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CROSSROADS: Satire and the Fantastic

Amazing Stories LogoIt’s Thursday, so that means it is time for my weekly Crossroads post up at Amazing Stories. This week, I’m rounding out April’s exploration of humor and speculative fiction by discussing satire and its relationship to the fantastic. (DISCLAIMER: If that sounds familiar, that’s because I explored the same theme here about five months ago as well – but it is a good and interesting theme, so well worth exploring again, I think.)

This is the final post in this month’s series on humor and speculative fiction, but next week brings us the merry month of May, in which I’ll be taking a look at the intersections between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction. In the meantime, I hope you stop by to discuss satire with me:

Crossroads: Satire and the Fantastic

Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays & Commentary Now Available

So here’s a bit of really cool news: today marks the pub date for Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary, edited by Justin Landon of Staffer’s Book Review and Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch.

This is awesome because it marks the first (to the best of my knowledge) curated collection of online critical discussion about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. As a work of critical scholarship, and as a snapshot of influential voices in the field, it is a significant work featuring over fifty essays by writers from multiple perspectives and backgrounds. The authors included (I’m one of them, so perhaps I’m biased) are an impressive roster of genre creators, analysts, and reviewers:

  • Abigail Nussbaum
  • Adam Roberts
  • Aidan Moher
  • Elizabeth Bear
  • Paul Kincaid
  • Rose Lemberg
  • Ana Grilo and Thea James
  • Kameron Hurley
  • Kate Elliott
  • N.K. Jemisin
  • Chris Garcia
  • Foz Meadows
  • Christopher Priest
  • …and many more!

My own essay on “The Circus as a Fantastic Device” is included as well, in case you haven’t seen that one yet. So far I’m only about a third of the way through my contributor’s copy, and I am duly impressed by the quality of the commentary and analysis this collection contains.

If you want a print copy, they are available from Amazon for $11.99 (£8.99 in the UK) here: Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary

If you want a digital copy, unfortunately Amazon seems to have messed up the eBook files so you’ll have to wait until May 2nd…but that’s only a short week away! (NOTE: It is worth mentioning that buying a copy helps a good cause: proceeds from sales of this collection will go to support Room to Read, an organization dedicated to improving global child literacy and gender equality in education.)

Incidentally, on May 2nd, there will also be a Reddit AMA featuring the editors of SpecFic 2012, along with some of the contributors. I don’t yet have all of the details of that AMA, but as soon as I do, I’ll let you know. Hope to see you there!

The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks

What do you get when a bunch of writers get together and start chatting? No, it’s not a joke. In this case, some of my friends and I recently got into an interesting discussion about chapters, and more specifically on their use in narrative, and on the various ways in which stories get broken up into chapters.

The Chapter as Structured Emotion

I’m a fairly big devotee of the chapter as a structural unit. They are a natural building block for story: narrower than “act” or “part” (or “book”) but wider than a scene or paragraph (let alone a sentence).

But I think the chapter is at its weakest if we consider it as merely a tool for carving the plot into bite-sized chunks. Yes, a chapter does that. But our engagement with a story is only marginally tied to its plot: our investment is really driven by our emotional engagement, which in turn is shaped by the confluence of plot, characters, language, sentence/paragraph structure, and – yes – chapter structure. To think of chapters as merely tools for managing plot misses on their greatest value. I think the real value of the chapter is as a tool for shaping/directing the story’s emotional arc.

We use more targeted structure in a similar fashion all the time. Consider how we construct our sentences or our paragraph breaks: what is the “punchy one-sentence paragraph” except a way to stress an emotional point? Chapters (and to a lesser extent scenes within those chapters) work on the same principle, only with more weight behind them. It is that weight and the emotional arc chapters take us through which shapes our perception of pace and our engagement with the story.

The All Important End

At the end of a chapter, we’re left feeling a certain way: “Holy shit! What’s going to happen now?” or “Whoa. I’ve got to get a breath of air” or “Aha! I know where this is going [but I need to keep going to make sure…].” The paragraphs in the chapter that lead up to that ending are all leading towards that one crystalline moment, that pause where the reader takes stock of their experience before turning the page and continuing to the next chapter.

At the end of each chapter, we retroactively re-assess our perception of that entire chapter. Our experience of the preceding paragraphs, sentences, and events gets overshadowed by our experience of the chapter’s conclusion. It is only with great difficulty that we can parse where we felt that the chapter dragged, or note where the tension rose. The note on which the chapter ends colors our memory of the chapter, and may even replace it entirely.

