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An honest vote is a wasted vote

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It’s Hugo season once again. We’ve had the nominations and now we’re waiting for the shortlists to be revealed (which they will be on 26 April). This year, apparently, the award received over 4,000 nominating ballots, almost double last year’s 2,122 ballots (which was the highest number that had been seen since the award began in 1955). Of course, the big question is, how successful have the puppies been this year? They did well last year because the actual number of nominations needed to get a work onto a shortlist is surprisingly low. The short story category in 2015, for example, had 1,174 ballots spread across 728 works, and those on the shortlist received only between 132 and 230 nominations…

None of this should come as a surprise. The field is now far, far larger than it was when the award was created. There are so many novels and short fiction works being published in any one year it’s impossible to keep up. The Hugo awards claim to be for the “best” works, but voters can only nominate the best amongst those works they’ve actually read. And, of course, the term “best” has as many definitions as there are voters…

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Since I’m a member of next year’s Worldcon (in Helsinki), I was eligible to nominate works for this year’s Hugo Award. I didn’t, however. When the works I consider the best published in 2015, that I’d read, are likely to get no more than a dozen votes, there’s not much point in nominating. And I can be fairly sure of that as I nominated them for the BSFA Award, which has a much smaller pool of voters, and they didn’t make it onto the shortlists. But then, I know my tastes in genre fiction are out of step with most of the Hugo electorate’s – for example, while Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer I admire and whose novels I enjoy, I thought Aurora a weak book… but I appear to be in a minority on that. As for the authors who regularly make it onto Hugo shortlists (seriously, wtf? Redshirts was a better novel than 2312?).

Assuming most voters have only read a small portion of the eligible works, and that portion is likely different for everyone, then lots of works will get only a handful of votes each (this is more the case with short fiction categories rather than novels, of course). Which does sort of render the whole award pointless.

Assume instead that people vote for works not simply because – perhaps not even because – it was the work they thought best of those published in the preceding year. Perhaps they vote for a work because:

  • people they trust have told them the work is award-worthy
  • they’ve liked other things written by the person, if not this particular work
  • they like the writer (or their blog, etc)
  • they think the writer deserves an award (for any number of reasons)
  • the writer is a friend
  • the writer has helped them in their own writing career

Perhaps I’m being unfair, perhaps people really do vote for the story or book they think the best of the year (seriously, wtf? Redshirts was a better novel than 2312?). But I think people vote tactically, either consciously or unconsciously. If they’re part of a writer’s informal support network or fandom, then they’ll likely vote for that writer. If they hear lots of buzz about a particular work, they might well vote for that if they’re short on their ballot.

The Hugo Award is a popular vote award, it rewards popularity. It does not reward quality. Most voters probably don’t consciously vote tactically. Not unless they’re puppies. By definition, the puppy campaigns are overt tactical voting campaigns. And there’s not much difference between them and writers who mobilise their fanbases by writing eligiblity posts. It’s worth noting that John Scalzi has had to categorically state that he does not want to be considered eligible for a Hugo this year. When a writer has to do that, then you know your award is fucked.

I guess we’ll find out next week just what the future holds in store for the Hugo Award. It’s been useless as an indicator of quality for genre novels, or even as a barometer of the current state of the genre, for decades. On the other hand, there has never been so many people nominating for the award before. How many of those 4,000 are puppies? Or are they fans who have mobilised in order to combat the puppies? While it’s certainly true that the puppies have opened up the award such that the taste of the electorate has widened (the narrowness resulting from the success of the rabid puppies last year notwithstanding), having a couple of thousand new voters parachute in to  “save” the award from them is hardly going to shift the Hugo from the same old pool of favourites and writers du jour.

There is only one role in which the Hugo is still useful: it is a very public magnet for all the bad practices in which eligible nominees, their fanbases, or voting blocs might indulge. Similar stuff happens in local awards, of course – just look at the list of winners of any random provincial US sf award – but no one cares. They’re like those awards web sites invent so they can promote someone or other (who might have well paid for the privilege). Certainly the Hugo Award is run as fairly as a popular vote award can be run. Which doesn’t mean it’s not open to abuse. As was proven last year by the rabid puppies. But the infrastructure is not corrupt, and if the award results in any one year appear corrupt, it’s because the system is open to gaming… and, perversely, preventing that might well make the award more open to corruption.

