Some Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Finalists

So here is my Hugo finalist reaction post at long last. I know it took a bit longer than usual to get the post up, but since I’m a Hugo finalist myself this year, I took some time off to celebrate, congratulate fellow finalists and update everything that needed updating.

So let’s take a look at the finalists for the 2021 Hugo Award. You can also read the reactions by Camestros Felapton, Doris V. Sutherland, Font Folly, Rob Bricken and Alasdair Stuart. And if you want to read/watch the finalists for yourself, the always excellent JJ has you covered and lists where to find the 2021 Hugo finalists online for free (and legally) at File 770.

And now, let’s delve right into the categories:

Best Novel

This is an excellent, if unsurprising ballot, because all six finalists are books that got a lot of buzz and attention last year. Rebecca Roanhorse is one of the most exciting new voices in our genre and Black Sun is great novel.

N.K. Jemisin has won four Hugos in five years. The City We Became is an expansion of her 2017 short story Hugo finalist “The City Born Great”, which I enjoyed a lot.

Piranesi is Susanna Clarke’s first novel after her 2005 Hugo winner Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and got a lot of buzz well beyond the SFF community. I have to admit that I haven’t read Piranesi yet, even though I enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a lot back in the day. However, I’m no longer the same person I was in 2004/05 and my tastes have changed. Also, as Adri Joy and Joe Sherry point out in their analysis of the 2020 Nebula finalists at nerds of a feather, times have changed a lot in the past sixteen years and the Hugo (and Nebula) ballots look very different today, so what felt like a breath of fresh air back then may no longer feel as fresh today. Which dosn’t mean that I won’t enjoy Piranesi, though it explains why I haven’t been moved to read it yet.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, Network Effect by Martha Wells and The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal are all sequels to previous Hugo finalists and – in the case of the Murderbot and the Lady Astronaut books – winners. Harrow the Ninth and Network Effect are also both highly enjoyable. I haven’t read The Relentless Moon yet.

I’m a bit surprised that Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia did not make the ballot, but then it was maybe a bit too much horror for the tastes of Hugo voters.

Diversity count: 6 women (which I’m sure will lead to the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth among the usual suspects), 2 writers of colour, 2 international writers*.

Best Novella

Again, the finalists in this category are not particularly surprising, because all of them got a lot of attention and buzz last year.

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire is the latest installment in her popular Wayward Children series, which has racked up several Hugo nominations and one win over the past few years. I have to admit that I don’t love the Wayward Children novellas as much as many others obviously do, but they’re clearly popular.

Sarah Gailey is another great new writer who burst onto the scene in the past few years as well as a previous Hugo finalist and winner. The novella seems to be their natural form and Upright Women Wanted is a great story, which also was on my ballot.

P. Djèlí Clark is yet another excellent new writer who came to prominence in the past few years. And yes, I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s the truth. Ring Shout is part of the current mini-trend of Lovecraftian retellings from the POV of people whose mere existence would have horrified Lovecraft. I liked Ring Shout a lot, though it did not make my ballot in the end.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, Finna by Nino Cipri and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi all got a lot of attention last year. Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of them, so I can’t say more about the stories. However, I look forward to checking them out.

Last year, it seemed as if the dominance of in the novella category had been broken, but this year it’s back with a vengeance, since all six novella finalists were published by I predict wailing and gnashing of teeth among the usual suspects.

Diversity count: 2 women, 2 men, 2 non-binary, 3 writers of colour, at least 3 LGBTQA writers**

Best Novelette

Yes, I know I’m repeating myself here, but this is another excellent selection of finalists.

“Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker is a great story and was also on my ballot.

“Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A.T. Greenblatt is a story I enjoyed a lot, though in the end it did not make my ballot.

Whenever I see Naomi Kritzer’s name in the TOC of a magazine, I always know that I’ll get a story that’s well worth reading. “Monster” is not exception here. It’s not a happy story, but a very good one. It was not only on my ballot, it was also the first entry on my personal list of potential Hugo nominees for the year 2020. Sadly, “Monster” was a bit overshadowed by another story that came out in the same issue of Clarkesworld, so I’m glad to see it get its due.

Which brings me to “Helicopter Story” by Isabel Fall. This story, known then as “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, caused a massive uproar, since some people felt it was transphobic and thought that it was an attempt to troll Clarkesworld, based on the fact that no one had heard of Isabel Fall before and that her bio was extremly scanty. Things turned ugly, when the Internet suddenly fell on Isabel Fall’s head, leading her to pull the story. It also turned out that Isabel Fall was trans herself, but not yet out, hence the scant bio. Camestros Felapton chronicles the whole saga here.

I actually read the “Helicopter Story” back when it first came out, a week or so before all hell broke loose. At the time, my reaction was, “Nah, I’m not sure what to make of this one. Feels a bit transphobic. Not going to link it in the weekly round-up at the Speculative Fiction Showcase.”

Considering that as many people defended the “Helicopter Story” and nominated it for a Hugo as condemned the story, it truly seems to be a Marmite story. I suspect part of the reason is that Isabel Fall attempted something very ambitious with this story and didn’t pull it off.

Aliette de Bodard is another author whose stories I normally read as soon as they pop up in the TOC of a magazine. Nonetheless, “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” passed me by, probably because it came out at a time when I was very busy. However, I look forward to trying it.

“The Pill” by Meg Elison is a story I haven’t read. It’s also a Nebula finalist this year, so it clearly struck a chord.

We also have a nice distribution of sources here with two stories from Clarkesworld, two from Uncanny, one from and one from a collection.

Diversity count: 6 women (cue wailing and gnashing of teeth), 1 writer of colour, 1 international writer, at least 2 LGBTQA writers

Best Short Story

Another selection of fine stories.

“Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher was also on my Hugo ballot, while “Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer, “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee and “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson made my longlist, but not my ballot in the end, because there are simply too many good short stories out there.

