Dragon Con, a big media-focussed convention in Atlanta, Georgia, has gone virtual this year for obvious reasons, much like every other major or minor convention. Much/most of their virtual programming is free to access for everybody, but I have to admit that I quickly gave up on trying to watch Dragon Con programming, because it was very confusing, scattered over several different YouTube channels as well as Discord. There is a program, which lists all panels and events, but it’s very confusing as well. Not to mention that some of the programming choices are strange, to say the least. For example, a Dragon Con YouTube channel dedicated to American science fiction classics has several discussions of SF movies from the 1990s as well as a reading of science fiction movie novelisations, which is not my idea of science fiction classics at all. Half the programming on the Dragon Con urban fantasy YouTube channel is devoted to TV shows. And the panelist choices for the literary urban fantasy panels are also a bit strange. I’m not sure if this is the result of Dragon Con pivoting to virtual comparatively late – probably because they didn’t know until fairly shortly before the con, if it would be able to go ahead in person or not – or if programming like that is normal for Dragon Con. It feels like a very different culture, at any rate.
I did listen in to a reading, but quickly dropped out when the author started to explain that yes, she writes science fiction, but it’s not set in space. I mean, it’s 2020. Does anybody out there honestly still think that science fiction needs to be set in space? I also came across a panel on Superversive SFF, which I might listen to, if I’m feeling masochistic. Still, there won’t be a report about the virtual 2020 Dragon Con, largely because I have seen barely anything of it.
In these pages, Dragon Con has mainly been mentioned in connection with the Dragon Awards, an popular vote SFF award attached to Dragon Con that has had a very variable history (to put it kindly), chronicled here.
In short, since their inception in 2016, the Dragon Awards have gone from puppy award to indie SFF award to popular mainstream award with a few puppies and indie authors sprinkled in and back again. The 2020 ballot was probably the most mainstream Dragon Awards ballot yet, with a lot of broadly popular works and hardly any “Who the hell is this?” finalists, much to the chagrin of the usual suspects.
However, the Dragon Awards are nothing if not unpredictable. For example, the 2019 ballot was also composed largely of broadly popular SFF works, but the winners looked considerably different, with the most obscure work winning in several categories. So what will the 2020 winners look like?
Pretty good, as it turns out. Only a few of my choices won, but then only a few of my top picks won Hugos either. But unlike previous years, there are very few cases of “How the hell did this win?” The gender distribution is also a lot more balanced this year, though the Dragon Award winners still skew male. The full list of winners is here, where there’s also some discussion going on in the comments. There is also some discussion in the comments at Camestros Felapton’s blog.
So let’s take a look at the individual categories:
The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel is The Last Emperox by John Scalzi. This wasn’t my choice – I voted for Network Effect by Martha Wells – and indeed, the Interdependency trilogy just doesn’t work for me. But John Scalzi is a very popular author and was apparently Dragon Con Guest of Honour this year, so this is hardly a surprising win. Plus, John Scalzi winning a Dragon Award will also royally piss off the usual suspects.
The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Fantasy Novel goes to Erin Morgenstern for The Starless Sea. Again, this wasn’t my choice – I voted for Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – but it’s a fine novel and also probably the most popular novel on the ballot, since Erin Morgenstern is also very popular with readers beyond the SFF sphere.
The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Middle Grade/YA Novel is Finch Merlin and the Fount of Youth by Bella Forrest. I have to admit that this is a win which surprised me a little, for while Bella Forrest is a very popular indie SFF author, I didn’t expect that the tenth book in a series would win an award, especially since the blurb makes very little sense, if you haven’t read the rest of the series. However, while Hugo voters at least make an effort to read every single finalist in a given category, the Dragons have no such expectations and voters just vote for whatever they like best. And Bella Forrest does have a hugo fanbase. My own vote was for Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer BTW.
The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction Novel goes to Savage Wars by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach. This was very much not my choice – I voted for System Failure by Joe Zieja. However, even though Nick Cole used to be affiliated with the puppies (and might still be, for all I know), I wouldn’t call this a win for the puppies. For Nick Cole is probably the only puppy-affiliated author to find success outside their immediate ideological bubble. And so the Galaxy’s Edge series Nick Cole writes with Jason Anspach, of which Savage Wars is a spin-off, is very popular, particularly with Kindle Unlimited readers.
The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel is Witchy Kingdom by D.J. Butler. This is another unsurprising win, especially since the previous two books in the series were both Dragon Award finalists in this category and Butler seems to be popular with Dragon Award voters in general. Coincidentally, this is also the only Dragon Award win for Baen Books this year and Baen has traditionally done well in the Dragon Awards and also usually has a big presence at Dragon Con. My own vote was for Revolution by W.L. Goodwater BTW.
As I also noted in my discussion of the Dragon Award finalists, the military SFF and alternate history category are the place on the 2020 Dragon Award ballot that most resembles the early years of the Dragon Awards. Of course, these are also much more specific and smaller categories than the science fiction, fantasy, horror and YA mega categories.
The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Media Tie-in Novel goes to Firefly – The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove. This is another unsurprising win, considering Firefly is still popular almost twenty years after its very short single season aired. My own pick was Star Wars: Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse.
The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel is The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher. It’s a great novel and was also my pick in this category.
The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Comic Book goes Avengers by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness. It’s an unsurprising winner, since Avengers is a popular mainstream Marvel superhero comic, whose popularity has probably been boosted even more by the Avengers films. My own vote was for Monstress BTW.
