Monday, August 29, 2011

The Hugos - my view and a rant

This is my experience of the Hugo Awards ceremony in Reno at Worldcon. After the description of the night comes the rant.

I actually thought the line to get into the ballroom for the Masquerade was long, but it had nothing on the Hugos one. Last year in Melbourne the event had been hosted by Australian YA author Garth Nix, and he had done a professional and occasionally amusing job. This year the gig had gone to the ever popular and irreverent Jay Lake, assisted by his good friend and rising author Ken Scholes.

Once Jay and Ken had established that the Hugos are in fact named in honour of Amazing Stories publisher Hugo Gernsback, and not Hugo Weaving, Hugo Chavez or even Victor Hugo, they got on with the awards themselves. There was a brief and moving video presentation from Japan, which is still recovering from the tsunami earlier this year, and then the presentation of the Forest J Ackerman Big Heart award named in honour of super fan the late Forry Ackerman. This was presented by ‘first fan’ Dave Kyle in his signature red jacket. The award went to Gay Haldeman, the wife of Hugo award winning author Joe. She was given a standing ovation and the ceremony moved on.

Jay Lake, a former winner of the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer, was at pains to stress that the award is NOT a Hugo. In fact there is a piece of paper stuck to his plaque with the words Not a Hugo written on it. Stanley Schmidt presented the award to Magicians author Lev Grossman, who won it from a strong field including she of the sloth stole Lauren Beukes and Saladin Ahmed. Seanan McGuire in a green dress handed on the traditional tiara, which Lev said will be going to his young daughter. Seanan contends that as she won the award in Australia she is still the Princess of the Kingdom of Poison and Flame and Lev is now the Prince of the Kingdom of Slot Machines and Smoke Filled Neon Rooms (at least I think that’s what she said).

Then the trophy was unveiled. They held a contest which was won by French artist Marina Gelineau. The photos shown on the big screen really didn’t do Marina’s base justice. I managed to get a good look at one of them the following day and they are truly spectacular and as each is individual and unique quite a labour of love.

I don’t really get a lot of the fan awards. I’m more of a casual fan, even though I have attended a couple of Worldcons and read a number of blogs. The first of these was Best Fan Artist taken out by Brad W. Foster and presented by Stu Schiffman.

Claire Brialey received the Best Fan Writer award from John Coxon, a British fan who I had seen on a few panels, he’s also a TAFF Delegate.

Best Fanzine presented by DUFF Delegate David Cake to The Drink Tank editors Chris Garcia and James Bacon was one of the highlights of the evening. Mainly due to Garcia’s totally over the top reaction. Chris Garcia is an interesting looking bloke. He reminds me of The Artist in Dave Sim’s Cerebus. He was in tears before he reached the podium. He babbled incoherently for a moment or two, before his partner in The Drink Tank; James Bacon, who was still capable of stringing a word or two together and had not collapsed into a blubbering heap, made a speech. By this stage Garcia was sitting cross legged on the stage, cradling the Hugo, rocking back and forth, whispering sweet nothings into the awards ear, well rather where it’s ear would be if the rocket ship had ears. I’ve never seen a reaction like that on any awards I have witnessed. Roberto Benigni at the Academy Awards for Beautiful Life comes close. I can understand it to an extent. He obviously puts a lot of time and effort and some of himself into The Drink Tank and to have it validated like that, was for Chris, overwhelming.

David G. Hartwell presented the Best Semiprozine to Clarkesworld and they disqualified themselves from the running next year. I’m still not sure whether is an attempt to give another ‘zine a chance to win it or some sort of protest against the awards and the way they’re managed.

Popular band Tricky Pixie, done up in steam punk costumes, presented the award for Best Graphic Story. Once again Phil and Kaja Foglio, along with colourist Cheyenne Wright, took the stage to accept the award for Girl Genius. I wanted Fables to win, but this may happen next year as the Foglios have asked not to be nominated next year to give another team the opportunity.

Legendary editor Ellen Datlow presented the Best Editor Short Form to a highly appreciative Sheila Williams.

