The Hugos

The internet being what it is, even a post as marginally belated as this one feels a little redundant. Still, it would feel stranger not to set down my thoughts on this year’s winners at all, if only because I can’t agree with Cory Doctorow that these are “some of the best results in recent memory”; they seem to me, as usual, a mixed bag, and perhaps more than usual an inconsistent bag.

The only explanation I can come up with for, say, the two Best Dramatic Presentation results – setting the immensely pleasing recognition for the low-key, nuanced Moon against the downright distressing award for the bombastically nonsensical The Waters of Mars, not just the worst nominee and bad by the standards of all TV, but bad by the standards even of the Doctor Who specials – is that completely separate groups of people won the day in each category. (This is just about possible, although not very likely, based on the voting statistics [pdf]: from 1094 ballots cast, after redistribution of preferences Moon won its category with 418 ballots, while The Waters of Mars won with 350.) More seriously, Jonathan Strahan, who worked on two of the nominees for Best Novellette, loses out in Best Editor: Short Form to Ellen Datlow, who didn’t work on any nominees this year; and Juliet Ulman, who edited two of the Best Novels, only got as many first-preference votes as No Award in Best Editor: Long Form. You can, of course, say that the Best Editor categories are for consistency over a body of work, rather than acquiring a few standouts, but that doesn’t seem to explain the continued overlooking of Sheila Williams, whose Asimov’s has in recent years dominated the short fiction categories – 10 of 15 nominees in 2007; 7 of 15 in 2008 and 2009; and while 3 of 15 nominees this year looks like a slump, it’s still more than any other single publication managed – yet who has never won in her category.

It was satisfying to see a new Best Semiprozine – that is, the voters neither went back to their old Locus habit, nor settled into a new pattern with Weird Tales – and Clarkesworld certainly had a good year. (Although as Mark Kelly notes, it is a bit odd that Weird Tales dropped so far down the ranking.) I can only hope the award continues to move around, since I, like Abigail Nussbaum, am starting to feel a little bothered by the number of recusals. (My suggestion? The New York Review of Science Fiction, which is long overdue and having a good year.) Best Related Book was not a surprise, although This is Me, Jack Vance! is the only nominee in the category I haven’t sampled; neither was Best Graphic Story, to the point where it’s quickly becoming clear that voters don’t really know what to do with the category as it’s currently constituted. I’d be in favour of Liz Batty and Nick Honeywell’s proposal, in The Drink Tank [pdf], to change the category to Best Graphic Novel.

The winner of Best Fanzine, meanwhile, and for the second year running, is a winner within the letter of the rules rather than what I consider to be the spirit of them. Contra Jason Sanford, the only boundaries that StarShipSofa pushes for me are the ones I don’t really want to see pushed: ‘zines that publish fiction may be eligible within the current wording, but I don’t want to see them become the norm; ditto podcasts, if only because I’m too much of a written-word junkie; and nor do I want to see it become common for eligible ‘zines to campaign for their nominations. As Mike Glyer points out, however, the voting statistics don’t yet suggest that these two winners represent a sea-change in how the category is treated; and it’s good to see ‘zines like Journey Planet and group blogs like SF Signal bubbling under, not to mention Steam Engine Time, which I’d have dearly loved to see on the ballot.

And looming over everything else there’s that improbable tie for Best Novel, only the third in the history of the Hugos. As others have noted, it’s hard not to feel there’s a certain cosmic rightness in it, either because, like Jonathan McCalmont, you take it as a reflection of the fact that neither is quite polished enough to merit a full Hugo, or simply because these are the two novels that have been sharing out awards between them all year, and it’s appropriate to have that competition captured in this way. I tend to the latter view.

19 thoughts on “The Hugos

  1. I approve of the Batty/Honeywell proposal too. However, I’m not sure it solves the underlying problem which is that whilst I think it is a good thing that the Hugos recognises the important contribution of comics to the genre, I don’t think the constituency of Worldcon is well enough informed to nominate a meaningful shortlist.

  2. Isn’t “well-informed” kinda the key? I think Niall’s comments about Jonathan Strahan, for instance, indicates that the voters aren’t really thinking that deeply about who might be responsible for what they might think is the quality stuff.

