Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Locus Award problems

I have been a faithful reader of Locus for 37 years, and I still consider it a valuable guide to both upcoming sf and reviews of current books. Their most valuable issues are their quarterly Upcoming Books guide and their annual Year in Review issues. But over the years, I have noticed a subtle arrogance has sneaked into the pages of Locus. Gradually it has drifted away from being content to report on the science fiction field to trying to dominate and influence the genre. Consider the following:

Locus has always had a snobbishness in choosing certain authors’ books to review and publicize, while totally ignoring others. And that does not necessarily reflect those authors' popularity. In the past decade Robert Sawyer has been nominated for 10 Hugo Awards, winning Best Novel in 2003, while Jack McDevitt has been nominated for 12 Nebula Awards during that period, winning Best Novel in 2007. But if you read only Locus for reviews and overviews of the sf field, you might not realize those two authors even existed since Sawyer is never reviewed, and McDevitt is rarely mentioned.

Locus makes a big deal of their annual Locus Awards, which have a larger voting base than either the Hugos or Nebula Awards. However, in recent years the editors of Locus have taken great strides to make sure those awards represent their own views rather than the uninfluenced views of their readers/voters in a very sneaky manner: the awards are voted online, and each category has a drop-down menu listing all the works recommended by the editors of Locus. While there is also the option of “writing-in” a different name, we all know the likelihood of a write-in winner beating one of the listed nominees is slim, if not nonexistent.

But Locus made the mistake of opening the voting to anybody who visits the Locus Online website, rather than restricting it to readers of the magazine. So this year the number of voters of the Locus Award who were not readers of the magazine apparently skewed some of the results away from the recommended stories pushed in the pages of the magazine. So as to minimize such free-thinking influence on the awards, the editors of Locus decided after the voting was completed to count the votes of Locus subscribers as double the value of non-subscribers.

That decision made a difference in several awards. Connie Willis is a personal friend of the editors of Locus, and obviously one of their favorites, but she would have come in second place for the Locus Award without the doubling to Cory Doctorow, who has a rabid following online. How dare he take an award from an insider? *tsk tsk*

Quite frankly, the Locus Awards do not matter much in the sf field compared to Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, John W. Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, etc, but pretending the Locus Award is more representative than the others in the broad realm of fandom is contradictory when the award is not-so-subtly influenced by the presenters of the award. Just as claiming to be “the magazine of the science fiction & fantasy field” is a bit of an invalid claim when its coverage deliberately ignores important aspects of the f&sf field.

Fortunately, in this internet age, Locus is no longer the sole newsletter devoted to the genre. Sites such as SF Scope and SF Signal carry daily news items as well as links to other sites, and there are numerous bloggers who discuss f&sf regularly. Some websites, such as SF Site have their own annual awards and, to separate their own opinions from that of their readers, they have two parallel awards, a set of winners from their editors and contributors and another set of winners from their readers. Maybe that is something Locus should consider doing rather than skewing their supposed “democratic” awards.


  • I've got to agree with your post, and am glad to see you publicly talking about this.

    I have no complaints about Locus regarding my own science fiction - my first novel, The Silk Code, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2000, and my stories and novels have been reviewed well and often enough in the magazine.

    But you're completely right about Rob Sawyer and Jack McDevitt - and about Cory Doctorow, too.

    By Blogger Paul Levinson, At 11:53 PM  

  • "Locus has always had a snobbishness in choosing which author’s books to review and publicize, while totally ignoring others."

    I'm confused. Do you mean that Locus is snobbish because they choose to review some books and not others, or that the choices they make are snobbish?

    If you mean the former, that seems inevitable given the magazine's limited manpower and space.

    If you mean the latter, could you talk a little more about what (besides the absence of Sawyer and McDevitt from the 2007 recommended reading list) makes you say that? And could you talk a little about what criteria you think the reviewers should employ in choosing what to review?

    (N.B.: I agree that the award rule change was wrongheaded. As a side note, it's my understanding that for some time the only SF award which has made a measurable difference to book sales has been the Hugo.)

    By Blogger David Moles, At 3:32 AM  

  • Locus is snobbish in totally ignoring certain authors and "types" of science fiction, specifically traditional sf rather than cutting-edge fiction. There was a minor furor in Locus several years ago because for years they totally ignored Analog in their short fiction reviews. They corrected that, but they still ignore most Analog-type authors such as Sawyer, McDevitt, Hemry, Bova, Lerner, etc. You cannot claim to cover the science fiction field in its entirety if you seemingly look down at certain portions of the field.

    Whose fault is this? Jonathan Strahan is Review Editor, and his own anthologies lean heavily toward cutting-edge fiction, crossover fiction, and "new" space opera, to the exclusion of most traditional stuff. Could it be Strahan's prejudices which are determining Locus' review policy? I don't know and would not attempt to cast specific blame on any one person.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 8:59 AM  

  • It may be true that Locus reviewers have a tendency to prefer certain types of works over others, but you're wrong about McDevitt -- every single one of his novels has been reviewed by Locus. (But they seem to have stopped reviewing Sawyer after 1998.) My recollection is that the main reviewers get to choose what books they want to review, but things may have changed, or I may be misremembering -- it's been a long time since I was affiliated with Locus, and I don't read it regularly now. (It would actually be fascinating to take that review index, mash it up somehow with information about the subgenres of the books or authors, and see what came out.)

    By Blogger Jeff Prucher, At 11:52 AM  

  • That's an interesting observation. I used to subscribed to Locus faithfully, but now I just buy it sporadically at the newsstand. They review so much I never noticed what they didn't review.

    Maybe you could make a better case by picking some specific novels and listing where they did get reviewed. That might show the bias of other review sites too.

    There is so much science fiction published that I can't trust reviewers to find good books. Even the most favorably reviewed books don't stand out. I have to wait until a novel gathers steam and notice in the world at large, like Scalzi's Old Man War.

    A good yardstick I did use was whether or not the SF novel got published as an audio book. But it now appears than 2-3 times as many SF novels are getting the audio treatment.

    I think Locus is just one of many indicators. It would be great if some website did a cross tab of all reviewers of SF like Bookmarks magazine does with general fiction.

    By Blogger Jim Harris, At 8:39 PM  

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