Thursday 25 May 2023

The Word For "World" Isn't America

In China they honour works of science fiction with the Galaxy Award, the Atorox Award is presented annually to the best Finnish work of SFF, Australia’s Ditmar Award recently celebrated 50 years of recognizing Aussie sci-fi, Japan has the Seiun Award, Canada the Aurora, New Zealand the Sir Julius Vogel Award, Netherlands the Paul Harland Prize, in Croatia they present the SFera Award … we could go on.

The Ditmar Award is almost
as old as the Nebula, and
recently recognized 
J.S. Breukelaar's "The Bridge."
(Image via BlackGate)
These national awards support science fiction fandom by platforming works that express the local concerns and national character of their host nations. Although neither Julie E. Czerneda, Candas Jane Dorsey, or Karl Schroeder have been honoured by the Hugo Awards, they’re truly great authors and we’re glad that the Aurora Award has recognized them. Their creative works speak to and for Canadians.

So why is there no national award recognizing the best science fiction published by authors from the United States?

It could be argued that this is a reflection of American exceptionalism or imperialism.

The Hugo Award — when it was established in 1953 — may have billed itself as celebrating the world’s greatest science fiction, but that was for a limited definition of “world.” This was a “world” that extended no further north than Toronto, no further east than London, and no further south or west than Los Angeles. American cultural hegemony was baked into the DNA of the award.

An American national SFF award was not seen as necessary, because the Hugos existed.

To date 84.2 per cent of all winners, and 84.5 per cent of the authors represented in the prose categories (short story, novelette, novella, novel and series) were born in the United States. If anything, these statistics understate the level of American dominance, given that the non-American 15 per cent includes figures like Isaac Asimov (born in Russia), Algis Budrys (born in Germany) and Ursula Vernon (born in Japan). If the goal of the Hugo Awards is to represent the best science fiction in the world, then we cannot limit ourselves to works by American authors.

It can be argued that American dominance might have eased slightly in recent years. But even over the most recent three awards ceremonies, 76 per cent of Hugo finalists in the prose categories were still Americans.

Despite a slightly increasing global reach of Worldcon over the past 20 years, clearly, the award’s early focus on America and on American SFF remains.

And this now feels like a disservice to the genre as a whole. The list of iconic SFF writers who did not primarily write in English, and who consequently never got even a whif of Hugo recognition is long. Among others, we’d mention Japan’s Kobo Abe, France’s Pierre Boule, Brazil’s Jerônymo Monteiro, France’s Bernard Werber.

Elia Barceló is among the best-known Spanish
authors and has published best-selling works of SFF.
But the Hugo Awards have yet to recognize her work.
(Image via
The lack of an award for Best American Science Fiction means that the Hugo is the primary award that American science fiction fans and authors pay attention to, lobby for, and consequently dominate. Thus, the award for the best science fiction on Earth is usually awarded to American authors, and consequently reinforces the perception that American science fiction is the beginning and end of the genre.

Put another way, the lack of an American SFF award ends up disprivileging non-American authors.

But it’s a sword that can cut both ways.

This year, with Worldcon being held in China for the first time, there have been more nominating ballots than ever before received from science fiction fans whose first language is not English. There is consequently a real chance that the Hugo Award ballot may primarily celebrate Chinese-language works.

If this comes to pass, and if deserving works of American science fiction are denied recognition as a consequence, we should not blame the Chinese fans who engaged with the Hugos. The fault belongs with all of us in North American fandom for trying to have our award be global, but still wanting to be the only ones who can win it.

Regardless of what the shortlist looks like in 2023, the Hugos would be improved by the existence of a national science fiction award in the United States.

As much as Worldcon likes to think of itself as a “World” event, it seems pretty clear that for the first seven decades that it existed, the Hugo Award has steadfastly resisted the global reach of fandom.

If the Hugo Award is to be a truly “World” award, American fandom may need to relinquish it … by establishing an American award for American fiction.