On Hugos

A quick post this morning, since I’ve got to catch a train to York (to visit two-thirds of Eve’s Alexandria). So I leave you with two perspectives on this year’s Hugo Awards. Abigail Nussbaum writes about the Best Novel shortlist here (Zoe’s Tale and Saturn’s Children) and here (Little Brother, The Graveyard Book, and Anathem). Her final judgment?

In the end, I placed Anathem above The Graveyard Book in my Hugo ballot. Though both novels are flawed, I think that The Graveyard Book‘s flaws would come to seem more irksome in later years if Gaiman were to win. It’s the better novel from a technical standpoint, but Anathem is the one that does something new and different and uniquely SFnal, as well as being the novel that engaged me emotionally when I first read it. If I had managed to read all five nominated novels before July 3rd, I still would have voted No Award in the third slot (followed, in case you’re interested, by Zoe’s Tale, then possibly another, more emphatic No Award vote, then Little Brother and Saturn’s Children). I think Anathem has a good chance of winning, though Doctorow and Gaiman also have strong fanbases among Hugo voters, and both of their novels have had a lot of buzz (Scalzi, meanwhile, is a long shot, and Stross probably doesn’t have a chance). It’s hard to work up much pleasure at that thought, however, as this year’s ballot has me rooting against the nominees I dislike rather than for the ones I like. I think it’s safe to say that my first experience reading all five Hugo nominated novels has not been a positive one. I’m going to hold on to the hope that 2008 was an aberration, both in the quality of books published and in the tastes of the Hugo voters, but I’m suddenly very pleased that this experiment in being a Hugo voter is unlikely to recur for some time.

Adam Roberts, meanwhile, has written an open letter to sf fandom:

Dear Science Fiction Fandom

I wanted to have a word about the Hugos. Science Fiction Fandom, these are your awards: the shortlists chosen and voted for by you. And because I too am a fan (though without Hugo voting privileges) they are my awards. They reflect upon us all. They remain one of the most prestigious awards for SF in the world. These lists say something about SF to the world.

Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I’m not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They’re not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.

84 Responses to “On Hugos”

  1. Chance Says:

    Hooray! We’ve reached the time of year where people who don’t bother to vote for the Hugos complain about their quality. If only there were something Roberts could do about it…

    I almost thought we were going to miss out this year.

  2. Abigail Says:

    I’ve been hearing the refrain that people who don’t bother to register for Worldcon even though they could do so for a nominal fee have forfeited the right to complain about the Hugo nominees for about as long as I’ve been complaining about the Hugo nominees without being a Worldcon member. So this year I did register for Worldon, and did nominate for the Hugos, and guess what? I had about as much effect as a single voter out of several hundred could expect to have.

    More importantly, I think that so long as the Hugo administrators strive to perpetuate the fallacy that the awards represent fandom as a whole, rather than a tiny, increasingly homogenized subset of it, fandom as a whole has the right to express its disappointment over the quality of the resulting ballots.

  3. Jonathan M Says:

    Abigail did vote…

    To my mind, the problem isn’t that the Hugos get it wrong it’s that despite frequently getting it wrong (and perhaps more markedly so this year than in other years) the Hugos continue to maintain this veneer of prestige and credibility that means that they frequently serve as a shop window for the genre to people outside of it.

    If the attendees of Worldcon genuinely think that Saturn’s Children is one of the best genre books of 2008 then the problem is that people give a shit what the attendees of Worldcon think.

  4. Chance Says:

    Oh, I don’t think they have forfeited the right to complain, but it does get a little old when there is no followon activism afterwards, just the same complaint year after year even though participation in the Hugos is tepid at best.

    In 2008, a short story with 18 nominations would have displaced one of the stories on the ballot. (8 stories were within 5 nominations of tieing the MacLeod story and joining the ballot.) The story with the most nominations was The Alchemist Gate, with a mere 69.

    These are not numbers that are unchangeable – if 100 people banded together and decided to all buy memberships, I think we’d see shift in the nominations even without any collusion beyond the decision to participate.

  5. Jonathan M Says:

    I think that that’s looking at the problem backwards.

    The correct response to the Hugos’ lack of credibility is not to organise in order to give them more credibility it is to recognise the superior credibility of other awards and transfer the prestige and kudos normally associated with the Hugos to the winners of other awards.

    A hugo award should really be on a par with a nebula award : Nice for the winners, an excuse to have a party, but ultimately nothing more than a reflection of what a small subset of fandom actually think. the problem, as Abigail points out so wisely, is that the Hugo punches above its weight in terms of kudos.

  6. Nick H. Says:

    Having read the Adam Roberts post linked, I fear that the good Mr Roberts has let loose something of a misguided assault on the Hugos. Namely, to paraphrase somewhat, he appears to be attacking the Hugo voters for ignoring the books that try something interesting and different. The thing is, though, the Hugos are a populist award – largely what you going to get it people voting for the books that they like. And, by and large, people will think “I enjoyed reading this book, so I will vote for it” rather than “I didn’t enjoy this book greatly, it was flawed… but it tried something interesting and new so I shall vote for it.”

    Another instance of not quite comparing like to like is that he asks fandom to look at the Clarke Awards. The Clarke Awards being a juried award, rather than one decided by popular vote. Really, that’s comparing apples to oranges.

    Perhaps rather than bewail the quality of the Hugos, Mr Roberts should consider that, maybe, the Hugos ‘aren’t for him’. A stance which, despite the fact I’ve spent most of this comment disagreeing with him, I generally take myself. In my case I find myself taking that stance because the Hugos often represent a very American view of science fiction, whereas I take a more British view – and there does genuinely appear to be a split between American and British SF fans, to some extent.

    And finally; there are two other things Mr Roberts says I must disagree with. One, “The City and the City” is not a ‘genuinely good book’, but a mixed bag that doesn’t work very well. Two, I find it strange that the sole criticism appears of “The Graveyard Book” seems to amount to saying that it is wrong for a book to be twee and cosy when its theme is Death. Which – well, I’ve read “The Graveyard Book”, and while I can see where it was ‘twee and cosy’, I never felt it was wrong for it to be so. And, indeed, given it’s already won awards like the Newbery, there must be many other people who don’t agree with the view that Gaiman did anything wrong.

    Honestly, if anyone wants to moan about the Hugos being broken, it’s the Best Graphic Story category that should be getting all the brickbats. It really is.

  7. Abigail Says:

    The question is, Jonathan, which award should we be looking to instead of the Hugo? The most obvious answer, the Clarke, is a juried award, which as a commenter on Adam’s post points out is a very different kettle of fish from what the Hugo is (or what it’s pretending to be). I do think that there’s a place for a popular vote award within fandom, and in theory I like the idea of the Hugo and the Clarke complementing each other. It’s just that, as you say, the Hugos are rapidly following in the Nebula’s footsteps and becoming a niche award by a certain subset of fandom and for that subset of fandom.

    So I do think that the ideal solution is for the Hugo’s credibility to be restored, but that’s not going to happen unless Worldcon itself is revitalized. The way I see it, the problems with the Hugo are the symptom, but the disease is the fact that Worldcon has become insular and unappealing to younger fans. It might be possible to sway the Hugo results with 100 supporting memberships (at least until someone at Worldcon decides to pull a Locus Awards type stunt) but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find those hundred people because they would have to care not simply about the Hugos but about Worldcon itself, and I don’t know too many people – who aren’t already regular attendees – who do.

