The Hugo Awards have long been science fiction’s most prestigious awards. Many of the genre’s classics—novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ender’s Game, and many, many more—were Hugo winners in their time. The Hugos have also played a vital role in elevating the genre’s best short fiction to greater prominence.
If science fiction is the literature of ideas, then short fiction is where a great many of those ideas are first born. Ender’s Game and Dune both started out as shorter works, for example. And short fiction is more than an incubator for long works. One need only read any of Ray Bradbury’s anthologies for a plethora of examples that a lot of science fiction’s best stories are meant to be short.
As a kid, I never had a subscription to any of the science fiction magazines. The closest I could come was to scrounge up—I don’t remember how—a couple of used editions of Omni just before the magazine went all-digital. But I got an introduction to the best of sci-fi’s short fiction tradition—stories like Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—through various Hugo anthologies. Watt-Evans’ story was incredibly formative on how I look not only at sci-fi, but also the world, and I challenge anyone to read Le Guin’s anti-utilitarian allegory and come away unmoved.
That’s not to say that the Hugo awards have been an unerring quality-detector, of course. I’ve read a little over half of the Hugo-winning novels so far, and there are some that don’t hold up very well. This is especially true for some of the earliest books. They’d Rather Be Right, which won for best novel in 1955, is basically unreadable. Across the decades you’ll find some books that are still considered great, some with both ardent fans and critics (Starship Troopers is one of the most controversial), and some that are largely forgotten (The Snow Queen is an example from that category).
In the past few years, however, the question of aesthetic quality became entangled with the rejuvenated culture war sweeping all of American society. Beginning in the early 2010s, a ragged coalition of populist conservative and libertarian sci-fi writers contended that the genre was biased against them. They bolstered their claim with credible accounts of personal animosity and, for lack of a better word, anti-conservative bigotry. These claims are easy to believe because they are compatible with two well-established facts:
- American society is increasingly polarized along political lines
- The publishing industry, along with several others, is predominantly aligned with the American left
These writers then went on to make the additional claim that the results of the Hugo Awards had been skewed by that political favoritism. One of the lightning rods for criticism was Rachel Swirsky’s 2013 short story, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” The story—which describes a paleontologist who has been beaten into a coma by 5 men who “[called him] a fag, a towel-head, a shemale, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of,” was nominated for the Hugo but 2014, but lost out to John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” in which water cascades onto the head of anyone who tells a lie, which convinces the protagonist to come out to his traditional Chinese family and introduce them to his boyfriend.
Although some of the criticisms of these works were pretty juvenile, others were quite trenchant. In any case, the accolades these stories earned are hard to defend because of the simple fact that while neither one of them is recognizably sci-fi or fantasy, both of them go out of their ways to make loaded political points. If the focus had stayed narrowly on examples like these, perhaps things would have gone differently. Instead, the backlash against perceived political correctness in sci-fi rapidly escalated to an all-out attack on the Hugos. The all-out attack was harder to justify and turned out to be excessively provocative.
It was harder to defend because, looking at the Best Novel winners since 2010 as an example, it’s difficult to substantiate the case that books represent clear political bias. I haven’t read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl yet, but based on his later book The Water Knife, he’s the real deal. I have read China Mieveille’s The City & the City (the two books tied for Best Novel in 2010), and it was absolutely fantastic and not remotely political. I also haven’t read the 2011 winner—Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear (because time travel is really not my thing), so I can’t comment on it. I found Jo Walton’s 2012 winner Among Others as unreadable as They’d Rather Be Right, but not overtly political. John Scalzi’s 2013 winner Redshirts was certainly a Best Novel low point. It’s an overgrown Star Trek parody that was carried on for far too long, and I doubt it will be long remembered. But bad books aren’t new to the Hugos. Scalzi is also one of the genre’s most popular and successful authors, one of the few bloggers to still have really powerful online influence, and the former president of the SFWA. He has also written several worthy Hugo-contenders in the past, starting with Old Man’s War which was nominated in 2006 but didn’t win. There are plenty of ways a cynic like myself can imagine his book winning when it probably shouldn’t have without recourse to political persecution. Meanwhile, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice which took the Hugo in 2014, certainly has provocative political undertones but is also agood book that unquestionably falls squarely within sci-fi’s space opera tradition.
