Oh the Hugos, Ahh the Hugos, Ewww The Hugos

Every year, the Hugo Awards -presented by the World Science Fiction Association at its annual event, Worldcon – are announced amidst much internet and real-world coverage and every year the announcement is immediately followed by endorsement and denunciation, comparison and contrast, finger pointing, preening, accusation, denial, explanation and exposition.

One thing is clear:  a lot of people involved with the Hugo Awards care very much about the award.  One other thing is also clear: a lot of people not involved with the award also seem to care very much.

And another thing is clear, at least to me:  much, if not all of this questioning regarding the Hugo awards, the state of SF in general (it’s dying, it’s not dying, this is SF, this isn’t SF, keep the ghetto, destroy the ghetto, leave the ghetto), the state of conventions, of magazines devoted to the subject, of the entire state of affairs surrounding the SF Community (if there even is such a thing anymore) is indicative of confusion, lack of direction and a lack of purpose.  I believe that we are rapidly losing touch with the very things that made everything about SF so special – the intimate and on-going relationships between all segments of that community and I further believe that our loss of purpose is due – at least in part – to a near abandonment of the community’s ideals – ideas that once occupied a lot of the community’s attention.

The Hugo Awards, now spanning some six decades, provide a useful record for illustrating what I mean.  Let us briefly review the Award’s history before moving on to current events.

The Hugo Awards – aka the Science Fiction Achievement Awards – were conceived as a one-time affair by the hosts of the 1953, 11th annual World Science Fiction Convention – Philcon.  The awards presented were –

Best Novel
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Best Professional Magazine
Astounding Science Fiction ed. by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Galaxy ed. by H. L. Gold
Best Cover Artist
Hannes Bok
Ed Emshwiller
Best Interior Illustrator
Virgil Finlay
Excellence in Fact Articles
Willy Ley
Best New SF Author or Artist
Philip José Farmer
#1 Fan Personality
Forrest J Ackerman
Source: Official Hugo Awards website

(As a brief aside:  without resorting to Google, how many of you reading this have ever read a copy of Astounding or Galaxy, in the flesh?  How many can identify a work by  Bok or Emshwiller or Finlay?  How many have read The Demolished Man? Read a book by Willy Ley?  How many can appreciate the irony (at this moment in time) of Farmer being named best new writer?  How many know why Ackerman was named #1 Fan?  Thoughts to ponder.)

The fans at the convention – ALL 750 OF THEM – wanted to find a way to express their support and appreciation for the individuals who were helping to popularize, legitimize and raise awareness of what was then still a genre, a profession and a avocation viewed with utter disdain by the members of the general public (those who were even aware of it), ranking it on par with public masturbation.  Yes, that low.

Let’s dig a little deeper.  No awards for fiction beyond novel length.  Why?  Because the novel – a science fiction novel – was a novelty back then.  In point of fact, the version of The Demolished Man that won the award was the version serialized in Galaxy magazine.  ACE Books would introduce the first SF novel in paperback form the very same year (Van Vogt’s World of Null A: yes, specialty publishers had issued some limited edition, limited circulation novels in prior years, but they’d only been active for a few years prior and remained within the SF community. And yes, nitpickers, Donald Wollheim did get the Viking Press to issue the anthology Portable Novels of Science Fiction in ’46, but that was a hardback anthology of novels, not an individual novel meant for wide public distribution.)

FOUR awards directed at art.  Cover and interior illustrations in the magazines had been, and would remain for quite some time, the ONLY visualizations of the wonders of science fiction generally available:  broadcast television was only five years old (and while it did initially offer a disproportionate number of “SF” related shows, most were children’s breakfast cereal programming featuring crude, even pathetic depictions of the future); a few movies scattered over the previous decades, though only one would receive the blockbuster Hollywood treatment prior to the convention (Destination Moon) and another wouldn’t follow for five more years with the release of Forbidden Planet. (Which would wow audiences in a manner similar to those watching the Star Wars premier some two decades later.  (Film nitpickers might reference 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or When Worlds Collide as qualifying for big budget and offering up decent visualizations.  Two more films still amount to virtually nothing.) And remember – no DVDs, no internet, not even cassette video tapes.  Once a film had ended its run, the only way one could retain its imagery was to obtain a theater poster or production stills.

The fourth award directed at art is interesting all by itself:  artists and authors competed for the title of Best New. This implies (pay attention) that at that point in time, some 60 years ago, artists and authors were held in equal esteem, seen as equally important to the advancement of science fiction, by the SF community.  Cries of outrage would spill out of the internet if any contemporary award attempted to combine these artistic endeavors today because they are seen as distinctly different art forms.  Not so in 1953.  The two were viewed as different expressions of the same thing – equally important, equally as vital to the advancement of science fiction’s cause.

