Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Hugos 2011

Isn’t it nice when our friends do well? Naturally we are pleased when friends are—to take one example—nominated for major genre awards. It’s feel-good for us, and egoboo for them! That’s win-win! There’s a pleasantly self-reinforcing aspect to this too. People tend to vote for their friends—because of course you vote for your friends (they’re your friends!) and also because just because these people are my friends doesn’t mean they don’t write excellent SF and also because ‘well, in all honesty, there are only so many days in the year, there’s far more stuff published than I could ever read, and when it comes to prioritising what I’m going to get to it’s only natural the top of my tbr pile will be taken up with stuff my friends and people I like wrote. If this means that stuff by my friends is disproportionately represented in my personal “best of” listing, hey, I’m not going to apologise for that!' So the shortlist is announced, and everybody is really pleased to see so many friends shortlisted ("Way too many friends on the ballot to shout out to all, but congratulations everyone"; "So many friends up for Hugos … that I don't know which way to turn first to send congratulations!"; "... gonna shut up now, I know and love most of the folks on this list..."). It makes us feel good, and obviously it makes the nominees feel good, and even people who know neither will surely tap-into the feel-good vibe, or else they must be some kind of Grinch-monster-misanthrope. And the neat part is that the wash of feel-good created by the announcement of the shortlist generates a sense of rightness. Everyone, or at least everyone that matters, agrees that this is a good list. It really must be be a good list; since everyone feels so good about it.

There is one problem with this, I suppose (though I feel rather dog-in-the-manger even mentioning it). The problem is its unlikeliness, in terms of statistical probability. Think objectively and ask ourselves: what are the odds that the greatest literary, critical, and visual artists of our generation also just happen to be a bunch of our friends? Of course, it’s possible; but how probable is it? Naturally, and on the other hand: think how flattering it would be to our self-esteem if we happened to be friends with all the greatest literary, critical, and visual artists of our generation! Wouldn’t that be cool? Or should I say, isn’t that cool? Excellent!

So here we are. Some years the Hugo nominees are a bunch of mostly mediocre novels, stories and films. Some years the prize picks higher calibre works—last year’s shortlist, for instance, was pretty good. This year, as it goes, I have not read all the nominated works and so, can’t make value judgements about the quality of the shortlist. Maybe Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It actually is the best critical engagement with genre published anywhere in the world in 2010. Maybe Cryoburn (fans’ snap-judgments on amazon include: ‘the return of Miles, but not at his best’; ‘Not the best in the series to date’; ‘Bujold's fourteenth Miles Vorkosigan novel. Hmm…’) really is the greatest non-realist novel published anywhere on the planet last year. I can’t say. And, actually, now that I have stepped away from the notion that the Hugos exist to celebrate the best in global SF, and instead see them a much happier, friendlier exercise in in-group reinforcement, I find I don’t especially care either. Congratulations to all the nominees!


Adam Roberts said...

A footnote. Constant Reader cries, ‘what? are you slagging off the Hugo shortlist again? Will you never learn?’ Indeed I am not slagging off the shortlist. Since I have read almost none of the shortlisted works, I am not in a position to pass value judgment of any kind. If anything I am not slagging, but meh-ing the shortlists; but in a kind-hearted way. The Hugos this year strike me as a perfectly charming exercise in niceness and friendliness, although with only the most tenuous relationship to larger questions of culture and literature. Congratulations to all the nominees!

Jonathan M said...

The problem with in-group loyalty is that it tends to make for insularity. I can completely understand the desire to support one's friends and the people one knows and likes but is there not also something to be said for cosmopolitanism? diversity? difference? change?

Looking at a lot of the reactions to the Hugos the two impressions I get are a) It's a weak year and b) It's the judgment of an aging group of largely American baby boomers.

I suspect that claims of type a have always been made and will always be made but to me, the more damaging claim is of type b. Obviously the Hugos can't be all things to all people but it would be nice to see them try. Their increased profile and well-earned reputation outside the genre mean that the Hugos really do have a duty to reflect the genre as a whole rather than the interests and tastes of a few aging baby boomers.