I gave this piece a contentious title, but I have to wonder if it’s the only way voters can approach popular vote awards in the twenty-first century. If one of the great truths of our time is that the internet has allowed people to openly display their stupidity, it has also given “tribes” and “special interest groups” much more power in the domains in which they operate. The Hugo Award is a good example of this. It claims to be a world award, but has always been awarded by an electorate that is predominantly US-based, and the works it considers have been almost entirely published only in the US (eligibility rules for non-US works notwithstanding). Prior to the invention of the Web, its claim to world relevance was little more than a vainglorious boast, but since the award was chiefly limited to its country of origin it didn’t matter so much. Now its reach truly is global… yet it remains resolutely parochial in terms of the works and people it rewards. True, the Hugo electorate is self-selecting inasmuch as it costs money to vote (you have to buy a supporting or attending membership in the Worldcon, which gives you three years of eligibility), which at least means there’s nothing in the rules limiting votes to US residents… But that’s also a weakness, in that groups can “buy” votes. There’s an online “best science fiction list” somewhere in which several of L Ron Hubbard’s novels appear in the top ten – clearly the work of cultists, since Hubbard was a shit writer (and not even a very good inventor of religions). Even for a popular vote list, that’s pretty obvious vote-fixing.

I’m not going to make a call on what I expect to see in this year’s Hugo shortlists. I know which works I would have nominated, and I’ll be very surprised if any of them appear. I’m not even convinced Aurora. which I wouldn’t have nominated anyway, will make the grade. However, the one thing I can say with certainty about the Hugo Award is that it won’t bring to my attention works I had missed and would likely enjoy – something I’m happy to say the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Kitschies do quite successfully…

 

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27 thoughts on “An honest vote is a wasted vote

  1. Youre hard on Aurora – I loved it, but Id read anything from Robinson. Other than that Adam Robert’s ‘the thing itself’ was probably my top ranking read from last year, though Matthew De Abaitua’s ‘If Then’ deserves a mention – its the weakest of the Monad series so far, but he’s due some kudos, if only for his convincing facsimile of a 21st century Ballard.

    I have no idea what the nominations are like, but I assume Seveneves will get look in. Claire North’s ‘Touch’ should probably get a mention too.

    • You might be right about the Stephenson. I don’t think Noirth has much traction among US fans, so I’d be surprised if she makes the shortlist. Becky Chambers might make it, though.

      • Norths “First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” was a much better book than Touch. It won the Campbell and was nominated for a Clark, and even if the Puppy blocs hadn’t participated last year, it still would not have made the top 10 in the Hugos…and I wholeheartedly agree with you on the Redshirts vs. 2312…

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  3. Hell yeah Redshirts was better than 2312! Humour is hard, and the best humour appears effortless, which generally makes people undervalue it. Not me! Not only did the humour of Redshirts appear fairly effortless, but the codas tied it all together and made it clear how deep some of the themes that were glossed over for humour in the main story really were. KSR, on the other hand, doesn’t do much for me. His ideas are interesting, but I find his style grating, and it’s about 50/50 whether I’ll even be able to finish one of his novels. I thought Redshirts was an excellent work, and anyone who thinks 2312 was better is an incompetent, shallow reader, in my arrogant* opinion.

    But, of course, that’s the point. It’s my opinion, and opinions are like…some body part** or other. Pretty much everyone has got one, and what comes out can be something that other people find unpleasant… 🙂

    An interesting essay nonetheless, and I think some of the factors you discuss are well worth discussing. But the fact that you felt you had to snark at Redshirts suggests that you may not have fully examined your own prejudices in this matter.

    * I had a humble opinion once, but it died penniless.
    ** A part which modesty—and the law—forbids me from putting on display, unlike my opinions. 🙂

    • How you respond to a book is purely subjective. That’s liking a book. It doesn’t make it a good book, and it doesn’t make a book you don’t like a bad book. Most people seem to think that liking something is an indicator of its quality. It’s not. Or popular things really would always be the highest quality things. However, they’re certainly free to choose books to nominate for awards on that basis.

      And the thing about opinions is… they’re not all equal. Some people know more about a subject, or are expert in it thanks to study and experience, and so their judgement on that topic is worth more than some random peron on the internet. I’m not claiming I’m an expert on science fiction, although I’ve written award-winning sf and have been reviewing genre books for 20+ years – but I’ve no formal training in criticism, and I don’t think of myself as a critic. You’re free to disgaree with my call on the two books, of course – as you have done. But by any writing metric, KSR is much the better author..

      • I’ve probably been writing longer than you have. Technical writing, but it’s still a skill. I think I know something about competence in writing and about writing metrics, and no, it is not true that KSR is better “by any metric”. That’s utter nonsense. Both Scalzi and KSR are decent writers by most metrics. By the metrics I use on a daily basis, I’d put them about on a par. But when it comes to engaging the reader (which may or may not be an actual metric, since it’s so subjective), I’d put Scalzi far ahead.

