Chengdu Worldcon: Hugo Awards with an Asterisk

Last year’s Worldcon took place in Chengdu, China.  For obvious reasons, I skipped participating as a supporting member, so I did neither nominate nor vote for Hugo Awards.  In fact, I ignored the ballot completely, and instead focused on reducing my to-read pile.  Color me not surprised at all, when I read the nomination statistics and saw the furor they caused. There are several lessons one could take away from the entire fracas, but the most immediate one should be obvious: the 2023 Hugo nominees and winners should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Hugo voting at the Chengdu Worldcon has shown some inconsistencies since the very beginning.  The final voting ballot kept getting postponed and was finally released with a significant delay.  After the awards ceremony, it took another three months to release the nomination statistics, even though they were presumably prepared as part of the ballot, and they are generally available as soon as the awards are distributed.  When the statistics were released, keen-eyed readers immediately found several major issues with the nominations.

Before describing those, a few words about Hugo voting and the structure of the nomination statistics.  Both nominations and voting are conducted by Worldcon members, mostly fans of speculative fiction who purchased membership to the convention.  The least expensive membership, supporting membership, costs around $50 (small deviations by location), so for $50 you’ll get no nominate and vote for your favorite books, stories and many other categories.  Usually, a minority of members actually nominates and votes, so it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to sway votes in a direction one wants.  This was the case in the mid 2010’s, when a group of conservative authors tried to hijack the awards by recommending a slate of nominations that they fans should follow, in order to nominate only conservative works.  This backfired spectacularly, as the fandom overwhelmingly rejected the voting ballots and, in many cases, opted for a “No award” option instead.

The nomination statistics are just a nice bonus for the fans, to check how their nominations placed, and to see additional works that didn’t make the cut.  They are also a way to check whether the voting ballots were manipulated in any way.  They show the top 15-16 works in each category and the elimination process they were subjected to until a voting ballot was agreed upon.

In the case of the Chengdu Worldcon, the statistics revealed three problems.  First, some highly regarded works that passed the nomination process, were disqualified and replaced by others.  Second, the nominations distribution showed the existence of slates where a large group of people nominated the same works.  Third, some works were listed twice in the same category, never gaining enough votes to proceed to the final round, but their combined votes would have carried them onto the voting ballot.

The case of disqualified works is the most obvious one.  This is because some highly regarded works, including Babel by R. F. Kuang, which some expected to win the award, were disqualified without a given reason.  Other works were disqualified contrary to the rules that were used as a reason for disqualification.  In one case, a TV show was disqualified according to a rule that required disqualification if an episode for that show qualified in another category, but that episode was also disqualified, with no reason given.  In another case, the category for the best new writer, saw an author disqualified, even though he has explicitly qualified for this year’s award previously.

The case of nomination slates is, I believe, the most important one.  Heather Rose Jones did an excellent visualization of the data on her blog, so just a short summary here: Normally, there is a downward curve in the nominating works.  Except when there is a single strong outlier, if you rank all works by their number of nominations, you’ll get a downward-sloping line.  The flatter it is, the more evenly the votes are distributed.  The Sad Puppies, as the attempt of the conservative authors in the mid-2010’s was known, artificially produced several outliers, but very rarely managed to stuff the entire voting ballot with their works.  In the case of Changdu, however, there is a very clear differentiation between nominated works and the rest.  The chart looks like a huge step instead of an unbroken line: the nominated works are almost at the same level, and then there is a significant step-down to works that didn’t make the cut.  For example, the last-nominated series got 58% of nominations, while the first failed series got only 4% (the sum exceeds 100%, as members may nominate multiple works).

The anomaly is so large that it is virtually certain that we are dealing with predetermined slate of voting ballots or and exceptionally well-organized and disciplined campaign, which puts the Sad Puppies to shame.  Regardless of the method, the voting ballot was so manipulated that we can’t be satisfied that the most deserving works were selected for award consideration.

The third issue, listing of works in two different lines, and thus preventing them from entering the ballots, is blamed on a simple copy-paste error when the statistics were compiled.  The problem is that these statistics form the basis for calculating the voting ballot.  The same error could have been present when the Hugo shortlist was determined, and even if not, they should have been caught over the six months between the completion of the statistics and their public release.  Readers found this issue within minutes of their publication.

We will never know for certain what caused these inconsistencies.  Many people blame Chinese governmental interference and point to the fact that some Chinese expats were disqualified.  Others believe that the organizers erred on the side of caution and preemptively eliminated authors and works that they perceived could cause offense in China (the Hollywood approach to Chinese market).  However, the Hugo Administrator Dave McCarthy indicated that the Hugo selection committee had to follow Chinese laws, when he said that disqualifications were in accordance with the Worldcon “Constitution and the rules we must follow”.

As I stated before, readers and fans of speculative fiction cannot be certain the most deserving works were selected and awarded.  Hugos are a special kind of awards.  They ballot the fans directly, so they often serve as a finger on the pulse of the fandom.  The reputation of the awards stems mainly from the transparency of the process and strict adherence to clear rules.  Where other awards may thrive or fall according to the consistency of their decisions over time, the Hugos must show the consistency of their processes.  The awards weathered the Sad Puppies episode by being transparent and encouraging the fans to vote as they saw fit.  The same is not true in the case of the Chengdu Worldcon.

With all due respect to the authors, who may be indeed deserving of their awards (I can list several authors whom I like and voted for previously, who were on the ballot in 2023), I propose that the voting results for the Chengdu Worldcon are erased from the Hugos history, or at least signified with an asterisk.  The reputation of the Hugo Awards relies on the authors, Worldcon volunteers and the entire fandom.  Some ten years ago, they resisted the Sad Puppies during actual voting.  Now, they were robbed of that opportunity, so they should resist this fraud by wiping it from memory.  The Chengdu Worldcon and 2023 Hugo Awards never happened.

This should be the immediate response.  For the long term, there are also a few lessons that should be learned, to help implementing some procedural changes.  First and foremost, the fandom should take greater care when nominating the site of the next Worldcon.  Totalitarian regimes, and regimes with laws that would preclude certain authors or works, should not be afforded the opportunity to host the Worldcon.  Second, a method for auditing the voting ballot should be implemented.  I can envision the auditors being the Hugo nomination committee from the previous year, and they would focus on eligibility decisions.  Each disqualified work should get a clear reason for disqualification.

It’s too late to cry over spilled milk.  Go read some Becky Chambers or S. B. Divya who had the good sense to decline their nominations, and forget that the 2023 “voting” ever happened.

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