Chengdu 2023: A Bittersweet Symphony of a Worldcon
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
Ever been down
Ever been down
Ever been down
Ever been down
Have you ever been down?
Have you ever been down?
Have you ever been down?
++ “Bittersweet Symphony” by Richard Ashcroft of The Verve, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
By Chris M. Barkley: January 20th, 2024: A Day that will live in Fannish Infamy.
What was that day like? It was like racing down the stairs on Christmas Day and spotting a large package containing the LARGEST chocolate bar you have ever seen, ripping the wrapping and packaging unheeded and sinking your teeth into it for a BIG bite…only to find out an instant later and much to your horror, that your dear, elderly, nearsighted grandparents had bought a gigantic bar of bitter, very untasty, dark baking chocolate.
Yes, THAT kind of day. And every single day since then…
My partner Juli and I were taking a midmorning break after a panel and a late breakfast in our hotel room last Saturday at the 49th edition of the ConFusion sf convention in Novi, Michigan, when she noticed a Facebook post from a well known Chicago area sf fan, Dave McCarty:
· January 20 at 11:48 am
“For those following at home, the release is out.”
As many of you may now know, Mr. McCarty was one of the lead Hugo Award Administrators for the 81st World Science Fiction convention that took place in the People’s Republic of China’s fourth largest city, Chengdu. It also happens to be the capital of China’s sff community.
We, along with a lot of people in the fannish community, had been eagerly awaiting the release of the 2023 Hugo Awards Long List of Nominations.
You may also be aware that I attended the convention, too; not only in the capacity of File 770’s foreign correspondent, but as a Hugo Award Finalist in the Best Fan Writer Category.
During my stay I did not encounter any problems with anyone on the Convention Committee, congoing staff or fans, or any of the police or security services who were (heavily) present. I, in turn, was very polite and circumspect in my behavior and attitude while I was there, since I considered myself as a diplomat for my country AND for the international fannish community as well.
Full Disclosure: I was an invited guest of the Chengdu World Science Fiction Committee and the host fan group, the Chengdu Science Fiction Society. I did so of my own free will, knowing that the People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian regime with a very vigorous system of surveillance and social intimidation. I went to Chengdu, with airfare and expenses paid, without any prior restraints on what I could say, do or go. I went because:
(a) I was invited by the hosts of the convention and I wanted to represent the sf community on a world stage.
(b) I was a Hugo Award nominee for fan writing and, most importantly —
(c) I am 67 freaking years old and exactly WHEN THE HELL was I going to get another chance to visit Asia, much less the People’s Republic of China?
So, I went all in, with my eyes, and ears wide open. I was on the lookout for anything unusual. I even took a “dumb phone” which had a very limited connectivity and functions just in case the Chinese security services became a little too interested in me. (This rather foolish and overly paranoiac move actually caused more problems than it actually solved.
(Note: I am currently at work transcribing a diary I kept during the period of my nomination and my stay at the convention where this blunder and other fascinating things will be revealed. It will be published on File770 later this year.)
[Chris Barkley’s column continues after the jump.]
Until very recently, the Hugo Award voting statistics were made public immediately after the Ceremony itself. In 2022, while I was the head of the Press Relations team at Chicon 8, I received word that from Seanan Maguire that the release of the final vote and long list was a problem for her, other nominees and Hugo Award recipients because fans would approach in person (or online) with inane comments like “I voted for you” and “You were robbed” and, most damningly, “You lost by so-many votes”.
Having witnessed such callous and insensitive activity at previous Worldcons, I sent a message to the Hugo Award administrators on site outlining the problem and pleaded with them to put a 24-48 hour hold on disseminating that data for the sake of everyone involved. Thankfully, they complied.
In the frenzied aftermath of the Chengdu Hugo Awards Ceremony I was rather hoping that the trend of holding back the voting statistics would continue. Little did I know at the time that’s exactly what was going to happen.
