2020 Hugo Awards Reflect Struggle Over History

Featured Image for 2019 Hugo Award

The weekend saw the presentation of the 2020 Hugo Awards at CoNZealand, this year’s iteration of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon, for short). Although the ongoing pandemic prevented CoNZealand from being held in physical form, like many similar events, it adapted to the situation by offering a virtual convention – and the Hugos were, as always, one of the main attractions. Once again, science fiction and fantasy fans and professionals from around the world joined together to learn the latest round of Hugo Award recipients.

A theme running through many of this year’s winners is that of alternate history. Arkady Martine’s debut novel A Memory Called Empire, a story of  intrigue in an interplanetary empire with Byzantine and Mesoamerican influences, earned the main prize of Best Novel. The Best Novella winner, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, is a humorous trip through various conflicting timelines in which a pair of agents in deadly conflict end up falling in love.

Meanwhile, the Best Short Story winner was “As the Last I May Know” by S. L. Huang, a riff on Cold War geopolitics depicting a society where the codes to activate a devastating weapon his hidden in the body of a child. The Best Novelette winner, “Emergency Skin” by N. K. Jemisin, does not deal with history – at least, not in as direct a manner as the aforementioned winners. However, its satirical story of a eugenic elite who forsake a futuristic Earth, only to find out that the planet is better off without them, can be read as a criticism of the assumptions made in earlier eras of science fiction.

James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse became the latest winner of Best Series, a comparatively recent category introduced in 2017. The award for Best Graphic Story or Comic went to LaGuardia by writer Nnedi Okorafor, artist Tana Ford and colourist James Devlin. Uncanny Magazine, which attracted attention last year for two special issues showcasing the work of disabled authors, was named Best Semiprozine. The Best Dramatic Presentation awards were won by Good Omens for Long Form and “The Answer”, an episode of The Good Place, for Short Form.

Ellen Datlow and Navah Wolfe won the Best Editor awards in the Short Form and Long Form categories respectively, while John Picacio was named Best Professional Artist. In the fan categories The Book Smugglers won Best Fanzine, Our Opinions are Correct was named Best Fancast, Bogi Takács took Best Fan Writer and Elise Matthesen earned Best Fan Artist.

The Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book – not officially a Hugo Award, but part of the same voting and presentation process at Worldcon – went to Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer, a novel derived from Kritzer’s short story “Cat Pictures Please” which won a Hugo in 2016.

The 2020 Hugos reflect a shake-up that occurred last year – one that concerns the awards’ engagement with the history of science fiction. When Jeannette Ng won the 2019 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, she used her acceptance speech to denounce the award’s namesake: “John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist… responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day,” she said. “Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.”

The discussion that arose from Ng’s remarks led to the prize being renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, with R. F. Kuang – author of The Poppy War and its sequels The Dragon Republic and The Burning God – becoming the first person to win the newly-titled award at this year’s Worldcon. Meanwhile, Jeannette Ng’s acceptance speech from 2019 won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work, allowing her to deliver another speech along similar lines. “Pulling down memorials to dead racists is not the erasing of history, it is how we make history,” began Ng in an emotional speech that touched upon issues ranging from the shrinking world of the pandemic to the protests and oppression occurring in Hong Kong.

George R. R. Martin presenting the 2020 Hugo Awards.
George R. R. Martin presenting the 2020 Hugo Awards. The full video can be viewed here.

George R. R. Martin acted as toastmaster, delivering prerecorded introductions to each Hugo Award category. Martin’s attitude provided a sharp contrast to the “out with the old, in with the new” ethos shared by so many of the winners and voters. Much of his considerable screen time was spent reminiscing about his own time in WorldCons past, interspersed with anecdotes about Robert Heinlein hiding in the convention kitchen or Joe Haldeman being thrown into a swimming pool; his name checking of past SF luminaries included the controversial John W. Campbell.

Padded out with comedy asides, Martin’s introductions tended to be rather long and lacked the engagement with an audience and co-hosts that might have lent shape to his routines in a physical convention. Martin had also clearly failed to familiarise himself with the finalists’ names, and mispronounced a number of them during the course of the ceremony: to pick one mishap, he rendered P. Djèlí Clerk’s middle name as “Dedgy.” Another gaffe occurred when Martin referred to the Astounding Award finalists as “six young men and women” when, in fact, all six are women.

Martin’s performance prompted much criticism. “Those stories about the olden days were actually interesting, but they also went on for much, much too long” said Best Fan Writer finalist Cora Buhlert. “Besides, those stories are better suited to a panel or the bar than to the Hugo ceremony.”