  8. Chance Says:

    Abigail – I think the problem with looking to other awards is none of them are going to have the sort of weight of history that the Hugos have – the closest in longevity I could in come up with was the Nebula and it’s not surprising to me that those two have (I believe) the most name recognition by people outside fandom. So while their stature might be dwindling inside fandom, I think it’s going to take a long time for the rest of the world to catch up and ignore them.

  9. Jonathan M Says:

    The Clarke sets the critical agenda for the awards season. It doesn’t always get it right but it does go to deserving titles and it asks questions about the state of SF and the direction in which it is heading. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the award that counts.

    The problem really is the standing that the Hugos have within fandom. The Nebulas have been getting wrong for ages and the stench of decay that emanates from their selection procedures has resulted in their seeming less relevant, less important and less pretigious than I imagine they must have been back in the day when they were getting it systematically right. By contrast, the Hugos are invariably more or less dodgy but they are still seen as far more prestigious than the Clarke or the BSFA award (which I would argue has a much better track record than the Hugos, 2009 notwithstanding). Hence my feeling that the challenge isn’t changing the hugos but rather changing fandom’s perceptions of them.

    As for changing Worldcon… you are right Abigail. I certainly don’t care enough to take any interest in changing it and in a way I’d feel bad about trying to. Worldcon is important to a lot of older fans and they go religiously every year and it’s not for me to tell them what to do by trying to change a convention I might well not go to even if it was held in London. The Hugos aren’t “for me”, as Nick H says, but I have the same feelings about Worldcon.

  10. Jason M. Robertson Says:

    As I’m reading the links, particularly the Roberts article, I feel as if the transatlantic question is coming into play in a very prosaic and yet unrecognized way.

    I’m an American and I’ve yet to read The Quiet War because it has not yet released in the US. I only read House of Suns recently, as it is a recent US release. Song of Time has no wide US availability. Martin Martin’s On the Other Side… comes up on Amazon.com as an import. That’s two-thirds of the Clarke shortlist unavailable in the US during the same awards season. And don’t get me started on my increasing anxiety that the lack of a US edition of The Night Sessions is a long-term state of affairs. US-dominated fandom is unlikely to nominate these titles before we have had a chance to read them. The book trade appears not to be cooperating well with our new (well not so new anymore) global culture.

    Furthermore, it is my understanding that the Clarke Award is designed explicitly to review the year in UK genre publishing. While the Hugo may suffer provincialism through US domination, it is my understanding that the rules there would at least allow for broader representation of both when it is initially published, and by traditional ruling once more when it comes to the US market. So the Clarke’s just not constructed to take on the award leader position (even within the subset that is the English-speaking sf world) whereas the Hugo is, but is broken by high barriers to entry.

    There’s a lot of talking about bringing those barriers down at least a bit, but I don’t know if that will lead to the alteration in outcomes that Adam Roberts would like to see. I do think it would be good and proper on its own merits.

    While I run very much hot and cold on Roberts criticism (and could not finish Gradisil for the quantity of teh lame) I think it is an excellent ambition to come to the Hugos and try to get them to respond to your tastes. I don’t see any other award with the potential to be so central, to support and be a proxy for the broad and competing factions of fandom. It isn’t the victory that’s critical, it is investing the multiple sfnal aesthetics in the process of the fight, and thereby get a real and lively conversation going. That such an outcome would force that conversation at the heart of institutional sf fandom which greatly needs to hear it is only a bonus.

    That said, clearly the Hugos have been resistant to lowering the participation barriers. Is there a candidate for that transference of flag and prestige? Am I misunderstanding the Clarke’s rules?

  11. Celestial M Weasel Says:

    Ah,you can almost set your watch by the responses… there’s X’s tick tick tick, there’s Y’s.

  12. Karen Burnham Says:

    I like the Hugos. I like being involved, nominating and voting. I like the fact that it inspires me to read books I that wouldn’t have floated to the top of the to-read pile otherwise.

    I’ll admit, as a critic it’s frustrating when the stuff we/I recommend doesn’t end up on the ballot. It kind of re-emphasizes how very little influence we actually have, which is a bit depressing. And it seems that even when we get something neat & edgy on the ballot (I’m thinking Peter Watts’ Blindsight here), it comes in dead last. Very frustrating.

    However, it’s a popular vote. It isn’t surprising that popular things make the ballot and win. Considering that, by definition, *most* people like the *most* popular things, I don’t see that a short-list full of enjoyable, popular fiction does us any disservice. It may lack a certain gravitas, but that’s not going to be the thing that makes serious lit people not take us seriously… there are soooo many other reasons for that.

  13. Paul Connelly Says:

    Question: How big is “fandom” supposed to be? That is, if the term is taken to mean those whose social lives include a significant amount of reading, writing, writing about, viewing, drawing, filming, and analyzing fantasy and science fiction, AND interacting with others who do the same. As opposed to those who merely are avid readers of fantasy and science fiction stories or viewers of fantasy and science fiction movies or TV shows. Is the 800 or however many attend Worldcon that small a percentage of fandom overall?

  14. Jonathan M Says:

    That’s a good question Paul… I guess it depends upon whom you ask and how expansive they’re feeling at the time.

    One could define it simply as the group of people who attend written-SF themed conventions with a wider hinterland of people who engage with some of the institutions set up by this group.

    But then you have various similar cultural sub-sets such as Horror film fans, comics fans, Harry Potter fans, Media SF fans… Traditionally, the fandom defined above might well have seen these people as fellow travelers or as proto-fans who currently travel in different circles but might not always but in truth most of these groups now have their own scenes that are a good deal more vibrant and youthful than that of “fandom”.

    Also problematic is the fact that the hinterland (as demonstrated by racefail) is populated by quite a few young people who actually feel quite a bit of resentment towards “fandom” for its failure to open their institutions up to them.

    This is, I think, problematic too because having read a bit about the history of fandom what you generally get is a process of generational subsumption. Older fans fade out, newer fans fade in, institutions die out, spirng up and evolve to keep everything more or less together.

    Clearly, this process of subsumption and evolution is not perfect.

  15. Paul Connelly Says:

    The process may also be lagging the growth of general public acceptance and hunger for fantasy and science fiction in all forms of popular culture. Or, at least, I wonder if that hasn’t been happening, Jonathan.

    The percentage of the public that was interested in fantasy and science fiction and fantasy that could also be counted as part of fandom was probably much greater in the early 1970s. And even moreso in the 1930s, when letter-writing was still a major form of social intercourse. Now fandom may be truly dwarfed by the numbers of people who want more fantasy and science fiction in books or movies or whatever form, but who don’t participate in online forums or fly to conventions or have local social clubs based on their interest.

    But a lot of the fan and author discussions seem to be geared more toward being a despised minority genre still. Or phrased as if we were only now moving from that status into popular acceptance, when the process is at least 20 years ongoing. Are we literary enough? Does the academy respect us? Is it okay to be popular? How can we get more people to appreciate fantasy and science fiction? Etc. But there are vast numbers of people now who enjoy fantasy and science fiction, but exist outside of fandom, who may wonder what the point of questions like that is.

    Having a group of people small enough to converse with each other (especially face to face) and maintain some continuity of core group relationships over the years doing that, and having a mass popular culture phenomenon as the rationale for their existence, may not be easily reconcilable conditions. It’s as if the Unitarians suddenly became a mass religion like Islam or Catholicism–their whole social model would fall apart! ;-)

  16. Martin Wisse Says:

    To be honest, I’d rather have a Hugo novel shortlist that Adam Roberts is unhappy with as one he likes. His vision of what science fiction should be is not one I like.

