Some Reflections on the 2020 Hugo Ceremony a.k.a. Reminiscing with George

This was not the post I wanted to write today. The post that I hoped to write was, “Hey, I won a Hugo. Go me!” However, Bogi Takács won and a most deserving winner they are, too. And in fact, the speech I never got to hold would have specifically said that as far as I am concerned, everybody in the fan writer category was a winner. And besides, I came in second at first try, which is pretty amazing.

So yes, let’s talk about the 2020 Hugo Ceremony. By now, you may have seen some tweets or read some posts about the fact that the 2020 Hugo Ceremony was a) very, very, very long , and b) pretty damn awful. If you have about three hours and forty-eight minutes of time to spare, you can watch the whole thing. Or you can read the summaries by Natalie Luhrs, Sean Reads Sci-Fi, Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Matt at Runalong the Shelves. You can also watch the 2020 Hugo ceremony without all the extraneous blather at the YouTube channel of The Reading Outlaw.

As you know, I was a Hugo finalist this year, so I was in a different position than those watching the regular livestream. I was in the Hugo finalist Zoom, waiting for my categories (I was accepting again for Galactic Journey this year as well as for myself) to be called. And since the fan categories are up first, I was basically sitting there in full ceremony get-up – evening gown, tiara, jewellery – from 1 AM my time on. My elderly parents were there as well. I’d told them that my category would probably come up by 1:30 AM at the latest.

Cora Buhlert in Hugo outfit

Me in my Hugo dress, posing with a bookshelf and Occulus, the friendly eyeball monster.

So the ceremony started, George R.R. Martin appeared on the screen and starting talking. And talking. And talking. He reminisced about his first Worldcon and his first Hugo ceremony in 1971. He reminisced about the first time he was a finalist for what was then the Campbell Award in 1973. Those stories about the olden days were actually interesting, but they also went on for much, much too long. Besides, those stories are better suited to a panel or the bar than to the Hugo ceremony.

When they finally announced the Lodestar and Astounding winners after more than half an hour, I thought, “Okay, now my categories will be up in a few minutes.” And then I saw a message in the Zoom chat from Allan, the tech person in charge of the Hugos who did a great job (and who unlike the finalists, actually had to sit through all three hours and forty-eight minutes of it), that the next video would be 17 minutes long. “That’s a typo”, I thought, “He means 1.7 minutes or 7 minutes.” But it wasn’t a typo. Because George R.R. Martin went on to talk for another 17 minutes.

Meanwhile, the fan category finalists who were up first (and all the other finalists for that matter) were on tenterhooks. My parents were nodding off. My tiara and my bra were hurting and I really needed to go to the bathroom, but didn’t dare to go, before my categories were called.

And because I could see the other finalists in Zoom, I saw that they were in a similar situation. There was one fan category finalist, also in Europe where it was in the middle of the night, who kept fanning themselves and dabbing at their face, because they were obviously hot and sweating. At one point, I said to the screen, “George, please get to the point already, because finalist X is melting.”

Then fanzine and fan writer were called, neither Galactic Journey nor I won, and my parents left, clearly grateful to be finally able to go to bed. I got rid of my bra and my tiara, dressed more comfortably, made myself a tea, got my crochet and settled down again. Fan artist and semiprozine were called, while I was undressing, but I missed nothing during my tea break, because George R.R. Martin was talking again. And then Robert Silverberg talked as well and also for a long time, introducing the editor categories.

By the time best related work was called, I’d had enough and decided to decamp to the after-party and follow the finalist announcements on Twitter. Which I promptly did and I had a great time, too. A lot better time, I bet, than the poor finalists in the fiction categories, who had been waiting for three hours at that point.

Around the same time that I gave up, I saw tweets, Discord messages, etc… from plenty pf people saying the same thing. “Sorry, I’m going to bed, just let me know who won.” And today on Discord, someone said, “Wait a minute, the Hugo ceremony is over?”

“No”, I replied, “George is still sitting in his theatre in Santa Fe reminiscing about the olden days and he’s up to the 1989 Worldcon by now. However, the technician fell asleep and accidentally ripped out the cable.”

Now some of George R.R. Martin’s and Robert Silverberg’s annecdotes might actually have been interesting, if presented on a panel about “Writers remember the olden days” or “Rememberances of Worldcons and Hugos past”. And indeed, there was such a panel. But the Hugo Award Ceremony is not the time to go on endlessly about things that happened decades ago. Instead, the point of the Hugo Ceremony is to honour today’s finalists and winners. Which seemed almost like an afterthought at this year’s ceremony.

