In fact, only one of the six novels on this year's shortlist (All The Birds In The Sky) is a standalone work.
This is not the first time in recent memory that the shortlist has been dominated by sequels, prequels, or works in a shared universe. But it is part of a larger trend, and it's one that worries us.
In the 1960s, 88 per cent of the Hugo shortlist was comprised of standalone novels. From 2001 to 2010, 56 per cent of Hugo shortlisted novels were standalone works. In the first seven years of this decade, the statistic has fallen to 27 per cent (ten of the 36 novels shortlisted).
The problem with sequels
There's a place for sequels: perhaps a story has too large a scope to be contained in one volume, or perhaps the author has created a universe in which multiple ideas can be explored. Some fine
examples of this are Vernor Vinge's Deepness In The Sky and Orson Scott Card's Speaker For The Dead.
|Some sequels tackle new|
ideas and new conflicts.
(Image via Amazon.ca)
But it could be suggested that the idea of a series of templated sequels is philosophically antithetical to what Science Fiction is about, and therefore what we think the Hugos should celebrate: new ideas.
With few exceptions, sequels are not about new ideas. By the time Lois McMaster Bujold wrote Captain Vorpatril's Alliance in 2012, was there ground left to cover in the Vorkosigan Saga that hadn't been explored in the previous dozen books?
More troubling is the fact that sequels, prequels and series make works less accessible to new readers. Anyone can pick up and read Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man without feeling that they've missed something important. The same cannot be said for Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, which is an excellent novel, but one that we have qualms about having been honoured with a Hugo because it is not accessible to new readers.
Without pointing fingers at anyone in particular, sometimes, for some authors, producing endless populist sequels can be a crutch. And these sequels will get nominations because of a small, dedicated, fervent group of fans.
Books written as the first part in a trilogy, or a series, are more defensible as Hugo nominees, but can still have their issues - how can we judge a story that is left incomplete? If the first book in a trilogy does not stand on its own, can it still be Hugo worthy?
One of the things that gives the Hugos legitimacy, prompts so much great discussion, and engages so many fans is how democratically the awards are run and juried. But the open and democratic system we have for the Hugos should not blind us to the structural biases of the awards, including this
increasing bias towards sequels.
All awards systems have biases
|In retrospect, should |
Becky Chambers' self-
published debut have
made the shortlist?
(Image via Amazon.ca)
We suspect this bias exists through no ill intent, but mostly because it can take a while for readers to hear about a standalone work, or something from a new author, or a book that becomes a word-of-mouth phenomenon. So these types of works are sometimes overlooked. A good example of this is Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which Becky Chambers self-published in 2014. We would argue that it missed the shortlist in part because it didn't reach a wide audience of Hugo Award voters until it was republished the subsequent year.
These biases are understandable — the books we're likeliest to nominate are the ones we've read prior to the nomination deadline, and that is in turn driven by which ones we're likeliest to have run out and bought on the day they hit the shelves.
We already know that we want the sequel to a book we've already read, and we know we're going to enjoy the latest book by our favourite author. And so the same Hugo voters will reward books by the authors they already know. This probably contributes to the fact that there hasn't been a Hugo shortlist of all first-time nominees since 1963.
As with all biases, we're better off when we acknowledge their existence, try to mitigate their effects, and act with intentionality.
Clearly, these biases have existed since the dawn of the Hugo awards. But I suspect that trends in publishing are exacerbating the issue.
Trends in publishing
Fewer novels are being published in mass-market paperback than in previous decades, as publishing
houses focus on the pricier (higher profit margin) trade paperbacks instead. The gap in time between hardback publication and either format of paperback has grown from an average of 12 months in the 1990s to approximately 18 months today (for those works that ever even see a paperback publication). This makes newer works purchased in book stores less accessible than in previous decades.
|In my opinion, the first |
book of Mission Earth
would have been a less
And of course, publishers *like* sequels because they're easily marketable. I would wager that there are significantly more serialized and sequelized books that are hitting the shelves today than there were in previous decades.
Compounding this trend is the rise of electronic publishing, which might have reduced costs for consumers looking to buy a new volume, but doesn't provide the same opportunity to browse bookshelves to discover new authors and new works. Although we don't have any data to back this up, we suspect that one is less likely to try out a work from a new author on a Kindle than while browsing at the local book store. It is easy, however, to choose and download a sequel.
It's easier to be a passive consumer than it is to seek out new works.
Where do we go from here?
Lets be honest about it, Hugos 2018 starts right now with the books that people are reading this summer.
If you are someone who has a ConJose membership, or if you are likely to get one in time to
nominate works, we would encourage you start figuring out your ballot.
|Does the Fifth Season|
trilogy need another
(Image via Amazon.com)
Give some thought to accessibility, to sequelitis, and to which worthy authors have *never* gotten a Hugo nod. And maybe pick up a standalone novel you might not otherwise give a chance to — try Kameron Hurley's The Stars Are Legion or Omar El Akkad's American War.
N.K. Jemisin's Fifth Season was a worthwhile winner last year, and most of our book club voted for it. But does the trilogy deserve getting a third book nominated for essentially a continued exploration of the same ideas? We'd suggest that the space on the 2018 Hugo ballot might be better served with an author who has yet to receive this kind of recognition.