It’s no coincidence that the following text reads like the ramblings of an old man who is struggling to understand the current generation. It’s exactly that. In the next few paragraphs I’ll try to verbalize why all of my Hugo nominations have been consistently failing to get on the final ballot, and why the vast majority of my Hugo votes usually ends on the very bottom of the voting results. The problem doesn’t lie with me. Neither does it lie with everyone else voting for the award. That’s because there is no problem, just a difference between tastes and preferences.
Hugo Awards are somewhat unique among awards. There is a distinct dichotomy between the works that would eventually receive the award, and their commercial success prior to Hugos. The eventual winners are rarely the most commercially successful works, until they can reshape their marketing around the award. While this is true for many other awards, such as the Oscars, the unique factor here is that the awards are voted on by the readers themselves, and not industry insiders. These fans thus have the power to determine the commercial success of some of the fledgling works. Some have argued that this power is being abused to promote certain authors and maybe push cultural agendas, but after interacting with many of the voters at the 2019 Worldcon, I am convinced that tastes in science fiction literature have simply moved on, leaving some old-timers like me behind.
To greatly simplify the science fiction genre, I posit that there are two types of stories: protagonist-driven and concept-driven. Older stories, dating way back to authors like Olaf Sapledon, are concept-driven. The protagonists are swept in the story; they don’t dictate it. This can be very easily seen in such Hugo winners as Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or Asimov’s Foundation series. Protagonist-driven stories have at their center a strong central character, on rare occasion a group of characters, who influence the universe around them. Many of the modern winners, be it Leckie’s Ancillary Justice or Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, have such strong protagonists. There is no clear delineation when protagonist-driven stories replaced concept-driven ones among Hugo winners. In fact, the very first Hugo award was given to a protagonist-driven novel, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. However, it was only in the 2000s when such stories became a permanent fixture among Hugo winners. Concept-driven stories are often not even nominated (works by Alastair Reynolds, Robinson’s Aurora or Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time). The latter stories, however, are often more commercially successful prior to the Hugo awards than the eventual winners.
The preferences of readers who nominate works for Hugo awards have thus shifted from concepts to people. I personally enjoy a good book with strong protagonists. In fact, most of my favorite fictional characters are the protagonists who drive a good story. However, it is generally the concept-driven books, which make me think. I often view protagonist-driven books as great fun and a way to pass the time, but also as somewhat pedestrian, compared to concept-driven books, which predict a future or warn against another, or simply elaborate on an interesting “what if” question. In my view, the overall shift to protagonist-driven stories indicates a decline in the average sophistication of those science fiction readers who nominate and vote for the Hugo awards.
(There, I said it. This old man things that the younglings he met at Worldcon are less sophisticated than him. And don’t get me started on post-1970s music…)
Among protagonist-driven stories, I’m sensing a further cultural shift. Authors, regardless how much they detached themselves from the society, are still products of said society, and their writing is influenced by that. In the past, a strong protagonist was capable, overcoming adversity through their skill or brains. Heinlein’s Competent Man is just the most apt description of many such protagonists. In fact, we find many competent protagonists even in today’s works. These are usually men or women who are fast learners, flexible, and can quickly and powerfully apply what they learned. They are not superpowered in the traditional sense, but they seem to have a very thick skin, so that all setbacks just bounce off of them and at most serve as learning lessons. They adapt and improvise. We don’t even have to go far into the past to find such protagonists. Some of the most memorable characters from recent years are the protagonists from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Weber’s Honor Harrington series, or Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series.
If we look at the list of recent Hugo winners and some nominees, though, we see a pattern of different protagonists. The Ancillary Justice series, which won a Hugo and was nominated for a few more, the Broken Earth trilogy, which became the first series to win three Hugo awards in a row, but also some less known works that got nominated, such as Roanhorse’s Trail of Lighting, all have the same protagonist type: A highly insecure person who is trying to appear strong by being excessively hostile to everyone else in the story, but who is ultimately overpowered. The only challenge such a person faces is from similarly overpowering people, but not from the overall environment. These protagonists may need some training to master their skills, but the bulk of their place in the story is geared towards them being mean to others.
I firmly believe that I’m the norm in identifying with or looking up to the protagonist of the book I’m currently reading. The main character is either someone like me, or someone I aspire to be. And that applies to most of other readers. As stated, writers don’t live and work in a social vacuum, and they shape their characters in a way to resonate with their readers. So why have these insecure protagonists become suddenly so popular? The answer lies in the type of people I met at Worldcon. The vast majority of whom I met were wonderful people. However, they were also much younger than me, and they acted very defensive around strangers. From Worldcon related on-line discussions I was following, I learned got the feeling that many current Hugo voters are easy to offend; in fact, they sometimes seek out ways to feel hurt. They show a distinct lack of self-confidence, and they seem to withdraw from any argument where they feel they face mental trauma. These people aspire to be able to more forceful in their interpersonal communication. Not knowing how to assert themselves, they believe the most appropriate course of action is to be abusive towards others in social settings. And they expect the same from their favorite protagonists. Some authors are happy to oblige. As they write their stories, however, they realize that such characters lack any power to influence the story, which is why they often give them superpowers.
There’s no accounting for taste. I’m not correct, but also not wrong in liking certain works better than others. And I’m sure there are many like me. But others have their own preferences, which are just as valid as mine, and they seem to have a majority right now. However, that may be changing. It’s too early to say, but the last Hugo Award winner, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, may be heralding the return of more traditional science fiction. It has a strong protagonist who is just as capable and adaptable as the best old protagonists. It mixes the protagonist’s story with a very well-developed concept of global climate change (I believe that the nuances of this concept helped the book to gain a critical mass of voters). And it reads almost like the old apocalyptic novels like Frank’s Alas, Babylon or Stewart’s Earth Abides. Its main character, Dr. Elma York, lacks confidence and is insecure, but she works to overcome these deficits, instead of wallowing in self-pity and lashing out against everybody. She is someone I can look up to. Let’s just hope that the overall taste in science fiction books will converge with mine, because I’m too old to change.