Some Comments on the 2020 Hugo Award Winners

Now that I’ve finally got the discussion about the neverending Hugo ceremony from hell out of the way (see here and here), let’s talk about a much more pleasant topic. For while the 2020 Hugo ceremony may have been an unmitigated disaster, the actual Hugo winners are a very fine selection of works indeed.

The full list of winners is here, commentary by deputy Hugo administrator Nicholas Whyte may be found here and the full voting and nomination statistics are here.

Best Novel

The winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. This is not exactly unexpected, since A Memory Called Empire is a very popular novel and also a highly deserving winner, even though my personal favourite in this category was The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley with A Memory Called Empire in second place. Looking at the voting breakdown, I’m a little surprised that Middlegame finished in second place – not because it’s a bad novel, for it’s not, but because it seemed to get less buzz than the other finalists. But then the 2020 Best Novel ballot was the strongest we’ve had in years and indeed any of the six finalists would have been a most deserving winner.

The Hugo win for A Memory Called Empire is also a win for the space opera resurgence. For while a new type of more diverse space opera has been one of the big trends in SFF in recent years, this hasn’t been reflected very much by the Hugos, where the last space opera to win was Ancillary Justice in 2014, even though we’ve had several space opera finalists since then.

Looking at the nominations, the most notable thing is that The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie got more than enough votes to qualify for the ballot, but was withdrawn by the author. Ann Leckie explains why she declined the Hugo nomination for The Raven Tower here – basically, she felt that as someone who already had four Hugo nominations and one win, she wanted to make room for one of the many great SFF novels, including debut novels, that came out in 2019. And this is why Ann Leckie is a true class act.

Those who worry that too many women are getting nominated for and winning Hugos these days will be pleased to note that there are three novels by male authors on the longlist.

Best Novella 

The 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella goes to This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and May Gladstone, which was also my top pick in this category. Again, this is not exactly surprising, because This Is How You Lose the Time War truly was a cut above the other novellas last year and also got a lot of buzz.

Those usual suspects will be pleased that men can still win Hugos in 2020. And if you look at the nominations, you’ll also note that there are five male authors on the longlist.

Best Novelette 

The winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novelette is Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin. This win surprised me a little, because I found the story a bit too predictable and on the nose. It’s not a bad story, if only because N.K. Jemisin is an excellent writer, but Emergency Skin is a minor Jemisin. But then, even a minor Jemisin is better than the major works of many other writers.

I’m also surprised to see “Omphalos” by Ted Chiang in second place, because I flat out hated that story. I don’t quite get the intense love that Ted Chiang’s work inspires in parts of the Hugo electorate anyway – my reaction to his stories is usually, “Well, I guess it was okay.” Though I did like the other Ted Chiang story on the ballot a lot better than this one.

My personal number one choice in this category was the delightful “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll, by the way.

Best Short Story

The 2020 Hugo Award for Best Short Story goes to “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang. It’s a strong and harrowing story that was not only one of my nominees, but also my top pick for this category.

That said, the short fiction categories at the 2020 Hugos are full of extremely grim stories with very little lighter fare. Reading too many of them in a row could be downright depressing and I do hope we’ll get a mix of light and dark next year.

Best Series

The winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Series is The Expanse by James S.A. Corey a.k.e Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which was also my top pick for this category.

The Expanse is also exactly the kind of series that the Best Series was made for, a beloved series where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and where individual volumes often don’t stand alone well enough, even though Leviathan Wakes was a Best Novel finalist in 2012 and the most recent volume Tiamat’s Wrath hit the Best Novel longlist this year.

And those who worry about men not winning any Hugos anymore will be very pleased that the 2020 Hugo winners for Best Series are two men.

Best Related Work

The 2020 Hugo for Best Related Work goes to Jeannette Ng’s acceptance speech for what was then the Campbell Award.

