Uh-Oh, the Hugos Were a Hot Mess!

First of all, apologies to the one or two people who actually follow this blog for not posting recently. I primarily created Sean Reads Sci-Fi (And Fantasy) as a way to track my progress in reading for and voting on the Hugo awards. That done, it was harder to motivate myself to post reviews of what I was reading.

Well, the Hugos are over, and I can tell you: they were kind of a hot mess!

I have lots of thoughts and they’re all kind of interconnected, so for ease of clarity I’ve decided to split this into A NUMBERED LIST! There will be three parts to this: (1) The winners; (2) The ceremony; and (3) Me. (I save the worst for last so that you can skip it if you don’t care about my own relationship to this whole thing.)

I do need to talk about me real quick at the top so you know where I’m coming from. I’ve always been aware of the Hugo Awards as an abstract concept, in the sense that I knew there were winners and I was aware of who the winners were (especially of Best Novel). This is the first year I actively participated, though – I purchased a membership, read widely, sent in my nominations, then read as many of the actual nominees as I could. I even started this blog in order to keep track of everything. I was delighted when I realized I would be able to follow along with the awards as they were presented (I assumed, wrongly, that the stream would be restricted to folks who had paid for an attending membership, which I was not able to afford), understanding that there would be technical issues and determined not to let that undermine my experience.

Alas, there were other things that undermined my experience, but we’ll get to that later. The important thing to know here is that I’m new to the larger SF/F community in general, and the Hugo awards in particular. On with the show!

Part One: The Winners

I read just about everything nominated for a fiction award this year, and I have to say they really couldn’t have gone wrong with most nominees. Novella and Novel were especially strong categories where pretty much any entry would have been a worthy winner. I’m not surprised at all that “This is How You Lose the Time War” won, though – it was a clear frontrunner, and also an amazing, beautiful, poetic work.

But let’s talk about Best Novel! I was rooting hard for A Memory Called Empire, a book I never properly reviewed on this blog because I read it last year, before I started writing long-form reviews. It was my clear favorite, though – such an engrossing, creative debut novel, with a richly detailed world and an intriguing plot. I’m incredibly excited for Arkady Martine and remain jealous of her ability to name things (I mean come on, her titles are incredible – the sequel is titled A Desolation Called Peace, and how could you not want to read that book?).

For Novelette, I confess Jemisin’s story wasn’t my favorite of the nominees, but it also wasn’t by any means bad. It’s a testament to her writing that I still vividly remember it months after reading it! (Personally, I was rooting for Jeoffry the cat). S.L. Huang’s “As the Last I May Know,” winner for Best Short Story, also wasn’t #1 on my list, but is an amazing winner (such a strong category). A thought-provoking, tension-filled story that asks some genuinely troubling questions.

Unfortunately, I’m less familiar with categories like Best Fanzine and Best Fan Writer and so on – I’m very new to the SF/F community! I’m trying to educate myself, and a good place to start will be engaging with the works of the winners last night, all of whom, it should be added, gave amazing speeches. (As an awards show aficionado, I know from great speeches.) I will give a special shout-out to R.F. Kuang, winner of the Astounding Award for Best New SF Writer, whose Poppy War series is incredible (how the first two books haven’t been nominated for Best Novel is beyond me). And also Jeannette Ng, whose win for her John W. Campbell Award speech last year gave her another chance to stick it to the establishment. I’ll be quoting liberally from these two speeches in particular later on.

All of the stories that won this year asked tough questions and, in some cases, engaged with the biases and assumptions of past SF/F writing. Jemisin’s story, in particular, explicitly positions itself against countless narratives about “great men” who abandoned the Earth to create glorious new worlds. Jemisin recognizes that those “great men” were profoundly racist (and sexist and transphobic and ableist and…), and that building a better world requires collective action, not just giving up on the one we have in front of us. We can’t build better worlds without interrogating the biases and exclusions that brought us to this one.

