Be the Change: For the Future of the Hugos by Paul Weimer

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this sixth reprint from Journey Planet’s “Be the Change” issue, Paul Weimer urges future Worldcons to pledge that the persons involved in running the 2023 Hugos will not be part of their bid. He wants certain freedoms written into the WSFS Constitution, and a “kill switch” for the year’s Hugos if government censorship is threatened. Weimer wants an outside agency to tabulate Hugo Awards voting. He wants to add virtual participation to the Business Meeting. And also to have a way to make rules changes in a single year, rather than the current two.

View of the Hugo exhibit at Noreascon 3. Photo from

By Paul Weimer: Systems that rely on being people-strong and not process-strong can last a long while without incident, until a situation arises that causes those same people to fail in their duties and responsibilities or interpret those duties and responsibilities in a way that ultimately is harmful to the system.

So it is with the Hugo Awards and Worldcon, as proven by the events of the 2023 Chengdu Worldcon.

I take it as an axiom that the Hugo Awards and Worldcon have had, in the language of my dayjob, a system breakdown leading to a nonconformity. That system must be reformed or further nonconformities will occur. I take it as a second axiom that it is desirable that further nonconformities are not desirable.

In the words of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, i.e., Vladimir Lenin, I am here to propose What is to Be Done.

I propose that the system be fortified and improved in a variety of ways. What we have seen as a result of the 2023 Worldcon is a systemic breakdown. A single “patch” will leave Worldcon and the Hugos vulnerable to that patch being worked around, countermanded, ignored or otherwise proven insufficient in preventing a future system breakdown. However, I am not an anarchist; I believe that Worldcon and the Hugo Awards are important and worthy of saving.

Step One: Locking the Barn Door

I am well aware of the very loose structure of Worldcons in general. Nevertheless, given the shocking behavior and actions of those involved, I would like any and all future Worldcon bids to pledge that the individuals involved in the 2023 Hugo Awards are not permitted to be part of their bid in any capacity. I am aware of the small world of “SMOFs” and the limited nature of the tribal knowledge of running cons. However, if, for example, Dave McCarty were to be part of any future Worldcon bid, how could I, or anyone, trust a single thing that he does? And this mistrust is present in any capacity, even if he were not near the actual administration of the award itself.

In keeping with that, and getting to the root of the previous Worldcons’ mistake, I would want any future Worldcons to pledge that they will uphold freedom of speech, expression, and identity (on all axes). This should be written into the Constitution. Works and creators should have their eligibility determined only by the WSFS Constitution, not by perceived or real censorship from local government authorities or influence from outside organizations.

In cases where government censorship threatens the Hugo Awards, there should be a “kill switch.” Tainted results are worse than no results at all. There are multiple winners of the 2023 Hugo Awards that basically consider themselves not to be winners. When things have broken so badly that multiple winners have stepped back and renounced this honor, you have a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Confidence and reliability in the nominations, finalists, and tabulation of the votes has to be reestablished.

Step Two: Trust but Verify

Like the Oscars, I think it is time to employ an outside agency to tabulate nominations and finalists. While I recognize that this will cost money, having an outside auditor do the actual tabulation of nominations and final votes will show the world that the Hugo Awards and Worldcon are serious about reliability and confidence in the results. The upfront and forthright response from Glasgow when they announced the finalists was good. That, too, should be a standard written into the Constitution. The loose rules of the Constitution in reporting Hugo nominations, finalists, and other information were deliberately exploited by the Chengdu Worldcon. That’s a system breakdown; the Constitution must be amended to stop that from occurring. That, and an independent auditor, will completely restore confidence after what happened in 2023.

I understand that there are some who would object to employing an independent auditor, as opposed to “double checking” the work, but honestly, after the 2023 awards, I’d rather have an unbiased third party do it at this stage.

Step Three: Building Strength

When I first joined Worldcon, I was shocked as to how few nominations are required to get on the ballot. This was, of course, exploited some years ago by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, and efforts were put in place to make such slating more difficult. By and large, those efforts did solve that problem, but they did not address the overall problem: Worldcon, paradoxically, is too small. It costs a lot of effort and money to participate in Worldcon, and when we take into account things like the Business Meeting, it takes a lot of time as well.

