On choosing a (Hugo) winner

Wikipedia tells me that “the Hugo Awards are a set of awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year.” But Wikipedia is wrong. Worldcon, the organization that gives the awards, defines them as “the most prestigious awards” and “awards for excellence.” That’s more sensible, because there is no such thing as a “best” creative work.

I didn’t realize this until I started reading the nominations, but the question is not “which work is best?” but “which work deserves this particular award?” This leads to an even more interesting question, which is, “what is the basis for deciding which work deserves this award?”

My first impulse was to vote for the book I enjoyed most, Ancillary Justice. It’s thought-provoking, the storytelling is tight, and the characters are interesting, the science is strong and logically self-consistent, and the novel acts as a cautionary tale about technology that is just now emerging in our own world, artificial intelligence.

But then I thought, “This is a sequel, and the first book in the series won the award last year. Maybe it’s time to give another author a chance.”

I was making an assumption there: that the purpose of the Hugo awards is to reward the author. But maybe instead it’s about helping readers find excellent works. Hugo-award-winning novels get listed in the handy trifold brochures that libraries stock.

So I thought, “Maybe it’s time to give the reader a chance to encounter a new author.” In that case, my vote would go for my other favorite, Goblin Emporer. It is a fresh take on court intrigue, with a fascinating and likable main character, a complex multiracial society, and it doesn’t gloss over the problems of class and power that come up when your hero has the power of life and death over the rest of the kingdom. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I’ll be on the lookout for more books by the author.

I was all set to go with Goblin Emporer when I struck up a conversation with a long-time science fiction fan, and he said that yes, it was an amazing book, but at the same time, he felt that it didn’t push the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy. To him, that was a key criterion for the Hugo award.

That criterion had never occurred to me, so I had to stop and think. Should I base my selection on boundary-pushing? And if I did, would Goblin Emporer count? It does push boundaries of class and race in ways I’ve never seen before.

Then there was the third candidate, The Three-Body Problem. That is a hard sci-fi novel with a highly imaginative scenario and vivid world-building. I had difficulty connecting — the science sometimes overwhelmed the story and the characters, and I found myself skipping paragraphs. I still found it a worthy candidate, though, based on its originality. Also, I consider it a boundary-pusher for an English-speaking audience because it was first written in China for a Chinese audience. Especially considering the organization that grants the award is called Worldcon, it’s only fair to include non-Western works.

All these books made it onto my ballot, and any one of them could have made first place depending on the criteria I used. Vote for the one I enjoyed most? Should I pick the one with the most science? Choose on the basis of diversity? Decide which one most expanded the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy?

Once I started to ask these questions, I realized the Hugo awards do something else for the field of fantasy and science fiction. Every nomination and every ballot choice is a vote for the direction of future works. And it lends legitimacy to new forms of creative expression. (Don’t even ask me how excited I was when the Doctor Who episode “The Empty Child” won a Hugo.) Should we encourage writings that escape the geological boundaries of North America and Europe? Push for diversity? Delve into near-future technologies?

So my vote could be for personal preference. It could be for sub-genre. It could be for the future of speculative fiction. My power, and my responsibility. My choice.

It’s a heady thing, democracy. I recommend it.

cats voting

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