The Hugos: why even bother?

This post started as a comment elsewhere but has changed a great deal to become this post. Additionally I felt I needed to write this post first, so that I could explain some of the analogies I might make.

Blackpool – a place where party conferences happen. Also Clara from Doctor Who is from Blackpool (as is Jenna Coleman).

In the light of recent controversy there are numerous proposals on voting strategies for the Hugo Awards, rules changes, ethical principles and debates on the nature of the awards themselves. This post is part of my thinking out loud on those issues.

The Hugo Awards are one of the most prestigious awards within science fiction and fantasy. An award of comparable reputation are the Nebula Awards, which are organized by the Science Fiction Writers of America organization. There is significant overlap between the two but they do have different approaches.

  • The Nebula Awards are decided by a jury – and can be seen as judgement of a work by peers of the author
  • The Hugo Awards are decied by a popular vote – and can be seen as support from fans

However calling the process for the Hugo Awards a popular vote is misleading. Yes, it is open for effectively anybody to vote who is willing to buy a supporting membership but, in effect, it is a vote of a particular kind of community that we could call the WorldCon community. That community I have compared in a previous post to being not unlike the activists who might be involved in a political party. They are a narrower group than just people who generally support, read or like science fiction and fantasy. In so far as they like the activists within a political party they act partly in terms of how they see the genre as whole. That doesn’t make them particularly wiser or more insightful or even less prone to short term thinking and/or factionalism just as party political activists don’t necessarily always work for the best interests of the party they support.

A consequence of this is that I believe the Hugo Awards work more like a juried vote  but with a very large jury. It isn’t a vote that mimics the kind of democracy everybody-is-eligible that a person might think of with the term ‘popular vote’.

The fee to take part in WorldCon as either an attending or supporting member can be seen as a fee that buys you a vote in the Hugo Awards. In 2015 there have been a very large number of people buying the $40 supporting membership and this is almost certainly due to people wanting to take part in the voting as a consequence of the Sad and Rabid Puppy campaign.

The fee has been clled by some a “poll tax”. While that sounds disparaging, it is accurate in some ways but not in others.

It is inaccurate to call it a Poll Tax because that implies the kind of anti-democratic measures that have been employed to undermine universal suffrage in representative democracies. Poll Taxes have a rightfully bad reputation, particularly in the United States where they were used as a way of disenfranchising emancipated slaves in the aftermath of the US Civil War. In the UK also the term “Poll Tax” was used very effectively to undermine the Conservative Party’s attempt to change how local councils were funded by introducing what they called a “Community Charge”. The Community Charge was not strictly a poll tax in the sense of directly effecting voting eligibility but the name stuck for multiple reasons and the campaign against it contributed significantly the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s eventual resignation.

Gratuitous Tom Gauld cartoon. It seemed to fit somehow.

In other ways it is not wholly inaccurate to call the fee a Poll Tax – primarily because by adding barriers to voting the character of who votes is affected.The vote for Hugo Awards has some significant barriers – you have to pay and you have to join. This isn’t remotely unusual as a kind of voting – there are many, many organizations that have vote of their members for all sorts of things. A substantial difference is the vote for the Hugo Awards has significance far beyond the scope of WorldCon members but this is not unlike how votes within a political party have implications beyond the activists who have paid their dues and turned up at the annual conference. Additionally that scope is something that has been achieved rather than something that arises from something inherent in the process [i.e. an award by a SF/F club members is not inherently prestigious]. The award is prestigious because it has picked notable classics in the past and has been an indicator of trends in the future.

Necessarily this is because of who has been members – it is an award in which writers, editors, fanzine writers, organizers of clubs, writers groups etc, have been active. Even the current coup-d’etat* (emphasis on ‘tat’) has been one led by writers/editors (or at least aspiring writers). The democratic angle with the Hugo Awards is perhaps less with the vote but that the consumers and producers of work have a closer relation in this field than in other fields which give awards.

So in a round about why (as per usual, sorry) I am getting to my point. What are the Hugo Awards for? Having created over many years a set of prestigious awards that are decided by a vote of a large group of people (large when compared to normal jury awards), what purpose do they serve that is not served by other awards?


I’ll do that in the next post 🙂

[*the spell checker wants to replace this with ‘coup-metadata’ – which is a great title for a cyberpunk version of House of Cards]

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