What's happening with The Hugo Awards?

What’s happening with The Hugo’s

In my opinion, The Hugo Awards are the worst literature prize in the galaxy. Awards voting is run regionally and administered by convention management, who are often close friends of specific authors. Worse, the voters are all members of the World Science Fiction Society. The award constitutes a popularity contest among the attendees of the Society's "WorldCon." Well-connected writers will regularly win with mediocre work. Best-selling books win, even when critically panned. In my (obviously personal) opinion, the awards get it wrong about 30% of the time. Across sixteen annual categories, that annoys me.

To most readers, that doesn't matter. Their knowledge of The Hugo's is limited to a sticker that shows up on the outside of a usually-pretty-solid sci-fi book. To be fair to them, that's all they should have to know. Which is why this year the awards are in so much trouble. Suddenly thousands of genre fiction readers want to know a whole lot about The Hugo's, and the WSFS isn’t at all prepared for that.

This last week ‌two authors, R.F. Kuang (The Poppy War, Babel) and T. Kingfisher(What Moves The Dead, Nettle & Bone) were screwed out of this year's best novel awards. Chinese American author Xiran Jay Zhao(*The Iron Widow) was also randomly and inexplicably disqualified from The Hugo’s debut author award.

Part of the drama was the nature of their disqualification, which wasn't directly announced. Fans of their books, and Kuang in particular has many, noticed that their votes weren't being counted only when the convention released the vote tally this week (months after winners had been announced). No further information about how or why this had happened has been communicated.


Naturally fans of these Chinese American authors, wondered if something was up. Racism against non-white authors has been a historical feature of book awards and The Hugo's in particular. Most frustratingly and suspiciously the WSFS can't explain why the disqualification had happened. In the age of TikTok and Goodreads, they needed to have an answer ready. The best any of the administration has offered so far is "we reviewed the constitution and the rules we must follow, we determined the work was not eligible."

Some speculation.

This is total speculation, but I'm not wholly unqualified. I've written previously about the intersection of technology and literature in China, and spent years working inside and with Chinese entertainment companies. Having said that, I am not and never have been a member of the WSFS.

The Hugos aren't a big enough deal that an administration travels with WorldCon around the world, so the organizing body of each individual WorldCon runs the voting. The organizers have guidelines, but are ultimately subject to local laws and prejudices. This years organizers and hosts of WorldCon are in Chéngdū China. This presents some complexity.

Normally, well-connected authors and organizing members would call up convention administration and demand answers. This is at least more difficult and probably impossible when the WorldCon organizers are Mainland Chinese. China operates behind a firewall and with considerable effort needed to cross in and out, there's no way of holding WorldCon's current administration accountable.


One explanation, at least for some disqualifications, emerges here. Chinese organizers prefer when international (read white) people stand on stages and accept awards from them. This is sort-of a racism angle. Many of the disqualified works have ties to non-white writers, actors, or characters. I worked for years with Chinese games companies and they regularly "nudged" compositions to produce international (read white) winners. There's something here about white people on stage conferring power and legitimacy on the Chinese company that got them there. There's also a certain cultural disrespect for Sino-Americans.

Chinese American writers might be disqualified from a WorldCon held in China for at least one other obvious reason. Iron Widow and Babel are books that feature historical China in politically incorrect ways.

There's going to be a leap to accuse the government of censorship, but I think that's a common mistake Americans make when evaluating China. For some cultural reason, we tend to assume that the government policies of censorship and totalitarianism are unpopular. They are, broadly speaking, not. Many of those censorship policies (and there is a bit of a chicken and egg thing here) line up with popular culture.


Kuang and Zhou have written books that are seen as wildly inappropriate to a Chinese audience. This is a little thornier of a take, but I'll stand by it (having run it by Chinese and Singaporean friends).

Kuang's previous work in The Poppy War deploys fantasy tropes to engage with The Second Sino-Japanese war, one of the most horrific periods of Chinese history. A period of history for which there is still an intense cultural resentment and trauma.

I think Kuang is engaging with this material with an intended western audience. To them it might educate someone who is totally unaware of the horrific war. Maybe open a window to someone's family history.

To Chinese readers it is a book in unthinkably poor taste. A Chinese friend of mine -- and I've seen the same comparison made by other Chinese mainlanders -- joked that a western equivalent would be "Harry Potter and the Holocaust." Bluntly, the government doesn't need to get involved for there to be some grudge against Kuang's Babel.

We tend to assume that the government policies of censorship and totalitarianism are unpopular.

The Chinese organizing board either finds the books themselves offensive, or know that awarding or featuring those authors in mainland china is a ticket to controversy. Whatever their reason, you'll have to drag it out of them. Chinese PR is different, and it would look bad for them to be all over social media justifying their actions. I'm sure western organizers and authors associated with WorldCon are scrambling to get some kind of answer and in so doing rescue some kind of credibility for The Hugo's. Maybe that'll work.

Alternately - maybe the public's first major exposure to the mechanics of The Hugo's will be this failure.


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