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Issue #133 - September 2006

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Dissecting the Hugos

By Cheryl Morgan

The Winners

Best Novel: Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor).

Best Novella: "Inside Job", Connie Willis (Asimovís January 2005).

Best Novelette: "Two Hearts", Peter S. Beagle (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction October/November 2005).

Best Short Story: "Tkítkítk", David D. Levine (Asimovís March 2005).

Best Related Book: Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writersí Workshop, Kate Wilhelm (Small Beer Press).

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Serenity (Universal Pictures/Mutant Enemy, Inc.) Written and Directed by Joss Whedon.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Doctor Who "The Empty Child" & "The Doctor Dances" (BBC Wales/BBC1) Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by James Hawes.

Best Professional Editor: David G. Hartwell (Tor Books; Yearís Best SF).

Best Professional Artist: Donato Giancola.

Best Semiprozine: Locus, edited by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong, & Liza Groen Trombi.

Best Fanzine: Plokta, edited by Alison Scott, Steve Davies & Mike Scott.

Best Fan Writer: Dave Langford.

Best Fan Artist: Frank Wu.

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of 2004/2005: John Scalzi.

And a very popular set of winners they were too.


Understanding the Results

One of the things that I noticed this year was that a lot of people didnít understand how to read the results. As is now usual, the full nominating and voting figures were released after the ceremony, and a number of people were going round talking about where people placed on the basis of the number of first preference ballots that they received in the first round of voting. This is completely wrong. The Hugos are not a first-past-the-post ballot, and in any case the person/work that gets the most first place votes is by no means always the eventual winner of the Hugo. For example, "Pegasus" from Battlestar Galactica had the most first place votes in BDP, Short Form, but after redistribution of votes it eventually placed fourth. Paul Cornellís "Fatherís Day" received only the fifth highest number of first place votes, but it eventually finished third.

I know that the information that Administrators hand out does have all of the minor placing run-off information in it, but it appears that people donít know how to read it. For future years it might be useful to state very clearly, away from all the vote redistribution detail, just what the minor placings were.


Digging in the Data

There seemed to be a clear absence of fantasy fans voting this year. George Martinís A Feast for Crows got the third highest number of first place votes, but slipped down to fifth place as all of the SF books passed preferences between each other.

Margo Lanaganís "Singing My Sister Down" led on first place votes, but received comparatively few preferences compared to "Tkítkítk". I still think it is a brilliant story, but apparently a lot of people felt that it wasnít SFnal enough. One of the features of the sort of redistributed voting that the Hugos uses is that it is hard on nominees that are strongly liked by a minority, but strongly disliked by the majority.

Serenity was just 3 votes short of an overall majority on first place votes.

Iíd like to think that the 1-2-3 result for Doctor Who will at last put to rest the urban myth that having multiple episodes in the ballot will kill your chances of winning, but I donít suppose it will.

No, David Hartwell winning Best Professional Editor does not "prove" that the category split was unnecessary.

I have no regrets about finishing second to Dave Langford in Best Fanwriter, even is it was by only 8 votes. Iím slightly miffed about Emerald City getting piped for third place in Best Semiprozine by Ansible by only 9 votes. I note in passing that we ran third most of the time until votes from Interzone were redistributed, at which point more of them went to Dave than to us. Thank you again, UK fandom.


Those Vanishing Voters

One of the most worrying things about Hugo statistics is the low numbers of people who vote. Yes, I know Iíve been going on and on about this, but it seems that no matter how hard we try to encourage people to vote, the numbers keep going down. In contrast, according to Mark Kellyís figures, participation in the Locus Poll is going up. So what gives? First some numbers.

Year

Novel

BDP(L)

2001

885

972

2002

794

885

2003

660

752

2004

798

979

2005

543

620

2006

567

660

Those figures show the total number of people voting in the two most popular Hugo categories Ė Best Novel, and Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form in later years after the split). It would be nice to compare that with membership figures, but thatís rather difficult because the traditional "warm body" count includes day members, who of course are not eligible to vote. Suffice it to say that Torcon 3ís membership was well down on the average for recent years, and yet it saw more people participate in the Hugos than L.A.Con IV.

So what of the cause of all this? One thing that is definitely not to blame is "evil SMOFs" deliberately preventing people from voting so that their preferred candidates will win. Worldcons have been trying hard in recent years to increase participation. Voting is now available online whereas you used to have to mail in a ballot. Members of the previous yearís Worldcon tend to get reminders to participate in nominations. Nominated works in some categories are freely available online. And with the explosion of blogging all sorts of reminders about voting deadlines are available. There isnít a lot more that could be done to encourage and remind people to vote.

I donít think that the fact that the voting deadline is a month or so before the convention has much impact on this. The vast majority of Worldcon members have bought their memberships in time to meet the voting deadline, and online voting has taken away the need for postal turnaround time so people actually have more time to join/vote these days. Iím also pretty sure that the people who care enough to vote are generally the people who care enough to buy their memberships early. After all, if it really matters to you that you vote, but you are not sure that you can attend, the thing to do is buy a supporting membership, cast your vote, and then upgrade to attending later if you can. In any case, at least initially what we should be talking about here are not a hypothetical group of people who might vote if it were made possible for them to do so, but the thousands of people who are eligible to vote, do receive reminders, and yet donít bother to participate.