Efforts need to be made to broaden the Worldcon Electorate and to improve the Business Meeting.

For the size of the science fiction readership, a few thousand voters is an astonishingly small number. While numbers for the sake of numbers is not an overall good, a larger and more interesting electorate is good for science fiction. Worldcon should take steps to make virtual participation easier and more attractive, including participation in nomination and voting. Even in this day and age, the Hugo Awards appears as a secret clubhouse; if you don’t expend enormous effort or have someone “already in the know,” you won’t ever get there from here. Worldcons should be engaging with and reaching out to the community. It can and has been done–Helsinki comes to mind. This should be the norm, not the exception. Cities that are hosting Worldcon should be engaged with. These are the World Science Fiction Awards and the World Science Fiction Convention. This is a Big Deal.

And that brings me to the Business Meeting. Right now the Business Meeting is a small, clannish, and relatively obscure part of a Worldcon. For a body that basically makes Worldcons and the Hugo Awards possible, it is, frankly, a body that does not reflect the 21st century, its norms, or needs. It was one thing when Worldcons were less than 1500 people. Now, Worldcon attendance is routinely triple or quadruple that number, and like it or not, Worldcon and the Hugo Awards have had “greatness thrust upon them.” I’ve seen the arguments that Worldcon and the Hugo Awards don’t have any responsibility or any need to respond to a larger electorate or a larger remit, but the fact of the matter is, for the wide range of SFF readers and the general public, the Hugo Awards are a cornerstone of science fiction. Worldcon, the Hugos, and the Business Meeting may not WANT that mantle, but they have that mantle.

And it’s high time to start acting like it.

A Business Meeting that basically is Robert Rules of Order: The Role-Playing Game might be well and fine in a world where the Hugo Awards don’t truly matter, but the thing is, the Hugo Awards DO matter. Careers and publishing lives were harmed by what happened in Chengdu. And a Business Meeting that purposely and deliberately makes it difficult for change and growth to occur is a Business Meeting that is holding Worldcon, the Hugo Awards, and science fiction back.

To this end, the organization of the Business Meeting should incentivize and improve attendance and participation. This would, I propose, include a virtual component as well as physical attendance. Worldcon is in Glasgow this year. A fan who cannot get to Glasgow should not have their ideas go unheard because of it.

I think that the two years “King Log” approach to any changes to Worldcon and the Hugos is a brake that perhaps has had its time. However, a Business Meeting that allowed virtual participation would help make “King Log” less of a problem. Consider, a fan from, say, York going to their first Worldcon in Glasgow this year. Even if they have a great idea, attend the Business Meeting, and propose a resolution, if they can’t afford to go to the 2025 Worldcon in Seattle, they will subsequently be unable to follow through on their proposal.

As a result, the proposals and changes that happen to the Hugo Awards and Worldcons are, in practice, restricted to a cadre of dedicated con-goers who can afford to go to Worldcons in far flung locations and have the time and desire to play Robert’s Rules of Order: The Role-Playing Game in order to have any changes done. This fundamentally and practically puts the administration of Worldcons and the Hugo Awards in the hands of a small Oligarchy. As evidenced in the 2023 Worldcon and Hugo Awards, that Oligarchy has failed in its duties.

There is much more to be done besides all of this, but these changes would provide a foundation to help create an inclusive, dynamic, diverse Worldcon that avoids the pitfalls and problems that have tarnished its reputation.

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20 thoughts on “Be the Change: For the Future of the Hugos by Paul Weimer

  1. The hardest things to do developing any system is extracting the requirements and distinguishing between the requirements and the design.

    Here I think there are two requirements…
    A transparent and honest Hugo nomination and voting process

    Wider participation in the Business Meeting, ideally remote participation.

    Who would argue with the first? It’s really just+ a question of implementation.