This is a structural trick that works in book length as well: consider the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Martin’s greatest success in that book was the surprising fate of Ned Stark, and that surprise and its implications force a fundamental reshaping of our experience of the entire novel. Chapter endings do the same on a smaller scale, and furthermore bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.

The Process of Chapterizing a Book

When we write, different people approach chapter breaks in different fashions. Some of us like to outline, and build chapter breaks into our outlines from day zero. Others like to write an entire novel divided solely by scene breaks, and then cut the narrative into chapters after it’s all down on paper. There is no “right” way to do it, and I think that whether we use chapters as a plot demarcation or an emotional one, the timing for when we go in and slice the story into those chapters is entirely secondary.

Different strokes for different folks. Though my own process has changed somewhat as I’ve written increasing amounts, I find that these days I think of my books as “chaptered” before I sit down to write a word. I view chapters as my milestones in my writing process, and their emotional culmination as the “goal” I’ll be writing towards. I’ll sit down and tell myself “Okay, time to write Chapter X” and then I’ll write until I’m done with that chapter. Later on, I might go in and move stuff around, re-write the chapter from scratch, change the sequence of chapters, drop whole chapters, etc., but that’s part of the “fun” of revision.

From a process standpoint, I’m ridiculously anal retentive about doing all of this. Until I’m putting a completed draft together, I keep each chapter (and for some projects with more complicated structures, each scene) in its own folder, and in that folder I’ve got different files for different versions of that scene or chapter. I’ve got my trusty Excel spreadsheet which keeps track of chapters, scenes, sequence, and versions, and I’m sure if anyone else looked at my crazy system they’d scratch their heads and say “WTF?” but hey – it works for me.

So if your process is to slice up your story into chapters after it’s all down on paper? There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a very different process from mine (my brain honestly can’t quite wrap around its implications – it is very foreign to me), but hey, if it works for your own mental process then that is awesome.

How to Decide Where Chapter Breaks Go

Regardless of when or how we break up our chapters, the key to deciding where to put chapter breaks is the emotional ride we want to take our readers on. Our plots – with all of their twists and double-crosses and cliffhangers – are one of the many devices we use to affect our readers’ emotions. In this, using plot points to signpost chapter breaks might still yield a decent result.

But for greater control of both reader emotion, and for greater flexibility with how we shape / present our plots, I think the key is to consider the feelings we wish to evoke, and to remember that the note struck at the end is the one that our readers will remember.

CROSSROADS: The Importance of Parody for Speculative Fiction

Amazing Stories LogoHello, everyone! Since today is Thursday, that means it is time for our weekly Crossroads post over at Amazing Stories. Continuing with April’s humor theme, this week I look at how speculative fiction uses parody to subvert and challenge the genre, and so move the literary conversation forward.

I hope you stop by and join the conversation!

Crossroads: The Importance of Parody to the Speculative Fiction Genre

Bioshock Infinite and the Components of Video Game Storytelling

On March 26th – while still caught up in the throes of a nasty cold – I dragged myself out to my local GameStop and bought Bioshock Infinite. I started playing that same day, and finished the game (the first time around) a couple of days later. Because I thought my reaction to the game could largely be influenced by my somewhat hazy, cold-altered perception, I waited ’til I was back in fighting trim and then played through a second time. Alas, most of my conclusions were just as strong (if not stronger) after my second play through, and the experience overall has given rise to these thoughts on storytelling in the video game medium.

Since I know not everyone has finished the game, I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

The Fantastical Nature of Story-based Video Games

Story-based video games are inherently fantastical. Whether they are explicitly fantasy-inspired (e.g. Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins, etc.), post-apocalyptic (e.g. the Fallout franchise or Dead Island), futuristic (e.g. Halo, Portal, etc.), or “contemporary” (e.g. the Call of Duty franchise), they face the same storytelling challenges as any speculative fiction story. Most significantly, to be effective they must:

  • rapidly create a world the player can understand, and;
  • establish character motivation which the player can internalize, and;
  • provide the player with an emotional arc tied to the intersection of world-building, character motivation, and character action.

