I've known about the Hugo Award since I was a teenager.
The text "Hugo Winner" was printed inside a four-point golden star on the cover of the worn library copy of Speaker for the Dead that I checked out repeatedly. It was on the copy I eventually bought for myself. I saw it multiple times until I finally took it to my school librarian and asked if she could help me find more information about the award: what it was, if it had been given to other, similar books, and if it still existed.
The first thing I ever learned about the award wasn't that it was administered by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), or that it was voted on by WSFS members, or that it was presented at Worldcon. What I learned about the award from my librarian was that it was "the most important science fiction award in the United States!" Using the resources my librarian gave me, I found the short lists for the Hugo. There were years’ and years’ worth of Best Novels that shared an award with a book for which I felt startling affection. I was certain I would find even more just like it on these lists. (I did.)
This was the early 1990s; I was a teenager, and thus, pretty short-sighted. My librarian's framing would be the definition of the Hugo Awards I carried with me until around 2003 or 2004, when I finally discovered that Worldcon exists, and "learned" that members of the convention were voting for the award winners.
I say "learned" because I still didn't understand the part that WSFS plays. I came to the entire process, including the fan involvement and parliamentary machinery behind awards, in a way that for a long time felt backward. What I thought was that a jury chose the nominees and the convention attendees voted. It's no surprise to me now that I assumed this gatekeeping, because the awards I was familiar with (the Newbery, the Caldecott) had juries. That I didn't learn otherwise was in one sense just ignorance, falling out of SF for a while, and years when I could have learned more but got too districted once the short lists (and winners) were out to bother delving deeper. But in another sense it's because when I was introduced to the Hugos they were described with the words "most important."
It wasn't until I joined the SF blogging community and had the knowledge thrust upon me all in a heap that I started expanding my knowledge. It was revelatory. This award I had a lot of nostalgic attachment for—the book that brought me here, the first SF award I ever learned about and followed the longest—would allow me to be involved? All I had to do was join the club?
And now I've participated, been fully involved in the whole nominating and voting process from beginning to end. I know the last few years (or decades, depending on your perspective) have worn the sparkle off for a lot of people, but it's not gone for me. I love every step: discovery, reading, watching, listening, nominating, voting, waiting, and celebrating. I care about the Hugo Award, because the Hugo Award was one of my gateways into SF fandom. My fondness is, of course, rooted firmly in nostalgia, as well as in how I engage with fandom.
How I look at the Hugo Award and its short lists, as well as other award shortlists I discovered along the way, is a little like how I look at recommendation culture in media fandom. It's a little like the crowdsourcing recommendation engine that used to be hosted on the social bookmarking service Delicious and then moved to Pinboard when AVOS bought and gutted the service, or long-time fan work recommendations still hosted on journaling sites and personal web pages. Individual fans don't set fandom's taste, of course, because not every fan in my part of fandom (or any fandom) agrees on what the "best" work for any one subject happens to be. But my part of fandom from the mid-to-late ’90s to around 2007 had lots of fans who were compiling recommendation lists and building a resource of commentary about fandoms they were in. In doing so, they created a set of recommendations that was both mutually beloved and recommended widely, and allowed for deeper discovery of more niche fanwork. I'm no stranger to "X fic is good, but Y is maybe better and no one ever recs it!" That should be a familiar turn of phrase to those of us who nominate in any of the fiction categories.
I believe that the Hugo Award, with its winners, as well as its short lists and nomination/voting breakdowns, does something similar for original work that other awards don't do, and that's why when I discovered the reality of how these short lists I've been following for years were built, my affection for the process grew all the larger—I love a good rec list, and the Hugo Awards are a delicious, crowdsourced fandom rec list for all the wonderful SF tropes I could want. I'm really fond of this system, flawed or not (your mileage may vary). My engagement with the WSFS continues to be mainly about the Hugo Awards. I'm so happy, and feel so lucky, that I get to be part of something like this.
That's why I have trouble really caring about Worldcon.
