18 min read

Astrolabe 36: Panic! At The Hugos

Another Hugo Awards controversy, all the seas of the world, and the one that (sorta) got away
Astrolabe 36: Panic! At The Hugos
Photo by SpaceX / Unsplash

New year, new controversy

On Saturday, January 20, 2024, the Hugo Awards and Chengdu World Con finally released the full nomination statistics for the 2023 Hugo Awards. Typically these are released immediately after the ceremony, and cause much debate and conversation as the community pores over nomination and voting statistics to find close races, almost-finalists, and other fun stories in the data.

"The Hugo Awards nominating stats were finally released," wrote Jason Sanford on Bluesky. "WTF do you mean that the amazing novel Babel by R.F. Kuang, which won the Nebula Award, didn't make the finalists list b/c it was ruled 'not eligible.'"

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A PDF of the full nominating statistics can be downloaded via the official Hugo Awards website.

R.F. Kuang's Babel was a mainstay on SFF awards lists last year, so its omission at the Hugos was noted by many fans, leading to speculation she'd withdrawn the book from contention for one reason or another. However, despite receiving 810 nominations (just five fewer than eventual winner Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher, and 10 fewer than the top nominee, Travis Baldree's Legends & Lattes), Babel was left off the list without explanation, unlike several of the other nominees removed for various reasons ("declined nomination," "one of the authors was on the Hugo subcommitee").

Sanford himself was the top finalist in the Best Fan Writer category, accruing 100 nominations (though he eventually lost to Chris M. Barkley in the voting stage). Along with Babel's questionable omission, this fan category also had one of its top nominees removed from the ballot without explanation.

Fan Writer Paul Weimer, who's been nominated in several past years, confirmed in a Patreon post that seeing the nomination statistics was the first time he learned he was "not eligible." He received no communications from the awards ahead of time. "I have absolutely no idea why I was ineligible and I believe I am entitled to know why I was made ineligible," he wrote. "Chengdu, I want some answers. Dave McCarty, I want an explanation. I am owed one."

Weimer received 89 nominations, one fewer eventual winner Chris M. Barkley and 11 fewer than top-nominee Sanford.

Screenshot via Paul Weimer

These were not isolated incidents. In addition to Babel and Weimer, Sandman Episode 6: "The Sound of Her Wings," (Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form) "Color the World," (Best Novelette) and Xiran Jay Zhao (Astounding Award) were also listed as "not eligible" without explanation. Perhaps most telling was the delay in releasing the statistics. Per section 3.12.4 of the WSFS constitution, the full statistics must be released within 90 days, which ran out on January 19, 2024.

"We received absolutely no communications from the Hugos committee about this," Xiran Jay Zhao told me via their agent, "and I’d like a concrete answer on why I was disqualified!"

Similarly, Kuang was left in the dark. She released a statement on Bluesky. "No reason for Babel’s ineligibility was given to me or my team. I did not decline a nomination, as no nomination was offered," she wrote. "I assume this was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility. Excluding 'undesirable' work is not only embarrassing for all involved parties, but renders the entire process and organization illegitimate. Pity."

Even those who are traditionally close to the awards from an administrative perspective (rather than a nomination perspective) acknowledge that the noise in the data is suspicious:

"This one year of Hugo awards had far more 'not eligible/disqualified' nominations that all four years combined that I was the Hugo adminstrator (even the year of the Sad Puppies)," reported John Lorentz, who administered the awards in 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2015. "Something doesn’t feel right."

"We have finally got the nomination statistics for the 2023 Hugos, and understandably there is a great deal of concern being express. Some very strange things have gone on. Believe me, I’m not happy either," said writer Cheryl Morgan, who is part of the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee of the World Science Fiction Society Mark Protection Committee alongside Kevin Standlee. The committee's purpose is to communicate news about the awards, but they have no jurisdiction over the awards themselves—and, unfortunately, have no more knowledge of the situation than the rest of us.