Excellence in Fact Articles – an award still handed out today, though under a different name and broader guise (Best Related Work).  While today’s Best Related does incorporate Excellence in Fact Articles, there are subtle differences.  Science FACT was much more important to science fiction back then than it is now.  Modern critics can spew as much as they want to about science fiction not being about predicting the future but when they do they frequently gloss over the fact that back then (and probably until at least the late 80s), accurately predicting A future (or certain aspects thereof) that could be realized by modern society and/or were desirable directions for society was one of the primary Raison d’etres of the field.  Science Fact was such an integral aspect of the genre that most of the magazines at the time featured the phrase on their covers.  (And some may remember that Omni magazine attempted to revive this connection during the 80s and 90s, though to little real effect.)

#1 Fan Personality was so important at the time that they broke the mold for that award after one presentation.  It has been replaced in modern times by several Fan related awards (Best Fanzine, Best Fan Writer, Best Fan Artist), but they don’t carry the weight or import that was intended by the original Fan award in 1953.  Forrest Ackerman – for better or for worse – had been (and would continue to be throughout his lifetime) a tireless public advocate for science fiction, horror, films, books, societies, magazines, clubs, conventions and just about anything else even marginally related (his advocacy for Esperanto for example) to science fiction.  If anyone in the general public was aware of SF at the time, chances are that awareness could be traced to some effort, somewhere, by 4SJ.  The award was intended to reward his efforts and to celebrate his successes, but it was also a self-congratulatory award:  Since 1939, the (US) science fiction community had managed to hang on to existence (despite tragic fan feuds and political divides that had threatened to balkanize the community almost from the beginning) and was celebrating a decade of continuous operation of Worldcon.  A growing number of magazines were arriving on the stands (the decade of the fifties saw the largest number of individual SF magazines published – a number still not exceeded today even when counting online magazines in the mix), ACE was just beginning to open up the era of the SF mass market paperback, in just a few year’s time Hollywood would re-engage the genre in a BIG way and in less than a decade, science fiction authors would be courted by several branches of the Federal government for their insights and advice.  Science Fiction had a lot to congratulate itself for, a lot to be justifiably proud of.  They’d been on a conscious mission – to gain respectability not just for a literary genre, but for an idea.  The idea that smart, capable individuals could and ought to actively engage in shaping the future.  In 1953 it looked as if they were on the verge of having largely accomplished that mission.

Fandom was a thing in1953.  Everyone in the science fiction community of that era was a fan, even if their only involvement was reading one single issue of just one of the many magazines, they knew about fandom (editorials frequently referenced it, letter columns discussed it, some magazines even had featured coverage of fan club meetings, ads seeking new members) and most who read wanted to join.  The future was bright (despite a nascent Cold War), it was full of possibility and greatness and there was only ONE community across the great wide world that seemed to have a handle on it;  a community that embraced the future, embraced enlightened ideals, saw the road ahead and was trying to show the rest of mankind how to get there.

The authors were fans, the artists were fans, the editors were fans.  Communication, commerce and social exchanges were two-way affairs.  Little or no distinction was made between the creators and consumers – each had a central and important role to fill.  Each shared, however dimly, a messianic zeal to share this great and wonderful window into a future of enormous possibilities, a future of promise for all.  Above all they wanted to share the central message that it was possible to achieve that future within their lifetimes.

Turn the clock ahead.  The last Worldcon for which verifiable attendance records are available (2011) had a total of 9,638 members (attending and supporting) – nearly 13 times the recorded attendance of the 1953 convention (by comparison, general US population has almost doubled since ’53.  By way of better comparison, in 1953, 1 in 213,579 US citizens attended Worldcon.  In 2011, 1 in 32,746 attended Worldcon).  There are now 16 different award categories. In 1953 the award was voted on by the membership of the convention – up to 750 ballots (thought we don’t have records of exactly how many).   In 2011 the award was voted on by the general membership of WSFS..  2,100 ballots were cast (though participation in individual categories was far less – 1,813 for novel being the highest) or about 22% – one fifth – of the membership), about three times the number of potential ballots in 1953.

The categories have largely changed as well.  There are now four awards for fiction, with that for the novel generally considered the most prestigious; the short story, once ubiquitous, has fallen so far in import and influence that only three stories garnered enough support to qualify for nomination this year (though apparently many, many more were nominated than could possibly have been nominated in 1953.  Nominations in each category must receive a minimum of 5% of the nominations in that category to make the final ballot.  There is already talk of addressing this issue and it will most definitely be discussed at this year’s WSFS Business Meeting).

Science FACT is nowhere to be found on the agenda:  since 2000, only two science fact books (defining the term loosely) have even been nominated  – Futures: 50 Years in Space: The Challenge of the Stars by David A. Hardy and Patrick Moore and The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.  (13+ years!)