    I’m definitely a bit concerned about Best Graphic Story or Best Graphic Novel. The latter doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – a lot of the time the best stuff is a story arc that doesn’t necessarily equate to a “graphic novel”. It can do – probably the best mainstream comic I’ve read this year was Greg Rucka & J.H. Williams’ Batwoman: Elegy, which was collected as a graphic novel. But on the whole the best comics stuff will be, say, a Jim Woodring published by Fantagraphics, or something even more obscure, and it’s likely to slip under the Hugo voters’ radar.

    That said, I do rather like Girl Genius. The shortlist was very lacklustre, and GG’s been going for a while, and Phil Foglio’s been doing fun sci-fi comics stuff for decades, so it’s a kinda nice acknowledgement.

  3. All I think that the StarShipSofa mob have exploded past is the sense of shame a normal person might feel when begging people to vote for them in a popularity contest. I have no real problem with podcasts being eligible but I don’t think that they’re doing anything particularly interesting compared with any number of written-word ‘zines out there.

    Regarding the BattyWell Proposal, I thought that “Graphic Story” was a neatly symmetrical piece of jargon as it fits alongside “Dramatic Presentation, Long Form” and “Prozine” as an example of weird euphemisms that have no meaning outside of the political wranglings of frazzled-but-desperately-consensus-seeking Worldcon committees. In fact, I’d be in favour of a proposal replacing the “Best Novel” category with a “Best Text-Based Sequential Narrative of Indeterminate Length Sold As a Discrete Unit” award purely for the sake of linguistic purity. Give me neologisms or give me death! ;-)

    Personally, I’d be quite happy with a Best Graphic Novel award and have it apply only to graphic novels released within the same boundaries as a novel. Most popular webcomics now get dead tree editions and I think that having to wait a while for a comic to be released as a collection is a reasonable price to pay for the sake of having a category that makes some kind of sense. It really would make it a lot easier for that particular Hugo to fulfill its “this is cool go read this!” function.

  4. Strahan is an interesting example because he had the most 1st preference votes up until the end when Datlow’s name recognition trumped him. So I would say the first preferences are the informed vote and the downside of STV is that the uninformed voters get to swing it.

    But, regardless of who won, you would still say that it was a reasonable shortlist. You couldn’t say the same of Best Graphic Story. I quite like Girl Genius – it was my 1st preference vote – but it is just laughable to imagine it is the best comics had to offer last year.

  5. I think Strahan was robbed.

    Not being privy to the dark arts of fiction editing, I’d be loathe to think too long on the question of how much responsibility Datlow and Strahan bear for the stories they publish.

    However, if you consider part of the job of a short-fiction editor to pull together interesting groups of stories then I think that Strahan has Datlow beaten hands down. Strahan has a good sense of when an author’s short fiction might be due a re-examination and his S&S book certainly provoked some discussion. Meanwhile, Datlow put out some animal stuff, some year’s best and a collection of Lovecraft pastiches.

    Obviously not everyone places much importance on the critical role of the anthologist but I do and I think that Strahan is much more thoughtful and timely in this area than Datlow has ever been.

  6. Jonathan:

    “Best Text-Based Sequential Narrative of Indeterminate Length Sold As a Discrete Unit”

    This would disqualify Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear from being nominated as a single work, which I promise you is going to happen.

    I don’t have much to say about Strahan and Datlow this year, as I haven’t read either his S&S book or any of her collections, but I’m not sure I agree with Niall’s metric of looking at how many of the editor’s short stories have been nominated for awards. A short fiction anthology shouldn’t be judged solely on the basis of the best stories in it – last year, for example, you might have concluded that Strahan’s Eclipse 2 was the best anthology of 2008 because Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” won so many awards, but for overall quality I much preferred Datlow’s The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction, even though none of the individual stories in it were as good as “Exhalation”.

  7. This would disqualify Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear from being nominated as a single work, which I promise you is going to happen.

    Best Text-Based Sequential Narrative Of More Than 40,000 Words (Plus Or Minus 5%) Written As A Discrete Unit?