    But really, Hugo Award shortlist is not very good, news at eleven. It’s been this way for years, since at least the early nineties and it’s been this way because it’s voted on by a part of fandom that’s aging, conservative and with fairly middle of the road tastes. It’s neither a juried nor a popular award, as most years it’s barely five hundred or so people voting on it (and many less people nominating for it), with no expertise other than that they’re fan enough to buy a Worldcon membership.

    When science fiction was much smaller than it is now, this worked as there was enough overlap between the voters for the Hugo and the genre as a whole and anyway, you could still read everything published as sf bback then. Now, not so much.

  17. Jonathan M Says:

    I think that organised fandom is dwarfed by people who are interested in genre across different media and who DO post about it in online forums. There’s a huge appetite for genre out there and organised fandom has almost completely failed to grab onto it.

    Just look at something like the Hugos’ attempts to engage with comics and films (not to mention video games). The Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form is so mainstream and so conservative in its tastes that it could be voted for by people attending any kind of conference. From a conference of people traveling hundreds of miles to discuss SF it is shockingly and shamefully provincial and unadventurous.

  18. Karen Burnham Says:

    Martin: “But really, Hugo Award shortlist is not very good, news at eleven.”

    Thank you. That’s what I was trying to capture: complaining that the Hugos nominate popular, entertaining works that depress the critics is like complaining that water is wet.

  19. Jonathan M Says:

    I’m not sure that that’s true though…

    In the strictest sense, the Hugos aren’t a populist award as they don’t represent the most popular works of genre. The Harry Potter books, for example, haven’t featured that heavily in shortlists down the years and the Twilight series and paranormal romance as a whole haven’t featured at all despite them selling books by the truckload. So I would argue that the Hugos don’t tend to go to works that are popular if one defines popularity in terms of sales.

    The same is true for entertainment, I wouldn’t call Saturn’s Children particularly entertaining for example. Admittedly Stross isn’t one for formal innovation but Saturn’s Children fails because it isn’t particularly well written by the standards of traditional works of SF. Similarly, Anathem is a 1000 page monolith full of philosophical and scientific puzzles… it’s hardly the Da Vinci code. So again, I’m not sure that “but the Hugos are just about fun novels” is true either.

    Clearly there’s some filtering going on and there’s a particular aesthetic being championed but it isn’t populism and it isn’t the novel and mindless escapist fun either.

  20. Niall Says:

    Well, I don’t think I was expecting to come back and find quite this much discussion. (And indeed, discussion elsewhere: MetaFilter, io9, Instant Fanzine, Cheryl’s Mewsings, slapfights. Plus Adam’s post has well over 50 comments on it, now.) So for what it’s worth, my thoughts.

    1.So long as the Hugos are presented and perceived as the pre-eminent awards within the sf field, I will continue to reserve the right to criticise (or indeed praise) the nominees, whether or not I happen to be a nominating and/or voting member that particular year.

    2. That said, I agree with the position that the fact the Hugos aren’t a true popular award is a fundamental problem. It looks like one, particularly this year, when all the shortlisted author are perceived as having large, active fanbases, but the Worldcon membership requirement means that it’s not, and this muddies the waters in terms of what the award is expected to do and represent. I would go so far as to say that the absence of a true popular award (given the credibility failure of the Locus Awards) is a shame.

    3. On the other hand, as frustrating as the shortlists are, and often are, I actually think that in the second half of this decade we’ve had a succession of credible winners, at least in Best Novel. So let’s not throw the Hugo out the window just yet. (Strange & Norrell, Spin, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; and I expect Anathem to join that list.). This is also to say that I agree with Jonathan that to defend the Hugo as a strictly populist award is mistaken; but that is what leads to the muddled perceptions I noted above.

    4. Karen says, “I’ll admit, as a critic it’s frustrating when the stuff we/I recommend doesn’t end up on the ballot.” This is my response to those who say that if I haven’t voted, I can’t complain: I’m a reviewer, and reviews editor. I spend many, many hours each year advocating for the books I think are good, the books I think should be more widely read. That is (among other things) my response to award ballots I don’t like; that is the way in which I choose to engage in the award process. Or, as Jason says, “It isn’t the victory that’s critical, it is investing the multiple sfnal aesthetics in the process of the fight, and thereby get a real and lively conversation going.” Here is another post, with an interesting perception:

    What science fiction needs is a culture of reviewers who all look up to (but occasionally quibble with) one or two recognized authorities. These folks shouldn’t be authors themselves, but they should read nearly everything the genre produces each year so that they can recommend books we’re likely to miss and argue with each other about which books were really better. To a certain extent, the awards system can serve as a flashpoint around which such reviews and recommendations take place. But it’s the reviewer system that needs work. What I’d really like is a discriminating review site. Not a hype site like io9, with dozens of posts a day, or an author’s blog where there are clear biases and lots of back-and-forth: what I’d like to see is maybe one good article a week, with must-read recommendations about once a month. I want science fiction to have a Siskel and Ebert.

    Because the industry sees itself as a fringe or marginal one, it can’t accept this kind of aesthetic authority. Many authors don’t see much value in reviewers, especially reviewers who criticize without also producing their own work. Since so many speculative stories still depend on ‘hooks’ and ‘twists,’ a reviewer’s spoilers would in some cases hamper the reader’s enjoyment. Yet that’s a problem with any immature genre, and it’s about time for the industry to get it sorted.

    The biggest objection is that empowering reviewers by granting them the aesthetic authority to judge good from bad (rather than accusing them of being shortsighted or too mainstream, as the genre does now) means that critical dismissals will destroy careers and ruin lives. Our hypothetical Siskel and Ebert will pan a few good books with all the bad ones, and those authors will feel that injustice has been done. That’s why we need a culture of non-authortative reviwers to keep them honest. Still, from the perspective of individual authors, many of whom are just squeaking by, that seems like an unacceptable risk.

    Yet twelve good recommendations a year would double my sci-fi consumption, and it seems silly to complain that these new purchases will be channeled away from mediocre art. Without trustworthy recommendations, I won’t buy that many books. As the industry changes to meet the demands of the shrinking economy, it seems like rewinning the trust and affection of casual, non-WorldCon-attending readers should be more of a priority. Win our trust and our wallets will follow.

    5. I agree with Jason that, actually, a lot of Adam’s critique is a bit shaky, though I don’t think the absence of US availability for many of the Clarke books itself is a flaw; to my mind, Adam’s not arguing that these specific books should necessarily have been Hugo-nominated, but that books with qualities like this should have been nominated. Which is fine, and which I would love to see, but I don’t feel that this year’s Clarke shortlist does a particularly good job of pushing that agenda, either; many of the books on the list are in fact a model of traditional sf (this does not make them bad, of course), and the one that really tries something a bit new is, as Adam acknowledges, basically a failure. Of course, on average I think the Clarke does produce more interesting, adventurous lists, but that’s largely a matter of process; there’s a reason the two US awards I pay most attention to are the Tiptree Award and the Philip K Dick Award, and it’s because both have credible jury processes.

  21. Jonathan M Says:

    Given that a lot of the usual names appeared on Adam’s blog, I think that (1) needs to be stated and restated over and over again :-)

    The Siskel and Ebert solution is an interesting one but not an unproblematic one. At the time, a lot of people really resented Siskel on the grounds that rather than being a proper film critic he was more of an entertainment journalist. There were also real issues over which films Siskel and Ebert covered as well as the reviews they gave.

