Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Hugos (*sigh*)

Regular readers of this blog are, by now, surely aware of my issues with the Hugo Awards. The categories don’t scale, the terms of inclusion range from byzantine to straight up counter-intuitive, there are too many awards for people and, paradoxically, not enough for the creative products or ventures that we should actually be celebrating, and so forth.

But another structural issue plaguing the Hugos centers on the way selections are made. Once upon a time, you had to be an attending member of World Con to vote. But for years the World Science Fiction Society has sold “supporting memberships,” which grant access to some features of the annual World Con (including Hugo voting privileges) to those who can’t physically attend. The cost, however, is relatively high—set between $40-60 total for two annual conventions.

As a result, Hugo voting is best characterized as “semi-open.” Anyone can vote, for a price, but that price is high enough that only deeply committed individuals are actually going to vote. And who are those committed voters? SF/F obsessives, for one; people up for awards and those close to them for another. And now, clearly, that class includes foot soldiers mobilized to fight an imagined "culture war" very few science fiction and fantasy readers know about, care about or care to know about.

The past two years have illustrated just how easy it is to dominate the Hugo nominating process if you organize your pretend army. You don’t even need a lot of people, actually. Just look at the voting statistics for 2014: 100 votes would get you on the ballot for every single category save Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. If you had a full slate, and got 100 people to vote for it in lockstep, you’d get:

1/5 Best Novel nominations
1/5 Best Novella nomination
4/5 Best Novelette nominations
4/4 Best Short Story nominations
5/5 Best Related Work nominations
4/4 Best Graphic Story nominations
0/5 Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form nominations
3/5 Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form nominations
3/5 Best Editor, Short form nominations
3/5 Best Editor, Long Form nominations
4/6 Best Professional Artist nominations
4/6 Best Semiprozine nominations
4/5 Best Fanzine nominations
7/7 Best Fancast nominations
5/5 Best Fanwriter nominations
5/5 Best Fan Artist nominations

Or, in aggregate terms, 100 voters voting in lockstep on a full slate of nominees would get you 57/82 nominations—or a full 70% of everything on the shortlist. And remember that this is with just 100 mobilized voters.

Clearly the architects of the crosscutting Sad/Rabid Puppies slates noticed this, and acted accordingly. We don’t know the actual statistics for this year’s Hugos (and won’t until August), but we do know that S/RP accounted for 61/85 shortlisted nominees, which is 72% (thanks to Mike Glyer at file770). Note the similarity between the hypothetical 70% projected for the 2014 Hugo Awards, based on 100 votes for a full slate, and the actual 72% garnered for the 2/3 full slates presented for the 2015 Hugo Awards (albeit in a year with a larger number of nominating ballots). Clearly they had more than 100 voters this year, but I doubt it was much more than that. 200? 250? Neither is a very big number.

The reason it works this way is because there’s massive diffusion in what people nominate. Tastes vary, and there is a lot of SF/F produced and consumed over a calendar year. Then you have the inevitable mistakes—nominations for books not actually published in the calendar year, nominations for books not initially published in the calendar year (e.g. The Martian), spaces left blank, etc. Without a longlist, a la the Locus Awards, you get lots of stuff with some nominations and not a lot of stuff with a lot of nominations. But without a really large voter base, a la the David Gemmell Legend Awards, that 100 or so voters can come in and clean house. Django Wexler has provided a game theoretic explanation that largely comes to the same conclusion, which I suggest everyone read.

But suffice to say, the Hugos were gamed because they are structurally game-able; and though I'm deeply frustrated by the emergence of slate voting, I also can't 100% blame the S/RP folks for taking advantage of something that was so ripe for the picking. Genteel assumptions that everyone will always just vote their individual conscience strikes me as naive, even as the event of its passing remains tragic. This is, after all, the age of the digital pile-on.

What This Means For Me

Something clearly needs to change with the structure of the Hugos—either the nominating process or the size of the voting pool. Or both. I’ve heard from reputable sources (like this comment from a certain Kevin Standlee) that a 4/6 amendment is going to be floated, which as I understand it would limit voters to providing 4 nominations, though 6 selections would eventually be shortlisted. This would limit the impact of slate voting. Sort of.

Only, I find myself wondering if I’m just barking up the wrong tree, because, frankly, the Hugos have never felt less meaningful to me than they do now. And it’s not just S/RP—that’s just the straw threatening to break the camel’s back. I do think the awards have value, and are worth working on to enact the right set of fixes. But the sum total of category madness and slate voting sure do make other vote-based awards look nice and shiny.

Like the Locus Awards, which asks voters to nominate from a curated longlist (this year’s), includes separate awards for science fiction and fantasy novels, has an award for anthologies, and which doesn’t charge as much as World Con does for a supporting membership. Of course there are no fan categories, which is a bummer, but that begs the question: is it more efficient for fans like me to contribute ideas for Hugo reform or to start thinking about creating a set of fan awards on the Locus model?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up on the Hugos—not yet, that is. But it’s going to take some major changes to keep people like me from drifting away. And if we do, its days as the most prestigious award in SF/F fandom are probably numbered. Oh, and that number starts counting down faster and faster if, as some suspect, others try to organize an opposing slate for next year. In that case, I’d just wash my hands of the whole thing, as I suspect many others would, because escalating “culture war” politics are bad enough when not ruining my favorite pastime. I mean, this is supposed to be fun, but the sad fact is that it's just not that fun right now.

Now about that Locus Recommended Reading list...