The 2023 Hugo Awards: Now With an Asterisk

It's been a while since we've had one of these dramas. On Saturday, the nominating stats for the 2023 Hugo awards, which were announced in Chengdu, China in October 2023, were released to the public. There was a great deal of anticipation for these numbers, in no small part because of their much-delayed release. Though the WSFS constitution permits Hugo administrators to wait as long as 90 days before releasing the voting and nominating stats, most Hugo teams have them ready to go within minutes of the ceremony's conclusion. Chengdu, in contrast, waited the full allotted period, and even went a little bit over (the voting stats were released separately in December).

Once the stats were released, it quickly became clear why the Chengdu Hugo team were hesitant to make them public. There are any number of irregularities and questionable choices in this document that suggest everything from erratic voter behavior, to incompetent collation and calculation of the nomination ranks, to outright malicious interference in the final nominations. The drop-off in total number of nominating ballots between works that made it onto the final ballot and the remaining long tail is precipitous, reminiscent—though arguably more pronounced than—the Sad and Rabid Puppy slate voting days. The calculations for the vote system E Pluribus Hugo appear to have some serious irregularities (I admit that I start hearing Charlie Brown's teacher whenever someone tries to explain E Pluribus Hugo to me, so I defer to others' analysis of this issue). The first season of Netflix's The Sandman was removed from the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category, something the award's administrators' are empowered to do if a work receives more nominations for BDP: Short Form. But then the nominated Sandman episode, "The Sound of Her Wings", was also left off the Short Form category. Most damningly, three nominees who received enough votes to make it onto the final ballot—R.F. Kuang's Babel in Best Novel; Paul Weimar in Best Fan Writer; and Xiran Jay Zhao in the Astounding award—were ruled ineligible without being consulted, and without the convention noting a reason for their ineligibility.

The Chengdu Hugo team have thus far been unresponsive to queries. Award administrator Dave McCarty has made only a few laconic, cryptic comments, claiming to have abided by all the rules while offering no additional explanation for striking off nominees that, in the judgment of many people with years of experience with this award—a group in which I include myself—were fully eligible to be nominated. Absent more information, it will be difficult, and perhaps ultimately impossible, to determine just how deep the rot runs through the 2023 Hugos. The apparent uniform voting may be the result of slate voting on the part of Chinese voters, but as I noted many times during the Puppy years, slate voting in itself is not an illegitimate tactic, and certainly not inherently malicious, especially from a voting population that is unfamiliar with the award. Anglophone Hugo voters spent more than a decade creating a robust and varied recommendation system that Chinese-speaking voters may not have had access to, and we shouldn't be surprised that their voting patterns are different than ours. By the same token, the irregularities in EPH calculations may have more to do with an inexperienced team struggling with a bi-directional language barrier than any attempted ballot-stuffing. 

Even taking this most charitable view of events, however, there comes a point where honest mistakes corrupt a result too thoroughly to be distinguishable from malice, and that's before we even get into those three still-unexplained ineligibility rulings. Unless Chengdu steps forward with more information, there is, unfortunately, no avoiding the conclusion that the 2023 Hugo results are irreparably tainted.

On the matter of those three disqualifications, the assumption that many people are making—and which, again, seems like the most plausible conclusion until and unless Chengdu starts answering questions—is that all three were struck off for political reasons. This might mean outright government interference, or someone on the Hugo team complying in advance, or an independent but politically-motivated actor among the award's administrators striking off work they don't approve of. This may also explain the silence from the Hugo team, who may fear reprisals towards themselves or their teammates. At this point it is possible that we will never know the whole story of what happened to the 2023 Hugo Awards. Which means the important question before us is how to move forward.