    Jonathan Rosenbaum complained that a lot of the time, Siskel and Ebert would simply not review more challenging works and that they would ‘fix’ their thumbs up, thumbs down thing so as to give a range of opinions about a film rather than simply saying that they were bad. He memorably asked how long their TV programme would have lasted had they given the big releases the thumbs down week in and week out.

    But the thing that Siskel and Ebert did do, which was important, is keep film reviewing in the public eye. They set an agenda and invited people to talk about films. I think that SF criticism has become marginalised.

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  23. Martin Says:

    I think that SF criticism has become marginalised.

    Become?

  24. Jonathan M Says:

    Point :-)

    But I do get the impression that SF criticism exists purely for SF critics and that the bulk of people who read Sf don’t care about it until someone slags off their favourite writer.

  25. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The bulk of people who read any literary form don’t care about criticism, people mostly read reviews with a view to whether given what they already like they’ll like this one, and don’t read critical essays at all.

    It’s not that different with film, people watch or read film critics mostly to decide if a given movie is worth going to see or not, nothing more. And most film critics provide nothing more (which is fair enough really).

    Niall, does anyone “read nearly everything the genre produces each year”? It strikes me as a hell of an ask. Unless someone is very catholic in their tastes, that would suggest they were reading a ton of books they didn’t like, and would burn out as a critic I suspect as a result in no short order.

  26. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oh, and have Siskel and Ebert ever had a show where everything got a thumbs down? I doubt it, but we all know that by chance alone if nothing more there are good patches and bad patches for movie releases, sometimes there really isn’t anything good out at a given moment.

    An SF equivalent would I suspect end up giving out positive reviews on occasion for balance, or so as not to appear too negative. I’m not sure that would help any.

  27. Niall Says:

    Well, I’m not necessarily endorsing everything in the linked article. Certainly, reading everything is — well, I think it’s literally impossible at this point. But I’m a big fan of the idea that reviewers should read outside their comfort zone on at least a semi-regular basis. And I can’t speak to the specifics of the Siskel and Ebert comparison, since I’ve never knowingly seen them review anything. What I took from the linked post was that there’s at least one reader looking for one or more popular, generally respected, intelligent review venues that are not afraid to aspire to “aesthetic authority”. Which, for obvious reasons, I find incredibly heartening. I also tend to agree with the implication behind Jonathan and Martin’s comments — that it’s not that such venues don’t exist (Locus, NYRSF, hopefully Strange Horizons, Clute’s reviews for SFW [although most of them apparently got wiped when SyFy launched its new site — a huge loss, if you ask me], SF Site to an extent), it’s that they are rarely popular enough to be seen as both central and authoritative. Why that might be is, of course, a capacious topic with much to debate.

  28. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The only form of literature which I think has respected review venues that aren’t afraid to aspire to authority is literary fiction, because of the (decreasing) coverage in the broadsheet press. But even there, the readers of those pages are largely there for something else, and then read the literary pages at the weekend over their toast and orange juice.

    Alternatives of course exist, but just as in sf they’re rarely popular enough to be both central and authoritative. I’m not sure this is an sf specific issue, more that there may not be many readers looking for such a resource. There are some, and if there werent’ there’d be no point to good blogs like yours, but in most cases where authority exists it derives from something other than the reviewer – that they write for the NYT say, again a place primarily sought for other purposes.

  29. David H Says:

    …they are rarely popular enough to be seen as both central and authoritative.

    A key reason, I suspect, is that most readers prefer not to read through lengthy reviews when they can just look up a star rating on Amazon or somewhere. Which is a shame.

  30. Jonathan M Says:

    …drifting into critical navel gazing a bit here :-)

    The thing is, I’m not sure that any film critic currently fills the role being suggested. In the UK, Bradshaw can probably make or break a smaller film but if anyone is setting the agenda it’s the PR people and Rotten Tomatoes is proof of that.

    The PR money doesn’t flow as fluidly in SF and so something else sets the cultural agenda. It’s not a culture policed by critics or in thrall to the PR dollar, instead it’s a culture that rewards the likability of an author’s blog. So the Hugos seem to be partly based upon an eerie cult of personality that functions at least at the level of selection bias and quite possibly further along in the process too.

    However, this seems to not be the case at all with regards to the BSFA awards.

  31. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I think one can overstate the importance of the PR people though, they can help make a mediocre film a moderate success, but if it’s bad the word tends to get out whatever the spin. And their impact on fiction is pretty small, with most fiction it’s more whether the publisher is willing to pay Waterstones to put it on a three for two stack (in the UK, anyway).

    How much impact do sf awards have on sales by the way? Is there data?

  32. Niall Says:

    How much impact do sf awards have on sales by the way? Is there data?

    I’ve never seen any hard figures, but the persistent anecdote is that the only sf award to have any significant effect on sales is the Hugo. (This might explain why we haven’t heard anything about a mass-market edition for Song of Time, for instance, despite having now won the Campbell award as well as the Clarke: maybe publishers don’t think either of those awards translate into books readers will want to buy. I don’t know. But I was pleased io9 mentioned the problem recently.)

    Jonathan, I’m mulling the extent to which objections to the perceived taste of Hugo voters are actually objections to a lack of responsiveness on the part of Hugo voters in picking up on the new thing (or, equally, of abandoning the old thing). So, yes, selection bias. I don’t really think the BSFA awards are immune to it, for what it’s worth, it’s just that with a smaller voting pool ripples are more noticeable.

  33. Jonathan M Says:

    That’s an interesting point Niall as I’m been mulling it over too.

    I think that there’s a wider issue of New Big Things being ignored. Paranormal Romance and purely YA authors (as opposed to non-YA authors who jumped the fence) sell millions of books and inspires huge films. By and large, the Hugo has failed to engage with any of that. I can understand why and I can’t say that it bothers me hugely but I can see it as giving young fans a good reason for never getting involved in anything like Worldcon.

    Then I think that there’s a more narrow issue of plasticity of taste. By and large, the Hugo has not done too badly in this regard. The British New Wave was largely ignored but Zelazny landed a couple of victories suggesting that their US fellow travelers were at least on the radar. Similarly, cyberpunk was taken to the bosom of Worldcon almost immediately with Neuromancer. 2005, of course, acknowledged the vibrancy of British SF even though Banks was arguably there on name recognition rather than merit.

    I think what irks about this year more than previous years is the fact that not only is there nobody on the shortlist who has not paid their dues and accumulated loads of cultural capital within fandom, but a number of the inclusions seem to be based entirely upon said cultural capital rather than the quality of the works.

    So not only is this year’s shortlist middle of the road, it’s a selection of middle of the road titles based largely upon name recognition. It’s like Unadventurous ^ 2 :-)

  34. Nick H. Says:

    Jonathan M; “But I do get the impression that SF criticism exists purely for SF critics”

    I think it would be fair to say, though, that – by and large – this could be said for any form of criticism, especially genre criticism. Science-fiction is far from unique in this.

    David H: “A key reason, I suspect, is that most readers prefer not to read through lengthy reviews when they can just look up a star rating on Amazon or somewhere. Which is a shame.”

    I think it’s a bit unfair on these hypothetical readers to call that a shame. Most readers prefer to read reviews to find out if they should read a book or not, and mostly they only need a short review for that. That they don’t read long reviews is because they don’t want to spoil themselves for the book, or because they might think ‘well, that review was so good that I don’t need to read the book now.’ Or there may be long reviews where, unless you’ve already read the book, you’ll not get the best out of the review.

    Max Cairnduff: “How much impact do sf awards have on sales by the way? Is there data?”

