Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Burning Down the Hugo Awards: A Look at the Irregularities in the 2023 Nominating Statistics, What We Know, and What It Means

The Hugo Awards are in the midst of what is almost certainly its most significant crisis in the history of the award, which was first given out in 1953 and continuously since 1955. One might be inclined to say that this is the most significant since the Sad / Rabid Puppy mess in the mid 2010’s, but Marshall Ryan Maresca and others note that this is FAR WORSE and I tend to agree. We’ll get back to that later.

It is a tradition that when the Hugo Awards are presented at a given Worldcon that both the voting and nominating statistics are released that same night. By rule, and we’re going to be talking a lot about rules today, the administering Worldcon has 90 days to publish that data. Unless I’m wrong about time zones (this is possible) - 90 days would have required publication by end of day January 19, 2024. Voting statistics for the final ballot was released on December 3. Nominating statistics were published on January 20.

I’m not going to get into specific conspiracy theories. It would be easy to come up with any number of theories with varying degrees of plausibility, but when the final ballot was released earlier in 2023 the most glaring omission was that R.F. Kuang’s novel Babel was not a Hugo Award finalist. Now, no person or work is guaranteed to make the ballot. Despite Babel’s wide popularity and acclaim, it may have just missed the ballot. Kuang could have declined. It happens. But it got people who were already suspicious of a Worldcon being held in China wondering what happened, especially when word got out that Kuang’s editor, David Pomerico, noted that Kuang did not decline. Thing is, most fans don’t have contact with Pomerico (or Kuang) so there wasn’t a lot of independent verification and it certainly could have been apocryphal. We would wait for the statistics.

A lot of fans, myself included, are always waiting for the statistics. It’s part of how we engage with the Hugo Awards - to see what got close, who declined a nomination, and what the shape of the awards race really looked like.

What we found was that something was really, terribly wrong with the nominating statistics and a lot of things made absolutely no sense.

Babel had the third most nominations and enough to make the Best Novel ballot, but it was ruled ineligible without explanation

Xiran Jay Zhao had enough nominations to make the Astounding Award for Best New Writer ballot, but was ruled ineligible without explanation. Zhao, I should note, was previously a finalist for the Astounding Award, which has a two year eligibility window. This would have been their second year of eligibility.

Paul Weimer had enough nominations to make the Best Fan Writer ballot, but was ruled ineligible without explanation. Paul has been a finalist for Fan Writer the previous three years and was on the ballot in Chengdu as part of the Nerds of a Feather editorial team for Best Fanzine (as well as previously in Best Fancast).

Sandman: Season 1 had enough nominations to make the Dramatic Presentation, Long Form ballot, but was ruled ineligible because of Section 3.8.3 of the WSFS Constitution, which states
“If any series and a subset series thereof both receive sufficient nominations to appear on the final ballot, only the version which received more nominations shall appear.”
This makes sense because Sandman Episode 6 “The Sound of Her Wings” did, in fact, receive more nominations than the full season and sufficient nominations to make the Dramatric Presentation, Short Form ballot. “The Sound of Her Wings” was ruled ineligible without explanation.

The story “Fongong Temple Pagoda” had enough nominations to make the Best Short Story ballot. It was ruled ineligible without explanation.

Other works were also ruled ineligible, some with explanation of previous publication or an author being part of the Hugo subcommittee. Some stories were disqualified because they were legitimately ineligible based on publication date. Additionally, seasons and episodes of the shows Andor and Severance were correctly sorted based on application of 3.8.3, which makes the Sandman situation even more confusing. All of this makes the full rest of the Hugo mess even more confounding.

I want to be a bit pedantic for a moment before I start complaining or digging into the particular responses and lack of responses from the Hugo administrators. Specifically, I want to look at the WSFS Constitution, which are the guiding rules for how the Hugo Awards are administered, and what they say about particular categories. The reason I want to do this is because of the only public statement regarding the ineligibilities is “after reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible” which is from Dave McCarty the Hugo Award administrator for the Chengdu Worldcon, speaking on his personal facebook page. McCarty’s lack of true explanation or detail is lamentable.

So - let’s dig into what the WSFS Constitution actually has to say.

3.2.1: Unless otherwise specified, Hugo Awards are given for work in the field of science fiction or fantasy appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year.

3.2.3: Publication date, or cover date in the case of a dated periodical, takes precedence over copyright date.
This is the initial basis of eligibility. Awards given in 2023 are for work published in 2022. That is the previous calendar year. On the off chance a work has a 2021 copyright date, the actual publication date of 2022 takes precedence.

Also, this is for works of science fiction and fantasy, or relating to the field of science fiction and fantasy, depending on the particular category.

