Since 1992 I have had a long association with the Hugo Awards for SF & Fantasy given by the World Science Fiction Society/Convention. In 1993 I published the Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was for some time the largest anthology of current fiction every published, and one of the earliest major e-book projects. While I did it as a commercial venture, in the years to come it became the norm for the award organizers to publish an electronic anthology of willing nominees for free to the voters.
This year, things are highly controversial, because a group of fans/editors/writers calling themselves the “Sad Puppies,” had great success with a campaign to dominate the nominations for the awards. They published a slate of recommended nominations and a sufficient number of people sent in nominating ballots with that slate so that it dominated most of the award categories. Some categories are entirely the slate, only one was not affected. It’s important to understand the nominating and voting on the Hugos is done by members of the World SF Society, which is to say people who attend the World SF Convention (Worldcon) or who purchase special “supporting” memberships which don’t let you go but give you voting rights. This is a self-selected group, but in spite of that, it has mostly manged to run a reasonably independent vote to select the greatest works of the year. The group is not large, and in many categories, it can take only a score or two of nominations to make the ballot, and victory margins are often small. As such, it’s always been possible, and not even particularly hard, to subvert the process with any concerted effort. It’s even possible to do it with money, because you can just buy memberships which can nominate or vote, so long as a real unique person is behind each ballot.
The nominating group is self-selected, but it’s mostly a group that joins because they care about SF and its fandom, and as such, this keeps the award voting more independent than you would expect for a self-selected group. But this has changed.
The reasoning behind the Sad Puppy effort is complex and there is much contentious debate you can find on the web, and I’m about to get into some inside baseball, so if you don’t care about the Hugos, or the social dynamics of awards and conventions, you may want to skip this post.
The Sad Puppies feel that their favoured subgenre of SF has been ignored, perhaps overtly, by the main group of fans, and they claim they created their slate to correct this. This is entirely within the rules, most people agree, and there is even some argument as to whether it violates the spirit of the rules. It’s always been allowed to advocate online for your favourite choices and to publish lists of recommendations. What’s new is the use of a specific slate of recommendations which was created after an internal poll among the group and an overt effort at bloc voting.
The reason this is concerning is that normally many people nominate, and their nominations are spread over many candidates. As such, very few candidates get a lot of nominations. In 2014, 43 nominations got a short story on the ballot, and the top story got only 79. (Numbers are higher for the “top” category, the best novel.) As such a group of 80 people, should they coordinate their actions on a common slate would end up deciding all the short story nominees. 80 people each voting their own tastes without coordination would never do this.
Because there are a lot of political overtones to the Sad Puppy movement, let me propose an analogous hypothetical event without those overtones to help consider the issues.
A group of around 200 Steampunk fans, upset at the way the awards have ignored steampunk, get together online and hold an internal poll on the best steampunk of the year. From that poll, they pick the best 4 or 5 called “SP3” and recommend that all their members nominate exactly that slate. They also suggest that other steampunk fans who are not regular members join the convention to express this view. As a result, the ballot comes out with many categories mostly or completely dominated by steampunk. This list includes some creators who have received nominations in the past without the slate, and some who did not ask to be on the slate.
By coordinating, the SP group violated the spirit of the system in the view of most people. The SPs themselves argue that there was a lot of groupthink in the main community, even speculating it was deliberate. It’s not deliberate in my view, but there are certainly fan favourite authors who routinely do very well, which offers some frustration to those who might be viewed as outsiders. Until the SPs, there was never an overt attempt to coordinate.
Those who care about the awards find themselves distraught. Some categories are all SP slate. A few have one or two which are not SP, but even if the fans vote for them overwhelmingly, they will win without having faced the true competition an independent nomination process would have provided. Some entries on the SP slate did not ask to be there (though most agreed to it.) Some entries on the SP slate are established nominees who have been nominated before without it. Some are writers are works which are highly disdained and pretty clearly would not have made an independent ballot. One writer of minor stature broke the record by having 6 different nominations for his work, and a tiny publishing house run by one of the SP organizers dominates the ballot; something again that never would have happened. On top of all this, some candidates who would have been nominated were displaced from the ballot, losing their chance for recognition. (It is fairly often that the winner is not the work with the most nominations.)
Leaving aside the debate about the motives and methods of the SPs, I want to discuss the question of what, if anything can be done about it, and should it be done?
No matter what, the award and its reputation come out of this damaged. The SPs don’t really win either. They have certainly won attention, and since one of their goals was indeed to disrupt the original award process which they see as corrupted, they have also done that. It is likely, however, that the nominated works on the slates will lose, possibly to the “No Award” choice, or if they win, to receive awards commonly viewed as tainted.
