August 24, 2015

What’s it like to almost be nominated for a Hugo?

So. Yeah. That happened.

In case you weren’t aware, the 2015 Hugos were this weekend, and this was one of the most contentious Hugos yet. If you don’t know why, just google “Hugo Awards” and click on the “news” tab. You’ll find it.

Anywhoo, because there was a lot of ballot box stuffing and slate voting and all kinds of jiggery pokery shenanigans going on, a buncha stuff wound up on the ballot that miiiiiiiiight not have normally made it. This edged out a bunch of other stuff that miiiiiiiighta coulda shoulda woulda made it. And according to Tobias Buckell’s math (and how he put this together so fast I don’t understand), one of those could have been mine:


Now, does this mean that, if the Sad Puppy whatevers hadn’t gone down, I would have been up for a Hugo?

Not necessarily.

For one thing, it’s pretty hard for me to tell where the ballots start and stop. Mark Kloos (who refused the Best Novel Nomination after the Puppy folks put him through on their slate) is a really popular author, and just because he was put on the Puppy slate it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have wound up nominated for Best Novel anyways. Who knows what votes were more genuine than others?

Anyways, I’m not going to dig down into the math and all the various scenarios for how things could have gone. What’s done is done, water under the bridge, yadda yadda yadda.

Anyways, how do I feel about it?

CaptureYeah, I find I don’t really mind so much. It’s weird.

Acclaim and Awards

You want to be popular, or you want to be acclaimed? – Treme, 2010

Listen, before City of Stairs, I’d more or less been something of a critically acclaimed obscurity, getting a good bit of stars from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, getting reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and Texas Monthly and whatnot, and racking up a decent list of awards and nominations.

But very few people were buying my books, or reading my books, or talking about my books. The idea that one of my books could even come close to being nominated in a popular vote would have been pretty nuts for me, two or three years ago.

And yet here we are. City of Stairs was pretty close in the running to a couple of legitimate best-sellers in a popular vote. That’s definitely never happened before.

I’m happy. I’m pretty surprised, frankly. There’s even a chance that the World Fantasy nomination for Best Novel might actually be a popular vote too, rather than a selection by the World Fantasy awards jury – and I actually hope it was a popular vote, because I’ve been nominated by juries before, but I’ve never been nominated by a popular vote.

This is better than I’ve ever done before, so even if I didn’t get the chance of going up on that stage to get a rocket, I’m content with it. The Hugos, for me, aren’t a goal in and of themselves, but rather a barometer of popularity among a specific group. Hearing condolences is like hearing someone say, “Sorry you sold a lot of books, but not enough to get on this particular bestseller list.” And though a lot of people think awards are about competition, it doesn’t work that way for writers.

Writers don’t compete with each other. We compete against obscurity.

Of course, some might say, “But Robert – aren’t you upset that you might have been denied the honor of a Hugo nomination? The Hugos, the Oscars of Science Fiction and Fantasy?”

To which I say, eh.

Pride and Prestige

For one thing, I just don’t take awards that seriously anymore. They mean a lot to the publishing community and the critical community, but very few penetrate the public sphere. It’s pretty rare to see a significant sales bump from an award nomination or win, and for a mid-lister like me, sales are what keep me writing.

If my sales go too low, I don’t get another book deal, and I don’t write anymore. Awards are nice, but it’s pretty tough to use them as leverage to make an editor give you a deal. I can’t feed my babies with awards and acclaim, my sweet loud babies with their incredible thirst for milk. My ego, sure – my belly, not so much. And back in 2012 or so, when things were kind of rough, I really would have preferred more sales over an award.

Regardless, the Hugos are one of the few awards that penetrates the public sphere to any degree. And to a lot of the SFF community, the Hugos are the awards people tent to take the Most Seriousest. Now, I get that they’re the Oscars of SFF, but as I became aware of how things worked, I came to understand that it’s jockeying for the attention of, respectively, a very small group of people.

In other words, what it looks like from the outside ain’t what it looks like from the inside. (What’s funny is that this controversy, which undermines the legitimacy of the Hugos, has probably upped the Hugos’ familiarity among the general public more than ever.)

There are probably a bunch of SFF folk who don’t get that. This is the award of Heinlein, of Clarke, of Asimov, of Delany! It’s very serious and honorable stuff! It demands your respect!

And I think, eh.

That’s kind of like saying you can’t criticize the President because they’re the President, and the President demands your respect. You should respect this just for what it is, and if you don’t, you need to respect it for its history.

But you don’t get my respect via osmosis, by being situated next to something respect-worthy. It’s not like if I put on a coat once owned by Lincoln I’m gonna suddenly be as smart and honorable as Lincoln.

The Hugos aren’t tied to history, they’re directly tied to a convention. And conventions have changed in the past 20 years. Easier transportation and communication have drastically changed the accessibility and nature of conventions and conferences and seminars. It’s cheaper to travel and talk and stay somewhere than ever before. And because conventions are different, that means the Hugos are different, so it’s worth recognizing that the Hugos of Delany aren’t the Hugos of today.

Which is fine. It’s okay for a thing to change after fifty years. But we need to recognize that it’s changed.

Some Other Thoughts

Is there some correlation between the growing polarization in America – the Tea Party, Gamergate, the Sad Puppies – and the sudden explosion in accessible digital communications?

Has the exponential proliferation of smart phones and internet connectivity forced wide swaths of our culture to suddenly see other facets of the culture that they preferred to ignore before, and now we’re all forced to reconcile them?

Has the sudden diversification of media control – not just going from 5 to 1500 channels, but the move away from channels and television altogether, not to mention print and centralized radio as the general population embraces new platforms that allow a limitless range of voices – has that forced us to acknowledge we’ve been putting off a lot of conversations that we should have had 20, 30, 40 years ago, but the centralized systems of communication simply didn’t allow any mention of it?

If technology empowers the individual with the ability to choose their own food, purchase their own transportation, live in their own houses in the city of their choosing, educate themselves in the fields of their choice, and go into a profession of their own choice – if technology allows us to choose all these things, might it not empower us to choose our own realities? To invent our own culture or steadfastly ignore others, creating vast, insular echo chambers? Will it lead to more entrenched prejudices and more conversations sealed off from outsiders?

Or is this sudden spasm of polarization – this creation of seemingly alternate realities in which climate change is a myth, women are intentionally undermining video games, and the diversification of the Hugos is a vast, liberal plot – simply a spate of growing pains, as technology erodes away boundaries that suddenly seemed so firm?

Anyways, just some thoughts.