The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Graphic Novel is Battlestar Galactica Counterstrike by John Jackson Miller and Daniel HDR. This is one win which did surprise me, because I didn’t expect a media tie-in comic for a fifteen-year-old TV series to beat three popular superhero comics as well as two well-regarded standalone graphic novels. What surprises me even more is that unlike Firefly, the early 2000s Battlestar Galactica seems to have mercifully faded from public consciousness and is rarely discussed these days (though The Guardian did run a puff piece praising the show recently, because it apparently became available on some streaming service), probably because commentary on the legitimacy of the 2000 US presidential election, the war on terror and the Iraq War (plus bonus religious blather) thinly disguised as science fiction seems more dated these days than the original 1970s series. But since Dragon Con has a lot of media programming, including panels about TV shows that have long since finished, it’s quite possible that there still is a fanbase for the no longer quite so new Battlestar Galactica at Dragon Con. And come to think of it, a few years ago, Dresden Files tie-ins won both the comic and graphic novel category at the Dragon Awards, beating several popular works. My own vote for for Black Bolt BTW.
ETA: In the comments on Camestros Felapton’s post, Oleg X points out that the 2020 Dragon Award winner for Best Graphic Novel is a tie-in comic to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, not the early 2000s travesty. Which is even more surprising, for much as I loved the original Battlestar Galactica once upon a time, it’s a 42-year-old TV show that is probably older than most Dragon Con attendees. I didn’t even know there still were tie-in comics and I’m probably one of the comparatively few fans the original show still has. Is there a strong fanbase for the original Battlestar Galactica at Dragon Con and/or in the Atlanta area for some reason?
The 2020 Dragon Award for Best TV series goes to The Mandalorian, which should surprise absolutely nobody, considering that pretty much everybody loves the show and is eagerly awaiting season 2. This was also my pick BTW.
The winner of the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Movie is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. This win does seem a little surprising at first, because The Rise of Skywalker was a very divisive movie that few people unequivocally loved. However, if you look at the competition in this category – which was affected by the near total lack of new movie due to the pandemic and due to movie theatres still being closed in the US – this win no longer looks quite so surprising. Ad Astra and the live action Lion King are two movies that hardly anybody seemed to like at all and that got comparatively little buzz either, though Disney’s live-action versions of their animated movies always seem to do well, though no one ever admits to watching them or has a single good word to say about them. Joker certainly was popular, but it was also a very divisive love it or hate it film (I’m in the latter camp), plus it’s also only very tangentially SFF. Terminator: Dark Fate was yet another unnecessary sequel to a story that found a satisfying end three decades ago, though the few who did bother to watch the movie generally enjoyed it. And while Fast Color, which was also my pick, is a lovely movie, it’s also an indie movie with a small budget and a much smaller reach than a behemoth like Star Wars.
I’m not a gamer, so I don’t vote in the gaming categories at the Dragon Awards and also can’t say much about the winners – a Star Wars videogame, a Minecraft and a Magic the Gathering expansion and a boardgame called Tapestry – except that they all seem like popular choices.
The Dragon Awards don’t have short fiction categories, but there is a short fiction award given out at Dragon Con, the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. This Eugie Award is not a popular vote award like the Dragon Awards, but a juried award. The 2020 winner is the delightful novelette “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll, which I enjoyed very much and which was also my top vote in the Best Novelette category at the Hugos this year.
One problem with the Dragon Awards is that – unlike the Hugos, where the full voting and nominating stats are made public within an hour of the winners being announced – the Dragons are very much a black box award. We don’t know how many votes have been cast in total and per category and how these votes have been distributed among the finalists. Not to mention the boilerplate sweepstakes rules, which basically allow the Dragon Awards administrators to choose the finalists and winners according to their whims (not saying that this is what happens), or the fact that at least in the early years, it was possible for voters to register with multiple e-mail addresses and vote several times.
This year, Dragon Con released a press release about the awards, which notes that there were 8000 ballots cast in total. It also notes that Dragon Con partnered with several public libraries in the greater Atlanta area to promote the awards and make the finalists available to their patrons to allow them to cast informed votes. This is a great step forward and also explains why the Dragon Awards look a lot more like you would expect a popular vote award to look this year.
So after five years, the Dragon Awards finally seem to be on a good way to become what they set out to be from the start, an award honouring broadly popular SFF works, which may or may not be overlooked by other awards. The Dragon Awards are on a good way at last. Of course, the rough early years still affect perception of the Dragon Awards, but if the awards continue to follow the path they have chosen this year, those lingering effects will eventually subside. After all, the Hugos survived They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley winning Best Novel in 1955, too.
ETA: Camestros Felapton looks into the Dragon Award numbers and notes that the winners still skew heavily male, especially if you include the comics categories.
ETA ETA: Camestros also has a handy graphic representation of Hugo and Dragon Award finalists and the overlaps between them and also takes a look at the percentage of Dragon Award finalists and winners published by big, medium and small publishers.
ETA 2: At Women Write About Comics, Doris V. Sutherland shares her thoughts on the 2020 Dragon Awards winners and notes that in spite of some far right authors threatening to boycott the awards, thousands of people still voted.
ETA 3: At File 770, Mike Glyer shares some reactions from the puppy camp to the 2020 Dragon Award winners. So far, reactions seem to be divided between “We shall ignore those winners we don’t like”, which basically leaves Cole/Anspach, D.J. Butler and The Mandalorian (cause everybody loves The Mandalorian), and “It’s all the pandemic’s fault, because normal people(TM) couldn’t be bothered to vote in an internet poll”.
ETA4: Former Rabid Puppy in chief Vox Day briefly weighs in on various rightwing culture war movements (archive.is link). He mostly quotes from a post by Jon Del Arroz about “culture war grifters” (basically, a lot of these movements devolved into internal alt-right feuding), but also notes that the “Sad Puppies and the Dragon Awards were doomed”, because they wanted to fix rather than fight “the enemy”.
Ignoring all of the culture war bluster, it seems as if the various puppy offshoot movements have finally realised that the Dragon Awards are no longer “the puppy awards”.