Rethinking the Retro-Hugos: How Should We Honor Past SFF?

[Editor’s Introduction: Dave Wallace left a thoughtful comment today about what he sees as the problems with the Retro-Hugos periodically given by Worldcons, and offered several proposals for change. He gave permission to republish the text as a post, which should allow even more people to read and engage with his ideas.]  

By Dave Wallace: I’ve been thinking about problems with the Retro-Hugos and what to do about them since the Dublin Worldcon. I was hoping I would get a chance to finish writing up the proposal I’ve been working on so that I could circulate it as a whole for comments rather than putting it out piecemeal. But since we’re discussing the topic now, let me share some excerpts from the notes I have on how we could better honor past work if we were to decide to discontinue the Retro-Hugos in their current form.

Issues with the Current Retro-Hugos

This list of issues with the current Retro-Hugos is a combination of thoughts that I’ve had and some of the comments I’ve heard from others:

1) They involve a lot of time and expense for the Worldcon putting them on, especially for the Hugo Administrators.
2) They are an all-or-nothing thing for a given year: either a Worldcon decides to host all the Retro-Hugo categories for a given year, or they won’t be revisited at all for another 25 years.
3) Lots of Worldcon members don’t participate, compared with the regular Hugos.
4) It’s a fair amount of effort or expense for many voters to track down all the finalists in a given category.
5) They are tied to a specific anniversary year in a 25 year cycle.
6) People vote for the one thing that is familiar, rather than thoroughly comparing finalists.
7) It’s hard to track down reproduction rights to form a Hugo Packet.
8) At 75 years, it’s hard to find representatives for whom the trophy is meaningful – lots of past Retro trophies are sitting in warehouses.
9) Modern categories may not fit historical SFF consumption well.
10) Retro-Hugos don’t have the same prestige as regular Hugos.

What Would We Need in a Different System to Honor Past Work?

Suppose we were to pass and ratify a constitutional amendment discontinuing the current form of the Retro-Hugos at the 2021 and 2022 Worldcons. Would that be the end of attempts to honor unrecognized work from past years?

It need not be. But I think that any replacement system must reckon with the central failure of the current Retro-Hugos, which is that they attempt to do too much in a single year. Trying to deal with a full second set of Hugo categories in addition to all the current year Hugo categories is a burden for voters and administrators alike, and means that few are able to devote the time to properly understand these works in their historical context. Thus the two key ideas that I would propose are to decouple historical awards from a specific anniversary year, and to host no more than one historical award category per year.

These two ideas are related. Doing only a single historical category per year reduces the extra workload on voters and administrators dramatically. Breaking the link to a specific anniversary eliminates the current pressure on Worldcons to either host a full set of retro-Hugos for a given year or accept that no works from that year can be honored for another twenty five years at the earliest, when they will be even further away from the people to whom those works were most meaningful. Instead, the focus can shift to asking what historical categories, if any, are most ready and appropriate to be honored now.

Outline of Proposal

I’m still working out details and looking for feedback, but the basic outline of the proposal I originally hoped to submit to the 2020 Business Meeting involved three constitutional changes:

1) We officially decide to stop holding the Retro-Hugos in their current form after 2020 (or maybe after 2022, if Chicago really wants to host them).

2) Instead, we add a provision that would allow each Worldcon to optionally add a special Hugo category for works from a specified past year to the regular Hugos, similar to the current provision for trial categories in section 3.3.19 of the WSFS Constitution. If they elected to add such a category, it would be a special category in the regular Hugos, such as “Best Short Story of 1948” – no need for a separate ceremony or the expense of a separate base design. This would also address concern #10 above.

3) Finally, we establish a new standing committee to propose and vet proposals for past year categories, so that future Worldcons will have a list of ripe proposals to choose from if they want to add a past year category. Two important criteria for them to consider in evaluating possible year/category combinations (suggested, not absolutely mandatory): (a): Can the Worldcon obtain the rights to distribute likely finalists in the Hugo Voter Packet, or otherwise make them available in an easily obtainable form, and (b): Is there a living person connected with the work who would appreciate having the trophy (and ideally, would show up to accept it)?

