The 2023 Hugo debacle

Most people who don’t follow science fiction fandoms and literature are probably not aware of the latest blowup related to the Hugos – one of the premier awards in the science fiction genre.

The Hugo Awards are handed out at the Worldcon, and the 2023 Worldcon was held in January in Chengdu, China. Holding a convention like Worldcon in an undemocratic country is always a bit controversial, and this years Worldcon shows why this is the case, and why organisations should avoid making conferences and conventions such places. NY Times reports on the story.

Some Authors Were Left Out of Awards Held in China. Leaked Emails Show Why

The Hugo Awards, a major literary prize for science fiction, have been engulfed in controversy over revelations that some writers may have been excluded based on their perceived criticism of China or the Chinese government.

Suspicions in the science fiction community have been building for weeks that something was amiss with last year’s awards, which rotate to a different city each year, and in 2023 were hosted in Chengdu, China. Now, newly released emails show that the awards were likely manipulated because of political concerns.

What happened was that some works were marked as not edible for an award, including the critically acclaimed Babel by R.F. Kuang and the successful Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. This obviously raised the concern that it “was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility” as Kuang put it on Instagram.

This was confirmed when emails were leaked

The exclusion of popular authors of Chinese descent led to speculation that the awards’ administrators had weeded out those whose political views might prove controversial in China. Those suspicions were confirmed recently, when emails leaked by Diane Lacey, a member of last year’s Hugo administration team, were published in a report by Chris M. Barkley, a science fiction fan and journalist, and Jason Sanford, a journalist and science fiction writer.

The email correspondence published in the report showed that Dave McCarty, one of the Hugo administrators, had advised other members to vet the finalists and “highlight anything of a sensitive political nature” in China, including works that focused “on China, Taiwan, Tibet or other topics that may be an issue in China.” Such works, he added, might not be safe to put on the ballot.

“This really just cut to the core of the awards,” Sanford said. “For a genre that believes so deeply in free speech to willingly take part in doing research on political issues of awards finalists, knowing that it’s going to be used to eliminate some of those finalists, it’s outrageous.”

In an interview with The Times, Lacey confirmed that she had provided the emails, and said that she shared them publicly because she regretted her actions, and wanted to ensure that the Hugos would not be tainted again in the future. “I felt very guilty about what I did and wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror again,” she said.

It is hardly news that there is controversy around the Hugo awards – from right-winged attempts on trying to overcome “wokeness” to more or less direct accusations of writers trying to buy votes, but this is the first time where the Hugos have been affected by the wishes of a government. This is a new low for the Hugos, which by many is considered the most democratic of the science fiction awards.

Each Worldcon stands on its own, so the actions of this Worldcon should not reflect badly on the next one, which is taking place in Glasgow. Even so, the upcoming organizers of the Worldcon has apologized, and has promised that there will be transparency about the administration of the awards.

My hope is that people will continue supporting the Worldcons, but also that they won’t be in undemocratic countries in the future. Let this one dark spot be the catalyst to make sure that cons in the future happens in democracies.