The video game medium itself makes these tasks both easier and harder than other forms of storytelling. The game’s visual design rapidly communicates world-building details to the player. Just as we quickly gain details of a movie’s fictional environment from the visual cues provided, so too does a video game’s initial FMVs and level design give us clues as to the type of world we are about to inhabit. As the complexity of video game environments has increased, savvy game designers have begun salting their games with telling details that heighten the player’s immersion in their fictional setting. Games like Skyrim and the original Bioshock provide the player with rich backstory independent of the game’s plot through in-game books, notes, recordings, and idle character chatter.

The promise of an entertaining experience is a large part of the player’s motivation for playing. Our own momentum through the story is aided when our in-game proxy has clear motivations, when the stakes are known, and when their desires are both recognizable and understandable to us. When we sit down to play a video game, we are actively looking for the character’s motivation because it suggests to us what we should do to proceed through the game. In Portal, Chell’s reasons for working her way through GLaDOS’ puzzles are easy to grasp, both initially (because she is told to and there is no other choice available) and subsequently (the character’s survival). In the original Bioshock, Jack’s initial motivation is even clearer (i.e. to save Atlas’ family since he seems the only one in a position to do so).

To ultimately be satisfying, the game must provide the player with an emotional arc which develops the game’s themes, and evolves the character’s motivation in line with those themes. Ultimately, the character either succeeds or fails in fulfilling their desires, and the character’s success or failure typically coincides with the player’s success or failure in our gameplay.

Just as with a book, or a movie, or a story, the more each game component (visual design, audio design, gameplay, dialogue, pacing, etc.) contributes to those three basic elements, the stronger the player’s overall response. The truly great games – those that move the medium forward in new and exciting ways, as the original Bioshock did – tend to closely align those game components.

Video Games Done Right: Bioshock

Bioshock The original Bioshock got just about all of these elements right. Its primary strength, at least from my perspective, was its world-building. As with solid world-building in any medium, it begins at a conceptual level:

Rapture is founded upon Ayn Rand’s libertarian/Objectivist principles, and those philosophical concepts are communicated and explored at every point in the game. Shops and commercial freedoms, the dialogue and motivations of secondary characters, the contrast between player character morality and the “selfish” amorality of the Splicers, Ryan, and Fontaine – all apply, dramatize, and critique the underlying libertarian/Objectivist values in different ways.

Beyond the conceptual level, the visual design is arresting. The color palette and level design is firmly rooted in the aesthetic of the game’s time period (i.e. the science fictional visions of the 1960s), but with a notable diversion: by introducing us to post-collapse Rapture, we see a far darker and much more tense environment than what we might have seen at its height. Thus the player’s nerves are already tightened simply by the visual signals of societal collapse and decay.

The level design itself takes full advantage of the increasing capabilities of modern gaming technology. In particular, just about every nook and cranny of each game area is explorable, contributing to the game’s significant immersive quality. The varied little details scattered throughout the game – from broken children’s toys where appropriate, to strategically scrawled graffiti here and there – give the environment a “lived-in” feeling which makes it that much more compelling.

Equally important are the recordings scattered throughout the world. By giving the player the opportunity to find and collect these recordings, the game designers enhance our investment in the game’s world. These recordings provide us with valuable backstory that aids in our interpretation of the core story. They help us to contextualize the themes explored, and give us insight into secondary characters who often never actually appear in the game. Perhaps the game designer’s best trick is to give these (many) secondary characters their own motivations, their own storylines, independent of the main game. Because they are heroes in their own (often tragic, always off-screen) stories, they are actually developed as characters rather than merely serving a tactical info-dumping function.

The original Bioshock’s pacing also works well. The game designers wisely applied lessons from horror/survival games to offer us gradually mounting tension, offset by moments of humor and discovery, and punctuated by sequences of frenetic action. This contributes to the game’s emotional arc, and ties back into the game’s themes and plot.

So how does Bioshock Infinite compare?

A Flawed Narrative: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite Visually, Bioshock Infinite is stunning. The floating city of Columbia is arresting and designed with a strong and consistent aesthetic. However, being an airborne city, it is naturally more expansive than the claustrophobic underwater Rapture. It seems that the game designers chose to prioritize inaccessible backdrop over explorable environments. Most doors – houses, shops, alleyways, etc. – are inaccessible to the player. In other words, our exploration of this aesthetically fascinating environment is severely limited, and we only get to examine the parts of Columbia that are immediately relevant to the game’s primary storyline.