    Although that lacks pith, if you ask me.

    You’re right that anthologies can have a single stand-out story; but I’d say a consistent run of award-nominated stories from multiple books by the same editor is a useful indicator. So Sheila Williams still should have won a Hugo by now, having edited 10 of the last 15 Hugo-wining pieces of short fiction. And for what it’s worth, in 2009 I thought Eclipse 3 better than Poe; Swords and Dark Magic is a 2010 book (and co-edited with Lou Anders, of course). However, I don’t know how I managed to think three nominees came from Strahan’s books, when it’s only two. Maybe I thought “The Pelican Bar” was in the mix, or something.

    On Best Graphic Whatever, I’m being an optimist and assuming that the quality of nominations will improve if there are clearer criteria.

  8. @Jonathan M – Regarding Datlow and Strahan, you seem to be cherry picking, skipping books Datlow had published in the eligible year (such as the latest installment in her highly successful YA series, the Nebula showcase and the Poe book) and talking about a book Strahan didn’t publish that year (the Sword and Sorcery).

  9. Chance, thanks for the defence. It’s pretty obvious Jonath M hasn’t read most (if any) of my recent anthologies.
    My “animal” anthology–did you mean The Beastly Bride, co -edited with Terri Windling? It’s hardly merely an “animal” anthology. No more than Lovecraft Unbound is an anthology of pastiches.

    I admit that I’m surprised but pleased to still be considered
    Hugo Editor material, as I haven’t published much sf since The Del Rey Book of SF& F. But maybe it’s making up for the 17 years I edited OMNI’s fiction and never got the nod. If so, I’ll take it. ;-)

  10. I have to admit that I kind of find the Hugos baffling. I think that the social aspect of the con community and the various web communities makes it suspect, at least as a measure of quality. More and more, though, I feel that my personal perspective on the field makes my comments less germane. The popular stuff seems to me to be going in the least interesting possible direction, and the rate of interesting short fiction barely justifies a single magazine and a few anthologies, rather than 8 or so of the former and a flood of the latter.

    So I suppose you can take that as you will. There are multiple fields: mine, which is drying up and might blow away, or Cory’s which is full to bursting because being socially/attentionally connected to Cory is more important than the quality of the work. There’s Niall’s field, which is somwhere between the two. Jonathan’s is, similarly to mine, colored by a particular aesthetic, and less generally applicable.

    Jonathan’s point in the comments over at Abigail’s is directly applicable to Ellen’s (somewhat unfair) comment. But the unfairness of that comment mostly stems from Ellen not reading Jonathan’s criticism, which is worthy if not always analytically spot-on, but which would explain why he is dismissive of Datlow’s recent output (aesthetic perspective, again). Anyway.

    This could lead to a broader post on the things we individually find valuable vs. some attempt at determining objective quality, but my thoughts there are somewhat unformed and honestly it’s a fucking useless conversation to have, most of the time. You can tell someone over and over that tastes differ, but people will still be offended if you don’t like something they like or something they’ve done. I am pretty sure that the emotional reaction is always going to win out over the rational one there.

  11. On reflection, my comment above contains an unfair dig at Cory. The good faith reading of his commentary is that these awards indicate the field as a whole is moving in a direction that he approves of. That I find that direction useless is my problem, not his, and ascribing social motives to his commentary is unfair of me. I apologize and retract that bit of the comment.

  12. Ellen — I certainly read Poe. I know I did because I remember you sicking your LJ friendlist on me when I gave it a tepid review for Strange Horizons.

    I also read Lovecraft Unbound and while a number of stories were not outright pastiches it’s still a collection of Lovecraft homages in a world where there’s quite a healthy market for Lovecraft homage collections. So it’s hardly incendiary stuff critically speaking.

    I also read and reviewed your Best Horror of the Year – volume 2, which I enjoyed quite a lot more than Poe and Lovecraft despite the overlap but at the end of the day, it’s a year’s best and there are a number of those floating about the place.

    As Evan points out, my criteria for what constitutes being the best short-fiction editor of the year involves the formulation of critically adroit collections. I think that he is better at this than you are.