Obviously someone will point out that the best novel shortlist is remarkably diverse by Hugo standards... and it is. But that is really only the first step.

Increasingly, the picture I have of the Hugos is not that they're wrong but that they're irrelevant to the way a lot of people experience genre.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Wow, Cryoburn is on there? I like Bujold, and have read 90% of her books (and all the Vorkosigan books, including Cryoburn), and there's no way that that book is the best of anything. It's an exact cognate of the first Culture book that Iain Banks wrote after not writing Culture books for a while -- good writer writes uninspired addition to well-liked series that people had wondered whether they were giving up on.

The Hugos aren't about quality, literary or otherwise. In this case, for this book, I'd guess that they're about "yay another Vorkosigan book". I went through a burst of hugo reading at one time, when I thought that they were recommendations, and they aren't. They're mash notes from a certain, oddly chosen subset of fans.

That said, and getting back to the my-friends-are-on-this-list thing: isn't it likely that the list will appear insular because SF is in fact small and insular? I don't have publication or sales figures at my fingertips, or anything like that, but my impression is that the glory days of written SF are long past. Visual SF maybe or maybe not, but I have even stronger doubts about the Hugo process being able to pick out movies or TV shows than I do about books.

Gareth Rees said...

200 comments, here we come!

I think it's basically impossible for a fan award like the Hugos to do what you ask of it here, because the lead time between publication and nomination is far too short.

I'm not a con-goer so I'm never going to vote on the Hugos, but putting myself into the shoes of a Hugo nominator, what novels could I possibly recommend? I'm not particularly rich: I buy books in paperback, or borrow them from the local library system, and unless I'm a particular fan of the author I'm not going to be reading a book on the off-chance—there's far too much to read, and far too little lifetime for that—instead I'm going to wait until I've seen a certain level of appreciation from critics I respect. So as it happens there are only three eligible books published in 2010 that I've read: Zendegi by Greg Egan, Surface Detail by Iain Banks, and New Model Army by our host. The Egan and the Banks are far from these authors' best work, so if I nominated anything at all, it would have to be New Model Army. But what kind of value would that nomination have, when I'm totally ignorant of the rest of the field?

In a few years' time the critical consensus will have settled out, and I'll have read many more of the great novels of 2010, whatever they turn out to be. But much too late to be a participant in any kind of timely award.

I expect many Hugo nominators are in the same kind of position as me: they've read the latest novels by their favourite authors, but not yet much else from the nomination period, so of course their favourite authors get the nominations.

I think a juried award, in which the jurors all read a decent proportion of the eligible works, is the only way of actually rewarding quality in a timely fashion. (But there are plenty of juried awards.) You have to look at the Hugo award as something else: a congeniality award, perhaps.

Karen Burnham said...

I have to admit, I am happy to have a lot of friends on the Hugo nominee list this year. On the other hand, only 1 novel I nominated made it on, no novelettes and no short stories. I did get 3/5 novellas, which has to be a record for me.

I long ago accepted that my tastes have steadily diverged from the 'average' Hugo voter. I usually try to read all the nominated fiction every year, but this is going to be another year where I skip a bit. I still enjoy the horse-race (and as a blog editor, Award nominations are like crack), but I pay more attention these days to juried awards such as the Clarke and World Fantasy.

Mark Pontin said...

It was always somewhat thus. It's just that the 'clubhouse chums' effect is amplified nowadays because everyone can be some luminary's chum via the Internet.

I was immediately reminded of this, when I flicked through Gareth's link to last year's kerfuffle on this blog and the first post I saw (from SEK at 18 July 2009 11:44:00 PDT) summed it up:

"Popular awards like the Hugos are being disproportionately skewed by the internet, such that every second-rate Gaiman and ideologically crisp, but prosodically offensive, Doctorow novel will be nominated irrespective of merit....'

True that.