Morgan speculates on the situation, saying if she were looking to fix the Hugo results, she would either a) put out a "falsified set of nomination statistics," or b) just not "issue the nomination statistics at all."

"Instead they have chosen to put out a set of nomination statistics that makes it very clear that shenanigans have taken place," she explained. "Maybe we should be thinking about why they did that."

The Hugo Administration subcommittee of the 2023 Chengdu Worldcon did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the questionable eligibility rulings, people are also skeptical of the distribution of nominations recorded in the document, with many of the finalists receiving significantly more nominations than those immediately below them–an uncommon pattern in past Hugo nominations where there's typically more of a gradual, organic tapering off of nominations as you get further down ballot.

For instance, in Best Related Work, the seventh ranked item, "The Ghost of Workshops Past," received 176 nominations, while the eighth highest, "Buffalito World Outreach Project," received 38. More strikingly, in Best Series, Seanan McGuire's October Daye series grabbed the last finalist slot with 816 nominations, while the series immediately below it, Nnedi Okorafor's The Nsibidi Scripts, received a mere 52.

Camestros Felapton, who has widely covered the Hugo Awards over the years, points to other inconsistencies within the statistics, including potential counting errors and a novelette that appears twice in the category long list.

Felapton on Babel's statistics:

The nomination statistics for Babel do not appear to be correct. For each round, it is listed as 164.93 regardless of how other works are eliminated. This is very unusual and the number should increase. This does not appear to be connected to its disqualification as other disqualified works do not show the same pattern (eg Color the World in Best Novelette). There are some stories in Best Short Story that have a sort of similar pattern that you might see if they had a “bullet voting” set of votes but even they shift towards the end. I think we can safely rule out mass bullet voting for Babel.

The Hugo Awards are, of course, no stranger to controversy. A 2022 Best Related Work finalist, Felapton's "Debarkle" "traces the history, events and subsequent consequences of the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy Kerfuffle at the 2015 Hugo Awards while looking at the broader political context of science fiction’s culture wars." It's a thorough examination of one of the Hugo Award's most prominent and wide-ranging controversies.

"An overwhelming majority of the members of WSFS who voted on the site of the 2023 Worldcon (at the 2021 Worldcon in DC) selected Chengdu, China as the host of the 2023 Worldcon," wrote Standlee in a post called "Elections Have Consequences." "That meant that the members of WSFS who expressed an opinion accepted that the convention would be held under Chinese legal conditions. Furthermore, those people (including me) who suggested that there might be election irregularities were overridden, shouted down, fired from their convention positions, and told that they were evil and probably racist for even suggesting such a thing."

Standlee further speculated that if the Hugo Awards were to be held in a state like Florida, US, they could, theoretically, "disqualify any work with LGBTQ+ content, any work with an LGBTQ+ author, or any LGBTQ+ individual, because the state has declared them all illegal under things like their 'Don't Say Gay or Trans' laws and related legislation."

Many fans are upset about the situation, and several people have reached out to the 2023 Hugo Administration subcommittee for answers.

On his Facebook page, Hugo subcommittee member Dave McCarty, the administrator responsible for assembling, compiling, and verifying the statistics, denied he was compelled to manipulate the data by any government officials. "There was no communication between the Hugo administration team and the Chinese government in any official manner," he said.

Asked directly about the omissions, McCarty provided a boilerplate response in which he took sole responsibility for the eligibility rulings, and to which he repeatedly and tersely referred when asked subsequently: “After reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible.”

When pressed, he explained, "That is the statement the Hugo administration team agreed to after long and considered deliberation." McCarty has not elaborated on specific reasons or rulings leading to the disqualifications.

With blow back reaching the mainstream press in the west, Chinese fans are also expressing frustration about the events. On January 25th, one post on Chinese microblogging site Weibo by a user called 科幻光年 (roughly: "scifilightyears") started making rounds on Bluesky and other western social media platforms.

