Genre Grapevine Primer On the Latest Worldcon and Hugo Award Explosion

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Unfortunately, this post’s title is evergreen because every year we have an explosion related to Worldcon and the Hugo Awards. And every year people in the science fiction and fantasy genre ask, “WTF just happened with the Hugos?”

But this time’s a little different because we’ve now had two explosions in six months, with all the Hugo administrators resigning en masse in January followed by a totally new group of award administrators resigning a few days ago.

The January resignations happened because DisCon III, this year’s Worldcon, said they’d limit the number of names on the Hugo final ballots and award plaques to four. While this wouldn’t be an issue in the fiction categories, finalists in categories with multiple creators such as semiprozines and fancasts would have to decide which people to leave off the final ballot and award plaques.

The Hugo admins, upset at being forced to limit the number of finalist names, resigned. After a short controversy, DisCon apologized and said they wouldn’t limit the names on the ballot or plaques. A new group of Hugo administrators then volunteered to run the awards, resulting in this year’s finalists being announced in April.

Then on June 22, these new Hugo administrators also resigned, saying in a public statement that “It is clear we have taken the process as far as we can, and that our input is no longer needed by the convention leadership."

These new resignations were prompted by Worldcon again limiting Hugo finalists, saying that "Due to space limitations, larger Finalists groups will be limited to a maximum of four persons with one guest each for the in-person pre-Hugo Award reception and in the reserved Finalist seating area for the Hugo Award ceremony."

After yet another outcry and the new resignations, Worldcon changed their mind. Gadi Evron, the head of events for DisCon and the person in charge of the Hugo Awards reception and ceremony, sent an email late Wednesday to all the Hugo Award finalists. (Note: I received this email b/c I’m a finalist for Best Fan Writer.)

The email read in part:

“Last week we sent a communication to you regarding Ceremony and Reception issues. Instead of coming to you, we made a decision on our own. We should have asked for your input as we said we would. This was a mistake, and we apologize. We know this isn’t the first time, but we sincerely hope it will be the last.  As you may be aware there are serious space constraints this year, but we have decided to prioritize the attendance of the Finalists and will make space for all Finalists and their plus ones who wish to attend. There will be no four person limit.”

The email also said the DisCon ConCom will be meeting this weekend to discuss these issues, and that communication issues with Hugo finalists is on the agenda. The ConCom also asked for Hugo finalists to tell them of any other concerns, which would also be discussed.

It’s important to remember that all of this is taking place in the backdrop of the fall-out from last year’s Hugo Awards ceremony, where toastmaster George R.R. Martin not only ran the ceremony way too long but mispronounced the names of many finalists and appeared to focus more on honoring John W. Campbell and Hugo winners from 50 years ago than the current and diverse group of finalists. And people still remember other issues with the Hugos over the last decade, including the entire puppy ordeal.

Sadly, some parts of fandom are blaming the victims here, saying that it’s the fault of Hugo finalists such as Strange Horizons for listing too many names (even though it should be noted Strange Horizons didn’t complain about being limited to only four names). Yes, Strange Horizons listed the names of 87 staff members who helped the magazine become a Hugo finalist in the Best Semiprozine category. But why is it a bad idea to celebrate and honor all the people who helped your magazine become a finalist for a major award, especially when these people are all volunteers?

As Maureen K. Speller, the senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons, said, “I really thought we were going to get past this kind of shit after Fiyahcon proved the world didn't end if, dog forbid, you acknowledged all the creators, but Discon really has seemed quite determined to drag us back to the bad old days as fast as they can.”

Arguments have been put forward on different sites that Worldcon doesn’t have the budget to invite all those people to the reception, or the stage can’t handle that many people, along with other excuses. And it appears these types of complaints were on the mind of DisCon’s overall leadership and lead to the most recent resignation of the Hugo admin staff.

If you think this type of attitude doesn’t hurt the genre, consider what Vajra Chandrasekera, the senior fiction editor for Strange Horizons, said: “This kind of shit, coupled with the Worldcon practice of either mangling or skipping non-white names at the ceremony, is why my name is not included in the very long list of SH staff in the Hugo nominees list this year—I asked not to be listed any more for these things lol.”

Since DisCon has now backtracked and apologized, it’s likely that all this may be resolved when their ConCom meets this weekend.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Worldcon has had three major issues with the Hugos in less than a year, if you include last year’s award ceremony. So now questions are being raised in the genre about how the Hugos are run under Worldcon.

Alasdair Stuart recently said that "The Hugo’s are getting too big for Worldcon. They’ve been heading that way for a while and until they’re separated off or until the way the two groups interact changes, finalists will be stuck in the middle and fan finalists doubly so."

And a few days ago Christopher J. Garcia, the Hugo-winning editor of the fanzine The Drink Tank, wrote in a public Facebook post that “Yep, it’s time to pull the Hugos from the WorldCon. Spin ‘em off and figure things out.” Garcia added in a follow-up comment that “My initial thought is having a separate entity administering the Hugos entirely, while still most likely presenting at the WorldCon. Basically take the whole thing off the plate of the world con.”

In response, more than 300 comments were shared on Garcia's Facebook post.

Part of the problem is how Worldcon is structured, with each year’s Worldcon having to run the Hugo Awards and, essentially, reinvent the wheel. There is no overall administrator or group of people who manage the awards from year to year, which can result in a lack of institutional knowledge and recurring unforced errors.

It’s unlikely Worldcon will divorce itself from the Hugo Awards or not present the awards at a ceremony they host. But perhaps Worldcon should consider having permanent staff for the awards instead of relying on each year’s Worldcon to run it.

And the fact that two sets of Hugo admins have resigned in six months also suggests that Worldcon needs to remove the ability of convention leadership to interfere with and overrule the people actually running the awards. The fact that two groups of Hugo admins saw their only option being to resign points to serious conflicts with Worldcon leadership about the awards.

I’m glad the DisCon ConCom staff will discuss solutions to this year’s problems and, based on their openness to resolving the issues, there will likely be good news in the coming days. But that doesn’t change the fact that the genre keeps having controversies related to the Hugos.

Perhaps 2021 will be the year where we finally explore ways to stop having regular Hugo explosions.

Update: After this column was published, DisCon III announced that Bill Lawhorn resigned from his position as Convention Chairperson.

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