The Hugos, the Clarke Awards and what do you want, exactly?

We’re still talking about the Hugo awards and whether they are broken or not. Though as a bonus, we’re now talking about the Clarke awards and whether they are broken as well.

So here are links to the latest posts and some commentary under the cut:

Exhibit A: The Hugos

My round-up of Hugo reactions got a lot of response and was linked in several places, e.g. by James Nicholl (lively discussion in the comments), Liz Bourke, Open Letters Monthly and Radish Reviews, which also has plenty of other links of interest.

Liz Bourke and Stina Leicht also discuss the Hugo controversy at the Skiffy and Fanty Show. I can’t really comment, because it’s a podcast and I don’t do podcasts.

John Scalzi linked to my post as well, sent my traffic through the roof and added some thoughts of his own, which basically boil down to “The Hugos are what they are, there is no conspiracy and the complaints are the same every year”. I assume that Scalzi’s repeated assertion that the Hugos are awarded by North American fans and pros and therefore reflect that tastes of North American fandom are meant as a jab against the various “The Hugos are broken” posts, which came mainly from (male) British critics this year, and not against international fans and writers in general, especially since the Hugos have become much more inclusive of international voices. For example, this year’s shortlist includes at least three nominees (Aliette de Bodard, Thomas Olde Heuvelt and Zen Cho – apologies, if I missed someone) who are not from the US/UK/Canada/Australia, plus several writers of colour from the Anglosphere. Indeed, the one thing I don’t see on the list are British nominees, at least not in the fiction categories, which probably explains the dissatisfied grumblings of British fans and critics right there.

And for the record, in spite of the shopping list comment, I like Redshirts and think it’s a good choice, as I said in my first 2013 Hugo post here. Though I think Scalzi is kidding himself, if he honestly believes that the fact that he runs a very popular blog with 40000 visitors per day (that’s what I get in a year) doesn’t have something to do with his continued success at the Hugos and that his books regularly show up near the top of various “Best of the decade” and “Best of the 21st century” polls. He simply is more visible than many other writers.

Harry Connolly points out that the Hugos are a popularity contest and that he doesn’t particularly care. He also calls out Larry Correia for insinuating that Saladin Ahmed was only nominated for his ethnic name (though Correia apparently liked the book itself). Personally, I found insinuating that Jay Lake was only nominated because he has cancer worse. Why is it so difficult to believe that Saladin Ahmed and Jay Lake and Seanan McGuire and Lois McMaster Bujold and John Scalzi and everybody else on this ballot was nominated simply because many people enjoyed their books?

Deb Geisler offers her views and points out that the ever increasing complaints about the Hugo and other awards may be due to the fact that SFF is now mainstream. And the fact that SFF, particularly filmic and televised SFF, is now mainstream also caused the SFF community to grow and become broader, as more and more new fans, quite a few of them – gasp – neither white nor male nor North American, come into the genre. The regular complaints about the dominance of Doctor Who in the dramatic presentation category are clearly a symptom of this, because new Doctor Who has a lot of female fans, many of whom got into fandom via Doctor Who.

Various people have pointed out that like all genre discussions, complaints about Hugos happen every year or so. James Nicholl provides proof and points to Thomas M. Disch’s complaints about the nominees for the 1980 Hugo Awards and George R.R. Martin’s response to Disch. Disch is his usual pompous self (A Disch essay from the 1970s has the distinction of being the worst piece of SF criticism I had the misfortune to read for my MA thesis – I wrote, “The offensiveness and sheer racism of Disch’s essay is mind-boggling”) and complains about a cabal of “young” (i.e. born around 1948) writers nominating each other and skewing nominations in their favour. Besides, they write mainly to please fandom, don’t have a personal vision and don’t care for art and anyway, the New Wave was so much better. Oh yes, and SF “Year’s Best” anthologies only reward the same old, same old and don’t look beyond genre. Yeah, it’s the same old complaint (Bonus Hugo awards lament at the link, too).

George R.R. Martin, one of those accused of breaking the Hugos and the genre, points out that there is no conspiracy and no cabal and that Disch’s fellow New Waver Michael Moorcock is far closer to churning out “n-pages of fictionware” than Martin’s cohort. Given Martin’s legendary slowness, this bit was particularly amusing. Finally, Martin hopes to see many stories and novels by the fellow members of his non-cabal, including maybe “one or two by him”. Make that five very thick books and a TV show.