Arkady Martine, in her acceptance speech for Best Novel, actually pointed right at these tensions. I don’t know if this was written before or during the ceremony, but it felt particularly apropos nonetheless:

It’s an especially sharp honor to receive this award for my first novel. It’s a kind of welcome, an invitation to stay, a gesture of hospitality from all of you, a gesture that I deeply appreciate and which I wish so very profoundly was more easily extended to the authors, artists, editors, and fans of color who deserve as much hospitality as I do. A Memory Called Empire is in some ways a book about the inhospitability of so much of the universe – the inhospitability of culture, of origins, of desire. The pull of exile and the counter-pull of dominance. The empire and its edges. The knife that hurts more because you loved it before it cut you. I think a great deal about what it means to be welcome in a place. I wrote a book which considers whether someone can ever truly be made welcome. In this current world, where we are isolated by illness and by political corruption, where I have listened all night to the tension between an idealized, simpler past and a complex, difficult, and brilliant present, where all the lines of exile and longing for familiarity are drawn ever tighter and more painful, I am still not sure about the answer to that question…

Arkady Martine, Best Novel

In a night dominated by the very tensions that Martine extrapolates on above, it was a fitting end. Which brings us, unceremoniously, to the ceremony itself.

Part Two: The Ceremony

First things first, I’m not going to complain about about the technical issues. I think the people behind the scenes who worked to make this happen at all deserve a lot of respect – I’m sure lots of long hours went into making sure that everything synced up, and compared to how badly it could have gone, things actually went pretty smoothly on the technology end. Of course there were hiccups, but that’s to be expected: it’s the first time something like this has been attempted. So, good on that front.

Shame on just about every other front, though.

I really don’t want to belabor this point, both because the excellent winners deserve more of our oxygen/attention and because other writers much closer to the heart of the fandom have already done so more eloquently than I could (for an example, here’s a searing blog post by Natalie Luhrs: https://www.pretty-terrible.com/george-r-r-martin-2020-hugo-awards/). But basically, George R.R. Martin, Toastmaster, and a writer whose work I, like many others, quite like, fucked up big time.

He fucked up primarily by focusing all of his attention on ancient Hugo history, pointing his gaze backwards to the 1970s and lionizing problematic faves like Heinlein and Asimov and, yes, Campbell. The latter was especially egregious, since just last year Jeannette Ng began her now Hugo-winning Campbell Award speech by declaring him (rightly) to be a “fucking fascist.” It felt like a stinging rebuke of Ng’s incredible speech, a speech that actually prompted the Hugos to change the name of the award, to spend so much time talking about Campbell throughout the ceremony. To then trot out Robert Silverberg, who made dismissive comments about N.K. Jemisin’s deserved three-peat in the Best Novel category, felt like an especially craven capitulation to the old racists who feel the genre slipping out of their hands.

Speculation – unconfirmed, but certainly plausible – is that they needed Martin’s introductions to the categories to be lengthy, in order to test the internet connections of the nominees behind the scenes. If that’s the case, they should have given him more guidelines and parameters than just “yammer on for fifteen minutes about the 1970s.” Some of the history was admittedly interesting, but I kept waiting for Martin to catch up to the present day, to illustrate how the long arc of the Hugos has bent toward justice, how the field continues to evolve to this day. He never did. He stayed rooted firmly in the past, and as the night wore on his stubborn refusal to acknowledge current movements in SF/F began to feel pointedly exclusionary rather than just incidentally so.

And I haven’t even mentioned the names! To mispronounce someone’s name live is one thing. As a teacher, I can attest to the fact that you will occasionally get someone’s name wrong on the first day. But (a) they had plenty of time to practice, (b) they almost certainly were given pronunciation guides by most authors, and (c) this doesn’t excuse the constant mispronunciations during pre-recoded segments, unless, of course, Martin refused to re-record them, which is its own set of problems. The folks behind the scenes should have done more to vet these segments, and should have pushed back harder when it became clear what Martin was doing.

What’s fascinating to me, though, is how the awards themselves drew such a sharp contrast to the nostalgic navel-gazing of the toastmaster. It really felt like the past and the future colliding – and the future won. Literally! The winners often talked about systemic problems within the industry, about the fights that we still have to fight, about the hard work that women, people of color, queer folks, and others have to do in order to even be considered alongside the white/cis/het fuddy-duddies running last night’s show. It was such a welcome breath of fresh air, for instance, when R.F. Kuang, one of the first winners, emphasized the barriers that she faced getting into the field:

If I were talking to a new writer coming to the genre in 2020, I would tell them, well, if you are an author of color, you will very likely be paid only a fraction of the advance that white writers are getting. You will be pigeon-holed, you will be miscategorized, you will be lumped in with other authors of color whose work doesn’t remotely resemble yours. Chances are very high that you will be sexually harassed at conventions or the target of racist micro-aggressions or very often just overt racism. People will mispronounce your name, repeatedly, and in public, even people who are on your publishing team. Your cover art will be racist, and the way people talk about you and your literature will be tied to identity and your personal trauma instead of the stories you are actually trying to tell. If I had known all of that when I went into the industry, I don’t know if I would have done it, so I think that the best way we can celebrate new writers is to make this industry more welcoming for everyone.

