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Hurricane Hugos

I'm going to warn you up front that this story has a certain "inside baseball" aspect, and if you're not interested in science fiction, science fiction publishing, and the ongoing culture wars, this is probably not going to interest you.

Still here? Good.

The "Hugos" are widely called the most prestigious awards in the world of science fiction and fantasy publishing. They are awarded every year by a vote of the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention, which SF fans have called "Worldcon" since time immemorial.

Starting three years ago, Larry Correia, successful science fiction writer, decided to test his suspicion that the Hugo Awards of the World Science Fiction Society were increasingly being awarded through the action of a small group, and increasingly reflect the tastes of that small group rather than a more general population of science fiction readers.

There were many ideas what the reason could be: a desire by the active voters to reward more "literary" work. An ideological bias toward "liberal" writers and themes — which seemed to be more plausible after attacks on more "conservative" writers like Correia, attacks on the movie Ender's Game because the author of the original novel, Orson Scott Card, is opposed to same-sex marriage, and the expulsion of Vox Day from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, arguably in violation of their own bylaws, for having offensive views on race and sexual roles.

(Just for full disclosure: Scott Card has been a personal friend for something like 30 years, and along with Ray Bradbury was the first to suggest maybe I actually could do this writing thing. Sarah Hoyt, who is also involved in Sad Puppies, is a close friend and as most PJ Media readers know, my partner in the Book Plug Friday column. Larry Correia is a Facebook friend who I've never met personally. And I think Vox Day is an obnoxious and unlikeable dolt, as I've said in these pages in the past.)

Correia's experimental method was to publish a list of suggested nominees for the Hugo Awards that he thought wouldn't otherwise get serious consideration. He repeated the exercise a year ago, and then this year Brad Torgersen continued with a new list of suggested nominees.

Only, this year, a lot of those suggested nominees were actually nominated. At which point all hell broke loose.

It would take a lot more room than I want to give it to give all the examples, but what was most notable was a sudden outbreak of stories in more mainstream media that probably were best exemplified by the headline in Entertainment Weekly:

Hugo Award nominations fall victim to misogynistic, racist voting campaign

This headline resulted — shortly after an email from Brad Torgersen that strongly suggested legal action might be forthcoming — in a corrected headline of "Correction: Hugo Awards voting campaign sparks controversy" and one of the most epic corrections in the body of an article in recent magazine history:

CORRECTION: After misinterpreting reports in other news publications, EW published an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the Sad Puppies voting slate, which does, in fact, include many women and writers of color. As Sad Puppies’ Brad Torgerson explained to EW, the slate includes both women and non-caucasian writers, including Rajnar Vajra, Larry Correia, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson, and Amanda Green.

This story has been updated to more accurately reflect this. EW regrets the error.

Very very similar articles came out in many different places, all of them nearly simultaneously.

It would seem someone hit a nerve. The question is: whose? Who benefits from this sudden outbreak of extremely similar apparent libels?

Over the years, I've observed two things about people. First, people always do what they find most rewarding; and second, every human institution optimizes its behavior to maximize rewards — and while money isn’t everything, when you’re looking for what's rewarding it’s the way to bet. Who stands to get a monetary benefit from the direction the Hugo awards have taken?

Now, at that point, we have to go back and reference something Vox Day — who, let me remind you, I think is an obnoxious and unlikable dolt — published. If we look back at the last several years, there is a surprising regularity to be seen: the same people are nominated over and over again for several of the down-list awards, like Best Editor; those people are all associated more or less closely with one publisher, Tor Books; and much of the most vehement objection has been from authors and others directly connected to Tor Books. The number of votes that decide the election is very small — tens of votes.

I'll also note that a major New York publisher, like Tor, has many connections into the traditional entertainment media, like Entertainment Weekly.

Without subpoena or psychic powers, I don't know how this could be confirmed. What is obvious, however, is that with these awards being decided, literally, by mere tens of votes, the process is vulnerable to any publisher, and many authors, who decides to accumulate a relatively small bloc of votes.

One answer is to make Hugo voting available to more interested people.

Anyone can qualify to vote on the Hugos by becoming a Supporting Member of the World Science Fiction Convention. Supporting Membership was established precisely because, as the Worldcon began to move outside of North America, there were many fans in the U.S. who might not be able to afford attending, and contrariwise, many fans in other countries who couldn't afford to come to the U.S. And, of course, North America is a big place; lots of interested fans are unable to attend because of disability or economic disadvantage.

Mary Robinette Kowal had a good idea for this: provide free Supporting Memberships, awarded randomly among all applicants. This ensures that no small group can dominate the awards with only a few votes.

It seems like such a good idea that it ought to be formalized for the future. The Hugo Voter Project is a new effort to build on this idea, and provide a continuing source for randomly-awarded "scholarships." The details are still a little unsettled, but the basics are these:

  • The scholarships themselves are awarded using a transparent and verifiable random process.
  • The applications for the scholarships don't include any ideologically identifiable information — just what's needed to actually provide the membership.
  • The funds collected are 100 percent disbursed as memberships or to benefit the Worldcon. Internet economics make it feasible to do the administration, at least this year, on an out-of-pocket basis.
  • If by any chance the amount of funding exceeds the number of people who apply for scholarships — which seems unlikely — then the funds will roll over for next year or be donated to the current Con Committee. In no case will any contributed funds go to anything but memberships or the Con Committee.

The effect is to open the Hugos to many people who might otherwise not have voted. In the future, if this is successful, it would be run early enough to allow scholarship members to nominate as well as vote.

Everyone — Sad Puppies and others — professes to believe that the Hugos should be more diverse, and the core of that is to make sure the largest and most diverse group can nominate and vote. A scholarship process, as Mary Robinette Kowal rightly observed, makes sure that no small group can dominate.