Tuesday, 22 March 2022

The 25 per cent solution

Over the past few years, several Hugo Award categories have come perilously close to falling off the edge of the ballot.
Worldcon has changed since
the 1960s and 1970s.
(Image via Fanac.org)

What’s striking is that these categories aren’t significantly declining in popularity, but rather, they’re just failing to keep pace with the growth of interest in categories with greater mass appeal. This makes them dangerously close to being punished for the popularity of the big-ticket Hugos such as Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation.

Section 3.12.2 of the WSFS Constitution – the document that governs Hugo Awards administration – described one of the circumstances under which an awards category should fail to be presented.

3.12.2: “No Award” shall be given whenever the total number of valid ballots cast for a specific category (excluding those cast for “No Award” in first place) is less than twenty-five per cent (25%) of the total number of final Award ballots received.

Since 2,362 final Award ballots were cast in 2021, if any category received fewer than 591 votes in the
Diana M. Pho was nearly denied her
well-deserved first Hugo for Best
Editor Long Form due to Section 3.12.2.
We are glad that she got it.
(Photo by Rokne & Wakaruk)

final count, then a result of “No Award” would have been declared. Fancast received 632 votes, barely scraping past that 25 per cent threshold. Fanzine (643 votes), Editor – Long Form (667 votes), and Fan Writer (680 votes) were all poised near the abyss. For context, consider that 591 is more votes than any category received in 1963 when this rule was first proposed. Worldcon is growing and needs a way to address category relevance that makes sense for a larger membership.

It’s interesting to note that if just 159 more people had cast ballots for Best Novel without voting for Best Fanzine, then Nerds of a Feather would not have taken home the Hugo Award they so richly deserve. This points out a flaw in the current rules: the slightly more niche categories might end up being punished for the success of the higher-profile award categories.

From a read of fanzines contemporaneous to the creation of this rule, it doesn’t appear that this was what was intended by the rule. At the time, people kvetched about the possibility of categories in which the Hugo winner received 10 or fewer votes. It does not appear that they were worried about categories in which more than 500 people were voting.

Section 3.12.2 has a long and interesting history, with the original version of the rule appearing in the 1964 Constitution, having been added in the wake of concerns over the remarkably small number of voters participating in the 1963 Hugo Awards process. At this time, there was no specific threshold, but rather the rules provided Hugo Administrators the ability to nix a category based on “a marked lack of interest in the category on the part of voters.”

It should be noted that this was added at a time when fewer than 200 people participated in the nominating process, and fewer than 300 people voted on the final ballot. Rules crafted for the circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s do not necessarily work in the context of the 2020s.

Because of missing documents, we cannot pin down exactly when the rule in its current form was codified, but it was either in 1978 or 1979. As far as we can tell, this clarification was based on the work of Ben Yalow. By adding a specific threshold of 25 per cent to the rule, his proposal helped bring clarity to the process, and ensured that categories weren’t dismissed on the whim of any given committee.

“Hugo Administrators have a lot of discretion, but really hate to use it since all it does is get the convention criticized,” Yalow explains. “So giving specific rules, rather than broad general guidelines, keeps administrators out of the line of fire.”
The legendary Ben Yalow, whose
contributions to the WSFS constitution
are innumerable, helped craft
Section 3.12.2 in its current form.
(Photo by Rokne & Wakaruk)

In the late 1970s, this was an important and positive change; and the 25 per cent threshold made sense at that time, but things have changed in 40 years, and this threshold needs to be revised.

Over the course of the 1970s, the Hugos had an average of 800 people voting on the final Hugo ballot; at the time the “no Award presentation” threshold could be assumed to be 200 votes or so. And if a category were to only garner 200 votes, one could understand that this might be a sign that there was a lack of interest.

This rule also comes from a time in which there was far more parity between the number of votes in various categories. In 1980 (the first year that we have full voting statistics on the Hugos for), the category which received the fewest votes was Best Fan Writer. In that year, 884 out of 1,788 Hugo voters voted for Fan Writer, giving that category a participation rate of 49 per cent.

Four decades later, the number of people voting in the Fan Writer category has not substantially changed, but the numbers voting in the prose fiction categories has drastically increased. Thus, the percentage of voters engaged with this category has decreased. This means that these Hugo Award categories are being endangered not due to declining interest in those categories when counted by number of voters, but rather by the enthusiasm and growth of other categories.