These two criteria are related: the existence of such a person can aid in getting the rights for the packet. If the original artist is no longer alive, it could be a family representative, literary executor, or publisher. Having most/all finalists available in the Voter Packet would make it more likely that voters would read and compare all the works on their merits, instead of just voting for the one name they recognize.

(I recently shared the above proposal outline in a twitter discussion with Hugo finalist Siobhan Carroll, who had her own similar proposals about the Retro-Hugos – twitter discussion here and here.)

I wish I’d had time to write this up more fully, but maybe the unfinished version makes it easier to incorporate feedback. What do others think?

How “Notability Still Matters” Would Have Affected the 2017 and 2018 Hugo Long Lists

Guest Post By Dave Wallace: One of the proposed WSFS constitutional amendments up for ratification this year in Dublin is C.3, “Notability Still Matters.” [(Dublin 2019 Business Meeting Agenda as of August 5)]  What it would do, if ratified by this year’s business meeting, is allow the Hugo Award Administrators to omit from their report on the nominations any entry that got less than 4% of the nominating votes in that category, unless there is a previous entry getting more than 4% of the votes that was eliminated in an earlier round which was reported.  (Currently, the Hugo Administrators are supposed to report the last 10 rounds of eliminations in their report).

While it is true that the Hugo Administrators are allowed to voluntarily publish more information in their report than the constitution requires, the constitution is the primary way the business meeting can give the Administrators binding instructions, and there’s not much point in amending the constitution if we expect the Administrators to routinely ignore their instructions.  Therefore, I’ve taken a look at how this amendment would have affected the Hugo Long Lists in each category for 2017 and 2018 (the previous years for which EPH was in effect) if the amendment had been in effect and the Administrators had followed it strictly.

I took the nomination data from the following published reports:

2018 (pp 20-26): https://www.worldcon76.org/images/publications/2018DetailedResults.pdf

2017: http://www.worldcon.fi/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/HugoReport2_nominations.pdf

http://www.worldcon.fi/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/HugoReport3_nomination_details.pdf

For 2017, most of the necessary information is in Report2, although the details of the eliminations are in the tables in Report3.  For 2018, both the total nominations and the % of the nominating vote each entry got are presented in the original tables, making it much easier to see the effect of the amendment.  One further note: in 2017, the last 10 rounds of eliminations were presented in each category, yielding 16 entries in each long list.  In 2018, only the last 9 rounds were presented in most tables (except Novelette), so most long lists only had 15 entries.  Thus the effect of the amendment would likely be even greater in 2018 than what I present here, if the #16 entries were also considered.

Here is my summary of the number of entries that would have been deleted from the long list for each category if the amendment had been strictly observed, followed by the details of what would have been omitted:

Number of Nominees Lost from Long List with 4% Notability Threshold

Category20172018
Novel00
Novella11
Novelette10
Short Story74
Series00
Related Work30
Graphic Story62
Dramatic Long00
Dramatic Short30
Editor Long01
Editor Short02
Pro Artist02
Semiprozine00
Fanzine04
Fancast14
Fan Writer21
Fan Artist30
Young Adult/Lodestar0
Campbell02

In Best Novella, we would have lost Chimera in 2017, and In Calabria in 2018.  In the Best Novelette category, we would have lost Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Kid Dark against the Machine in 2017.  Best Short Story would have been most affected.  In 2017, we would have lost Lavie Tidhar’s Terminal (Tor.com), Seanan McGuire’s Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands (Uncanny), Cat Rambo’s Red in Tooth and Cog (F&SF), Aliette de Bodard’s A Salvaging of Ghosts (BCS), Rebecca Ann Jordan’s We Have A Cultural Difference, Can I Taste You? (Strange Horizons), Peter S. Beagle’s The Story of Kao Yu (Tor.com), and Aliette de Bodard’s Lullaby for a Lost World (Tor.com).  In 2018, we would have lost Mareen F. McHugh’s Sidewalks (Omni), Naomi Kritzer’s Paradox (Uncanny), Nick Wolven’s Confessions of a Con Girl (Asimov’s), and Nancy Kress’s Dear Sarah (Infinity Wars).