The art awards have morphed into artwork in specific categories – best artist, best fan artist, best graphic novel (or similar work); publications and editors (a happy addition!) now get their due in four categories; film and its cousin television are recognized as well.  Fans are no longer recognized for their contributions on behalf of the community, but are instead rewarded for individual effort within the community (a subtle difference, the latter no less laudatory than the former).  And, as in 1953, fan efforts are considered on par with professional efforts (not to mention the uneasy presence of “semi-pro” offerings).  Fan AND Pro, side-by-side, awards for both on the same ballot, honored on the same evening, reflecting and endorsing their close, indivisible and necessary relationship.

Worldcon itself is no longer the largest, greatest, most important annual gathering of fandom.  That honor is now bestowed upon events that draw ten, perhaps even twenty times the number of enthusiasts to gatherings that celebrate the commercially successful forms of the genre – the forms that are the furthest removed from Fandom’s initial purpose and ideals*.  (Commercialism for commercialism’s sake is about the last thing on the agenda so far as Fandom is concerned: maintaining this ideal is simultaneously one of Fandom’s greatest virtues and one of its greatest vulnerabilities.)  (*I hasten to add that this is not the view from within fandom, but rather is the external perception of our greater society – a society that regularly provides mainstream press coverage of costume parades and film previews at those commercial conventions but evinces no idea of or even interest in the proceedings of the World Science Fiction Convention.)

Larger changes, external to the Hugos, have been wrought as well.  The Internet. The E-Book. Self-publishing.  Fandom – using the term to reference anyone who enjoys a genre television show, cracks a vaguely SF novel every now and then, enjoys the guilty pleasure of an anime or comic book occasionally – is no longer a clade.  Of the six and a half million self-identified readers of science fiction and fantasy in the US, barely ten thousand (.0015%) also self-identify as FANS (by virtue of attending Worldcon).  Fandom has seen some growth over the years (best guess is that the number of actual, participatory fans in the US is approximately 3 to 5 times the number of WSFS members in any given year), but that growth is miniscule compared to the growth of those with non-fannish connections to the genre.

And, except within the halls of TruFandom, the original ideals have largely been forgotten.  Just as our society in general has seemingly turned inwards – eschewing the exploration of space, becoming more concerned with pedestrian affairs, so too has the genre and fandom turned inwards; many of the works produced today are variations on a theme or a ‘different take’ on extant themes, mashups, homage to that which has gone before.  Fantasy and horror are consumed in numbers far larger than SF, perhaps more evidence of disengagement with the future and our ability to influence its forms (though the genres and the practitioners themselves are not to blame) and, rather than seeing Fandom as a necessary step in the progression of ones’ involvement with SF (be it as author, artist, other professional or avid participant), most potential fans actively avoid participation, variously seeing fandom, conventions and other time-honored fannish traditions as the province of old fogies, insular, unwelcoming, buggy whip makers decrying the introduction of the internal combustion engine, while the Fans, (yes, many of them old and graying, seemingly set in their ways, often encumbered by their knowledge of just exactly what a Fan is) see these new generations of consumers of SF as uninformed, uninterested, non-participatory economic cogs in a vast commercial machine that has perverted the purpose to which SF was originally dedicated.  Traditional SF’s ideals have been set aside in the name of a quest for survival.

No one group is at fault.  Or rather, each group has, in their own way, contributed to the current state of affairs.  Traditional Fandom evidences little or no interest in active recruitment or education (though some engage in valiant, usually unrewarded efforts). The great mass of others (for want of non-Fannish fannish nomenclature) show little tolerance for or interest in the value of SF’s history and traditions; they want to form their own fandoms, ones they don’t have to join, where instead they are the establishment, the founders and creators.  One can’t be bothered to share, the other wants nothing to do with “earning their chops”.  Between them, the genre is rapidly becoming absorbed into the mainstream as just another marketing niche: stuff that gets shoveled into the quirky, largely anti-establishment, artsy-fartsy, intellectual, high-functioning, mainly liberal (or intelligently conservative), never-grown-up slot of the mass-marketing maw.

Stuff that comes in cans with generic labels.  All because no one is really minding the store.  As the old tries to preserve its legacy, as the new tries to establish its identity, a crucial component of that which makes science fiction SCIENCE FICTION, is getting lost.

Science Fiction is more than just a literature (and its attendant multi-media brethren).  Science Fiction is an entity, one that melds creative expression with internal feedback moderated by ideals.  The authors, artists, editors, publishers, producers (professional or amateur) provide the raw materials – ideas and concepts of possible futures, human responses to those possible futures.  Fandom filters these possibilities through the inchoate mass of ideals that have built up over the years through a form of Darwinian evolution, rewards those ideas that ‘fit’, ignores those that don’t seem to make a difference, rejects those that don’t fit and feeds the resulting zeitgeist back to the creative engines to begin another round.