"All of the people in the Chinese SF/F community who've spent years doing their best to uphold the reputation of Chinese SF/F internationally, and to popularize SF and promote openness \[in the PRC] have got to be absolutely beside themselves now. One big name told me they were feeling 'crushed,'" they wrote. "Internationally, any reputation \[PRC fandom had] for even-handedness in hosting SF events has been totally wiped out, and it's hard to imagine anyone \[here] having the nerve to try hosting an international SF event again, or anyone coming if they did. It looks as if we'll be stuck talking to ourselves, playing with ourselves, writing our own works and selling to ourselves."

(Translation provided by Brendan O'Kane.)

The user went on to reference the upcoming February, 2024 launch of The Tianwen Program. "It's going to be a big deal – lots of awards, tons of money in prizes. But given that they had someone like David McCarty standing on that stage [...] I'm not optimistic."

Surprised to see McCarty's name tied to a new Chinese SFF award, with "tons of money in prizes," I reached out for clarification on the upcoming award and his role in its creation and/or administration. (This had previously been reported in October, 2023 by Mike Glyer at File 770.)

The Tianwen Plan, McCarty told me via email, is a project to create a new literary award inside China "with the purpose of further connecting fans and fandom inside China with that at the worldcon each year by bringing fans from China to the worldcon for the presentation of the award."

He also provided further details about his specific role with The Tianwen Plan:

The scope and handling of the awards is determined by fans in China and my only role there would be to offer advice if any were sought.

The aspect of getting Chinese fans connected to the worldcon was the aspect of the plan where I thought I might be helpful, but that would be limited to showing them how to connect with the program team each year and see how they might get such items into the schedule at worldcon and get Chinese fans on the broader panels.

There's no compensation for this of any kind, it is simply that friends of mine asked "what do (you) think of doing something to try to bring Chinese and Western fandom closer together?" And I said I thought that was an amazing plan and I'd like to help see it happen.

"The Chengdu Worldcon isn't completely over yet," concluded 科幻光年—in reference to upcoming financial reports and other various documents that must be handed over to the organizers of Glasgow 2024 (the next WorldCon). "The organizers' inboxes must be overflowing now and I don't know whether anyone's even checking them. Play dead long enough, maybe you end up dying for real."

Glasgow 2024 has yet to have issued a response to calls for how they will protect the integrity of the awards going forward, despite calls from writers such as Neil Gaiman (whose episode of Sandman was among the disqualified finalists) for a clear official statement.

"For those playing along at home, get your bingo cards out because it's time to mark the hard-to-fill space," McCarty posted to his personal Facebook page on January 27, 2024. "I am apologizing."

He explained that he posted his original message with the assumption that he was "talking to just the few folks" who had previously reached out about the statistics document. He did not anticipate his Facebook page becoming ground zero for those seeking answers—and he was not intending to speak on behalf of the Chengdu 2023 convention or Hugo team. McCarty did not provide any details on where he expected that conversation to happen, instead, in the absence of any official communication on the matter from the Chengdu 2023 organizing committee.

"I think we all agree I was wrong," he continued. "The responses put me in old habits and I got defensive. Most of my responses there were inappropriate, unprofessional, condescending, and a number were clearly insulting. I made things worse."

He did not provide further details about the ineligible finalists or the potential for falsified voting numbers.

On January 30, 2024, as reported by File 770, the Worldcon Intellectual Property (the non-profit that holds the World Science Fiction Society and Hugo Award marks) announced the censure of McCarty "for his public comments that have led to harm of the goodwill and value of our marks and for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that he presided over." The Worldcon Intellectual Property also censured Chen Shi, and Ben Yalow, and issued a reprimand for Kevin Standlee.

Consequently, McCarty resigned from his position as Director of the Worldcon Intellectual Property. Standlee also resigned from his position as Chair of the Worldcon Intellectual Property Board of Directors. Standlee will be replaced by Donald Eastlake. McCarty's replacement has not been announced.