Fundamentally, the decision about whether or not the Best Editor - Long Form award is worth running should not be contingent on how many people voted in the Best Dramatic Presentation category.

We would suggest that instead of a percentage threshold to indicate a lack of interest in a category, the WSFS should consider a fixed numerical threshold. Of course, just like the 25 per cent threshold, this would be an arbitrary number, but we feel that it should be set at a level that reflects a continued interest by a significant number of fans; clearly that threshold is higher than 10 people, but we’d argue that it’s also fewer than the 750 people that it might take to pass 25 per cent of a 3,000-voter Hugos that is not inconceivable in the near future. This number should be reviewed, likely every five years or so.

An alternate approach would be to change the result of a sub-25-per-cent participation in a category to a mandatory review of the category by the Hugo Awards Committee of the WSFS, rather than invalidating the work of those who did nominate and participate in the process.

Some Hugo Awards categories have become more well-known in the broader public, which is a fact that should be celebrated. But the Hugo Awards process needs to evolve to adjust to this broader acclaim without penalizing more niche award categories.

While these suggestions create more work for the WSFS Hugo Awards Study Committee, it would be an effort spent serving the mission of Worldcon and help ensure a representative, democratic process based on participation.

To repeat: The fan categories should not be doomed by the success of the prose categories.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Open Discussion — What's worth considering for the ballot in 2023?

 The following list will be updated over the next few months as we read, watch, and listen to Hugo-eligible works for 2023. These are not necessarily what we plan to nominate, but rather works that at least one member of the Edmonton Hugo Book Club has enjoyed and believes to be worth consideration. We appreciate any additional suggestions in the comments.

Updated on April 27, 2022 

Items marked with a “*” are ones for which there was significant disagreement within the book club. 

Novel
Goliath — Tochi Onyebuchi
Sea of Tranquility — Emily St. John Mandel

Novella
Ogres — Adrian Tchaikovsky

Novelette
Mender of Sparrows — Ray Nayler

Short Story
Seen Small Through Glass — Premee Mohamed
It Takes A Village — Priya Chand
This Side Of The Rock — Yvette Lisa Ndlovu

Best Related Work 

Lodestar
Akata Woman — Nnedi Okorafor

Best Series
Chorus of Dragons — Jenn Lyons
Beneath The Rising Trilogy — Premee Mohamed
Laundry Files — Charles Stross

Graphic Story
Radio Apocalypse — Written by Ram V, art by Anand RK
Frontiersman — Written by Patrick Kindlon

Semiprozine

Professional Artist
Will Staehle

Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) 
Severance S01E07 — "Defiant Jazz"
The Peacemaker S01E08 — "It's Cow Or Never"

Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) 
Station Eleven (Miniseries HBO)
Everything Everywhere All at Once — Directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Neptune Frost — Saul Williams & Anisia Uzeyman
The Northman — Robert Eggers

Fanzine

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Crab Your Enthusiasm

Evolutionary biologists have long studied a phenomenon known as “carcinisation.” It’s a term used to describe the process by which a variety of non-crab creatures facing similar environmental pressures evolve to become more crab-like.

We would suggest that something similar happens as long-running science fiction franchises evolve over time. 

Although individual episodes of television are not exactly randomly-varying-replicators, the non-random survival of such stories within the collective imagination can lead to similar outcomes to those of convergent evolution. Major television, movie, and comic book universes all feed on the attention spans and wallets of the SFF-consuming public, and are thus adapting to one shared ecological niche. It’s easier, and safer for large media conglomerates to produce the least-objectionable programming than it is to produce something unique.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and
also anything that isn’t a crab.
(Image CC BY 4.0 by J. Antonio Baeza)
The late Jerry Pournelle once observed that “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.” Fundamentally, we have to recognize that the creation of these long-running media franchises is a product of bureaucratic commerce first, and of art second. Those in charge of these media machines are dedicated to the survival of the corporation — and thus the franchise — first and foremost, and telling a compelling story is a tertiary objective at best.

So what does the carcinisation of mass-media science fiction look like? A franchise initially premised on historical time travel eventually adds antagonistic warrior aliens, while a franchise initially premised on aliens and space travel eventually ends up being about fixing the past. For example, over the past few decades Star Trek and Doctor Who have significantly converged. There might still be slight differences between the modern incarnations of the two shows; akin to the differences between king crabs and porcelain crabs … but they are not as dissimilar as their ancestors were.