I understand that George R.R. Martin is not happy about the name change of the former Campbell, now Astounding Award, considering he was one of the first Campbell finalists. And once again, his remarks would have been appropriate for a hypothetical panel called “Saviour of science fiction or freaking fascist? The complex legacy of John W. Campbell”. However, the 2020 Hugo Ceremony is not the place to go on about what an important figure he was to the genre – and I already shared my thoughts on Campbell in the Retro Hugo post – considering Campbell died before most of this year’s finalists in any category were even born.

What makes this lengthy and rambling Hugo Ceremony even more annoying is that George R.R. Martin (and Robert Silverberg for that matter) both know what it’s like to be a finalist, waiting for your category to be called. After all, they’ve been there several times. So they should have asked themselves, “How would I have felt if this had happened at my first (or second or third) Hugo ceremony as a finalist and the toastmaster had gone on and on and on with anecdotes about Hugo Gernsback?”

And for some Hugo finalists, the lengthy wait was more than an annoyance, but made it impossible for them to accept the Award without violating their religious beliefs. Best Editor winner Navah Wolfe is orthodox Jewish and let the Hugo Ceremony organisers know that she would not be able to accept in person after sunset in her part of the world because of Shabbat. Best Fan Writer winner Bogi Takács was in the same boat, only that fan writer was announced earlier in the evening. Nor is this the first time this has happened, Alix E. Harrow’s designated accepter last year had to drop out, because the Hugo Ceremony coincided with Shabbat. There are a lot of Jewish people in our community and while not all are observant, we nonetheless should be able to find a date and time for the Hugo ceremony that doesn’t force anybody to choose between violating their personal beliefs and accepting a Hugo.

ETA: In the comments, Standback, who was supposed to accept the Hugo for Alix E. Harrow in Dublin and dropped said, said that the ceremony did not conflict with Shabbat after all, but that he had to drop out for other reasons. And of course, Navah Wolfe did win Best Editor last year and was able to accept her award in person. Bogi was a finalist as well, though I’m not sure whether they were at the ceremony. But the fact that Dublin got it right doesn’t excuse that CoNZealand did not take the religious beliefs of at least two finalists into account.

ETA: Several Hugo finalists also report that the overlong Hugo ceremony conflicted with panels or readings they had at what they expected to be after the ceremony. One of my panels was actually scheduled for after the Hugo ceremony, but since every single person on that panel was a Hugo finalist (and one of us – John Picacio – went on to win in his category), we contacted programming and asked them to shift the panel, which they did.

But if the lengthy ramblings of George R.R. Martin were bad, what was even worse was George and other presenters repeatedly mispronouncing the names of Hugo finalists and in one case misgendering finalists (George talked about the young men and women nominated for the Astounding Award, even though this year’s finalists were only women, two of them with ambiguous names). And yes, finalists of colour were the worst affected, but white and western finalists had their names mispronounced as well. In my category alone, Paul Weimer and myself had our names mispronounced (not by George R.R. Martin, who didn’t present our category). Now I’m used to English speaking people mispronouncing my surname as “Bjuhlert”, even though there is no J in my name anywhere, so it’s no big deal for me, though I can understand why particularly people from a non-western background who have their names mispronounced all the time are angry.

But I still have no idea how a native English speaker can mispronounce “Jemisin”. And don’t even get me started on FIYAH Magazine, who had to put up a tweet explaining their name, because Martin mispronounced them, even though the title of the magazine is a phonetic spelling of “fire”. And yes, mistakes happen, but they shouldn’t happen with such frequency and they certainly shouldn’t happen in segments that have been prerecorded, because the good thing about prerecording is that you can do it again, if you mess up the first time around. Not to mention that all Hugo finalists were explicitly asked to provide their pronouns and the phonetic spelling of their names to prevent debacles like this.

As a teacher of German as a foreign language, I know how difficult even seemingly easy names/words can be to pronounce, if one’s native language does not have that particular phoneme. But if George R.R. Martin really couldn’t handle the pronounciation of certain names, they should have let someone else do it. And in fact this was probably the idea behind the “voice of God” that read out the names of the finalists again, because Martin did such a bad job of it.