This is one of two 2020 Hugo winnners I really disagree with. Not because I disagree with the points that Jeannette Ng made in her 2019 speech. I very much agree with her, both with regard to the situation in Hongkong (which has gotten much worse since last year) and with regard to Campbell. And of course, people in the SFF community have been discussing that Campbell was a problematic figure for more than seventy years now, which Jeannette Ng acknowledged in this year’s acceptance speech. Leigh Brackett’s Retro Hugo winning essay “The Science Fiction Field” contains some jabs against Campbell – in 1944. Michael Moorcock called Campbell a fascist in the 1960s and he was far from the only one. Over the years, many winners of the Campbell Award, as it was then, have pointed out that Campbell would likely never have published them – one example I remember is Rebecca Roanhorse in 2018. Alec Nevala-Lee wrote a weighty and well researched tome about the intertwined histories of Campbell, his favoured writers and Astounding Science Fiction, which was nominated for a Best Related Work Hugo last year and came in dead last – most likely because the vast majority of voters didn’t even bother to read it.

I would say that John W. Campbell was a more complex figure than the “fucking fascist” Jeannette Ng called him, but then a ninety-second speech doesn’t offer much space for nuance. And this is precisely the problem I have with this Hugo win. Due to the (very wise in retrospect) time restrictions imposed on acceptance speeches in Dublin, Jeannette Ng’s speech is very short. The two acceptance speeches I never got to hold are both under 300 words long and run for about one A4 page in large print (so I wouldn’t have to squint). I think that Jeannette Ng overran her allotted time slightly, because I recall her saying that she’s not finished at one point. But even so, I doubt that her speech is longer than 500 words.  She packed a lot of punch in those few words and her speech clearly had an impact that the many other people who criticised Campbell over the years did not have, because it got the name of the Not-a-Hugo for Best New Writer changed to Astounding Award, which I support, if only because it makes no sense to name the award for the best new writer after an editor who died before most of today’s finalists were even born.

But no matter how impactful, a speech of roughly one A4 page is in no way equivalent to in-depth non-fiction books that are 100s of pages long and a 68 minute documentary. That’s not even comparing apples to oranges, that’s comparing apples to peas.

Now I care about genre-related non-fiction, because works like the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction or Jeff Rovin‘s various books on pop culture were hugely important to my development as a science fiction fan.  Teenaged me saved up her birthday, Christmas, Freimarkt and good grade money to purchase those non-fiction books, which due to import fees cost me fifty to eighty Deutschmarks a piece, an exorbitant sum for a teenager (and a lot of birthday, Christmases, Freimärkte and good grades). There were also books I read in the store and took notes, but did not purchase, usually because I didn’t have the money. I still have those non-fiction books, too, and the battered dustjackets and spines show how much they were appreciated. I used those books to guide me to SFF authors, books and movies – they were basically a way for me to find more stuff to love (or not love, as it was). These books were also how I absorbed SFF theory and knew terms like New Wave or Cyberpunk ere I had ever read any examples.

This is not the usual way into SFF, but it was mine and that’s why I will always have a soft spot for genre-related non-fiction. And that’s why I’m not happy that the non-fiction works, which for me are the core of the Best Related Work category, are increasingly being crowded out by leftfield finalists. Also, in-depth non-fiction books like The Lady From the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara, The Pleasant Profession of Robert Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn, Joanna Russ by Gwyneth Jones, Astounding by Alex Nevala-Lee or Arwen Curry’s documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin are very research intensive and can take years to compile and write. I think that we should honour the work that critics and historians do to excavate and remember the history of our genre. And let’s not forget essay collections such as the Octavia Butler and Tiptree collections of recent years or Chicks Dig Time Lords, which so infuriated the puppies, and autobiographies, which offer an insight into the life of a genre personality, whether it’s the diaries of the late Carrie Fisher, Zoe Quinn’s Crash Override or this year’s finalist Becoming Superman, an autobiography so harrowing that it needs a trigger warning. Such works are valuable and I hate to see them crowded out by edgecase finalists.

