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The Hugos are broken, science fiction is broken, everything is broken

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Last Sunday saw Hugo Awards handed out to several people for producing, or so the award would have us believe, the “best” of their category in the previous year. It’s complete nonsense, of course. The Hugos, despite half-hearted changes implemented over the years, are based on a model of fandom which hasn’t existed since the 1960s. What are “fan writers”? What are “fanzines”? Once, the profiles of these might have been high enough in the sf community for worldcon members to know what they are and vote intelligently on them. There’s a reason pro writers are winning the fan writer Hugo now – people know who they are. And despite having a World Wide Web for twenty years, the Hugos still have no idea how to deal with online content.

I’ve never understood why there are Hugos for best dramatic presentation. Television and movies have seperate fandoms and their own set of awards, genre or otherwise. I’ll concede that television show writers are more likely to value a Hugo win than a Hollywood director – but neither use the award in their marketing, or make any mention of it. Besides, the best dramatic presentation -short form award has turned into a best episode of Dr Who award. This year it went to Neil Gaiman for added squee.

The magazine Hugos are completely broken and have been for years. They’ve tried to patch it up, with their ever-mutating definition of semiprozine, but the whole award is based on a concept that hasn’t pertained since the early 1970s. There is no real market of pro genre magazines. There are a tiny handful of titles, with greatly shrunken circulations. But there is a thriving scene of non-pro magazines. Why should the Hugos exclude those venues that don’t pay for submissions? They might still publish excellent fiction. And then there’s the whole print vs online thing. But then, why should a magazine deserve an award? For publishing the best fiction? There are the three short fiction categories for that. To reward the editor for consistently picking the best fiction? There’s an editor – short form Hugo for that. For the magazine’s design? There are no Hugos for design.

Then there’s the short fiction categories. What is the point of the novelette? There’s the short story, and that’s pretty obvious. There’s the novel, likewise an obvious category. And something in between, longer than a short story but not as weighty as a novel: the novella. Back in the day, some novels were as short as novellas – the only distinction was that they were published as if they were novels, as separate paperbacks referred to in their marketing as novels. With the increasing growth in the ebook market, some of these distinctions are beginning to blur anyway. The category is at the discretion of the publisher or self-pubbed author – they’ll decide whether the $1.99 30,000-word story they’ve written is a novel or novella. And I see no reason to ignore their decision.

It doesn’t help that the Hugo Awards claim to be global yet are clearly only American. The worldcon, the membership of which nominates and votes on the awards, takes place in the US four out of every five years, and even when abroad the shortlists are often dominated by American works. Works published globally are eligible for the Hugo (now; it wasn’t always the case), but it means little as the voters are chiefly US-based. Online publication of short fiction has confused matters somewhat – so much so that the BSFA Awards, which are for works published in the UK, have given up insisting on British-only publication for their short fiction category. As for ebook-only publication…

This week also saw the publication of an excellent review of the annual best of science fiction anthologies in the LA Review of Books by Paul Kincaid. See here. Paul makes a number of interesting points, but the chief one is that the genre has become so inward-looking that it’s now more concerned with trope mining than it is with the real world. Sf has locked itself within its own toy box, and is happy to just play with the toys it finds there. The review led to an excellent discussion on Twitter, with Paul, Jonathan McCalmont, Rose Fox, Paul C Smith and myself (there may have been others – we didn’t hashtag the discussion and I’m having trouble finding the tweets).

From what I remember, the chief point made was that sf seems to have lost confidence in the future because it has lost confidence in the present. Certainly there’s very little to celebrate in the present – climate change, climate change denial, rampant neoliberalism, oligarchism, the increasingly anti-science bent of public discourse, etc. – but should we really be celebrating as the best that sf which refuses to acknowledge it? Science fiction has always had a place for escapism, thanks to its pulp origins, but to elevate such stories above those that actually comment on the real world is pure cowardice. But then look at what won the Hugo for best novel this year – Jo Walton’s Among Others, a book whose message appears to be “sf fans are special people”…

I don’t actually agree that sf has chiefly been a tool for commenting on the real world – there’s no way in hell you can fit EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s works into that – but some of the best works of the past were clearly more about the time they were written than they were about the time they were set. Such as Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. And not just the good ones either – cf Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. It’s often been said there’s a steep learning curve to science fiction, that it’s a difficult mode of fiction to begin reading. Being self-referential only makes it worse, far worse. When literary writers have a go at sf, their efforts often appear old-fashioned, because they’re working from first principles, they’re not basing their works on the genre’s past use of tropes. It also makes their books much more accessible to non-genre readers – Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Litt’s Journey into Space, James’ The Children of Men, Jensen’s The Rapture, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, etc.

