Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Hugo Award observations

As usual, there has been much discussion about the recent Hugo Awards and, also as usual, I have my own observations about them. The Best Novel win is not particularly surprising as a battle of the Nei[a]ls. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book were the heavy favorites in this category, in spite of the fact that Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother easily had the most nominations. The group of fans who nominate for the Hugos are not the same group who vote for the winner, and it is easier for a core group of fanatics to nominate their favorite author than it is to actually win the award. Thus John Scalzi and Charles Stross make the ballot virtually each year, but neither has the broad support to actually be contenders in this category.

I think two factors led to Gaiman’s surprisingly easy win: his novel is considerably more accessible to the typical reader, and his personality makes him a more popular person than Stephenson. Those are two important factors in the annual Best Novel race, perhaps the most important factors, and so while Stephenson's was far and away the most critically-acclaimed novel of the year, it had many detractors as well, while Gaiman’s novel appealed to practically everybody.

It is also important to consider the popularity of fantasy versus science fiction nowadays. The fact that the number of fantasy books being published almost outnumber the number of sf books two-to-one nowadays indicates the popularity of the genre, and that is seemingly reflected in the Hugo voting as well. In this decade, there have been 9 Hugo Award Best Novel winners, 5 of them outright fantasies (The Graveyard Book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Paladin of Souls, American Gods and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), while only 3 have been outright sf (Rainbows End, Spin and Hominids) and one (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) was a noir alternate history which could easily fall into either the fantasy or sf category.

There were no surprises at all in the short fiction categories, which itself I found surprising in a convention held outside the United States, since the most unexpected winners usually come in other countries. Nancy Kress (Best Novella “The Erdmann Nexus”), Elizabeth Bear (Best Novelette “Shoggoths in Bloom”) and Ted Chiang (Best Short Story “Exhalation”) are all repeat winners, the latter two having now won in consecutive years. I thought the out-of-country location of the worldcon might lend itself to a slightly out-of-the-mainstream winner such as John Kessel’s acclaimed “Pride and Prometheus” (which did manage a second place finish for Best Novelette).

Much of the discussion following the worldcon has centered on the Fan Awards, but my philosophy has always been that diversity in those winners is definitely a very good thing. While such perennial winners as Locus, Dave Langford, and File 770 are surely the most popular entries in their categories (and arguably the best as well), is it necessary to remind fandom of that year after year after year? I was actually pleased at the number of winners this year who asked their names to be withdrawn from their categories next year. It is a good trend. Quite frankly, I read neither Electric Velocipede nor Weird Tales, so I do not know if they are really the best fanzine and semi-prozine respectively, but their wins do open up the categories for other potential nominees in the future, and that is a good thing.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this diversity will continue when the worldcon returns to the United States, but since it seems to be held outside this country one year out of three, occasional diversity is better than none at all.


  • In fact, since 2001, the frequency of non-US Worldcons has been closer to 1-in-2, to the extent that I met someone who assumed that it was required for every other Worldcon be held outside the USA. 2003,2005,2007,2009, and 2010 are in non-US sites. I expect we'll have a run of consecutive US sites after that (2011,12, and 13). I also expect that there will be people in a couple of years moaning that every Worldcon is in the USA and it's never held elsewhere.

    (Considering that there are people who are now complaining that the Worldcon is always in the USA even though we're in the middle of a period of two non-US Worldcons, I sometimes despair of people paying attention at all.)

    By Blogger Kevin Standlee, At 11:22 AM  

  • You said "his novel is considerably more accessible to the typical reader",

    if you mean generally available, true, but this has no impact on the Hugo, since voters must be a member of Worldcon/WSFS in order to vote.

    By Blogger Crotchety Old Fan, At 5:34 AM  

  • No, I meant easier reading, less dense. Readers and voters tend to prefer lighter reads to heavy reads.

    I know that voters must belong to the worldcon; I've attended quite a few myself. But as worldcons have gotten larger, the voting membership has been more reflective of the general sf reading public than it was previously. Under the current circumstances, I doubt if novels such as STAND ON ZANZIBAR or A CASE OF CONSCIENCE would have stood much chance of winning as Best Novel.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 5:57 AM  

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