The Hugo Award is the science fiction and fantasy field’s most recognizable award. It is voted by members of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), where writers take center stage. The award honors excellence in written SF/F and other forms as well. Novels and various lengths of short fiction compete in their own categories. Hugos also are given to movies, TV episodes or other media, graphic novels, and SF/F–related works of nonfiction. Fan activities including fanzines, artwork and podcasts are recognized, too.
Never before in its history has its future been in greater doubt.
Who Started the Hugos? The award began in 1953. The World Science Fiction Convention was about to be held in Philadelphia when local fan Hal Lynch suggested they give an award to the best writer. The committee launched the “First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards” nicknamed the Hugos after Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories, the first all–science–fiction magazine.
For the trophy they chose a rocket standing upright on fins, inspired by the famous Chesley Bonestell cover art from Willy Ley’s Conquest of Space (1949), an important book of scientific speculation known to every fan of the day. In fact, Ley would be honored as one of the award’s first recipients, for “Excellence in Fact Articles.”
Unfortunately, the committee had trouble finding somebody to make the physical trophies until Jack McKnight came to the rescue. An expert machinist, he turned the little rockets out of stainless steel and soldered on the fins in his own shop. It was a last–minute save. McKnight worked through the entire convention, turning up just in time for the banquet and the presentation.
Instead of disaster, there was triumph. Toastmaster Isaac Asimov handed out the awards. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man won the first Best Novel Hugo. Nine rockets were presented altogether.
The 1954 committee passed on giving the awards, but the Hugos resumed in 1955 and have been presented every year since.
Classic works voted Hugos in the award’s first decade include Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” Murray Leinster’s “Exploration Team,” Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land, Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon,” and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
What Is The Worldcon? The Worldcon, despite its name, is not a large convention. The first was held in New York in 1939, the center of the magazine industry. Two hundred fans came to meet and mix with the creators of their favorite stories—and attend that year’s World’s Fair, the source of the convention’s name.
The year the Hugos were invented, attendance was 750. Although last year’s Worldcon in London drew over 7,000 fans, these days Worldcon is dwarfed by Comic–Cons and other pop culture celebrations.
What’s unique about the Worldcon is that it has been a magnet for generations of writers of text science fiction. Classic authors attended regularly—that iconic photo of Arthur C. Clarke smiling broadly as he’s handed his 1956 Hugo is still often reprinted. Hundreds of writers of all levels of fame and career accomplishment go to publicize their books and network with colleagues. Many hope eventually to win a Hugo of their own and see their names identified with the famous winners of this historic award.
Nancy Kress talked about her connection with that history when she won the 1992 Best Novella Hugo for “Beggars in Spain.”
“[My] first Worldcon was in 1980, and I didn’t know a single soul when I went to that convention. I had just discovered such a thing as fandom and world science fiction conventions existed… I attended the Hugo awards… And I sat way in the back, in the top tier of the gallery… When George R. R. Martin won, he came up to the podium, and he said that for years he had watched other people win Hugos, and he had lusted in his heart for one. Then he took his Hugo, and he held it up like this… up over his head and he said, ‘And now I’ve finally got it.’ And so, in memory of that night, when I didn’t know a single soul or any of you or how good science fiction was going to be to me, now I’ve finally got it. And one more thing. If somewhere out there tonight, somebody else is out there for the first time or second time and doesn’t know anybody, and is sitting in the back somewhere, and you are thinking the exact same thing, go for it!”
Robert Silverberg was a teenager when he saw the first Hugo ceremony, seated in the balcony because he couldn’t afford a $4.00 ticket to the award banquet. Within three years he would be up front receiving his own Hugo as “Most Promising New Author.” By the 1960s he would be the awards presenter. In fact, he’s the only person who has never missed a Hugo ceremony. Answering a question for this article, Silverberg recalled:
“I have attended every Hugo ceremony, yes. I was at the first one in Philadelphia in 1953; there was none at the 1954 Worldcon; the Hugos resumed in 1955 and I have been at every ceremony since then, which is a unique record. The first Australian Worldcon, which had very few American attendees, broke a lot of people’s attendance strings, but not mine.