As for the excessive provocation, that came in 2015 when the combined Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies campaigns effectively hijacked the Hugos. On the part of the Sad Puppies, this was accidental. They were trying, for the third year in a row, to crack open the Hugos to some more diverse viewpoints. Brad Torgersen led the campaign with the noblest of intentions (and took a horrendous amount of personal attacks because of it), and since they’d had only limited success in prior years, they really had no idea that in 2015 they would totally or almost-totally take over several categories. Matters were made much worse by the refusal of Sad Puppy leaders like Torgersen and Larry Corriea to repudiate Vox Day and his Rabid Puppy group. Vox Day is incendiary, provocative, and prone to outright sexist and racist comments. He is the Donald Trump of the science fiction world. Just as conservatives were unable to prevent Donald Trump from hijacking the GOP this year, the populist conservatives and libertarians of the 2015 Sad Puppy movement were unable to prevent Vox Day from hijacking their movement.
So, instead of picking a fight with a specific faction of left-wing ideologues within the sci-fi community, the coalition of conservatives and libertarians inadvertently picked a much bigger fight with effectively all Worldcon. Worldcon is science fiction’s oldest convention. The first one was held in 1939, and it’s been held almost every year since then. The Hugo Awards were first given out at the 11th Worldcon in 1953, and they continue to administer the Hugo Awards to this day. If you want to vote for the Hugos, you have to join Worldcon for that year (either by attending the convention or by purchasing a supporting membership and voting remotely).
Worldcon is a tiny convention by contemporary standards. It’s routine for geek conventions based around comic books, video games, or similar themes with a lot of sci-fi overlap, to pull in crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, but Worldcon attendance rarely tops 5,000. If the sci-fi community has an aristocracy, Worldcon—tiny but with the longest pedigree—is it.
By threatening to take over the Hugo Awards (intentionally or not), the Sad and Rabid Puppies pulled a lot of additional people with loyalty to Worldcon and the Hugos into the fray. Some of these people are heavy-hitters, George R. R. Martin first among them. I spoke with other prominent authors (who chose to remain anonymous) who had never taken public political stances on any topic, but who were livid at what they saw as politically-motivated attacks on their home turf. Ironically, the Sad / Rabid Puppies had become—at least in the eyes of many—the very thing they sought to counteract.
The result was a historic and ugly 2015 Hugo Awards ceremony in which Worldcon voters chose to give out no award at all in several categories rather than allow a Sad / Rabid nominee to win. There was even a semi-official asterisk award given to all the nominees (many of them Sad / Rabid nominees). The resemblance of the award to a stylized anus was, in the eyes of many, a deliberate insult rather than a coincidence.
Throughout the tumult of 2015, one of the recurring questions was this: why don’t the dissatisfied critics of the Hugo Awards just create their own award? The question was answered in 2016 with the creation of the Dragon Awards. DragonCon is a multi-genre convention that has taken place every year since 1987 in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s not as old as Worldcon, but it’s a lot bigger; 2016 attendance hit 77,000.
DragonCon announced the Dragon Awards in 2016. There was no reference at all to the Hugo Awards or any of the controversy surrounding them, but the populist design of the DragonCon awards (all it takes is an email address, no con membership or payment required) and the timing quickly made the new awards the darlings of the Sad Puppies.
The 2016 Hugo Awards were handed out on August 20, 2016. The 2016 Dragon Awards were handed out on September 5, 2016. Now it’s time to take stock.