I have read neither “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad nor “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, though both are also Nebula finalists this year.

Again, we have a nice distribution of venues with two stories from Uncanny, one from, one from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, one from Diabolical Plots and one from an anthology.

Diversity count: 4 women, 2 men, 2 writer of colour, 1 international writer, at least two LGBTQA writers

Best Series

Repeating what I said back in 2019 and 2020, I initially was in favour of the Best Series Hugo, but I don’t think it’s working as intended.

When the Best Series Hugo was proposed, the argument was that a lot of popular and long-running series are overlooked by the Hugos – or the Nebulas for that matter – because the individual novels don’t stand alone very well and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

However in practice, such series, no matter how popular, are rarely nominated. Particularly The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is notable by its absence, even though the Best Series Hugo seems tailor-made for this series.

Instead, the Best Series ballot tends to consist of trilogies by authors Hugo voters like and where individual volumes have often made the ballot before as well as of works set in the same wold that form a series if you squint really hard. I guess most Hugo voters simply aren’t series readers.

That said, the actual Best Series ballot looks pretty good this year. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is a hugely popular series where prettty much every installment has either been a finalist or would have been, if Martha Wells hadn’t withdrawn two Murderbot novellas from consideration in 2019. It’s also a great series.

October Daye by Seanan McGuire is something of a fixture on the Best Series ballot by now, since this is already its third nomination in this relatively new category. This is also the series that comes closest to the kind of longrunning series the award was initially created for. Besides, it’s a great series.

The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal and The Interdependency by John Scalzi are both very popular series by popular writers. Volumes from both series have been nominated before and Lady Astronaut has won both Best Novel and Best Novelette. I’m not the biggest fan of either series and prefer other series by the writers in question, but I’m not at all surprised to see these series on the ballot.

I enjoyed The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty quite a bit and am happy to see it nominated. I’m afraid The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang doesn’t work for me, though again I’m not surprised to see it nominated, because a lot of people seem to like it and besides, R.F. Kuang won the Astounding Award last year.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man (but it’s the dreaded John Scalzi, so cue wailing and gnashing of teeth), 1 writer of colour, at least 1 LGBTQA writer

Best Related Work

So far I’ve been very positive about the 2021 Hugo ballot. But I’m afraid I can’t be as positive about Best Related Work.

As I’ve stated several times before, I have a string preference for well researched in-depth non-fiction books in this category. Non-fiction books is also what the category was originally designed to honour, before the definition was expanded to cover things like the online version of the venerable SF Encyclopedia.

However, edge case finalists have appeared in the Best Related Work category for as long as I’ve been voting for the Hugos. And since I enjoy reading genre-related non-fiction, these edge case finalists have annoyed me for almost as long. A lot of those edge case finalists were perfectly fine in themselves, but they’re not what I’m looking for on the Best Related Work ballot anymore than I want a sausage, no matter how good, when I’m craving ice cream.

But whereas we only had one or two edge case finalists per year, when I started voting, by now they have become ever more numerous and edgier, until they’re drowning out what the category was designed for, namely non-fiction books. And I for one find this a pity, not just because I like genre-related non-fiction, but also because non-fiction books often take years to research, don’t pay very well or at all (academic publishing is terrible with regard to paying writers) and are written out of a desire to inform people about the genre or some aspect thereof. Non-fiction writers deserve to be honoured and not snubbed in favour of something that might be a perfectly wonderful projct, but is in no way even remotely non-fiction.

After the lengthy introductory, let’s take a look at the finalists, starting with the one which comes closest to what this category was initially designed for, namely A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by Lynell George. It’s not only the sole actual non-fiction book on the ballot, but also a vey good one, which means that I will probably rank it highly.

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley got a lot of positive attention last year and is certainly a deserving finalist. However, it is also an edge case, especially since translated works of fiction generally are nominated in the respective fiction categories. See the nominations and wins for Liu Cixin, Hao Jingfang and Thomas Olde Heuvelt and their translators Ken Liu and Lia Belt respectively. However, there were only eight years between the first publication of The Three-Body Problem as a serial in a Chinese science fiction magazine in 2006 and the publication of the English translation, which would go on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.  The Beowulf manuscript, however, is roughly a thousand years old and the story is probably even older. Not to mention that there are lots of translations and adaptations of Beowulf floating around. So in the absence of a Hugo Award for Best Translation, Best Related Work is the most suitable category.

Another edge case is The Last Bronycon: A Fandom Autopsy, a YouTube documentary by Jenny Nicholson. Now I initially was opposed to documentaries ending up in Best Related Work, since Dramatic Presentation is a better fit and has actually been won by documentary works such as the TV coverage of the first Moon landing before. However, documentaries would likely never even make the ballot in Dramatic Presentation and if they did, they would get squashed by popular Hollywood movies and TV shows. Besides, documentaries and non-fiction use different mediums for the same purpose, to inform or educate about a specific subject. So I’m okay with documentaries nominated in Best Related Work by now.  I can’t say anything about The Last Bronycon specifically, because I haven’t watched it yet.

Blog posts and essays have been popping up in Best Related Work for several years now. One of them – “We have always fought” by Kameron Hurley – even won in 2014. There is no minimum length requirement, after all. That said, I rarely find individual essays or blog posts equivalent to full length non-fiction books or documentaries.

This year, Natalie Luhrs’ blog post “George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition)” has been nominated in the Best Related Work category. It’s probably the most controversial finalist this year, not so much because it’s only 1600 words long, but because it contains the F-word and metaphorically threatens grieveous bodily harm to a pillar of the SFF community. There are also concerns whether a Hugo finalist whose title insults a Worldcon member might be a Code of Conduct violation. This is an interestingly precedent, largely because Natalie’s sweary post is not the first potentially offensive Hugo finalist. A lot of the finalists during the puppy years, including such gems as “Safe Space as a Rape Room”, Wisdom from the Internet or “If You Were an Award, My Love…”, were a lot more offensive than Natalie Luhrs swearing at  George R.R. Martin. “If You Were an Award, My Love” was also a direct attack against Hugo finalist and Worldcon member Rachel Swirsky.