So, at the time, I was very relieved when the statistics were not released right away. But for several weeks afterwards, I, and a great many other fans both here and abroad, began to wonder when that was going to happen.
On December 2nd Hugo Award Administrator Dave McCarty, who was attending an annual convention runner’s meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, posted the following on his Facebook page:
My “next” public announcement (revising a statement I just made an hour ago on a panel about the Chengdu Worldcon that was held this morning):
The Hugo voting stats have been on a long and winding journey, but that journey is at an end. They have been reviewed at multiple levels by our team and all the things we could find that needed correction have been resolved.
The usual bugaboos like typos in the summation formulas have been joined with items like “this is a valid translation of that phrase, but it’s not the right one for this purpose” (which happened a bunch of places) and “this font is meant for Japan and while readable, won’t look appropriate to fans in China” (which was a hard one to get rid of because I kept misunderstanding the feedback).
But, we think they’re as correct as we can make them.
The reviews finished too late “today” in China. The website folks are already asleep.
They should have the results up on the website by noon “tomorrow” (a bit more than 12 hours from now) and at that point there should be social media announcements and I will push the PDF to TheHugoAwards.org and a few other places like Locus and file770.
The last page of the PDF says roughly what I’m about to say here:
The nomination stats are not out yet. We will definitely have them out before the deadline of 90 days post convention, but right now “No, I don’t have an expected release date”
Again, folks connected with me are free to spread this post wherever they think appropriate.
And the very next day, they were: https://www.thehugoawards.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/2023-Hugo-Awards-Stats.pdf
Of particular interest to me were the results of the Best Fan Writer race:
I admit that I am not an expert of ranked choice voting, but it sure looked to me as though I led throughout all six rounds of voting. And in that last column, number six…there’s a separation of one vote.
It was my partner, Juli, who knows many more things about ranked choice voting than I do, gently informed me that I had won BY JUST ONE VOTE!
Well, that little factoid shook me to my core! Had I found this out while I was still in China I guarantee you that I would have freaked out on the spot!
Shortly thereafter that day, I received many messages through social media congratulating me on winning what was being called THE closest race in the history of the Hugo Awards. BUT, that wasn’t QUITE as true as I thought it might be…
Just out of curiosity, I did a little research on this and I have found only one other instance of a one-vote victory taking place during the modern, ranked voting era of the Hugo Awards (since 1998). Which, interestingly enough, was also in the Best Fan Writer Category in 2007:
Dave Langford: 80/80/88/103/128
John Scalzi: 87/88/92/102/127
John Hertz: 60/60/72/80
Steven H Silver: 37/37/42
Chris Garcia: 32/32
No Award: 25
End of digression, onward.
After looking through all of the other categories, I found a curious announcement on the very last page (in English and in Mandarin):
My thought at the time was that this was a very peculiar thing to post; why would there be a delay? If the final tally had already been completed, what was the holdup in releasing the Long List of nominations?
As December lapped into January, it became apparent to me (and everyone else) that the release was being deliberately held back until the last possible day, Friday, January 19th.
Later that same morning, Juli and I traveled north to attend ConFusion, one of Michigan’s oldest annual sf conventions. I was their Fan Guest of Honor last year and this year it was my honor to introduce this year’s Fan Guest, the renowned fan writer and cartoonist Kurt Erichsen.
By the end of the day here in the US Eastern Time Zone, there was no announcement of voting results.
Shortly before noon, the Long List went up. But Mr. McCarty failed to mention where it was available, so I shot him a quick dm asking where? He quickly replied it was on the Hugo Awards website.
The site had a repeat of the Final Ballot results, followed by the Long List.
And THAT, dear readers, is where the anti-matter really hit the shitfan…
On the very first page, I was gobsmacked by the exclusion of R.L. Kuang’s Nebula And Locus Magazine award winning novel, Babel!