    The second sounds good to me, but not everybody may agree. That’s democracy I guess. A true hybrid Business Meeting allowing effective participation around the globe comes with significant technical challenges to be met. It can be done, but we shouldn’t think it would be easy.

    +the word “just” in a requirements spec should set the alarm bells ringing

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  3. I fully agree with greater accountability and virtuality.
    A nitpick, What is to Be Done is a text initially not by Vladimir Lenin, but by Nikolay Chernyshevsky (the original from 1862, Lenin’s quote of it for his title from 1902). Regarding WorldCon I guess another Lenin’s work is more relevant, ‘How We Should Reorganize Rabkrin’ 🙂

  4. There are several big issues that continually come up with at least the easiest idea to increase participation in The Hugo Awards, specifically making it easier to become a WSFS (f.k.a. supporting) member by lowering the price and promoting the idea of at least that level of membership to a broader community.

    1: People who fear doing that will make it easier for groups like the Rabid Puppies to exploit the awards.
    2: People who argue that lowering the cost will hurt the finances of the standing Woldcon by taking the income needed to provide the required services to the non-attending WSFS members.
    3: People who believe that the existence of The Hugo Voters’ Packet means that the value of a WSFS membership is already where it is priced.

    I have some counter-arguments to all of these and have made them. Usually, they don’t go anywhere with those I am arguing against.

    For point 1, I believe that this argument partially misunderstands how many people perceive these costs. When promoting Worldcons and Worldcon Bids at local conventions, I have frequently questioned why an individual should spend as much for a WSFS membership as they would for an attending membership, or at least an advanced attending membership, at their local convention. Lowering the financial cost of WSFS membership would allow these people to participate.

    I also suspect that there are a number of people, including conrunners and people I consider friends (not mutually exclusive groups), who do not want these costs lowered because they want to keep Worldcon and The Hugo Awards from expanding beyond the kinds of people who were there when they joined. They do not want younger and more diverse people who came into SF through media, gaming, or other media to join. (This ignores the fact that probably anyone under sixty at this point did not find fandom through subscriptions to the old SF periodicals, but because of Star Trek, Star Wars, Anime, etc.)

    For point 2, most Worldcons have moved away from print publications as the default option for members. The constitution now allows a Worldcon committee to charge for paper publications. Nonattending WSFS members do not add to the printing and mailing expenses. The costs to serve them beyond that is marginal, and probably disappear into the IT budget. Their membership needs to be tracked, and they need to be able to nominate and vote for The Hugo Awards and have their information sent to site selection. These are all database functions that are covered as part of any membership.

    I have also heard the argument that reducing the WSFS membership cost, which will also reduce the advanced WSFS membership paid by voters, will reduce the startup income available when a Worldcon bid becomes a seated Worldcon. I cannot dispute this. But if Worldcon is going to survive, it will probably need to adapt its business and financial models as well, and this can be part of that.

    For point 3, I will regularly point out (unsuccessfully, apparently) that The Hugo Voters’ Packet is a courtesy provided at the significant generosity of the Hugo Award Finalists and, in many cases, their publishers. It absolutely should not be used as a selling point for WSFS memberships. It is not a benefit of being a WSFS member.

    I suspect if too many of the professional writers learned that people were pushing WSFS memberships so people could get the packet, they might become reluctant to include their works.

    Coming briefly back to point 2, I will point out that at least for Loncon III, Sasquan, MidAmericon II, and Worldcon 76 – four of the five conventions where I was responsible for the Hugo Award database and web application – storing and delivering the Hugo Award Packet was the largest expense that I had to deal with. In each of those years, except for MidAmericon II, I used my Amazon Web Services account to support the packet. So I can confirm that the mean costs born to support the Hugo Voters’ Packet across those three years was slightly under $300 (USD). (For what it is worth, due to communications and budget glitches, I was never reimbursed for the expenses from Loncon III – which might slightly flavor my feelings.)

    One thing I never did when I had the data was compare the lists of members who downloaded part or all of the packet with those who eventually voted. I recently wished I had thought to do so when I had access to the data to see if there was evidence that the packet was being abused and not used to help with voting.

