Sep 18 2011 10:30am

Hugo Nominees: Conclusion

I have learned a lot from writing this series. I have learned exactly how to find everything quickly in Locus’s wonderful Index to Awards, without which I couldn’t even have thought about doing this.

I have learned that novellas are consistently the Hugo category about which I feel most enthusiastic, which I would never have guessed was the case. I’ve learned that I still love Dune despite everything, and that the alien sex really is the only bit worth remembering from The Gods Themselves. I’ve learned that hardly any years have sufficient good movies to make it worth having a special category for Dramatic Presentation — delenda est! I’ve learned that the results of the Campbell Memorial Award almost always baffle me and that the Philip K. Dick Award always picks up interesting things other awards miss.

I’ve also learned a lot from the comment threads — the discussion on these posts have been stellar. I especially valued the weekly participation from Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton and James Nicoll. Thank you, everyone.

But did I learn the thing I set out to learn, whether the novel nominees are the best five books of the year?

Not really.

I concluded that they did a mostly good job in 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1999 and 2000 — twenty-nine out of forty-two years that had nominees, or sixty-nine percent.

I concluded they didn’t do a good job in 1962, 1967, 1969, 1973, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1985, 1987, 1995, 1996, 1998, thirteen out of the forty-one years, or thirty-one percent.

So yes, on numbers I thought the Hugos were doing a good job more often than not — sixty-nine percent of the time. And I was looking at “representative of where the field was” as well as “best,” and I was trying hard not to mistake “best” for “Jo’s favourite” so I think that there were times I gave a year the benefit of the doubt.

Sixty-nine percent is okay I suppose, but it feels like a wishy-washy “well sort of” as a conclusion. I’d have preferred something more definite in either direction. My intuitive guess before I actually looked at the data would have been more like eighty percent. So yes — well, doing pretty well, could do better.

When I started doing this series, everybody thought I meant to read or re-read all the Hugo winners, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. For one thing this is a fairly normal thing to do — several people I know have done it. For another thing I think that there’s too much significance on winners, when what I think is much more interesting is the whole slate of nominees. I wanted to look at them as a set, and as a set in the context of their year. In addition, I am fairly well read in the genre but there are lots of things I haven’t read, and I wanted to look at what I had and hadn’t read and my reasons for not having read things. Whether I’ve read something is a piece of data to go with whether it’s in print and in the library.

Still, 1953-2000 is a lot of years, and therefore a lot of Sundays. It’s been fun writing these posts, but it’s also been a bit of a pain occasionally, needing to get them done on time — sometimes that meant I had to do several years at once when I was going to be away, and I’d be staring at ISFDB looking for other things published that year until my eyes were crossing. Also, I got better at it as I went along and got the formula properly worked out. I feel as if I want to go back and redo the earlier ones to make them more compatible.

But in Worldcon this year in Reno, in addition to a ton of people saying how much they enjoyed them, three people told me that they usually go to Worldcon, but this was the first time they’d voted for the Hugos. They chose to exercise their vote this year because reading this series made them feel the Hugos were important and exciting.

This in itself makes the whole experience worthwhile, inconclusive results or not. 2011 had the highest ever turnout of Hugo voters, 2100 people, and it would only have been 2097 if not for this series. That makes me happy. Because I do think the Hugos are important. The Hugos are fan nominated, fan voted, fan collated awards — okay, only fans who can afford to go to Worldcon or buy a supporting membership just to be able to vote. But it’s still terrific that we can be involved in SF’s most prestigious and highly regarded award. And they are important for more than one year, they are the lasting record of what we have liked. One thing this series has shown is that people still care about the old Hugos — the controversies have mostly not been “settled by history” as Mike Glyer put it. Some nominees have indeed been forgotten, while other books from those years remain important. But on the whole, they’re doing a good job — sixty-nine percent of the time for novels, but ninety-nine percent of the time for novellas.

Read. Nominate. Vote. Care.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Revisiting the Hugos: ‹ previous | index
Declan Ryan
1. decco999
Congratulations on this series. I have found many "new" books to read. Thank you for the consistently high standard, if personal, reviews.
Rich Horton
2. ecbatan
Thanks again for doing this series. For me it was a particularly valuable spur to reexamine what's been done in the field over the history of the Hugos, to make me remember stories I loved but haven't thought about, and to discover occasional stories I missed.

And I echo the plea to people who love this field to support the Hugos by, as you say, reading, nominating, voting, caring. It frustrates me to see people whom I know love and care about the field saying they don't participate in the Hugos because they're aggrieved over some past bad result, or because "they're just a popularity contest", or whatever. The Hugos are only as good as we can make them, and we can only make them better by adding our voices to the discussions, and our votes to the decisions. Yes, they are (almost by definition) a popularity contest, but they are a valuable (and, to me, fun) way of timebinding, of keeping a collective memory, of reinforcing community, and of praising our best work.