"Based on the Hugo Award stats being delayed so long, it's obvious people were aware these revelations would be controversial," concluded Sanford. "There was also time to create answers to the questions being raised. That didn't happen. I predict we will never get answers on any of this."

Despite Sanford's initial skepticism about receiving answers to the myriad questions raised by the results, late on February 14th, he, along with Best Fan Writer winner Chris M. Barkley, released a bombshell report presenting leaked emails and files highlighting the Hugo administrative team, led by McCarty, and their extensive conversations regarding tampering with the Hugo results due to political self-censoring.

"[It] is not meant to be the final word on what happened at this Worldcon," wrote Barkley. "We are hoping that others, both here and abroad, will follow in our journalistic footsteps and come forward with more information and details about these events."

The report is lengthy and contains significant details about the minutiae and processes involving in running the Hugos, and the various efforts made to undermine the results in an effort to satisfy the hosting country's government.

"In addition to the regular technical review, as we are happening in China and the laws we operate under are different," wrote McCarty in an email, as reported by Sanford and Barkley, "we need to highlight anything of a sensitive political nature in the work. It's not necessary to read everything, but if the work focuses on China, taiwan [sic], tibet [sic], or other topics that may be an issue in China [...] that needs to be highlighted so that we can determine if it is safe to put it on the ballot (or) if the law will require us to make an administrative decision about it."

The report also points to "a post reported to be from a Sichuan government website discusses work done to censor works related to last year’s Worldcon."

Under the weight of overwhelming evidence, Sanford and Barkley conclude that major tampering by the Hugo Awards administrative committee, headed by McCarty, has occurred, and that by the rules of the award, none of the excluded finalists were, indeed, ineligible. "As far as our investigation is concerned there was no reason to exclude the works of Kuang, Gaiman, Weimer or Xiran Jay Zhao, save for being viewed as being undesirable in the view of the the Hugo Award admins which had the effect of being the proxies Chinese government."

While this leak has provided clarity regarding many elements speculated on by the SFF community, Sanford and Barkley are clear that "what remains unknown at this time is what was the extent of the involvement of the Chinese government or the business interests that surrounded the development of the Science Fiction Museum, if the business deals that emerged from the convention were orchestrated in conjunction with the convention organizers, a more detailed knowledge of the reaction from the SF fans in China, and whether or not there have been repercussions for them from this shameful incident."

Per an email received from the Glasgow 2024 Chair Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Kat Jones, who was implicated in Sanford and Barkley's investigation, has resigned "with immediate effect as Hugo Administrator from Glasgow 2024 and has been removed from the Glasgow 2024 team across all mediums."

"I, and Glasgow 2024, do not know how any of the eligibility decisions for the Hugo, Lodestar and Astounding Awards held at the 2023 Chengdu World Science Fiction Convention were reached," MacCallum-Stewart said. "We know no more than is already in the public domain."

MacCallum-Stewart also outlined steps Glasgow 2024 would take to preserve the integrity of the 2024 Hugos:

At Glasgow 2024 we are taking the following steps to ensure transparency and to attempt to redress the grievous loss of trust in the administration of the Awards.

The steps we are committing to are:

1. When our final ballot is published by Glasgow 2024, in late March or early April 2024, we will also publish the reasons for any disqualifications of potential finalists, and any withdrawals of potential finalists from the ballot.

2. Full voting results, nominating statistics and voting statistics will be published immediately after the Awards ceremony on 11th August 2024.

3. The Hugo administration subcommittee will also publish a log explaining the decisions that they have made in interpreting the WSFS Constitution immediately after the Awards ceremony on 11th August 2024.

This is a developing story.

UPDATE—January 22, 9:28am: Added a quote from Xiran Jay Zhao and reporting on a statement by R.F. Kuang.

UPDATE—January 22, 12:45pm: Added quotes from Dave McCarty.

UPDATE—January 25, 3:08pm: Added reporting on 科幻光年's weibo posts, Dave McCarty's quotes re: The Tianmen Project, and Neil Gaiman's Bluesky post.