“An interesting irony: in 1987, at Brighton, I decided to skip the Hugos because I had lost so many in the years just previous that I was tired of watching them to go to other people. Joe and Gay Haldeman, with whom we were having dinner before the ceremony, asked me to go anyway, because Joe was presenting one of the Hugos and wanted my moral support while he performed. So I went, and the category he was presenting in was mine, and Joe, to his surprise and mine, presented me with a Hugo. But for the Haldemans I would not only have broken the string (which I wasn’t aware of back then) but also would have missed coming up for my own Hugo.”
The Worldcon also periodically salutes the field’s history with Retro Hugos, given for years before the award was invented. For example, at the 2014 Worldcon in London, a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo was voted to the Mercury Theatre’s 1939 radio production of “War of the Worlds.”
Who Picks The Hugos? Hugos are not juried, they are democratically voted. And while social media is growing the voter base, it’s hardly in the range of American Idol.
Voting is open to anyone who joins the Worldcon. Hugo selection is a two–stage process. A shortlist is created by voters nominating up to five items in each category. The top five vote–getters go onto the final ballot. In the second stage, voters rank the finalists in order of preference. Nominees are eliminated in an automatic runoff until one has a majority and is declared the winner.
Those who don’t attend Worldcon can buy a supporting membership, which in 2015 costs $40 and comes with Hugo voting rights. Most people vote online. Ballots also can be cast by mail.
Those who join the current year’s Worldcon by January 31 are eligible to nominate, as are members of the previous year’s convention, and those who belong to the subsequent year’s Worldcon by that date.
In the second round which decides the winners, only members of the current Worldcon are eligible to vote.
What’s asked of voters is that they nominate things they read, loved, and think deserve to be in the mix for awards consideration. Nobody should feel disqualified from nominating what they believe is excellent work simply because they haven’t read the whole universe. Hardly anyone has the time and money to read more than part of it. Obviously a lone vote won’t force an outlying work onto the final ballot, while a deserving story might benefit if the people who notice it take action.
Voters in the second round also have the option to vote for No Award. They can reject all five nominees, or rank several they think are deserving and enter No Award ahead of the rest (or leave the remainder off the ballot altogether). The No Award option was added by the 1959 Worldcon committee and fans received the idea so enthusiastically they went right out and blew away two categories. Best New Author never appeared on the ballot again. And for the SF Movie/Best Dramatic Presentation category, 1959 marked the beginning of a long love/hate relationship. Fans have made no award in that category four times, the last in 1977. (In case that date leaves you scratching your head, the first Star Wars movie released in 1977 was eligible for the 1978 Hugos, and won.)
Another Reason To Participate: Current Worldcon members also receive a valuable benefit, access to the Hugo Voter Packet with electronic copies of the nominated fiction and graphic novels, if allowed by the publisher, and sample work from nominees in other categories. The packet helps Hugo voters make informed choices about the finalists.
John Scalzi invented the concept in 2006, arranging for the rights and handling the distribution for the first several years.
Many people think the Hugo Voter Packet makes buying a supporting membership worthwhile all by itself.
Tangible Benefits for Pros: Writers who have won say it helps their careers. When George Alec Effinger accepted his 1989 Hugo for “Schrödinger’s Kitten” he ended his speech by declaring, “Mike Resnick and I have just begun collaborating on a novel and these two awards are going to cost somebody a lot.”
Kameron Hurley said her 2014 win improved her next advance substantially: “Every bit of attention your book gets helps. In particular, the Hugo and Clarke Awards get a lot of attention outside SF/F that helps book sales.”
And as long ago as 1972, Harlan Ellison convinced the 1972 Worldcon Business Meeting to restore a fourth fiction Hugo. His most powerful argument was that fan recognition helped the careers of good writers and improved a winner’s chance of making a living as a full–time writer.
