is the perfect counterpoint to the narrative the Puppies (Rabid and Sad) tried to spin to justify their actions, as if science fiction and its awards had always belonged to conservative white men, who had been unfairly pushed out by a cabal of political interests.  It's a film that reminds us that just because the story we've been told and taught to accept doesn't include women or people of color, doesn't mean they weren't there.  Doesn't mean they weren't doing important, even vital, work.  And doesn't mean they don't deserve to be recognized.  If there's ever been a work that embodies the anti-Puppy stance--which just so happens to be the truth--Hidden Figures is it.

So no, nominating for the Hugos this year is not an act of resistance.  But I think that it can be an act of affirmation.  A reminder that just because the world is going crazy around us, doesn't mean we're not going to hold on to what's ours.  That just because we seem to be surrounded (and governed) by people who care about nothing and no one, doesn't mean we're not going to keep caring about things ourselves--even when they are completely trivial--and keep working to preserve them.  We worked hard, these last few years, to prove that the Hugo belongs to fandom, to the people who care enough about it to show up.  Even in the midst of turmoil, I think there's value in continuing to prove that point.


Standback said…
I feel like affirmation is valuable particularly when it's alongside resistance. Affirmation is establishing, in ways large and small, the alternative to the thing we're resisting.

It's hard for me to read you saying that you can't argue the Hugos are important -- even within this particular context. I would phrase it more like this: the Hugos are no more and no less important than they always have been. That doesn't mean that other things, that are more important, more urgent, that outweigh this weird amazing award of ours, haven't come along. Things that demand our immediate attention and focus. But the Hugos are just as important as ever. What they aren't, this year, I hope, is a battleground.

Battlegrounds are more urgent than institutions. But heaven forbid that battles should become the only thing we see as important.
Foxessa said…
The wingers insist there were never any African Americans and particularly no African American women involved in the space program in those good old days when murrika was Grrrrrrrrrrrrr8. So they are boycotting the book and film both, because, um, well, ahem, the stories of these women are media hoaxes just like, um, well, ahem, the moon landings.

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