Wednesday, August 10, 2022

On the Proposed Changes to the Best Series Hugo Award

I think about the Hugo Awards far more than is probably healthy. Typically, what I’m considering are the finalists for the current year’s awards or reading through all of the previous winners in a given category (I’m at least halfway done with all of the Best Novella winners) or what I would have nominated for Best Video Game if that was a category this year (Metroid Dread and Tales of Arise) or I’ll be thinking about what could be nominated the next year and how to narrow down my predictions for the Best Novel ballot so Adri Joy can owe me another beer that I’m unlikely to actually collect on, or I’ll consider the health of the “downballot” categories and how they can be protected. That’s what I think about during a “normal” year, for whatever that means.

What I’m also thinking about this year is the Best Series category and the two proposals that will be going before the Business Meeting as potential amendments for the WSFS Constitution (World Science Fiction Society) that will change how particular awards are administered and what the eligibility criteria are.

I believe that the two amendment proposals regarding Best Series are well meaning, but very misguided. Because Worldcon members (of which I am a perennial Supporting Member and only occasionally an Attending Member) seem to like quippy titles for their proposals, the two that I want to talk about today are titled “A Work, By Any Other Name…” and “One Rocket Per Customer, Please!”

This is going to get a bit in the weeds for the Hugo Awards, but I think we need to in order to talk about this. The two proposals are related. The less sweeping proposal is “A Work, by Any Other Name…” so let’s touch on that first.

“A Work, by Any Other Name…” does two things. First - it eliminates the section of the WSFS Constitution which states “No work shall appear in more than one category of the final Award ballot” (3.2.9) - which means exactly what it says. The category definitions are generally strict enough that a work *can’t* be on the ballot twice. A work is either a novel or a novella based on word count, and though there is wiggle room if it is within 20% of the word count - it can only be placed on the ballot one time. This is also why the Lodestar Award for YA Novel is specifically NOT a Hugo Award - because if it was a Hugo, the Lodestar finalists would be ineligible for Best Novel. Thus far no Lodestar finalist has been a Novel finalist, but they can - much as an animated film, documentary, or international film can also be on the ballot for Best Picture at the Oscars.

In eliminating that text in 3.2.9, the proposed amendment would replace it with a broader exclusion “Unless otherwise expressly provided for, no content shall be placed on the ballot more than once in a given year in whole or in part, except that (1) a periodical publication shall not be rendered ineligible by virtue of a story published within that does not constitute the majority of its content that year; and (2) written works and audio or audio-visual adaptations of those works shall be considered inherently distinct.”

What this says is that, say, Network Effect cannot be on the Best Novel ballot at the same time as Murderbot in Best Series, as happened last year in 2021. The exclusion is written in such a way that a story can make the ballot in Short Story AND the magazine in which it appeared can still be a finalist in Semiprozine or Fanzine. Or, hypothetically, a prose story can be on the ballot in its category at the same time as a filmed or audio adaptation is on the ballot in Dramatic Presentation (Long or Short).

“A Work, By Any Other Name…” is attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Including the upcoming Hugo Awards given out in just a few weeks, a Hugo for Best Series will have been presented 6 times. There have been 36 total nominees, though three series have been repeat finalists in subsequent years.

In two of these six years has there been direct overlap with the Best Novel ballot. First, in 2019 with Wayfarers and The Machineries of Empire each having nominated novels (Wayfarers won Best Series), and again in 2021 with Murderbot and Lady Astronaut (Martha Wells won both Series for Murderbot and Novel for Network Effect). This year there is one Series overlap with Novella for Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novella Across the Green Grass Fields and the series as a whole.

So - out of 36 finalists for the Best Series only 5 times has a corresponding work from Novel or Novella been on the ballot at the same time - and since we’re looking at two different categories there are twice as many works to draw on to get that overlap. In 2 out of 6 years the Novel and Series ballot has had overlap. 1 year out of 6 there has been an overlap between Novella and Series. 5 total works out of 36 series nominations have had overlap.

I should note that N.K. Jemisin declined a Best Series nomination in 2018 for The Broken Earth, which would have made 6 total works out of 36 series nominations having overlapped since The Stone Sky was a finalist (and eventual winner) in Best Novel.

This is not a problem in want of a solution.

With such little overlap between Novel, Novella, and Series “A Work, By Any Other Name…” fails to recognize the distinct difference between a Series and a component work of that series - which is especially interesting because the nominating Worldcon members do recognize that difference. Seldom does a series have a novel or story on the ballot in the same year, even though it is that novel or story providing the Series category eligibility.

With that being the case, why is there a proposal to penalize those series works that are exceptional enough to reach the Hugo ballot both as the individual work AND the wider series?

This is the less offensive proposal. The significantly more punitive proposed amendment is “One Rocket Per Customer, Please!” which sounds cute and pithy, but is rather far shittier to the writers, if I may be blunt.

The current category description for Best Series is as follows

3.3.5: Best Series. A multi-installment science fiction or fantasy story, unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, appearing in at least three (3) installments consisting in total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the previous calendar year, at least one (1) installment of which was published in the previous calendar year, and which has not previously won under 3.3.5.