There've been exceptional periods where things were better, as maybe in the latter 1960s when one saw Delany's latest up beside Zelazny in his prime. But this was more the Nebula when that first started, and also it apparently required the fan politics of the time to be truly nasty

Should we start on the Nebulas? These are supposedly the professional writers' awards for sf-writing excellence, and are thus even more invidious for their "I'll slap your back, if you slap mine" ways.

Nah, let's not bother.

A worthwhile topic for debate might be this: Have we come to a time when if somebody actually did write a SF novel of blazing ideational originality and literary excellence, by definition it could be nominated against the comfort food that dominates these popularity contests?

Rich Puchalsky said...

"Have we come to a time when if somebody actually did write a SF novel of blazing ideational originality and literary excellence [...]"

There's already a long-standing myth about this: the 1974 Hugo / Nebula and Gravity's Rainbow. The incident was popularized most recently in a 1998 essay by Lethem, but I was almost sure I'd heard about it before that. Gravity's Rainbow was nominated for a Nebula in 1974, and *it did not win*. That's the factual part: the "myth" part is that this is supposed to symbolize SF's failure to recognize literary quality forevermore, which I'm not so sure of.

So the test already happened back in 1974. "blazing ideational originality and literary excellence", which Gravity's Rainbow unquestionably has, did not win even the Nebula, much less the Hugo. Not only that, but many people in SF still don't get it. Here, for example, is Jo Walton writing on Tor's blog in 2011:

"SFWA also gave the Nebula to Rendezvous With Rama. Their other nominees are identical except that in place of Protector they have Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. (People are very strange, and SFWA are very strange even for people.)

Moving swiftly on [...]"

That right there is why I don't expect anything from the Hugos. I like science fiction a good deal, but science fictional subculture really doesn't want to know anything about literary quality.

Karen Burnham said...

I notice that "Stand on Zanzibar" and "Left Hand of Darkness" did win Hugo awards in their years, so it's not like the Hugos have always & completely ignored challenging works of both 'ideational' and literary merit.

In more recent years I'd (at the risk of revealing myself to be a philistine) also point to "Yiddish Policeman's Union" and "Spin" as worthy winners on most levels.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Karen, I'm not claiming that all Hugos winners are *not* of literary quality. For the Hugo process to always pick one that wasn't would be almost as surprising as if it always picked one that was. Instead I'm claiming that that's just not what the Hugo list and awards select for. A literary work sometimes wins by accident. But the list itself...

I'm looking at the list of winners for novels now. David Brin, a writer of 1950s style potboilers "updated" with faux environmentalism, won twice. Bujold, who I like, but who writes what Martin Wisse accurately describes as "emoporn", has won 4 times. And there's Orson Scott Card with 2 wins for his execrable Ender series. That's just the alphabetic top of the list.

Meanwhile, PKD won once. Gene Wolfe, never. Stanislaw Lem? Never even nominated. John Crowley? Nope.

Mark Pontin said...

Oh, I committed a typo. I meant to write: "...if somebody actually did write a SF novel of blazing etcetera...by definition it could be NOT be nominated against the comfort food that dominates these popularity contests?"

I was implying the NOT as probably operative. So, rare as this might be, I agree with Rich Puchalsky on this one. Christ.

Indeed, another interesting debate topic might be: "Here it 2011 might SF be better off if it ditched the SF subculture?"

Because arguably the two best SF novels I read last year were Gary Schteyngart's SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY and Jennifer Egan's A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. Here in 2011, these are both mainstream authors .

Matthew Cheney said...

Next thing we know, y'all are going to tell us The King's Speech was not the best film made on Earth last year...

Miles said...

I started reading this blog with the '09 Hugos post, and I'd be frankly a little disappointed to go another year without a bit of Hugo-slagging.

Al R said...

Regardless of the merits of Cryoburn, the reactions of Amazon readers are really beside the point, Adam.

"Enjoyable, but not Earth shattering"

"Interesting, but flawed"

"Enjoyable, but not a must read".

I think we'd both agree that Yellow Blue Tibia is a much stronger novel than any of the above quotes imply, wouldn't we?

Speaking for myself, I didn't vote for my friends (erm... I didn't vote for anyone, actually) and of the other writers in the novella category, I know one of them slightly and the others not at all.