ETA: My most excellent fellow Best Fan Writer finalist weighs in on Natalie Luhrs’ post and whether it violates the Code of Conduct. Like me, Paul is in the middle with regard to this issue with friends on both sides.

ETA 2: Camestros Felapton also weighs in on Natalie Luhrs’ post and whether it violates the Code of Conduct.

ETA 3: Simon McNeill also weighs in on Natalie Luhrs’ post.

Natalie’s post was written in response to the neverending Hugo ceremony from hell of 2020, where toastmaster George R.R. Martin lost himself in endless reminiscences of “the good old days” and lost the audience in the process. A lot of us were angry about the disastrous Hugo ceremony and blogged about it. You can read my reaction, which is less sweary than Natalie’s but no less annoyed about the whole thing, here.

Most of the criticism seems to focus on the fact that the blog post might be offensive to George R.R. Martin. However, George R.R. Martin is a grown man, one of the most famous authors on the planet, has more money than God and should be able to take some criticism from a blogger, even if that criticism is sweary. And George R.R. Martin has certainly earned that criticism, though personally I would have phrased it (and did phrase it) differently. Besides, it’s not as if Natalie Luhrs is really going to build a rocket in her garden and shoot Martin and Robert Silverberg into the sun. She was just venting, like many of us.

That said, I’m not a big fan of inside baseball Hugo finalists, whether it’s Laura Mixon’s report about the internet troll known as RequiresHate (though I did end up voting for Laura Mixon), Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech, Chris Garcia’s Best Fanzine acceptance speech or Natalie Luhrs’ angry rant. The Hugos are about the history of our genre, what we consider important and worth preserving. In cases like this, I always wonder whether anybody will even care about this controversy in ten, twenty, thirty or fifty years. Or will these controversies be as opaque to future fans as fanzine controversies of the 1940s are to us? Natalie Luhrs is a fine blogger and I hope we’ll see her on the Best Fan Writer ballot again someday. But maybe not for a single, angry blog post.

Which brings us to the two finalists that stretch the definition of Best Related Work to the breaking point, namely the virtual conventions FIYAHCON and CoNZealand Fringe. Now both virtual cons were projects created out of enthusiasm and love for the genre and brought many people a lot of joy and information. FIYAHCON was a great con. CoNZealand Fringe incurred some justified criticism due to appropriating CoNZealand’s name without asking permission and taking place on the same weekend, though there was no overlap with official CoNZealand programming, since CoNZealand Fringe ran on European time. But even though the organisers made mistakes regarding the name and timing, the project (which I watched come together behind the scenes) was born out of enthusiasm and a desire to cover subjects that the official CoNZealand programming did not cover. However, this category is still called Best Related Work, not Best Convention.

Some people have said that the nominations for Natalie Luhrs’ blog post and CoNZealand Fringe are intended to send a message to Worldcon that some members are dissatisfied with the convention and the way it does things. However, the Hugo ballot is intended to celebrate excellence in the field, not to send a message, no matter how justified.

I’m not the only one who is frustrated with Best Related Work becoming increasingly diluted until its original purpose is lost. Doris V. Sutherland expresses similar thoughts in her post about the 2021 Hugo finalists and indeed, a lot of people are unhappy with Best Related Work being stretched way past its breaking point. There is also an increasingly heated comment thread at File 770.

I expect that there will be one or more proposals to reform the category filed at the DisCon III business meeting. If someone comes up with a good one, I will certainly co-sign. Personally, I think the best solution would be to split Best Related Work in Best Non-Fiction for non-fiction books, documentaries and the like and Best Miscellany or Best Fannish Thing for things like virtual conventions, the Mexicanx Initiative, AO3, acceptance speeches, etc…

Diversity count: 12 women, 2 men, 1 unknown, six finalists of colour, eight international finalists, at least 2 LGBTQA finalists

After all that blather, let’s get on to…

Best Graphic Story

This category has felt a bit stale in recent years with the same popular series being nominated over and over again.

However, the 2021 Best Graphic Story ballot looks a lot more diverse than in recent years, with only two repeat nominees, Volume 5 of the perennial Hugo finalist Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda and Volume 2 of DIE by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans, which also was a finalist last year.

The other four finalists are new to the ballot. Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over by Seanan McGuire,  Takeshi Miyazawa and Rosi Kämpe is a new Marvel series by a popular writer featuring a popular character, namely Gwen Stacy, formerly known as Spider Gwen. Invisible Kingdom, Vol. 2: Edge of Everything by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward is an interesting looking space opera comic. Once & Future Vol. 1: The King Is Undead by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora is delightfully strange sounding comic featuring an elderly monster hunter, her grandson and undead Arthurian heroes and villains.  The graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, finally,  got a lot of positive reviews also beyond the usual comics sphere.

In previous years, the Best Graphic Story category was often dominated by Image Comics with the occasional webcomic mixed in. This year, however, we have a nice mix of publishers. Image has two nominations, Marvel, Dark Horse and BOOM Studios have one each, as has Harry M. Abrams.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make comics.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long

2020 was a strange year for cinema, because a lot of the movies we might have expected to see on the Hugo ballot such as Dune, Black Widow, The Eternals, etc… never came out due to the pandemic. This might give smaller indie movies a chance to hit the ballot or it might mean a ballot composed almost entirely of whole seasons of TV shows.

In practice, option 1 is closer to what happened, though sadly none of the fine movies that got an eligibility extension at CoNZealand made the ballot. Now Bacurau was probably too obscure, but I had hoped that The Vast of Night or Color Out of Space might make the ballot.

