Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Assessing the Hugo Reform Proposals

There are currently three proposals for Hugo reform that will be discussed at the Sasquan business meeting. None are in the ballpark of the comprehensive reforms I've suggested, but are at least attempts to rationalize and/or streamline areas of the Hugo process that are either inefficient, inexplicable or path dependent to older models of the SF/F field. Here I assess their merits.

1. The "4 and 6" Proposal

Summary: This rule change would alter the way nominations work. Under the current system, voters can nominate up to 5 selections per category. Usually 5 selections/category are shortlisted, though there are scenarios in which it can be more or less. (For a full explanation, read this.) If 4/6 is adopted, however, voters will only be able to pick 4 selections/category, while the eventual shortlist will include 6 selections/category.

Analysis: 4/6 is being touted in some corners as a solution to slate voting. It isn't, as two highly correlated slates could easily account for 5 if not all 6 selections. Yet while the system would remain gameable, 4/6 would at least reduce the prospects for domination by any given slate. Just as importantly, 4/6 would potentially open the door for some riskier selections to make the shortlists.

Verdict: I support this proposal as is.

2. Proposal to Eliminate the 5% Threshold for Shortlisting

Summary: As it stands, a nominee must appear on at least 5% of all nominating ballots in its category in order to be shortlisted. Thus if only 4 short stories appear on 5+% of nominating ballots in that category, only 4 short stories will appear on the shortlist. This proposal would do away with that requirement.

Analysis: The 5% rule has never made sense to me. Sure, it can impose a semblance of order in parliamentary systems where there are 80 political parties, but this is not that. I fail to see any advantage to the 5% rule. Plus it's necessary to remove this in order for 4/6 to function correctly.

Verdict: I support this proposal as is.

3. Proposal to Replace Best Novelette with Best Saga

Summary: A Best Saga category is proposed in order to award series rather than individual volumes; it is further proposed that the Best Novelette category be removed in order to "make room." Under the new scheme, a short story would be anything with a 0-10k word count, and a novella would be anything with a 10k-40k word count. It is proposed that qualifying sagas have at least a 400k word count over multiple volumes. A given saga is also eligible in every year that a new volume is published. 

Analysis: I applaud the bold effort at reform, and to bring the awards in line with the structure of the field as it stands today. As I've argued before, novelette is a relic from the time when most SF/F filtered through short fiction magazines, while the growing emphasis on multivolume series (especially but not exclusively in fantasy) suggests that popular awards like the Hugos might want to get with the times if they want to retain their cultural relevance. But I don't think this proposal presents the solution.

To begin, the Hugo voters have often been perfectly content to award the same things over and over again. Recall that, during a 30-year period, David Langford won Best Fan Writer a whopping 21 times. Or, more recently, when Best Related Work was essentially "Best Episode of Dr. Who." If we are going to have an award for Best Saga, it would make sense if a series were deemed ineligible after winning. That would insure against "Best David Langford Syndrome."

Then there's the issue of whether it's necessary to "make room" for Best Saga by cutting Best Novelette. I did indeed propose getting rid of Best Novelette in my reform proposal, but to be replaced by Best Original Anthology or Collection--which is, in essence, a short fiction award. That said, I do not oppose, in principle, altering the ratio of short to long-form fiction categories from the current 3:1 to 2:2--it isn't the 1970s anymore, after all. Nevertheless, I do believe that there has to be a better payoff than this specific proposal promises, and wonder--as some others have--whether there might not be other categories that could be eliminated first. Like Best Editor (Long Form)--an award that seems awfully remote from the world of non-professionals. (And the Hugos are fan awards, first and foremost.)

Don't take that as a ringing endorsement of Best Novelette--I still think it should go, but in the context of more comprehensive Hugo reforms that would: (a) eliminate all awards for individuals (rather than works or collections of works; (b) create categories that scale with consistency; and (c) rationalize/modernize the categories themselves. But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I don't want to cut down an apple tree if I can't be sure that this other seed will ever produce oranges.

Verdict: I do not support this proposal in its present form. However, I urge everyone to keep an open mind and not just circle the wagons. I look forward to a vigorous debate both on Best Saga's and Best Novelette's merits, and may support an amended form of the proposal (depending on how it evolves). In making such assessments, I will be looking for compelling arguments that are divorced from self-interest, which aim to make the Hugo Awards most reflective of the field as it stands, and which are backed by data--whether quantitative or anecdotal. To date I have seen little that fit these criteria. However, I am sure some will emerge.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).