Some of you may know that the 2020 Hugo Award ceremony was held last night¹ and that it was hosted by George R. R. Martin. Some of you may have heard that it did not go well. Some of you may already know what happened, more or less. I watched it live, and unsurprisingly, I have opinions.
This post is not a blow-by-blow account of events or any sort of clever analysis or deep thoughts on how to move forward. Better minds than mine have already taken care of that; see for instance Natalie Luhrs’s take on the affair. Instead, I would like to offer a little bit of context for those who heard what happened (or watched it happen) and have a vague idea that it was bad but do not understand why everybody is so upset and do not want to jump down the rabbit hole of SFF fandom drama.
So, here is my best attempt at putting the controversy in context.
- This year’s Hugo award administrators and / or WorldCon organizing committee selected George R. R. Martin to host the award ceremony. He, in turn, selected Robert Silverberg to present two of the awards (Best Editor Short Form / Long Form).
- There is a Hugo-adjacent award for new authors, which used to be called the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. It is not technically a Hugo award, but in practice, the only difference is that instead of a pin and a silver rocket, you get a different pin and a plaque.
- In her acceptance speech for the 2019 Campbell award, Jeannette Ng referenced the fact that Campbell was, shall we say, Not Very Nice.² As she points out herself, she was neither the first nor the most prominent person to bring that up, or even the first or most prominent to do so in front of a large audience. But we live in interesting times, and her speech resonated as never before. This had two major consequences: the award was renamed to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, and Ng’s acceptance speech was nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Related Work.
- As editor of the Astounding Science Fiction magazine (later renamed to Analog Science Fiction and Fact) for thirty-odd years, Campbell was credited with discovering, mentoring, and promoting many new authors, some of whom went on to become the most recognizable names in the genre. In that light, it seems natural that an award given to new writers should be named after him. However, we cannot mention the voices which Campbell elevated without also mentioning the ones he suppressed. Because Campbell had a very clear idea of who was worth listening to (white men) and who wasn’t (everybody else). If Campbell was still alive and in a position of power, it is doubtful that Jeannette Ng would be a published author. Or Rebecca F. Kuang, who won this year’s Astounding Award. Or Rebecca Roanhorse (2018). Or Wesley Chu (2015). Or Sofia Samatar (2014). Or any but five or six of the last twenty Best New Writer laureates. And certainly not N. K. Jemisin, whose Broken Earth trilogy netted her three consecutive Best Novel Hugos (2016-2018), a Nebula (2018), and a Locus (2018), but whose skin is of a shade which Campbell particularly detested.
When Martin (and Silverberg, who was granted — or granted himself — a disproportionate amount of airtime compared to other presenters) brought up Campbell again, and again, and again, during the ceremony; and when Martin repeatedly pronounced “Astounding” in the most theatrical way imaginable when referring to the award; and when Martin gave a list of examples of what constitutes a “related work”³ which covered every nominee except Ng; this has to be viewed in the context of Ng’s speech last year, of her nomination this year, and of the renaming of the award. And it does not look pretty.
¹ It was to have been held in Wellington, New Zealand as part of the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention, but was entirely virtual due to the ongoing pandemic. It started at 11 am on Saturday in New Zealand time, which was the middle of the night in Europe and Friday evening in the US.
² Her exact words were “a fucking fascist”, which may have been impolitic but was certainly not inaccurate. Also, if there is one thing we have learned from the history of civil rights, it is that politeness gets you nowhere; when the ruling class asks protesters to “be civil”, what they actually mean is “be invisible”.
³ Starting at 2:46:15 in the archived livestream: “biographies are related works, autobiographies, works of criticism, art books, collections of reviews, memoirs, histories, and… other things”