R.F. Kuang, Astounding Award for the Best New SF Writer

This was refreshing precisely because it’s an aspect of the history of the awards and of the fandom in general that George R.R. Martin, in his endless panegyrics to days gone by, refused to even acknowledge. Pointing out the deep-rooted, structural, and personal racism and sexism at the heart of the industry isn’t a sign of ingratitude – it’s a sign of strength and resolve in the face of tough barriers. As Ng put it in her speech:

Pulling down memorials to dead racists is not the erasing of history, it is how we make history … It would be irresponsible for me to stand here and congratulate us as a community without reminding us that the fight isn’t over and that it extends well beyond the pages of our books … Let us be better than the legacies that have been left us. Let them not be prophecies. Let there be a revolution in our time.

Jeannette Ng, Best Related Work

That revolution was in strong form last night, as most winners took the time to celebrate marginalized voices and denounce the forces that marginalized them in the first place. I keep coming back to Martine’s speech, as well – to the knife that hurts all the more because you loved it before it cut you. A trenchant description of an industry and a genre that many loved but were excluded from for so long. That is, thankfully, changing. Not fast enough to prevent last night’s debacle – but fast enough to allow for last night’s inspiring wins.

I did like the hats, though.

Part Three – Me, Myself, and I

Last night was not about me, but I thought I would offer some brief thoughts as someone brand-new to this particular fandom. As the above probably indicates, I was equal parts moved and baffled by last night’s ceremony, my first Hugo awards. I read some folks saying that if that was your first time, you’re not likely to ever tune in again.

Actually, it had rather the opposite effect on me. I’m feeling energized about SF/F again, in a way I haven’t been for the past couple of months. Call it pandemic-induced apathy; it’s been hard to rouse myself for much of anything lately. Seeing so much passion from the diverse and incredibly deserving slate of winners, though, gave me that shot of energy I needed to get back in it. I’m committed to returning to this blog, to reading more SF/F, and to contributing in my small, barely-noticed way to the ongoing conversation.

As a queer person myself, I understand the power of your seeing yourself in fiction, and in seeing people like you accept awards from the industry. As Martin himself said, the Hugo is a fan award, and the fans are saying loud and clear: it’s time for a change. I want to be there for that change. I, obviously, will have nothing to do with the change itself – but there’s a certain satisfaction in bearing witness.

I’ll absolutely be watching next year. And who knows? Maybe next time, the Hugos will take the challenges set forth by the winners and nominees more seriously. And if it’s not better, you can bet the fandom will keep taking them to task until it is. That’s exciting to me! I can’t wait to see where the future takes us.

I wanna wrap up with this incredible, incendiary take-down of the ceremony. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up a nominee for Best Related Work next year. (It’s a whole thread – click and keep reading.)


  1. A very slight correction–the Astounding Award for best new writers is given out at the the WorldCon and voted for by convention members, but is sponsored by (these days, current publisher) Penny Press, the owners of ANALOG (now edited by Trevor Quachri, the magazine where John Campbell edited fiction sometimes very well and liked to bloviate in irresponsible editorials back in 1937-71) and ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION (now edited by Sheila Gilbert, founding editor George Scithers–incidentally one of the earlier out gay men in sf publishing)…they’re the ones who changed the name from the Campbell Award to the Astounding Award (ANALOG was founded in 1930 as ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER SCIENCE, its first editor Harry Bates perhaps best remembered today for writing the story THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is based on)–Campbell was allowed to change the name of the magazine from ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION to ANALOG SCIENCE FACT –> SCIENCE FICTION (an approximation of the typography) in 1960.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for writing this—it was a good overview to get a handle on the “brouhaha” I heard some rumblings about.

    This kind of thing is always so disappointing. Growing up, I really thought that SF fans and writers were better than this; that considering alien perspectives and the sweep of future history helped people lose bigotry. Racism and sexism were for mundanes!

    So when I heard about things like the Sad Puppies it was a real disillusionment. Even more so, perhaps, Robert Silverberg’s ill-considered remarks after N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo win, because I respected him. I didn’t watch the ceremony, but it doesn’t sound like GRRM was being actively malicious, just thoughtless.


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