UPDATE—January 29, 10:10am: Added reporting on Dave McCarty's Facebook apology.

UPDATE—January 30, 9:41pm: Added reporting on WIP censures and McCarty/Standlee resigntations.

UPDATE—February 15, 7:34am: Added reporting on Jason Sanford and Chris M. Barkley's reporting re: leaked Hugo admin emails and files.

UPDATE—February 15, 8:17am: Added reporting on email from Glasgow 2024 Chair.


Out & About

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Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.

Speaking of the Hugo Award statistics, lost in the mix was a fun little nugget: my book Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West was on the long list for "Best Related Work" with 25 nominations.

So, yay!

Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West

As a kid in the ’90s, I fought goblins and demons. Raised rebellions, traveled through time, and rode a whale into space. I became the Dragonmaster and the Hero of Light. Didn’t we all?

Get Fight, Magic, Items

Some more:

Spellbound : The Familiar Faces Creating the Story for Magic: The Gathering
If someone asked me how I got into fantasy, I’d bring up the summer of ’96. I was 12 years old and had just graduated elementary school. Enjoying one of the longest summers of my life. One day stan…

LTTP

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LTTP (Late to the Party) is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!

Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance, 2006)

Since its release almost 20 years ago, fans have been clamouring for an official release of Shigesato Itoi's Earthbound follow-up, Mother 3. Initially in development for the Nintendo 64, it eventually released on the Game Boy Advance—but despite its diminutive stature, it offers one of the most unique and startlingly compelling narrative experiences you can have with a video game. Period. So, for this edition of LTTP, I decided to dive head deep into a game that's been on my backlog for a very long time.

This isn't actually the first time I've played through the opening chapters of Mother 3, but it's the first time I've really committed to playing through the whole game, and the standout impression I've got is how different it is compared to Earthbound. Structurally, Earthbound followed a fairly straight-forward narrative path, as Ness gathered his friends, explored further afield, and eventually defeated the big bad. Mother 3, on the other hand, has a spiralling, interlocking narrative that switches between various characters through its first three chapters, laying out the world and the coming conflicts from various angles before converging into something more consistent in the fourth chapter. Earthbound and its NES prequel felt very much like Dragon Quest clones in the way their adventures played out, but Mother 3 feels wholly unique.

There's an overwhelming sense of loss and melancholy to the story as it grapples with the loss of the main character's mother, Hinawa, and the encroaching decay of capitalism in the small village of Tazmily. It's heady stuff, especially given the game's cartoonish setting and characters, but masterfully executed. I dare you not to shed a tear in the closing seconds of the first chapter. Few games that pretend to be "mature" handle their themes with even a fraction of the maturity of Mother 3.

I'm not that far, just nearing the end of the third chapter after about six hours of gameplay, but my overriding opinion is that, yeah, we should've got an official release of this game years ago. It's a gem.

Thank goodness it's got one of the all-time great fan translations.

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Mother 3 was release by Nintendo in 2006 for the Game Boy Advance. It's not officially available in North America.

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Your next great read.

All The Seas Of The World by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is, without a doubt, one of my very favourite authors. Every book he writes is a magical journey alongside characters who instantly become lifelong friends. But, I've only read about half his books, despite my love for his work. He's one of the few people I consider "rainy day writers," who I save for moments in my life when I need some magic. His latest, All The Seas of the World is no exception. Set in his alternate version of Europe, it's a close, personal story about exile and finding your place in the world, about how family is and isn't those with whom you share blood and relatives, and how love comes in many different forms. The prose is beautiful, poetic, but approachable and just melts away as you read. Another masterpiece from one of our finest living writers.

Get All The Seas Of The World by Guy Gavriel Kay


Quest Markers

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Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.

End Step

Sigh. Thank goodness I have a great book to read.

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Enjoy Astrolabe? Want more SFF and retro gaming goodies? You can find me on Twitter and my website.

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