So let’s take a look at what did make the ballot: The Old Guard is a great update on the old Highlander concept of immortals living among us, featuring a badarse Charlize Theron and the sweetest gay couple you’ve ever seen (they met during the Crusades and kept killing each other, until they found a better use for their time). Honestly, what’s not to love?

I already mentioned my thoughts on Birds of Prey and the very long title and Tenet in the Nebula finalist comments thread. Basically, I had forgotten the existence of Birds of Prey and the trailer didn’t appeal to me. As for Tenet, I have disliked Christopher Nolan’s since Memento. Though a German streaming service as Tenet, so I have no excuse not to try it. Though of the two DC superhero movies to come out this year, I would have preferred Wonder Woman ’84 to Birds of Prey. For movies which made it into the theatres before the pandemic hit, I would have preferred The Invisible Man, which was a great update on a classic story, to Birds of Prey.

I haven’t seen Palm Springs, but it got a lot of positive reactions and I’m looking forward to watching it. I’m not the target audience for Pixar movies, but they’re popular with the Hugo electorate and Soul actually looks more interesting than most. Besides, it’s on Disney Plus, so I should be able to watch it.

The one finalist in this category that really surprised me is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. In fact, my initial reaction was, “Sure, the Eurovision Song Contest can certainly be genre-adjacent at times, but how can it be nominated, since it was cancelled in 2020?” However, this nomination is not for the actual Eurovision Song Contest, but for a comedy about the contest. Apparently, it has mild fantasy elements. No idea what to make of this one, since I hadn’t even heard of its existence before it was nominated.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make movies.

Best Dramatic Presentation Short

TV was much less affected by the pandemic than movies and so the Best Dramatic Presentation Short ballot is very strong this year – with one exception.

Everybody’s favourite series about bountyhunting and raising alien Jedi babies, The Mandalorian, nabbed two nominations this year for the episode “The Jedi” and “The Rescue”. I would have preferred “The Believer” to “The Rescue”, but I’m still very happy to see Mando and Baby Grogu nominated.

Doctor Who is almost guaranteed a slot on the Hugo ballot, whenever it’s on. And unlike some of the weak episodes nominated during the later Steve Moffat era, “Fugitive of the Judoon” is actually very good.

The Expanse is another perennial Hugo favourite. I’m woefully behind on the show and so I haven’t seen the nominated episode “Gaugamela” yet, but I’m sure it’s good.

The nomination for the two-part series finale of the new She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was somewhat unexpected, but then the series is hugely popular and also apparently very good. I haven’t watched it yet – the animation style does not appeal to me – but I’m a She-Ra fan of old and always happy to see a childhood favourite honoured. Besides, She-Ra is the closest to sword and sorcery and traditional planetary romance we’ve seen on the Hugo ballot for a long time, so go She-Ra with the power of Greyskull.

And now we get to the turd in the punchbowl, namely the inevitable episode of The Good Place. Though at least the series ended, so this is the last year we’ll have to deal with it. Now I think The Good Place is a terrible show. I find it literally unwatchable, but apparently lots of others feel differently. But even if a lot of people like The Good Place, can we maybe vote for something else this year? The Good Place has won three Hugos in a row and doesn’t need another, whereas The Mandalorian and She-Ra have never won (and this is the last chance for She-Ra, which has finished as well) and The Expanse and Doctor Who haven’t won in a while now.

I’m a bit surprised by the absence of Lovecraft Country, Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard. Lovecraft Country got a lot of positive buzz last year. It didn’t end as strongly as it started, but it had some outstanding episodes along the way, one of which was on my ballot. The third season of Star Trek Discovery was its best to date and though Star Trek Picard‘s resolution was a bit weak, it had some excellent episodes along the way.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make TV shows.

Best Editor Short

This is one of the categories where we usually get a lot of repeat finalists, simply because there are only so many editors working in the field. That said, Mur Lafferty and S.B. Divya are new to the ballot this year as editors of Escape Pod. Neil Clarke, Ellen Datlow, C.C. Finlay, Jonathan Strahan and Sheila Williams are all people we’ve seen in this category before. They’re all most worthy finalists.

Diversity count: 4 women, 3 men, 1 editor of colour, 1 international editor.

Best Editor Long

This is another category where we have comparatively little churn, because there are only so many editors. That said, a lot of this year’s finalists are younger editors who haven’t been on the ballot twenty times before.

Nivia Evans of Orbit is the only new name on the ballot and officially a Publishers Weekly superstar. Sarah Guan and Brit Hvide are on the ballot for the second time, Diana M. Pho for the third. Sheila E. Gilbert and Navah Wolfe have both been nominated a few times before and Navah Wolfe has also won most deservedly for two years in a row. Once again, they’re all very worthy finalists.

ETA: Navah Wolfe points out that Sarah Guan is also a first time finalist, so we have two new editors on the ballot this year.

Diversity count: 6 women (duh – book editors are overwhelmingly female), 3 editors of colour (which is great, because publishing is still a very white industry)

Best Pro Artist

Maurizio Manzieri, who does the beautiful covers for Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe novellas among others, is the only brand-new name in this category, though he is an established artist. Tommy Arnold, Rovina Cai and Alyssa Winans were finalists last year, while John Picacio and Galen Dara are relative Hugo veterans. Once again, they’re all excellent.

Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, 3 artists of colour, 2 international artists

Best Semiprozine

This is probably the category with the most repeat finalists, simply because the pool of potential finalists is limited and the big zines with large reader-/listenerships are privileged over smaller venues.

Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Strange Horizons are three excellent magazines which have been around for a long time now and keep doing good work. FIYAH is not only a great magazine, their editorial staff are also some of the nicest folks in the genre, so I’m always happy to see them nominated. The two fiction podcasts Escape Pod and PodCastle round out the ballot and also show the rise of fiction podcasts. PodCastle is the only new finalist on the ballot. All six are great magazines/podcasts.

