ARB Guide to the ’21 Hugos: Introduction

Jake Casella Brookins

This year’s Hugo Awards are nearly upon us—voting wraps up in mid-November, with the awards to be presented in December. The Hugos are a pretty big deal in the speculative fiction world, but not all fans and scholars of the genre follow the awards, nominated works, or surrounding controversies very closely: this brief series will attempt to give some context for the shortlist of written works this year.


What Are the Hugos?

Named after early SF publisher Hugo Gernsback, the Hugos are generally agreed to be the most significant award in science fiction & fantasy. There’s not a lot of hard data available, but it seems clear that Hugo-winning works stay in print (and the conversation) longer, get their authors larger deals, and generally sell more copies. There are quite a lot of SF awards out there, but the Hugo is definitely in a class of its own—a mix of longevity and group dynamics has given it huge name recognition. There are currently 18 categories of Hugo Awards, as well as the “not-a-Hugo” Astounding and Lodestar awards; categories are added and removed over time.

The Hugos are simply described as awards for the “best” in each category, leaving that definition and determination up to its voters.


Who Chooses the Hugos?

The Hugos are selected by the members of Worldcon. One of the oldest and largest SF conventions (although dwarfed in size, at this point, by other genre-related and commercially-run conventions), Worldcon has no fixed location. Worldcon doesn’t sell tickets, but rather memberships. Each year’s Worldcon members can nominate and vote for the awards, and vote on the location of future Worldcons.

Potential host cities put together a “bid”, years in advance, and usually are largely organized by the staff of a local convention. So, for example, the 2022 Worldcon, which will be in Chicago, has a core staff of organizers who run yearly local cons in Chicago. Slightly confusingly for outsiders, the individual Worldcons are usually referred to by their local name: this year is Discon III. Critically, and related to some of the controversies covered below, Worldcons are volunteer-run, with no persistent year-to-year organization.

Despite the name, Worldcon is clearly US-centric and Anglo-centric; since its beginnings in 1939, about 75% of the cons have been located in the US, and only 4 have been located in countries where English is not the official language. Hugo award nominating and voting are theoretically open to anyone, but there is a cost barrier. People can choose to be a supporting member (voting and nominating rights) for a low but not insignificant cost—currently $50 USD—while attending members, in addition to the membership cost (currently $275), will also likely need a significant travel budget.

(As a mild pitch for becoming a supporting WorldCon member: if you’re the kind of a person who will eventually get around to reading a lot of the major Hugo-nominated titles, getting most of those works in the Hugo Voter’s Packet is a pretty good deal. And you get to vote and nominate! Okay, end pitch.)

Because Worldcon members are fairly seriously invested in SF, often in conversation with each other throughout the year, and because the overall voting body is relatively small (some awards categories receive only a few hundred votes), the Hugo awards sometimes strike me as more like a very large juried award, as opposed to a more open survey of SF readers. For comparison, in 2019, there were 3,097 Hugo ballots cast; the Goodreads Award for science fiction had over 225 thousand votes cast the same year (and granted, with who knows how many bots, but just to give a sense of scale).


How the Voting Works

(Excuse me for briefly nerding out on this: the Hugos do some interesting things on the nominating and voting levels, providing a handy introduction or thought experiment for thinking about election reform in higher-stakes arenas.)

In the nominating round, eligible members can suggest up to 5 eligible works for each category; there are a number of community-driven projects to list, share, and discuss eligible works each year. These nominations are collated to produce a final ballot of 6 works per category. To reduce the chances that the awards will be “gamed” at the nominating level, the Hugos now use a form of Single-Divisible Vote with Least Popular Elimination (SDV-LPE) known as “E Pluribus Hugo” (EPH). This does some fancy math to make it harder for a small minority to control the slate by coordinating their nominating choices (which happened in 2015).

In the voting round, members vote using Ranked Choice Voting (which you might know as Instant Runoff or Preferential Voting): they list their choices in order from first to last, and those rankings are used to select a final winner—the Hugo does not simply go to whichever of the 6 candidates got the most 1st place votes. Voters are also free to put “No Award” down at any rank, indicating that anything below it does not deserve an award. It’s a kind of safety valve or quality control for the Hugos.

The Hugo ranked choice voting system can be visualized with Sankey diagrams, as Martin P. has done here (see link for more examples & explanation). After each “instant runoff”, the least-popular choice is eliminated, and voters who had ranked that first have their vote re-allocated to their next choice in the next round.


