The 2023 Hugo Awards: Somehow, It Got Worse

The last month has been a busy one in Hugo and Worldcon fandom. After the shock of the much-belated 2023 nominating stats, and their revelation of serious irregularities in the compilation of the award's ballot, there was a great ferment of conversation and action. Mainstream publications have caught wind of the scandal and publicized it far and wide. Turnover in the few permanent committees that oversee the Hugo trademark and intellectual property has been high. The poor folks at the upcoming Glasgow Worldcon have been scrambling to respond to the evolving situation and to distance themselves from the previous committee—including, most recently, making a laconic announcement that they would refuse any of Chengdu's passalong funds, the budgetary surplus that is traditionally bequeathed from one Worldcon to the next. And stats nerds—of which this community is, unsurprisingly, blessed with a surfeit—have been furiously crunching the nominations numbers and EPH calculations in a desperate—and, thus far, futile—attempt to make them make sense.

For all that activity, however, I think there was also a sense of settling into the new normal. We thought we had the measure of this scandal and the methods with which we could deal with it. To a certain extent, the fact that we would probably never learn exactly what happened with the 2023 Hugos made it easier for us to put the most positive possible spin on them. All that came crashing down last week, when a report by Chris M. Barkley and Jason Sanford reproduced leaked emails from the team assigned to confirm the eligibility of the nominees ranked highest by the EPH algorithm. This kind of work takes place every year, and involves both cut and dry determinations—year of publication, wordcount—and judgment calls—as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out recently on BlueSky, in 2013 the Hugo administrators had to decide whether to permit a story by her published as audio fiction to stand in the novelette category, a question to which the WSFS constitution did not, at the time, offer an answer.

In 2023, Hugo administrator Dave McCarty added another criteria to the validation process, that of compliance with Chinese political and social agendas. The emails, leaked by team member Diane Lacey, show the validation team compiling dossiers on both nominated works and their authors, debating whether a novel like R.F. Kuang's Babel, whose protagonist is a Chinese man raised in England, and which visits China during the time of the First Opium War, would be offensive to PRC sensibilities, and whether Paul Weimer, who should have been nominated in the best fan writer category, should be disqualified because of a visit to Tibet (in fact, Weimer visited Nepal). A spreadsheet leaked by Lacey shows the list of nominees in each category, with a column designating each as "no issues", "possible issues", etc.

These revelations have naturally unleashed a great deal of uproar and consternation. Not only do they confirm the widely-held theory that Kuang, Weimer, and Astounding nominee Xiran Jay Zhao were removed from the ballot for political reasons, they invalidate the presumed defense of McCarty and his team, that they have been protecting Chinese team members who were under political pressure, and might be endangered by admitting to censoring the ballot. The cack-handedness of the Western Hugo administrators' anticipation of what might be offensive to Chinese sensibilities—Babel has a Chinese translation forthcoming, and it is anyway hard to imagine the PRC objecting to a novel that criticizes English colonialism in China; Weimer may not have visited Tibet, but Ursula Vernon, whose novel Nettle & Bone not only made it onto the ballot but won the best novel award, did—has given rise to speculation that their entire endeavor was independently undertaken, not in response to Chinese demands or laws at all. Other commentators have pointed out that an authoritarian regime like the PRC specializes in intimating its expectations without making them clear, and that overzealousness and inconsistency in response to these hints is not a bug but a feature. Chinese commentators in places like File 770 have suggested that the pressure to censor nominees came not from the government but from business interests, who appear to have taken over the running of the Chengdu Worldcon from the fans who originally organized the bid. 

Either way, it is clear that McCarty and his team were active, rather than passive, participants in censoring the 2023 Hugo nominations, and this is simply shocking. Not a single member of the team appears to have raised any objections when informed that they would be running the nominations list through an ideological filter, much less one complying with the agenda of a repressive regime. Not a one of them seems to have seen anything wrong with compiling dossiers about the nominees. Not a one appears to have felt that these actions warranted raising a red flag to the rest of the community. One member of the team, Kat Jones, resigned quietly but said nothing more (Jones, a member of the Glasgow Hugo team, has since resigned that position as well). Lacey has posted a deeply apologetic letter for her actions, but only months after the fact.

But as shocking as all this is, it is not the real scandal. In fact, if I have a criticism of Barkley and Sanford's report, it is that they seem to have been so hung up on having discovered the smoking gun that proves the theory fans have been bandying about for the last month, that they missed the true implications of what they had uncovered. The raw data spreadsheet Lacey leaked does not merely show that nominees like Babel and Paul Weimer were discarded for supposedly running afoul of PRC ideology. It also shows a large number of nominees, mostly Chinese-language, which do not appear anywhere on the final ballot or the nominations stats. When questioned about these nominees in the comments of File 770, Lacey—who, again, has been so apologetic about her treatment of Western nominees—replied simply that these nominations had been considered "slate" nominations (many of them were included in recommendation lists published by SF World and other Chinese-language SFF magazines in preparation for the Hugos; on BlueSky, user Yilin has translated the text that accompanied these lists to make the point that they were not intended as a singular slate but merely a list of recommendations). It's the removal of these nominations, Lacey suggests, that has caused the "cliff" that many commentators observed in the final Hugo stats, in which there was a drop of hundreds of nominating ballots between the top 5-6 vote-getters and the ones below them.