    Apocryphal reports of the ‘a sales rep told someone I know’ kind would indicate anything other than a Hugo has negligible impact on sales.

  35. David H Says:

    Nick H:

    I think it’s a bit unfair on these hypothetical readers to call that a shame…

    ‘Long’ wasn’t the adjective I should have used. I meant properly analytical reviews, as opposed to bald plot summaries and a brief ‘yeah, that was good’ or ‘no, that was bad’, which need have no relationship to length (though good analysis tends to need more words).

    Personally, I think what you are describing is a false dichotomy to an extent. I think a review should illuminate a book without spoiling it, and should be fully accessible and rewarding to someone who hasn’t read the book. After reading it, you should have an idea of whether you’d like to read the book.

    But it is entirely possible for a review to have all of these qualities and to be analytical. If people don’t want to read ‘long’ reviews for the reasons you list, then they’ve got the wrong impression about the nature of (good examples of) such reviews. And I think it would be better if more people wanted to read that kind of review than currently seem to.

    Of course, as someone who aims to write exactly that kind of review, I am biased… :-)

  36. Niall Says:

    Be fair. It’s a bold move to critique Adam for being paternalistic in his remarks to an entire group of people, while being equally paternalistic in presuming to speak for an entire group of people.

    Put another way, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know which post makes me want to check out its author’s fiction. I feel rather more condescended to by Scalzi’s post, which assumes that I’m credulous enough to be flattered by the worst myths about fandom (“…on average both smarter and better read than the average Joe” — c’mon!), than I do by Adam’s post, which assumes I’m an intelligent adult capable of parsing a reasonably nuanced argument.

  37. Jonathan M Says:

    It’s rather like one of those soap box speeches that politicians give. Lots of pandering to the crowd, not very much analysis and lots of dog-whistle attacks whilst also claiming to be above the fray and only interested in issues… He should run for office.

  38. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    I’ve never been impressed with the Hugos and have said as much since the 90s. Individual works of quality do get on the list (see sf fandom’s sad suckup to Chabon: “oooh. a literary guy loves genre, him we must nominate, but fuck that depressing Road chap and all of his cohorts over the years). ”

    Adam Roberts is right–much of it is mediocre no matter how we often like to pretend otherwise. While I admire all the writers on the Hugo Finalist ballot, I have to say that as regards these individual novels, I had much the same reaction as Abigail. (Anathem still is up there although it has faded somewhat in my regard because the female characters aren’t done well for the most part and it drags horribly in the middle.)

    But the Clarke is too limited to take the place of the Hugos. At the very least you would have to open it up to all English language sf booklength fiction published in the world–and that wouldn’t dilute it because there is no real US equivalent, for example. That would increase the power of the Clarke immeasurably.

  39. Martin Says:

    Unfortunately it would probably also make it impossible for the judges. You just can’t read that much stuff. If you did have an English language sf booklength fiction award – which would be cool – you would have to introduce some sort of limitation on books submitted per publisher.

    Without having to change any awards, it is a shame the British and American publishing industries aren’t a bit more in-sync. Then the Clarke would be more representative of the scene as a whole. (In this model the UK publishing industry acts as a sort of filter, creaming off the best of US publishing – some hope.) As it stands, I can understand how it could be viewed as a parochial award.

  40. Martin Wisse Says:


    But I do get the impression that SF criticism exists purely for SF critics and that the bulk of people who read Sf don’t care about it until someone slags off their favourite writer.

    Is it otherwise anywhere else? How many people really pay attention to the reviews in the literary section of their newspaper to the extent that it determines their reading?

    And we are living in a golden age of sf criticism, both on the prosaic level of book reviews as in the amount of sustained, high quality academic attention given to science fiction, as in the accesibility of said criticism to “mere” readers.

  41. Martin Wisse Says:

    Bah. If mainstream critics can read enough to judge a Booker or Orange prize with some confidence, what’s to stop sf critics having to deal with a far smaller field? You just need to filter and do it more subtle than just “have I heard of this writer”…

    And of course no English langauge award is ever representative of the best sf in the world, considering there are Chinese sf magazines with readerships in the millions (allegedly).

  42. Niall Says:

    If mainstream critics can read enough to judge a Booker or Orange prize with some confidence, what’s to stop sf critics having to deal with a far smaller field?

    Time and money, mostly. Booker judges are paid (not huge amounts, but paid nonetheless) and take time out from their day jobs during the judging process. I can’t think of any source of funding that would support a similar arrangement for an sf award, though it would be great if one could be found.

    Plus, of course, the Booker judges only read a tiny fraction of the books published each year — typically 110 to 130 — because even with dedicated reading time for the judges, publishers are limited in how many books they can submit. The Clarke, for all that it misses the occasional title, is actually a much more comprehensive survey of its chosen field than the Booker is of its. (Hence the persistent and ever-ignored calls for the Booker to publish the list of what is submitted.)

  43. Jonathan M Says:

    It’s kind of frustrating because you can imagine it working.

    In a given year there are never that many books that are potential Clarke winners. Maybe a couple of dozen. Now how many books are published in the US but not the UK that have similar potential? again, not that many.

    Of course, the problem lies in fairly dealing with all of the books that aren’t Clarke material or that appear not to be at first glance and if the Clarke did take over from the Hugo then presumably there would be even more submissions than there are currently making the situation even worse.

  44. Karen Burnham Says:

    Am I right in thinking that most of us learned to love sf before we became critic/reviewers? And would most of us agree that we did not necessarily start that love affair with the edgiest avant-garde works available at the time?

    I think that I needed to love Asimov before I could love Cordwainer Smith and Tiptree. Today folks starting out will probably love Scalzi before they love Daryl Gregory, for instance.

    Here’s what I’ve often heard about the Hugos, from Michael Chabon down to random fans: “When I was a teenager, browsing the stacks at the drug store/library/bookshop, if I saw a Hugo rocket on the cover I knew I was in for a good read.”

    Every award caters to a different audience, and we all know that there is no single standard for “Best.” If the above anecdote represents what people want and expect from the Hugos, then I think the 2009 shortlist will continue to fulfill those expectations (even if not a single book I nominated made it on to the ballot).

  45. Jonathan M Says:

    Karen, I think the current problem is nicely highlighted by the tension between your last two paragraphs. Yes, of course, the Hugos are only the opinion of a sub-section of fandom but at the same time they’re also perceived as some kind of benchmark for quality. There’s no tension so long as that sub-section of fandom makes interesting picks but when they don’t…

    I think that the critics vs. fans idea implicit in what you say is divisive and unhelpful. I also think it’s not actually true. Anathem got good reviews, Little Brother got a very good review in Strange Horizon. Scalzi less so and I don’t think I’ve read any reviews of Gaiman’s book other than Abigail’s but Stross was, up until this year, something of a critical darling. I think that my negative review of Halting State was very much a minority opinion and it’s only Saturn’s Children that seems to be widely seen as a weak book (and even then, it has had some good reviews).

  46. Niall Says:

    Further comment at The Valve:

    Because if, as I described above, science fiction is about exploring but failing to encompass that which can’t be known, people like this commenter aren’t ever really experiencing science fiction. They’re reading books they bought from the ghetto labeled as such, but they’re not reading them in the spirit in which, ideally, they were written; and if there are awards designed to reflect the tastes of such readers, they shouldn’t purport to be representing science fiction, because that’s a category error. They’re pablum that happens to take place in space, in the distant future, on a platform orbiting near a black hole and peopled by characters flattened into convention by authors who assume too much.