I don't dislike Worldcon; I just can't afford it. Nothing the WSFS could do would make it affordable for me (and nor would I ask them to try). I don't want Worldcon or the WSFS to disappear and, in fact, get a little nervous when people start tossing out portents of doom, because, really, what about my awards? I just honestly have no pressing desire to scrimp and save for three years to attend one convention for five days, because everything I want I get from the way I'm involved now. But what does it mean for those of us who don't feel like we're an integral part of the WSFS or the wider SF community if we don't also care about Worldcon? What does it mean when we don't feel like we're part of the WSFS perspective, even if we have Supporting Memberships?
While reading threads about criticism of the convention and its award, especially after this September when the criticism of the convention skewing too old went around, I've seen complaints about all the people who want to whine on the internet but never work for change. Do the people saying this mean to make me feel like less of a fan because I can't be involved as an Attending Member? Sometimes it seems that being invested in Worldcon but disinterested in bothering with the Hugos is okay, but the reverse is simply not done, and if you do interact with the Hugos that way, it's best not to say so. This feeling has crept up on me since 2011 and only gotten worse the more debates, and outright fights, I read about the process. Whether it's criticism of a broken system or a defense of a system that is slow to change, because people are slow to change and people make up the WSFS, I get the distinct vibe that Supporting Members who have discussions like this aren't considered "real members" even when they are. But I also get the impression that my affection toward the Hugo Award, by not extending to Worldcon (and via it, the business meeting and greater involvement in the politics of the award), is a minority position. Am I alone?
The more I think about it, the more I believe that although the WSFS administers the Hugo Award and controls its brand and its rules (all necessary and important), the award itself long ago grew beyond the scope of the WSFS and Worldcon itself. The awards are voted on by the WSFS members and given at a convention I didn't know existed until over a decade after I learned about the Hugo Award itself. Even then it took me a few more years to really understand the scope of the WSFS and how important the constitution is to the award I love so much. The shift of the award into popular culture where its background, ruling body, and memberships are a footnote had to happen before I picked up that copy of Speaker for the Dead, because my librarian told me "it's the most important science fiction award in the US!" in the early ’90s; this was the rural American South before the Internet took off, and this was what my librarian took away from her research. An award organized by a small convention and a group of thousands of dedicated fans would take time to be understood (or misunderstood, depending on your perspective) this way. "The Hugo Awards, presented annually since 1955, are science fiction’s most prestigious award," says thehugoawards.org, only following up who runs them and who votes on them in the sentence after. Which part made it into our wider cultural narrative? My young adulthood says only the first part.
I know people both online and offline who have only passing interest in SF. They know this award's name, even if they don't know exactly where it comes from and even if they get it confused with the Nebulas. It has name recognition outside the context of its fandom and the WSFS that administers it. I know other people who will pick up the winner of Best Novel without even seeing if they're interested in the plot because that book won the award. I know people who will buy the entire novel short list when it comes out. I've had vibrant, wonderful conversations with people about their favorite Hugo novel or movie or short fiction; people who didn't know the organizational background, people who were surprised when I explained it to them, just like I was surprised when it was explained to me. I don't know if I'm a minority, or if there are just people not speaking up who came down my bumpy back road to understanding this award and its history. Whatever people's situation, the award has moved beyond the place where criticism or participation in discussion is wholly dependent on membership. Change is dependent on Attending Membership, but simply expressing opinions shouldn't be without having those opinions policed.
Since discovering the history of the award and the community around it, I've done nothing but learn: how to read more critically, how to consider other ideas and evaluate texts in different contexts, the worth of accolades, and the importance of building a canon. I love the debate and the arguments (as long as we're not dehumanizing one another) and the community I have around this award's existence. Most of all, I love and enjoy the people I've met and befriended via these discussions, because their ideas and perspectives make me think more deeply about this fandom, and value it all the more.
But due to my personal circumstances, Worldcon didn't give me that. The WSFS, although very valuable and integral to our fandom history as well as our future, didn't give me that other than being the force behind the award.
The Hugos themselves gave me that.
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