This unswerving focus on the game’s primary thorugh-line is, I believe, Bioshock Infinite’s greatest weakness. Every voxaphone recording found and every Kinetoscope watched contributes directly to the main story’s plot. Where are the character’s living their own lives with their own priorities? It seems that every one in Columbia lives only to inform the player of Important Plot Details. This badly diminishes the degree of environmental immersion, essentially cutting off the game’s world-building at the knees.

Bioshock Infinite’s pacing – particularly at the game’s opening – likewise harms its world-building efforts, though in this case I give the designers a little more credit. The original Bioshock puts us in an atmospheric, claustrophobic, collapsed environment. Rapture is desolate and savage. In Bioshock Infinite, we enter Columbia at its height, with citizens (specifically, those of a certain ethnicity and class) seemingly contented. This is an interesting choice, and no doubt presented the game designers with an interesting set of challenges. However, for such a choice to be rendered convincingly (and so add to the world-building and game immersion), the level design would have to offer more scope for exploration and the gameplay mechanics would have to allow for actual interaction with the non-player characters. As is, our inability to meaningfully interact with the NPCs and the significant amount of time before the fighting starts simply highlights the superficiality of the game’s world-building.

The main character’s initial motivation is likewise hollow. Having played through the entirety of the game, I understand that Booker DeWitt’s initial motivation (“Get the girl to pay off The Debt.”) is contrived to accommodate the game’s eventual “big reveal” (which was so heavily foreshadowed that I figured it out during the opening sequence) but its very thinness prevents us from engaging emotionally with the game’s protagonist. When coupled with the game’s thematic incoherence, our engagement with the game is severely limited.

In the original Bioshock, the themes of liberty, morality, choice, and rights permeate every aspect of the game. By contrast, Bioshock Infinite features a grab-bag of themes that are almost haphazard in their application. Themes of religious extremism, race/class conflict, and personal responsibility/culpability are all there. But at no point in the game’s story are they brought together, shown to be different facets of the same issue, or even explored individually to some satisfactory conclusion. Any one of these themes would have been enough to support an interesting, thought-provoking, and compelling game experience (in particular, I would love to see a game explore race/class conflict). In the hands of better writers and game designers maybe these disparate themes could have been unified. As is, these “important themes” are offered as hints of depth which on closer examination prove to be shallow and simplistic.

What Works in Bioshock Infinite

The above makes it sound as if I actively disliked Bioshock Infinite. That is not the case. I played through it twice because I enjoyed the game and had fun playing it. However, as I outlined above the narrative and game design had very significant flaws. On an intellectual and an emotional level, the game was a tremendous disappointment. Whatever enjoyment it provided me, I derived from its gameplay itself.

Bioshock Infinite is a perfectly passable first-person shooter. If it weren’t part of the Bioshock franchise I would consider it yet another briefly entertaining but ultimately forgettable FPS. But it is part of the Bioshock franchise, which sadly raised my expectations. I expected a game that understood its medium and ambitiously used that medium’s unique features to provide a deeply compelling narrative. Bioshock Infinite didn’t do that.

Video games are beginning to mature as a medium, and some designers are beginning to realize that narrative is just as important to the medium as gameplay. I hope that trend continues, because someday I want to play a game that is as visually beautiful as Bioshock Infinite while still being thought-provoking and emotionally moving.

CROSSROADS: Absurdity in Space

Amazing Stories And now, for something completely different…

It’s Thursday, and that means that this week’s Crossroads post has gone live over at Amazing Stories. Continuing with April’s “humor” theme, I take a look at the most significant humorist in speculative fiction’s recent history: Douglas Adams. In particular, I explore why his work has become such a cultural touchstone and examine why maybe every humorous work shouldn’t be compared to the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

I hope you come and join the conversation!

Crossroads: Right Place, Time, and Tech – The Hitchhiker’s Guide

A Comparison of Two Complaints: The Hugo Awards vs The Clarke Awards

With the announcement of the Clarke Award shortlist closely following that of this year’s Hugo nominees, award kvetching season is well underway. For a great round-up of the discussions on both awards, I recommend Cora Buhlert’s posts here and here. In the comments to my post last week (where I wondered about the Hugo Awards’ purpose and audience) I claimed that a juried award (such as the Clarke Award) is likely to:

…give rise to a different kind of debate than that which the Hugos gives us every year. There would be less debating the process and more debating the judgment. Debate wouldn’t be lesser – if anything, I suspect it would be even more strident and vocal…But the focus of the debate would be more on the merits of one work over another, helping to push the genre in new directions.

