By Kristen Coates
The Hugo Awards, trademarked by the World Science Fiction Society and issued annually since 1955, are among the most prestigious awards in the science fiction and fantasy genre. The literary society sponsors an annual science fiction convention known as Worldcon, the members of which can nominate up to five works published in the past year in fifteen categories. In April of each year, a shortlist of five contenders per category is announced and current Worldcon members vote by ranking each contender in order of preference. The winners are announced at the actual convention each year.
This brief explanation of process is necessary to understand the recent controversy surrounding the nomination process and diversity issue facing the Hugos. Beginning in 2013, a group of disenfranchised Worldcon members and nominators banded together to individually nominate the same group of works for Hugo consideration. Over the next few years, this dramatically affected the playing field, limiting it to works that this group of Worldcon members (dubbed the “sad puppies”) felt were worthy of consideration.
This gaming of the system expanded even further in 2015 when a splinter cell known as the “rabid puppies” (you can’t make this stuff up, friends) led by Theodore Beale actively set out to cease nominating works that even a small colluding contingent found to be “good” science fiction and invalidate the Hugo Awards altogether. Subsequently, several books published by Beale’s own publishing house were finalists and won Beale himself several Hugos. Due to these actions, in both 2015 and 2016 no award was given in several categories entirely consisting of “rabid puppies” submissions.
Much attention was necessarily given to these actions in both the online literary sphere and more general publications, and such conversations spawned notice and conversations regarding how such actions by petulant groups overwhelmingly composed of white men further historical oppression of women and people of color within the Sci-Fi arena. This response, while not resolving all issues, appears to have had some positive effects as women and people of color occupied prominent places in the awards this year, including several genre “firsts”.
The three long-form fiction categories were won by women of color, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Hao Jingfang. In her acceptance speech for Uncanny Magazine, Michi Trota noted that she was the first Filipino to ever win a Hugo. These are just a few examples, but the occasion of such authors coming in on top in this year’s Hugos represents a hopeful shift in recognizing, on some level, when privilege allows individuals to game aspects of the publishing industry to further historic gender and racial biases.
NK Jemisin’s acceptance speech says it best:
When it got nominated, I wondered how many of my fellow SFF fans, in a year headlined by reactionary pushback against the presence and performance of people like me in the genre, would choose to vote for the story of a fortysomething big-boned dredlocked woman of color waging an epic struggle against the forces of oppression.
But I forgot: only a small number of ideologues have attempted to game the Hugo Awards. That small number can easily be overwhelmed, their regressive clamor stilled, if the rest of SFF fandom simply stands up to be counted. Stands up to say that yes, they do want literary innovation, and realistic representation. Stands up to say that yes, they do just want to read good stories — but what makes a story good is skill, and audacity, and the ability to consider the future clearly rather than through the foggy lenses of nostalgia and privilege.