Rich Horton
Kristen Templet
3. SF_Fangirl
Thanks, Jo. I really enjoyed this series even if I didn't have much to say every week. I eagerly checked Saturday nights and Sunday mornings looking for your latest post. I added some books to my to read list and learned a lot out the genre. I appreciate your hard work.
Michael G Lee
4. Michael G Lee
This was quite a fantastic series. I don't necessarily agree with you on all of your points (I'm a film and tv fan that I tire of the DP bashing very quickly) -- but over all I found it a really valuable and worthwhile series.
Heather Jones
5. JourneywomanJones
I've really looked forward to reading these every week. Sci-Fi is a bit of a forgotten genre in South Africa, and the posts been great with tips for new (and old) books to search for. Thanks Jo!
Laura Conrad
6. laymusic
I've been voting for 3 years now, and would like to also nominate, but I don't read a lot of stuff as it comes out. I'd be willing to read potential nominees that I was interested in to see if I wanted to nominate them, but I'm having trouble even finding lists of SF published last year, let alone lists with enough information for me to decide whether I want to read the book.

In any case, if the nominees lean heavily towards established writers, it isn't surprising, because that's who people like me read when their books come out.
Michael G Lee
7. Steve Carroll
Jo, I'm pretty sure a lot more than 3 new people voted for the Hugos because of this series. I'll take the number 4 slot. Also, you shouldn't underestimate the number of books added to to-be-read queues. I almost don't even want to go count the number of books sitting on my shelf that i bought in the last few months thanks to this.
Michael G Lee
8. Gardner Dozois
This whole series has re-confirmed for me what I really already knew: that there's been a LOT of good science fiction written over the last few decades, in spite of all the moaning about how the field isn't what it used to be. It also reconfirmed my feeling that the bulk of the really good work is done at shorter lengths, particularly novella and novelette, and especially novella. Unfortunately, what everybody talks about in a year, and what the quality of a year is judged on, is the novels, which often are the weakest stuff. Even here in this series, there were always far more comments about the novels than about the short fiction, and I can only conclude that many more people read the novels than ever get around to the short fiction. Too bad, in a way, since they're missing the bulk of the good fiction published that year.

@6--There's also what I call the "familiarity effect," where if you haven't read ANY of the five or six things in a category, you vote for the writer whose name is the most familiar to you. I suspect that this is the most common with novels, since few have time to read five or six novels before the ballot is due back.
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
Jo, thanks for the series. It was interesting to see all of the quality work that's been done. I like the trend that seems to be occuring with shorter works becoming more available in e-formats.
Paul Weimer
10. PrinceJvstin
Thank you, Jo, this has been valuable to me as a reader.
Steve Taylor
11. teapot7
The thing I most want to find on the net - even more than dogs on skateboards and cats playing piano - is intelligent discussion of written SF. I've chased it from rec.arts.sf to rec.arts.sf.composition to Making Light, and its latest home is your Hugo pieces. (and it's funny how often the same names keep turning up over the years). Your articles have been a godsend - and I have to extend my thanks to so many of the comments which have been so knowledgable and thoughtful.

I'm sorry you're stopping now - I'd rather you continued the series to, say, last Thursday, but it's been a great ride.
Michael G Lee
12. alchymyst
Thank you so much for this series. I got quite a bit of book recs from your posts..
Kristen Templet
13. SF_Fangirl
Gardner@8 ... I think I only commented on the novels except to say how impressed I was with Jo and others who manage to recall the shorter works. I read Analog and Asimov's from the late 80s to late 90s for Asimov's and until Analog until 2008. For that time period I know I must have read many of the nominees, but for the life of me I can't recall them clearly. I imagine its got a lot to the amount of time I spend on a novel versus a short story. And for the other years, I am much more likely to have the novels than the shorter works.

I'd like when I have time to revisit Jo's post and dig out those stories I do havein my possession, but who know when I'll ever find that time?
Andrew Love
14. AndyLove
Just want to join the throng of appreciative readers - this series of posts has been very entertaining and illuminating.

Michael G Lee
15. Kvon
Thanks for the series Jo. It was a trip to see the sf field laid out in chronologic order like that, and to think of where I was each year. I got my first supporting Worldcon membership as a birthday present to myself this year, because I'd been mad about some of the recent slates. It was fun thinking about nominees and looking at lots of stuff I hadn't read. I'm pretty terrible at picking winners though.
So the overall grade for Hugo voters is about D+. I'd agree with that.
Bob Blough
16. Bob
Great job, Jo. I do agree that the most memorable fiction is usually at the short fiction level. But as a package I have always been pleased to read all the nominees because often the winner is usually not my favorite. Not that the winner is "wrong" but that my tastes differ. After all these years of reading the nominees I have never attended a Worldcon - or any con for that matter. I voted twice in the 80's, but haven't had funds for many years to even get a supporting membership (this is way I so appreciate the Locus awards). This year I'll get my supporting ballot and vote again - my choices don't usually do well in Locus but hey, it's another vote!

