Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
Revisiting the Night the Hugo Awards Burned

Robert B. Marks | 24 Feb 2016 12:00
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Was it all a terrible dream? Did I really see authors, editors, and publishers I know and respect conduct slander campaigns? Did those who would defend the Hugo Awards from outsiders really torch it and cheer as it burned rather than see a group of fans they disagreed with get their way? Was it all real?


I wish I could ask those questions, but I can't - I, and the rest of the world, watched it all happen. But there are a couple of questions I can ask: what was it all for? And, what will happen next?

In a few ways, the Hugo Awards seem a really odd place to have a culture war. As conventions go, Worldcon is tiny, bringing in a few thousand. In comparison, the ComiCons can bring in hundreds of thousands of fans and have encompassed science fiction and fantasy fandom for years. The media doesn't gather at Worldcon to find out what is happening next in SF and fantasy media - they go to ComiCon.

That said, most SF and fantasy readers are familiar with the term "Hugo Award Winner" and "Hugo Award Nominee" - the big publishers plant it on the cover of any author who manages to make the shortlist, regardless of how long ago it might have been. But whether this actually drives sales today is hard to tell, and some of the big break-outs, such as Hugh Howey's Wool, didn't step anywhere near the Hugos.

Perhaps most telling was the moment when one of the Rabid Puppies tried to bring the GamerGate movement into the Hugo Award battle...only to have GamerGate look at it, shrug, and move on to what they considered more important things. The more perspective one gets, the more the culture war over the Hugo Awards seems not even a storm in a teacup, but in a thimble.

But if the Hugos are such a niche matter today, why did a culture war happen? And why was it presented as a battle for the soul of science fiction?

The answer lies in prestige and history. The Hugo Awards may not be a big deal today, but they used to be. Only a few decades ago, they were huge.

Science Fiction was a smaller world then. The number of authors and publishers were fewer, and it was physically possible to read almost everything published in the genre in any given year. To win a Hugo Award was to be recognized as the best that was published that year, and people were watching. Being able to put the words "Hugo Award" on a book cover would drive sales through the roof, and the books and stories that won in any given year were very likely to influence what was written after.

And then there was Worldcon.

I remember my Worldcon experience, and it was a blast. My first print book, The EverQuest Companion, was launched at Torcon in Toronto in 2003. Even then, Worldcon was still the convention to top all conventions. Worldcon was where you went to find the legends.

The Hugos were indeed once worth fighting for, and capable of steering the course of the genre. But, that was the past.

Worldcon was where I had a cup of tea with Terry Pratchett, who was as funny in person as he was in his books, and a snack with Robert Silverberg. I sat with David Brin in the Green Room and had a discussion about whether human beings were evolved enough to handle driving cars. I passed and said hello to Neil Gaiman in the hall. I moderated a panel on military SF where Harry Harrison - the author of Bill the Galactic Hero and The Stainless Steel Rat - turned the entire panel into an uproariously funny one man show about his time in the American military. And then, to top it off, I got to see the Hugo Awards, where I watched Robert J. Sawyer, who had been one of the first to welcome me into the community of authors, win a rocket for best novel...and faked him out after by looking at the award and asking him who "Robert J. Sawwer" was.

I met and walked with the legends, and with the authors who made the genre what it was. That's what Worldcon was a dozen years ago. For lovers of literary SF that's probably what it still is (I haven't been to one since Toronto, so I can no longer speak from first hand experience).

The Hugos were indeed once worth fighting for, and capable of steering the course of the genre. But, that was the past. Today, it has been supplanted by the new media and growing juggernaut of ComiCon. The prestige may be present and accounted for, but the influence is not.

They are also somewhat behind the times. There have been a number of Hugo-worthy video games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes immediately to mind), none of which have seen recognition. Likewise, a number of big successes have come not from traditional publishing, but from small indie publishers and self-published work (for example, the aforementioned Wool).

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