What “One Rocket Per Customer, Please!” changes is the limitation that a series that has previously won Best Series is no longer eligible to be a finalist for Best Series in the future (which is fair, and I think, the right way to do this) and broadly expands it as follows.

and which has not previously won under 3.3.5. No series may be nominated that has previously won under Section 3.3.5 nor may any series containing an individual installment which has won a Hugo Award of any type in its nominated format. No series may appear on the ballot in the same year as any of its installments.

Previous *Series* winners are still ineligible, but this is expanded to say that if a Series has had a work that previously won in a different category, the series is ineligible.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series has won multiple Hugo Awards in Best Novel and Best Novella. If this amendment was part of the category rules at the time, Vorkosigan would have been ineligible to even be on the ballot. Likewise the following year with Bujold’s World of Five Gods. Murderbot would have been ineligible due to All Systems Red’s Novella win as would Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series following The Calculating Stars winning Best Novel. This year Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series would be ineligible because her novella Every Heart a Doorway has previously won Best Novella.

For this amendment, three Best Series winners would have been ineligible (and two other finalists).

According to the Commentary that was included with the proposal to the Business Meeting
The main argument for such a change is that the intent of the Best Series award should be to reward works that are primarily notable for their impact as a series. If a work in a series has already won a Hugo Award, then clearly that work has impact on its own. There are many fine series which could not, perhaps even should not, be nominated in their individual parts, but which are clearly Hugo-worthy as a whole. Not having this rule means that we have several series that have won multiple awards, while excellent series that are not going to win on their own have either not made the ballot or (prior to the existence of Best Series) have a late work in the series nominated as a clear attempt to award the series as a whole. (There have been several recent examples of this. . .)
While this amendment seems like a major restriction, what it actually accomplishes is to allow even more works to be recognized on the Hugo Award ballot, and to recognize that the work of writing a Hugo-worthy series is a different endeavor than writing Hugoworthy installments, even multiple times.*

My argument against this proposal is that while I recognize that the original intent of the Best Series category was to celebrate those series that do not get recognition in other Hugo categories (urban fantasy, epic fantasy,etc) it does not allow for the fact that a *Series* can have impact as a series at the same time that a component work of that series could also have significant impact. To suggest that the Vorkosigan Saga is not significant as a series across more than a dozen novels and as many shorter stories because several of those novels and stories have also been recognized for individual achievement is madness.

Yes, I want to see a wider range of Series on the ballot and *more* long running urban fantasy but as a whole the Best Series category *is* recognizing a range of series. There are more tight trilogies and finite series and less open-ended series, but there is a range in what makes the ballot. I’m baffled by why The Dresden Files wasn’t a finalist for Series last year (it was 12th in nominations, so that’s obviously why) - but the works that did make the ballot were also incredibly worthy.

The proposal also includes the intended result of “A Work, By Any Other Name…” so that not only can a writer not win an award in a previous category and be eligible here, they cannot be on the ballot twice if one is Best Series.

This is a privileged problem to have, I completely understand (and certainly not one I will ever have) - but again, a series is not a novel. They do different things and should be celebrated for different things. Vorkosigan, to continue to use the same example, would have been penalized in 2017 because Mirror Dance won Best Novel in 1995.

Just as with “A Work, By Any Other Name…” was attempting to solve a problem that didn’t exist, “One Rocket Per Customer, Please!” has the same nomination tally. Out of 36 finalists for Best Series, 6 of them would have been rendered ineligible. It just happens that three of them were the ultimate winners of that category.

I could go through and list off what series would have made the ballot in each case where a finalists would have been ineligible, but what we can’t predict is how that ineligibility would have changed nominating practices. It doesn’t automatically follow that you can just slot up the first work off the ballot. Having an extra nominating slot could distribute those votes in any number of ways. For example, we don’t yet know what would have made the ballot this year if Wayward Children was ineligible, but even without the voting totals, may I just suggest that it would have been Seanan McGuire’s Incrytid series? Even though it probably won’t be 7th because, McGuire asked fans considering her work to nominate Wayward Children this year, I think in the case of ineligibility nominating patterns would have been different.

What bothers me about all of this, though, is that it just feels shitty. I know the intent is to recognize and reward *more* works and that’s a worthy goal, but if the Hugo Awards are also for celebrating the best work of a given year as determined by Worldcon members and those Worldcon members think that a really fantastic series deserves to be recognized even though it contains a novel that won a Hugo the year prior or twenty years prior, or even have that novel and series on the ballot in the same year - well, that’s what the Hugo Awards should recognize. Doing otherwise tells writers that “oh, you won two (or twenty) years ago for something different so you don’t get to feel good about this other thing because it’s just more of the old thing” even though they are different things.

I would say that I don’t have a solution, but if you’re a Worldcon member and you’re planning to go to the Business Meeting this year - maybe vote against ratifying both “A Work, By Any Other Name…” and “One Rocket Per Customer, Please!”. The amendment names sound cute, but their consequences aren’t.

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him