It is likely that at-con voting would increase turn-out. It would also be an additional strain on convention resources, and it would inevitably result in "vote for me" parties. You can see where this would go. After a year or two some fans would be saying that any nominee who couldnít be bothered to spend a few hundred dollars on a party didnít deserve to win. And because voters tend to leave everything to the last minute, almost all votes would be cast at-con, leading to people claiming that the Hugo was generally won by the person with the deepest pockets.

Iíve pretty much given up hope of persuading Worldcon members to vote. Iíve come to the conclusion that for the most part those people just donít think it matters who wins. And if winning a Hugo isnít important, why bother to have a say in who does win? I have this awful feeling that the best way to increase interest is to spend a lot of money on PR. If it were the case that photos of the Hugo winners appeared, not only on the cover of Locus, but also on the covers of every media-SF fan magazine, people would take notice. If the BBC actually cared that Doctor Who won a Hugo and crowed about it the way they crow about the show winning TV awards, rather than hiding the news on "geeks only" pages deep within their web site, people would take notice. If the list of Hugo winners appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, people would take notice. Then Worldcon members might bother to use their votes.

The other option, of course, is to cast the net wider. OK, so maybe only a little over 10% of Worldcon members care enough to vote. But there are millions of SF fans in the world, and if only 1% of them voted weíd get a much higher turnout.

The main hurdle is, of course, having to pay to vote. Why should you have to do so? The obvious answer is that the Hugos are awarded by the members of the World Science Fiction Society, and that you have to be a member of the society in order to vote. Thatís just the way it is. The Society has no obligation to let non-members have a vote. There is also an argument that having a voting fee discourages ballot stuffing (and yes, even so people have apparently tried to buy themselves a Hugo by paying for memberships for their friends).

What is somewhat more of a problem is that most people perceive the requirement, not as being a member of WSFS, but as being a member of Worldcon. Now it so happens that buying a membership of Worldcon is the only way you can become a member of WSFS, but that technical nicety is not well understood. Nor do people see why they should pay $40 or more for a supporting membership just to get the right to vote in the Hugos. (Voting in site selection, and getting Worldcon publications, which are the other things you get for your supporting membership, are generally not seen as having much value.)

It would be nice if the cost of a supporting membership was lower. Kevin has calculated that the actual cost to the convention of a supporting member is less than $25, so why do they have to pay so much? Partly because they are also "supporting" the convention with the membership, not just joining WSFS. And partly for obscure technical reasons.

The WSFS Constitution states that in order to vote in site selection you must purchase at least a supporting membership in the winning convention (whichever it turns out to be). So the bidders all have to agree on a supporting membership fee, and that is also the fee paid to vote. But the Constitution also says that the minimum initial full membership fee that the newly elected Worldcon can charge must be no more than twice the voting fee (and that this cheap rate must be available for at least 90 days). Because of this, Worldcon bids, wanting to get as much money as they can in early, should they win, have a tendency to set the voting fee as high as they dare.

This year a motion was put before the Business Meeting to raise the limit from two times the voting fee to three times that amount. This would have had the dual effects of allowing Worldcons to have a higher initial membership rate, but a lower supporting membership rate (and possibly a lower at-the-door rate as well). But who would suffer from this? The people who regularly buy their Worldcon memberships as soon as site selection is over, because they would end up paying more. And of course there is a fair overlap between those people and the regular attendance at the Business Meeting. I was not in the least bit surprised to see this motion fail. If you want to blame "evil SMOFs" for stopping people from voting on the Hugos, the people who voted against this motion are perhaps a good place to start. Theyíd be astonished if you put it to them like that, but it is side-effect of their protecting their cheap memberships.

There is, however, a potential solution. Worldcons are entirely at liberty to invent new forms of membership. There is, Kevin tells me, nothing to stop a Worldcon from creating a "voting membership." So if you really want to increase participation in the Hugos, hereís a radical proposal. (It isnít my idea ó others have suggested it before, but here it is anyway.)

Iíll start off conservative by saying that I would keep nominations the way they are now. People seem very reluctant to participate in the nominating process, so Iím not sure that widening it would do any good. It also saves us from having to worry about carrying voting memberships through from the nominating to voting stage.

Voting, on the other hand, is comparatively easy. You only have five works/people to consider in each category. It ought to attract a lot more people. So Iíd propose a $20 voting membership, available online by PayPal or credit card when you vote. I think $20 is big enough to discourage most vote-stuffers, but small enough not to deter people who really care about science fiction from voting.

The money would also be clear profit for the administering Worldcon, so I canít see any committees complaining about it. Part of it could be used to defray the costs of staging the Hugo ceremony. But Iíd also like to see them encouraged to donate some of it to a "Hugo publicity fund." This could be used to send out free "Hugo winner" stickers to winning publishers, to send "Hugo winners" posters to libraries", to take out ads listing the winners in target publications, basically anything to get the Hugos better known, and to encourage yet more people to vote.

Of course, like most of my radical ideas, this one has very little chance of getting through the Business Meeting. The conservatives amongst the SMOFs will react with horror at the idea of people who are "not part of our community" being encouraged to vote. And there will doubtless be someone whoíll say that this is another sneaky move on my part to win Hugos I donít deserve. But, as I explained earlier, it doesnít have to go through a Business Meeting. All it needs is one Worldcon with the guts to take a chance and do it. Iíd be willing to bet that if it worked, and hundreds of new people voted, no future Worldcon would dare not follow suit. Give it a couple of years and it will be a sacred tradition and people will be lining up to support a Constitutional Amendment to make it mandatory.

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
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