The Hugos Are Broken And I Don't Know How To Fix It


The Hugo Awards are awards open to any science-fiction or fantasy1 story published in English the previous year. Nominees are selected, and winners are chosen, by the SF/F fan community at large. Anyone who signs up for a Worldcon “supporting membership” ($45 or so, as of last year) can nominate works for a Hugo award and vote from the list of nominees to determine who wins a Hugo award. Most other speculative fiction awards are nominated and chosen by professionals in the SF/F publishing industry2.

What makes the Hugo awards unique is that they are chosen by what we might call “the speculative fiction fandom”.

As of 2015, this is also the problem with the Hugo awards.

The Nomination System

The strength of the Hugos, and its current weakness, is that almost anyone from almost anywhere can be a Hugo voter. If you can pay the membership fee, and you can mail in or electronically submit your nominations or your ballot, you’re a voter. Your vote counts just as much as a professional speculative fiction editor’s. If your neighbor Joe down the street signs up for a membership, your vote counts just as much as Joe’s, even if Joe is the sort of person who thinks 7 AM on a Saturday is a perfectly reasonable time to start trimming his overgrown sycamore tree with a chainsaw.

To nominate something, you just have to send in a list of up to 5 works in each category that you think are deserving of a Hugo award.

Nominating In Good Faith Is Really, Really Hard

If you want to nominate five works in each category, and you want to do so in good faith, you have to be sure - really sure - that those are the best five works in that category. You wouldn’t want to nominate a full slate, have that slate win, and then learn that one of your nominees had kept out an even better work in that category. If you were nominating in good faith, you’d feel pretty terrible about that.

Even if you’re not nominating a full slate, if you’re creating a nomination list out of a desire to see people vote on really good stories, you want to be pretty sure the work you’re nominating is one of the best this year. I’d feel pretty bad if I nominated A Story About A Place3, got A Story About A Place on the ballot, and then read an even better work that didn’t get onto the ballot when A Story About A Place did.

The problem is that there is a whole lot of speculative fiction published every year. This is usually a very good thing, because it means there’s a whole lot of good new stories to read every single year. But it takes loads and loads of time to read all those stories critically and pick a few that you think are the very best ones this year.

I voted in the Hugos in 2013 and 2014. I voted only in the Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story categories. Reading all five works in those four categories, and reading them critically, and re-reading them, and trying to determine which one had the most literary merit, took about 200 hours. And I was only reading five works in each category. If I had to pick a work or five from every work of speculative fiction published that year, that would have easily been a full-time job.

Because picking a good-faith slate of nominees is extremely time-consuming, the number of people voting to nominate works for a Hugo award is very small. That’s a lot of work, and it’s perfectly reasonable to say that you don’t have the amount of time that it takes to make a good decision about which works are the best, out of the space of everything published in an entire year.

Nominating In Bad Faith Is Really, Really Easy

Alternately, you can just submit someone else’s slate, which takes about 20 minutes.

This Header Is For Those Using Ctrl-F To Search For “Puppies”

For the 2015 Hugos, a group of people determined that certain works were underrepresented among Hugo nominees and Hugo winners. They voted, en masse, to nominate a particular slate of works. That slate of works basically swept the nomination process.

They had tried this previously in 2014, with poor results,4 but 2015 showed a much stronger turnout for the Nominate By Submitting Someone Else’s Slate team.

By the Numbers

The Hugo Awards website has records of how many nominating ballots were received for each category in 2015 and 2014. I’ve broken those down by year, kind of work, and number of nominating ballots:

2014 2015
Short story 865 1174
Novelette 728 1031
Novella 847 1083
Novel 1595 1827

The website doesn’t have figures broken down by type of work for earlier years. For context, here is the total number of nominating ballots across all types of works for 2011–2015:

year # of nominating ballots
2011 1006
2012 1101
2013 1343
2014 1889
2015 2122

It’s worth noting that as recently as 2013, in the Short Story category, there were only 3 nominees because of the requirement that a nominee be on at least 5% of the nominating ballots. This definitely didn’t happen in 2015.

The 2015 Hugo Awards

Hugo voting is open to anyone who pays the fee and submits a ballot.

This year, there were nearly six thousand of those people. They voted for No Award in five categories. This doubles the number of times that No Award has ever been awarded in the entire history of the Hugo Awards.

What Is The Point Of Having An Award If You’re Not Going To Give It To Anyone?

You know what? I agree completely.

But the Hugos have to have a nomination process. Otherwise, WorldCon members (those voting in good faith, anyway) would have to read every work published in a single year in order to vote for a Hugo Award winner. This isn’t really feasible. This is why the nomination process exists. People who have the time and interest in doing so can read truly astounding numbers of stories, and pick a few that they think are probably the best this year. Then, us regular folks can read from their selected list and choose which ones are truly the cream of the crop.

Until someone games the voting system and nominates a bunch of garbage. Then, a reasonable person would have to conclude that if this is the best that the entire corpus of all speculative fiction published in 2015 has to offer, then no one deserves this award.5

This Is Not Actually Fixable

You can’t make a perfect voting system. If people have three or more choices when voting, there will always be a flaw in the voting system.

And in some cases, the flaw is that a group of people can nominate a slate of really, incredibly mediocre speculative fiction as “the best that the genre has to offer”.

Perhaps the voting blocs will earn us a few years of “No Award” Hugo Awards, and then silently disappear into the background. Or perhaps the voting blocs will keep nominating sub-par speculative fiction forever, and the Hugo Awards will keep voting “No Award” forever. Or perhaps the voting blocs will doom us to voting-bloc based, political-party-type Hugo Awards voting.

Either of the latter two would doom us to “a battle of ideologies rather than a referendum on the quality of fiction”.

The Voting System Might Be Changing Anyway

Worldcon has adopted this proposal to change the Hugo nomination voting system in an attempt to limit the power of voting blocs. There’s an FAQ on that page, which is fairly thorough, but the basic system is this:

This new voting system will be up for adoption at WorldCon 2016’s business meeting, through a process outlined here. If you have strong feelings about it, and you’ll be able to attend MidAmeriCon in the flesh, you can attend the 2016 business meetings, participate in the debates, and vote there.

So, What Do I Do?

Here’s a list of things you can do, ranked from most to least useful:

  1. Hereafter referred to as “speculative fiction” or “SF/F”.
  2. The Nebulas, for example, are nominated and awarded by active members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, all of whom have written speculative fiction professionally.
  3. This is not a real book, just an example title.
  4. “Opera Vita Aeterna” got a nomination, but in the final awards, it placed sixth out of five, behind No Award.
  5. I’ve read “The Day The World Turned Upside Down”, and if that’s the best short story of 2015, then “No Award” really got shafted in the Short Story category.