No diversity count, way too many people (a whopping 87 in the case of Strange Horizons) are needed to make magazines.

Best Fanzine

The good news is that we have six excellent finalists in this category. nerds of a feather has been offering insightful SFF reviews, interviews and commentary for many years now and has been nominated in this category several times before. Lady Business always offers great genre commentary, recommendations and reviews from a feminist perspective. With Journey Planet, every issue brings something new and it’s always fascinating. Plus Journey Planet is holding up the flag for traditional fanzines in a category that is increasingly dominated by blogs. The Full Lid is Alasdair Stuart’s and Marguerite Kenner’s weekly SFF e-mail newsletter. It’s always interesting and I’m always happy to find a new issue in my inbox. Quick Sip Reviews is one of the few places in the internet where you can find short story reviews (Locus and nerds of a feather also review short stories on occasion. There’s also Tangent Online). Finally, I’m really happy to see my friends Olav Rokne and Amanda Wakaruk of the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog on the Hugo ballot, because they’ve been doing great work for years and deserve recognition.

That said, I’m a bit disappointed that my friends and colleagues of Galactic Journey did not make the ballot this year. However, there can be only six and Galactic Journey will be represented in my voter packet via some of the articles I wrote for them.

So did my Fanzine/Fancast Spotlight initiative make a difference? I’m not sure. The number of nominations for Best Fanzine is still low, the second lowest behind Fan Artist. That said, I featured four of the six finalist (plus two Journey Planet contributors for their individual zines). I also suspect that if the Fanzine/Fancast Spotlight had an impact, it will become more apparent on the longlist than on the actual ballot, which is also what happened with the Retro Hugo project last year.

No diversity count, too many people are involved in making fanzines.

Best Fancast

The fancast category tends to be a bit stale with the same podcasts getting nominated over and over again. This is a pity, because there is an embarrassment of great genre podcasts out there.

This year, however, we have a nice mix of repeat finalists and newcomers. Be the Serpent, The Coode Street Podcast and my friend of The Skiffy and Fanty Show have all appeared in this category before and I’m happy to see them on the ballot again, because they do great work. Worldbuilding for Masochists is new to me (and to the ballot). I look forward to checking it out. Finally, we have Claire Rousseau and the first time finalist Kalanadi representing the Booktube community.

I featured only one of the six finalists as a Fancast Spotlight and sent the questions out to another who didn’t get around to replying yet. However, I’m working on interviewing the others. This is also as good a place as any to announce that I will continue to do Fanzine/Fancast Spotlights, because there are a lot of great fanzines, blogs and fancasts out there I didn’t get around to featuring in the first round.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make fancasts.

Best Fan Writer

This is my category and once again, I’m in most excellent company. Paul Weimer is a good friend, insightful reviewer, great photographer and one of the nicest folks in the SFF community. I got to know Alasdair Stuart when we were ballot buddies last year and am always looking forward to finding The Full Lid in my inbox. Charles Payseur has been doing great work for years reviewing short fiction. Elsa Sjunneson always offers great insights about the intersections between disability and SFF such as the portrayal of disabled characters. Finally, Jason Sanford’s Genre Grapevine column is a must-read. Jason was also the one who broke the story that Baen’s Bar, the forum of SFF publisher Baen, was being used by a handful of members to advocate political violence. He got a lot of crap up to and including death threats as a result, so I’m really happy to see him on the ballot. Besides, this is Jason’s first Hugo nomination, though he has been a Nebula finalists a few times.

I did see some grumblings online that the wrong people had been nominated and that it’s just the usual suspects. Of course, there are always complaints about the fan writer category and last year, 41 Hugo voters hated all of us so much that they no awarded the entire category. But then, no one has to like what I or my excellent fellow finalists write and they’re free to criticise our work.

However, I don’t think we’re “the usual suspects”. Paul, Elsa and I are on our second nomination, Charles and Alasdair on their third. For Jason Sanford, it’s his first nomination. None of us has ever won in this category, though Elsa won for her work with Uncanny. Dave Langford we’re not and indeed, the fan writer category has not had a single repeat winner since Dave Langford’s last win in 2007. And this is a good thing, because it means that we have a vibrant fan writing scene out there.

Diversity count: 2 women, 4 men, 2 international writers

It is notable that Fan Writer is the only category, which is male dominated, which should appease the “Wah, where are the poor widdle menz?” brigade. On the other hand, they’re probably not happy with Paul, Charles, Alasdair and Jason either.

Best Fan Artist

Once again, we have a great selection of very different artists here.

Iain J. Clark has created some great artwork for the Dublin Worldcon and the 2024 Glasgow Worldcon bid. Check out “Shipbuilding over the Clyde”, which he did for the Glasgow in 2024 bid. Sara Felix creates beautiful jewellery, sculptures and other artworks. She has also designed several Hugo bases, but never won one. Laya Rose and Grace P. Fong both create beautiful fantasy art. Finnish artist Maya Hahto is best known for the humorous illustrations and mascots she created for Worldcon 75 and DisCon III. Cyan Daly is the only new name in this category. Her name was also new to me, but her work was not, because I had admired it on the cover of FIYAH Magazine.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 2 artists of colour, 4 international artists.

Best Video Game

This is a special one-off Hugo given out by DisCon III. I’m not a gamer, so I can’t really say much about the finalists except that I’ve heard about all of them and that I’ve heard only good things (except for some aggrieved fanboys complaining about The Last of Us, Part II). The finalists also seem to be a nice mix of big budget games by big studios and small indie games.

For those who like me are not gamers and have problems properly evaluating this category, DisCon III has promised to put up some demo and gameplay videos on their YouTube channel.

Lodestar Award for Best YA Book

This is the first of the two not-a-Hugos, which are awarded and administered alongside the Hugos according to the same rules.