GoH Ellen Asher, with a raging case of laryngitis, presented the Best Editor Long Form to Lou Anders. This was one of the best received and most popular winners of the night and nearly everyone I’ve seen comment on it agrees that Lou was the right man for it. He gave credit to his wife in his acceptance speech for making him take a job that he didn’t think he wanted at the time.

George R.R Martin was the man who presented the award form Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form, next year he may be up there receiving one for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form, as I can’t see anything topping Game of Thrones in that category. Personally I think everyone was just waiting for George to say the name of the novelty song ‘Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury’ and there was a huge groan when they showed part of the clip, but cut it just before singer Rachel Bloom uttered the ‘f’ word. The award went out for the umpteenth time to Doctor Who (which had its usual 3 nominations), Paul Cornell accepted it on behalf of the show and episode writer Steven Moffatt. There’s been some controversy around this. Everyone knew that Doctor Who would win, but thought that the winning episode would be Vincent, not the 2 parter The Pandorica Opens. There’s also been some discussion that as a 2 parter if those 2 should have even been eligible, put together the two episodes sort of tip it into the Long Form category. I think a lot of people were pulling for the Rachel Bloom novelty entry just to hear the word fuck said on stage again. It’s a funny song with a clever clip, but it really shouldn’t have ever got a nomination. It’s a comedy act, not a dramatic presentation. Maybe there should be a best related media award.

GoH and Fables creator Bill Willingham presented the Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form award. Unsurprisingly Christopher Nolan’s mind bending film Inception won. I would have liked to see How To Train Your Dragon get up, but I think voters tend to be a little sensitive about awarding what is essentially a children’s film this type of award. Chris Nolan actually sent an acceptance speech which was good of him and better than what the people behind Moon did in 2010 which was a short note saying for the presenter, who was George R.R Martin, to accept the award on their behalf.

Aussie artist Shaun Tan took out Best Professional Artist, presented by the legendary Boris Vallejo. The award was accepted by fellow Australian Jonathan Strahan. It capped off an amazing year for Tan who won an Academy Award for his short film The Lost Thing and a major literary award for one of his books, which came with a cash prize of $750,000.

Now we were into the writing awards. Farah Mendelsohn gave Best Related Work to Lynne Thomas and Tara O’Shea for Chicks Dig Timelords. Both women were obviously emotionally affected by the recognition, although not to the same extent as Chris Garcia. Tara was somewhat stunned. It was her first ever Con and when Paul Cornell had told her earlier in the week that she was in his opinion likely to win she dismissed it with a blush. She dedicated it to a recently deceased friend.

The often amusing David D. Levine presented Best Short Story to Mary Robinette Kowal for her work For Want of a Nail. I didn’t read any of the short stuff, not a really a fan of the fomat, but my wife read them all. Kowal was her second choice. She chose the very short Ponies by Kij Johnson as her winner.

Author Nancy Kress presented Best Novelette to Alan M. Steele for Emperor of Mars.

Best Novella won by Ted Chiang for The Lifecycle of Software Objects was another highlight, Not for the winner or the reaction, but because of the speech given by Grandmaster Robert Silverberg. Bob Silverberg is known for his Hugo Award speeches. He did a great monologue last year comparing editors to wombats. This year he took aim at Connie Willis with the avowed intention of making her sweat. For those who have never been privileged to hear Silverberg speak, you have missed out. He has an amazing speaking voice, perfect delivery and he’s hysterically funny. He had people in tears as he mused on the Shakespearean origins of Connie Willis’ daughter's name; Cordelia, from King Lear. He then went on to say that if he had a son (fortunately I don’t think he has children) he would also give the child a Shakespearean name. That would be: Titus Andronicus Henry The Fifth Iago Silverberg. They should have a new award for best speech at the Hugos, it should be called the Silverberg. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone other than Bob himself would ever win it until he stops giving speeches at the awards.

Silverberg is a hard act to follow and to his credit GoH Tim Powers did not try, simply giving the Hugo for Best Novel to Connie Willis for her epic time travel WW II book Blackout/All Clear. This was Willis’ 11th Hugo and there’s been quite the discussion about it’s worthiness and eligibility on the interwebs. The worthiness is a ridiculous accusation which I am not even going to discuss. The majority of voters nominated it and then voted for it and it won, it is that simple. The eligibility is interesting. The award is meant to be awarded to one book and technically Blackout/All Clear is two books. However it is one story that due to it’s length had to be split into two and published separately. All the votes were given on the understanding that both volumes were being voted for as one complete story. Having read them both I don’t understand how you could prefer one to the other, the first one doesn’t make sense without the second and vice versa.

