[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?
Not only can the rocket be recycled, but presumably it can be removed in many cases in a way it can be replaced by a future rocket, should somebody show up to claim the trophy. Though I bet if it were advertised, people who would like to be a “caretaker” for a retro Hugo would volunteer, and do the effort to track down somebody who could say, “I appoint X as caretaker for my grandparent’s award.”
CoNZealand’s minutes are here. From Dublin’s financial report, they brought in 100,000 Euros more than they spent. San Jose ran a surplus of $180,000. Kansas City ran a surplus of $120,000.
Even if the Retro Hugos cost $10k, it doesn’t seem to be an issue – honoring the best of SF history is entirely an appropriate thing for conventions to spend money on. And if Retro Bases are a problem, use a stock base from a trophy shop — it’s the Rocket that makes a Hugo. Who wouldn’t be proud to have a Retro-Hugo Rocket mounted on this?
“Then there’s all the time that the Hugo team has to spend verifying eligibility and trying to contact family members of finalists”
Every eligibility issue I’ve seen come up has been resolved by fans. Crowdsource the eligibility issue — they are going to do it anyway. And there’s no real need to spend a lot of time finding descendants.
“And then there’s the cost of actually putting on a ceremony, with all of the facilities, sound, lighting, video, and other technical resources which are required.”
This has to be done anyway for the Hugos; the marginal effort in doing for the Retros as well is much smaller.
Most of the recent conventions that had the option to do the Retros chose to do so; I take this as broad support for the idea. Most of the actual criticism of the awards I’ve seen really seems to be criticism of certain old white guys who have won. If this criticism is truly worth reacting to, then elimination of repeat winners would go a long way to solving that problem.
Keep the awards. Tweak them and the process a little bit.
It is indeed fans who are looking into eligibility at the moment. I don’t know why you seem to think that the Hugo team are not fans.
What you don’t seem to appreciate is that eligibility issues need to be resolved as much as possible before the final ballot is published, which is only a short time after votes close. The last couple of years we managed to frontload the process by getting a dedicated team of fans to research the eligibility of likely nominees in advance. It took them a lot of time, proportionally more on the Retros because the information is more difficult to come by. That’s a cost, if not directly a monetary one.
As the person who spent quite a lot of time finding descendants both this year and last year, I am wondering how else you think I should have spent my time. (Though my nearest and dearest have also made some helpful suggestions.)
While it seems like a great courtesy to find descendants early, it does not seem strictly necessary. Do you want to give them the right to decline a nomination? A slower effort to find them should they wish to attend the ceremony (which is more likely in the event of a video-based ceremony as in 2020) is also courteous but not so strictly required. Finding the heirs to the winner is a smaller problem set, both because you only look at 1/6 of the nominees, and they tend to be the most famous of the nominees to boot.
But if it’s not named a Hugo, everything is optional. With living winners, I would even consider confidentially telling them in advance that they won if it would get them to come, normally considered not a thing to do, except perhaps in Dramatic Presentation.
Nicholas Whyte —
My apologies for implying that Hugo Committee members are not fans. Obviously, they are, and the best sort of fans, at that. You guys do the work that the rest of us enjoy. I spoke poorly and should have made it clear that I was talking about fans who are not formally associated with the Committee — folks like me, out in cyberspace.
If you’d care to expand on how difficult eligibility issues are, I’d be glad to read it. I assume that they fall into two categories: Was the work from the appropriate time period? Was the word count (or running length) appropriate for the category?
“As the person who spent quite a lot of time finding descendants both this year and last year, I am wondering how else you think I should have spent my time.”
If this is something you wanted to do (and as as a volunteer over more than one convention, I’m guessing you did), then I wouldn’t dare presume to tell you that you should have done something else. But several have suggested that doing so is a burden on the committee, and I don’t understand the need for it. If it didn’t get done, what is the downside?
“this year and last year” — having done it more than once, were you more or less enthusiastic about Retro-Hugos the second time?