One of the nicest things to appear in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains was the comment “while the story is science fiction it is written as if it were not” (see here). True, the novella is not about the future but about an alternate past, but it doesn’t make use of science fictional tropes per se. The Apollo programme was real (although my extension of it is invented, of course); the Bell is a well-known element of Nazi super-science mythology. I’ve positioned the novella as sf because I think of myself as a sf writer – or rather, someone who writes in a sf mode. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done.

In one respect, I’m as guilty as those writers on the Hugo shortlists in that I’m not inventing futures which are about the present. That’s because I’m fascinated by the technological achievements of the mid-twentieth century, so they’ve been appearing more often in my fiction. Not just the Apollo programme, but also the bathyscaphe Trieste‘s descent to Challenger Deep, Project Manhigh, the submersible Ben Franklin‘s 2300 kilometre underwater journey in 1969… Despite the Cold War and Mutually-Assured Destruction, the optimism of those times I find very striking. (See also my The future we used to have posts (snarky captions notwithstanding).) All that invention and engineering was going to make the world a better place. In the US, they believed they had the better toys and so would eventually defeat, or cow into submission, the Soviets. In the USSR, they believed they had the better political system and so would eventually subsume all other nations. Neither was proven correct. But the time and money and effort they spent improving their lot was phenomenal. Better living through engineering. We don’t do that anymore. And so our science fictions reflect that lack. Or rather, they should. Complain that sf is all escapism these days, and readers will respond, “what’s wrong with escapism?” Well, it doesn’t fix anything, for a start. That was one of sf’s characteristics in the past, that it posited thought experiments, that it could show the impact of something – good or bad – happening, that it could inspire people to do things.

Sf can use the past, or alternate versions of it, to discuss the present. Saying “we could have done this” is as valid as saying “why did we do that?”. And, at least, it has the benefit of being more realistic – the Bell, notwithstanding. True, readers would have to be of a certain age to remember the Apollo missions, but at least most people are aware of them and their achievements. (Though not everyone, as indicated by an astonishingly stupid Twitter exchange which did the rounds when Neil Armstrong’s death was announced.)

Sf seems to be not only ignoring the real world of people and politics and economics and society and such, but also the real world of science. It invents universes about which we can flit in a matter of moments. Perhaps it takes hours, weeks or months, but we can reach other stars and other worlds. Which are, of course, habitable – if not already inhabited. The real universe is not like that, of course. There is only one place in the entire universe where we will ever be at home, and we are there now. Even Low Earth Orbit, less than 200 kilometres straight up, is about the most benign environment for humans not on Earth, and we can’t survive there without technological assistance, and not for long even with it. Trips beyond LEO are technologically possible – we did it once, we have the engineering to do it again and go further – but they will never be safe or comfortable or timely. And when we get where we going, will it have been worth the trip?

This is not to say all sf is like this. It’s a wide field, with many books and many writers in it. Two novels this year, for example – Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 and Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth – have made a point of treating the universe realistically. Ken MacLeod’s recent novel, Intrusion, and Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids from a couple of years ago, made a real effort to engage with the world as it might be in the near-future. Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire and Gwyneth Jones’ Life did something similar. Adam Roberts uses the genre to satirically comment on the present. There are doubtless others…

But then I look at the award winners of recent years… A bloated paean to a theme-park vision of the Blitz… the infamous Mormon whale rape novella… a novella about a man who built a bridge which, for no apparent reason, is written as fantasy… a TV series based on a re-imagining of the War of the Roses…

Sf is broken, it refuses to acknowledge we’re in the twenty-first century – yes, I put my hand up, I’m guilty; but at least I write about the real twentieth century. And then I look around and see that not all science fiction is broken. But the non-broken sf… the various awards seem to be ignoring it.

So something is clearly broken somewhere.