Just in case you want to know just what was so controversial back in 1980, here is the respective list of winners and nominees. Two classics in the short fiction category, Barry Longyear’s Enemy Mine and Martin’s own Sandkings (plus another Martin in the third short fiction category), a fairly forgettable Arthur C. Clarke book winning the best novel category (not that any of the other nominees, including a novel by a certain Thomas M. Disch, were any more memorable) and the first edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia as best related work. Very telling is that the same title, File 770, shows up as a nominee in the fanzine category both in 1980 and last year – well, it certainly has staying power and also neatly illustrates the problems with that particular category. Jim Baen’s name appears in the long form editor category and Stanley Schmidt appears in the short form editor category – so much for all of those complaining that they was never nominated. And for real outrage, how about The Muppet Movie and The Black Hole (a.k.a. worst excuse for an SF film ever) both being nominated in the best dramatic presentation category, though both lost out to Alien?

Scrivener’s Error – a blog which drives me crazy, because my browser hates its formatting – offers a round-up of various recent legal, publishing and linguistic news of interest (though that jab against the French was uncalled for) and also links to various posts in the Hugo debate, mine among them. I guess he or she (since I just realized I have no idea who is actually behind Scrivener’s Error) agrees with Justin Landon that the Hugos are broken, since they frequently fail to recognize works which are not explicitly marketed as SFF, even though they are speculative. I actually agree with that point, for example Thomas Pynchon definitely should have been nominated for Gravity’s Rainbow. The same goes for various urban fantasy and speculative romance writers who should have and probably would have appeared on the Hugo shortlist at some point, if they weren’t perceived as romance writers and thus aren’t on the radar of many SFF fans. This year’s “Should have been nominated but wasn’t, because it’s not part of the core genre” example would be Beasts of the Southern Wild in the dramatic presentation category. Ditto for Cloud Atlas, which I expected to be more mainstream than it was.

The bit about how we shouldn’t judge works by their authors and how neither Bujold nor Heinlein really deserve most of their Hugos probably was a jab against me. Though, for the record, I already didn’t care for Heinlein long before I knew about his political views (though they weren’t all that difficult to guess from his books – even my teenaged self got that Heinlein really did not like unions) – his books simply never did it for me. I always preferred Asimov. And I’m not only happy that Lois McMaster Bujold is nominated, because she is a woman, but also because I genuinely enjoyed Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and the rest of her books. That said, I do feel that Cryoburn, the last novel for which Bujold was nominated for a Hugo, was not her best work, though it was still one of the better nominees in the respective year along with N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (which IMO should have won), since the remaining three were either books I didn’t care for or flat-out dislike. Never mind that it really isn’t a question of Heinlein or Bujold, because they are not in competition. Heinlein won his Hugos, deserved or not (and he was unlucky, since his better works were largely published before the Hugos existed). Nobody is going to take them away from his heirs and hand them to Lois McMaster Bujold. Though going by Scrivener’s Error‘s jab against Jane Austen, I suspect that Bujold simply isn’t to his or her (though I’m leaning towards male) taste.

At Lady Business, Renay feels intimidated by the often harsh tone of discussions in the SFF genre and that any criticisms of the Hugo nomination and voting process she might have would be immediately dismissed with “Who are you and what makes you think you have any right to say anything?” Now I can relate to feeling intimidated by the harsh tone discussions about anything in the SFF genre often take and I know that a lot of people feel silenced in some way or another. There certainly are people in the SFF community I know to steer clear of and I almost didn’t publish the other Hugo post, because I spotted some of them popping up in the comments to Justin Landon’s post, dispensing their god-given wisdom.

At Ruthless Culture, Jonathan McCalmont laments how Hugo critics were mocked and dismissed (though to be fair, at least one of them brought it on himself) and actually offers some constructive tips on how to change the Hugos, something which is very rare in this debate.

Cheryl Morgan also goes into the whole Hugo discussion once more with particular focus on the short story category and why there are only three nominees this time around.

Exhibit B: The Arthur C. Clarke Awards

However, as Cheryl Morgan points out, Hugo outrage season is now over, because the finalists for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award have been announced. Now the Clarke award, where nominees and winners are decided by a jury and fans have no input whatsoever, is probably exactly what the various Hugo critics want the Hugos to be. In that context it’s useful to look at the Clarke shortlist and see how it compares to the Hugos. The one thing, the Clarke shortlist does better than the Hugos is including lesser known works which are not explicitly genre. And indeed, the Clarke shortlist includes two books I hadn’t heard of before.

