For Authors

Can the Hugo Awards Recover Their Credibility?

By: Ginger on March 15, 2024

Our Hidden Gems guest author for today.

By: Ginger on March 15, 2024


For science fiction and fantasy authors, winning a Hugo Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the genre, a distinction historically bestowed upon literary giants such as Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. However, recent controversies involving allegations of bias, censorship, and manipulation in the voting process have tarnished the Hugo Awards’ credibility.

Today, Ginger discusses the storied history of the Hugo Awards, tracing their evolution from their inception in 1953 through the genre’s golden ages, and confronting the present-day challenges that threaten their esteemed status. He examines the complex dynamics within the Hugo Awards and the debates these controversies have ignited among authors and fans, and considers the potential for the Hugos to reclaim their role as the definitive standard of excellence in science fiction and fantasy literature.

If you’re a fan of science fiction or fantasy, you’ve undoubtedly heard of The Hugo Awards

Presented at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) each year, the Hugos are highly regarded within the science fiction and fantasy community, and for decades have served as a benchmark of quality and innovation in a genre that often pushes the boundaries of fiction and literature.

Spanning both decades and subgenres of science fiction and fantasy, some of the most notable Hugo Award winners include Isaac Asimov for his groundbreaking Foundation series, Ursula K. Le Guin for the Earthsea cycle, Frank Herbert for the epic Dune, N.K. Jemisin for her groundbreaking Broken Earth trilogy, Neil Gaiman for his imaginative Sandman graphic novels, and Margaret Atwood for her dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale

However, over the course of the last few years, not all has been well at the Hugos – and a fresh scandal that broke this January is shining yet another unflattering light on an award that has already weathered accusations of rule-bending and ballot stuffing.

This leads to an inevitable and unfortunate question: Can the Hugo Awards recover their credibility?

The History of the Hugo Awards

The Hugo Awards were named after Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) who pioneered the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. Held in Philadelphia in 1953 at the 11th World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), the first Hugo Awards were never actually intended to be an annual event. The organizers hoped other Worldcons would follow suit, but the awards were initially just a one-off celebration.

At the ceremony, there were no official presenters; the awards were simply announced and the winners approached the stage to collect their trophies. The first Hugo trophies were rocketships made of plastic and wood, a far cry from the more elaborate statuettes awarded today.

Author Ray Bradbury swept the board in 1953, winning both Best Novel and Best Drama for The Martian Chronicles and also Best Short Story for The Long Rain. In the years that followed, the Hugo Awards became one of the most prestigious accolades for authors of science fiction and fantasy, with many winners beginning their careers after winning one of the coveted statues. 

In 1956, Robert A. Heinlein won Best Novel for Double Star and this undoubtedly helped him earn his later reputation as the “Dean of Science Fiction.” In 1965, Frank Herbert won Best Novel for Dune, the first installment in a saga that continues to be held in high regard today, and was recently re-adapted for cinema. 

Other winners include the iconic Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling – practically a “who’s who” of the finest fantasy and sci-fi writers of the modern age. With names like these among the winners, it’s not surprising that until recently, winners of the Hugo were considered the pinnacle writers of their genre. 

Today, the Hugo Awards continue to be held annually at Worldcon, which takes place in a different city every year. In both 2022 and 2023, the awards were held in Chengdu, China – with T. Kingfisher winning Best Novel for Nettle & Bone and Samantha Mills winning Best Short Story for Rabbit Test in 2022.

However, there are no official winners for the 2023 awards, despite the ceremony taking place in August of last year. This is due to concerns about potential Chinese government influence on award selection and censorship of nominated works – throwing the legitimacy of the winners into question.

That would be problematic enough if it wasn’t for the fact that the Hugos have already encountered these kind of accusations, way back in 2015, when another controversy led to questions about how legitimate the winners of the awards were.

The Sad Puppies Controversy

The cracks in the veneer of the highly-regarded Hugos appeared in 2013, in something called the Sad Puppies Controversy. This was a protest by a group of science fiction and fantasy fans and authors who felt the Hugo Awards were neglecting works by straight, white, male creators and prioritizing diversity and “political correctness” over quality.

The initial spark came in 2013 when openly conservative fantasy and science fiction author Larry Correia complained that the awards nominations for that year prioritized the books and stories of female and minority authors, who he claimed were nominated more for their political beliefs than the quality of their writing. 

“The nominations are kinda controlled by certain little cliques,” he claimed in a 2015 podcast. “These little politically motivated cliques nominate all their friends and get all their people on there based on the politics of the person, not the quality of the work.”

In protest, he decoded the nominations and voting process for the awards and used a “voting bloc” of his fans to try and force the nomination of his novel Monster Hunter Legion instead.

He called this campaign “Sad Puppies” in reference to the famous SPCA ads in which singer Sarah McLachlan appeals to viewers to donate to the famous American animal shelters, with her message interspersed by images of sad and lonely dogs and cats. This is how he viewed the more diverse nominations from that year – which he dismissed as “boring message-fics” that shunned good, original writing in favor of promoting a left-wing political agenda.

