Hugo 2023 ballot – a couple of thoughts

First of all, this is the first year since 2018 that I have not been involved with the Hugos, and I’m finding it curiously liberating. Best of luck to Dave and the team; there have clearly been some glitches (as there are every year), but we do it because we love celebrating the best of the genre.

1,847 nominating votes is a good tally – the highest since 2017, which was my first year, and the fifth highest ever, after the 2014-2017 peak. Incidentally, one of the Sad Puppy talking points, back in 2014-15, was that Hugo participation was in potentially terminal decline because people were nominating the Wrong Things. In fact both nominating and final ballot votes had increased steadily year-on-year from 2007 to 2011, and then stabilised before surging again in 2014.The peak in final ballot votes was reached in 2015 and the peak in nominations in 2016, largely in reaction against the Puppies.

I don’t have formal tallies for the final ballot votes in 2006 and 2007, or for nominations in 2004; the number I have given here is the highest count in any single category, which is generally 50%-80% of the full number.

The 2023 announcement video refers to votes for “25,000 individual works”, but I think this must mean the total sum of the number of nominating votes for each and every individual nominee. I have last year’s figures to hand, and I see that the total number of nominations, counting every single vote separately, was just over 24,000 with 1,386 voters, so that suggests that 2023 voters had an average of 13.5 things on their ballots, while 2022’s voters had an average of 17.5.

One technical point, because it is a category that interests me: the leaked version of the ballot for Best Related Work included The Art of Ghost of Tsushima, but the final ballot includes instead Buffalito World Outreach Project, by Lawrence M. Schoen. The fact is that The Art of Ghost of Tsushima was published in 2020, and therefore is not eligible for the 2023 Hugos. I will add that back in 2021, when the game Ghost of Tsushima seemed likely to make it to the ballot for the Best Video Game special category, we were a little concerned that it does not have much in the way of sfnal elements – despite the title, its setting is firmly historical and rooted in the real world of Japan in the 1270s. I suppose we would have allowed it in the end, on the technicality that you can heal your character by the use of charms.

Buffalito World Outreach Project is a single short story, published in thirty different translations. It very clearly fits the rubric of Best Related Work, which states that to be eligible, a nominee “if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and … is not eligible in any other category.” The story “Buffalo Dogs” itself was first published in 2001, so it is not eligible for the Best Short Story or Best Novelette categories (at 7800 words it’s on the cusp between them). And the whole point of Buffalito World Outreach Project is that it’s noteworthy not for the primary text but because of the translations. We applied exactly the same argument in 2021 when deciding on the eligibility of the eventual winner of the category, Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf.

When I ran the stats on Thursday, Buffalito World Outreach Project unusually had only two owners on Goodreads and none at all on LibraryThing, very very low for a commercially publish Hugo finalist. But it had 56 Kickstarter backers, and I suspect that half of that number nominating it for the Hugo would have been sufficient to get it seventh place on the ballot after The Art of Ghost of Tsushima was disqualified. (Last year, the seventh placed nominee in that category had 23 votes, and the year before, 27.)

The Art of Ghost of Tsushima was among the subjects of two competing conspiracy theories. The 2023 Hugos have been subject to unprecedented and deeply regrettable negative attacks from certain quarters of fandom, determined to discover the traces of undue Chinese Communist Party influence on the process, despite the absence of any evidence whatsoever that the CCP takes the slightest interest in the Hugo Awards.

On the one hand, a commenter on File 770 said that:

As described on Wikipedia, the Ghost of Tsushima game is about “a samurai on a quest to protect Tsushima Island during the first Mongol invasion of Japan.” I could see a Chinese censor objecting to that being on the list. Without more to go on, though, it’s just speculation.

To allege that censors are manipulating the Hugo ballot is a really strong accusation, and weasel words about “it’s just speculation” don’t make it any better. It is disgraceful to make such a statement without any proof, especially since the real explanation is pretty straightforward: the book was published in the wrong year.

There has also been a similar suggestion that Babel, by R.F. Kuang, was removed from the list, either by censors or by Kuang declining the nomination. Obviously only Kuang herself can speak to the latter point, and I’m sure she will at a time of her choosing; on the former, it’s worth noting that most critics, including Kuang herself in interviews, see Babel as a critique of British imperialism, and it’s difficult to see why Chinese censors might get upset about that.

Babel has indeed proved very popular, has already won the Nebula and Locus Awards, and is ahead of the actual finalists on Goodreads and LibraryThing (over 110,000 GR ratings, almost 2,500 LT owners, compared with 90,000 and 1,500 for the top Hugo finalist). But Hugo voters have different tastes to Nebula and Locus voters, and it’s not at all unusual that a Nebula winning novel fails to make the Hugo ballot – I count eight precedents so far this century, starting with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents.

Another crucial point is that a number of successful finalists have been pretty critical of the Chinese government. One of them, Chris M. Barkley, comments:

I also think my, and the other nominees from the US and (presumably, other nations) refutes any claims that the Chengdu Worldcon Committee or the Chinese Communist Party have the final say or control over the process.

(Technically of course the Chengdu Worldcon Committee does have control of the process under the WSFS Constitution, but I imagine that they have followed the usual practice of irrevocably delegating all such powers to a special subcommittee.)

On the other hand, a different narrative has the sinister Chinese putting finalists on the ballot rather than taking them off it. One Facebook commenter went full froth on this:

“I sense some state purchased memberships and vote buying”

A more nuanced approach came from Tweeter @ErsatzCulture, who discovered an April 2023 recommendation list for nominators from the Chinese website Science Fiction World.

This was discussed on File 770, a debate that I also contributed to. It’s notable that in several categories there were more recommendations than votes available (there are only six finalists per category and you can only vote for five). It’s also notable that The Art of Ghost of Tsushima was one of the recommendations made by Science Fiction World, even though it was not actually eligible. Given the rather low impact of the recommendation list, I would be surprised if the number of voters who followed it can be demonstrated to be more than a couple of dozen – roughly 1% of the 2,006 voters who supported Chengdu as the 2023 Worldcon site. There are individual authors in the USA who can and do regularly mobilise twice that number to support their own Hugo nominations, without apparently attracting scandalised criticism from wider fandom.

(And I think the conspiracy theorists have to choose – are the Chinese fiendishly adding the Tsushima book to the ballot? Or fiendishly removing it?)

The World Science Fiction Society is not as global as its name would claim. I was very sorry that in my first run as Hugo Administrator, for Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in 2017, saw no Finns on the final ballot (there were Finnish runners-up in Best Graphic Story and Best Semiprozine).

Edited to add: Silly me. There were in fact two Finnish finalists in Best Fan Artist. My apologies to them.

It’s fundamentally a very good thing that the Hugos are a little less dominated by America this year than in previous years, and it’s also not at all surprising that a Worldcon in China gets more Chinese finalists on the Hugo ballot than previously. Those voters will also be eligible to nominate next year, when it will be my turn to be involved again, and I hope we’ll see a diverse Hugo ballot also in 2024.

One thought on “Hugo 2023 ballot – a couple of thoughts

  1. I know British Isles Worldcons tend to have more Brits/Irish on the ballot. But I seem to remember reading somewhere that this wasn’t due to a block influx of British nominators, but due to North American nominators preferring such works. Either on the basis that “Eh, it’s their turn” or reflecting a preference to have winners actually present in person, rather than just a load of designated acceptors.

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