Due to the ever-rotating nature of media franchise authorship, diverging creative visions essentially produce a near-random but finite variation of plot elements. When a narrative runs long enough, most of the stories that easily fit within the base premise get told. If there hasn’t been time travel yet in your science fiction or fantasy franchise, after about a decade one of the writers will likely feel the need to add it. If there hasn’t been an evil Lovecraftian god, that’s an easy hour of television to sell. Over time, the plot elements that are popular with audiences become encoded as tropes in the franchise, and eventually are seen as “integral” to an understanding of the series’ canon.

Let’s look at the case example of “your friendly neighbourhood” Spider-Man, a multi-media narrative
Does it seem odd than a story
about a school for teenage misfits
with psychic powers eventually
becomes space opera?
(Image via Marvel.com)

media franchise that began with a fairly simple premise: Peter Parker is a teenager with the abilities of a spider and uses those abilities to fight crime. Early stories stayed relatively close to this premise. Over the years, this fairly street-level and human-scale story became increasingly bombastic and less grounded: he battled his own clone (1973), was transported to a distant planet and bonded with an alien (1984), made a deal with the literal devil (2007), and fought a demented interstellar god of death with the fate of the universe on the line (2017). The “friendly neighbourhood” to which his tagline refers at some point became the entire cosmos of every universe across space and time. To someone approaching the character from a perspective not steeped in the history of the character, these stories would likely seem increasingly disconnected from the original premise.

To one degree or another, the same scope bloat has affected just about every mass-media franchise from Star Wars to Superman. Sadly, it leads to less diverse storytelling; it would take few changes to turn any of the most recent three Spider-Man movies into episodes of Doctor Who.

It could be suggested that the carcinisation of mass-media science fiction and fantasy has accelerated as
In the media landscape, just as in nature,
that which persists does so by
putting its survival first and
foremost, whether the result
is a butterfly or a botfly.
(Image via Karsten Heinrich)

the anglosphere media markets have consolidated; there used to be much more distinction between Canadian television and British television, but the internet has helped blur those lines. Thanks to increasingly interconnected communications networks, there is more of an intellectual monoculture across the English-speaking world than ever before. Rather than distinct media ecosystems, they have converged. This can be paralleled to an ecological niche that is declining in biodiversity; and in such situations the population of specific species can explode.

This is a phenomenon that we, as a community of science fiction enthusiasts, should be concerned about. I mean, how many crabs do we need? And what are they driving out of the habitat?

Friday, 11 March 2022

The Hugo For Best Star Trek: Hugo Cinema 1968

This blog post is the eleventh in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  


Star Trek’s dominance of the 1968 Hugo Award Best Dramatic Presentation shortlist is as much a reflection of the quality of the show’s first and second seasons (episodes from each were eligible), as it is evidence that it was an off-year for most science fiction on screen.

As noted by contemporaneous fan writers such as Ted White and Brian Aldiss, there were an extraordinary number of exceptionally terrible science fiction films in the theatres in the preceding year:
Star Trek faced weak competition
for the Hugo Award in 1968.
(Image via Vintage Movie Posters)

exploitation flicks like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, broad comedies like Don Knotts’ The Reluctant Astronaut, and cheaply made filler like Journey To The Centre of Time. Most of the televised science fiction was sub-par, though Doctor Who’s Second Doctor had three of his best stories with “Tomb of the Cybermen,” “The Moonbase,” and “The Web of Fear.”

In terms of foreign-language cinema, there’s few stand outs. If it weren’t for Star Trek, would Best Dramatic Presentation have recognized something like Late August In The Hotel Ozone?

While some pundits decried the fact that the entire shortlist for the 1968 Dramatic Presentation Hugo was made up of Star Trek episodes, none could offer credible alternatives to Roddenberry’s show.

“Non-Star-Trek fanciers may be annoyed to see five Star Trek episodes and nothing else on the ballot, but I’m happy enough,” Juanita Coulson wrote in Yandro.

For the most part, it’s remarkable how well the shortlist holds up. It may all be Star Trek, but there is a remarkable diversity of science fiction stories that writers were able to tell within the confines of the show’s “wagon train to the stars” format.

Reimagining Moby Dick by way of Fred Saberhagen’s Berzerker stories, Norman Spinrad’s episode
"Doomsday Machine" stands
the test of time as a solid
character study of obsession
and loss. 
(Image via StarTrek.com)

“Doomsday Machine” is a terrific adventure story that combines big science fiction ideas with memorable character moments. William Windom as Commodore Matt Decker is one of the all-time great guest appearances on Star Trek.