“There was absolutely no NZ cultural content to that show. None. Zero. At all” noted Alasdair Stuart, another Best Fan Writer runner-up. “Almost TWO HOURS of Salute to old white men though.”

Nibedita Sen, author of Best Short Story runner-up “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography of the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” and a finalist for the Astounding Award, was particularly vitriolic. “We just gave a woman of color a goddamn deserved Hugo for laying your fascist hero’s pimply ass bare in her ACCEPTANCE SPEECH for another Hugo,” she said. “You and your white darlings are done. Fuck off. We’re going to bury you… You pissed all over my first Hugo nomination in your feeble, dewy, scrabbles to cling to power, and I will never fucking forgive you. You’re pathetic. I’d feel sorry for you if you weren’t still trying to step on the necks of me and mine. I saw the future today, and it was queer and brown and Black and compassionate and clear-eyed and incandescent, and your blunted yammerings were an embarrassment in contrast”.

The convention chairs issued an apology for George R. R. Martin’s errors, as Martin later did himself.

“Pronunciation has never been my strong suit. I even mispronounce the name of my own characters at times (witness some of my interviews),” said Martin. “But at no point in the process was I ever given a phonetic guide to how to pronounce all the other finalists, the ones who did not win. Had I received that, I would certainly have made every effort to get all the names correct… I do hereby apologize to everyone and anyone whose name I mispronounced. I am deeply sorry. That was never my intent.”

CoNZealand also played host to the 1945 Retro Hugo Awards. Presented two days before the 2020 awards, these were set up to honour works that might have been recognised had there been a Worldcon in 1945, one of the years in which World War II prevented the convention from being held. Leigh Brackett won two awards, with Shadow Over Mars earning Bet Novel and her non-fiction article “The Science-Fiction Field” being named Best Related Work. Other winners included Theodore Sturgeon’s novella “Killdozer!”, Clifford D. Simak’s novelette “City”, Ray Bradbury’s short story “I, Rocket”, artist Margaret Brundage, author Fritz Leiber (in his capacity as fan writer), the fanzine Voice of the Imagi-Nation, the Superman story “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk” and the films The Canterville Ghost and The Curse of the Cat People.

Like the main awards, the Retro Hugos had their share of controversy. John W. Campbell won in the Best Editor category, while Best Series – the first time this category had been represented at the Retro Hugos – went to the Cthulhu Mythos, conceived by H. P. Lovecraft. A number of commentators saw this not simply as an effort to honour an editor and author who were, indeed, both extremely influential in their time, but as something more objectionable.

“A bit exhausted that the Sff community continues to give awards to writers who thought people like me were abominations and existential threats to civilization and sanity” said author Aliette de Bodard, who was a Hugo finalist in 2018 and 2019. Paul Weimer, another 2020 candidate for Best Fan Writer, expressed similar thoughts. “When you put up an award, a statue a memorial, you are saying ‘This is what is important. This who we are. This is what matters’” he commented. “And when that person is problematic as fuck, then you are telling a lot of people THEY don’t matter. THEIR work doesn’t count”.

Jason Sanford – not a Hugo finalist this year, although he did make the longlist for Best Fan Writer – took the opportunity to criticise the Retro Hugos as a concept. “I’m pretty sure some of the Retro-Hugo voters saw this as a chance to push back against the genre’s recent work to expose the racism and hatred of Lovecraft and Campbell”, he said. “So congrats, Worldcon, your inane retro award got hijacked to make a political statement.”

Cora Buhlert, on the other hand, wrote more favourably about the implications of the Cthulhu Mythos winning a Hugo. “I don’t view this solely as a win for H.P. Lovecraft, but for everybody who ever wrote a story in the world he created,” she said. “And this includes authors as diverse as Victor LaValle, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Ruthanna Emrys, Matt Ruff, Neil Gaiman, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and many, many others, some of whom would have horrified Lovecraft. So while Lovecraft was undoubtedly a racist, he also created a universe in which many writers have played over the years.”

“Cthulhu is an icon,” added Buhlert, “and has his own plush toy, so doesn’t he deserve a Hugo?”

It seems safe to say that the debates surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards will in some way inform the handling of the Hugos at the 2021 Worldcon. Until then, we can perhaps find comfort in the fact that – whatever their failings – the 2020 Hugo Awards gave us a prime opportunity to read and discuss our favourite SFF books as per usual, lending a semblance of normalcy to this tumultuous year.

Series Navigation<< 2020 Hugo Awards Reviews: Novels – Part 3
Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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