It’s probably time to overhaul the Best Related Work category, which has become something of a grab bag in recent years, and either split it into Best Related Work Long Form and Short Form, which would give a space not just to works like Jeannette Ng’s acceptance speech but also the essays and articles, which regularly make the longlist and sometimes the shortlist. Another solution would be to keep Best Related Work for non-fiction of whatever medium and create a Hugo category, Special Hugo or Not-a-Hugo for Best Fannish Thing, which would cover acceptance speeches as well as worthy projects like AO3 or the Mexicanx Initiative. If anybody is planning any proposals of that sort to submit at the Discon III Business Meeting, let me know.

Jeannette Ng is a talented writer. Her debut novel was good enough to gather two nominations and one win for what was then the Campbell Award. And I’m sure that we will see more great novels and stories from her in the future, which may well hit the Hugo ballot. But I’d still prefer Best Related Work to be kept for the non-fiction works it was originally intended for.

Best Graphic Story

The winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story is LaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor with art by Tana Ford and colours by James Devlin.

This is another most worthy winner and was not only my top pick in this category, but also one of my nominees. And gorgeous as Monstress is, it’s nonetheless nice to see something else winning for once.

Best Dramatic Presentation Long:

The 2020 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form is Good Omens, written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Douglas MacKinnon. This is another excellent choice, even though I put Captain Marvel in first place in the end. It’s also the long overdue Hugo win for Sir Terry Pratchett, which eluded him during his lifetime. And indeed Neil Gaiman remembered his co-writer Sir Terry in his touching acceptance speech.

I’m a bit surprised that Us ended up fairly low on the ballot, since it seemed to me as if Us was very popular and that I was one of the few people who didn’t care for it. But Us is a very American movie and I suspect that it just didn’t work for many non-American Hugo voters just as it didn’t work for me. The Rise of Skywalker comes unsurprisingly last, because frankly it’s a mess.

Looking at the longlist, I see a lot of unsurprising candidates like The Witcher, The Mandalorian, The Expanse or Spider-Man: Far From Home, but also a number of surprises such as Russell T. Davies dystopian series Years and Years, which is highly worthy but maybe a little too British and too obscure for a Hugo, as well as Alita: Battle Angel, which I remember no one liking, and the Chinese science fiction film The Wandering Earth, which I suspect made the longlist as a result of Chinese fandom making their voices heard.

Best Dramatic Presentation long will be a difficult category to nominate for next year, because there are almost no new movies coming out anymore due to the pandemic. Currently, I have three on my list: The Old Guard, The Invisible Man and The Vast of Night. I suspect we will see more seasons of TV series nominated and also smaller indie films like The Vast of Night making the ballot.

Best Dramatic Presentation Short:

This is the other 2020 Hugo winner I sincerely disagree with, because the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation Short once again goes to the bloody Good Place.

Now I’m on record for intensely disliking The Good Place – I basically find it unwatchable. But even if you actually like The Good Place, does it really need to win three years in a row? Especially since there are so many other fine SFF TV and streaming series. Though the silver lining is that The Good Place ended earlier this year, so we have at most one more year of The Good Place on the Hugo ballot.

My own top pick was The Mandalorian, which was also the only one of my nominees that made it (I also nominated the Good Omens episode, which was disqualified), but then my hit rate for Best Dramatic Presentation Short is abominable. I’m a bit surprised to see the Watchmen episode “This Extraordinary Being” in last place, since that was the one Watchmen episode which not only stood alone, but also was pretty good, whereas I did not care for “A God Walks into Abar” at all.

Best Editor Long and Short:

This is always a difficult category to judge, but Navah Wolfe for Long Form and Ellen Datlow for Short Form are both highly deserving winners. I’m particularly happy for Navah Wolfe, since Saga Press fired her while pregnant and shortly after winning a Hugo.

Best Professional Artist:

The winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist is John Picacio.