Fifty years ago, the cost of Hugo trophies was a significant part of the convention budget. Today, it’s a rounding error. The biggest issue is not actually money, but people. Hugo Administration eats up a bunch of specialized people points, drawn from a relatively small pool of people.
Some years ago, I proposed a system (3 Stage Voting) that would have effectively crowdsourced much of the eligibility checking, but it was rejected for multiple reasons. As Nicholas said, now you have a very small group of fans working in Hugo Administration who have a very short time to do eligibility checking and related tasks. And as Worldcons keep creeping earlier in the calendar year, it gets even harder to administer the Awards.
Kevin Standlee: For many years the Locus staff was involved in vetting the eligibility of nominees. (The fiction ones, presumably.) I wonder when that stopped (if it did)?
I suspect that at least some of us who like the Retro Hugos would be willing to help out with checking eligibility. We already did that with the spreadsheet to a certain degree, though there are always edge cases. ISFDB can be a great help, but they can sometimes be wrong, too. Even Worldcat can be wrong, as N. and I found out, when we actually checked out the Willy Ley rocket book in a physical university library and realised that it was indeed in English, even though Worldcat insisted it was in German.
But there are things which are difficult to check. For example, I wasn’t certain whether the Cthulhu Mythos had really amassed 240000 words worth of stories by 1944 and listed it as “eligibility uncertain” in the spreadsheet. I certainly don’t envy you for having to tally up all of those stories and decide whether it was eligible or not.
And sometimes, we all miss something such as the issue with the uncredited artist of that Superman comic this year.
As for the trophies and the ceremony, I wouldn’t mind skipping the ceremony or turning it into a regular panel discussing the winners and finalists.Trophies could only be handed out when a descendant of the winner can be found and could be mounted on a basic massproduced base rather than an elaborate custom base, no matter how beautiful.
bill: [the cost of actually putting on a ceremony, with all of the facilities, sound, lighting, video, and other technical resources which are required] has to be done anyway for the Hugos; the marginal effort in doing for the Retros as well is much smaller.
It has to be done twice. Double the expenses, double the effort.
This is not a good detail to for the discussion to get stuck on.
At Dublin 2019, the Retro-Hugos were presented at Opening Ceremonies. In other words, there doesn’t necessarily have to be an extra cost if the awards are given at another event that’s already on the schedule.
If anyone reading this is involved in Retro Hugos eligibility research, I am happy to help. I’ve filled out the volunteer form for the next several Worldcons. Just let me know what I can do.
Did I miss a comment? If this is true please let us know who’s paying for that storage unit and what Retros haven’t found a suitable taker yet. I offered a while ago to do some of that research and am reaffirming my interest in doing it now. I used to write a syndicated newspaper column that was all about tracking down obscure information like that. (I think I spent two years trying to find someone who knew who killed Fred in an unfinished storyline as Peyton Place ended.)
Regarding suggestions on how the Retro Hugos are presented, I’ve never seen that much value in having a ceremony. It seems like they could be announced as part of a panel on historic SF/F or simply announced on the opening day of the Worldcon.
I’d also be willing to help with checking Retro Hugo eligibility, since I did that anyway this year.
OK, a bit more on the process – and understand that I can only speak to the three years that I have been involved, 2017, 2019 and 2020, of which only the last two had Retros; I don’t know how others have handled / will handle things.
I think my answer to that is fairly obvious! But to put it in context, the rule change that allowed Worldcons to run Retro Hugos for the “missing” WW2 years came into effect for 2018, and (I confess without a lot of reflection) Dublin agreed with San Jose to make a joint announcement at the 2017 SmofCon that we were both going to do Retro Hugos for our years, now that it was possible. The announcement video itself was a thing of beauty, but sadly seems to have been taken down now. At that point I shared the view of a number of commenters here that the Retros were fun and a neat way to honour the past community.