However, the most notable thing about this year’s Clarke shortlist is that it is a phalanx of men, presumably all white. Liz Williams, one of the judges, defends the decision by stating that the best books of the year simply all happened to be written by men, though she also points out how difficult it is for women writers of SF to get published, particularly in the UK, and that many of the books by women which were submitted were fantasy and hence not eligible. Now I don’t think anybody would want to see women nominated simply because they were women. Nonetheless, this all-male shortlist is problematic as an illustration of the state of the SF genre in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people have something to say about the all-male Clarke shortlist, though Christopher Priest remains silent so far. Charlie Jane Anders remarks on the lack of women at iO9 and offers a potential female nominee, Madeleine Ashby and her novel vN. James Nicholl comments on the failure of the Clarke Awards to nominate anything other than white men and provides another potential female nominee, G. Willow Wilson for Alif the Unseen. Nicholl also posts the full list of submissions. Plenty of good potential choices there, including books by female writers which clearly are SF, though several of them are YA and therefore doubly ghettoized. Meanwhile, Farah Mendlesohn has taken it upon herself to read all the submissions by female writers and determine how many of them would have been eligible. And Martin at Everything Nice offers some data and points out that the Clarke Awards have actually gotten worse with regards to gender balance.

Cheryl Morgan offers her thoughts on the Clarke shortlist, the lack of books by women in British SF and whether the chosen books really are “the best” of the year here. Personally, I would have loved to see The Method by Juli Zeh on this or any other shortlist, if only because that would make Ms. Zeh only the second German writer ever to win an international SFF award (The first was Patrick Süsskind who won the World Fantasy Award for The Perfume in the 1980s). Besides, the German literary establishment seems blissfully unaware that Juli Zeh occasionally writes SF (Dark Matter a.k.a. In Free Fall was even more SFnal than The Method IMO) and would be oh so shocked, if they were to find out. Though come to think of it, it is telling that she has never been nominated for any of the really important German literary awards (she did win the Bremer Literaturpreis before she wrote SF), probably because she does not write middle class family sagas with illuminating historical background.

Personally I find the Clarke award shortlist far more underwhelming than the Hugo shortlist. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker is the only nominee that remotely appeals to me. I don’t care for Kim Stanley Robinson or Ken MacLeod and the remaining three don’t appeal either. On the other hand, Booker Prize judge Stuart Kelly really likes the nominated works and is envious of the Clarke award. But then I’ve noticed that while my tastes usually align closer to the UK than the US, written science fiction is the one exception, since very few recent British SF appeals to me.

Indeed, my main reaction to the Clarke shortlist in comparison to this year’s Hugo controversy is the question to all the Hugo critics, “Is this really what you want?” An award shortlist chosen by a jury of qualified experts, which nonetheless winds up consisting entirely of white men and books which are far less diverse in theme and style (several of the nominees are basically reimaginings of hoary old SF tropes) than those on the Hugo shortlist, for all their flaws.

One thing that all of these discussions and their recurrence show is that the SFF community is changing. However, it’s not necessarily changing into the direction that the brigade of young male British critics would prefer.

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19 Responses to The Hugos, the Clarke Awards and what do you want, exactly?

  1. Martin says:

    What were the SFnal aspects of <i<Dark Matter? I’m afraid I completely missed them.

    • Cora says:

      Unless I’m getting Dark Matter mixed up with another Juli Zeh novel (unfortunately, the English language titles bear no relation to the German titles I’m familiar with), Dark Matter was the one about the two physicists which was full of discussions about parallel worlds and the moral and philosophical implications thereof, mixed with a crime fiction plot. Not really core SF, but certainly tangentially genre.

      • Mark says:

        That’s the one. And I agree, it absolutely qualifies as SF.

      • Martin says:

        I loved Dark Matter and I’m really looking forward to The Method. It sounds like most of her work occupies the fuzzy border of SF and I’ll be seeking out the rest (although unlike Mike I’m not convinced the parallel worlds discussion actually makes DM science fiction).

        • Cora says:

          Juli Zeh’s work definitely occupies the fuzzy border between literary fiction and genre, though not all of it is SFnal. Most of her work includes crime fiction and thriller elements as well, probably because Ms. Zeh has a law degree and is qualified, though not working, as a judge in Germany.

      • Mark says:

        As a side note, Juli Zeh actually refused the nomination of The Method for the Kurd Laßwitz Award for best SF novel of the year, saying that it is not Science Fiction. So she probably would have refused a Clarke Award nomination as well.