    Not that any of the current nominees have produced such pablum, mind you. Nor should any of the other participants in this debate should see themselves reflected in my response to those comments, as there are some eminently reasonable, yet openly critical, responses to Adam’s initial post. But it’s the direction the genre’s headed if its most passionate fans angrily insist on rewarding works antithetical to genre’s motivating spirit.

  47. Karen Burnham Says:

    Well if Jonathan says I’m being divisive and unhelpful, I’m not sure there’s any hope for me. ;-)

    My point is that Adam says: “What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? ” and that mediocre short lists make us look bad “to the world.”

    I’m saying that of the small sub-set of the world who reads, all but an extremely small sub-set who want edgy, avant-garde literature will be fine with a short list full of well-crafted entertaining reads.

    i.e. this Hugo shortlist makes us look bad to people like Adam Roberts, but he is one of a very select subset of special, literary snowflakes, most of whom have other reasons for disliking sf.

    To which other people will the 2009 Hugo shortlist make us look bad?

  48. Karen Burnham Says:

    That came out unnecessarily cranky (that’ll teach me to post early in the morning). Here’s a better version:

    I think that most of the people to whom the Hugo short list would make us look bad already have their own reasons for disliking sf… and most of them (again, my guess), have probably never heard of the Hugos.

    The World > People who read > people who read sf > people who have heard of the Hugos >(?) people who want edgy experimental sf and care about the Hugos.

    I’m not sure there are enough people in that last category to warrant this much concern.

    So I’ll stand by that last question.

  49. Abigail Says:

    I don’t know. Obviously there are any number of reasons one might look down on SF, and an outsider looking down on this year’s shortlist might do so for reasons that I don’t agree with, such as it’s being dominated by YA, or simply for being a bunch of science fiction novels.

    But I think that even open-minded readers who aren’t necessarily looking for scintillating, world-shattering reads would be disappointed by most of the books on this shortlist if they were to win. I think Adam has muddied the conversational waters by bringing experimental work into it (not to mention given a bunch of commenters already none too disposed to read him charitably yet another reason to decry him as an elitist) when really the problem with most of the nominees isn’t that they aren’t experimental but that they aren’t very good. For that matter, I’m not certain that what Adam actually wants to see on the shortlist is edgy and experimental work. The one novel he champions above all others for a spot on the ballot, The Quiet War, is pretty much meat and potatoes SF, and about as far from experimental as you could get. I didn’t care for it, but it’s head and shoulders above most of the nominated novels.

    Besides which, I don’t think it’s necessary for there to actually be a hypothetical reader who picks up Zoe’s Tale because it has ‘nominated for the Hugo award’ stamped on the cover and then sneers at the genre because it’s such a bland and unconvincing novel (though that’ll probably happen once or twice) for the best novel shortlist to be embarrassing. I get embarrassed by Mike Resnick’s perennial presence on the short fiction ballots, and the only people who care about those are the ones who vote for them and put Resnick there in the first place. Like Adam, I’m embarrassed because this is the face we’re putting forward.

  50. Al Reynolds Says:

    Abigail: “I get embarrassed by Mike Resnick’s perennial presence on the short fiction ballots, and the only people who care about those are the ones who vote for them and put Resnick there in the first place. Like Adam, I’m embarrassed because this is the face we’re putting forward.”

    Does anyone, outside of SF circles, honestly give a toss about the Hugo award for best short fiction?

  51. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I didn’t actually know there was a Hugo award for best fiction, I was only aware of the award given to novels.

    I doubt I’m unique in that.

  52. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I distrust that valve quote, I think getting into ideas of “real sf” and pablum is dangerous stuff.

    The idea that the genre has a single motivating spirit is I think profoundly wrong, and far too limiting. There are many motivating spirits, from desires to explore possible futures to desires to simply write an exciting story to desires to explore ideas of what it is to be human or the nature of our universe to desires to explore our own world through allegory to, well, I could continue for a very long time.

    A story that takes place in a distant future orbiting a black hole is SF, it may or may not be good sf but it is sf. To say otherwise, because it fails to meet some critical standard as to motivating spirit, is I think to abuse the term, to redefine it for a particular aesthetic agenda.

    It takes us to the old canard that Star Wars isn’t sf, but if it isn’t then the term has no meaning. Redefining the language helps nothing.

  53. Karen Burnham Says:

    Abigail: “For that matter, I’m not certain that what Adam actually wants to see on the shortlist is edgy and experimental work. The one novel he champions above all others for a spot on the ballot, The Quiet War, is pretty much meat and potatoes SF, and about as far from experimental as you could get. I didn’t care for it, but it’s head and shoulders above most of the nominated novels.”

    That’s a very good point. I think I had lost the thread of the argument there.

  54. Jonathan M Says:

    There are different values of ‘experimental’ though. Experimental doesn’t have to be The Atrocity Exhibition, it can simply be books that try to move things forward in matters of form and content.

    A little while back, some journo or other decided to write about the Hugos from the start. they found that the early winners were terrible mostly but the Hugos were there as a historical document… a document as to what was going on in SF at a particular time. If the Hugos ignore important works, systematically go for the middle of the road and ignore developments in the genre then that historical record is impoverished. Not necessarily in terms of losing SF street cred in front of the other genres, but in the long term should someone in the future want to know what SF fans in 2009 were caring about.

    The Clarke does that for me. It doesn’t always get it right but every year it is a bold statement about what’s going on in SF.

    Not only do the Hugos not do that job, they don’t even do a good job of tracking what’s popular in genre writing. Meyer and Hamilton write utter tripe but utter tripe that shifts by the boat-load.

    The same applies to the short fiction. Nowadays nobody gives a shit about short fiction but who is to say that in 20 years the form might not have a resurgence? Imagine then that some book writer decides to revisit the Hugos and what does he find? Apparently that Mike Resnick was the sleek cutting edge of what’s going on in short fiction.

  55. Niall Says:

    Max, it’s like you don’t read anything I post. *sniff*

    I tend to Abigail and Jonathan’s position here. Whether or not the individual categories are well known, the Hugo brand is the best-known sf award brand — which makes it a logical starting point for someone who’s read a couple of sf novels, and wants to explore the genre a bit more, much the way I might go and look up Edgar shortlists if I wanted to find out what’s good in mystery and crime, or Booker shortlists for literary fiction. And in that regard, I find this year’s novel shortlist is disappointing not because I think the nominees are universally terrible — I do think they’re mostly mediocre, but I nominated Anathem — but because they cover such a narrow range. They are all either Heinlein-y or YA-y or both, and reading them in close succession, and seeing the repetition of virtues and flaws, only brings out how little variation they offer. Even if all five books were undisputed masterpieces, I’d feel that this shortlist gives a somewhat impoverished view of what contemporary sf is and does.

  56. Jonathan M Says:

    “A story that takes place in a distant future orbiting a black hole is SF, it may or may not be good sf but it is sf. To say otherwise, because it fails to meet some critical standard as to motivating spirit, is I think to abuse the term, to redefine it for a particular aesthetic agenda.”

    I’m not sure it does particularly.

    SF reviewing and criticism tends to revolve around a conception of genre that is very ‘stuff’ based. Does it have X in it? does it have Y in it? But there are other conceptions.

    For example, some people define Horror not as being about vampires or ghosts but about affect… about works that inspire a sense of fear and loathing. I think the Valve quote is making a similar claim for SF. Namely that something is SF if it makes you experience the sublime. Sensawunda.

