The Problem With The Hugo Awards….

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

….is the same problem that every other awards program faces.  Namely, that there’s no good way to run an awards system.
Is there some sort of criteria for entry, a barrier to pass before you can vote on the award?  Well, your awards will become inbred and cliquish, representing a skewed version of fandom.
Is there no criteria for entry, and anyone can vote?  Well, then you’ll have awards that invariably reward the most popular books anyway, never providing surprising choices because the best-known books will get the most votes.
Is there some sort of criteria for entry?  Well, the people on the inside will generally come to know each other, being a small group, and logrolling galore will happen, where people get votes by promising theirs.  Small movements can create disproportionate reactions, generating ballots with weird choices that no sane person would have chosen.
Is there no criteria for entry?  Well, then ballot-stuffing will occur, and accusations of fakery will emerge, and the awards will be tainted as people feel the system can be gamed.
Is there some sort of criteria for entry?  Well, the jurors of the award may be skewed, narrow-minded old men, and you can have lily-white male ballots consisting entirely of unconscious prejudice.
Is there no criteria for entry?  Well, given years of White Dude being the default perceived mode of author, the massive numbers of voters won’t be aware of other, less-popular writers, and you can have lily-white male ballots consisting entirely of institutionalized prejudice.
Look, folks: the problem with setting up any award system, no matter what, is that the system can be gamed.  Because it is a system.  And there’s plenty of incentive for people to find edge cases in the rules and exploit them.  You can complain about the Hugos, or the Nebulas, but do yourself a favor and Google the Oscars, or the Emmys, or the Tonys, or the Grammys, or anything else and you’ll find thousands of people griping about how the awards are botched and unfair and here’s how to fix them….
…and they’ll never get fixed.
Even if by some wonderment we somehow managed to create a perfect balloting system (hint: we won’t), even then “What we like today” is a far shot from “What classic literature is.” It takes time for us to see what sticks, to separate today’s pleasure from tomorrow’s magnificence.  Look over the classic lists in any category from thirty years ago and you’ll find #1 smash hits that nobody remembers, and widely-acknowledged masterpieces that went overlooked.
An awards showcase does not actually represent the best books/movies/songs/shows of any given year.  What it represents is a cultivated taste: When I watch an Oscar-winning “Best Picture” movie, I know I’m not going to be seeing a whacky comedy or an edgy horror movie.  The Oscars represent a certain style of moviemaking, one that says, “If you make a movie sorta like this, and it’s good, we’ll nominate it.”  It’s not “ZOMG THIS IS THE BEST EVER,” but rather “ZOMG THIS IS WHAT WE REALLY LIKE,” and that’s a subtle but serious distinction.
The Oscars, and the Hugos, and the Nebulas, all pretend to be The Arbiter Of Absolute Quality because hey, that’s what gets people interested.  But like every awards showcase, they’re actually The Arbiter Of What These Folks Like.
And that’s fine.  In many case, those folks have fine taste.  They’re almost always good books of a sort.
And let us be honest: part of the reason awards are so hooky is because they’re unpredictable.  If you didn’t have the inevitable breakouts of GOD HOW DID THIS CRAP GET NOMINATED and JESUS THIS FINE THING GOT ROBBED and WHOAH WHO EXPECTED THAT TO WIN, then I suspect awards would be of far less interest to people.  It’s a horse race, where anyone can break a leg just before the finish line, and that provides that gambling-like happiness to our monkey brain center.  We keep tuning in because it’s unpredictably predictable.
To sum up: The Hugos are broken.  They have always been broken.  They will always be broken.  Just like every other award.


  1. Andrei Freeman
    Apr 20, 2014

    I’ve always been fond of Hare Clark voting (which was and may still be used in Australia)
    It makes people rank their votes. This way if something doesn’t get enough votes those votes get passed down. As a result, you can rank a personal favourite dark horse above and often be surprised that more people liked the ‘unpopular’ choice.
    I do wish nominations and voting had ties to a juried chart of how well it did in technical categories.
    Granted this is always my problem with top n lists.

  2. Brad R. Torgersen
    Apr 20, 2014

    In an ideal world nobody would care about the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation of the person on the ballot in a given category — they’d care about the story that was written. Because theoretically the Hugo fiction categories are about the works themselves, not the names attached to the works. Which is of course a naive view, since the fiction categories have always been about the names attached. And especially these days, in an era of severe and partisan identitarian political squabbles, the fiction itself is practically an afterthought. Who the author is has become far, far more important to many voters than what the author produces from year to year. And so we have people voting for all kinds of reasons which have nothing to do with storytelling. And that makes me a little bit sad. Because it makes the larger consumer universe care even less about the Hugo than it already (doesn’t) care — and that’s really saying something.


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