First, let me get one thing out of the way up front–no one does or should care what I think about the Hugo Awards, m’kay? Any interest I have in the subject has more to do with my awareness of the history and traditions of science fiction as a genre than anything that connects to me personally. I’ve attended exactly one Worldcon, and that was San Antonio in 1997. I haven’t been to a convention of any sort since World Fantasy Con in Austin, 2006. I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve attended, but time and the expense of traveling have kept me from being a regular at such things. All by way of saying that I have readers—and bless you all—but no profile or presence in sf fandom to speak of. This is not a complaint; it’s just the reality of the situation, so when I say that I have no emotional investment in who does or doesn’t win a Hugo, it’s mostly true. Yes, when a friend of mine is up for one, then of course I want them to win. Simple human nature, that. None of which stops me from having an opinion, just that no one should care about the fact that I do even if I feel compelled to share it. You have been warned.
This year, a group with a political agenda attempted to game the system, with block voting for a slate of “approved” works. If you don’t already know about this and you’re curious, just do a web search on “Hugo Awards” plus “2015” and “controversy” and you’ll find out probably more than you ever wanted to know. I’m certainly not going into it here. It’s not the first time someone tried to game the system. It’s most likely not going to be the last. For whatever it’s worth, I’m glad the attempt failed, partly because it was extremely wrong-headed, but also because I want any such attempt to fail, no matter who is doing it or why. I’m just idealistic enough to consider that important.
There’s no mystery about why anyone would want to win the Hugo. It’s validation within the tribe. It can be a boost to your career and it certainly raises your profile within the community. Yet probably the worst kept secret about the Hugo Award is how easy it is to get nominated. Since you only need to be a member of the previous or current year’s Worldcon to nominate, anyone with the cash to spare can do it, but only a relatively small percentage of the membership does nominate or vote on the awards. So, you get enough of your friends—or people with the same agenda—together and agree on what you will nominate, chances are it’ll make the ballot. Probably the only reason it doesn’t happen more often is, in general, getting that many people to agree on anything within fandom is like herding cats, only with less chance of success. Still, there’s a reason it’s referred to as “gaming the system” rather than cheating—because technically it’s not cheating. There’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t do it. Rather, it’s violating the spirit of the rules and the intent of the rules while scrupulously following the letter of the rules (See Article 3).
Back in 2001, J.K. Rowling won the Hugo Award for Best Novel with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, beating out several traditionalist fan favorites. There was a lot of complaint at the time and still some bitterness at the win. Why? Several reasons. Among them, that the book in question was a fantasy and the Hugo Award was clearly established to celebrate science fiction (see “polluting precious bodily fluids” for further reference). Also, that Rowling’s fans had done something similar to what happened this year and overwhelmed the votes with sheer numbers. The difference was that there was no gaming involved. Fantasy was and is clearly eligible under the rules. Rowling’s fans voted for the book they liked, there were more of them, and it won. There were also complaints at the time that, compared to other books on the nomination list, Rowling’s book just wasn’t as good and didn’t deserve to win. That may or may not be true, but let’s get something straight right now—the Hugo Award is not about the “best” books and stories, despite what the categories claim, Best Novel, Best Short Story, etc. No. They go to the book or story or editor or whatever that gets the most votes. Period.
To state the obvious, “best” is a judgment of taste, and tastes vary. What’s best about a space opera nominee is not going to jibe with what a fan of a dystopian sf nominee considers best. Which one gets the Hugo? The one that gets the most votes. Duh. So what’s my point? Do I have one? Sort of, and it’s simply this—it doesn’t matter if the “best” book doesn’t win, because “best” in this scenario is a concept without a single objectively definable metric. What does matter is the Hugo goes to a book or story that a lot of people read and loved.
Maybe not “best.” But almost certainly “good” in the sense of being important to the field at the time and an indication in its way of where the field is in its history. Lots of great books don’t win a Hugo. A lot of very good to great writers never win one. Kage Baker didn’t. Tanith Lee didn’t. Parke Godwin didn’t. Andy Duncan, Nicola Griffith, Jeffrey Ford and Charles de Lint haven’t so far. Some so-so works do win. It happens. But any book or story or person that is on the ballot and wins because of a political ideology or because “Dammit, I deserve a Hugo more than everyone else” and not because a substantial portion of the voting readership honestly thought they deserved one?
I don’t claim to know what the Hugo Awards mean to the sf field right now, but if the previous scenario ever becomes common? So far as I’m concerned, the award will no longer mean anything.