My shock quickly continued when I noted the ineligible status of the novelette “Color The World” by Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu and the short story “Fongong Temple Pagoda” by Hai Ya without any explanation. It was subsequently revealed that Gu’s story was first published in 2019. Ya’s exclusion remains unexplained.
Besides Babel’s egregious banishment, the other big ‘ineligibles” were:
- The absence of the Neil Gaiman produced series The Sandman and Episode Six, “The Sound of Her Wings”
- Paul Weimer being excised from the Best Fan Writer category
- Xiran Jay Zhao being declared “not eligible” on the Astounding Award Final Ballot
All of this almost made me physically ill.
Meanwhile, news of the Long List controversy spread like an out of control wildfire among the ConFusion attendees. As I went to panels and wandered the hotel, several people went out of their way to come up and to assure me that my winning this year was worthy and well deserved.
While I found these kind gestures reassuring, the feelings of guilt and helplessness haunted me on the long drive home Sunday evening.
Following the announcement, I have been beset with daily bouts of insomnia, emotional mood swings, restlessness, acid reflux and random headaches.
Almost immediately, there was widespread condemnation of the Chengdu Convention Committee and the Hugo Award Administrators who oversaw the voting. Fans, writers, artists and editors, here and all over the rest of the world (including in the PRC as well) have universally hailed that the release was not only damaging to the nominees and winners, it had cast severe doubts on the reputation AND the future of the Hugo Awards.
As one of the winners of this year’s awards, I felt I had a personal responsibility to spread the news of the growing debacle and to openly comment where I could online against what seemed to be an attempt to stifle the expression of opinions and free speech.
As I posted my outrage on social media, it was pointed out to me by several people that what may have happened may not have been a direct attempt to censor by the Chinese Communist Party, but a move to “self censor” by entities either inside or adjacent to the convention to avoid any direct measures from the government. I was also pointed in the direction of this vital essay by sf author and educator, Ada Palmer, “Tools For Thinking About Censorship”.
If Ms. Palmer’s assertions were put to the test in this particular case, it might explain the evasive answers given by Hugo Administrator Dave McCarty and the pointed lack of response from the Chengdu convention runners. But, with no witnesses coming forward or any other concrete evidence of malfeasance other than the cold equations of the Long List, everyone was speculating about what really happened.
I note that I saw some ominous comments online in the past few days; that “throwing someone under the bus may have a FAR different and more serious meaning in other countries, especially authoritarian ones, than it would be here in the United States or in other democracies.”
When it comes to matters involving freedom of expression or, as we usually refer to “free speech”, we Americans (in particular) take an almost offensively chauvinistic pride of our First Amendment rights granted through our US Constitution as a fundamental part of our open society. People who live in less democratic circumstances, like Russia, North Korea, Turkey or, in this case, the People’s Republic of China, tend to be very reticent about telling others exactly what’s on their mind.
I heard an appropriate Chinese aphorism at a dinner one evening while I was in Chengdu; “We say little. But we see all.”
So it was quite telling when a BlueSky user named Angie Wang posted some very virulent criticisms of the Chengdu conrunners by La Zi a Vice-Chair of the convention on January 23rd:
These Google Translated excerpts are particularly remarkable and damning considering who was saying them.
La Zi has placed themselves at great risk for expressing their displeasure at what may have been perceived as a corruption somewhere in the nominating process, and thereby affecting the Final Ballot lineup.
And if this is the tip of the iceberg of scorn fermenting in the PRC, I can only imagine how badly this fiasco is going down among the rest of the sff fans there. I have no doubt whatsoever that many of them fear that this will not only reflect very badly on Chinese fandom, but their chances of ever hosting a Worldcon again in the very near future have been greatly diminished as well.
I had gone to China naively hoping that something like this wouldn’t occur. A nation that has been insistent in stating that it is an innovative and prosperous society and an emerging world power, did not need to interfere, either directly or indirectly, in a prestigious literary event that they helped finance and widely promoted.