    I am, to be clear, fully in support of the idea of increasing the WSFS membership and to fully encourage every WSFS member to nominate and vote for The Hugo Awards.

    I have regularly attended Comic-Con International San Diego (a.k.a San Diego Comic-Con). Many of the 150,000 people who receive regular badges for the largest (mostly) fan-run non-profit convention in the world are potential WSFS members. There are also potential WSFS members at every Anime convention, at every Furry convention, at most of the smaller comic conventions, and at gaming conventions small and large. This does not include the many people who attend and even work for the annual local and regional literary conventions who do not have the time or money to travel to Worldcon or have not heard they could participate.

    Many of these people might be willing to spend $25 (USD) to also be WSFS members. But asking them to pay $50 (USD) for the same limited benefits is a bridge too far.

  5. @lise How could I trust Dave McCarty and his cohorts anywhere near a Worldcon management again? Not only did he create a political dossier on me and others, he got basic facts WRONG in the process.

    Talk to me again in 15 years or so.

  6. Ron Oakes said:

    For point 3, I will regularly point out (unsuccessfully, apparently) that The Hugo Voters’ Packet is a courtesy provided at the significant generosity of the Hugo Award Finalists and, in many cases, their publishers. It absolutely should not be used as a selling point for WSFS memberships. It is not a benefit of being a WSFS member.

    I agree in principle, but I also think that there are not a few people who purchase memberships simply to get the packet. Perhaps, the Worldcon could make a supplementary charge to members in order for them to get the packet.

    As regards the “kill switch” idea I think it raises another issue. If the switch is activated and no Hugos are awarded then, presumably, that year becomes eligible for Retro Hugos. If so, then would it be a special case where they could be awarded quickly, in the next one, two or three years, or would they have to wait for an eligible year as per the existing Retro rules?

  7. “I think that the two years “King Log” approach to any changes to Worldcon and the Hugos is a brake that perhaps has had its time.”

    Suppose changes could be made in one year. Suppose further that this rule was in place in Chengdu. What mischief could have been wrought then?

    Two years can be frustrating, but it is a significant barrier to potential bad actors.

    @Ron Oakes “I suspect if too many of the professional writers learned that people were pushing WSFS memberships so people could get the packet, they might become reluctant to include their works.”

    Is it possible, since the regular distribution of the packet, to win a Hugo without having your work in the packet? How often has that happened?

    I suspect that an author withholding his or her works from the packet would be equivalent to saying, “I’m not interested in actually winning the award”.

  8. The cost of a WSFS membership traditionally needed to be enough to cover printing and mailing costs for publications. It did not come from a desire to make Worldcon exclusive — that is a cheap shot. Worldcon is run by volunteers who work hard to make Worldcon as affordable and accessible and inclusive to as many people as possible. Worldcons are much less expensive than comparable professional conventions, even when compared with other non-profit conventions that strive to be affordable and inclusive.

    Maybe the cost of a WSFS only membership could be lower. The cost of printed publications could be separated out, creating a less expensive online only WSFS only membership. The question is what is the actual cost of providing the membership. It should not be priced so low that the convention loses money on each one.

  9. bill: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won a Hugo with only an excerpt in the Hugo Voter Packet. Beyond that I don’t know how often it has happened.

  10. Hugos voting pool NEEDS to be expanded and that will be done when voting stops costing a fortune. Here in Latin America it is practically impossible to participate, even online, because of the insane cost.

  11. Back before I retired, we had a saying at work – when any question begins with “can’t we just -” the answer is “no”.

    I would remind people that the Puppy incident was initiated and then dealt with all according to the existing rules and business meeting process, and it worked out fine, whereas Chengdu was destroyed by people in charge deliberately choosing not to honor the rules. When you have broken people rather than broken rules, fiddling with the rules doesn’t help.

    I would also say that ideology of the process must never be allowed to play a part in who may be nominated for a Hugo or receive a Hugo. The only ideology that should ever count is that of the fans who vote.

