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Hugo said "You Go" (or, the perils of democratic awards)

"The Hugo Awards are a set of awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year". That's the first sentence on their Wikipedia page (which illustrates the depth of my research: hey, I'm busy with meeting two book deadlines!).

A kerfuffle has arisen with this year's Hugo Awards, which have been hijacked by two "conservative voting blocs" called 'Sad Puppy' and 'Rabid Puppy' who issued lists of approved recipients for the various Hugo awards. They say they're sick of the awards going to minority group interest novels (I'm picturing gay Tibetan monks battling totalitarian Chinese robots on the moon in the near-future or some such - I don't read a lot of sci-fi, can you tell?)

They may have a point, a string of prejudices, or simply be completing a thesis on how to influence public opinion. Who would know? The Hugos have in the past been accused of being somewhat tainted for being overly populist, too tied to the bestsellers lists, and not really indicative of quality. The panel-chosen Nebula Awards carry more kudos in many circles. Like the (also flawed) Oscars however, the Hugos benefit from the heft of being first and best-known award in sci-fi.

What interests me is the manipulation of the democratic process, which raises the question of whether any award for 'the best' should ever be put up for public vote. If your mandate (as an award creator) is to identify the highest quality new piece of writing in a given period, you seem to have two choices:

·         PANEL: you pay a bunch of judges, people with credible literary backgrounds and accept their professional decisions, aware that some may have particular fetishes, personal preferences and private relationships and that your panel will vary year to year so application of criteria may be inconsistent.

·         VOTE: you let Joe Public decide (either en masse, or with entry criteria, like being a member of a specific club, guild, academy, whatever). Then, the problem becomes that not all of the voters will have read all the nominations, and it turns into either numbers game which the year's most acceptable bestseller wins, or a popularity contest in which the person with the biggest public profile/network wins. You also open yourself up to bloc-voting by motivated interest groups, as has arisen with the Hugos this year.

Personally, if I was setting up an award for the BEST (i.e. not "most popular") novel of the year, I'd contract it out to a panel of professional critics, ask them to compile individual lists in order, from that create a shorter list, oblige them to read any they've not already read on that shorter-list and get them to select the best by consensus or weighted voting.

I know the processes for the Hugos have been laid down a long time: do they need an overhaul? Are they still fit for purpose, if they can be hijacked so easily?

The reason I have an interest in this is that my latest novel, Unholy War, book three of the Moontide Quartet, is a (long-list) Nominee for the David Gemmell Fantasy Award. Woo-hoo, and Yee-hah! It's an honour to be on the list. I have no chance of winning however, not because Unholy War isn't any good, but compared to the heavy hitters out there (Martin, Abercrombie, Sanderson, and many others) I'm a no-one. I don't have a track-list of bestsellers to boast of, or tens of thousands of Twitter followers. I just don't have a sufficient network to mobilise and vote for me. However, it was great to be listed and that's my personal award.

Sad/Rabid Puppies haven't issued any voter guidance yet, by the way ;-)

There are many people who look at awards lists to determine their future reading. Should that awards list be determined by people who love writing and good books, or (say) a pastor from Iowa (or equally, an activist from Portland) with an agenda? I don't think so: at the best of times, awards are weird things: very subjective and of their moment in time. The waters are muddy enough without throwing politics and social engineering into the mix.

But I will send you a link to the voting for the Gemmell awards: don't be a Sad Rabid Puppy: vote with your heart! 


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