On the other end of the spectrum, “The Trouble With Tribbles” is a more lighthearted episode about an agricultural shipment, a grain-eating pest, and Cold War tensions. The dialogue in the episode is memorably sharp with quippy lines like “hauled away as garbage,” “a very little joke,” and “an ermine violin.” Some contemporaneous fans complained that the tone was too unserious, but with the benefit of hindsight, the episode holds up well.

To us, a more questionable inclusion was the Season 2 premiere “Amok Time,” a weird melodramatic episode about Spock’s return to his home planet of Vulcan. For those who haven’t seen it recently, it’s a buck-wild bit of ritual combat between Spock and Kirk as they are forced to fight over a woman. The “woman as a prize” theme should have been unacceptable in the 1960s, and certainly doesn’t hold up well today, the writing is mostly quite flat, and the depiction of Vulcans as a mystical culture that uses gongs excessively could be read as having some ugly coded subtext. This is one of the worst episodes for Kirk as a character; it’s unsettling to watch Kirk pressuring a subordinate to reveal personal info.

Although the ‘alternate universe’ episode has become a staple for most SFF TV shows, when Star Trek did
Kirk's visit to the darkest timeline
provided a template for all later
mirror universes on television.
(Image via StarTrek.com)

it with “Mirror Mirror,” the concept was still fresh. With the introduction of the concept to mass media television, they also hit a high water mark. The quality of Star Trek’s original cast shines through in this episode, as George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Leonard Nimoy all show why they would have been stars even if Trek had never made it to air. It must also be mentioned that guest star BarBara Luna is memorable as Lt. Marlena Moreau.

More has been written about the Hugo-winning episode, Harlan Ellison’s “City On The Edge of Forever,” than about probably any other single episode of televised science fiction. Given the weighty moral quandary (sacrificing love for the sake of history), and the solid character moments between the central trio of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy, the level of appreciation for the episode is understandable. What’s interesting is how quickly it was recognized as a classic, and immediately at the forefront of discussions of what should get the Hugo.

“City [on the Edge of Forever], which deservedly won the Hugo for best dramatic presentation, is probably the best drama, if not the best science fiction, ST has had to date, and I was happy to see it again” wrote Kay Anderson in her convention report.

What few complaints there were about a Star Trek-full category focused more on who had been left off the ballot; pundits such as Doug Lovenstem of the fanzine Arioch suggested that it was time for D.C. Fontana to win a Hugo Award (she would receive her only nomination 20 years later). Others noted the absence of “Devil in the Dark,” which is often regarded as one of Star Trek’s finest hours (and certainly better than “Amok Time”).

For our cinema club’s re-watch of these episodes, we’d all gone in expecting to agree with this consensus. But in the end, none of us were convinced that “City On The Edge of Forever” was the best episode; two of us preferred “Mirror Mirror,” one put “Doomsday Machine” at the top of their list, while another rated “Devil In The Dark” the most highly.

But at the 1968 Hugo Awards, two things were inescapable: Star Trek and Harlan Ellison. Five nominations to Star Trek, three to works penned by Ellison, and five to works that appeared in a publication edited by Ellison. In retrospect, this win seemed inevitable.

“The Hugos: Bjo doesn’t win. Dave Gerrold doesn’t win. Larry [Niven] doesn’t win. Harlan wins. There
The head table at the 1968 Hugo Awards banquet
Philip Jose Farmer, Betty Farmer, Harlan Ellison
(Image by Len & June Moffatt via Fanac.org)


is no justice in this world. I like Harlan, but there’s a limit to how many Hugos he should win,” Sandy Cohen wrote in Argus in October 1968. Ellison had ruffled his fair share of feathers throughout fandom, and it would eventually come to haunt him. But in 1968, Harlan Ellison was at the top of the SFF world, and probably his all-time most recognizable work took home the Best Dramatic Hugo.

The Best Dramatic Presentation shortlist in 1968 is a product of its time. It is likely that no SFF television show will ever have the impact that Star Trek did that year, and it is equally unlikely that there will be another year with as few viable contenders for the prize. (A clean sweep of nominations in the category has also been rendered impossible by rules changes).

In short: an odd year for the Hugos, but one where it’s difficult to argue too vehemently against the judgment of the fans.