  12. I suggest that instead of the “kill switch” meaning that the Hugos would be cancelled that year, as an alternative, perhaps management of the Hugo Awards for that year could be turned over to a committee consisting of persons who don’t live in the country/jurisdiction where the censorship is and aren’t attending the Worldcon.

  13. Some quick research indicates the cost of a WSFS only membership is about the same as the cost of a pair of jeans in Brazil.

  14. I still believe bids should only be accepted from countries that pass a certain chosen number (TBD) by one or more (probably the median of more than one) organizations devoted to rating freedom of expression/human rights of countries around the world.

    It’s a simple and short modification to the WSFS Constitution and would simply bar countries with an unacceptable level of human rights and freedom of speech from hosting Worldcon.

    This alone cuts off a huge number of possibilities for mischief. People can debate precisely which organization’s indexes of freedom to use, and what number to use, but it’s a very easy proposition to adopt or debate.

    Why not do this?

  15. @Mike N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won a Hugo with only an excerpt in the Hugo Voter Packet.

    I’m with you on this. If I am considering Hugo short-list and read the first three or four chapters, if I like them I’ll get the book. If I am put off by them I am hardly likely to vote for it.

    @H. Rosen Chengdu was destroyed by people in charge deliberately choosing not to honor the rules.

    I totally agree. If I recall correctly (a bit dodgy that) the WSFS rules state that a contract with the venue must be presented before the bid goes on the ballot. If subsequently a winning bid changes the venue (hence approved contract) without good reason (such as the venue collapses or some such – I invent wildly) then the Worldcon should not be held. Perhaps the easiest solution would be that if a winning Worldcon bid is cancelled through rule-breaking then the NASFic should become the de facto Worldcon?

    New (related) topic

    Robert’s Rules. These are designed for local councils, trade union meetings, etc. All these meetings have a certain locality and fixed constituent members that can attend all meetings. Conversely, Worldcons are international and while its membership may have regular members, not all members attend every singly year. In fact, I’d venture that most Worldcon members do not go every single year. Roberts Rules does not speak to this and is not applicable (hence should not be used) as the sole source of governance guidance for such international and attendee fluid meetings.

    Worldcons keeping to the rules

    Those from nations used to democracy and democratic accountability will be more likely to value the need for such. Conversely, nations used to dictatorial control, lack of democratic values, human rights etc, are not best placed to host Worldcons. Similarly, proposed venue nations that do not hold democratic freedom values such as recognising the diversity of orientation and gender identity, would not be welcoming for a valued section of our Worldcon community.

    Here, the obvious. and perhaps easiest, solution is that to be eligible to submit a bid the proposed hosting nation should meet a certain level of democratic/freedom indices – there are a number of indices that have international credibility.

    The current Uganda bid’s nation’s indices compared to previous Worldcon hosting nations (China excepted) are illustrative.

    This greatly chimes with @Gary Farber’s point above.

    For info, taking just one index, the Equaldex, here is how the current bids and seated Worldcons stand up. And here’s the same for Eurocons.

  16. Jonathan C.:

    So you don’t like Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised. Personally, I’d prefer the simpler Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure, but whenever I’ve tried changing it, the members have rejected it because it would eliminate Objection to Consideration, which many of them love.

    What set of procedural rules would you establish for debating and deciding upon things in a deliberative assembly, which is what the WSFS Business Meeting is? How would you balance the rights of individual members, absentees, minorities of the attendees (particularly strong minorities of at least one-third), majorities of the attendees (particularly strong majorities of at least two-thirds), and of the assembly of the whole?

    Those people demanding “Get rid of all of these rules because they are Bad” have an obligation to tell us what rules they would propose in their place.

  17. Kevin – It’s not I don’t like Roberts Rules – what I like or dislike is totally irrelevant and was not the point I was making — the point I was making was that Roberts Rules were never designed for international meetings and those with a floating constituency. Read my comment and check Roberts’ applications and you’ll see what I mean.

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