    Genre discussions as a whole tend not to be particularly fruitful but I don’t think that the Valve quote is that left field. It strikes me as a sound basis for defining SF and a nice way of ruling out books like Saturn’s Children that leave you feeling little more than embarrassed for their authors.

  57. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Sam Jordison at the Guardian is the journalist blogging past Hugo award winners.

    He’s also written about the Arthur C Clarke awards.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/samjordison – that contains links to the articles in questions.

    Niall, oops, I do though, I even link here from my blog…

  58. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Jonathan, any definition of sf that leaves out Saturn’s Children is going to leave an awful lot of people very confused.

    The Valve approach doesn’t work because it doesn’t accord with how the term is generally used. I really don’t think critics meaning something different by the term sf than what the general public means by it would be at all helpful.

    Genres are largely defined, by the public, by trappings, not intent. More to the point though, I don’t think how they’re defined is capable of being declared, I think rather it’s something that simply is, a product of a crowd judgement.

    I think one can sensibly say, is this award recognising the right sf? The best sf? The sf that pushes the genre forward (which isn’t the same necessarily at all as being avant garde)? I’m not sure it’s the place of the award to say “Is this in the right spirit to be sf at all?”

  59. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oh for an edit function, I don’t fancy a genre debate either, so let’s leave that thread fallow unless someone has a burning interest in it.

  60. Al Reynolds Says:

    Jonathan:

    “The same applies to the short fiction. Nowadays nobody gives a shit about short fiction but who is to say that in 20 years the form might not have a resurgence? Imagine then that some book writer decides to revisit the Hugos and what does he find? Apparently that Mike Resnick was the sleek cutting edge of what’s going on in short fiction.”

    That could well happen but it’d be nice to think that the writer has the nous to sniff around a bit more, to look not just at the award winners but also the shortlists and anthologies for a given year. The Hugos are just one data point; there’s a whole constellation of other indicators out there.

    Got to say, I’m a little weary of seeing Resnick held up as totemic of all that’s wrong in short fiction award circles right now. I don’t particularly care for the stories myself and could wish that others had been nominated but it seems a little unreasonable to blame him for being popular with a particular subset of fans.

  61. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Jonathan, there are more than enough Best of the Year anthologies around at the moment. I expect any future writer looking for canonical short fiction is likely to turn to those before looking at the awards.

    But the novel doesn’t have that luxury. The only way we really have of identifying which novels have made an impact in any particular year (because none of us can read everything) is to look at the award winners and shortlists. Now if you go back to the 60s and 70s the Hugos and Nebulas really did seem to catch the zeitgeist. Anyone seeking out the canonical books of that era would not go far wrong by turning to the awards.

    I don’t think the same would be true for the 90s or the present decade. The question is: is it the genre that has changed, or the awards?

  62. Karen Burnham Says:

    I don’t know, looking at the nominees from the 90s and 2000s, I certainly see some good stuff there:

    Stations of the Tide, Beggars in Spain, China Mountain Zhang, Towing Jehovah, Remnant Population, Chronoliths, Perdido Street Station, River of Gods, Blindsight, Brasyl.

    I deliberately picked things that didn’t win, but it doesn’t seem to me that the short lists have been ignoring the zeitgeist. Perhaps this is just a somewhat poor year? I noticed that 2001 also wasn’t terribly inspiring, but 2002 had some particularly good nominees.

  63. Ian Sales Says:

    It’s not just that the awards have become increasingly less relevant, but that the genre itself has also become less of a homogeneous community. The novels which shift the most units are not the ones we consider emblematic of the genre – both on a not-specifically-genre scale (Rowling, Meyer, “urban fantasy”, etc.) and on a genre-specific scale (Kevin J Anderson, Jordan, Erikson, Star Wars, etc.). So it does seem a bit churlish to protest that the Hugo shortlist is not representative of the best, or the most typical for the year, the genre has to offer.

    I have to wonder if the success of genre novels which aren’t part of the community has created a growing and increasingly reactionary faction of fandom – all those who insist that sf should be above all “entertaining”; the ideas and not the characterisation, prose, etc., which matter; and not to mention the use “literary” or “academic” as terms of abuse….

  64. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Karen,

    I’ve been following the Booker’s the last few years.

    The prize winner is often fairly uninteresting, the longlist and shortlist though do often contain some tremendously exciting works.

    My suspicion is that the judging process with the Booker often ends in compromise, and the best novels often attract passionate opponents as well as passionate advocates. But that’s a supposition, still though, if you’re interested in the best literary fiction in a given year the Booker nominees are a much better guide than the Booker winners.

    However, the sales boost is only really there for the shortlist, and much more so for the winner, so although the list is a good guide to what’s good, it’s the winner that reaps the benefit with the public.

    The parallels seem rather striking.

  65. Martin Wisse Says:

    The Hugos voting structure (rank the nominees in order on your ballot, the one with the lowest votes gets eliminated, second preference votes of those voters are added to the total until there is a winner) is perhaps one reason a lot of middle of the road works win or end high in the voting. A recipe for compromise winners…

    Paul: if future sf readers will be anything like me, it’s what’s available in the public library, secondhand bookshop and what’s mentioned in the glossy historical overviews that’ll determine their reading patterns more than who won th Hugo or Nebula…

  66. Jeff VanderMeer Says:

    I am trying to figure out why it would be so difficult to have the Clarke include all English-language SF given that the World Fantasy judges do exactly that–all English language fantasy plus other categories–every year. It’s not a convincing argument to say it’s too much. it’s only a convincing argument if you want to keep a lot of those damn dirty Americans out of consideration, and Aussies unfortunate enough to be published first in their country. Etc.

    As for the Hugo as popularity contest–getting less than 400 votes to get on the ballot…well, need I say more?

    From a publicity point of view, the brand is beyond salvaging. No young person growing up today gives a shit about the Hugo. Nor do they mostly even self-identify as SF fans. That battle is lost. The battle now is over what kind of pop culture they self-identify with. For example. It’s not a bad thing–it’s just that due to massive crosspollination a reader today may self-identify as a steampunk, not be at all interested in book culture like, well, this blog, and yet still voraciously read anything steampunky, as part of a continuum that also includes movies, comics, etc.

    Look, insular is not good, and insular cannot be solved from within that which has caused insular to occur. Meanwhile, as the decay deepens we will continue to see self-congratulation and justification from the talented and untalented alike propping up rotting systems. This is the way the world works. But we also ought to realize how short life is and if we really want to spend it in the pursuit of bullshit.

    I admire and have learned *something* from every writer on that ballot…but that doesn’t mean the system and the process are sound.

  67. Niall Says:

    I am trying to figure out why it would be so difficult to have the Clarke include all English-language SF given that the World Fantasy judges do exactly that–all English language fantasy plus other categories–every year.

    Blimey. I knew the WFA were hard work, but — Locus lists 439 original fantasy novels published in 2008. Even allowing for the longer period of the WFA, and assuming I started reading, say, November 2007, and read nothing but fantasy novels until round about now (I’m guessing this is roughly when the shortlist meeting is scheduled?), there’s no way I could read that many books, unless I gave up my day job. I would get through, maybe, half of them — two-and-a-bit books a week — and maybe most of the rest I could read 50 pages of and see that they’re not really contenders. But there’d still be all the other categories!

    (To be fair, Locus “only” lists 249 original sf novels for last year. That is technically a more manageable number… though it is still, I note, twice as many books as Booker judges are expected to read in their paid time off. Slackers. Well, it’s not as though I disagree with you about the general point of insularity, at least.)

