Sunday, August 2, 2020

Hugo Results 2020, and Award Ceremony Controversy

The Hugo Awards were announced the other day (Friday night for me in the US and Saturday in New Zealand). You can see the complete run down of voting statistics here. Congratulations to all the winners and nominees!

This year I voted in eight categories. Usually I do more, but ... <gestures toward the world right now>.... You can see how I voted here and here.

There was also the matter of the ceremony itself. I watched most of it live. There was some controversy about it, and rightfully so. I'll come back to that at the end.

But first, how did I do? 

The Winners!, or, My Ballot Versus Reality

It looks like I picked the winners in three categories: Best Fan Writer (Bogi Takács), Best Related Work (Jeannette Ng's 2019 speech at last year's Worldcon), and wait for it.... Best Novel (Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire)! [Note: I also just listed to an interesting interview with Martine on the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast].

Given the way things were going with the dramatic presentations and other literature categories, where my picks were mostly off, I didn't expect that Best Novel result. I'm a bit surprised Alix Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January came in sixth (I had it third, but then I also consistently forget about the extensive fan base of Seanan McGuire, who came in second).

There was something I must've been missing about This Is How You Lose the Time War. Not that I think it's bad, but I greatly preferred The Deep or To Be Taught, If Fortunate (see my thoughts on the novellas here). I felt like Novelettes were the strongest category overall this year, so really there are no bad choices and N. K. Jemisin's "Emergency Skin" wasn't much of a surprise there. I felt almost as good overall about short stories, and while I'm a bit shocked Nibedita Sen's excellent story came in sixth, S. L. Huang's "As the Last I May Know" is an outstanding #1 choice (I ranked it a close third).

For Related Work, I wasn't surprised that Ng's speech won. It rightly precipitated the change of an award's name within a few days. It was also a damn fine speech, pointing to the future from a troubled past, and there was a cool hat involved. I'm also not surprised Arwen Curry's excellent documentary on Ursula K. Le Guin took second. I'm a bit surprised to see Farah Mendlesohn's study of Heinlein so close to the bottom. I thought it was a pretty solid work of scholarship, but I guess few Hugo voters are academics who are impressed with such things.

For dramatic presentations, I'm not at all surprised Good Omens was #1 for long form. It was a lot of fun and there's no stopping the nerdy dream team of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It was also worth it for Gaiman's touching acceptance speech. I would've liked to see Us a lot higher on the list (I put it at #1 knowing I was in the minority on this one), but I think it's pretty telling that The Rise of Skywalker was sixth. Over in short form, I was surprised that Watchmen didn't win everything, but I do love The Good Place so it's hard to be disappointed. Seeing The Mandalorian above The Expanse and Doctor Who is a bit of a shock, but on the other hand... Baby Yoda.

One thing that has become apparent to me in the last decade or so as I've become more involved in fandom is that fans like science fiction, fantasy, and horror for different reasons. And that's a good thing. I'm a fan of a philosophical bent who likes Big Ideas and big picture world-building. Others like cool gadgets. Or quirky characters. Or military maneuvers. Or elaborate magic systems. Or new takes on old fairy tales. Or ... lots of things. This becomes apparent to me when I attend cons or talk with people online, but it's nowhere more apparent than when I see how my votes compare to the results of the Hugos. And this is for the best. What fun would fandom be if I (or people like me) controlled it all?

The 2020 Hugo Ceremony Controversy: We Need to do Better

That last sentence is a deliberate segue to the topic of the Hugo ceremony itself. (I told you I'd get to it eventually).

There was a lot of talk on Twitter, which is difficult to summarize (search for #HugoAwards on Twitter and you'll find some of it). There are some decent summaries on File 770 herehere, and here. This overview by Fan Writer nominee Adam Whitehead and this one on the blog Sean Reads Sci-Fi are some of the best I've seen.

There were some technological foibles, which were maybe unavoidable given how quickly the con runners had to put on a completely digital con. The ceremony went on waaaaay too long (over three hours!).

But the real problem was a certain person who served as Toastmaster, a person who is, largely because of a certain show on HBO but also due to almost 50 years in the genre, probably the most famous person in science fiction/fantasy at the moment, at least if you measure fame by the yardstick of "a person who your family members who are befuddled by your SFF fandom might have heard of."

Oh, George R. R. Martin... I like your books and you're a big star and there's a lot about you that I admire, but... the Old Man with Tales of Yore routine was not what we needed in 2020. Mispronouncing the names of nominees (and at least one magazine) was not what we needed. Casual sexism and transphobia were not what we needed. Extended paeans to long dead fascists without acknowledging that they are problematic was not what we needed. (Much the same could be directed at Robert Silverberg, who also went on far too long, but he wasn't the Toastmaster, so let's focus on Martin).

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I doubt that Martin did any of this deliberately or consciously. Of course, I don't know that. Maybe he really did resent Jeannette Ng and others for pointing out John W. Campbell's fascism. Or maybe it was an unconscious retaliation. I don't know.

But whatever Martin's intentions were, he needs to do better. Unlike the truly deplorable Sad and Rabid Puppies of a few years back (and it's worth remembering we're only three or four years removed from all that bullshit), I suspect Martin at least wants to be a decent person who supports a more progressive, more diverse fandom for everyone. But for whatever reason, he failed many members of the community who most deserve his support right now. And he hasn't really apologized yet (aside from a contextless Voltaire quote on Twitter and this lackluster apology on File 770). He needs to do better.

But as I reflected on this incident, I noticed that while I was a bit uneasy during the ceremony, I had to go on Twitter to understand how angry it made many others. Part of this is that I'm not by nature a very angry person, but I think part of it is also that I, too, need to do better.

It's easy for me as a white man to listen to older white men talk about the exploits of dead white men. It's easy for me to brush off mispronouncing names and microaggressions, if I even notice such things at all. It's harder to notice the ways all of this can be problematic when it doesn't affect me personally, when I don't have a lifetime of living in a society that devalues my identity and experience. I need to listen. I need to do better.

I am as fascinated by the history of fandom as most fans are. Part of my fandom is reading old stuff to understand the history of the genre. It's also fun, especially at cons, to hear personal stories about authors who made the genre what it is, authors whose work made me who I am. I like those stories (although maybe the Cliffnotes versions would suffice for the Hugo ceremony). But we shouldn't continue to tell these stories with rosy-tinted nostalgia. We shouldn't continue to engage in the same old bullshit that excluded so many for so long. We need to do better.

The reason that so many of us fought against the Sad and Rabid Puppies just a few years ago was that they wanted an insular, monolithic fandom of people like them. But we need to do better. If we follow the lead of the new vanguard of the genre, we will do better. They're pushing the boundaries of the genre to realize potentials that should have been recognized all along. 

As interesting as the past of SFF is, this year's Hugo nominees show us that the future of the genre and its fandom should excite us more.

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