The Clarke Award is the kind of juried award that we were discussing. And this year’s Clarke shortlist is certainly sparking some controversy. Considering my essay last week, I think it would be interesting to compare the controversy elicited by the Clarke and compare it to that of the Hugos.

The Many Layers of the Hugo Awards Controversy

As always, the Hugo Awards Controversy is like an onion (or possibly a parfait) with many layers. Some of the objections relate to the merits of the nominated works (why this book and not that book?). Some relate to a perception of systemic bias (why books by these groups, rather than books by those groups?). Others focus on the systems and processes which produce the nominees (why this procedural rule, and not that rule?). Underlying all of these questions is a question which I see repeated time and again in these discussions (and which I personally think is most important for the Hugos going forward, as I intimated last week): what community does the Hugo Awards truly represent, speak to, and serve?

As I’ve said before, I think that such questions and discussion are both unavoidable and healthy for the field. What I find striking about the Hugo Award controversy is the degree to which it focuses on systems and procedures. When we claim that the “Hugos are broken” we are indicting both the system that governs it and the fan culture which produces and maintains that system. Whether one agrees with that indictment or not, it is the system which has been indicted – not the works eligible, voted upon, or nominated.

Where the Hugo discussion has gone beyond the systems/procedures, it has turned its attention to the culture which administers and awards the Hugo Awards (particularly note the discussion by Renay at Lady Business here and Jonathan McCalmont here). And here, I think, is where the discussion becomes most contentious.

The contention here centers around the different participants’ often unstated assumptions about the Hugo Awards’ purpose (see my essay last week, and Paul Kincaid’s essay from Sunday), and about the population represented by the Hugo Awards. The disagreement between “online fandom” and “traditional fandom,” as evidenced in the comments to Jonathan McCalmont’s post, is illuminating.

How does this controversy differ from that surrounding this year’s Clarke Awards?

The Men’s Only Clarke Award Shortlist

First, the important context: the Clarke Awards are a juried award with a remit to select the best British science fiction novel in a given year from submissions received from genre imprints. This year’s five-person jury was composed of four women and one man, and had to select the shortlist from 82 eligible submissions. This year’s controversy stems from the fact that the Clarke Award shortlist features six novels written by men and precisely zero written by women.

What I find particularly interesting about the controversy surrounding this year’s Clarke Award shortlist is that opprobrium is clearly not focused on the administrative system which produced the shortlist. Instead, the grousing can generally be grouped into three broad categories: the first focuses on the merits of shortlisted works (why this work and not that work?), the second focuses on the publishing system which produced the longlist (why were only 20% of the books submitted by publishers written by women?), and the third focuses on the arguments underlying the jury’s selection (by what criteria was the shortlist selected?).

The fact that UK speculative fiction publishing seems to discriminate against women authors is notable, and worthy of discussion. The “controversy” that arises from this year’s Clarke Award does well to shed light on this fact, and to hopefully encourage publishers, authors, booksellers, and readers to change that (consider this comment from Farah Mendlesohn on the role of booksellers in this process, and this post from Martin Lewis about Clarke Award statistics). The Clarke Award also raises troubling questions for speculative fiction publishing across the pond (or quite frankly anywhere) in terms of our own (often troubled) relationship with gender. Any introspection that results from such controversy is valuable in that it fosters greater inclusion in the field while simultaneously presenting the field as mature and introspective.

The debates sparked by the Clarke Award are entirely different in both tone and content from those surrounding the Hugo Awards. For one, there seems to be both less defensiveness on the part of award stakeholders and less frustration on the part of the complainers. For another, the discussion is devoid of procedural or representational concerns. The concerns of this debate are: the criteria by which works get judged, the definition of the field, and the biases inherent in that underlying field.

What the Difference in Debates Suggests

For one, I think it bears out my prediction from last week (quoted above). The Clarke Award focuses attention on the field in a way that the Hugo Awards do not. The Hugo Awards focus our attention on the cultural and procedural intricacies of fandom. To be clear, I do not advocate replacing the Hugo Award with a juried award (that would be both impossible and I believe impractical). Both have their place, and both are valuable.