His campaign continued in 2014 and 2015, along with another voting bloc campaign organized by Vox Day, which was called Rabid Puppies. Together, these campaigns were successful in stacking the 2015 Hugo Awards nominations with books that they felt better represented their vision of what good science fiction and fantasy looks like. Unfortunately, their vision did not align with many of the traditional supporters of the Hugos – many of whom complained that the existing voting system was inadequate to protect against organized voting campaigns. 

Ultimately, the campaign backfired. Many voters rebelled, and in protest, a record number of categories ended with “No Award” instead of recognizing nominees being supported by the Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies. While the Sad Puppies campaign claimed this as a victory, highlighting the supposed bias, it ultimately seriously damaged the Hugo Awards reputation.

In response, the Hugos implemented a key change to their nomination process starting in 2017 – Ranked Choice Voting. This system replaced the previous nomination system where voters could simply nominate as many works as they wanted in each category. With ranked-choice voting, voters rank their choices in order of preference. This makes it harder for a small, organized group to dominate the nominations with a single slate of works by discouraging bloc voting. However, by then, the damage had already been done.

The Chinese Voting Scandal

In the years that have passed since, the organizers have worked hard to rebuild the reputation of the Hugo Awards as the world’s premiere accolade for science fiction and fantasy writing, and haven’t been entirely unsuccessful.

However, all that hard work got thrown into question during the most recent awards. In October 2023, Wondercon took place in Chengdu, China, for the second year running – but this year, the integrity of the nominations process was once again thrown into question.

The controversy arose this January, after the awards ceremony, when the final voting data for the 2023 Hugos was released. It revealed that several works, including R.F. Kuang’s critically acclaimed novel Babel and Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow had received enough votes to be nominated for major categories. 

However, officials at the Chengdu Worldcon, who were responsible for administering the Hugo Awards that year, declared these works “ineligible”. No explanation was provided for the disqualification, raising concerns about transparency and potential censorship. The only statement made was a since-deleted Facebook post by Director of the World Science Fiction Society, Dave McCarty, who simply wrote:

“After reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible.”

This is noteworthy because both Kuang and Zhao were both born in China, and have spoken openly in opposition to the Chinese government, especially regarding the issue of the Chinese genocide against the Uyghur people. It led many people to consider whether their exclusion from the awards was a result of political pressure from China.

The revelation sparked immediate outrage within the science fiction and fantasy community, with fans and authors questioning the legitimacy of the awards and accusing Worldcon of censorship. On January 30, Worldcon Intellectual Property, the nonprofit which organizes the Hugo Awards, announced the resignation of Dave McCarty and World Science Fiction Society board chair Kevin Standlee – but other than that, has made few official statements regarding the controversy. This has failed to appease concerned fans, and has once again thrown the legitimacy of the Hugos into question.

What is the future of the Hugo Awards?

Although mired in controversy, the Hugos cling to the motto of “the show must go on” and plans for the 2024 ceremony are already well under way. Nominations for the 2024 awards closed in January, and the nominated works will be revealed in the spring.

Worldcon itself is going to be held in Glasgow, in the United Kingdom, in August of this year – and some significant changes have been announced to reassure fans and authors that the process will be transparent and legitimate. Firstly, Glasgow Worldcon has committed to publishing the reasons for any books or stories being disqualified by April 2024 – giving plenty of time for fans and authors to react if they feel the disqualifications are unfair.

Likewise, full voting results and explanations for any administrative decisions will be made public directly after the ceremony, hopefully preventing controversy erupting months after the awards themselves, as occurred in 2023.

But it’s going to take people a long time to forget the results of the 2023 Hugo Awards (or rather lack of them) and that means the similar controversy of the Sad Puppies campaign suddenly doesn’t seem to have taken place quite so long ago. The legitimacy of the Hugos has definitely taken a big hit, and it’s uncertain whether the awards will ever again be considered the pinnacle of science fiction and fantasy writing.

But only time will tell – and as a passionate fan of science fiction, I’ll be taking a special interest in seeing how the awards play out in the future. I want the Hugo Awards to recover from these controversies – the question is whether they can in an era that seems to make censorship and voter manipulation so easy and effective.

What are your thoughts about the Hugo Awards controversies? Do you think the awards can recover their reputation? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author

Our Hidden Gems guest author for today.

Ginger is also known as Roland Hulme - a digital Don Draper with a Hemingway complex. Under a penname, he's sold 65,000+ copies of his romance novels, and reached more than 320,000 readers through Kindle Unlimited - using his background in marketing, advertising, and social media to reach an ever-expanding audience. 

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  • To use a sporting analogy, the Hugo controversies are a classic case of playing the man and not the ball.
    The obvious solution is for publishers to submit the works ‘blind’ i.e., the author is unknown, but as that’s unlikely to guarantee the required ‘balance’ of winners, I can’t see the organisers adopting it.