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57 thoughts on “The Hugos are broken, science fiction is broken, everything is broken

  1. Not all SF ignores the fact we are living in the 21st century, and ignores the hand that we’re dealt. The sea change hasn’t come, Ian, but it will. We might be back in the early 1980’s, before Cyberpunk came upon the scene and upset the applecarts and shook up the genre in a fundamental way.

    • I agree not all sf ignores the 21st century, but I see no evidence of that sf in award shortlists. And if a sea change is due, it won’t happen by magic – then we need to talk about it and prompt it into happening.

      • I don’t think we can bootstrap it, though. Its something that is going to organically come, or not. You can’t mandate a paradigm shift.

        I’ve been thinking about your column while exercising, and need to develop my thoughts on this at longer length.

        • # I don’t think we can bootstrap it, though. Its something
          # that is going to organically come, or not. You can’t
          # mandate a paradigm shift.

          I actually think we can. I’m not sure we’re looking for a paradigm shift. The thing is that different people want different things from SF, but we lump everything together into one basic genre, so no-one gets what they want. If you want to see more of a particular type of thing, you should set up markets and prizes to encourage it. We should follow a model more like in music, where everyone is doing something different rather than all fighting over the same platform.

  2. Credit where credit is due, matey, for getting out on that limb and then sticking yer neck further out! Didn’t bring my saw but I do have a bone to pick – you seem to be saying that SF which does not deal with real-world issues in a contemporary, semi-realist manner is essentially worthless. So…what about dealing with these pressing issues via metaphor which, after all, is one of the narrative strengths of the field. Doncha think?

    from Mike Cobley

    • You mean like refighting WWII, but with aliens? Or, to make it contemporary, the invasion of Iraq? Except I don’t see any metaphorical treatments of US military adventurism in sf.

  3. Credit where credit is due, matey, for getting out on that limb and then sticking yer neck further out! Didn’t bring my saw but I do have a bone to pick – you seem to be saying that SF which does not deal with real-world issues in a contemporary, semi-realist manner is essentially worthless. So…what about dealing with these pressing issues via metaphor which, after all, is one of the narrative strengths of the field. Doncha think?

  4. sorry, double post, damn, gaaaah….

  5. You may be right about actual award winners but I’ve been reading some SF about dystopian futures that can challenge the thinky reader. Pure by Julianna Baggott, Divergent by Veronica Roth, Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi… after the novels you’ve already named, I admit I’m stuck. There seems to be a fair bit of science fantasy – like Doctor Who – but not a lot of real science fiction. There’s a HUGE amount of fantasy; I freely admit I’m partial to Tyrion in the ‘War of the Roses’, especially the second *book* (not so much season 2 of the TV series). I think politics, ethics and philosophy can be explored intelligently in fantasy with equal validity to SF pondering possible futures, although publishers seem to be veering away from the thinky into banal escapism, believing that way lyeth *commercial* success. Thus the gems stand out, sparkling brilliantly when we find them.

    • But dystopian sf doesn’t require much thought and is just as much an abdication from considering the real world as something like space opera. The Wind Up Girl is also indicative of the awards being broken – a book that did so well but is clearly problematically racist and sexist.

      • #But dystopian sf doesn’t require much thought and is
        # just as much an abdication from considering the real
        # world as something like space opera.

        I don’t agree. Good dystopian and space opera is just as difficult and requires just as much thought as good anything else. Lazy dystopia doesn’t require much thought, but neither does lazy consideration of the ‘real world’.

  6. Isn’t this what ‘New Weird/Space Opera’ were arguing and, more importantly, originally doing before being absorbed. Engaging with the real world and writing fiction, not just genre. It does pop its head up occasionally but not for long enough.

    • Was it? I thought New Weird was more of an aesthetic. And while New Space Opera certainly made an attempt to be more realistic, I don’t think it made much of an attempt to reflect the time it was written. I say that admitting the Take Back Plenty is one of my favourite novels and yet is all about repurposing old sf tropes…

  7. ‘Should we really be celebrating as the best that sf which refuses to acknowledge the problems of the present?’ Maybe current mainstream SF reflects the present completely accurately, which is also all about refusing to acknowledge these problems.