If we take a look at R.F. Kuang’s novel Babel, this is a novel that was first published in 2022 and is demonstrably a work of fantasy. It is an alternate history with magic. In 2023 Babel won a Nebula Award, the Locus Magazine Reader’s Poll for Best Fantasy novel, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, Dragon Award, Ignyte Award, and Sidewise Awards - all for excellence in the science fiction and fantasy field.

The specific additional rules for Best Novel, beyond the publication date and genre requirements are:
3.2.7: The categories of Best Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, and Series shall be open to non-interactive works in which the text is the primary form of communication, regardless of the publication medium, including but not limited to physical print, audiobook, and ebook

3.3.1: Best Novel. A science fiction or fantasy story of forty thousand (40,000) words or more
That’s it. Babel is decidedly a text based work, and it is significantly over 40,000 words (likely topping 160,000 words).

I would absolutely love an explanation for how Babel is not eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Now, if we look at the curious case of Paul Weimer, I’m going to be quoting a whole bunch of category descriptions because Paul was declared ineligible as a Fan Writer and Fan Writer is a category that weirdly depends on other categories.

3.3.17: Best Fan Writer. Any person whose writing has appeared in semiprozines or fanzines or in generally available electronic media during the previous calendar year.

3.3.14: Best Semiprozine. Any generally available non-professional periodical publication devoted to science fiction or fantasy, or related subjects which by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues (or the equivalent in other media), at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, which does not qualify as a fancast, and which in the previous calendar year met at least one (1) of the following criteria:

(1) paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication,

(2) was generally available only for paid purchase,

3.3.15: Best Fanzine. Any generally available non-professional periodical publication devoted to science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects that by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues (or the equivalent in other media), at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, that does not qualify as a semiprozine or a fancast, and that in the previous calendar year met neither of the following criteria:

(1) paid its contributors or staff monetarily in other than copies of the publication,

(2) was generally available only for paid purchase.
Now that we have that out of the way, Fan Writer assumes that first the work was done in 2022 and that it was done in either Fanzines or Semiprozines. I’ll admit that I don’t know the full scope of Paul’s work over 2022 because he is truly ubiquitous, but I know this: Paul was a writer and editor of Nerds of a Feather, which is explicitly a fanzine. We are a previous winner of the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and we were on the ballot in Chengdu for Best Fanzine (with Paul as a listed finalist). Paul produced something like 60 pieces of writing for Nerds of a Feather, so I don’t see any reason why someone who is so prominent in online fandom who produces fan writing all over the place (not just at Nerds of a Feather, but specifically here) is in some way not eligible in the Fan Writer category. Here is his initial response

I just don’t know how someone who has been a three time Fan Writer finalist who is continually producing the same sort of work in the same sort of spaces that got him on the ballot thrice before is suddenly not eligible. This does not make sense.

None of this makes sense, but the ineligibility of Xiran Jay Zhao for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer is perhaps the most baffling of all.

The Astounding Award is technically not a Hugo Award, but it is administered by the presiding Worldcon along with the Hugo Awards. This matters because the rules are set by Dell Magazines and not the World Science Fiction Society.

The pertinent rules are in the award's FAQ
Who is eligible for the 2023 Astounding Award?

Writers with a qualifying professional work published in 2021 or 2022. Eligibility does not reset with pseudonyms. Each writer has a two year eligibility window after publishing a qualifying work.

What counts as a qualifying professional work?

Any work of fiction in the science fiction or fantasy genres (SF/F) published in a qualifying publication.

Which publications qualify?

Any publication meeting one of the following criteria:

Copy print run of at least 10,000

Publications which have a nominal pay rate, particularly those designated by the award sponsor (Dell Magazines). The nominal rate was originally taken from SFWA membership requirements, which was $0.08/word with a minimum of $80 total.

A published work of fiction of a minimum of 40,000 words either sold to a small press or self-published for which the author can demonstrate net income of at least $3,000 within one year. Income can be in the form of advance, royalties, or some combination thereof.
Xiran Jay Zhao’s first professional publication was the novel Iron Widow in 2021. They were an Astounding Award finalist in 2022 in their first year of eligibility. Zhao was in their second year of eligibility, and as previously mentioned the Astounding Award has a two year eligibility window. Zhao was explicitly eligible the year prior and as nothing changed, Zhao should absolutely be eligible in 2023.

And yet.
I do not know enough about “Fongong Temple Pagoda”, its provenance or publication dates other than being told that it was published in 2022 and otherwise fits the category. I’m not comfortable going into detail about something I can’t accurately source - but it is the only disqualified story that could not be easily demonstrated to be ineligible.

Dave McCarty stated “after reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible” and then followed that with the only other bit of clarification he was willing to offer: “That is the statement the Hugo administration team agreed to after long and considered deliberation.” (again, via his personal Facebook account).

That is a non response. It is unacceptable, and frankly it is bullshit.

Dave McCarty is specifically listed as a Vice Chair of the Chengdu Worldcon and a Department Head of the Hugo Awards Selection Executive Department. He is also listed as part of the Awards Administration.