That question is complicated by the erratic, increasingly rickety superstructure of the Hugos and the Worldcon as a whole. Put simply, there is no Worldcon organization. Each convention is its own corporate entity charged with holding the convention and administering the Hugos, and bound only by the WSFS constitution. Said constitution is discussed and amended in the annual Business Meeting, a sclerotic, multi-day affair administered under rules that seem designed to baffle new participants and slow change to a creeping pace. What this means, among other things, is that there is no actual oversight over any individual Worldcon's behavior, and no mechanism to claw back either the convention or the Hugos if it appears that they are being mismanaged.

It's not at all surprising that the reaction of many people upon learning these facts, and especially in the present context, is to immediately leap to the conclusion that this entire system should be scrapped and replaced with a centralized authority. This, I think, is to ignore some very basic facts: the Worldcon is a fully volunteer-run organization. The free labor that goes into administering it, and the Hugos specifically, probably runs to tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dollars in value. The idea that one can simply erect a super-organization under those same conditions is hard to imagine. That's not to say that there aren't procedural changes that should occur in response to the Chengdu debacle. An amendment to the constitution stating that a work can only be ruled ineligible if it violates a specific clause in the WSFS constitution seems like a no-brainer (though at the same time, it is also most likely symbolic, since there is no mechanism for reigning in or punishing a Hugo team that violates this rule, and the Chengdu Worldcon appears to have added a rule to its constitution allowing it to supersede the WSFS one). It may very well be that some centralization, carefully and judiciously applied, will be salutary. But as a general rule, I am skeptical of any approach that looks at the failures of a volunteer-run system and concludes that the solution is more volunteers, doing more unpaid work, but now with the added threat of repercussions if they fail.

This does not mean—as I think far too many people have been quick to announce—that the Hugos are doomed. We heard those same cries during the Puppy era. What, they exclaimed, was to stop far-right bad actors from brigading the award again and again? And the answer was, nothing. It is still nothing—despite all the measures we added to discourage slate voting (and despite EPH, which I think by this point has been proven to be more trouble than it's worth), what saved the Hugos from the Puppies and their ilk was that they stopped doing it. And they stopped because of us. Because we made it clear to them that we would not allow them to steal our award—that we would, in fact, burn it to the ground rather than let them do it.

People don't like hearing this, but this is what most institutions run on. Not some higher authority who will step in when things go wrong. Not the threat of punishment or reprisal. Whether it's the Hugos or representative democracy, most of the time there isn't a manager you can call. Most of the time, it's just us, enforcing the standards we want to see through our collective voice and action. The fact is that for seventy-four years we did not need a rule that said "you are not allowed to strike off Hugo nominees that you consider undesirable", because the overwhelming majority of people who are willing to dedicate their time, money, and energy to administering this objectively trivial award care about it too much to trample its integrity in that way. I am shocked and saddened that some people fell short of that standard, but I see no reason to believe that they represent the majority of Hugo administrators, or the future of this award.

All of which is not to say that we should do nothing and hope for the best going forward. But I think the actions we should take should be in the vein of affirming and exemplifying the values we want the Worldcon and the Hugos to stand for, not clamping down on bodies and individuals that we ultimately have no real power over. To that end, here are the things that I would like to see happen in the coming weeks and months.

The administrative team for the 2024 Hugo Award at the Glasgow Worldcon should issue a statement reiterating their commitment to a fair, honest, impartial, and transparent nominating and voting process. We are weeks away from another Hugo cycle starting, and people are understandably demoralized and skeptical about the award. I think it will do a great deal to restore trust for the next Hugo team to remind fans that they share their values, and—in case this is a concern—I think it can be done in a way that doesn't explicitly cast blame on the Chengdu team. I know that there are some experienced, dedicated people administering the 2024 Hugos, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're currently having conversations about how to make the award more transparent and more accountable. I'd be interested in hearing their thoughts and ideas on the matter—off the top of my head, is it, for example, economically feasible to hand over the tabulation of the nominations and votes to an outside accounting firm?