I'm going to say this again, because it is so shocking that it seems to have taken a lot of people some time to grasp the enormity of it: hundreds, perhaps even thousands of valid, legal nominating ballots were dropped from the final nominating stats, apparently under the pretext of having represented a slate, even though slates are perfectly legal under the Hugo rules. This was done on the orders of the Hugo administrator, with apparently no outside input or discussion, and appears to have elicited so little response from the Hugo team that they are casually mentioning it as if it's nothing. If these numbers are correct, it's entirely possible that the whole Hugo ballot should have looked completely different, and that none of the eventual winners in the fiction categories should have even been nominated.

What this means is that the entire 2023 Hugo scandal is something completely different from what we've understood it as during the last month. Appalling as it is, the choice to screen English-language nominees for ideological compatibility may, in fact, be a sideshow to the real scandal, which is that hundreds of Chinese voters have been disenfranchised. And—barring even more revelations—this disenfranchisement cannot be blamed on PRC sensibilities and censorship. I truly doubt that it was in the interest of China, or the Chinese business interests who took over Worldcon, to remove Chinese-language nominees from last year's Hugo ballot. This decision came from the American and Canadian staffers who made up the English-language Hugo team, many of them Worldcon volunteers of long standing.

In this context, it is infuriating to recall just how quickly the response to our original sense of what this scandal was turned to anti-democratic measures and calls to limit the power of rank-and-file Worldcon members. "Elections have consequences!" crowed the people who are still pissed they weren't allowed to steal the site selection vote in 2021, while others called to limit site selection to those with "skin in the game"—read, those with the wherewithal to travel to US-based conventions. But as it turns out, the call was coming from inside the house. This was never a China problem. It's an us problem. If the allegations that are now emerging claiming that McCarty has behaved this way in the past, and also harassed other Worldcon staffers, are to be believed (and there is certainly more than enough reason to believe them at this point), it's a profound failure on the part of Worldcon and its membership to police toxic members, which has now blown up in all our faces. And, it's a problem that casts all past Hugo awards into doubt—not existential doubt, because one of the advantages of EPH is that it reveals fiddling with the nominating ballots quite effectively, and the irregularities seen in the Chengdu nominating stats do no appear in previous years' data; but nevertheless, it's impossible to pretend that the award's reputation can ever be what it was.

In my last post about this scandal, I expressed the belief that most people who give of their time and energy to administer the Hugo award do not want to tarnish its reputation and impugn its integrity. In light of these recent revelations, that seems more than a little naïve. It also feels like a counter-argument to all the calls we've been seeing to centralize the Hugos and remove them from the individual Worldcons' control. It's not that this is an entirely bad idea—from a logistical standpoint, in fact, it might be essential, for example given the revelation that each Worldcon uses its own proprietary EPH software rather than drawing from a single, approved source. But the attitude over the last month has been that we let the riffraff in, and look what happened. Now that we know that we are the riffraff, our response should change accordingly. Whether it's the individual Worldcon, or an umbrella organization, or an outside firm, at the end of the day someone is always going to have to make judgment calls about who is eligible for a Hugo and who isn't, whose vote gets counted and whose doesn't. We have just gotten a good look at what rule by SMOF looks like, and I have to say that I don't care for it—and it might be worth remembering that the body most likely to have been expanded into a permanent Hugo administration, the Worldcon Intellectual Property nonprofit, numbered McCarty among its board members until just a few weeks ago.

None of this is to say that we are powerless—on the contrary, I think we have a great deal of power, and our goal should be to wrest even more of it. Now might be a good time to talk about how hostile to outsiders the Worldcon business meeting is, and how that might be changed to allow not only more nimble, responsive changes to the constitution, but procedures that don't immediately alienate prospective volunteers (getting rid of Robert's Rules of Order in favor of something written in the last century might be a good start). I'd also like to hear new ideas about transparency in the Hugo process—Glasgow has committed to releasing its stats as soon as the 2024 awards end, and to revealing the name and reason for any work ruled ineligible at the same time as it announces it nomination ballot. I don't love that last idea—it seems to me that it will undermine the accomplishment of the actual nominees—but I welcome any ideas that make it clear how important the transparency and honesty of the process is.

Most importantly, we should make it clear that we expect accountability. There is already a proposal to the Glasgow business meeting barring members of the 2023 Hugo team from participating in the award in the future. Given the latest revelations, I think a scorched earth approach is unavoidable. I don't see how this award can continue to be taken seriously if anyone involved in the administration of the Chengdu Worldcon is allowed anywhere near the administration of any future Worldcon. And—because this is ultimately an unenforceable rule; there is nothing stopping a Worldcon from winning the bid and then adding a person barred from participating in it to its team—I think we need to think about ways for the membership to express its views outside the confines of the business meeting. 

