One way the mid-1980’s did change in the Hugo Awards

Heading off on a tangent from my last tangent. In my previous post I talked about ‘windows’ for authors and the Hugo Awards. Having done some number crunching for that post I thought I’d explain a bit more about the numbers etc.

The data I’m looking at was taken from the Wikipedia pages on the Hugo Awards for Best Novel, Novelette, Novella and Short Story. While there is overlap between finalists for these categories and related categories such as Fan Writer, Editor, or the various kinds of Best Newcomer awards, I restricted it just to the specific story awards. In cleaning up the names I did end up removing various notes etc, so for example Ken Liu appears five times: three times for works he wrote and twice for works he translated. I did check for variations in name spellings but I did not simplify aliases (so Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire appear as separate people). I ignored the retro-Hugos.

For each writer I tracked for each year they they were a finalist, the number of years since they were first a finalist. So the data for George R. R. Martin would look like this if isolated:

YearChange
19740
19751
19762
19762
19784
19806
19806
19817
19817
19828
19839
198410
198612
199723
200127
200632
201238

Using pivot tables in Excel, that data gave every author a maximum “change” which is the width of their Hugo window so far.

As I said in the earlier post, the results are hard to analyse because the spread of window sizes looks like it has something like a Pareto distribution. Lots of people have a 0 year window (they were only finalists in one year) but a small number of people (Asimov and Martin) have a very big window. The mean number of years for a window is about 5.5 years but that mean is not a terribly useful number because most finalist have a smaller window than that.

The other issue is that the potential size of windows increases over time. The Hugo Awards have been running since 1953, so the biggest possible window is 67 years but last year it was only 66 years and so on. Of course, practically we really don’t expect anybody to have a 60+ year interval of being a Hugo finalist. It’s not impossible but it’s unlikely.

So a key question is what’s the effective upper limit of a Hugo window for writers? [Note: other categories this could be quite different] Well, 40 years seems to be a round number for the ceiling to window if I can mix building metaphors. This graph tells the story:

The graph tracks the maximum value for all authors for the window in that year. The orange line is simply the number of years since 1953, which is the hard arithmetic limit on the window size.

What happens is the maximum window size grows each year, lagging a bit behind the orange line. This continues until the mid-1980s and the window size grows much more slowly. It is, coincidentally or not, around the point in time where people have claimed a change in character to the Hugo Awards. The qualitative change is that it around the point where the last people who were finalist in the mid 1950s were finalists for the last time. Of course there had already been massive generational shifts in the awards by then.

What I find fascinating is that to make sense of this number really takes thirty years of data. To see if things really are different now with these numbers, I’ll need to wait until 2050!

In terms of windows from then, is actually a lack of change. The future doesn’t look that different from the past. Here are all of the growing windows for every author (i.e. the size of an every author’s window in each year they were a finalist). The orange line is again the arithmetic maximum (e.g. if somebody find an unpublished story by Alfred Bester and publishes it and it is a Hugo 2021 finalist etc…)

Are there patterns in there? Maybe. I fancy I can see waves of diagonal lines with shorter lines between them and maybe that zone pre-2010 is a little thinner…could be but I don’t think that’s a scientific conclusion 🙂

14 thoughts on “One way the mid-1980’s did change in the Hugo Awards

  1. Of course by the 1980s, the big names of the golden age were dying off, though several hung on well into the current century. Also, Hugo voters in the 1980s tended to nominate substandard late career works by former big names to a much higher degree than today’s Hugo voters. Never mind that we have no idea whether John Scalzi, Ann Leckie and N.K. Jemisin will still be nominated for Hugos in 2050. Alix E. Harrow, who’s not even 30, could theoretically still win Hugo nominations in the 2070s.

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    1. Yes. The change seem after the 1980s may reflect the transition from the period when the golden age figures were still alive providing a common core that everyone in the community could recognize. Fans of many backgrounds could consider themselves as influenced by Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and the rest, and feel the pull to award their later works – but after those were gone, the default was gone, meaning that authors must be much more startlingly good to get support across the range of our diverse genre.

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      1. There’s a good book (if you’re into theater), “Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks” looking at shows that didn’t win the Best Musical award and why. Shows that the Tonys, like the Oscars, are not about pure merit.

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  2. I remember reading, somewhere, sometime, that people tend to become writers – that is, published writers – either in their twenties or their fifties; that is, it’s either a first-choice career (leading to professional sales once education is completed and the writer’s had some time to practice the craft), or it’s something you get into after you’ve had significant life experience (and possibly have the leisure time to do some writing.)

    Would this affect your statistics, or explain some of the stuff you’re seeing on that graph? If you have two significant cohorts of writers (20something starters and 50something starters)… the 50somethings should have, on average, a rather shorter window (because the Grim Reaper will end their careers sooner.)

    Of course, I have no idea if this is true in general, or true specifically of the SF/F field, and even if it is, it’s only a tendency so there will be loads of exceptions.

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    1. //I think the diagonal lines with slope 1 simply represent years where there were a number of first-time finalists who, among them, got many repeat nominations.//

      Yes, that’s sort of what I mean by waves. There will be little blocks where more of the first timers go on to be long-term repeat nominees and some block were there are fewer of those. Probably just at random but that colours how people looking at *past* Hugos percieve the field as it was then.
      e.g. earlier nominations for George R.R. Martin look like the Hugos picking a popular author even though that’s not quite how it was.

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  3. Two people with some of the longest Hugo nomination windows are Frederik Pohl and Ursula K. Le Guin.

    Le Guin was first nominated (and promptly won) in 1970. Her last nomination and win were in 2019, two years after she died. That’s a 49 year span.

    Pohl was first nominated in 1963 as editor of Galaxy. His last nomination (and win) was in 2010 for Best Fan Writer. That’s a 47 year span.

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