Hugo Gernsback - Still Causing Controversy

Zauberwort - The EditorialStill Causing Controversy -
Hugo Gernsback

zur deutschen ÜbersetzungHugo Gernsback has been dead since 1967, but he, or rather the award named after him, is still causing controversy. The Hugo Awards were first given in 1953, for works showing 'excellence' in Science Fiction. Later the awards were extended to Fantasy as well (at which point we could have a ten year debate on what exactly Science Fiction and Fantasy are, and where are the boundaries, but I need to get the article published this year).

Recently certain conspiracy theorists have claimed that the Hugo Awards are no longer representative of what people 'like' reading. Guess what - the conspiracy theorists are right. The Hugo Awards (and certain related awards, like the John W. Campbell Award) have been 'captured' by a relatively small part of fandom.

Some of the fans who attend Worldcon have claimed that the Sad Puppies attempt to change things was a right wing takeover. Curiously most of the people backing Sad Puppies don't meet any definition I've seen of Right Wing.

They've also claimed that the books in the Sad Puppies Slate weren't representative of fandom, and that the Sad Puppies organizers were taking unfair advantage of the rules. Funny thing is that this sort of stuff has been going on for years. I could mention names, but being a polite sort, I won't.

Brad R. TorgersonSad Puppies
Thus began the odyssey of Sad Puppies. The Sad Puppies Hugo Slates were supposed to improve the Hugos. To quote Brad R. Torgerson on why he thinks the Hugos have gone stale:

One thing that’s become apparent during this third go-around of SAD PUPPIES, are the many and divided opinions on why the Hugo awards are broken. Much of this conversation is simply a continuation of the debate held during (and in the wake of) Loncon 3. Depending on who you ask, the Hugos are broken because they are either too insular (this is part of the SAD PUPPIES theory) or too easily manipulated by outside voting blocs (the “fandom purist” theory) or because “fandom” itself is still too white, too straight, and too cisnormative (Call this the “Grievance Studies theory”) or even that the Hugos spend too much time dwelling on popular works, at the expense of real literature (the “pinky-in-the-air snob theory”) or that “fandom” simply falls into predictable ruts, and is easily swayed by sparkly bellwethers, such as the Nebulas.

I want to introduce another theory. One thatothers have spoken of before. I call it the “Unreliable packaging” theory.

And it’s afflicting not just the Hugos, but the SF/F literary field as a whole. As witnessed by (yet another spate of)declining SF/F salesat the bookstores. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth. These days, you can’t be sure.

He's right, insofar it goes. There has been a problem with the cover not matching the insides. But all of the other reasons he gives are also in play. There's a lot of stuff on the market which is less than readable, and a fair amount of it has been nominated for Hugo Awards.

Let's take a look at this year's Sad Puppy slate, which translated into some 2015 Hugo nominations. Then compare it with the Hugo Award winners for the last fifty years. Here's the Best Novel winners from Wikipedia (note that this does not indicate that I dislike the other forms, in fact I love reading and writing short stories, but novels are in today's market what most people read).

The Hugo novel nominees, at least up till 1985, were damned strong works. After 1985, there are some issues. Which doesn't mean the works themselves are bad, just a lot of them aren't the sort of works which would have won a Hugo in earlier years.

Then we have to ask ourselves if the Mad Puppies Slate is any better. Unfortunately it isn't. Without singling out anyone in particular, several of the Sad Puppy nominees are formulaic, and manage to make exciting situations boring. Others, well, I don't find them readable.

They just aren't Hugo Award winners in my opinion. Of course the 2014 Hugo winners weren't either.

Note that while there are probably more readers and writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction than there have ever been, that the attendance at WorldCon hasn't expanded the way it should have. Hold onto this thought, I'll come back to it.

What can we do about this?
First, we need to look at the Hugo Nominees, Sad Puppy nominees, and Rabid Puppy nominees (yes there was a Rabid Puppy Slate too). What's odd about them?

There's very little foreign language works mentioned. Consider Perry Rhodan for example. When was the last time Perry Rhodan, either the original, or the reboot nominated for a Hugo Award? If you said never, you'd be right. Perry Rhodan is immensely popular among German speaking fans, and some of it is really good (note that my German is minimal, I'm going by the translations done in the 70's).

How often does a Manga get nominated? If you said never, you'd be right. Lots of Fantasy elements appear in Manga, and Manga is extremely popular in Japanese, and English.

How often does a Star Wars novel get nominated? Never.

How often does a Star Trek novel get nominated? Never.

When was the last time video game won? Lots of video games have science fiction and fantasy elements.

But you say, there aren't categories for some of that stuff, and how can English speaking fans read the current Perry Rhodan and decide whether to vote for it?

Now we get into the nasty stuff, the stuff that gets discussed sometimes by Convention organizing committees, but never, ever, seems to get changed.

Fandom is greying. When I first started attending conventions (Toronto Star Trek 1976), a lot of fans were older than I was, which wasn't hard, because I was nineteen. I turn fifty-nine this year. Basic demographics mean that I should be in the older twenty percent of fandom. I'm not. I may be in the upper fifty percent by age, but I doubt that. When I do manage to get to conventions, the number of people who are younger than me often seems overshadowed by the fans older than me.

Effectively we are seeing Evolution in Action. We haven't, as fans worked to bring the younger generation into fandom. Yes, there are families like my own, where the kids are fans, because they attended their first conventions with Mom and Dad.

But what of all those kids whose parents weren't fans? Simple. We've let them down. We didn't do outreach to try and bring them into the fold, and now we are suffering for it. In another twenty years, fandom will have shrunk by twenty to thirty percent, and the number of people, who like myself have health conditions that make attending cons damned difficult if not impossible will have exploded.

In simple terms, if we don't get off our asses and do something, within fifty years, we'll be extinct.



In fifty years, fandom will not exist, unless we do something.

We have to add the categories that are missing to the Hugo Awards. We have to address the fans who are currently not being supported, like the Perry Rhodan fans, and the fans who read French, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. language Science Fiction and Fantasy, IN WHATEVER FORMAT THEY READ IT IN.

In Closing
The Hugo Awards have lost their relevance. You might argue with me about the date I picked (1985), or my view of the Hugos, but you cannot argue with me about the demographics of fandom. We are a bunch of grey haired old folks, and the younger generation isn't rushing to sit at our feet in awe for some reason.

To fix the problem we have to expand the Hugo Awards, and encourage younger people to get involved.

Yes, I am aware that I'm probably going to really annoy a lot of people by saying this, but we brought this on ourselves. We've been too self centered, for far too long.

What are you going to do about it?


Wayne Borean

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