I’m not a big YA reader, so I have read only one of the finalists, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher, which was delightful.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik got a lot of buzz, though I haven’t read it yet, because her work is hit and miss for me and besides, I don’t particularly like stories about magic schools. Legendborn by Tracy Deonn also seems to start out as a novel about magic at an exclusive school, but then it takes a turn into Arthurian territory. It also sounds really interesting.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko are also finalists for the Andre Norton Award and so I discussed them in my overview of the 2020 Nebula finalists.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is completely new to me, though it looks interesting.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 non-binary, 4 writers of colour, at least 1 LGBTQA writer

Astounding Award for Best New Writer

The renamed Campbell Award continues to offer up excellent finalists. Jenn Lyons and Emily Tesh are the only repeat finalists and I enjoyed their work very much last year. The debut novels of Micaiah Johnson, Simon Jimenez and A.K. Larkwood got excellent reviews last year and are also really great books.  Lindsay Ellis is a popular YouTuber and film critic with a huge following. She also was a Hugo finalist two years ago for her documentary about The Hobbit films and self-published a novel with a co-author in 2013, which did not meet the SFWA requirements and therefore doesn’t count towards the Astounding Award. I haven’t read her debut novel Axiom’s End, but I’m looking forward to trying it.

Diversity count: 5 women, 1 man, 2 writers of colour, 2 international writers

And that’s it. All in all, the 2021 Hugo ballot looks excellent and not just, because I’m on it. There are a few finalists I don’t particularly care for, but that’s always the case. Best Related Work is the only category I’m not really happy with.

Unlike previous year, I don’t see any particularly strong themes on this year’s ballot. We have several robot stories and two very different takes on the Arthurian legend, but otherwise the ballot is highly varied, covering the various flavours of science fiction, fantasy and even horror.

I’ll keep the comments open for now, but if things get rude or people start fighting each other, I reserve the right to close them.


*I identify “international” as a writer/creator living outside the US. If we include writers who are first or second generation immigrants, there would be several more.

**The number of LGBTQA people on the ballot might be incorrect, because I don’t know everybody’s orientation. Not to mention that not everybody is out.


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30 Responses to Some Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Finalists

  1. FontFolly says:

    I love _A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking_ so, so much! Glad you do, too.

    • Cora says:

      It’s a lovely book, though to be fair, I haven’t read the other Lodestar finalists yet.

      • garik16 says:

        It’s a great list of finalists. Legendborn was good enough to make my best novel list, and Elatsoe was close. Haven’t read Cemetery Boys yet but it’s gotten raved about.

        A Deadly Education is…..fine, it’s a lot of fun, but it isn’t anything special, and it features some of the problematic quirks that Novik occasionally suffers from when dealing with people from international cultures (see also her Temeraire series). Not up to the level of the others for me by a long shot, but well she’s a very well known author for this audience, so no surprise on the nom.

        • Cora says:

          I did like the first few Temeraire books, but Naomi Novik’s work is hit or miss for me and she does have problematic quirks. But she is popular and frequently makes the Hugo ballot, so I’m not surprised to see A Deadly Education here.

          Legendborn, Elatsoe and Cemetery Boys all sound fascinating and I look forward to trying them. In general, I haven’t always been happy with the Lodestar finalists (one year, there were three books with very similar plots and set-ups and main characters I hated), but the Lodestar has also offered some very good finalists indeed.

  2. jayn says:

    Regarding Piranesi – I found it to be a VERY different book from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I also liked in the past, but found initially difficult to get into. Piranesi is much less ornate; stark and pared-down, and IMO all the more powerful for it. So even if your tastes have changed greatly, you might still like it, since the author’s work has changed too.

    • Cora says:

      Oh, I’ll definitely give Piranesi a try and may well end up loving it. And you’re right that authors and their work also changes in 16 years, not just readers.

  3. S. Qiouyi Lu says:

    Just a note that Sarah Gailey uses they/them pronouns.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the correction. I actually thought I had gotten Sarah Gailey’s pronouns correct, but a wrong pronoun slipped through. It’s been corrected now.

  4. Paul Weimer says:

    It is notable that Fan Writer is the only category, which is male dominated, which should appease the “Wah, where are the poor widdle menz?” brigade. On the other hand, they’re probably not happy with Paul, Charles, Alasdair and Jason either.

    Thanks for writing this all up, Cora. If anyone wonders why you are a Hugo Finalist, this post certainly is prima facie evidence.

    And yeah, I suspect that particular brigade is not exactly pleased that even with a category that is majority male, that said guys are the four of us.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks, Paul. It’s an honour to be nominated alongside you again.

      And yes, I’ve already seen one of the usual suspects grumble that Jason was only on the ballot because of his Baen’s Bar report, apparently unaware that Hugo nominations are for work done in the previous calendar year.

  5. Simon McNeil says:

    Thanks for the link!

    Going over your post there were two items that stood out. The first was your mention of the Beowulf translation – I do see where you’re coming from regarding it being an edge case with regard to “related work” but being a novella to novel length (depending on translation) poem puts it in an odd spot. The Hugo doesn’t have a category specific to poetry so I suppose the question would be where such a significant work of poetry should fall, categorically.

    The other was on The Good Place – I’ve got a soft spot for the series finale, not going to lie, particularly for the handling of Jason’s character. It reminded me a bit of how Jin Yong addresses the idea of moral development and intelligence in Legend of the Condor Heroes and I felt it made for a really effective wrap to his arc specifically. With that being said, I’m perfectly aware that The Good Place is a lumpy show. I mean I’ve read a lot of the books that Chidi teaches throughout the series and shouted at the TV a fair number of times about the absence of significant modern materialists from its discourse.

    So I am curious what your take is on the series. Links appreciated.