The 2017 Related Work category would have lost Rob Hansen’s THEN: Fandom in the UK, 1930-1980, Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch, and André M. Carrington’s Speculative Blackness.  Graphic Story was another category that would have been heavily affected.  In 2017, we would have lost Clean Room, Vol. 1; Injection Vol. 2; Lumberjanes Vol. 4; Pretty Deadly, Vol 2; Decender, Vol. 2, and Oglaf (Bodil Bodilson). In 2018, we would have lost Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 6; and Above the Timberline.  The 2017 Dramatic Presentation Short Form would have lost Chapter Seven: The Bathtub and Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers from Stranger Things, along with Salvage from The Expanse.  2018 didn’t lose any Dramatic Presentation entries, but Game of Thrones: The Spoils of War came pretty close with only 4.03% of the vote.  In the Best Editor categories, 2018 would have lost Gillian Redfearn from Long Form, and Marguerite Kenner and Trevor Quachri from Short Form.  In Pro Artist, 2018 would have lost Likhain and Dan dos Santos.

Fanzine and Fancast are also categories that would have lost significantly: 2018 Fanzine would have lost Camestros Felapton, Quick Sip Reviews, Ansible, and SF Commentary.  2017 Fancast would have lost Vaginal Fantasy, while 2018 Fancast would have lost Kalanadi, Fast Forward, Get to Work Hurley!, and Eating the Fantastic.  In Fan Writer, 2017 would have lost O. Westin and Cora Buhlert, while 2018 would have lost the memorable Chuck Tingle.  The 2017 Fan Artist category would have lost Liz Argall, Lauren Dawson aka Iguanamouth, and Simon Stålenhag.  Finally, the 2018 Cambell Long List would have lost Annalee Newitz and Erin Roberts.

Comments and Opinions:

Having looked at what the impact of the amendment would have been, I think this amendment would do significant harm to the value of the current long lists, and should be rejected.  I don’t know how many other people look at the long lists, but I do and I value the information that is there.  This value can take several forms:

First, for those who nominated entries on the long list, knowing how your entry placed gives you a form of validation that other Hugo voters also found that entry worth of nominating, and a sense of how close you came to getting that work on the ballot.  I nominated two of the short stories that would have been left off under the amendment, and I appreciate having this information.

Second, it should be apparent from the Short Story results above that we are not just talking about omitting minor works from artists very few voters care about, but significant stories from some major names in the field.  While many of these stories were published online, there were also several stories first published in traditional print media, unlike most of the finalists.  Keeping such stories in the long list helps others seek out these stories, and may help make a case for splitting the category in the future, if there is a persistent bias against print media with our current categories.

Third, particularly in categories where entries tend to repeat from year to year (e.g., Editor, Artist, Zines, Fancast, Fan Writer, Graphic Story), presence in the long list can help an entry find an audience for future years.  In 2017, I made a point of trying to listen to at least an episode of each fancast on the long list, in order to be able to better appreciate and nominate fancasts in the future, and I found several fancasts that I now listen to regularly.  I did not do the same for 2018, but I see at least one entry from the list of potential losses that I would like to check out further.

Fourth, those who have nominated long list entries that are ultimately eliminated have an opportunity to audit the results of the EPH implementation by seeing if the change in points when that work was eliminated are consistent with the rest of their ballots.

Finally, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to make this change for the normal Hugos.  The system we have now seems to be working well, providing good information to those members who choose to read it.  The minutes last year mention the tail of the retro-Hugo nominations having relatively few votes in some categories, but most future years are not going to have retro-Hugos.  It doesn’t make sense to me to make such a drastic change just to shorten the rare retro-Hugo report a bit.

[Originally published on Dave Wallace’s Livejournal.]