    This is my opinion. The fact that I consider this an important aspect of what is involved in being a good editor of short fiction is also my opinion. If you don’t like this opinion then please feel free to sick your friend’s list on me again.

  13. Aha! Through Evan’s post I know have figured out who Jonathan M is.
    I know you read Poe because you said so, but I hadn’t realized you were its reviewer for SH. I hardly think that one person’s objection to your review in the comment section is siccing my lj friendslist on you –paranoid are we? :-)

  14. If one has a large friendslist composed largely of fans, I think it behooves one to refrain from encouraging them to bully critics.

    Mileages vary obviously…

    I do however apologise if my comments in any way offended or hurt your feelings as that was in no way my intention. I have enjoyed a number of your anthologies in the past and think you are a real boon to the horror genre.

  15. Hi all –

    Many thanks to all for their kind words about my work, and for some interesting thoughts on the Hugos. I have to admit that I was surprised and delighted with the actual voting results. While I would have loved to have won – I hope an understandable feeling – I was deeply flattered to be in the running and to have done so well. The Hugo voters have, over these past few years, been extraordinarily kind to me, and I’m very grateful to them for that.

    I would like to add something of a mild corrective, if I can, to some thoughts expressed on the work of the winner, my good friend and colleague Ellen Datlow. If the Hugos are for work done during the year of eligibility, Ellen had another strong year by anyone’s standards, and given that the Hugos are now for science fiction and fantasy, most of it was directly relevant to the award. In addition to her year’s best horror series, she edited an outstanding children’s fantasy anthology TROLL’S EYE VIEW, and LOVECRAFT UNBOUND, an excellent book of HPL-influenced fiction. I’m not sure if POE was 08 or 09, but it too contained some very fine work.

    I’d also echo the thoughts expressed here that Sheila Williams has been doing some terrific work at Asimov’s, as has Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF. I think the most pleasing thing for me, beyond the kind endorsement I felt I received from the Hugo voters this year, is the thought that we might get to repeat this next year in Reno.



  16. “If one has a large friendslist composed largely of fans, I think it behooves one to refrain from encouraging them to bully critics.”

    Jonathan, I could scarcely believe the savaging Ellen’s sycophantic minions unleashed upon you. But the upside is you’re on your way to establishing a modicum of street cred. Chicks dig scars, man.

  17. I bought Lovecraft Unbound thinking it was going to be a bunch of pastiches – I was in the mood for that – but it’s more interesting than that, stretched my reading more than I expected. I didn’t like all the stories, but it was a good selection of contemporary writing. Two or three of them I am carrying around in my brain now, turning them over.

  18. Thanks Laird :-) There was a point when I used to excel at coaxing pitchfork-wielding fans out of the woodwork but I had thought that those days were behind me.

    Alison — That is why I keep buying Ellen’s stuff.

    I know that while I may scratch my head at most of the stories in one of her collections, there will always be a couple that stay with me. I know that Laird’s “Strappado” from Poe had that effect on a lot of people and Langan’s “Technicolor” and Sheppard’s “Kirikh’Quru Krokundor” had such an effect upon me that I still mention them in conversation to people outside the genre.

    Ultimately, there are many ways of gaging the quality of a collection and thereby the skill of the person who put that collection together. Does elegant thematic grouping outweigh trees-for-forest story quality? does a collection of pretty good stories outweigh a collection with three jaw-dropping stories and seven mediocre ones? These are the questions that Hugo voters need to ask themselves and while I definitely have my own feelings, I’m pretty sure that there are no right answers.

  19. Peter: The latter doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – a lot of the time the best stuff is a story arc that doesn’t necessarily equate to a “graphic novel”.

    I think there is good stuff which is not being published as a graphic novel, and I can see why they tried to formulate the category as something wider, but in practice I think it’s turned out to be confusing as to what constitutes a story, and what’s actually getting nominated are graphic novels even if they don’t actually constitute a single story. Looking at this year’s stats, I think graphic story has the lowest number of nominating ballots of all categories, and while it might be utter disinterest on the part of the Hugo voters, I’d like to think that making it easier to work out what is eligible will raise the level of interest in this category.

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