  8. “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and Science Fiction has lost its way.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

  9. While I would agree that the awards process is a joke and many SF writers still fall short in terms of their aesthetic maturity and creative skill set, I would argue that the genre is in better shape now than, well, ever. Finally leaving the ghost of the “Golden Age” behind, the cold icy grip of hacks like Asimov, Heinlein et al relenting, a new generation of writers (including a chap named Ian Sales) taking the field in different directions, not content to re-imagine the same, tired tropes and formulas.

    SF isn’t merely a “genre of ideas” (sorry, fans), and in an era where we seem to be fast over-taking the future, we need authors who can credibly explore the effects technology will have on our ethics, our spirituality, our day to day reality. Whether a year from now or in some far future, humanity will find itself under siege, struggling to sustain and surpass itself, hampered and sabotaged by our flaws, a species destined to change the universe…or fated to be devoured by our own hubris. Which will it be?

    An informed, well-argued presentation of your views. As always. Clever bugger.

    P.S. “New Weird” wasn’t an interesting new tributary of the fantastic, it was a marketing ploy drummed up by authors who couldn’t resist the temptations of their imagination and spent more hours on world-building and needless exposition than they did on character development and plot.

    • Sf is certainly better written now than it was, but that seems to have come at the expense of increased navel-gazing. Peole are using more sophisticated sf tools to tell stories that aren’t very interesting, and it’s as if the added layers of referentiality are seen as sufficient antidote to that.

      • It’s not the authors who are navel gazing… it’s the publishers who are not willing to take a risk with something new… I ought to know, especially with the stories I’m sitting on and not being bale to get published… the ones I do get published are rather bland in comparison… talking of which must get on with another one…

    • Bollocks to you, curmudgeon. New Weird wasn’t anything of the sort. Might as well say the same of the New Wave.

  10. Never mind the damn Hugos being broken! I still can’t buy an eBook of Rocket Science! Now **that’s** being broken! 😉

  11. The question is when were the Hugo awards ever not broken by this definition. When did the vast majority of SF ever did not pander to the past, by retelling the frontier stories of the west, by looking back at the robber barons of the 20’s, by retelling the wars of the great generation, etc etc. When has the genre not been full of magic technology and wishful thinking? When was genre not characterized by ignoring the biggest issues that actually face society and humanity?

    I would assume the works that actually comment on the present directly, and look at the way forward have always been an exception, not the rule.

  12. For what it’s worth I thought “Adrift on the Sea of Rains” was certainly SF. “SF as it might have been” even.

    • If ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’ wasn’t SF, what the hell would it be? Cross-dimensional Lunar Realism, perhaps?

      It was SF. Anyone saying otherwise is one of those literary types sniffing around the genre to see if any of the good stuff isn’t properly tied down!

  13. Yeah, that is interesting. There are so many self proclaimed GEEKS who get excited about science fiction but don’t seem to know squat about science and don’t care. And then there are the literary types who will tell you that Isaac Asimov could not write. Maybe the writing in Hyperion is better than Foundation, but I think Hyperion is horror /fantasy not science fiction.

    The very first use of the term “science-fiction” in 1851 was about using the literature to encourage the understanding of science. That is what Hugo Gernsback was talking about 80 years ago. What can you learn about science from Star Wars? It is barely better than Harry Potter and that won a Hugo.

    Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold is a real science fiction story. But do a survey of reviews about it on the Web. Who says anything about the science in the story. Bujold’s father was an engineer. She knows how to “think” science. William Gibson does not. Ian Banks is not to impressive either. Bujold’s fictional science killed people because their theory was wrong. It was rather like Godwin’s Cold Equations. Well guess what? Global Warming does not give a damn about the human race. Henry Ford gave us replicator technology but the Laws of Physics do not change style. So why have we kept redesigning cars since World War II. How mauch have Americans lost on the depreciation of automobiles since the Moon landing?

    Read “Door into Summer” by Heinlein. See what he says about the automobile industry in the year 2000. LOL

    But now we have the Irony of Curiosity. They find the Higgs Boson and do a robotic landing of a rover on Mars. But those scientists can’t ask about how steel and concrete must be distributed in a skyscraper so it can hold itself up.

  14. What do you think of the novelette (sorry!) “Anise,” by Chris DeVito? It was published in F&SF, Sept./Oct. 2011, and is now posted online at the BestSF website.