It’s also not that I haven’t accidentally mispronounced someone’s name either. However, if you’re not sure how to pronounce someone’s name, ask them, cause they’re usually happy to tell you. For example, for the Galactic Journey acceptance speech I never got to hold, I asked how to pronounce the names of those members of the Galactic Journey team where I wasn’t sure. Because getting someone’s name and gender right is basic courtesy.

Also, several people noted that Martin had no problems pronouncing names like Fritz Leiber (and I actually praised him for getting Fritz Leiber’s name correct, before he started mispronouncing everybody else), Robert A. Heinlein and Roger Zelazny, probably because he knew those author personally. But even if he isn’t as familiar with today’s authors, that’s still no excuse to get their names wrong.

That said, while George R.R. Martin may have been the host of the ceremony, organising it was CoNZealand’s job and frankly, they didn’t do it very well. And yes, I understand the technical challenges they were faced with. But would it have been that difficult to ask George R.R. Martin and the other presenters to keep their remarks to 5 minutes per category and edit them down, if necessary? Especially since George R.R. Martin is known for many things, but brevity is not one of them. And would it have been that difficult to make sure that the names of the finalists were pronounced correctly and that the right pronouns are used, especially since they explicitly asked us for that information.

There have also been other criticisms, such as the fact that even though Worldcon was supposed to be held in New Zealand, the Hugo presenters were mostly white Americans as well as a white Brit and a white Australian. The closest the Hugo Ceremony came to New Zealand representation were the congratulations in the M?ori language following every announcement, which the finalists were told to use as a cue. Another finalist and I even asked what the appropriate response to those congratulations would be. They phrase we were given is scribbled – phonetically spelled – on the top of my acceptance speech.

The CoNZealand chairs Norman Cates and Kelly Buehler have now apologised for the Hugo mess, which is a start. And George R.R. Martin himself points out in the comments at File 770 that he was never provided with phonetic spellings of the finalists’ names (which is CoNZealand’s oversight then) and that people generally enjoy his anecdotes. Which I’m sure they do, but maybe not at the Hugo Ceremony.

But in general, this has not been a good experience, especially for the first-time Hugo finalists, of which I am one. First, the pandemic ruined everybody’s chances to enjoy their first time as a Hugo finalist in person at the con (though Discon III, the 2021 Worldcon in Washington DC, has announced that they want to hold a reception for the 2020 Hugo finalists, because they didn’t get one due to the pandemic). Then there was the inconsistent messaging that Hugo finalists received regarding what membership level was required for them to participate in the con and the Hugos and the fact that some Hugo finalists initially didn’t receive any programming at all. Nor is it the Hugo finalists’ job to fix issues with the programming, though we got comped memberships for 47 awesome people of colour, indigenous and otherwise marginalised people out of it, who made Worldcon programming so much better and more diverse. And in general, I enjoyed the first virtual Worldcon a whole lot, but that’s its own post. Nonetheless, I suspect the neverending Hugo Ceremony of 2020 will be talked about for a long time.

The analysis of the Hugo winners will be in a separate post.

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18 Responses to Some Reflections on the 2020 Hugo Ceremony a.k.a. Reminiscing with George

  1. Laura says:

    Congratulations on 2nd place! I like your dress and the (crochet?) eyeball monster.

  2. Mike Glyer says:

    Excellent post. I’m sorry it was such an ordeal. Because the truth is it’s still an ordeal for a finalist waiting in the audience even when the ceremonies are orchestrated perfectly.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks, Mike. I was only able to actually enjoy the Dublin ceremony, once the fanzine category was through. And JJ also enjoyed the Dublin ceremony a lot more than the one in San Jose.

      It’s not even wondering whether you’ll win or not win, but also worrying that if you do win, you’ll make a fool of yourself, mangle your speech, fall off the stage, drop the Hugo onto the foot of the toastmaster, etc…

      George R.R. Martin has been there more than once, so I’d have expected him to understand what the ceremony is like from the POV of the finalists.

  3. Standback says:

    Great post, Cora.
    Along with the general outpouring of anger and frustration, richly-deserved, just hearing this matter-of-fact recounting of the actual experience brings it all home in one more way.

    A small correction — the Dublin ceremony did *not* coincide with Shabbat! A good thing, since Wolfe and Takács were finalists last year as well 🙂 I was unable to attend for entirely unrelated reasons, namely small kids waiting back home, and an early plane back…

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  6. Nathanael Nerode says:

    So, the fiasco this year — and the extraordinary contrast between the actual awards and the ceremony — has led me down a rabbit hole of research into previous years’ problems.