  68. Jonathan M Says:

    I suspect the simple truth is that not all books get completely read. Anyone can get through 400 odd titles if they only read the first 10 pages of 300 of those books. I’m sure the same thing happens with the Clarkes and all juried awards but just not on that kind of scale.

    This is problematic because it smacks of unfairness and also I suspect it will introduce selection biases and the kind of name-recognition inertia that has crippled the Hugos but then I guess that’s one reason for why there’s a reread of the short-list.

  69. Niall Says:

    Yes, I was being a little snippy there, wasn’t I? I can think of another mechanism by which you could increase the fairness of coverage of that sort of sample size, too: make sure every book gets read by at least one judge, and any book that gets flagged as interesting by any judge gets read by all judges.

    No award is unimpeachably fair, and not just because they’re all subjective judgments. No process is perfect. My own feeling is that the best processes are either (a) vote open to and advertised to as large a portion of the target audience as possible or (b) juried, with inclusion criteria that encompass a meaningful number of books that is not beyond the ability of a moderately fast and attentive reader to get through in a reasonable amount of time. The Clarke comes close to (b); the Locus awards came close to (a) until last year.

    Of course, the most meaningful judgment of an award, in a sense, is the list of winners: does it identify books I want to read? And that’s going to vary from person to person. For some people, no doubt, the Hugo remains a reliable indicator.

  70. Martin Says:

    the World Fantasy judges do exactly that–all English language fantasy plus other categories–every year.

    If you really read one and a half fantasy novels every day in 2007 then congratulations and, yes, chauvinism is the only reason not to open up the Clarke.

  71. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A restricted voting pool is about the worst possible option. You don’t have the genuine popularity of an open voting pool (though that’s hideously open to rigging by overzealous fans) or the expertise and passion of a jury.

    To be honest, I think the jury is by far the best option, but even there as the Booker shows the winner tends to be a compromise candidate. In a bad year, like 2008, the list isn’t even representative of what’s good (but 2008 was a particularly bad year).

    Niall’s suggestion, that every book is read by at least one judge and if one judge recommends something all must read it, that would be a much better approach. Yes, there’s a selection bias problem, but there’s that now and no system will ever be perfect. It at least gives a greater chance of something catching a judge’s attention.

    Any genuinely innovative work will always generate a degree of antipathy, it’s in the nature of innovation. A popular vote will rarely promote a work pushing boundaries, too many people won’t like it. The best is often challenging, and not everyone will be looking for that from their genre fiction.

    The answer really seems to be opening the Clarke to the English speaking world, it’s a much better prize, the Hugo has brand recognition but I wouldn’t personally look to it as a guide to quality.

    Interestingly, when Sam Jordison started his Hugo winners readathon, the comments page was full of people saying that if he wanted to engage with good sf that was great, but the Hugo award winners weren’t going to do the genre any favours. Nobody said that when he talked about the Clarke.

  72. Paul Kincaid Says:

    The Tiptree comes close to this ideal scenario. Anyone can nominate a work. Every work nominated is read by at least two of the judges. If two judges give a work the thumbs down, no-one else need bother (though they might choose to do so). Administratively, I suspect it’s a nightmare, but fortunately I’m only judging this award so someone else has that particular headache.

    As a model, however, I see no reason why it could not be extended to any other juried award.

    On the wider point, aving been involved with more awards than I care to count, I tend to prefer the juried awards over popular vote awards. Yes the jury structure often means a compromise choice at the end (though given the arguments that can go into that final decision, even a compromise can be a pretty robust choice); but a popular vote award, since there is no way of ever regulating the qualifications of the voters, can often go to the sentimental choice, the favourite author not the best work. Also, with a jury you can be pretty sure that everyone picking the winner has had the same access to the universe of works eligible (though how the jury is constituted is an issue that no-one seems to have picked up on); with a popular vote award, that is never going to be the case, so issues such as print run, distribution, availability can play a bigger part in the final decision than simple quality.

    Nevertheless, I feel very uncomfortable with the suggestions for extending the Clarke to all English-language sf. I think the UK basis for the award, and particularly for the constitution of the juries, adds something important to the quality of the award. I like the fact that there is one major award for SF that is recognised around the world but is not based in the US or judged by US jurors. Also, we should not forget that the Clarke Award was established with the specific remit of encouraging British science fiction, to make it an international award would therefore entail a fundamental change in its constitution.

  73. Paul Kincaid Says:

    “Also, we should not forget that the Clarke Award was established with the specific remit of encouraging British science fiction, to make it an international award would therefore entail a fundamental change in its constitution.”

    Hm, having said that it occurs to me that the changing nature of the publishing industry and of book distribution and sales means that a fundamental change in the remit of the Clarke Award may well become necessary soon anyway.

  74. Ian Sales Says:

    On the subject of nominations… I complained here that one of the novellas on the shortlist, McDonald’s, was published by the SFBC, and so was not notionally available to the entire pool of Hugo nominators. I also suspect the Resnick short story was nominated as a result of its publication in Baen’s Universe and not its earlier publication in Postscripts (the Hugo Awards site gives publication in Baen’s Universe and not Postscripts).

    Both of which demonstrate that not only is the Hugo US-centric because its pool of nominators and voters are chiefly American, but it is also institutionally US-centric. And yet it claims to represent the genre globally. If it doesn’t represent those who engage with sf globally – never mind those who read sf but don’t give a toss about awards, fandom or the genre community – then why do we bother with it anymore? Especially since it’s starting to look like we’re not allowed to criticise it….

  75. Max Cairnduff Says:

    We bother with it because, as explained to me upthread when I asked, it’s the only award that seems to affect sales much.

    That’s quite a big deal really, because the question then is whether it’s shifting the right sales. Stross for example will sell anyway, but a new work by a lesser known author might not. I follow the Bookers not because I give a damn what McEwan has written recently, but because I hear about works that I might otherwise miss but that a judge has read and thinks is interesting enough to merit championing.

    Actually, that’s where this fails. A key benefit of prizes is to expose us as readers to works we might not otherwise encounter. Animal’s People, What was Lost, stuff like that. If the prize only celebrates the already well known, what’s the use of it?

  76. Jonathan M Says:

    I think the issue of making the Clarke an international award in the sense that 1) it is based outside the UK and 2) judged by Juries made up of people outside the UK is quite a different (and more drastic) idea than simply 3) expanding the pool of nominees.

  77. Ian Sales Says:

    In the US, perhaps. But they also stick “A Sci Fi Essential Book” on some sf novels in the US and cross-promote them on the Sci Fi Channel (as was). But I can’t say I’ve been inspired to read of this year’s shortlisted novels because they’ve been shortlisted. And I suspect I’m not alone in that.

  78. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The Sci Fi channel, that’s the one with the wrestling, yes?

    I doubt anyone in this thread is inspired by the fact of shortlisting, I’m not sure any of us are the target of the prize.

  79. Jonathan M Says:

    Ian —

    The faux-internationalism of Worldcon is certainly a reason why I don’t think there’s much of a case for having the Clarkes move outside of the UK in quest of greater authority or authenticity.

    I see that the “Summon Kevin Standlee” spell was working quite nicely in June too ;-)

  80. Ian Sales Says:

    Jonathan – it’s just a shame he always sings the same tune: “you don’t like the shortlist because none of your favourites were shortlisted”.

  81. Jonathan M Says:

    It’s not nice to mock people but it’s like Worldcon paid for him to have media training but he left after the first quarter of an hour.

  82. Twofer « Everything Is Nice Says:

    […] By the way, if you are actually still interested in following the debate, the conversation over at Torque Control remains the most interesting and least […]


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