Record Holders: George R. R. Martin considers the Best Novel Hugo to be the most prestigious category—as he calls it, “the big one.” And he’s still waiting to win the big one. He’s received four Hugos for short fiction; however, all four of his nominated novels lost (including three set in the Game of Thrones universe).
Robert A. Heinlein’s novels, on the other hand, have won a record five Hugos (one a Retro Hugo). His 11 book nominations are also the high mark. In second place is Lois McMaster Bujold, winner of four Hugos out of ten nominations.
The writer whose novels and short fiction combined have won the most Hugos is Connie Willis with 11. Mike Resnick has the most fiction nominations, 30.
Mike Resnick has such a number of the little rocket–shaped pins that nominees are given as a keepsake that he famously wears them all on his name badge lavaliere, which looks like a bandolier of bullets. Lois McMaster Bujold responded by having jeweler Elise Matthesen make a distinctive necklace composed of her Hugo nominee rocket pins plus others from the Nebulas and World Fantasy Awards. When she debuted the piece she told the fans enthusing over it, “I can’t wait to see Mike Resnick’s face.”
Gardner Dozois is the editor with the most wins, 15. Editor David G. Hartwell has the most nominations, 41.
The top winning pro artist, Michael Whelan, has 15 Hugos. He’s tied with Bob Eggleton for the most nominations, 31.
John C. Wright in 2015 tied the record for most times on the ballot with five nominations, tying a record set in 2013 by Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant).
Does The Award Matter? The award was forged as a weapon in the original culture war—the battle to earn acceptance for science fiction itself.
Isaac Asimov gave readers a taste of the mockery early science fiction fans endured in his introduction to a collection of Hugo–winning short fiction:
“You can imagine the laughter to which we were subjected when sensible, hard–headed, practical, every–day people discovered we were reading crazy stories about atomic bombs, television, guided missiles, and rockets to the moon. All this was obvious crackpotism that could never come to pass, you see.”
Science fiction has since joined the mainstream of worldwide popular culture. Recognizing the best science fiction with an award helped fans press into the literary conversation. The cumulative list of winners has helped open the shelves of libraries to more SF/F books, and helped new fans find more good stuff.
Indeed, after half a century the Hugo has become so well–established that it makes an attractive target for other causes seeking to leverage mainstream respect.
When people discovered only one work of fiction by a woman was on the 2007 Hugo ballot, lightning rent the blogosphere. Writers seeing this as a denial of women’s contribution to SF/F voiced surprise, disappointment, and anger. Others wondered if the ground women had gained since the 1970s was being lost for some reason. A decade before, half the 1993 Hugo fiction nominees were works by women. Five times between 1974–2001, women won half the fiction Hugos awarded in a year. Women won the Hugo in five consecutive years from 1981–1985, and in 10 consecutive years from 1988–1997. Against that background, 2007 looked discouraging. The numbers rebounded the next year.
At other times, social media brings more underrepresented groups under the eyes of Hugo voters—people of color, different genders, and so forth.
Openly campaigning for a Hugo has long been culturally discouraged in fandom, however, that old–school tradition has not survived a collision with some other significant forces. Individual authors have been forced to shoulder the publicity burdens once carried by their publishers and one aspect of gaining attention is through awards – an approach discussed by Nancy Fulda (“Five Things You Should Know About Award Nominations”) on the SFWA Blog in January 2015. Furthermore, people steeped in the social media culture of constant self–expression and self–celebration have been conditioned to feel reticence is unnatural: Why wouldn’t they recommend themselves for an award?
But there is no precedent for the absolutely public and devastatingly successful effort of two slates to control the 2015 Hugos, Brad Torgersen’s “Sad Puppies 3” and Vox Day’s parallel “Rabid Puppies” campaigns which filled 59 of 85 slots on the final ballot with their choices (and would have had more, but five declined their nominations and the committee ruled two others ineligible.)
