The View From Here

The Worldcon is Doing Fine, but Hugo's in Trouble

Los Angeles Airport, September 3, 1996 --

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Well, the 1996 World Science Fiction Convention is now history, and that suits me fine. I had a great time, but it was a long convention -- Thursday to Monday. Most people start to burn out by about half past Sunday at one of these things. There gets to be a glassy look in most eyes by then.

The Worldcon, as it is familiarly known, is the gathering of the tribes for the world of science fiction. Somewhere between five thousand and seven thousand people -- mostly from the United States, but from many other nations as well -- come together for this event. Some years it is in other countries, but it has been in the U.S. about half the time, or a bit better, in recent years. This year Los Angeles. Next year, San Antonio, the Baltimore, then Melbourne, Australia.

Each attendee knows that everyone will be there, and that is the reason most individuals come to the Worldcon. Of course, there are lots of different everyones, and lots of different Worldcons as well. I was up and out and at it all day every day, and I know I missed ninety-five percent of the con. Panel discussions are a big deal at these conventions, and I was on three or four of them, plus a reading, and two autograph sessions (one at the con, and one elsewhere), and a writer's workshop. But by virtue of doing those events, I missed every single panel that I would have loved to have seen and heard from the audience. That's the way it works. See one thing and miss the others.

There are those who skip all the panels and never miss them, contending the real convention takes place in the hotel bar, or in the endless, noisy, crowded room parties that run every night, and there's something to that. There are those who go to the conventions to talk shop with others fascinated by the same thing. Writers -- professional and otherwise -- talk with other writers. Costume-makers talk with other costumers. Role players play games with other role players. The art show is always crowded. There are how-to panels and workshops and demonstrations on all of these topics, and many others.

A new element that has just popped up in the last year or so is the Internet Room, which is nothing more than a place with lots of computers, all hooked up to the Internet, and all available for use by anyone at the convention. There were about fifteen machines set up this year, in a cool, quiet, big, dimly-lit room with high ceilings. It was a strange place. In the midst of endless activity, in a room just off an upper lobby full of conversation, constant backing and forthing, unstopping noise and laughter, was this cool, dim, cathedral space, where the acolytes tended the glowing, all-powerful machines. All of the dozen or so people in that room at any given time were physically near to one another, but each was, in another sense, alone. All of them had their minds on things that were literally hundreds or thousands of miles away. The atmosphere was cordial enough, even friendly, but there was little conversation beyond asking how to get the printer to work, or where a good web site was. For the most part, the loudest sound was the half-ghostly chuckle of computer keys tapping out commands to machines half a world away.

One good friend of mine had been looking forward to the convention because it meant a reunion with her boyfriend, whom she had not seen in some time. I found them in the Internet Room at one point, each sitting next to the other, each at his or her own terminal, sending email messages to someplace else. But that merely summed up what was true of nearly everyone in that room. They had come from hundreds or thousands of miles away to be with each other, and then each sat alone, next to the other, with a whole world full of information, in contact with all the ones who weren't at the con.

Another feature of the World Science Fiction Convention is the Hugos, the science fiction world's rough equivalent of the Oscar. For both Oscar and Hugo, there are nominees, votes by the members of convention, awards in different categories, and statuettes handed out. The Hugo award itself is a silver rocketship about a foot high, and each year the base is designed by the host city's committee. This year, in Los Angeles, a film can. Two years ago, in Winnipeg Canada, a maple leaf carved out of a block of wood by laser beam.

There are other similarities between Oscar and Hugo. In both cases, the ceremonies are incredibly, heroically, needlessly long. Peripheral awards take up a lot of the evening. Bits that probably seemed clever in rehearsal -- or would have, if they had been rehearsed -- end up seeming forced and contrived when performed. Winners are expected to make speeches, but are often something less than articulate -- and something more than brief.

I've never been nominated for a Hugo (or for a Nebula, which is the other big award, given on another occasion by another group). Obviously, therefore, I have never won either award, either. I would of course be delighted to win one, or just be nominated. I want to win. I've fantasized over my acceptance speech. But I'm in the book-writing business, not the award-winning business. If I never get one of those neat rockets, I'll live through it. But it would be a lot of fun to win.

That being the case, it's a little awkward to say what else needs to be said about the Hugos. It could even get me in trouble. But, to rework a phrase that is much in current vogue -- the truth is out there, plain for all to see.

And the truth is that the Hugos are in trouble. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this general-interest article, and all too well known to those who follow the awards from year to year, the awards have become calcified. The nomination process has gotten to the point where, for many of the categories -- best editor, best artist, best semi-pro magazine (an odd category, as there is no best professional magazine category) best fan writer -- the same five or six names are nominated year after year. In many of those categories, the same nominee wins year in and year out, or three years out of four. The case could be made that, for many of these categories, the award should not be Best Whatever, but Most Visible Whatever. The award goes to the nominee who is most familiar, rather than the one with the greatest quality.

The five professional writing categories -- (Campbell award for best new writer, and the Hugos for short story, novella, novelette, and novel) are less prone to this sort of thing, at least at present. While certain writers have been nominated over and over again for the past several years, they don't have a lock on the awards, and they are nominated because their work is good. I have no argument with the professional writing awards -- so far.

But the Hugos are, in my opinion, being debased. No one takes must stock in an election after the Maximum Leader receives better than 94.3 percent of the vote (or even 104.9 percent) for the eighth time running. When an election becomes a foregone conclusion, the act of election loses its power of conferring legitimacy. In exactly the same way, I have trouble believing in any award that names the same person or publication The Best over and over and over and over and over again -- no matter what anyone else does, no matter what the Winner for Life does, no matter how many other deserving potential nominees never get on the ballot in the first place. Why should anyone take the Hugo seriously when the winners in half the categories are a lock, year after year?

And let me make the following daring statement. There is something wrong with an award meant to honor the great of science fiction when many of the great, known to all, have never won, while nominees known only in small parts of the science fiction community routinely rack up award after award after award.

Again, the technicalities are beyond the scope of a general interest article, but it is plain as day that the system needs reform. The nominating system needs to be opened up, for starters. There were something like six thousand members of the convention eligible to nominate this year. Of the fourteen awards (thirteen Hugos and the Campbell) the winners in seven categories received fewer than forty nominating votes. No nominee in any category received more than 122 nominating votes. Do the math, and then decide what probability there is of the nominations and the eventual winners reflecting the true opinions of the convention membership.

Another obvious reform would be on-site balloting. The current system requires votes to be sent in by mail well in advance of the convention. The balloting process is a complex "Australian ballot" system, but here is a telling statistic: For those same fourteen awards, the winner in seven received fewer than forty initial first place votes. Only in one category (Dramatic Presentation, winner with 372 votes) did any winner receive more than 250 votes. Again, we're talking the winners' vote counts, out of a potential pools of votes of about five to seven thousand. If people could vote at the convention, when they were thinking science fiction, the vote counts would be tremendously higher.

And, just for the record, I am part of the problem. I never quite get around to nominating or to voting. I often mean to do so, but when I sit down in front of the ballot, and realize how few of the potential nominees and nominees I know about, I don't feel qualified to vote. Get me at the con, when I'm thinking science fiction, have prints of the artwork up, have copies of the stories and books at hand, and things might be different -- for me, and for lots of people.

In the old story of the Emperor's new clothes, no one had the nerve to admit the plainly obvious until it was too late, and the Emperor had already been publicly humiliated.

This particular Emperor, Hugo the Great, still has some of his clothes on -- but the seams are starting to unravel. Perhaps if we start talking about the problems now, he won't end up as naked as an Oscar a few years from now.

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