And while I am reluctant to comment on the Best Novel, Best Dramatic Presentation and Astounding Award for Best New Writer categories, I am willing to venture a few comments on the Best Fan Writer category.
As many of you know, I was also nominated in the same category at the 2022 Worldcon, Chicon 8. That convention’s Hugo was awarded to Cora Buhlert of Germany while I placed fifth on the ballot. My fellow nominee Paul Weimer, finished in third place.
I have said in my Chengdu acceptance speech that I considered Mr. Weimer and all of my fellow nominees as being my peers, not rivals. I also said that I would have been happy if anyone else in this category had won instead of me. Except this time it was me and I am eternally grateful to have won.
But, as you can see in the chart above, Mr. Weimer, who had been a nominee at the previous three Worldcons, is marked “ineligible” with no explanation attached. I have a theory as to why that may have happened:
After the selection of the Chengdu bid in December 2021, Mr. Weimer was one of the vocal dissenters of PRC holding a Worldcon, citing the government’s authoritarian practices inside the country and other concerns about their record on human rights domestically and in the region.
Using the nomination chart as circumstantial evidence, I am quite certain in theorizing that among the top four nominees on the Long Nomination List, it was Mr. Weimer who was the most vocal critic of the PRC among us. And that he was clearly targeted.
Please note that before Mr. Weimer was erased from the ballot, all of the fan writers were from the West, save one, RiverFlow, who is Chinese. After Mr. Weimer declared “ineligible”, the next nominee down the list, HeavenDuke (which is the pen name of Arthur Liu) was promoted to the Final Ballot.
I have read HeavenDuke’s work and I found it incredibly worthy of a Hugo Award. I DO NOT blame HeavenDuke for this unfortunate happenstance since he, I and all of the other finalists are probably feeling a great deal of unease at the prospect of anyone putting their finger on the scale to diminish Paul Weimer to the advantage of someone else in the category.
But here’s an interesting piece of speculation; what if HeavenDuke’s presence on the ballot inadvertently cost RiverFlow a Hugo Award?
As you can see from the distribution of votes, I received a majority of the votes in each of the six rounds, but each time the votes were distributed, RiverFlow gained votes. It’s interesting to note that it seems RiverFlow and HeavenDuke split a number of votes through each succeeding round. Had RiverFlow been the sole Chinese nominee, he might have been an overwhelming winner that evening and could have taken home two Hugos instead of the the sole award he shared with his co-editor, Ling Shizhen, for Best Fanzine.
Or, conversely, could Paul Weimer have won on his own?
We’ll never really know for sure.
Obviously, there are a lot of suggestions on how we can prevent this travesty from ever happening again. I have a few ideas of my own:
- The administration of the Hugo Awards must be completely severed from the control or influence of the individual Worldcon convention committees or any governmental, judicial, legislative or law enforcement bodies of the hosting country.
This means that the Constitution of the World Science Fiction Society must be amended to split off the awards from each annual convention in favor of a non-profit organization with a rotating series of administrative volunteers who will handle the nomination and voting results. An organizational model such as the National Book Awards, the Newberry Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes should be considered. Under this separation from the convention, the Hugo Awards will retain their trademark and, if necessary, distribute the awards independently of the Worldcon.
- There has been a considerable amount of consternation from some western fans that the Worldcon should never have been held in the People’s Republic of China in the first place, citing their various human rights violations and hostile geo-political intentions. Several weeks ago, the Editor Emeritus of Amazing Stories published an editorial outlining his concerns about upcoming bids from Uganda, Saudi Arabia and the prospect of countries like Russia, Belarus, Hungary or other totalitarian regimes, who could legally bid for a Worldcon: “The Fannish Inquisition Needs More Than Soft Cushions and Comfy Chairs”.