Pro Artist is anoter category that’s not easy to judge, because my reaction is to the finalists is usually; “They’re all great. Can’t I put all of them in the number one spot?” But John Picacio is not just a great artist, but also a really cool person (and a Hugo host who does not keep the finalists hanging unnecessarily) and I’m honoured that we were on a panel together.

Best Semiprozine:

The winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine is Uncanny Magazine, making this the fifth win for Uncanny in a row.

Now Uncanny is an excellent magazine, but Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside, FIYAH, Escape Pod and Strange Horizons as well as those semiprozines which did not make the ballot like The Dark, Luna Station Quarterly, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, Interzone, Cast of Wonders, PseudoPod, PodCastle, etc… all do great work, too, and it would be nice if one of them would get a look in once in a while.

Best Fanzine:

The 2020 Hugo Award for Best Fanzine goes to The Book Smugglers. My own top vote in this category was for Galactic Journey obviously, though I’m very happy for Thea and Ana, who’ve been doing great work for years now.

That said, this is the second year in a row that the Fanzine category only narrowly escaped being no awarded due to too few votes. This is a shame, because fanzine writers and editors do a lot of great work and foster the SFF discourse, all for the love of the genre and with no financial reward. So vote in the Fanzine category, for no awarding a whole category, not because the finalists are unworthy, but because not enough people could be bothered to vote, would be a shame.

I think it’s also time to promote fanzines and sites in the run-up to next year’s Hugos to increase interest in this category.

Best Fancast:

The winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Fancast is Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders – or Emily Nutts and Chocolate Jackhammer, as the automatic close captioning thinks they’re called (Looks like hilarious close captioning errors are a recurrent phenomenon with the Hugos). Our Opinions Are Correct is another highly deserving winner, even though my own number one pic was The Skiffy and Fanty Show. Finally, my Mom thinks that Annalee and Charlie Jane are an adorable couple.

Best Fan Writer:

As you all know by now, I didn’t win and so the beautiful trophy will be shipped to Bogi Takács, who is a most worthy winner indeed and has done great work to promote QILTBAG SFF and excavate forgotten works, so three cheers for Bogi.

But as I would have said in the acceptance speech I didn’t get to hold (maybe next year), “As far as I’m concerned, we’re all winners in this category.” And indeed I would have been fine with anyone of us winning, even though you can probably guess who my top pick in this category was. Besides, I finished in second place right out of the gate, which is pretty damn awesome.

If you look at the statistics, I just scraped onto the ballot past Charles Payseur. Adam Whitehead actually had fewer nominations than Charles or me, but Adam had a very focussed group of nominators (ditto for Elsa Sjunneson and Stitch, the one name on the longlist I’m unfamiliar with), whereas people who nominated me were more likely to also nominate Camestros Felapton, Paul Weimer, James Davis Nicoll, Adri Joy or O. Westin (which makes sense, since we all know each other) and therefore EPH weighted those nominations differently.

Camestros Felapton takes a look at the Best Fan Writer longlist and how points were redistributed as nominees dropped off. Camestros has also done a neat graphic representation of how the people on the fan writer longlist are connected to each other. He also looks at how focussed the nominators were in this interesting graph. Once again, Adam Whitehead’s nominators were the most focussed (next to Elsa Sjunneson’s), while mine and Bogi’s were the most distributed of those who made the ballot.

And talking of graphics, this is as good a place as any to point you to the Sankey diagrams of how votes were redistributed among the Hugo finalists that Martin Pyne a.k.a. Goobergunch made.

Best Fan Artist

The 2020 Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist goes to Elise Matthesen, who was also my first pick in this category.

I really like the art categories, because they let me look at beautiful works and take little time. However, I also find them hard to judge, because most of the time I like every finalist’s work.

That said, I have a weakness for jewellery, so whenever there’s a jewellery designer on the ballot, it makes me go, “Shiny! Me want”, so I usually rank them at the top of my ballot. Though once again, this is a category where every finalist would have been a most deserving winner.