A Brief Recap of Recent Controversy

Take even a shallow dive into the conversations surrounding the Hugos and Worldcon, and you are likely to notice quite a lot of heated debate this year. Just to give some context, here is a very superficial timeline of some recent events affecting the awards, leading up to this year:

  • If you haven’t heard of PuppyGate, I envy you, but: put very broadly, this was a years-long attempt by several different but overlapping groups of reactionary trolls (who called themselves the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” in reference to a not-particularly funny joke one of their founders made) to essentially hijack the awards, peaking in 2015 and 2016. These attempts failed pretty dramatically—the various Puppies were never numerous enough in the final counts—but it was a highly-visible and contentious struggle within the speculative fiction communities (with obvious parallels and overlaps with Gamergate, an aggressive harassment campaign within video-game circles). And it did impact the awards significantly: “No Award” was repeatedly given in categories that the Puppies had attempted to game, and a number of nominees retracted their names rather than be associated with the Puppies. It’s still quite fresh in collective memory, and indicative of both the broader social crises of reactionary/far-right movements and of ongoing generational/political tensions within SF fandom.
  • The 2018 WorldCon, in San Jose, was the site of significant tension and controversy as a result of bigotry and gate-keeping: participants being misgendered, Hugo nominees excluded from paneling because they “weren’t famous enough”, and bad apologies/poor communication from the organizers. Programming was completely redone very late in the game in order to address some of these issues, with a team led by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • In 2019, Jeannete Ng’s Campbell Award speech expressed solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong and called out the award’s namesake, foundational SF editor John W. Campbell, for his bigotry and fascism. This was one of the most prominent examples of the reckoning that SF has been doing with its often-problematic pantheon of “great” figures and the effects they have left on the field. (Alec Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography, Astounding [2018], is also an important part of this conversation, as it brought to a wider audience many unsavory and uncomfortable facts about Campbell, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein.) The Campbell Award was changed to the Astounding Award after the ceremony; Ng’s speech was itself nominated for and subsequently won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work the following year. Also worth noting from 2019: there were some major blunders in the Hugo Loser’s Party, a longstanding and usually light-hearted affair that celebrates the larger crowd of nominees, that earned some ire towards its host, George R.R. Martin.
  • The 2020 Worldcon, in New Zealand, went completely virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. There was some mild kerfuffle over ConZealand Fringe (an unofficial accompanying set of programming that focused on covering gaps in the official con, notably New Zealand-specific content), which I found a bit baffling—“fringe” events are not a novel or malign phenomena—but the Con was otherwise relatively low-controversy. Until the awards, that is: in an excruciatingly long ceremony, host George R.R. Martin mispronounced names, exclusively focused on relatively ancient figures in the field, and repeatedly praised Campbell at length—at the same ceremony where Ng is being awarded for calling out Campbell’s racism. Whatever Martin’s intent, the effect was to highlight the divide between the exclusionary history of science fiction and its current flowering as a diverse, inclusive, and global field; because the ceremony sections were pre-recorded, it also made the conrunners appear complicit with Martin, leading to further rounds of recrimination and quasi-apology.

All of which brings us to this year’s Worldcon, Washington D.C.’s Discon III. Discon has seen multiple rounds of Hugo administrators and conrunners resign in the wake of controversy and community backlash, mostly centered on two topics:

  1. The disinvitation of guest of honor Toni Weiskopff. Weiskopff is the editor of Baen Books, an SFF publisher noted as a home to many far-right authors (including key figures in the Puppies campaigns mentioned above). Jason Sandford published a report on the discussions of political violence within a forum run by Baen, which were particularly virulent and concerning in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 attack on the US capitol. Following this report, Weiskopff briefly shut down the forum, but wrote a blanket “free speech” defense of its contents, and reopened it shortly after. Discon disinvited Weiskopff from the con, and took long enough deciding to do so that many in the community felt that they weren’t taking it seriously enough.
  2. More directly responsible for resignations was blowback from proposed changes to policy for listing names on the Hugo Awards (with connected issues of how many people per nomination could be physically present at the awards ceremony). Because limiting the number of listed names would most impact nominees from younger, emerging, diverse/inclusive teams, the effect read as exclusionary, and there was a lot of anger from voices in the SF community over the proposed changes and how they were rolled out. The temperature in the room was further raised by numerous communication mistakes, angry remarks, and oversights, and just in general by the atmospheric problems that have come to surround Worldcon and the Hugos, as indicated by this brief history.

Author Mary Robinette Kowal stepped in as the new chairperson of the con in July, which was a big relief for folks feeling like the 2021 Worldcon was really on the rocks. Kowal is fresh off a term as SFWA president, respected in the community, and already has a reputation for an ability to swoop in and fix con-messes—she was pivotal in salvaging the 2018 programming fiasco referenced above. Because Kowal is herself a 2021 Hugo finalist in two categories, some additional steps have been taken to separate the con chair from any award-related decisions.


What This Series Will Do

Over the next 4 weeks, before the Hugo voting period closes, I will be discussing the main written categories of the awards: the nominees for best novel, novella, novelette, and short story. If there’s time, I may also give some attention to the best related work and fan writer categories. For each nominee, I’ll try to give a mini-review: a quick overview, some context, and a very brief personal opinion. It’s an exciting list again this year—despite all the issues that seem to plague the awards, we are in a real flowering of the genre, and the Hugo shortlist represents some of the best stuff out there. Hope you enjoy!


Further reading:

Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.

Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by an internal pitch among the ARB editors. Review copies were not arranged by ARB; access to some titles was provided by the Hugo Voter’s Packet, which the author had access to through their personal Worldcon membership. The image at the head of this piece is from E. Hering’s illustrations for H.G. Well’s The First Men in the Moon (1901).

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