However, if the goal of either the Hugo or the Clarke is to select the “most worthy” titles from the field and to communicate their worth to stakeholders inside and outside of that field, then I think the Hugo Award falls short. As I discussed last week, the Hugo Awards seem to have become largely irrelevant outside of a very narrow group of stakeholders. The Clarke Award – by contrast – evokes the envy of Man Booker Prize judges.

Both awards are problematic, and both awards generate controversy. This is as it should be. But if we love speculative fiction, where would we rather that controversy were focused? On award procedures, representativeness, and factionalism? Or on the merits, substance, and sociocultural context of the work itself? What conclusions might an outsider peeking in at these debates draw about our field? Would they want to join the conversation? Would they perceive speculative fiction as mature, welcoming, and culturally relevant?

That outsider perspective matters. It is tempting for us to hole up in our fandom bunker and make the claim that those who wish to join the conversation are welcome to do so. That is a defensive, passive position that demands an acceptance of pre-existing power structures, in-group language (fen? GAFIATING?), long-standing relationship dynamics, and procedural inertia. It has nothing of outreach to it.

If we want the field to grow, if we want new voices, new perspectives, and new buyers readers fans, then we must speak to those outside groups. We must woo booksellers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, creators, and readers. Awards are a tool (one of many) for doing this, and traditional awards like the Hugos are exceptionally well-positioned through their longevity and standing in the field to do this job well.

But is that what the Hugo Awards are for? A comparison of the stated goals of both the Hugo Awards and the Clarke Award are telling in this regards (emphasis mine):

The Clarke Award
The Award was originally established by a generous grant from Sir Arthur C. Clarke with the aim of promoting science fiction

The Clarke Award web site.
The Hugo Awards
(no stated goal or mission) The Hugo Award web site, in particular:

If the goal of the Hugo Awards is to celebrate and promote the field, then let us try and move the discussion forward by engaging in a discussion of how best to do so. Parliamentary procedures and governance structures are an important part of this discussion, but perforce the time to discuss their role comes after a consensus has been reached on shared goals. If we can’t agree on where to go, how are we to figure out the route to get there?

The Clarke Awards – for all of their controversy – at the least have a clearly articulated mission that is unquestioned by those within and without the community. The Hugo Awards don’t even have that. If the goal of the Hugo Awards isn’t to celebrate and promote the field, then please let us stop pretending to ourselves that it is. By maintaining the pretense, we do current fans, the artists, and future fans a disservice.

Most significantly, we likely consign the Awards to cultural irrelevance.

‘Tis the Season: What Good are the Hugos?

Saturday’s announcement of the 2013 Hugo Award nominees has done what it always does: On the one hand, nominees and their friends were (justifiably) pleased, happy, and excited to be so honored. On the other hand, certain corners of the community were dejected, dissatisfied, and frustrated by the nominated works individually and the system which nominated them collectively. This is a cycle that we repeat every year and for just about every major award the field confers. It is not a debate limited to the Hugo Awards, nor to the Nebulas, nor to the BSFAs, nor to the Clarke Award. It is part of a perpetual cycle of community introspection and cultural validation.

On the Award Season Cycle

As I wrote last year, the disagreements produced by such awards are healthy for the field and for the community. Though the discussions seem repetitive, by constantly worrying at the bias demonstrated in nominees, by re-examining the processes through which works get nominated, and by criticizing the factions and reasoning for/against a particular title, we are all inching our community forward (or at least two steps forward and one step back).

One can wonder, for example, whether the increased frequency of female nominees on the Hugo slate is a result of previous year’s complaints, or whether it is merely a reflection of changing values/mores amongst Hugo voters. It’s a Zen koan-like question, and one which I think is ultimately unanswerable. Whatever the “truth”, I will cheer the Hugos’ increased inclusiveness regardless, while simultaneously lamenting that that they are not yet inclusive enough. I am confident that in time we will see still more diverse lineups, and maybe even (gasp) nominees who don’t come from a Judeo-Christian/English-oriented background. Every chance I get, I will wish for that and I will speak out for that. But I recognize that such change will take both time, and an exploration of how the Hugo procedures either inhibit or promote such inclusiveness.

The Unanswered Questions in this Year’s Discussion

This year’s paroxysms of disgruntlement, particularly the essays written by Justin Landon at Staffer’s Book Review and Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink, make me wonder about a more fundamental, heretofore unstated question: what good are the Hugo Awards? What is their purpose? What role(s) do they serve?

