The Hugo Awards: Popular? No.

I have been reading the back and forth regarding the Hugo Fan awards (who/what should win the Fan categories of award – Fanzine, Writer, Artist) and in reading the back-and-forth I realized that one of the things introducing confusion into that debate is a misunderstanding of exactly what kind of awards the Hugos are.

It’s a bit surprising because it wasn’t but a few years ago that it seemed as if the awards had been re-affirmed as to the type of awards they were.

The various strains of puppies insisted that the Hugo Awards were popularity awards, people’s choice style – anyone and everyone can (should) vote.

I believe it was George RR Martin (or maybe it was John Scalzi) who pointed out that the marketplace was already performing the job of determining popular choice winners through sales, and that the “awards” were the increased earnings received.

But that lesson appears to not have been taken to heart.  Earlier I read this:

“So let’s circle back to the question we started with. “What kind of fan work should be recognized by the Hugo Awards?” If you answer “the kind of fan work that is underappreciated and deserves recognition” then I’m sorry, that’s not what a popular vote award is going to give you by definition.”  Quick Sip Reviews, Charles Payseur  (emphasis mine).

And this from a multiple-finalist in several Fan categories.  Charles also makes mentioned of juried awards elsewhere in that piece.

The Hugo Awards are not popular vote/people’s choice style awards.  They are juried and curated awards.

What’s the difference between a juried award and a popular award?

We all know what a “popularity contest” type of award is:  there are no requirements for anything, no criteria advanced for judging fitness, no requirement for even being familiar with the item(s) being judged.  If you’re a populi, drop your pebble in the bucket as you walk on by.  Individuals are free to cast their vote(s) based on whatever they choose to base it on (I liked the cover…I always vote for whoever is wearing purple…I spin around rapidly until I am dizzy.  The direction I fall in determines my vote…I hate the other guy).  No requirements, no restrictions, raw, largely entirely meaningless, numbers.

Juried competitions on the other hand are described as – “A juried competition is a competition in which participants’ work is judged by a person or panel of persons convened specifically to judge the participants’ efforts…” (Wikipedia)

No mention is made of either the number of judges on the panel, nor of qualifications and restrictions on those panelists, other than that which they may self-impose.

Before enumerating details, which of those two definitions best matches the Hugo Awards as they are now (and have been from their inception)? **

Think about where these awards came from: they were first informally conducted (a fun thing to do) at the 1953 Worldcon.  Nineteen Fifty Three.  When science fiction was either dismissed out of hand or disparaged as juvenile, escapist rot.  It’s fairly certain (based on contemporary publications) that at least 839 people attended that convention and conventional wisdom suggests that total attendance did not exceed 1,000.

That’s a potential panelists pool of 1,000, whittled down from a world population of 2.6 billion, or, since SF fandom was mostly a North American thing at the time, a bit over 174 millions between the US and Canada.

That 1,000 was further reduced by self-selection and self-elimination to whatever the final number of votes were.

I will strongly suggest that if the fans of the time had wanted to conduct a popularity contest, they would have gone out on the streets of Philadelphia and courted votes from passersby.  That they did not, that they stayed inside their hotel refuge and collected ballots from only the registered membership of the convention would seem to suggest that they recognized that there would be some significant difference between those two different voting populations.

Remember that it was also shortly thereafter (when the awards were reinstated in 1955) that discussion began on how and why to vote.  The admonitions to take the voting seriously, to be familiar with the works in question or refrain from voting, the concept of casting a vote to register disapproval of the award category and/or the Finalists…all of these are reflective of an understanding that the award is not a popular one, but is instead an award requiring specialized knowledge and or experience and, further, that vote casting should be taken seriously, should be based on actual knowledge and experience, not casual criteria, with the ability to refrain from casting votes in individual categories one self-judges should be recused, all of these are elements of juried/curated awards, not popular ones.

In 1955, a science fiction fan who considered themselves to be qualified to vote for the Hugo Awards was an individual with very specialized knowledge.  They not only had to be reading the literature (and watching the occasional film or maybe were still watching Tom Corbett), but they had to be, at the very least, reading the letter column(s) of some of the pulp magazines of the era, or were already members of clubs and/or readers of fanzines, because those were the only ways that you could learn about the convention.

Someone likely to vote* on the Hugo Awards from the fifties through at least the early 80s was an “expert” in the field of science fiction literature (and possibly media as well) simply by virtue of  immersing themselves in their favorite subject matter.  There was a “boom” in the 1950s (and again in the last 70s), but even at the height of those booms, it was possible for an individual to be familiar with most everything that the field produced.

Those factors decidedly set the science fiction fan apart from their mainstream, mundane counterparts.  (Remember that the very concept of the “blockbuster”, a media presentation that would be seen by the masses even despite its affiliation with subjects generally avoided by the masses would not occur until 1975).

The Hugo Awards are not popular awards.  The general population is not invited to cast votes.  Voting materials are only provided to a restricted set of individuals who qualify first by virtue of being aware of the awards, next by the process of purchasing a membership and lastly by knowing how and where to obtain access to the items being voted on.  If the number of contemporary fans who have said “I had no idea I could vote for the Hugo Awards” is anything to go by….

The Hugo Awards are Juried, Curated awards.  Voting is restricted to a very specialized core of individuals, the vast majority of whom obey the inherent restrictions on their ballots by only casting them for categories which they are (self) qualified to vote in.  As Jury members, they are even given the opportunity to publicly object to individual categories, individual works/individuals within those categories or to the entire process.

Any Hugo Administrator will be happy(?) to inform you that their process is anything but just tallying votes.

Understanding this distinction is important to the individual voter.  It informs them that they have more responsibility than picking up a pebble and deciding (or not) which bucket to drop it into.  As a member of the voting Jury, it is the voters responsibility to honor and respect the intent of the award by reviewing the materials and making informed judgements, including the judgement that one may not be qualified to cast a vote in a particular category.

Methodologies can vary widely, but the goal for each voter should be the same:  to recognize that they are influencing reception of the field and to take that responsibility seriously (which extends from not voting at all to informed voting in every single category).


As Ted Chiang and the Hugo Award winning film adapted from his short story – Arrival – informed us that while language expresses thought, it also influences it (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that the structure of a language affects thought).  If that’s the case, then we’d better start describing the Hugo Awards by their proper name, or before we know it, they will become something they aren’t.


*that is, someone actually attending the Worldcon in those years, not just a warm body

**Hint:  They’re Juried

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