As sympathetic as I am to many of the Sad Puppy criticisms of the sci-fi community, I don’t see much to celebrate. In the first place, the Dragon Awards have no short fiction categories. Given the importance of short fiction to the genre, and the role of the Hugos in making the best of short fiction readily accessible to fans, that’s a really serious defect. The Dragon Awards are incapable of fulfilling one of the meaningful roles of the Hugo Awards: sustaining sci-fi’s short fiction heritage.
In the second place, the Dragon Awards have way too many novel categories:
- Best Science Fiction Novel
- Best Fantasy Novel
- Best YA/Middle Grade Novel
- Best Military Science Fiction / Fantasy Novel
- Best Alternate History Novel
- Best Apocalyptic Novel
- Best Horror Novel
Aside from being a little silly, one of the problems with this many categories is that there’s no feasible way anyone could read all the nominated works and make an informed vote in every category. This has profound implications.
Traditionally, Worldcon attendees receive electronic copies of the nominated works and have a couple of months to read through them before voting closes. There’s a lot of material (5 novels, 5 novellas, 5 novelettes, and 5 short stories just from the core literary categories), but it’s not an unmanageable amount. It should be fairly routine, then, for a Hugo voter to end up reading works they haven’t read before and maybe even voting for one of those works. In short, the Hugos are designed as deliberative process in which a small cadre of dedicated fans try to come to a consensus about which works deserve recognition. At its worst, this means that the group is susceptible to being hijacked and/or manipulated by cliques and fads (political or otherwise). At its best, it means that we’re talking about a process that at least makes a meaningful attempt to transcend momentary popularity.
The Dragon Awards make no such pretense. There will never be packets of all the novels. Even if there were, there wouldn’t be time for people to wade through dozens of novels before voting. Deliberation and consensus are off the table.
Now, as I mentioned, the Hugo critics have a deep vein of anti-elitist populism running through them. Brad Torgersen, for example, rebranded his style of sci-fi “blue collar spec[ulative] fiction” on his author’s website. To them, my critique of the Dragon Awards may very well elicit nothing but a resounding, “so what?” To which I can only reply that we already have popularity contests. They’re called best seller lists, and it’s really hard for me to see what the Dragon Awards have to offer that best seller lists or popular sites like Goodreads don’t offer already. Add to that the complete lack of short fiction at the Dragon Awards, and it’s hard to see how the Dragon Awards can replace the Hugos. They can’t, and so they won’t.
The Hugo Awards are like a knife. The Dragon Awards are like a spoon. Each one can be a useful or a defective implement in its own right, but neither can be a substitute for the other. If you don’t like your knife, then you either sharpen it, repair it, or go out and find a new knife. You don’t go out and buy a spoon. Even at their best, the Dragon Awards cannot replace the Hugo Awards. The fact that some people think they can says more about the polarization of the sci-fi community and the power of cognitive biases than anything else.
This doesn’t let the Hugo Awards off the hook. A half-century of tradition is a lot of capital to live off of, but the same myopia that has the anti-Hugo crowd happy to find any replacement infects the pro-Hugo folks who are happy to see them go. If political bias and/or cliquish behavior were a problem before this particular division bell started to ring, it’s only going to get worse once people (rightly or wrongly) feel like they have an alternative. Exiling heretics is a great short-run way to restore a superficial sense of unity, but in the long run monocultures are fragile, brittle, and ultimately doomed.
There are lots of awards and accolades for popular works of sci-fi, and I’m happy about that. I don’t mind the Dragon Awards popping up as one more entrant on this list. But there are far fewer awards that make a real attempt at deliberation and consensus-building. I want awards like that, too, both because of their role in providing an alternative kind of perspective into the growing sci-fi canon, but also because they can serve an important function in building a sense of community. I want the Hugo Awards—or something like them—to remain a part of the sci-fi community. But such an award has to accommodate the diversity of the community in all meaningful senses of the word. This includes political and ideological diversity. If it fails to do this, then the perspective it offers will be myopic and worthless and rather than holding the community together it will contribute to the tides of polarization pulling it apart.
The Dragon Awards can’t fill that role. It is an open question, as we go forward, whether or not the Hugo Awards can either.