Every person who voices an opinion on the nominees, or the winners, or the awards process itself, has some presumptive answers to these questions. Are my answers the same as Justin’s? Are his the same as Aidan’s? Are ours the same as Kevin Standlee’s? Are Kevin’s the same as Hugo Voter X? Without exploring our unstated assumptions, it will be difficult to understand and contextualize either the complaints about the Hugo Awards, or the defenses of the same. Accusations of demagoguery and privilege are already flying in the comments to Justin’s post, and I suspect they stem from a disconnect in a basic question: what purpose do the Hugo Awards serve?

It is possible for each of us to answer this discussion differently, and yet to find common ground when discussing the Awards. Different individual values underlie any democratic system. Ask two people to prioritize the functions of government. You’ll get widely divergent lists, even among those who profess the same political beliefs. Yet by making those priorities and those values explicit, we can gain a better understanding of the real source of dissatisfaction. And it is that kind of understanding which I think is necessary if the Hugo Awards are ever to improve in any way.

Here are the unstated questions that I think deserve an exploration:

  1. What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?
  2. Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?
  3. Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?

Having asked these questions, I’ll take a stab at answering them, too. These are my own answers, and odds are they differ from those of many people. I’d love to hear what you think, though: it’ll help us find common ground on how to improve the Hugos.

What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?

I believe that the purpose of the Hugo Awards is to celebrate “worthy” works in the field of science fiction and fantasy. The process by which the Hugo Awards get selected is a system designed to assess a given title’s relative “worth” within the field. What constitutes that worth is idiosyncratic and highly subjective.

For example, I might nominate the works which I consider to be the most challenging, the most forward-looking, the most interesting in any given year. That’s because in my personal system of judging “worth,” those are criteria which rank high. Whether I enjoyed a given work or not may be of secondary concern (for example, I consider Lavie Tidhar’s 2011 Osama a “worthy” title, even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked to). Yet someone else might nominate the books that they enjoyed the most, irrespective of their progressive values, their innovation, or their challenging themes and techniques. That’s the nature of democracy.

As a result, the Hugo Awards are there to offer us a snapshot as to the creative/aesthetic values of fandom at a particular moment in time. The voting system is meant to take disparate and divergent priorities, and to aggregate a selection of the “worthy” titles. Some years (historically, rather often), the result may be backward-facing, reactionary, and nostalgic. Other years (even more often, I think), the result may be comfortable, safe, and conservative (culturally – not necessarily politically). And still in other years, the result may be innovative, challenging, and refreshing.

What is more, this process will vary across categories of work. While – for example – the Best Novel category may be deemed “safe” one year, another category (Fan Writer, say) may push the envelope in interesting ways. It is a messy, unstable process – like all democracies.

Yet in each case, the underlying purpose of the Hugo Awards remains the same: to select a “worthy” set of titles. I use that word advisedly, and you’ll note that I don’t say select the “best” works in the field. I know that the awards themselves label themselves “Best Novel” and so on. But the Hugo Awards are no more representations of the “best” in the field than the Oscars are a selection of the “best” films produced in a given year. The one adjective that I think can comfortably be applied is to say that they are all “worthy” titles.

And the purpose of the Hugo Award (honestly, even of a Hugo nomination) is to designate a title as worthy.

Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?

This question, I think, is much more difficult for me to answer than the last. One can make an argument that the Hugo is addressed to many audiences: to cognoscenti, to authors, to booksellers, to librarians, to non-readers of the field, etc. And while the Hugo does reach and communicate to each of these audiences, I think its primary audience is rather insular. I think the Hugos speak most loudly to the authors whose works are being celebrated.

This is – I suspect – a fairly controversial viewpoint. I would like an award addressed to broaden the fold, but the Hugos aren’t it. They have never been designed to reach or communicate beyond the borders of a particular subculture (fandom). Their procedures have always been built to select for more creatively conservative works that operate solidly within the genre’s historical conventions. Consider the arguments for a new sub-genre put forth by Gareth L. Powell in The Irish Times.

The Hugo Awards’ primary audience is the authors and editors who produce the works that win them. In this, they are like the Nebula Awards and the Oscars. They are a selection of worthy works, and the communication of their worth to the authors who created them. There is nothing wrong with this. This is not a complaint. It is merely an observation of the practical audience to whom the Hugo Awards seem to matter most.