    • Cora says:

      I’m fine with the Beowulf translation being nominated in Best Related Work, because there really is no other place for it to go (it’s not comparable to The Three-Body Problem or “Folding Beijing”, because it’s not a fairly recent work being translated for the first time, but a new translation of a classic work) and it clearly is a work that deserves recognition.

      Regarding The Good Place, for starters I don’t like sitcoms and have issues with the format. And when The Good Place was first nominated for a Hugo in 2018, the first season was just airing on German TV, so I tried watching the show. And I found it literally unwatchable. I have seen a few clips since and I appreciate that the actors and production team always seem to be enthusiastic about their Hugo nominations and wins, but it just doesn’t work for me.

  6. Sarah Gulde says:

    Thanks Cora for featuring Star Trek Quarterly and Women at Warp!

  7. Lis Riba says:

    I’d love to see a larger discussion of how to reform Best Related Work to produce a more coherent set of finalists.

    One possibility is splitting the award into long form – for books and documentaries – and short form – for individual speeches & essays. Still not sure where that would put Fringe & FIYAHCON, though.
    Or, follow the model of the art awards, and have Pro for commercially published works, and Fan for all the rest.

    Part of the problem seems to be that not many people submitted nominations for this category. I believe I saw on F770 that the finalists each received between 35 – 70 votes. If so, then shrinking the category further would make it easier for small groups to push their candidates onto the ballot.

    I don’t have an easy answer. Normally, I’d suggest F770 would be a good platform for this kind of discussion, but the current firestorm would taint those conversations.

    • Cora says:

      I strongly suspect that we will see one or more proposals to reform Best Related Work. One possibility might be to divide the category into long and short form for non-fiction books and blog posts, articles, etc… respectively, though that would leave out AO3, Fiyahcon, Fringe, etc… Another would be to split the category into Best Non-Fiction and Best Miscellany/Best Fannish Thing, which would give offbeat finalists like AO3 or the virtual cons a category. A three-way split is also possible, but there is a lot of reluctance to add more Hugo categories, let alone two of them, largely because the number of finalists is becoming unwieldy for the venues to handle.

      I think a large part of the problem is that too many people read genre-related non-fiction and that it’s not well promoted either, because much of it is published by university presses or mainstream presses (for the various memoirs) which don’t care about the Hugo. For me, genre-related non-fiction was always important. As a teenager, I saved up my birthday and Freimarkt money to buy imported non-fiction books like the SF Encyclopedia or various books about SF movies, which I then used as a guide to find things to read and watch. It never even occurred to me that other people did not do this. I’m not sure how to change this aside from doing more to promote genre-related non-fiction. The authors usually also don’t promote themselves, because they’re often outside the SFF community.

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  9. CeeV says:

    I assume the “2 writers of colour” diversity count for Best Series finalists means Chakraborty and Kuang? If so, Chakraborty is white; see the note at the bottom of the About page on her website:

  10. Thank you for the evaluation. You know my position (from the point of view of a WSFS rules expert) regarding the use of a code of conduct to try and disqualify a Hugo Award finalist, but for those who don’t follow File 770, I’ll restate it here.

    DisCon III does not have the authority to disqualify a Hugo Award finalist for any subjective reason. There are not a lot of things that the WSFS Constitution regulates about a Worldcon, but this is one of them. When the DC committee won the right to host the 2021 Worldcon, they got the right to use the name “Worldcon,” “Hugo Award,” and the other WSFS-owned service marks, but they also were encumbered with the responsibility of following the WSFS Constitution. Everything that isn’t mentioned in the WSFS Constitution is in the hands of the individual Worldcon committee (WSFS Constitution, section 1.6.) However, a Worldcon cannot override the WSFS Constitution; it’s essentially the contract they signed when they bid.

    (Digression: This is why I’m so unhappy that DC3 declared that when they postponed their convention, they didn’t have to re-open filing for the 2023 Worldcon Site Selection. By making that decision, they have in my opinion ignored a clearly-written, difficult-to-misinterpret, and not-difficult-to-manage rule. When you start ignoring any rules, then no rule is safe, and that worries me. I’ve had to enforce WSFS rules, even when I didn’t like the result. Heck, I once had to enforce a WSFS rule against myself.)

    So: establishing a Code of Conduct? Sure, no problem; it’s not prohibited by the WSFS Constitution, so it falls under the “everything else” provision of Section 1.6. But using a local rule promulgated by the individual Worldcon committee to override the will of the membership expressed through the Hugo Award nomination process? Nope: it’s one of the few things a Worldcon committee is prohibited from doing. Besides, every time a Hugo Award administrator has even hinted at using some sort of subjective judgment about the Hugo Award finalists, they have been pilloried for having done so, and in some cases subsequent WSFS Business Meetings have passed rule changes that amounted to saying “Never do that again.” All precedent says that the Administrator counts votes and makes technical rulings (length of work, date of publication, etc.) and nothing else. In a legalistic sense, the Administrator is the judge in a courtroom trial and makes rulings on the law, while the voters are the jury who make the subjective decisions about the work before the bar. If they don’t think it should be on the ballot, they can vote it below No Award.

    Still, there are things that DC3 can do. Although most people probably don’t know this, Worldcons aren’t required to hold a Hugo Awards ceremony. In fact, there are only two program items that a Worldcon must hold: a Preliminary Business Meeting and a Site Selection Business Meeting. Everything else is optional. The Hugo Awards ceremony is a Section 1.6 item; it’s up to the Worldcon to decide how to run it. For that matter, the WSFS Constitution only regulates part of the design of the Hugo Award trophy (the rocket itself; the base is the Committee’s responsibility). There’s nothing that regulates what is engraved on the ballot. A Worldcon committee could decide, for example, to not read out finalists names or elide parts of them. They could decide to not engrave a title or the name of an author or authors (I’m looking at you, Strange Horizons and the other magazines who are listing every contributor as a co-author) on the trophy. They don’t even have to engrave the category name on the trophy! They could give one blank trophy in each category and they’d meet the technical requirement.