    So I am only now reading about the problems at San Jose in 2018. I wanted to share something.

    I went to MidAmericon II (Worldcon 74) in Kansas City in 2016 and spent four days at the business meeting reforming the Hugos. MidAmericon II was extremely professional — the Guest of Honor committed a very severe Code of Conduct violation and at least two people complained about it, so *they kicked her out*, which is what the rules said they were supposed to do.

    I voted for New Orleans for the 2018 WorldCon because *I didn’t like the vibe I was getting from the San Jose organizers*. They were emphasizing how much they were going to encourage alcohol-fueled drunken parties everywhere, and how much of a party con it would be, and generally an attitude which didn’t seem to have much to do with science fiction and a lot to do with an insular group of fans who liked to party with each other. I didn’t trust them to enforce the code of conduct.

    So I didn’t go to San Jose.

    So now I read this:

    When I discover that the San Jose organizers didn’t enforce their code of conduct promptly or reliably? Not surprised. When I discover that they felt that there was a “real” group of Worldcon fans who should be catered to who were supposedly different from the *Worldcon members who actually vote on and nominate the Hugos*? (Which is BS, but that was their attitude as documented at the links you’ve provided?) Not surprised. When I discover that some members of the 2018 committee were lying to others to cover their asses? Not surprised.

    Because *they made it clear who they were* at their bid table. Their stance, as articulated at Kansas City, seemed to be that the con was for old-timey Worldcon attendees who wanted to have drunken parties. They were advertising their unprofessionalness.

    But they won the bid. I don’t know what to say about that — were people voting based on location without thinking about who the con organizers were?

    I don’t know what to say about the failures this year, but I had something to say on the failures in 2018, so I thought I’d throw it out there.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, I remember the issues with San José’s programming, which partly mirror the issues with this year’s programming (Hugo finalists ignored and a general lack of diversity) and which also had people working to fix them, whose job this clearly wasn’t. I don’t recall what the GoH did or rather I had it mixed up with another incident, where a prominent writer served alcohol on a panel in violation of the code of conduct and convention center guidelines and was (rightfully) kicked out. Do you have a link about what happened with San José’s GoH?

      I didn’t go to San José, because it’s a very long flight and because crossing the US border had become a lot more unpleasant by 2018 and it wasn’t exactly pleasant before. But I was at the fannish inquisition in Helsinki and recall that San José seemed very focussed on the fact that there would be parties to the exclusion of anything else. I remember that I found this very odd at the time, for while parties clearly are important to a lot of Worldcon attendees (I’ve come to enjoy them myself, though I keep my alcohol consumption low enough that I can still get back to my hotel without any issues) the intense focus on something that’s more of an afterthought was strange. So I got weird vibes from them as well.

      The bid that would eventually become CoNZealand felt very unprepared at the Fannish Inquisition in Helsinki, and only gave vague answers to many questions, something which everybody in the room noticed, even my Mom, who was only there, because I wanted to go and has little interest in Worldcon politics. The Nice bid, which is now history, was also very vague and gave evasive answers to questions, but then it was still six years out at the time. There was a bid for New Orleans sometime in the 2020s, which was very well put together, but which seems to have evaporated since.

  7. Bob says:

    Congratulations on your nomination and 2nd place. For the rest, I have to say it’s… disappointing, and not in the way that you mean. The Hugos are in a mess. Say what you will about the Sad Puppies, but 5 no-awards is a sham and a shame. A shameful sham if you will. Martin comes from a long line of writers who helped to build what sci-fi/fantasy is today for everyone… as did Campbell. Idk. If the worst you had to endure was a late night and an uncomfortable bra, well, these are what I call first-world problems.

    This article came up in my recommends… I didn’t search it out. But I read it and left my opinion, unwelcome it might be. I do hope you continue to write, as I’m an unknown writer who hopes to one day be published. And I would be thrilled as heck if I were you to be nominated (as I’m sure you were/are). I just think some of this is bad drama, some of it is a little disrespectful, and some of it speaks to the state of the Hugo Awards in general—a microcosm of bigger issues. Anyway, God bless and take care.

  8. Soon Lee says:

    FYI the voiceover congratulating Hugo winners with “Ka mau te wehi” can be translated as “That’s Awesome!” in M?ori.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks. I think that was a lovely idea. A pity that the voiceover was all the specific New Zealand content we got.

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