        • Um, if you’re comparing technical writing and fiction writing, you’re doing it wrong…

        • Here’s an interesting metric…

          Nebula Award (voted for by writers and editors): KSR 12 nominations, 3 wins; Scalzi 1 nomination

          Clarke Award (juried): KSR 6 nominations 0 wins; Scalzi 0 nominations

          Tiptree Award (juried): KSR 4 nominations 0 wins; Scalzi 0 nominations

    • Redshirts is supposed to be humorous? Really?
      From my review:-
      The main characters are barely worthy of the name, being more or less indistinguishable. Moreover we are treated to various mundanities of their lives normally omitted in fiction. Yes, they are supposed to be walk-on parts in a different narrative, a bad Science Fiction TV series from our time, and hence might be expected not to be fully fleshed – but they are the main characters in ours and doesn’t the reader always deserves more? Dialogue is rendered as “Dahl said,” “Duvall said,” “Hester said” etc making it feel like a shopping list. In addition the prose rarely rises above the leaden and workmanlike.
      While the codas’ styles are disparate, and thus a welcome relief, the last still has dialogue framed like a shopping list. Crucially though, the characters in them feel real.
      In the main narrative Scalzi shows he can do bad writing very well. (Now there’s a back-handed compliment.) If you don’t know what’s to come in the codas, though; if you’re not, say, reading Redshirts for review, that could be a fairly large hurdle to overcome.

      • Ah yes, the all-importance of character development in humour. That’s why nobody likes Douglas Adams* or Monty Python! Sheesh!

        Bottom line, Redshirts made me laugh. Quite a bit. And I don’t think I’m a particularly naive reader; I grew up in a literary family, have a solid grounding in the classics, am a voracious reader, and have been an SF fan since before I hit puberty, which was many decades ago. It didn’t work for you. That’s ok. I think humour is more subjective than most forms of entertainment. But it worked for me, and for a lot of other people as well. It might not have been my personal choice for the best book of the year, but I’d definitely rank it above 2312. (Which is part of my complaint about Mr. Sales’ comparison—2312 wouldn’t even have appeared on the shortlist if I’d been in charge, while Redshirts might have.)

        * Although, to be fair, my mother, who worked as an editor and agent, and occasionally wrote SF, dismissed Adams as “a string of non-sequiturs masquerading as humour”. But I think she was a bit of a minority opinion.

        • Yes. Character development is critically important in humour as it is elsewhere. Douglas Adams did it very well, taking Arthur Dent from a hapless no-one in the first book to a seasoned space traveller who is able to convincingly get the girl in the fourth. The longest-running, best SF comedy series like Red Dwarf and Futurama feature significant character growth and change as they go on. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books simply would not work without the character growth that people like Vimes and Granny Weatherwax go through. You can have an amusing SF or fantasy comedy book about characters who don’t evolve or grow, but it’d be pretty flat and forgettable.

        • xtifr,
          Yes humour is subjective. Yet the best is funny no matter what.
          Perhaps my problem with Redshirts was I didn’t think the source material (1960s/80s/90s TV SF) was a target worth satirising; Though I did enjoy the film spoof Galaxy Quest. Prose, however, is a different beast.
          I notice that the humour aspect is what you singled out from my comment.
          But what about the leaden and workmanlike prose? The shopping list dialogue?
          Bottom line. Redshirts made me unlikely to read another word by Mr Scalzi ever again.

  4. SF is going through some very hard times. I just watched some lectures organized 4 years ago by the U of Hamburg using mostly American “scholars” and I was stunned. I was stunned by how hopelessly ideologically compromised they were and the sheer lack of brainpower and knowledge of the history of their own genre. When art and entertainment get pushed down the list in favor of “Afrofuturism,” “feminism,” “diversity” and “global voices” from “marginalized groups,” then that is exactly what you’ll get – failure. There is no better way to chase away young talent than to tell them it doesn’t really matter. Not only are you not valued, but who would you be writing for anyway? When virtually every nominee except for novels are free, that is subsidizing an ideological loss-leader, not creating excitement. They can’t even give this stuff away.

    • There’s a false dichotomy there I think. It isn’t a question of art/entertainment OR afrofuturism (etc) but of AND. Failure comes not from reaching out beyond existing parameters, but from refusing to widen the resource pool, leading to stagnation.
      For me it is neither art nor entertainment in the same stories told the same way.

      • Astounding alone produced 5 or 6 classics or near classics per year 1939-49. I see nothing to match that today. So which is stagnation? What has Spain, Brazil or S. Arabia ever done for the last century of SFF? The easy answer is the same they’ve done for Delta blues – nothing. People are willing to turn some cultural expressions into an UNESCO World Heritage Site and treat others like some generic brushed chrome anyone can do. It depends on the culture. I don’t see anyone clamoring for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to diversify its stagnant traditions. Gee, wonder why that is?