Adam Roberts said...

Al.: point taken re: amazon reviews; and, as I say, I haven't read Cryoburn. Maybe it's a masterpiece. And maybe the people who disliked YBT -- plenty did -- are right.

Matt C. Quite.

Jonathan M., Rich: I agree with you. When you say, Rich, 'isn't it likely that the list will appear insular because SF is in fact small and insular?' I'd say that's hard to deny. But I might wish it were just a little larger and less insular.

Gareth: your kind words about my novel aside, you put your finger on issues that have been widely discussed.

Mark: the internet has clearly had an effect. And there's a larger, cultural logic at work too ... 'celebrity', a cultural dominant at the moment, works as a kind of simulacrum of ersatz 'friendship'. We feel that Justin Beiber or Easterend-actor-X 'is our friend' (that's why their crappy autobiographies clutter up the bestseller lists) even though, of course, they don't know we exist. But, pace Matt C., when Colin Firth wins the best actor Oscar, our reaction is more likely to be 'good! I like Colin Firth! He seems a very nice man!' than 'his was technically the most impressive acting performance of the year'.

Karen: I'd certainly be ready to argue the case that the Hugos in the 60s and 70s had a much better feel for the actually important and worthwhile title than has been the case for a while.

Al R said...

Addressing this point: "Think objectively and ask ourselves: what are the odds that the greatest literary, critical, and visual artists of our generation also just happen to be a bunch of our friends?"

I'm not sure that it's as improbable as you seem to imply. To cherry pick one example: Vaughan Williams was a close friend to both Holst and Ravel. I think it's just as likely that likeminded artists are drawn to each other; out of such professional associations friendships (and, of course, animosities) can be borne.

And yes, anyone who didn't like YBT is a silly billy.

Karen Burnham said...

Adam- Because we all know things were better in the Good Old Days! ;-)

Karen Burnham said...

Also, does that mean I *am* a middle-brow philistine for thinking that Hugo-award-winning "Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson and "Yiddish Policeman's Union" by Michael Chabon (both from recent, non-60's and 70's Hugo voters) have both literary and ideational merit? Darn.

Adam Roberts said...

Karen: Of course I'd never call you names! But I do, I suppose, wonder: wouldn't it be odd if the Hugos (or any awards) always missed out on notable titles? Statistically that doesn't look probable. But that's not to say that the occasional good book winning means everything is AOK in the house of Hugo -- does it?

Al. The Vaughan Williams /Holst/ Ravel comparison is very interesting, I agree. All friends, you're right, even if they stopped short of holding an annual 'World Music Convention' at which they all gave one another prizes for being the best musicians in the world. But I wonder: might we entertain the notion that, of that generation, the most important composer -- I mean, the figure who had far and away the greatest influence on the subsequent development of world music in the twentieth century -- was an individual those three did not know, had never heard of, and (to go hypothetical for a moment) probably wouldn't even have recognised as a composer, let alone a major one: I mean Robert Johnson.

Karen Burnham said...

Well, if we take Sturgeon's Law as a given, 90% of everything is crap. So if the Hugos were awarded randomly, we'd expect 90% of them to be given to crap titles. Considering that IMHO, the Hugos have recognized a bunch of really top-notch titles over the years (although not 0% crap, I'll agree), they're at least adding some value to the process.

So how often do brilliant works of stunning originality come down the pipeline? Once a year? Once a decade? Once a century? Assuming that books like that are rare, the fact that the Hugos recognize any of them at all is also a good argument that the process works better than a dart board. But is it better than Amazon reviews? Better than the Clarke awards? Judgement calls, I guess.

Adam Roberts said...

Well, as I say in the post I have read very few of these nominated titles, and so can't say whether they are crap or not. That wasn't really the thrust of what I was saying, I think. Put it this way: imagine a world in which the Hugo shortlists are announced and many people spot many friends amongst the nominees, but instead of tweeting and blogging their delight at this fact, they tweet and blog their concern. You see what I mean?