This is not to say that McCarty is solely responsible for this hot mess of a Hugo Awards (which was up until the release of the data, otherwise lovely) but he is, for better or worse (and mostly worse) the public face of this fiasco and based on his roles and his public statements - he was part of this.

But now we get into speculation because in the absence of transparent communication and actual answers that are demonstrably real and factual all we have left is speculation.

So let’s speculate, starting with R.F. Kuang’s public statement.
I wish to clarify that no reason for Babel’s ineligibility was given to me or my team. I did not decline a nomination, as no nomination was offered.

Until one is provided that explains why the book was eligible for the Nebula and Locus awards, which it won, and not the Hugos, I assume this was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility. Excluding “undesirable” work is not only embarrassing for all involved parties, but renders the entire process and organization illegitimate. Pity.

That’s honestly the heart of most of the speculation - that Kuang and Weimer and Zhao and Sandman and “Fongong Temple Pagoda” were deemed ineligible not because there was any factual basis on the ineligibility, which I believe I have clearly shown that they was not, but rather because a decision was made by *someone* that maaaaybe these people / works would be better left off the ballot.

Cheryl Morgan notes that “they have chosen to put out a set of nomination statistics that makes it very clear that shenanigans have taken place. Maybe we should be thinking about why they did that.”

Tammy Coxen, on McCarty’s Facebook suggests exactly that. “The fact that he did release them, in a way that made it abundantly clear that there were irregularities should be taken as the message that it is”

Except that Dave McCarty is doubling down on the integrity of how the Hugo Award were administered.

Everything that appeared on the ballot and was voted on was put there by the (world wide) Worldcon community. We have detailed stats at the end showing everything was nominated and the identifies all of the decisions the administration team made.

I look at that and I see both legitimacy and transparency.

If he is protecting people, that is admirable but he is also burning down the integrity of the Hugo Awards at the same time. McCarty responds with belligerent and functionally stating that nobody has any idea how anything works, does not know anything, and reading of the WSFS Constitution does not make one an expert.

Perhaps not, but it does allow us to ask questions. It does allow a lot of people with significant experience to ask questions because this doesn’t add up.

When the Sad / Rabid Puppies fiasco occurred, the Worldcon response was that while awful and unacceptable nothing that was done was actually against the rules so a whole lot of otherwise awful finalists made the Hugo ballot because the Hugo Awards were administered fairly and by the rules of the WSFS Constitution.

Worldcon members then acted to make changes to the WSFS Constitution to minimize the impact of such bad actors, but that was also done in accordance to the rules of the World Science Fiction Society. It wasn’t done by fiat.

Naomi Kritzer stated in that same Facebook thread where McCarty claimed legitimacy and transparency, addressing Dave:
You were literally the Hugo administrator in 2016, a year when Puppies took over the ballot, and you opted not to disqualify such nominees as "If You Were an Award, My Love" in short story, “Safe Space as Rape Room” by Daniel Eness and "SJWs Always Lie" in Related Work, and Vox Day in Editor Long Form.

I think that year we were all told that it would be perfectly impossible to disqualify anything, because rules. Fascinating that you found a way to disqualify Rebecca Kuang but not Theodore Beale.
That’s damning.

That’s why what is going on now is so much worse than the Sad / Rabid Puppies - because everything that we can see is the rules were *not* followed and that makes this entire experience illegitimate because we can no longer trust that the Hugo Awards will be administered fairly and with integrity.

Maybe we’re all missing something, but when all we have are the increasingly defensive and angry replies of a man claiming that everything is on the up and up because he says they are and anyone with a lick of sense can see that there is something wrong here - there’s something wrong here and it is damaging the credibility of the Hugo Awards and we’re watching it in real time.

What I do think is a serious possibility, which is equally damning for the integrity of the Hugo Awards, is that - in the face of McCarty saying that nobody directly told the Hugo Committee that the administering Hugo Award Committee took it upon themselves in the face of invisible political pressure to make choices that would not run the risk of causing even a potential issue with the local / regional / national political committees in China. And thus, without anyone saying anything or telling anyone to disqualify legitimate nominees, R.F. Kuang, Xiran Jay Zhao, Paul Weimer, Sandman, and "Fongong Temple Pagoda" find themselves mysteriously "ineligible" for a Hugo Award. 

And if there is a concern that in the future other Hugo Committees could make similar decisions, what is the Hugo Award anyway?

None of this even gets into the potential shenanigans of the actual nominating numbers, which are also deeply suspect but a potential symptom of this larger issue.

Note: Information in this essay is as accurate as I could make it up until the time it published, after which I have no idea what is going to happen next or be revealed next. Stay tuned, because this hot mess is not going anywhere

Joe Sherry - Senior Editor of Nerds of a Feather. Hugo and Ignyte Winner. Minnesotan.