A motion should be drafted, and tabled as soon as the 2024 business meeting permits it, to censure the Chengdu Worldcon for trampling the Hugos' reputation, and to apologize to the nominees whose rights have been curtailed, to the winners whose accomplishment has been tarnished, and to the voters whose voice has been ignored. There's a legalistic view that apologizing always means admitting fault, but I think there's value in standing up and saying that what happened last year did not live up to the values this award stands for, and that we owe the people damaged by that behavior—who are not only the nominees, but everyone who participates in and cares about this award—our sympathies.

(One thing that I have seen mooted is extending the eligibility of the three nominees who were ruled ineligible last year into the 2024 awards. I do not like this idea, for several reasons but mainly because eligibility extensions are the purview of the business meeting, which has already occurred. What we'd basically be doing is responding to an undemocratic interference in the voting process by asking the Glasgow team to commit another undemocratic interference in the voting process. I also worry that the effect will be to render all three affected categories moot, reducing them merely to an instrument of restorative justice, which seems profoundly unfair to all the people who have done such great work in 2023, and who deserve to be judged on their own merits. If we're going to consider this step, I think we should do it by the book, and table it as a proposal to the 2024 business meeting.)

A motion should be tabled to the 2024 business meeting amending the constitution to forbid ruling a nominated work ineligible without stating the specific clause in the WSFS constitution that it violates. As I said above, I think that this is largely a symbolic gesture, and probably unenforceable to boot. But symbolic gestures are not meaningless ones, and there is value in reiterating this point.

A motion should be tabled to the 2024 business meeting barring all members of the 2023 Hugo administrative team from serving as Hugo administrators in the future. I'm not happy about this, because I do ultimately believe that some pressure was applied to reach these results, and more importantly I think our goal should be to be constructive rather than punitive. But I simply see no way of avoiding this step. You can't do this kind of damage to an institution, without even offering an explanation for your actions, and still expect to be allowed to participate in its running.

I'm sure there are other suggestions that people more knowledgeable about the Worldcon, and about the running of volunteer organizations, will come up with in the coming weeks. In particular, there is a conversation to be had about how the system for selecting future Worldcons can help ensure that their teams will abide by the convention's values, without sacrificing the democratic process, or surrendering to racist caricature. But I think the most important lesson we need to take going forward is the same one we learned from dealing with the Puppies: no one is going to swoop in to fix this for us. We are going to have to do it ourselves. I believe that we will.


Alison Scott said…
I'm not convinced that the censure of the team should necessarily extend to the administrative staff who were, eg, answering the help emails, liaising with the finalists, or producing the Hugo Voter Packet. (I did that last job a couple of years ago and we had zero involvement with any eligibility questions).

I think I'd like to see China specifically excluded from hosting the Worldcon in future. A hundred years sounds like a good timescale.
George said…
The most bizarre thing about this is that the Worldcon members themselves that voted for China to be the host country. There were heated debates where people who expressed concern over the PRC’s history of censorship and human rights abuses were accused of racism. It’s very ironic that a community that reads so much speculative fiction cannot recognize a real totalitarian distopia when they see one.

The Worldcon site is selected by voters at the Worldcon two years previous. These voters may be present onsite, or they may have voted online. In the case of the Chengdu bid, it's more likely that it was offsite Chinese voters who swung the vote towards Chengdu. This, to be clear, was an entirely democratic process. There was an attempt - spearheaded by the competing bid - to invalidate these voters by changing requirements after voting had already commenced. The people now crying that this should have been allowed to proceed seem to be under the impression that the only way to stop a bad guy from tampering with the vote is for a good guy to tamper with it first.