But by the time of last year’s ceremony I felt very differently. A lot of the reasons have been already mentioned, but it always comes back to the extra amount of time and resources needed for something that a relatively small number of people cared enough about to vote. I was also frankly dismayed by a couple of last year’s winners. Conjure Wife is an indefensibly misogynist novel. Forrest J Ackerman was a creep. John W. Campbell has been discussed at length. I could see much the same happening this year if we ran them (as it did).
I was also very sorry for the heirs of some of the finalists who actually showed up to the ceremony in Dublin and were disappointed. Donald Wollheim’s daughter, J. Michael Rosenblum’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Oscar J. Friend’s great-granddaughter and a rep from C.S. Lewis’s publisher all took the trouble to attend, in vain. It’s not a brilliant celebration when most of the people who actually show up are not celebrated, and most of the people who are celebrated don’t show up. (Three out of twelve winners had designated acceptors.)
So my advice, shared by the rest of the CoNZealand Hugo team at that time who had all been in Dublin in various capacities, was that the Retros should not run this year as the costs outweighed the benefits. The convention leadership chose to go a different way, and I am not going to explain or defend that choice. We brought in another team member who was more enthusiastic about the Retros, and implemented the decision that had been made, with the results that we have all seen.
I appreciate offers to assist in future eligibility checking, but I am out of the picture for the next few years so I hope that those who may administer future Retro Hugos are reading. But to explain my approach on this question: I felt it fairly important both years to avoid any perception that the Hugo administration was helping to shape the vote in any particular direction, and that we therefore needed a separate independent dedicated internal team doing our own checks on nominations as they came in. (We did also run the final ballot past Locus, but I don’t think it’s right that Worldcon should completely outsource eligibility checking, as OGH seems to be suggesting was once the case.)
I know that the offers of assistance here are sincere and well-meant, but I urge potential volunteers to reflect seriously on whether their efforts are better expended on public-facing actions and critiques or whether they should disappear behind the necessary cloak of confidentiality that comes with being part of the formal process. If you’re working on the inside it limits your options for external commentary, and personally I’d be sorry to see some of the commenters here having to refrain from commenting. It’s not my call; just saying.
Anyway, even with delegation of the process to a good team, the judgement calls still need to be made by the Administrators. Last year, we disqualified a Best Graphic Story nominee for being published before 1943, and a Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form nominee for being too short (at least as far as 1943 episodes went). We also disqualified three Best Series nominees for insufficient length, which meant that we had to scrap the category. (I have not revisited the various eligibility spreadsheets to see if anyone else spotted these problems.)
This year there was a Best Novella nominee which was only 8200 words long; two more Best Series nominees which had not reached the word count, a Best Related Work nominee which was in no way related, and the difficult call on the Best Dramatic Presentation categories which has already been discussed. Two other categories included finalists with only three nominating votes, which is really on the edge of viability, even if one of them actually won. (Again, I have not revisited the various eligibility spreadsheets to see if anyone else spotted these problems.)
All of those decisions need to be taken seriously and deliberately, at a moment when the whole process is under huge time pressure. (It did not help that in 2020 this was all happening at the very beginning of the lockdown, but I cannot blame the Retro Hugos for that!) Of course we are all volunteers who are doing it because we love it, but it’s surely indisputable that a lot fewer people care about the Retros than about the regular Hugos, especially in proportion to the relative amounts of work involved.
@bill also asks,
The Constitution at 3.14.1 is clear: as things stand at present, the Retro Hugos must be done “with procedures as for the current Hugo Awards”, which means trophies have to be designed and made (per 3.5) at the very least. Once you have a Retro trophy, what are you going to do with it? I have no idea if the assertion that “there is a rented storage unit full of boxes and boxes of expensive, unclaimed Retro Hugo trophies” is correct, because I found homes for all the ones I was responsible for, but this is how such a storage unit would get filled.
Commenting from the outside is fun but when you’re expressing frequent opinions about how a volunteer effort is run, it would be preferable to get involved even if it meant being able to talk less about the subject.
If nobody can be found within a reasonable time, see if the winner’s high school or hometown public library would like to accept and display it.
