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Hugos give more nods to women, but nominations still stir controversy

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The Hugo Award nominations were announced this weekend, and we all know what that means: It’s time for sci-fi fans to argue about who got overlooked and who received a nomination without deserving it, and What That Means For The Science Fiction Community.

Actually, it seems like the 2014 Awards may be a little more forward-thinking than the Hugos have been for a while. For the past few years, there’s been a lot of discussion in the sci-fi community about whether the Hugos have been weighted in favor of the old guard of science fiction and fantasy: middle-aged white men.

Nothing highlighted this issue better than the immediate backlash when it was announced that British talk show host Jonathan Ross, who's attracted a fair amount of criticism over the years for sexist remarks, would be presenting this year’s award ceremony. However, building on last year’s results, the spread of 2014 nominees indicates another step towards recognizing gender parity in SF/F writing.

The Best Novel category is dominated by old favorites like Charles Stross and Robert Jordan. But as with the Best Novelette category, two of the five nominees are women. In that regard, the most interesting category is probably Long Form Dramatic presentation, in which four of the five nominated films have female protagonists: Frozen, Pacific Rim, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Gravity.

So much for the ongoing delusion that blockbuster sci-fi movies need to focus on men to be a box office success.

The most predictable category by far was for Short Form Dramatic Presentation, which generally goes to TV episodes but is also open to radio plays or theatre productions. Despite the growing popularity of Welcome to Night Vale, none of its episodes were shortlisted, with this year’s field once again being overwhelmed by Doctor Who.

Since the show rebooted in 2005, Doctor Who has been nominated in at least two or three of the available slots every year, even for episodes that many fans found pretty disappointing. The resulting impression is that most people with Hugo nomination ballots watch one TV show and one TV show only: Doctor Who. This year brings showrunner Steven Moffat’s personal Hugo nomination count up to 12 since 2006, and that doesn’t even include all the nominated episodes by other Doctor Who writers.

Without a doubt, the biggest shake-up was in the Fan Writer category. This is kind of a weird one, because despite the changing face of sci-fi and fantasy fandom, it took until 2014 for this Hugo category to catch up with the Internet. In the past, one fanzine editor was nominated 31 times and won 19 years in a row in this category, with the rest of the field mostly made up of similar nominees. This year, the change was drastic.

For the first time ever, the majority of nominees are women, several of whom write regularly about sexism and discrimination within the community. After a year of infighting about the role of women in science fiction, this sends a very clear message about the type of fan writer who resonates with the community at the moment.

Of course, no awards season would be complete without some kind of serious controversy, and this year it’s the nomination of Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” for Best Novelette. Or to be more precise, the nomination of Vox Day himself, since many of his critics probably haven’t read the story in question.

Vox Day, also known as Theodore Beale, may well be better known for his political values and blog feuds than his work as an author. In the past he’s been criticized for describing homosexuality as a “birth defect,” making highly controversial statements about rape, and referring to people of color as “half-savages”—which eventually led to him being expelled from the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). His ongoing feud with Hugo Award-winning author John Scalzi inspired Scalzi to set up an initiative where people could donate to human rights charities like RAINN whenever Scalzi was insulted on Vox Day’s blog.

Vox Day’s appearance on a Hugo shortlist has already led to an influx of sci-fi fans and bloggers expressing disgust at his writing and political views, even extending to a few conspiracy theories that he might have stuffed the ballot box. However, his defence (or at least, a call to order) has come from an unlikely quarter: John Scalzi, Vox Day’s longtime enemy and critic.

In a blog post titled “No, the Hugo nominations were not rigged,” Scalzi points out that while Day campaigned for his own nomination in a rather unorthodox fashion, he didn’t break any rules. Although Day and fellow Hugo nominee Larry Correia both posted lists of “recommended” nominees, this was technically no different from any other author campaigning for a place on the Hugo ballot. Plus, crucially, a place on the shortlist doesn’t necessarily lead to an award. The actual winner is determined by people voting on the merit of each nominated work on the shortlist.

“If work was shunted onto the list to make a political point and without regard to its quality, and it is crap, you’re going to know it when you read that work, and you should judge it accordingly,” Scalzi wrote.

With nominations season coming up at the end of a long year of discussions (and flamewars) about discrimination and diversity in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, there was no way the 2014 Hugo nominees weren’t going to be analyzed for political subtext. Most of the major categories were relatively predictable, and with the exception of Vox Day’s nomination, uncontroversial. The Fan Writer category is undoubtedly the biggest change, because it directly represents the audience rather than the creators of science fiction: younger, far more diverse, and writing on the Internet rather than in print zines or newsletters.

The crucial thing to remember here is that unlike the Oscars, the nominations process for a Hugo is far from obscure. Anyone with a ticket to Worldcon 2013, 2014, or 2015 could submit a ballot, along with people with a “supporting membership” of the World Science Fiction Society. In other words, the people have spoken, and we’ll just have to wait till the awards ceremony to find out if the actual winners are as “political” as some people fear.

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