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An honest vote is a wasted vote

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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