Thanks again for reminding us all of works that we all love and/or hate!
Kim B
17. Amaranthine
Thank you Jo! This series has fascinated me-- primarily because I've only been reading SFF for the past seven or eight years, and I've only started reading the "big" authors within the past couple of years. It was wonderful to spot some of the names that I've started to read and recognize, and just as wonderful to discover new names and novels that I now want to read. It's been fun!
Joel Cunningham
18. jec81
I'd wager there is more discussion of novels because many fans newer to the genre simply don't have easy access to all the short fiction. I would like to read a lot of it but hunting down dozens of collections (if they are even available) is a challenge.
Michal Jakuszewski
19. Lfex
Thank you for great job. You gave us a lot of material for thought and discussion and convincing new people to vote certainly is a very good thing.
Cathy Mullican
20. nolly
*applause* An excellent conclusion to an interesting series.
john mullen
21. johntheirishmongol
I enjoyed the series, even when I didn't agree with the choices that were made.

I am less disturbed about the movies/tv winners than you were. I am old enough to remember when scifi was only for a small potion of the population, and those who read it were few and far between. It has been small steps and giant leaps over the years, and it's been the cutting edge of film over the past 40 years.
Michael G Lee
22. Tansy Rayner Roberts
Thanks for this series!

I often say that shortlists are more interesting to me than winners, so it's been great to see *that* aspect of awards data explored in such depth. Once you start actively reading SF and fantasy, everything published before that point becomes an enormous blur, so it's been fascinating to see which books are each other's "peers" and get a sense of historical perspective. I'd love to see these published as a reference volume.
Janet Kegg
23. jmk
Thanks, Jo. I've enjoyed the series a lot.
Kevin Maroney
24. womzilla
"only fans who can afford to go to Worldcon or buy a supporting membership just to be able to vote":

It's worth pointing out again that thanks to the Hugo Voter Packet, supporting members now get electronic versions of a metric buttload* of fiction including several full-length prose novels and a host of shorter prose; fan writing; magazines; graphic novels; and more. It's $50 very well spent even if you don't exercise the voting option!

*1 metric buttload = 1.78 American sh*tloads = 1.2 Imperial arseloads. Provincial Americans gotta have their own measurements for everything.
Jo Walton
25. bluejo
Womzilla: It's worth pointing out that this has been done a few times, it has to be negotiated freshly each time and it is by no means guaranteed that any future Worldcon will do it.

Also, the participants get nothing -- the fans quite rightly feel as if they have paid $50 to buy those ebooks and stories, but not a penny of that goes to the writers. I think it's one thing to give the stuff to people who are going to Worldcon and going to vote, but I feel uncomfortable about encouraging people to participate just to get the stuff which they might otherwise buy in a way that does compensate the writers. Of course this could be addressed if the Worldcon gave the participants an honorarium of some kind -- but so far this hasn't happened.
Michael G Lee
26. Gerry__Quinn
I'll just chime in with the many who have already posted to say thank you for this excellent series.
Soon Lee
27. SoonLee
Thank you Jo & to the commenters for what has been a most enjoyable & edifying series.
Michael G Lee
28. James Davis Nicoll
You know, you could redo my series looking at the predictive value of the Locus Poll Best First Novel...
Michael G Lee
29. col_pogo
I'd just like to add my thanks for what has been a fascinating series to follow.

Thanks to your findings, I'd love to become better versed in the world of SF short fiction. The trouble is that I'm never sure how to get hold of this sort of thing. Short stories and novelettes aren't as easy to find on Amazon/Powells/AbeBooks as novels are, by my limited experience. Are Hugo nominees and winners regularly anthologized?
Michael G Lee
30. dbjo
Thanks for refreshing my memories…
The interesting part for me was the moments I thought "how could she like that?…, and why didn't she like that?; nevertheless, I'd say I'm about 90% in agreement with your likes, dislikes and analysis.
Great posts!
Pamela Adams
31. PamAdams

This has been a wonderful discussion. I've been reminded of books that I once read and forgot, and others that I somehow never noticed, adding greatly to my TBR list. (Hooray for libraries!!)

I'm looking forward to the novella project.
Chuk Goodin
32. Chuk
Thanks for this series, it really has been excellent. Got me to take a look at a few older books I'd missed, too.
Kevin Maroney
33. womzilla

It had not consciously occurred to me that contributors were participating in the Hugo Nominees packet without recompense, but it seems obvious in retrospect. That seems like something that should be addressed.

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