What are the Hugo Awards for?

This is a follow up to this post.

Wrong Nebula 🙂

So prior to this I discussed what the Hugo Awards are for and how they differ from other Awards such as the Nebulas. A key characteristic are that they are voted on by a group of people that I characterize as being activists and who are somewhat analogous to voting members of a political party.

A consequence of this is that the Hugo Awards are voted on by people who:

  • Have an active interest in fostering the SF/F genre(s)
  • Are usually fairly well informed about a range of writers and other people in fandom
  • Are interested in a broad range of SF/F rather than just one specific fandom or subgenre (although they may have specific interests as well)

How can we know this? Because they bother to vote. The barriers to voting aren’t huge but they exist and any such barriers to a vote will tend to bias the voting towards people who are more interested in being active.

Given this it makes sense to consider what the Hugo Awards do as they have been currently set up. In the analogy I have suggested (activists in a political party) what role do votes at party conferences have? Primarily such votes are intended to keep party officials and representatives accountable to the purpose of the party. Often party activists represent either a more principled or more radical aspect of the party – for example in the US presidential candidates seeking nomination from the Republican party primaries often have to present themselves as more conservative than they will do so in the actual Presidential election that follows.

Wrong Hugo

Activists in political parties will also push political parties down particular policy routes and encourage particular approaches to current issues or make particular issues more visible (perhaps more visible than the leaders of the party would want).

How does that translate to SF/F fandom?

  • An activist award is not the same as popular award or an award for popularity. It isn’t necessarily opposed to popularity, just as party political activists do want their party to win.
  • An activist award is also a message between activist fans and writers (and editors etc) about favored directions
  • An activist award may be a more radical message about the position of the genre.

If this sounds tinged with left wing radicalism, it shouldn’t. The recent Sad Puppy campaign also fits this mode – although they claim that they are trying to steer SF?F towards greater popularity, the express purpose is still to try and add direction and to hold the professional wing (publishers in particular) accountable. Furthermore, in politics this kind of party activism occurs on right and left.

What is important here is that this is something only an activist award can do. An award from a jury serves a different purpose – it is a judgement of quality by an author’s peers (or something similar). The result may often be the same but the message sent is different.

An activist award can go wrong in the same way as party political activist votes can go wrong: primarily via factionalism. In SF/F factionalism can occur when

  • Partisans for a specific fandom (say Doctor WHo) dominate a category.
  • Partisans for a specific author dominate in a given year.
  • Open conflict between groups of fans over voting

In each case the awards send a wrong message – instead of ‘activist fans like X in general’ the truth in these cases would be “a sub-set of fans like Y in particular’.

From a broader perspective the Hugo Awards provide advice:

  • to writers: write more like X
  • to publishers: publish more like X
  • to readers: try reading X

In addition the Hugo Awards have been successful in the past at identifying works that are later regard as a key part of the SF/F canon. Put another way the Hugos are good at spotting classics. In activist terms this is like when the activist’s party not only forms government but implements a long lasting socioeconomic/political reform. Simply winning is not enough for an activist for their party – the party once in government needs to actually achieve something that rewards the activist’s faith in the party.

To this end we can derive a kind of moral imperative for the activist Hugo voter: nominate and vote for works that, of the eligible pool, are most likely to be regard in the future as classics.