Mr. Davidson urged sf fans, who vote on Worldcon Site Selection every year, not only to be more aware about which countries were bidding, but demand that harder, sharper question be asked during the bidding process saying:
We, Fandom, have to develop some standards for the awarding of that opportunity. We’ve got to step up and recognize that there are more things in play than just our desire to hang out in a country we’ve not been to before.
In conclusion, Davidson wrote:
Countries wanting a Worldcon to help advance their own agendas on that stage gives Worldcon leverage. Leverage that it can use to support and advance its own cause. Let’s not blow it.
I have an even better idea; instead of admonishing fans to do better voting-wise, I have a few more radical solutions that fans, con runners and bidders, cannot ignore.
The next successive WSFS Business Meetings should incorporate the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the Site Selection portion of WSFS Constitution.
In case you are unaware of this historic 1948 document, here’s a refresher.
In his forward to this version of the document, former UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon (who served from 2007-2016) wrote:
The commitment of the United Nations to human rights stems from the Organization’s founding Charter. The international community has a duty to uphold and defend these rights. Let us ensure that those people who most need their rights protected are made aware that this Declaration exists — and that it exists for them. Let us each do our part to make these universal rights a living reality for every man, woman and child, everywhere.
With the adoption of these principles codified in the WSFS Constitution, sf fandom will be sending an unambiguous message that we take being the guardian of human rights very seriously.
Also, the WSFS Constitution should be amended to require that any Worldcon bid sign a legally notarized statement, stating that their bid and subsequent Worldcon will abide, to the letter, every provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And if ANY bid refuses to sign and submit such a document, the bid will be disallowed. Any bid that wins and fails to live up to the standards of the Declaration, through their actions or inactions against outside influences, the bidders from that country will be permanently banned from bidding for a future Worldcon.
- In addition, another legally binding provision should be added; that ANY country that attempts to, or does interfere in the function of a Worldcon, the convention committee, staff or their attendees, that country will be permanently banned from hosting a Worldcon.
- Some sort of compensation should be offered to all of the people who were declared “ineligible” on the 2023 Hugo Awards Ballot. I have no idea what sort of offering that the Glasgow (or Seattle) Worldcons can bestow but I hope someone, somewhere, with a higher pay grade and bit more imagination than yours truly, will come up with a graceful and appropriate idea.
When I traveled to Chengdu, I didn’t go as an American or a westerner who loved sff. I went as a representative of the wider world of fandom.
There has been some loose talk about asking (or pressuring) the winners in the affected categories to consider “returning” their awards.
Return them? To whom? The Convention Committee? The Hugo Award Administrators? The nearest consulate of the People’s Republic of China?
I have a question for anyone who wants that to happen; have you seen this Hugo Award?
I will treasure its presence in our home for as long as I live.
After I first held this award in my hands for the first time on the stage of the Hugo Awards Ceremony, I remarked in my acceptance speech how lucky and grateful I was to be bestowed with such a beautiful and magnificent piece of sculpture that was appropriately symbolic of the science fiction and fantasy community and of the culture of the host country as well.
To me, it was very reminiscent of the 2007 Hugo Award design by Takashi Kinoshita, which incorporated Japan’s Mount Fuji, the rocket and the imposing figure of their national tokusatsu hero, Ultraman.
Here’s the point I want to make; I take being the recipient of this Hugo Award, even under these rather trying circumstances, very seriously. To me, it’s more an achievement in fandom or the symbolic of honoring my fan writing in a given year.
I am fully aware that people may regard this set of Hugo Awards as being either not very desirable or tainted because of what happened with the release of the Long List of nominations on January 20th.
You may do as you like, but I am defining this award for myself and my family and friends.
To me, it is the dream of a lifetime; a shining totem that I will eventually pass on to my daughter Laura and then on to her daughter, Navia.
It is my tiny little mark in the library of literary history.
That I did something. And I will be remembered, even in this small way.
That’s all I ever wanted from my participation in fandom.
And it’s enough.