Nicholas Whyte: And as long as we’re working this out, Bruce Pelz found homes for all the Retros awarded in 1996.
Whatever you may feel about these nominees, I am not entirely enthused with wanting to change the award because you don’t agree with who the fans are voting for. If it’s a fan award, the fans decide. Of course, Hugo admins are human beings and have opinions about nominees, but even so…
Changing the award because it doesn’t fit fannish goals, that’s fine.
@Nicholas Whyte — thanks very much for the detailed and thoughtful response.
WRT “what’s the downside”, your answer referred to sec 3.5 — the rules say you gotta make trophies, so that means finding an eventual home for them. I had suspected that sec 3.10.1 was the driver. (And I wonder — how often does a finalist or his heir take advantage of the veto power? And why do they get the opportunity? Whether or not a potential recipient actually wants the award shouldn’t control whether fans get to vote on it, to my way of thinking.)
But either way, if finding someone to accept the physical trophy or to concur with it being given is too much of a burden, then changing the rules and procedures seems like a better way to deal with the problem rather than just dropping the award altogether.
And I agree with Brad Templeton’s line of thinking (although I would change “am not entirely enthused with” to “strongly disagree with”).
For the modern Hugos, off the top of my head, there was at least one declined nomination for the past three years.
There was a declined nomination this year: Ann Leckie for The Raven Tower.
Yes, that was one of the three I was thinking of. Martha Wells declining one more Murderbot novella than required. And N.K. Jemisin for Best Series. Again, that’s just off the top of my head without looking stuff up.
The Newman’s declined a nomination for Tea and Jeopardy a few years ago, after they won. And Marko Kloos and Black Gate Magazine declined nominations during the puppy years.
I am fully aware of the declined nominations that happen for current Hugos. I was asking if this had happened in a retro Hugo.
Brad Templeton: I am fully aware of the declined nominations that happen for current Hugos. I was asking if this had happened in a retro Hugo.
Why would it? Apart from Silverberg, who openly admitted that he should have declined his Fan Writer nomination but did not, none of them are still alive, and why would one of the few descendents they’ve managed to find for nominees decline an honor for their ancestor?
I didn’t do a spreadsheet for 1943, but I just checked the one for 1944 and we have Olaf Stapledon’s Old Man in a New World listed as a novella as does Paul Fraser. I suspect the reason is that it was originally published as a standalone chapbook, so everybody assumed it was a novella. ISFDB accurately has it listed as a novelette.
Venus Equilateral and Foundation are both accurately listed as “insufficient wordcount” in the spreadsheet as is Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone, because in all three cases it was not even close. The Aleister Crowley Tarot book is very much a judgment call. I didn’t nominate it myself, but those who did apparently decided that Aleister Crowley himself is genre enough to qualify as Best Related, a view I have some sympathy for. For the Best Dramatic Presentation categories, we listed the length according to IMDB, noting that some are edge cases. I also have no idea why those who nominated The Phantom serial last year, when it was ineligible, didn’t renominate it this year, when it would have been eligible, since the bulk of the serial came out in 1944.
I wasn’t happy with the Campbell and Ackerman wins last year either, though last year’s Campbell win was easier to defend, because Unknown was still being published and the overall quality of Astounding was higher.
I don’t actually mind Conjure Wife all that much, even though it was my least favourite of the three Fritz Leiber stories on the Retro Hugo ballot last year and it wasn’t my top vote. I didn’t no award Conjure Wife either, though I did no award two Best Novel Retro finalists last year, because one was just bad and I vehemently hated the other novel. I also don’t see Conjure Wife as misogynist, for while the male narrator may be misogynist, the novel also makes it very clear that he is an idiot.
I am accused of “wanting to change the award because you don’t agree with who the fans are voting for”. I don’t particularly want to change the award (I haven’t seen a good counter-proposal yet). But running the Retro Hugos is a choice, not an obligation. Choices have consequences, and I am pointing out some of those consequences.