Outside of the science fiction and fantasy community, the Hugo Awards are sadly irrelevant. Even in neighboring genres (like YA), people fail to differentiate between the Hugo Awards, the Clarke Award, and the Nebula Awards. That doesn’t happen with the Booker Prize. That doesn’t happen with the Newbery. It doesn’t happen with the National Book Award.

It is comfortable for us to lament this as the continuing ghettoization of our genre, but I think that’s overly simplistic. The Hugo Awards are not addressed to new readers of the genre. Nor are they (like the Newbery) targeting actors in the supply chain, such as librarians or booksellers. They are relevant solely to the authors, and to a lesser extent to the vocal minority of fans who wish to support them.

One can make the argument that the Hugo Awards should be targeting new readers, to widen the fold, so to speak. But that would mean changing their primary audience, which would have dramatic consequences for longstanding procedures.

Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?

A corollary to the question of audience is the question of addressed value. If the primary audience for the Hugo Awards are the creators themselves, who are they most valuable to? At first blush, it would be easy to say that they are valuable to those authors because it gives them a boost in sales.

But anecdotally, I have heard that Hugo awards offer a minimal sales bump. Is this true? When YA/MG titles win the National Book Award for Young Readers, or the Newbery Medal (or even get nominated), they typically see a significant sales bump. It is that sales bump which motivates their imprints to slap medal seal stickers on their covers or to accelerate their paperback reissue: the added expense is justified by the virtuous cycle of the even bigger sales bump thereafter. Even decades after their win, books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time still wear their medals proudly.

I haven’t seen science fiction and fantasy imprints do this with the Hugo, which supports the anecdotes that Hugo Awards don’t offer a significant sales bump. What’s the truth of this? I suspect that the Hugo Awards fail to yield significant sales dividends (which further supports my belief that their primary audience is not the broader public), but I’d love to see hard data if anyone’s got it.

The lack of a sales bump would suggest that the Hugo Awards have little value in the genre publishing supply chain. If they were valuable to booksellers, you’d see more active promotion of the Hugo Awards at the retailer level. And we just don’t see that, outside of a limited number of specialist booksellers. If the Hugo Awards were valuable to librarians, you’d see libraries touting them in the local library. I’ve been to four libraries in the last three weeks, and not one of them had a “Hugo Award Winners” section (they had award-winning sections for other genres, though). Because they are not valuable to booksellers or librarians, they are likely of marginal value to publishers: Nice to have, but only important inasmuch as they secure a “floor” for a title among a core group of readers (the in-group of fandom).

So who then, are the Hugos truly valuable to? I believe they are most valuable to the authors themselves, because they provide some measure of creative validation and spark creative discussion. I also believe they are valuable to the cognoscenti in fandom because it likewise celebrates a genre tradition and gives us an outlet for expressing our tastes and values. Both are culturally important: the former feeds into and shapes future creative endeavors, while the latter helps cement bonds within the subculture.

Note, that these values are irrespective of whether one agrees with or disagrees with a given nominee/award winner. Consciously or not, our attitudes towards recent winners (in essence, the “headliners” of our narrow field) influence or at least shape the fiction we ourselves create. We may emulate their aesthetics or reject them, but they still influence us. Similarly, for every defensive SMOF who bristles at the suggestion that the Hugos are irrelevant or “broken”, their bonds with other SMOFs of similar outlook are strengthened by their shared defensiveness. The same goes for the “complainers” who attack the Hugos and gripe about the system. The genre contains multitudes, and even in their controversy, the Hugo Awards help to tighten the bonds between and among members of the genre community.

Where do we go from here?

So if that’s what/who the Hugo Awards are for, where do we go from here? I think that given the above, the Hugo Awards are doing their job just fine. I would like to see more works nominated from the younger, newer, and particularly vibrant online genre community. I would like to see more works from diverse backgrounds, particularly from outside of the English-speaking world. I would like to see more works by women.

But the current Hugo nominating systems will get us there, eventually. I wish we’d get there faster, but I think that history is on my side.

Do I think that speculative fiction needs a prominent award that will reach across the genre aisle and communicate to the broader literary community outside of our insular little world? Yes. I would love for there to be an award like that. The Hugo Awards simply ain’t it, and if we ask them to be then we really should re-examine the entire system that produces them.

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