The first “Sad Puppies” campaign in 2013 was Larry Correia’s lighthearted appeal to get one of his Monster Hunter novels nominated. The title comes from the photos of dogs that adorned his blog posts in conscious parody of another popular meme. His 2013 effort fell 17 votes short of a nomination.
Correia launched a more concerted, less jocular drive in 2014 to get his next novel a Hugo, adding to his campaign elements of protest against the marginalization of his readers, and against a group of an opposite orientation which he characterizes as Social Justice Warriors and accuses of controlling the awards for years. Sad Puppies 2 endorsed a dozen works for the Hugo, and was supported by Vox Day (Theodore Beale), an extremely controversial blogger. Seven items on the slate made the final ballot, though none of them won, and nearly all finished last in the voting.
In 2015, author Brad Torgersen led a third round of the “Sad Puppies” campaign, calling on voters to combat the Hugo Awards’ movement toward, as he wrote in a tongue–in–cheek blog post, “tedious ‘message’ fiction, depressing talk–talk stories about amoral people with severe ennui, and literary MFA novels. Not a rocketship nor a ray gun in sight.” He asked them to support his recommended list “of entirely deserving works, writers, and editors—all of whom would not otherwise find themselves on the Hugo ballot without some extra oomph received from beyond the rarefied, insular halls of 21st century Worldcon ‘fandom.’” Vox Day’s “Rabid Puppies” slate overlapped most of Torgersen’s, and added more. The cause has now become so earnest that Larry Correia declined his latest nomination, explaining, “The reason I refused my nomination is that as long as the guy who started Sad Puppies stayed in, the more our opposition would try to dismiss the whole campaign as being all about my ego, or some selfish personal desire to get award recognition.”
Participation in the Hugo nominating phase has always been anemic compared to the final round. Often less than a hundred votes are needed to land something on the ballot in most categories. It’s the most vulnerable point of the award, for obviously nothing can win that doesn’t get on that list. Past incidents of bloc voting have been few and obvious—for example, L. Ron Hubbard’s posthumously published Black Genesis was nominated in 1987, while in 1989 a couple withdrew their collaborative work from the ballot after learning around 20 questionable ballots were cast for it. However, not all attempts to organize blocs have been criticized, especially in the fan categories where a demonstration of social media clout has tended to be applauded.
Only by tapping into anger over the culture wars has someone succeeded in motivating the requisite number of fans to buy supporting memberships at $40 a pop and take control of the Hugo ballot.
Among fans who are critical of the outcome there has been widespread talk of voting “No Award” ahead of nominees from the slate (again). There is also a great deal of technical discussion of rules changes designed to limit the influence of voting slates without creating any barriers to new voters.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was the rash of articles in the mainstream media in Britain and Australia, denouncing the “Sad Puppies” slate as the work of misogynists and racists. Surprising, because the news rarely covers this early phase of the awards. Nor was it clear how reporters decided slates with eight women, or a number of Hispanic writers, could be characterized in those terms, and one of the outlets, Entertainment Weekly, subsequently issued a correction on that score.
A writer for Salon also gave the back of his hand to the Hugo’s democratic rule structure: “We should have learned a long, long time ago that ‘Just let the public give their input’ is a lazy, useless and above all dangerous way to make decisions.”
The Federation of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers may have felt the same way; however, the story is more commonly admired than its philosophy of government.
The Road Ahead: Hugo Awards lore comes in both an idealized Disney version and a noir Oliver Stone version. If someone says Hugo voters are trying to pick the best stories of the year, you can find someone else who’ll say it’s just a popularity award. The enthusiast will point out growing participation has produced record–breaking numbers of Hugo voters. The cynic will dismiss that number as trivially small. But just now the only thing anyone can say about the future of the Hugos is that it’s unlikely to resemble the past; even idealists and cynics have to agree on that.
Please note: “Hugo Award,” The Hugo Award Logo, “World Science Fiction Convention,” and “Worldcon” are service marks of the World Science Fiction Society, an unincorporated literary society.
© 2015 by Mike Glyer