Probably because it’s listed as a 1943 production in IMDB, and most of those who nominated it last year did not find out that we had disqualified it, let alone why.
Cora also says,
I honestly query how many people who nominated it had actually read it. There is no way you could mistake it for a novella. You can (probably) read it here.
Right now I have only the following thoughts about the Retro-Hugos:
I only wish that the Worldcons of
1997-2000, 2002, 2015, 2017; had foreseen the future and awarded the Retro-Hugos in those years so that the dissonant idea that struck me of a Best Series Retro-Hugo for 1940 and 1942 would not possibly be given after the Best Series of 1947-1950, 1952 for maybe the later entries in a series nullifying a possible nomination for earlier parts of the series; no idea if the timing and qualifying criteria works out, though.
Also, could a hypothetical Retro-Hugo for Best Series for Asimov’s Foundation be nullified by its All-Time Best Series Award in 1966. (Edit inserted: the 1944 disqualification for Foundation not having enough word-count to qualify seems ambigous to me regarding its eligibilty vis-a-vis its All-Time Series Hugo win. Possibly a finalist postion in its eligible years either from 1947-1952 would clear it up.)
This seems so timey-wimey to me that I hope the Nit-Picking and Fly-Specking Committee in 2040, 2042, 2047-2050, 2052 or 2022, 2024, 2025 and 2027 can deal with the time-shifting (since 2023 may not have Retro Hugos for 1948 and this may throw the ball forward to 2048.)
I think it’s too late now for an amendment to mandate filling in the gaps of Retro-Hugos at the first available opportunity and prevent the paradox of Best Series of 1940 or 1942 or 1948 being nullified by potential future later entries winning, or being finalists (again i have no idea which, if any series are set to even face this problem-will the Shadow, Buck Rogers, Doc Savage and Captain Future be ineligible to be finalists in 1940 or 1942 if they otherwise qualify and receive enough nominations (and the category still exists in 2040 and 2042-it is 20 and 22 years out from now; category of Best Series might be gone then [or the horse might be dead; or even learn to talk by then, too].
PS: I missed the post by Nicholas Whyte about his past involvement in the Hugos so if I’m wrong about the Retro-Hugos being possible in between 1997 and 2017, i apologize.
I’m too much more interested in the process here than the winners or finalists/nominees right now (I tried reading the nominees/qualifying works in a previous year, even though I didn’t plan on being a member-but the difficulties of reading the online copies of the magazines on my phone led me to give up; also found it hard to differentiate the version in the magazine versus the version stuck in my brain from my own paperback copies.)
I mentioned the current ones because Bill asked why they get the option. Because current finalists can and do.
MixMat wisely says,
I can’t speak for any other year, but in 2017, my first turn as Administrator, it was not yet possible to run Retro Hugos for the “missing” war years, including 1942. So there was no option.
Well, I did renominate The Phantom for 1945, but then I knew that it was disqualified and why, plus I’m one of the comparably few remaining Phantom fans.
I neither read nor nominated the Stapledon, but then I’m not a big Stapledom fan and figured I would deal with it when/if it was nominated. The one person I know who did (re)read the Stapledom was Steve J. Wright, though I have no idea if he nominated it and in which category.
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As much as I’ve followed online the posted videos of the various Worldcon Business Meetings and read as much of the Rules as I could before my eyes glazed over from tiredness of mind and body; one step too far would be to read and try to retain/understand the diferrences from year to year regarding the Retro-Hugos possibility of being held.
My cursory read of Wikipedia and the Hugo Awards official website led me to erroneously conclude that the Retro Hugos for the years 1940-1945, 1947-1950 and 1952 were possible between 1997-2017 just by my calculations alone, my lack of motivation(or ignorance of need to do so) to track down the existing Rules for those years (if even possible for me to do so) was my error.
Sorry. (Excuse the ambiguity since I’m not sure if 1947-1950 and1952 Retro Hugos were possible and just not held.) [Im not gonna try and find out what the existing rules were for those years nor do I ask anyone else to do so, thanks.]