THE (POSSIBLE) FUTURE(S) OF THE HUGO AWARDS
By Chris M. Barkley: As we all impatiently await the announcement of the Hugo Award Finalists for 2023 by the Chengdu Worldcon, we in the fannish community are facing an interesting conundrum.
Because for the first time in our fannish history, a majority, or the entirety, of a Hugo Award Finalist ballot may feature works that have not been published in English first.
Over the sixty plus years of the administration of the World Science Fiction Convention’s achievement awards, the Worldcon has been held in cities on four continents, in the countries of Canada, the United Kingdom (including Glasgow, Scotland), the Republic of Ireland, Heidelberg, (West) Germany, Australia, the Hague in the Netherlands, Japan, New Zealand, Finland, and the United States.
In each and every case, a majority of the nominees and winners have been decidedly anglo-centric and/or American in origin.
Two of last year’s nominees for Best Fan Editor, Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne pointed out this disparity in an article posted on their Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blob on Thursday, May 25, “The Word For ‘World’ Isn’t America”.
The main criticism in the essay is:
To date 84.2 per cent of all winners, and 84.5 per cent of the authors represented in the prose categories (short story, novelette, novella, novel and series) were born in the United States. If anything, these statistics understate the level of American dominance, given that the non-American 15 per cent includes figures like Isaac Asimov (born in Russia), Algis Budrys (born in Germany) and Ursula Vernon (born in Japan). If the goal of the Hugo Awards is to represent the best science fiction in the world, then we cannot limit ourselves to works by American authors.
And that is quite valid as far as I’m concerned. For decades, I and a lot of other fans thought that the Hugo Awards were highly representative of the state of sf literature. But, as the essay points out, this is a false dichotomy fed by what is being perceived by others as the voting fans of the United States (who have made up the plurality of participants for decades) whose tendencies to favor American or anglo-centric works and not translated works, which, to be fair, are not readily available in North America.
Still, as I grew older, and hopefully more worldly (if you’ll pardon the pun), I gradually realized that, at best, the voters of the Hugo Awards could claim to be international connoisseurs of fiction, art and fan activity but in reality, these revered awards were, at best, mainly for works in English.
For example, how else can it be explained that three of the most recent Worldcons held in non-English speaking countries (2007-Yokohama, 2009-Montreal and 2017-Helsinki) featured no nominees from any of the host countries.
Clearly, the problem with the American (and English language) hegemony regarding Hugo Award is the voting base which selects the nominees and recipients, who are, by and large, Americans and anglo-centric readers.
The Constitution of the World Science Fiction Convention does not concern itself in any way about this disparity, other than this, from The rules directly regarding the Hugo Awards in Article 3, Section 3:
“3.2.1: Unless otherwise specified, Hugo Awards are given for work in the field of science fiction or fantasy appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year.”
It can (and has been) interpreted that foreign language works which are first published in English for the first time are eligible for nomination in their year of broadcast or publication. (The Constitution does provide relief of an extra year of eligibility for works that had limited distribution, but only through a majority vote by the WSFS Business Meeting.)
In 2015, two works of fiction by foreign born writers, Cixin Liu’s novel, The Three Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu) and “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” a novelette by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Lia Belt), made history by winning Hugo Awards in their respective categories.
As progressive as that was, it must be noted that no other translated works have been nominated (or won) since then.
Considering fandom’s current state of artistic, cultural and social upheaval, Ms. Wakaruk and Mr. Rokne concerns should be taken quite seriously.
– Contraction: Restrict the eligibility of nominations to just native born Americans. I am not in favor of this course of action. We live in the 21st century, not the 18th. Such a move would be seen both here (and abroad as well) as nationalistic, racist and needlessly xenophobic.
– Promotion: One could just promote a number of other awards, SFWA’s Nebula Awards, the annual Locus Magazine awards, Dragoncon’s Dragon Awards or, extending a friendly hand across the Canadian border, try and persuade the Aurora Awards to expand to encompass all of North America. But I highly suspect each of these organizations state they’re doing just fine thank you very much and would firmly reject their having the judgment of their members and voters being subsumed.
– Utilizing Other Established Conventions: Would it be possible for one of America’s larger regional conventions, such as Westercon, Arisia, Boskone, Norwescon or Balticon to take up the mantle of being the annual “American Convention”? Again, the optics of establishing an “American Convention”, when the nation is divided along political and social lines, would be an open invitation for a prolonged culture war clash. No (sane) convention committee would sanction such a move.
– Establishing A Brand New Convention: A precarious thing to undertake in these precarious economic times and social unrest. Also, see the entry above.
However, after outlining these negative possibilities, I see two possible, and positive ways forward.
The first would be to keep the Hugo Awards as they are currently, and establish a new North American Award, whose nominees would be drawn from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, no matter what language the work was first published in. The convention committee would encourage any of the media outlets countries who choose to participate (especially the United States) to provide translations for stories, non-fiction items and visual media in a number of outlets. It would be a large and arduous task to pull off but it might be worthwhile pursuing by a dedicated (and persistent) group of volunteers.
I have to confess that the best idea I have seen to date to diminish America’s cultural imperialism came from longtime fan and the former Editor of Amazing Stories, Steve Davidson, who posted the following on Facebook on May 26:
Buzz surrounding the issue of an “American” SF Achievement award in light of the Hugo’s becoming more truly “international”.
Not going to get into that aspect, but I do want to mention that a major hurdle awaits any “truly” international, fan-based award, unless by such an award you mean moving Worldcon deliberately to different countries so their local population dominates the vote and some local creators get a good (or at least better) chance at being nominated and winning.
The translation issue.
I don’t believe there is any way to come to a global consensus on the best whatever of a given year unless and until eligible works are near-immediately available in every language that is represented in literature.
Not to mention the volume issue. No way could anyone possibly read enough international works (those from outside of their native language in translation) to be able to make nominations that aren’t some brand of “local”. The volume in single languages is already unmanageable in many cases.
If such a thing were fully realized (you can read or view any published work in your native language via good translation), how could an international vote be anything but a small minority doing the right thing and trying to survey the field, while the rest engage in voting for their own local community – the people and works they are most familiar with (and ought to show some degree of partisanship for)?
If anything, I think we ought to go in the opposite direction: encourage each country and/or language community to create their own Hugo Award and use Worldcon to elevate the status of those awards….Make the Hugos an English language award, elevate others to the same status.
Indeed. But the Hugo Awards cannot be co-opted by other entities without permission; it would have to be trademarked and licenced (for a nominal fee to the World Science Fiction Society, of course) to any interested (and vetted) international literary organization, which is an easy and manageable solution to this problem.
The only obstacle to any implementation of any of these plans is the WSFS Business Meeting, which has shown its repeated reluctance to embrace anything that they might perceive as not being in the best interest of the Worldcon. (Which I think is quite strange for an organization that promotes innovative and imaginative fiction and non-fiction.)
But the gauntlet has been thrown down and I do not think it can be ignored.
I hope that the members of the WSFS Business Meeting will take this issue seriously AND strenuously debate this issue in the next several years.
Watch this space…