The most important award in Science Fiction has been reduced to the level of a Facebook popularity contest. Let’s stop wringing our hands and recognize the truth: It’s dead.
The Hugo awards are (well, were) the Oscars of Science Fiction. Except where the Oscars are sure to give lots of love to the commercial successes of the year, the Hugos seem rather disconnected from the commercial world. You can argue that’s good, recognizing talent that the marketplace has not (yet) discovered, and you can argue that it’s bad, showing that the judges are out of touch with reality.
This year, the Hugo awards will miss on both counts. The winner will suck by any measure. It’s a sad, sad story.
The sad story starts with the Sad Puppies, a group who asks, “whatever happened to good ol’ science fiction where dudes shot things with blasters?” They began an effort to promote GOSF to Hugo voters. (Anyone can be a Hugo voter. It costs $40. A friend of mine once gave me a priceless gift — he paid the bucks to nominate me. Alas, it took more than one nomination vote that year to win a place on the ballot.) At the edge of the Sad Puppies sat another, smaller group (well, a couple of guys), who said, more or less, “the liberal gay agenda is ruining our genre, and that’s why fine upstanding woman-haters like us don’t get the awards.” (I’m paraphrasing.) They took the Sad Puppies list, extremified it (by adding themselves over and over) and launched a grass-roots campaign to get their readers to vote for them.
It only took a couple hundred faithful to totally trash the ballot. The Hugo system was devised in a world before Internet trolls. Had I realized how easy it was, I would have bagged myself a Hugo long ago. I figure a cost of $100 per vote; $20K and I’m in!
But allow me to take a moment to consider the Sad Puppies’ initial complaint, and the objective fact that the awards are diverging from what the mainstream wants.
I think SF is still secretly annoyed that people think of it as pulp fiction. Not capital-A Art. For all the “fie on you, world, we all know that literary fiction is just another genre,” there’s still a little defensiveness. The insiders, the ones who usually vote for these awards, are well-read, lit-leaning, and (secretly) self-conscious. They want to sit at the table with the lit-fic guys, and get the nod of respect in the hallowed hallways. So they vote for more literary-leaning stories.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Eric Flint, a commercial success but not an awards darling, has some interesting thoughts that diverge from what I just wrote. We agree on this, however: the divide between commercial success and awards recognition is not about politics. In the comments for that post someone suggested that maybe SF should emulate the recording industry and give out awards based purely on sales. I kinda like that. (“Munchies goes platinum!” I hear in my head. That novel will not be winning any literary awards.)
So, what now? With the Hugo being torpedoed, and other major awards losing relevance, will the marketplace be the only measure of success? What will become of beautiful prose that is challenging to read, without the ivory-tower league to raise it on a pedestal? There is capital-A Art in Science Fiction, dammit, and it should be recognized.
My humble suggestion: The Sad Puppies handing out beanie baby trophies for the best stories with white guys saving scantily-clad helpless space princesses, the ivory tower crowd awarding elegant chess sets (with rooks made of ivory) to the most beautiful prose of the year, the geek crowd awarding the golden propeller beanie to the best representation of cybernetics, and so forth. Let the fragmentation happen. It’s healthy. It’s good. It’s time to surrender the One Award that Rules Them All to the trolls.