        • I’m not calling on the New Orleans Jazz & HERITAGE Festival to embrace diversity, because a) it already is diverse, and b) calling for SF to be diverse is equivalent to a call for Jazz as a whole to progress, not merely a HERITAGE festival. Your comparison misses the point.
          I’d personally disagree that there’s nothing to match those Astounding classics anymore, given so many markets it is hard to see everything, perhaps you’re looking in different places? And tell me, do you want SF in 2016 to be what it was 75 years ago? Do you want your TV or Car or computer to be what it was back then too?

          And whilst off the top of my head highly influential SF writers from Brazil, Spain or Saudi Arabia don’t leap out, I can state with confidence that without for example the Argentine, Borges, a few Russians (Bulgakov for one),.Poles (Conrad, Lem), and Japanese (novelists and manga creators) SF would be very different.

          • Well, then list 50 to 60 stories from the last 10 years people will remember 65-75 years from now. As for the people you mention, they made it on merit. Akira excited people, it wasn’t dragged in because of diversity. I disagree SF would be different without them. By intersectional standards – which is what I’m being sarcastic about – Jazz Fest doesn’t meet racial diversity standards insisted upon elsewhere. That hypocrisy is the point. These folks would never dare run over to Memphis or Cairo and demand they diversify. They’d be laughed at. For some reason, in SFF, they’re listened to. Talent has been minimalized, people are bored and now they want more affirmative action. It is a self-defeating cycle. What works is what works, now or 85 years ago. It’s about the story-telling. But, if you resent the demographic what works comes from, that’s a problem, isn’t it?

            • What will be remembered in 75 years time? I haven’t a clue. I know that what was once popular isn’t always popular, or good. The most popular poet in Regency London apart from Byron, outselling everyone else by a fair distance, is unheard of 200 years later. In the mid to late 18th century nobody cared about a minor playwright from Stratford upon Avon.
              In my teens there were writers I loved that I find unreadable today, there are works I enjoyed for storytelling that on rereading are clumsy. I have evolved as a reader, those stories are preserved. I have no desire to read a new work doing what a writer did in 1946, I want a writer doing something genuinely new. Which means looking further afield.
              So why would you, as a science fiction reader, not want new ideas, new cultural input, new perspective? If 90% of everything is crap, 10% is great, so widen the pool, 10% of a big pool is more choice than 10% of a stale puddle.

    • There’s a real stink of dogs**t around here all of a sudden….

  5. I’m still annoyed with myself for not publicly calling out Redshirts as the Hugo winner before the shortlist was announced taht year. I knew it was going to win.
    It was a shoe-in because Scakzi had just MCed two Hugo Award ceremonies, and having followed the Hugos for a few years there was no doubt that would be rewarded.

    Ironically, the Puppyes and those that oppose them may have made it impossible in th efuture to use the Hugo Arwards as a reward for sevices to Worldcon. -Unless the SMOFs band together and all vote the same ticket that is.

  6. Redshirts was diverting enough, its true, funny at times, but despite the meta-twists it was still pretty throwaway. Scalzi, at his best is reminiscent of Joe Halderman, efficient, action propelled stories told with a raised eyebrow and causal, wry manner.

    Robinson on the other hand… I think he may be the greatest living American sci-fi author. There’s something really beautiful about his tone, the ease with which he slips incredibly complex ideas and concepts into his narratives without sacrificing tension or compromising the emotional core, the strongly beating heart – of his stories. The final chapter in Aurora is a perfect example of his understatement of the sublime (SPOILER ALERT). A brilliant expression of a simple joy of a day at the beach, the waves, the sand… I cant think of another sci-fi author who would even think of going there, much less pulling it off.

  7. Nominees: http://midamericon2.org/home/hugo-awards-and-wsfs/2016-hugo-finalists/

    Disappointed, but what’s new. Based on that list, it has to be Stephenson. The Ancillary sequels were awful.

    • The only real vote would be for Jemisin, as she’s the only one that actual fans voted onto the shortlist. As for Stephenson, I went off his books after trying to read the godawful Baroque Cycle.

      • Well that’s not entirely true – Stephenson may have been on the puppies slate, but that doesn’t mean that actual fans didnt vote for him – same goes for Leckie. I would have thought any year when a Stephenson book is published would be a likely year for his nomination.

        The Baroque cycle was an ambitious, unholy mess but had its moments. Anathem gets a lot of flak, but it was probably my favourite sci-fi/fantasy book of ’08 – worth a read Id say. Reamde was more action/techno-thriller than anything else, but I think Seveneves is definitely worthy enough to win this year – though I still think it should be Aurora!

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