Fighting slates with slates
Several have published analysis of the ballot, and who is on it because of the slates. In effect, they offer their own slate for the voting, encouraging people to not vote for the SP nominees even if they find them of sufficient quality. Some also advocate voting only for the special “No Award” candidate in the categories that are completely, or even just partially tainted by the slate nominating. If No Award does well, then no award is given out in that category. It is meant to say, “There was nothing this year that met our standards” but in practice it has not happened since the era of 1970s bad SF movies.
There is an ironic problem to fighting slates with slates of course, especially if you attempt to distinguish the “good” people who happened to be on the slate from the “bad” who never could have had a chance without the slate.
An even more extreme suggestion for future years calls for the mainstream group to develop its own slate somehow, through a hopefully more independent process that can’t be gamed, and to have this overwhelm the special interest slate. This would be very challenging to accomplish.
Eliminating the supporting membership, or boosting it
Two contradictory suggestions. If only people who buy the much more expensive “attending” membership can nominate or vote, it becomes very difficult to convince people to just buy memberships to promote an agenda. On the other hand, it’s a matter of debate whether a lot of the SPs were outsiders who came in just to nominate their agenda. The alternate suggestion is to make it very cheap to nominate and vote, so lots more people do it, overwhelming the affect of slates. I seriously doubt that would work.
Variations could include allowing supporting memberships only for recent holders of attending memberships, or those who have not had a worldcon on their continent for several years (and thus could not attend.) One could even count actual attendance based on who picked up badges.
Allowing fewer nominations than slots
Today you can nominate 5 works for 5 positions, allowing a slate sweep. Making it so you get fewer nominations than there are slots makes it much harder to do a slate sweep, though you can still have a slate that pushes some number of non-slate works off the ballot. A sweep is still possible, but requires a group twice the size.
Note that this, or any other change the rules requires 2 years to enact, as all changes must be voted on at one convention, ratified at the next, and come into effect at the next after that.
It’s also been proposed to develop rules to greatly increase the number of slots (particularly if a slate is present) to make sure non-slate works are not pushed off. Unfortunately, a ballot of 10 or 15 entries is not workable, nobody has time to read them all.
Well known cryptographer Ron Rivest has proposed a nomination system where ballots may nominate several entries, but as soon as one of those entries makes the ballot, the ballot is eliminated, and none of its other nominations will go in tallies. (In one variation the nominations may be given preferences, so that we understand the voter’s desire as to which candidate should get a nomination if it is to be only one of them.) This approach resists slates, and any other clustering of nominations, producing much greater diversity in the ballot — possibly to the extreme. (For example, if a large section of nominators strongly favour one particular subgenre, like hard SF, and send in only that, then once the most popular of their group choice gets a nomination, the rest have much reduced chances of getting one.) This system is similar in many ways to the multi-winner version of Single Transferable Vote. STV (single winner) is used in the Hugo final ballot.
Another proposal involves weighted nominations, where nominators can spread a fixed number of points over their nominees. This encourages ballots with just one nominee among those who care.
Other proposals include a “maximizing happiness” function which finds the set of choices that please the most people, where that’s defined as what fraction of your nominees got nominated. In some variants, it may be non-linear, so you don’t gain as much happiness for each extra nominee that makes it. Another approach reduces the weight of your other nominations with every nomination you have which makes the final list.
These systems resist slates, but introduce strategic factors into the nomination process. Generally, the Hugo awards seek a system where “strategy” is not productive. This is why the ranked single-transferable-vote system is used in the actual voting. In the prior system, there are few effective stratagems, except collusion, which is what SP introduced.
This proposal and much discussion can be found in an article by my fellow EFF board member Bruce Schneier on the Making Light blog.
Voting for No Award
As noted, some plan to use the No Award system. They will either simply vote only for No Award in the tainted categories, or rank the non-tainted nominees and then No Award. (Some, incorrectly, say they will rank tainted nominees below No Award on their preference list, which works only if you list all nominees, but is very much the wrong thing to do if you leave works you didn’t read off your ballot, since this can turn your ballot into one that supports the works you judged unworthy. People like to talk about this because it seems more satisfying to explicitly list a work as worse than No Award rather than to have it happen implicitly.)
If most of the categories have No Award, it would rebuke the slate approach somewhat, saying, “we will not allow this to work” though the SPs may still feel they got a satisfactory disruption of the system. It is uncertain if they would stop the slate approach — this was the 3rd year of attempting it.
Understand that some proposals call for selecting No Award, even when there are non-slate, suitable candidates in the category. That’s because those candidates are running without proper competition. Their awards, if won, will forever be viewed by some as less real, because it is unknown how well they would have done against a more independently selected set of opponents. Some even wonder if it should be done in the Best Fan Artist category, which has no SP-slate nominees, to say, “If you are going to corrupt our award, we will cancel it this year.”
The Hugo Committee is bound to follow the rules, since no rules appear to have been broken. As such, it would also be wrong for them to take actions to bias the vote. They do have a number of options at their disposal should they wish to send a strong message, though it may not be their place to do so.