    My point here is that DC3 does have options, but removing a finalist from the ballot for anything other than a technical deficiency defined in the WSFS Constitution is not one of them. Just as the WSFS Constitution cannot override the local law of the jurisdiction where the Worldcon is being held, an individual Worldcon’s Code of Conduct cannot override the WSFS Constitution under whose authority the convention is being held.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the explanation, Kevin.

      I thought that the puppy years had demonstrated amply that the Hugo administrators can’t just remove a work, no matter how awful, from the ballot. If “Safe Space as a Rape Room” or “If You Were an Award, My Love”, which were direct attacks against the whole WSFS in general and Rachel Swirsky in particular, stayed on the ballot, I don’t see why Natalie Luhrs’ post shouldn’t.

      • Dave Wallace says:

        Hi, Cora. I’m generally in agreement with Camestros on this one: Natalie Luhrs has done nothing wrong, and shouldn’t be pressured to change one word of her essay or title on her own website, nor to withdraw the work or have it forced off the ballot, nor should she face any sanctions whatever for refusing to do any of those things. However, there is still a question of how DisCon III should act to present the work in its own official communications, including on the ballot, at the ceremony, and on the website and future archival records, and if possible, it should do so in a way consistent with its own Code of Conduct.

        My preferred solution would be for Luhrs and the convention to come to a mutual agreement on an abbreviated or alternate title the convention can use for its purposes that can unambiguously identify the work in question without explicitly embedding a personal attack on a named member of the community in the quoted title itself. I note that just using the subtitle/second half of the full title is sufficient for Google to return a link to the original essay as its #1 hit, even without adding Luhrs’ name, but frankly any mutually acceptable compromise here would be fine with me.

        If positions are too entrenched to allow for any compromise, I think the committee and/or the Hugo Administrators technically do have the unilateral power to decide how to present works on the ballot. I don’t see anything in the WSFS Constitution that requires them to use the full unedited original title in naming a work, although it is customary to do so. Certainly titles get abbreviated with some frequency in supplemental materials provided by the Hugo Administrators in describing the votes. I am less certain if there is precedent for doing so on the ballot itself other than by mutual agreement. I agree with Camestros that it would be useful to establish a precedent that the Administrators need not quote portions of a title that constitute an explicit personal attack on a named member of the community; I am uncertain if they could do so without rousing a firestorm of protest in this particular case.

        In the alternative, I don’t think it would be good to require Administrators to always quote the original author’s title unchanged no matter what. I can easily imagine certain bad actors in the community attempting to weaponize titles as accusations to attack members who have much less privilege than GRRM in the future if we were to do so. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t think either of the Puppy titles you mention were quite direct enough to require action under a “explicit personal attack on a named member” standard, even though they were surely veiled attacks as you note.)

        As one example of previous Administrator discretion, I note that the 2016 Hugo Administrators did take special steps to separate out potentially offensive material in the Hugo Voter Packet, while still providing access to the originals for those voters who wanted it. I hope that an equivalent solution can be found here with respect to titles.

        • Cora says:

          I also agree with Cam that public calls for Natalie Luhrs to withdraw (of which I only saw one or two anyway) are unjustified, because the only person who can make that decision of the finalist. Regarding calls for the Hugo admins to remove Natalie’s post, the Hugo admins don’t have that right, unless the blogpost is ineligible (which it obviously isn’t), and that’s a good thing.

          I’m also not very sensitive to swearing, so hearing the F-word read out doesn’t bother me, though I understand that it bothers others. And it will very likely offend GRRM and his family and close friends. And personally, I found the title “Safe Space as a Rape Room” a lot more offensive (let alone the content), because it was so very obviously intended to provoke and attack Worldcon members, even if there are no bad words in the title.

          It would probably be best, if Natalie Luhrs and DisCon III were to come to a mutually agreed solution to e.g. not list the full title of the post in the ballot and not read it out at the ceremony. But I fear that ship has sailed, because both sides have dug in.

          Another possible solution would be to asterisk and/or bleep out the f-word, which wouldn’t change the content of the post or even the title (because we all know what it’s supposed to say), but would be more considerate. As for the voter packet, since we’re talking about a blogpost here, it’s of course possible to not include the full text in the voter packet, but just to provide a link, as was done with “Safe Space as a Rape Room” and the erotica finalists, where a link to download the works in question was provided.

          But yes, I hope a solution can be found which considers all parties involved and doesn’t unnecessarily hurt anybody.

  11. Dann says:

    Diversity count: 6 women (which I’m sure will lead to the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth among the usual suspects), 2 writers of colour, 2 international writers*.

    This smacks of counting coup and misrepresents the opinions of dissenters. If the objective is to honor the best of the genre, this perspective doesn’t feed that objective.

    Delay is preferable to error. – Thomas Jefferson

    • Cora says:

      The only 2020 SFF novels written by men which we might have expected to see on the Hugo ballot this year are The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Last Emperox by John Scalzi and I expect to see those on the longlist just below the nomination ranks. Unless Scalzi withdrew, because The Interdepency is also nominated for Best Series this year. Agency by William Gibson and Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon He Lee are somewhat longer shots. But those are the only SFF books by male authors I would not have been surprised to see on the Hugo ballot this year.

      • Szwole?er says:

        Yeah, I think that people who complain about liberal bias (I know that person in previous comment refered to gender specifically but I wanted to make more general point because I had not commented on this controversy before) in Hugo award should at least suggest credible alternatives. I may not particulaly enjoy all nominated books, but I don`t know any great significant eligible novel that was not included. I think that sad truth is that late Gene Wolfe was last significant conservative speculative fiction English-language writer, at least to date.

        • Cora says:

          Well, there’s also Tim Powers, but his most recent works have been weaker than The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides or even Declare (which I dislike, but which was generally well received).

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