Back in May, winners of the 2011 Nebula Awards were announced at the Nebula Weekend in Washington, D.C. In a little less than two weeks, the winners of the 2011 Hugo Awards will be announced at the World Science Fiction convention in Reno, Nevada. These are two of the big annual awards in science fiction and fantasy.
The Hugo award, first given out in 1953, is science fiction and fantasy’s “people’s choice” equivalent. It is voted on by members of the World Science Fiction convention, those members consisting mostly of fans. The Nebula award, first given out in 1965, is science fiction and fantasy’s “Oscar”, voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
They are not the only awards.
Over the years awards have proliferated and become increasingly narrowcasted. But such a proliferation seems to occur in most mediums. There are countless awards for television and motion pictures, for instance, and there are an equally prolific number of awards for literature outside the bounds of science fiction and fantasy.
Any award season brings baggage with its accolades. Is there a point to these awards. What service do they perform for the genre? Do they make things more competitive? Do they help to sell more books? Is the voting method fair? Is the whole thing just a sham? These are legitimate questions and they were on my mind as I cast my vote for the Hugo awards a few weeks back.
With awards come controversy. In 1955, Mark Clifton and Frank Riley‘s novel, They’d Rather Be Right won the Hugo for best novel. Many wise people in science fiction believe this to be the worst novel ever to win a Hugo. (I thought it was an okay book when I read it in January 2000.) Early in the history of the awards, voting was so low that a winner could be determined by a vote or two and the total number of votes was very small–meaning that “best novel” or “best short story” was being determined by a handful of fans. In addition, awards like the Hugo and Nebula are often likened to popularity contests with fans and colleagues voting for the writers as opposed to the works.
With these kinds of controversies surrounding them, do awards like the Hugo and Nebula have any value? I think they do.
These awards provide a mechanism for fans to express their opinions about writers and their works. Those opinions might sometimes be more about the former than the latter, but that doesn’t make the opinion any less valuable. At the individual level, a vote for a Hugo or a Nebula says, “Hey, I like you and I like what you write. Keep up the good work.” Collectively, the votes represent a crowd-sourced opinion of the current state of science fiction and fantasy literature.
One might argue that under these circumstances, fan are not voting for the best work. I know of no objective measures for what we mean by “best.” I’ve voted for books that I felt were outstanding examples of what our genre can achieve, and others have pointed to those same books as the worst book ever written. Without objective measures, “best” is a relative term and we have to learn to deal with that reality. (Even if we had objective measures, I suspect it wouldn’t matter. Look at baseball’s All Star game, where players who are better on paper get left off the ballot and players who are not as good on paper get on the ballot.)
Then, too, there are a lot of works that get nominated and it is virtually impossible (for me at least) to read all of them. I used to worry over this, but I stopped worrying some time back when I began to think of these awards as a way for me to express my opinion and appreciation of what managed to read. (I read only one of the novels up for the Hugo this year and I had no problem voting for that novel because it was a fantastic book and my vote shows my appreciation of that.)
In addition to providing a way for fans and peers to give kudos to their favorite works and writers, awards like the Hugo and Nebula have PR value. They are a good way of recruiting new members to the ranks of science fiction and fantasy fandom. “What science fiction books should I start out reading?” is a question I occasionally get from friends who are not science fiction readers. Books I normally suggest are books that have appeared on the Hugo or Nebula lists. Those lists provide a convenient accumulation of what fans and peers have generally agreed are good books in the genre. Note that I do not say they are the “best” books of the genre. Despite the labels given to the awards, “best” is simply too subjective for me. But I suspect most fans would agree that the overall quality level of Hugo and Nebula award-winning pieces are above-par. There will be those that disagree, but such disagreement is not unique to science fiction awards.
These reasons may not reflect the original intent of the awards, but I suspect they are pretty close to what those who created the Hugo and Nebula had in mind. They are valuable because they provide a mechanism to express appreciation and because they leave us with a list of above-par examples of our genre. They are also fun and the award ceremonies are the highlight of their respective conventions. Winning an award might not make a writer rich, but it certainly makes them feel appreciated.