Fandom is the embodiment of that process.  Without it, there may be literature and films and television shows that are labelled SF, but they won’t be Science Fiction.  They’ll have no ‘soul’ if one wants to borrow that metaphor.  The genre will be representative of nothing, where before it stood as the tip of the spear, pointing to the future, egging us on, urging us to strive for something better.

If the ideals of Fandom are to be preserved, Fandom itself must find a way to get its act together. The newer generations ought to be engaging with Fandom – it only makes economic sense to do so in this era of self-publishing, self-promotion and self-marketing:  here is a ready made market for your works, an audience predisposed to accepting your works.  A market that is well-defined, professional, competent and experienced:  they’ve got outlets across the country and around the world (conventions); it’s filled with professionals offering courses, advice, experience and connections. Amazing Stories’ own current (limited) success is a perfect example of Fandom and its assets at work.  Take a look at the staff page.  You’ll see both old and new, traditional and non-traditional.  Working together and expressing Fandom’s ideal of sharing the effort to create something far beyond any one individual’s capabilities.

The newer generations should also be falling all over themselves to soak up as much of the history and tradition of SF as they possibly can: SF, as a literature, is self-referential.  The genre’s history provides the new author, the new artist with a wealth of well-honed tools.  Reaction to and even rejection of it’s tropes can lead directly to new forms.  Knowledge (deep knowledge) of the genre is itself a writing course, illustrating what has worked by its very presence.  Prior works are a deep resource that can be mined for new ideas.

The older generation?  The Establishment?  It needs to remember that sharing was once a high Fannish ideal.  As were openness and the aggressive embrace of diversity.  It’s not enough to state that anyone can attend a convention if they want to.  It’s not enough to say that awards can be changed or improved – join up and work for change.  The divide between old and new is a cultural one.  Many in the newer generations simply don’t know how to participate or rather, they’ve been taught that their means of participation is to simply show up and have most everything handed to them.  They’ve been taught to expect an experience, a fait accompli.  They don’t know that they’re supposed to MAKE the experience.  And it’s not that they wouldn’t volunteer to work a con, starting out as a gopher to learn the ropes if given the opportunity.  They just to don’t know that the possibility exists.  Outreach needs to take place much further down the line than is currently being offered.  Traditional Fandom needs to explicitly state that it wants new people and then it must do what it once did:  hand-hold those new recruits through the process of learning how to become a Fan.  Teaching them that Fandom is about participation, is about tradition and about passing on its ideals.  We need to show them that Fandom is a place where THEY will be supported as they express THEMSELVES, just as we support each other now.

Traditional Fandom must also do one other thing.  Perhaps the most difficult thing of all.  Recognize that as the newer generations come along, they will be bringing with them new and different ways to express Fannish ideals and traditions, and recognize that many of those new expressions, while different, are equally valid.  By way of example:  it may be true that a blog is not a Fanzine. It may also be true that a PDF publication is not a Fanzine either, nor is one printed using offset.  It may even be true that only a ‘zine printed on Twiltone using mimeograph stencils, written by Wilson Tucker or Walt Willis  is a FANZINE.  But if we insist on compliance first, we’ll never have the opportunity to explain any of that.  We’ll never have the chance to demonstrate that their blog follows a long tradition of expression for expression’s sake; that doing is better than passive receiving. We’ll never be able to get them excited about learning all of this stuff, folding it in to their own efforts and passing it along themselves.

All I’m really saying is this:  Fandom once served as the moral backbone of science fiction.  It came to embrace certain ideals that were reflective of its desires to boldly step into the future and create a better world, leading by way of fictional example.  All we really need to do is remember those ideals, renew them, embrace them, enthusiastically share them and the rest should follow because if we return to actively promoting those ideals, we’ll be giving the newer generation exactly what it is looking for.

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  1. Excellent post, Steve. And quite true that we need to hand-hold a bit more, show the new generations (if which I, frankly, am a member) what it means to be a fan. I didn't know, I still don't really, but I am learning by doing and I love it, it's what I've been looking and longing for for many many years and only truly found in isolated places (ffsfu book club, StarShipSofa and now Amazing Stories). I wish someone had taken me by the hand. I have yet to attend a convention or vote on the Hugos…

      1. Why the 1954 Worldcon didn't do a Hugo is one of those mysteries of fandom.

        One suggestion as to why they didn't is that they heard that Jack McKnight spent the entire Philcon in his shop making the #$%@ Hugs (as I understand how he always called to them) thereby missing the entire Worldcon.

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