  15. Pingback: The Hugos are broken, science fiction is broken, everything is broken (via @ian_sales) | Literarium – The Blog

  16. *Shrug*

    I really felt that Mira Grant deserved hers for the Newsflesh series. I thought it was incredibly well done and is excellent Science Fiction.

  17. “Complain that sf is all escapism these days, and readers will respond, ‘what’s wrong with escapism?’ Well, it doesn’t fix anything, for a start.”

    What examples of ‘serious’ sf would you cite as works which *have* “fixed” something, or contributed significantly to the “fixing” of something?

    I appreciate the desire for something more than “mere” escapism in our entertainment, but storytelling is storytelling, and actual hard work to help specific real people is something else. Aspiring to actually change the world for the better through a single work, or even a body of work, seems like it might be setting the bar unrealistically high.

    • There are plenty of scientists and engineers – and even a Nobel laureate economist – who claim to have chosen, or been inspired in, their careers by science fiction. And certainly words and ideas have entered public discourse and common knowledge from sf. True, no sf novel has proposed a solution to some problem, which someone has then gone out and implemented… but it is a mode of fiction.

      I also hate the term “storytelling”. I read fiction produced by writers. These are people who have thought about the words they’ve chosen, the sentences they’ve written, all the elements which go together to produce fiction. They are not Kevin J Bloody Anderson.

      • “There are plenty of scientists and engineers … who claim to have chosen, or been inspired in, their careers by science fiction. And certainly words and ideas have entered public discourse and common knowledge from sf.”

        Of course, but how much of that inspiration and discourse-expansion came from stuff that neither audience nor creators thought of as anything but “escapist” at the time? E.E. “Doc” Smith probably can claim as much or more real-life inspirational credit as any more ‘serious’ creator, and it doesn’t make his stuff less pulpy.

        And attempting to evaluate a work’s award-worthiness on the sincerity, or efficacy, of its attempt to “fix” something seems not only much too dependent on something nobody can predict successfully, but also much too dependent on the highly specific social agenda of a particular time, place or community — on agreeing what needs to be “fixed” and how. Dickens and Shakespeare are classic cultural influences not because of what they wrote for the politics of their day, but because of what they wrote that went beyond those politics.

        I appreciate social relevance as much as the next fan, but I don’t know that art has to include a practical manifesto in order to be great art.

  18. You and the friends you had the twitter conversation with should start a new award based on the ideas outlined here.

    • The BSFA Award generally picks better shortlists, though it’s not perfect. But at least it makes no pretence to be other than a club award. The Arthur C Clarke Award is another good one. Likewise the Kitschies.

    • That’s my idea too. We need awards to specifically encourage types of writing, like Hard SF or Humorous SF. Catch-all awards please no one.

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  25. Good pieces, and it neatly voices why I have largely given up on reading and buying current SF. I let my subscriptions to Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF lapse because there were too many “literary” space opera pieces, too many “SF” stories that were really fantasy tales. It also may explain why I haven’t had much luck in selling to these markets, since I write what I read — the “hard” SF, the near-future stuff. Think Heinlein, or Allen Steele.

    SF as a field has, I think, become too embarassed of its pulp roots, the Golden Age stories that had that sense of wonder. It’s now too literary, too cynically hip. SF has always,for me, been about showing what the future can be like when you grow up — jetpacks, flying cars, etc. But it now seems bent on recycling “Star Wars” and adapting Tolkien to a science fictioney setting.

    Give me “Rocket Science” any day!

    • Personally, Sam, I’d rather whack off my thumbs with a cleaver than compare my work to Heinlein’s. It’s all right to take a poke at “literary” SF but the genre only grew up when it caught a ride on the New Wave in the 60’s and left its juvenile roots behind. Heinlein, as an idea man, had his merits; as a writer, the only nice thing I can say about him was that he was an improvement on Asimov, maybe the most tone deaf scribbler ever to (somehow) gain major status.

      Have you read any of those “Golden Age” novels you loved as a kid recently? I think you’d wince at how sophomoric and silly many of them are. Sentiment and nostalgia sometimes cloud our judgement–to my mind, these days any book by Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan, Iain Banks or Ken Macleod has more “sensawunda” than all the Golden Agers put together. The genre still has its problems (over-writing, info dumping, hopeless padding) but I still believe it’s in the best shape ever.

      Long live the new kings and queens of SF!

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