More than a few big names have been making a big deal out of the Hugo Awards recently, (If this sounds unfamiliar, the Hugo award is a prestigious award for works of science fiction, ranging from short stories to full-length novels and other categories besides.) There’s been a great amount of spilled ink (and pixels) bemoaning that the Hugo has “lost its relevance.”
Which brings me to the point of this post: What’s the value of the Hugo Award and how do we keep it “relevant”?
Recently well known author Eric Flint wrote a soundly reasoned piece on the subject of the Hugo award and he basically concludes that the Hugos do not reflect current publishing reality. That as the scifi genre has gotten larger and larger, with more authors and a wider variety of readers, it’s become impossible for any group of readers to keep up with the field. As a result, Flint concludes that this “loss of relevance” for the Hugos is inevitable.
Is it though?
I have to admit that until I became an author I didn’t know anything about the Hugo selection process. To have a few hundred or maybe a thousand people decide the “best book” in science fiction every given year seems a little…I don’t know – presumptuous? A ridiculous overreach? Before we start blaming the size and scope of the science fiction genre or a host of other factors on ruining the Hugo, let’s start with that – with the complete lack of inclusiveness in this selection process. Out of the entire universe of science fiction readers, the folks selecting the Hugo award represent what, maybe .00000000000001% of that population? And people wonder why the Hugo might be in danger of losing its relevance?
This is where democracy in action can actually work. Yes, perhaps no single reader can stay informed and on top of everything latest and greatest among the pantheon of science fiction books in any specific year. But collectively if the Hugos actually incorporated a significant number of voters, that would also incorporate that much more reader experience and knowledge. If voting didn’t have the same strings attached, if people who were passionate about scifi could vote, period, the selections and choices would reflect the larger community a heck of a lot better than it does now.
Something else to remember when it comes to awards: Human beings have this innate need to be recognized, to have their efforts seen and acknowledged. This aspect of human nature goes a long way to explaining why awards exist. But I think the dark side to this needs to be considered too: Maybe worse than an award losing its relevance is an award that becomes its own idol. An award which we revere almost like a god, and maintains its own relevance only by creating an artificial class of insiders versus outsiders looking in.
In his essay Eric Flint critiques the award categories for the Hugo and points out how some very deserving writers were never given their due. I sympathize with that to a degree. Yet on another level I think that might be asking the wrong question or looking at the wrong issue. From a personal reading perspective, the Hugo Award has never been a guiding light for me. I have read many SF/F books that have enriched my life by exposing me to new ideas, some almost mind-blowing, books which never had any recognition or won any special award. Many people in the scifi community act as if the loss of the Hugo would be a tragic loss, something to be mourned.
But that knee-jerk reaction of mourning might come out of the wrong assumptions. Scifi, like fantasy, has grown and matured as a genre that can compete with any other form of writing in the realm of great storytelling which impacts people’s lives. It’s no longer the niche genre it once was.
It’s not really that the Hugo has lost its relevance so much as the science fiction genre has outgrown the Hugo. It’s time to look toward the future rather than obsessing about a wistfully imagined golden-age past. The Hugo served a wonderful purpose during the formative decades as scifi grew up. Now it’s time to move on to the next step. The selection process for Hugo nominees and finalists needs to be more inclusive. Whether you believe that the Hugo Award needs to be revamped or not, that much would clearly increase the engagement of the SF/F community – and that’s what’s needed. At the very least it would be a huge step forward.