There were, of course, concerns about holding a Worldcon in China. But though government censorship of the Hugos is something that is unlikely to happen in many Western countries, we should not pretend that there is currently any bastion of freedom and equality where the Worldcon can be held. In the United States, pregnant women are unable to access lifesaving medical treatment in many jurisdictions, while queer and gender nonconforming people may be criminalized. Tales of Worldcon members from the global south being unable to procure tourist visas to locations like Ireland and the US are by now routine. Perhaps the issue is less being unable to spot a dystopia, as failing to recognize it outside of one's own front door.
George said…
Yes, everyone is well aware of any flaws in US democracy precisely because it is a functional one with checks and balances, freedom of speech and any number of personal liberties and individual rights that the vast majority of chinese people are not granted by their government, which tries to supress all criticism of their policies through boycotts, outright violence and censorship like what happened at the Hugos. I'm sorry but there is no moral equivalency with an autocracy that controls every aspect of their citizens lives and has been for years commiting genocide against their uyghur population, and it's good to be reminded now and then, what with the way words like "fascism" have been banalized and robbed of real meaning, what a truly totalitarian state is and what it does to those who disagree.

The kind of regime that Xi Jiping has established in China has been normalized by progressive westeners who either deny the blatant violations of freedom and human rights by the PRC or turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crimes that are commited by them - and it's symptomatic that your first impulse was to redirect criticism at the United States.
Nick Alcock said…
I think what is relevant here is freedom of the press and freedom of expression rather than any other particular freedom. The US is most unlikely to impose legal force requiring specific Hugo works to be removed from consideration, despite the increasing popularity of book-burning on the right. US Hugo administrators are most unlikely to second-guess a central censorship authority by removing works in advance of censorship, because the US has no functioning censorship authority (outside of film, anyway, and even there it is mostly a dead letter with little legal force). China... is the opposite: censorship is pervasive, second-guessing the censors to avoid getting in trouble is pervasive and deeply normalized. It's not exactly totalitarian (it doesn't *totally* control its citizens' lives) but you have to admit it's not exactly a bastion of free expression either. Every country has its problems -- Japan's 99.5% conviction rate for instance -- but China's are specifically around not publicizing opinions the government disagrees with, and it seems to me that that is deeply incompatible with running any sort of speculative fiction award.

(One does wonder what would happen if a sad puppy work glorifying the Nazis -- because who else would write such a thing? -- got onto the ballot in Germany, where publication of such things is explicitly forbidden. I suspect there would be an uproar but that it would not be removed, because Germany forbids *publication* of such things, not having them win awards.)
Nick Alcock said…
(Um, I meant book-banning, of course. The right in the US hasn't progressed as far as burning of books, not yet.)
Brad Templeton said…
Alison, punishment of those who did not make decisions could be inappropriate if they were entirely unaware of what was going on. However, awareness is sufficient -- anybody aware the awards were being corrupted should have resigned.

There should be some sort of reaction. The primary goal of the reaction should be to deter this from happening again. This could include special recognition for the excluded works (alas, no, you can't extend their eligibility not just for logistic reasons but because it would be unfair to the works of the next year which would then be excluded because we would be eager to vote for them.) Domestic admins may have felt they had no choice. Foreign admins it would seem did have a choice, though they obviously did not feel they did and further feel they don't have a choice on explaining why they had no choice.

Not that a rule requiring exclusions to be explained is unlikely to work. The admins this year would have written, "These works were excluded due to the rules we must follow" which would then require a vote somewhere on whether that was an adequate explanation. One must play out just how a new rule would be applied and what happens if the new rule isn't followed. We thought we already had a set of rules to control elimination from the ballot and it implicitly was a complete enumeration of them, and it might help a little to explicitly say its complete, but does it solve this?

It does seem a number of problems get solved if supporting memberships in WSFS are changed to only be available to those who have attended a convention in person, either ever, or perhaps in the last 10 years. Why should those who have never been members of the community be voting on the location of the convention, or the community's awards?
I wish I were more surprised that the go-to solution everyone seems to be opting for is "let's make the Hugos less democratic and more exclusionary".
Nick Alcock said…
"US Hugo administrators are most unlikely to second-guess a central censorship authority by removing works in advance of censorship", I said. Oh how wrong I was...

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