        • Cora says:

          Yes, she probably would have. On the other hand, the Clarke Award has a history of nominating and awarding literary fiction with speculative elements, whereas with the Kurt-Laßwitz Award she might have found herself nominated alongside Perry Rhodan and Star Trek novelizations.

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  3. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    Nonetheless, this all-male shortlist is problematic as an illustration of the state of the SF genre in the UK.

    Just dropping in: good write ups. I want to add tho that I’m not out to “get” the Clarke Judges. About two years ago Niall Harrison and I realised that the state of UK publishing and the shocking record for signing (and then keeping) women authors was going to affect the Clarkes. 2013 was the year we predicted and we were right.

    I now have this year’s submissions on my shelf: I am not judging quality until I’ve read them, but is a disproportionate number of debut novels, and two self published which almost immediately reduces the likelihood of short listing.

    I’m part way through Madelaine Ashby’s vN, which I’m enjoying (rather more than I did 2312 to be honest), but my thoughts are trending more towards “why didn’t this get on the BSFA list?” than “why didn’t it get on the Clarke?”, and that opens up a new can of worms because the BSFA award has a much poorer record on gender balance on the novel than does the Clarke. No woman has won it since 2000.Very few women get nominated (one in five, occasionally two in five).

    • Cora says:

      Glad you liked my posts and congrats on the Hugo nomination for The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature.

      I didn’t actually think you were out to “get” the Clarke jury. The problem here clearly lies with British publishers and booksellers who for whatever reason don’t think speculative fiction by women, particularly SF by women, sells.

      When visiting UK bookshops, I’ve noticed that SFF books by female authors are difficult to find in stores, even if those women actually are British and have won awards. A lot of the time, SFF books by women are also shunted onto romance, women’s fiction or erotica shelves, particularly if it’s urban fantasy or steampunk. It’s also telling that a reasonably sized W.H. Smith store is a better place to find SFF books by female authors than Waterstone’s or Forbidden Planet. So it’s clearly a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy at work there. If books by women are neither published nor found on the shelves, they obviously can’t sell.

      Looking through the books by women submitted for the Clarke Award, I spotted several YA novels, which would probably have a hard time to get nominated. vN, Alif the Unseen The Method look like the likeliest candidates to me, even though Juli Zeh might well have declined, as Mark points out in another comment.

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  5. C.E. Petit says:

    Just a couple of side comments on my semiannual “I hate the intellectual dishonesty of awards systems” rant, this time focused on the Hugos:

    There were no jabs personally against you. The “Heinlein Rulez Over {Current Darling of anti-Heinlein}” argument has been going on for at least a decade, and it’s pretty much goofy no matter whom that darling happens to be — whether it’s Bujold, or Willis, or Stross, or whomever. This time around, another list I’m on made LMB the current anti-Heinlein. And the remainder of my point — which may not have been clear enough — is simply that we’re supposed to be judging individual works, not people; down that road lies Kramer versus Kramer.

    I’m not going to hijack someone else’s blog with a disquisition on misuse/misunderstandings of literary ancestors and influences; my shorthand reference to Austen as being an insufficient/unsatisfactory model for contemporary fiction is merely shorthand. Similarly, I’m not going to hijack someone else’s blog by explaining at length why I think Heinlein and Spenser are more alike than they appear at first glance (leaving aside the overlong-prose-versus-overlong-verse issue). That said, I obviously wasn’t clear enough.

    I’m dubiously amused, though, that the American Chemical Society’s theft of my first name leads to questions about my own gender in this context… because it doesn’t [insert expletive here] matter. I’ll assault sacred bulls and sacred cows with equal vigor.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the clarification, C.E.

      I do my share of complaining about awards, too, and not just the Hugos either, but also the Oscars, German book awards, Adolf Grimme TV awards, etc… Though for the record, I vastly prefer Apocalypse Now over Kramer versus Kramer.

      I’ve seen my share of the “Heinlein is better than X” and “X is better than Heinlein” debates myself. They always baffle me a bit, because I never much cared for Heinlein in the first place. Never mind that Heinlein has his place in the history of SF and neither Lois McMaster Bujold nor Connie Willis nor Charles Stross nor John Scalzi can ever take that away from him, even if one of them wins more Hugos someday.

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  8. James Davis Nicoll says:

    Um. “Nicoll”. No H.

    • Cora says:

      Sorry. I sometimes get you confused with a guy named Nicholls who wrote a book about fantastic film that I have on my bookshelves in a position where I have to walk past it every day.

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