For the record the placing of the Best Novels went this way:
1) Blackout/All ClearConnie Willis
2) FeedMira Grant
3) The Dervish HouseIan McDonald
4) CryoburnLois McMaster Bujold
5) The Hundred Thousand KingdomsN.K Jemisin.

Following a fittingly amusing acceptance speech where she mentioned Iago Silverberg, Connie Willis took her award and exited the stage, Jay and Ken closed the awards with Ken singing a rousing and altered version of American Pie. It was a fun night and I think everyone there had a great time. Talking points were Chris Garcia’s reaction to his win and Robert Silverberg’s highly amusing speech. The controversy stuff broke out later when the bloggers got hold of the results and analysed them.

That’s how I saw the awards ceremony itself. This bit is going to cover the contenders for Best Novel, how I saw and rated them and some of the negativity that seems to have sprung up about the event and the winner. I’ll talk about the last one first, because I am perverse that way.

This seems to happen every year, someone always has an issue with how the event was judged or who won it, even who was nominated. It’s largely unavoidable. When people’s favourite thing doesn’t win they seem to feel personally slighted. It’s not unique to the Hugos, it happens with every major award from the Nobel to the Oscars. One big difference between the Hugos and other awards is that it is largely a popularity contest, being voted on by the attendees of Worldcon and associate members, and not a panel of ‘experts’.

One prominent blogger angrily declared that the Hugos had got it ‘wrong’ by awarding the rocket ship to Connie Willis for Blackout/All Clear (actually he said they’d gotten it wrong again, indicating that in his opinion the voters for the award are pretty stupid and regularly vote for books he didn’t like). It wasn’t immediately clear to me why he thought they had erred. If he’s talking about the voters electing Blackout/All Clear as the best book they’d read for the year, then that’s just insulting to those who did vote, and sour grapes because his horse didn’t win. If he’s talking about the work being ineligible on a technicality then he may have a point. Blackout/All Clear is actually two books and this is where it gets confusing. It is the one story, but for reasons of it’s unwieldy length (something that a more ruthless editor could have possibly fixed, but that’s a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to open here) was split into two books and published separately, but in the same year; Blackout came out first, followed by All Clear a few months later. It appeared on the ballot as one book, so it was totally clear to voters that they were voting for both parts as the one work. It’s a highly technical point to make, and I still don’t accept as valid the contention that the Hugos got it ‘wrong’.

When trying to point out in the comments of another well read blog that Connie Willis and her work was a worthy winner and her popularity had a lot to do with it I was imperiously informed that an author’s popularity didn’t guarantee a good work (no! Really? I never would have known, thank you so much for taking the time to teach poorly educated little me that vital lesson), he then went on to say that he had heard Blackout/All Clear wasn’t very good from what he had heard (hasn’t actually read the book/s, mind you) and snarkily finish it off by saying that it was two books anyway. As I said above, yes technically it was, but if you had bothered to read it you may have realised it was one story in two volumes.

If you were able to vote (an associate membership is around $50, and for that I believe you get the complete voting pack which contains electronic versions of ALL the nominated works, including the short stories, novellas and novels. If this is not the case I do apologize, but if it is, it’s pretty good value for money) then you had the right to nominate works and to vote for the 5 that made the ballot. If you had this right and didn’t exercise it, then I find it hard to accept any complaint about the outcome as valid.

Now to the works and how I saw and rated them.
I’ll go from 5 up to 1 (this is how I voted, not how they actually finished up, although with one exception I was on the money).

5) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K Jemisin.
Although it’s only a slim volume I struggled with this. A lot of people have liked it and that’s how it got on the ballot. Aside from it’s rather unusual, lyrical, poetic, tense changing narrative I couldn’t find much to recommend it. The plot was trite and contained nothing original, the world building was shallow and not one of the highly unlikeable characters had any depth.

4) Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold herself is a giant in the field. Her 4 Hugo Best Novel awards have her equal with Heinlein. Cryoburn is the most recent entry in her long running Miles Vorkosigan saga. I’ve read a couple of Vorkosigans and have never really been able to see what the fuss was about. As an SF novel Cryoburn is competent and tight, but nothing special and that’s probably why not even the hard core fans could get this one over the line at the Hugos.

3) The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
I have to admit to enjoying this book. It started off very slow and was confusing for the first 200 or so pages, but drew me in from that point on. I would have rated it higher if it had been tighter and maybe excluded one unnecessary major character that I did not see the point of.

2) Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
This is the 3rd of Connie Willis time travel novels featuring the time hopping historians of Oxford University circa 2060. Most of the book is set in WW II as 3 of Willis’ heroes desperately try to get back to their own time, while at the same time trying to ensure that they don’t get killed or inadvertently alter the course of WW II. Where this shines is in the characterisation. Willis writes highly likeable and accessible characters in tough situations that make her readers care about them. I have heard criticism that her research for this one contained some inaccuracies, but I’m yet to find out what they were. The book deserved plaudits purely and simply for the inclusion of the Hodbins, the best pair of juvenile delinquents in literature since Mark Twain’s immortal team of Finn and Sawyer.

1) Feed by Mira Grant
Feed is the first book of the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant (pen name of Urban Fantasy author Seanan McGuire). It’s largely self contained and could be read without needing to read the next two volumes, although if you like Feed you’ll want to read on. Feed grabbed me by the throat around page 1 and held on until the end, letting go of a thoroughly shaken and emotionally shattered reader. The thing about Feed that surprised me and others I’ve spoken to is that it is a novel about the zombie apocalypse and despite none of us being fans of that particular growing sub genre we were all taken in by this book. It’s also that rarest of commodities these days; a tightly written and edited book with very little excess fat on it’s bones.

Now having said all that I think that the field was a little weak this year. There were a couple of big releases that never eventuated in 2010 and this helped. Connie Willis, as a former winner with a big following and a monster of an epic, had the strongest claim and these are other reasons why she won. In stronger years I doubt Feed or The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms would have made the cut, although I still would have nominated Feed as even now it’s stronger than anything I’ve read this year with the exception of Cat Valente’s masterpiece The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making.

No matter who is nominated and no matter who wins I see the Hugos as a celebration of the genre and those who follow it, for those reasons alone we should be looking to increase it’s profile and find ways to improve it and make it more inclusive, not tear it down because our personal taste has not been validated.

To quote that great football philosopher and fisherman Rex Hunt: 'That is all.'


  1. Wow, sounds fun. As for Werthead's "They got it wrong" comment, it's because he thought both books by Willis weren't good.

  2. Thanks Bryce, whether or not Wert's comment was related to his opinion of the books quality it's still insulting to those who did enjoy Connie's book and voted for it.

  3. Great write-up! Reno was my first Worldcon, but I've been a con-goer since my teens--albeit fan-run media cons more than SF Lit cons.

  4. Tara, thank you so much for the comment. I am honoured that a Hugo winner left me a comment!

  5. That does sound fun - I'm jealous! :)

    Good post. I especially liked what you said at the end about the awards being a celebration of the genre and how we should be looking to improve on it and not tear it down.

  6. Thank you Kristen. The awards ceremony is a great night and I'm feel very lucky that I've been able to go to the last 2. The Masquerade on the night before is even funnier, especially if Paul Cornell hosts Just A Minute while they're judging the costumes.
    I meant what I said and I felt very deeply about it, so I am pleased that you liked my words.

  7. "All Clear" is the conclusion to Hugo Award Winning Willis' latest novel of time travel. These books wonderfully combine my love of time travel stories with historical fiction about WWII. In "Blackout" Willis set up for us three Oxford historians from 2060 who have gone back to different parts of WWII to do research. One to Dunkirk, one to the countryside to which Londoners had evacuated their children and one to London during the Blitz. Other characters, such as a reporter sent to 1944 to blow up inflatable tanks, and a woman ambulance driver, may or may not be related or the same time travelers. Willis expertly weaves history with suspense as each historian confronts a situation where he/she may or may not have affected history.