Does winning a Hugo make you age?

Or looking for the existence of Time Lord, Elves and other entities in the Hugo Award winners (spoiler: there aren’t any)

Four claims have been made about how the Hugo awards have supposedly changed in recent years.

  • They have become more leftwing.
  • They have become more literary.
  • They have become more cliquish.
  • They have become less relevant (because of the above).

In the On Petunias and Whales series of posts, I looked at the first claim and found only weak evidence of a statistical bias in recent years. As this claim is also a claim about historical trends it would be good to examine it over a long period of years. Unfortunately any hope of decent data is unlikely – the past really is another country when it comes to politics, views and stances on issues and even the issues themselves are different. The best we could hope for is either self-identification data which will be highly misleading or modern perceptions.

The literary dimensions is an interesting one and I have an idea for a metric that will measure something unusual in that regard…but I’m not ready to reveal that yet.

Relevance? There is almost certainly a whole heap of things going on there, as the traditional book publishing industry adjusts to not only a revolution in how books are made, bought and sold but also adjusts to a world in which multiple forms of entertainment are growing quickly and competing for time, head space and cultural relevance.

The relevance argument is two-fold: firstly that the Hugo awards have supposedly alienated people because of points 1,2, & 3 and secondly that the Hugos aren’t relevant to a world of video-games, web-surfing, social-media, effect-laden SF/F movies and new kinds of TV shows available in new forms of delivery. The second point is an interesting one but which I’ll leave aside for the moment. The first is clearly true of the Puppy supporters (they clearly do feel genuinely alienated from the awards) but is not well supported by evidence for people in general.

But, I’ll put ‘relevance’ aside for the moment also.

Cliquish? Now that is interesting. I don’t have answers for that but I’ve got a starting point.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have compiled a spreadsheet of nominees for the best novel category of the Hugo awards. The data was taken from the Wikipedia page on the category which was sourced from this Hugo page.

I added to this data the year of Birth for each nominee. For dual nominees (e.g. Niven and Pournelle) I included a line for each. For composite people (i.e. two people writing as a single invented person with one name) I just picked the age of the first person I found. Generally the year of birth data was taken from the associated Wikipedia page.

Only one nominee does not have an age: Katherine Addison who is a (non-puppy) 2015 nominee for The Goblin Emperor (which is well worth a read). For completeness her age has been listed a nominally 45 years as this is the overall average.

At this point the data is so that I can look for patterns. The 4 claims listed above suggest a recent, qualitative change in the Hugo awards. I’m curious if there is a signal I can find that reflects this. Note that this is a bit of a snark hunt. Finding nothing means nothing and as I expect there to be nothing I’m likely to get no neat resolution. The journey may throw up some interesting things on the way though.

So here is what I have so far.

The average age of nominees is about 45 years old (unless Katherine Addison is really, really young or old – e.g. she is a Time Lord). In the 1960s it was about 44 years and the same in the 1970s. The 1980s jumps to 47 years but there is an interesting twist there that I will get too shortly. The 1990s is 45 years and the 2000’s is 46. The current decade is only halfway through and is around 47 years. Overall those figures suggest a small, slow increase age with lots of noise.

Graph time:


There is a slight and not very influential upward trend in the data. The R-squared value on the graph gives an indication of how much one variable (the year) accounts for the variation in the other (average age of nominees). the answer is 7% or ‘not very much’.

However there are some periods of time in which we can consider Hugo history and make sense of some of this data.

The 1960s was a time in which established writers from before the Hugos came into being were still very active (and still relatively young) but also a time of radical social change with even younger writers also appearing. The Hugo awards were also establishing themselves and SF/F, despite decades of history, was still in some ways a new genre.

The 1970’s data looks more stable but the data in the early to mid 1980s shows some huge spikes in age. This corresponds to a point were some of the giants of science-fiction were still being nominated before old-age and (sadly) death took its toll. 1983 saw Issac Asimov (63) win a Hugo in a set of nominees that also included Arthur C Clarke (66) and Robert Heinlein (76). I nearly referred to these authors as the dinosaurs of science fiction but people use ‘dinosaur’ too pejoratively. Megasaurs might be better – giant, awesome beings who strode the earth in a past era now sadly gone.

The last impact of this generational shift was sadly more pathetic: the 1987 nomination for L Ron Hubbard’s “Black Genesis” – perceived as being part of a campaign by Scientologists.

Putting most the 1980s aside, I get this graph.

Average age of Hugo nominees from 1988 onwards
Average age of Hugo nominees from 1988 onwards

The trend upwards looks more clear and the R-squared value is more suggestive but at this point we run into the danger of cherry-picking. 1988 is a somewhat arbitrary date – I can justify it as being the year in which a generational shift was completed but that also means I have intentionally avoided data which would shift the earlier years older. If I picked 1987 instead the trend is reduced sharply.

We can look at this generational shift with this graph.

Age of winners by year
Age of winners by year

This time I have only included the winners. Now the ten year block from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s also stands out. This is a period in which the age range of winners dropped sharply. I can graph that specific time period.

Age of Hugo Best Novel winners 1985 to 1995
Age of Hugo Best Novel winners 1985 to 1995

The year accounts for 60% of the variance in the age of the winners! What is going on?

A look at the nominees shows the generational shift. Orson Scott Card, David Brin, Lois McMater Bujold amongst others are nominated and win. As they aren’t elves, they also age.

So what can we conclude other than that authors are mortal and get older over time? Well, from the look of the 85-95 time period it does seem that there was a narrowing of the field of nominees. That would be consistent with a more clique-like aspect to the Hugo awards. Note I am very much NOT saying that any of the Hugo nominees in that period were only there because of some clique – the names I just gave are manifestly highly accomplished SF/F authors and the winning novels include some of my favorite books in the genre from that time. However it does give a way in.

Next stop – instead of ages I’ll try and look at how winners/nominees were drawn from previous winners/nominees. The less that is the case then the less the notion of an inner clique makes sense.

4 thoughts on “Does winning a Hugo make you age?

  1. I doubt it makes much difference, but Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison submitted her PhD in 2004, which suggests she’s a little younger.

    Incidentally, what happens if you do a crude correction for the field being newer and younger at the start of the Hugos by starting an arbitrary decade later? Does the trend drop any?

    I’d definitely expect to see a connection between previous noms and later ones; some combination of being “on the radar” and of being in a very productive and fruitful period of your career. I’d also predict that a gap in nominations sees that effect drop off.


    1. I don’t think it was much younger back then but I’ll look. What would be lacking in the mid 1950s would be a really old cohort of writers but if you look at many of the people you still find lot of people in the 40s and 50s just like now and ten, twenty, thirty years ago.


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