Lodestar

The winner of the 2020 Lodestar Award a.k.a. the YA Not-a-Hugo is Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer, which was also my top choice in this category.

Catfishing on CatNet is also a true genre-crossing book, because it not only won the Hugo and was nominated for the Andre Norton Award, but it also won the Edgar Award and was nominated for the Anthony and ITW Awards, so mystery and thriller readers clearly loved it as much as SFF readers did.

In general, I found this year’s Lodestar ballot much stronger than last year’s, which for me was marred by several books having very similar plots, even if the settings were different, and annoying and whiny main characters, which triggered the eight deadly words.

Astounding

The 2020 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly known as the Campbell Award) goes to R.F. Kuang. Unfortunately, The Poppy War didn’t work for me and indeed my own top pick in this category was Jenn Lyons. However, I’m not surprised that R.F. Kuang won, because she is the only repeat finalist in this category, and I’m sure we’ll see fine work from her in the future.

Though it’s sadly ironic that R.F. Kuang explicitly mentioned in her acceptance that writers of colour will have their names mispronounced, only for George R.R. Martin to mispronounce her name.

And that’s it. The 2020 Hugo commentary post is done, though I still want to link to some reactions to the actual winners:

Unfortunately, the disaster of a Hugo ceremony has sucked all oxygen out of the room, so there are a lot more posts and articles about the ceremony than about the actual winners.

At the Guardian, Alison Flood reports about the Hugo winners and adds some snippets from various acceptance speeches. She also mentions that George R.R. Martin hosted the awards and quotes one of the sensible things he said (considering how much he talked, some of it must have been sensible), but completely fails to comment on the many issues with the ceremony, which takes some doing.

Camestros Felapton takes a look at the Hugo winners and stats (because we all know that the stats are the most fascinating and were eagerly waiting for them to be put up) here.

At Women Write About Comics, Doris V. Sutherland discusses both the 2020 Hugo Award winners as well as the issues with the ceremony.

ETA: Adri Joy and Joe Sherry discuss the 2020 Hugo winners at nerds of a feather.

And that’s it for the 2020 Hugos, which yielded a crop of fine winners and were unfortunately marred by a terrible ceremony that will probably be remembered for its sheer awfulness for a long time.

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7 Responses to Some Comments on the 2020 Hugo Award Winners

  1. Laura says:

    My word processing program counts 245 words in the online text of Jeannette Ng’s speech. (The live speech had at least one more word that we all remember!) And there’s a note explaining that she wrote it on her phone in the audience that night. Since the Campbell was the first award given that means it was dashed off in minutes. Obviously it didn’t get nominated or win so much for the work itself, but for the act of giving the speech and for the impact it had. But I’m with you. I’d rather see things more like the rest of the finalists this year for Best Related Work.

    • Cora says:

      That’s about the same length as my own unheld speech and the one for Galactic Journey and indeed between 200 and 300 words seems to be about the right length for a Hugo acceptance speech.

    • Rachel Coleman says:

      I don’t think you can separate the 245 words of the speech from the context and the timing of giving it, including drawing attention to the ongoing crisis in Hong Kong. The whole act is the creative work.

      I had a few rounds of argument about AO3’s inclusion in the Best Related Work finalists last year: and it boils down to me firmly believing that creative non-fiction *works* absolutely include projects, software infrastructure, documentaries and speeches, as well as books and essays. I really enjoy the range of creative mediums that have been finalists in this category in the last few years. Books seem to be the majority of finalists still, but it’s good to have the variety.

    • Laura says:

      Just noticed I spelled her first name wrong. I missed an ‘n’ in Jeannette. If you can edit my comment, will you correct that for me, Cora?

  2. Pingback: More Reactions to the 2020 Hugo Ceremony and a bit about the Retro Hugos | Cora Buhlert

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