I’ve been meaning to post about the Hugo Awards, which were recently announced. Usually with awards, we tend to post a note highlighting any writers of international interest (if any) and leave it at that, but I feel it might be worth saying a few more words this time, so please bear with me.
There seems to be a conversation about the Hugos every year, of roughly the same nature. A good example is this recent one, which takes them to task by saying:
Although the Hugos present the image of something more cosmopolitan or representative than the standard convention award, it’s becoming increasingly apparent every year that, despite being the most recognizable award in science fiction and fantasy cultural awareness, the Hugos are nothing more than an amalgamation of like minded WorldCon members, or agendized voting blocs, bent on vociferous back patting.
I have sympathy with this sort of argument, though it’s worth noting neither the Hugos nor the “WorldCon” were ever meant to be international or all-inclusive. “WorldCon” gets its name from the World’s Fair that took place in New York in 1939, and the “Hugos” take their name from a Jewish immigrant to the United States, Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the first science fiction pulp magazine. Moreover, the Hugos do reflect popular taste – a quick look at the sales figures of the shortlisted novels suggests they are very popular indeed, and are recognised as such.
I think a part of the sense of – disaffection – we get every year is the very real sense that science fiction [ETA: I'm using this as an umbrella term for speculative fiction, including fantasy] itself has profoundly changed over the decades. Some terribly ambitious novels had won the award since it began in 1953, a period during which science fiction was in a very real sense an avant garde literary movement. The first novel to win was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, and the 1960s saw such novels as A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune and Lord of Light winning – surely some of the most remarkable and ambitious examples of American science fiction ever written.
But the nature of genre publishing itself changed. It is now a massively successful, commercial genre, with thousands of titles published annually, multiple franchises and diverse fandoms. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a winner in 1985, still seems to me to represent a watershed moment for SF, a when-it-changed – less the arrival of a new era as the death of an older one, and it is suggestive that is was followed, a year later, by Ender’s Game, a novel that very much stands for the new kind of SF.
Ambition, experiment, a sense of being at the vanguard are not necessarily the qualities one looks for in a Hugo winner, though certainly ambitious and challenging work continues to be recognised – Mieville’s The City and the City, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to take two.
And science fiction fans, globally, continue to be invested in the Hugos, whether they vote for them or attend a Worldcon. It is not seen as belonging to the thousand or so people who vote for it, but to anyone who is a fan of SF. And they are not easy to vote for. Attending a WorldCon is an expensive proposition, and even a supporting membership, purely for voting, can be a massive expense for someone not earning “First World” salaries.
The arguments, I suspect, will continue for years to come, but I thought it valuable to highlight just what I see as so remarkable in this year’s shortlist.
And the thing is this – this is perhaps the first year in the award’s history (and the Campbell, a “Not a Hugo” award) where we see such a strong representation of international voices. I’m not sure I can highlight this enough. Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, for instance, is the first novel by a Muslim writer ever to be nominated for a Hugo. The first by an Arab-American, for that matter. (And this is when being Muslim in SF is still cause for a lot of nasty sniping, to put it mildly). Ken Liu, a Chinese-American author doing amazing work, amongst others, in translating Chinese science fiction into English, is nominated for Best Short Story. Aliette de Bodard, a French author of Vietnamese ancestry, is nominated for both Best Novella and Best Short Story, while Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a surprise nominee with a translated story in the Best Novelette category.
Even more exciting, the Campbell Award, recognising emerging writers, has author Zen Cho as a nominee – the first time a Malaysian author is so recognised.
The Hugos are changing, I think. Or SF as a whole is changing. The surprise is not that popular American writers are nominated for a Hugo – but that diversity is increasingly represented on the ballots.
And frankly, for all my love of 1960s American SF, this seems to me to be the more exciting time to be involved with the genre.
The Best Fan Writer category of the Hugo Award is one of the odder – and historically irrelevant - categories of the Hugo Award, there to recognise people who write about SF in a non-professional capacity (It is “given each year for writers of works related to science fiction or fantasy which appeared in low- or non-paying publications such as semiprozines or fanzines”). I say it’s historically irrelevant since the same person won it for 21 times – it’s a bit like China Mieville winning Best Novel every single year for two decades.
But in the past few years the category became somewhat more interesting, with Cheryl Morgan winning in 2009, John Scalzi the year before her, and at the moment it seems like a new field. Worth highlighting, perhaps?
Last year’s winner, American writer Jim C. Hines, has recently posted his recommendations for the award shortlist for this year. Disappointingly, but not perhaps surprisingly, his list is composed entirely of American writers, and I thought it might be interesting to propose a list of some non-Anglophone writers who, I believe, add significantly to the global discussion of science fiction today.
Charles Tan, Philippines
Charles Tan is perhaps the hardest-working fan in the world. I’ve lost count of the places he contributes to, his own blog is always fascinating, and the World SF Blog would not be the same without his help. Charles has twice been nominated for a World Fantasy Award for his work, but never for a Hugo. I’d love to see him on the list – I can’t think of anyone more deserving of some recognition.
Abigail Nussbaum, Israel
Nussbaum blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions, with some of the most in-depth look at genre TV, film and novels of anyone writing today. In her spare time she edits the review section of Strange Horizons. She has come close in the past to making it onto the shortlist – perhaps this year she could break through?
Jaymee Goh, Malaysia
Goh blogs about steampunk and post-colonialism at Silver Goggles. She is one of the most insightful writers into the intersectionality of genre fiction, post-colonial theory and its often problematic handling of race and gender.
Jonathan Dotse, Ghana
Jonathan has been making waves since beginning his Afro Cyberpunk blog, with exposure in Wired and elsewhere. Writing about Cyberpunk and genre fiction from an African perspective, it is an important new voice in the global discourse on science fiction today.
Requires Hate, Thailand
Probably the most divisive name on this list, gathering around her as many fans as she does outraged voices, this is a writer who pulls no punches, uses inflammatory rhetoric and says things many people simply don’t want to hear. As Sean Wallace recently commented, “While a lot of what she says is uncomfortable, it probably needs to be said,” and I would add that I think hers is perhaps the most important critical voice in science fiction today. I doubt we would ever see her on the list, but SF fandom could do worse than take that step.
Athena Andreadis (Greece) blogs often and eruditely on all matters relating to SF; So does Aliette de Bodard (France), who was already up for a Hugo for her fiction; and Aishwarya Subramanian (India) is a voice to seek. There are many others, and we’d love to see some recommendations from you in the comments. What do you think?