I'd like to propose the idea of a members' strike. Make it clear that if anyone involved in this debacle, anyone who stood by and allowed this award that we all care about to be brought into such profound disrepute, is given the chance to do it again, that we will withdraw our memberships and refuse to participate in the Worldcon. As I keep saying, I don't believe there are procedural solutions that can completely eliminate the danger of bad actors trampling over a democratic system. But one advantage of these systems is that, in the end, they belong to us. It's time to act like it.

Comments

Unknown said…
Chris M. Barkley here:
Your criticism of the scope of our report is wrong in one respect; Jason and I were concentrating on unveiling the tip of the iceberg of this scandal, NOT the whole iceberg.

And, since we we working under a hard deadline when one of the subjects leaked the existence of reporting to other subjects involved, there was a frenzied effort to push it out several days before our scheduled publication date.

And YES, we did realize the spreadsheets provided by Diane Lacey were important but that sort of analysis is not our area of expertise. In fact, other fans have taken up this thread of evidence and are running with it.

As we pointed out in the report, we both emphasized that we hoped this was just the start of a full blown investigation of this debacle, not the end point. We hope that with each passing day, more will be discovered and made public.

We acquired the information and we conveyed what we knew. That's the job.
Thanks for the clarification, Chris. And just to clarify on my end, I should have made the point that the criticism I was passing was in the context of my appreciation for the work you and Jason did in bringing this information forward.
I've previously made the point that, based on the stated criteria, the fact that I had a photo of Hong Kong Harbor on social media plus the fact that my husband (Rick Moen) is open about having gone to school in British Hong Kong would have made both of us ineligible under McCarty's censorship. Which is, frankly, both infuriating and inane.

FWIW, I first heard of McCarty's being a missing stair in 2012.
Kitty said…
I am just an ordinary SF/F fan, appalled at what's happened to the Hugos, and am confused about parts of this report. Could someone please explain the concept of slates, why they're thought to matter or not, or why they are purported to be bad? Much appreciation and thanks.
Kitty:

The focus on slates stems from the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy debacle of 2014-2016, in which a group of right-wing writers (including some who were very far-right) tried to brigade the award in response to a supposed "takeover" by women and POC. They compiled recommendation lists and got large numbers of supporters to vote for them down the line, which overwhelmed the more dispersed votes of regular Worldcon members.

The problem with this situation is that compiling a recommendation list and voting is not against Hugo rules, and discarding hundreds of identical or nearly-identical ballots is not supposed to be permissible (in fact, in one of the Puppy years the Hugo administrator was Dave McCarty). Many changes that have been made to the collation of Hugo nominating votes, and measures taken to raise awareness of eligible work, were intended to dilute the effect of slate voting. Removing votes en masse has never been considered as a viable response, but it seems to have been undertaken last year.
Anne Gray said…
This whole situation also begs the question of what if anything we are doing to archive and safeguard the "raw" nominations and voting data, so as to have an auditable process.

Anne:

Yes, the absence of rules like that definitely feels like a gap that should be closed. Even without centralizations, there can be more streamlined requirements for each convention about which software they can use to collect and compile nominations results, and how they should keep the data during the award process and after it. I've also been wondering whether a "Hugo comptroller" might be a feasible idea, someone whose job it is to review the convention's work and validate it. There are people who know a lot more about all these issues in this community, and I'm sure they could offer some expertise.
Jan Vaněk jr. said…
Actually, Babel does not "ha[ve] a Chinese translation forthcoming" but was already published by a state-owned publisher around October 2023 (I suppose timed for the Chengdu Worldcon, however it is hard to verify whether they made it). See https://csfdb.cn/works/44386?lang=en-US or https://file770.com/pixel-scroll-1-30-24-oceans-elven/ second sub-item of (6)
Margret said…
"Many changes that have been made to the collation of Hugo nominating votes, and measures taken to raise awareness of eligible work, were intended to dilute the effect of slate voting." I was vaguely aware of the Sad Puppies controversy at the time (I was mostly dealing with health issues) but I haven't kept up on what's been done to protect from similar attacks in the future. Can you provide some links?
Margret:

The most significant change made post-Puppy was E Pluribus Hugo, a method of counting the nominating ballots that would undermine the power of a large group of voters who all voted the same way down the line (a explanation can be found here: https://www.worldcon.fi/wsfs/hugo-new/). In addition, although each nominator is allotted five nominating slots, there are six nominees in each category.

Beyond that, there is also a much more vibrant community of recommendations, which seeks to raise awareness of little-known work and make the nominating ballots more diverse. The Hugo Award spreadsheet (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/13nJN6c8oo6CSTaotXM5EYqQdEa-3b7JPEDPeuhrI2UA/edit#gid=0) is one such example.

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