Downplay the Hugos
The convention is required to award the Hugos, but it need not do it in a fancy ceremony. It could start voting immediately and close it in one month, and announce the results in a press release, mailing out statues without the traditional fancy base to any winners in categories that did not go to No Award. It might be argued that such an approach would implicitly be encouraging the awarding of no award and thus a violation of the strong ethic of impartiality within the committee. On the other hand, it might be argued that with the award itself threatened, some partiality is reasonable if done with due process.
(I will note the committee is required to release the detailed nomination and voting results within 90 days of their “ceremony.”)
Run a replacement award
Further, the committee could then do a second award, under a different name like the Sasqward. It could make use of the nominee list to remove the slate nominations from ballots that voted for more than a given threshold of slate candidates, in theory producing something very close to the ballot that would have appeared without slate voters, or with a smaller number of them. It could conduct a vote on those nominees, using the same list of voters as the official Hugo award. It could have a fancy ceremony to give out those awards.
All this is possible, and would be a strong rebuke to the slate approach, but it would also be a clear effort by the committee to bias and downplay the actual Hugo awards. I believe it would only make sense to do this if there was a nearly universal consensus among both the Hugo subcommittee and the convention committee (even though it has delegated its powers in this regard) or even the existing members — a universal consensus that the use of slate nomination is so anathema to the process that a drastic measure should be taken to correct it.
The second award would not be a Hugo. It is possible that the members of the next two conventions could vote and ratify an amendment making it a Hugo, but that might be going too far.
In addition, this is a short term fix, and sadly there may not be a long term fix to slate voting. The system has always worked to some degree on an honour basis, and escalating the battle to this level would dispose of much of the honour in the system.
(Note that because publishing an alternate ballot would disclose information about nominees who did not make the original official ballot, the traditional interpretation of the ambiguous rule about release of that information requires the new ballot not be disclosed until after the Hugo ceremony if you wish to play it beyond reproach.)
The alternate award might also be nominated by a jury, said jury perhaps guided by, but not bound by the original Hugo nominating ballots, to keep things above reproach. The committee in its instruction to voters would encourage or discourage no choices, or even explain the reason for the different award approach.
Change the counting of the 2016 Hugos
The WSFS constitution is designed to resist change, so generally no change can affect the nomination and balloting of the 2015 or 2016 Hugos. A loophole permits an amendment ratified at the start of the 2016 Worldcon to alter the counting of the final ballots, if they are not counted until after the convention. (They must be collected before the convention.)
See what happens
It is perhaps most likely that those involved will just see what happens. Hugo committees are not encouraged to take leadership and do bold things. The likely result will be a mix of:
- No Award winning some categories
- Non-slate nominees winning some categories, with a taint on their victory
- A small number of slate candidates winning, particularly ones who already are of recognized quality. Some might refuse their awards.
All in all the brand of the award will be seriously tarnished, and it’s uncertain where the various players would go from here. Would the SPs be satisfied? Would new slates arise, in opposition to the SP effort should it return? Will people simply lose interest in the award.
Add human judgement to counter efforts to abuse the rules
Tweaking the rules only has limited utility. It may be that attacks by clever humans can only be reliably countered by some form of human judgement by authorities. For example, a simple rule stating that if the Hugo Committee rules (after some due process) that an effort has been made to hurt or steal the award, that they can take reasonable steps to reverse it. Transparency, accountability and appeal would be of value in any system of jurisprudence.
Create a different award that’s harder to game
The world has changed since the Hugo award was created. If it can no longer be a valid somewhat independent way of identifying the great works, it could be that other methods should arise. Several other organizations have awards and polls, though if they got the stature of the Hugo award, they would also be gamed. The Nebula award, which is voted by professional writers, is slightly harder to game but not impossible. Thanks to the internet, reaching fans and conducting a poll or vote is much easier and cheaper than it used to be.
An independent award could be done from a random sampling of some large and well selected set of SF fans — for example every known attendee of any significant and established convention. (It is not sufficient to just randomly select from current convention members, unless those selected can be somehow pushed to participate at a higher rate than normal.)
Another popular alternate for nomination is juries. For an award like the Hugo, jurors might be any recent winner of a Hugo (with the provision that by joining the jury, they disqualify themselves from nomination in that year.) Or winners of a larger set of awards or others who meet some other objective bar. This would produce a different set of nominations, to be sure. Some would like that and some would dislike it. Any reasonably selected jury would be largely immune to slate approaches. For the actual voting, the preference ballot approach used counters many attempts to game the system, though not all.
Again, anything that is more random will be more populist, and different from the current system, where the people who vote and nominated have tended to be the people who care enough to vote and nominate. Having voters who care has both positive results and the negative biases of self-selection. Those of us with a background in statistics would probably judge a less self-selected system as giving superior results. At the same time, the more populist the system is, the closer it might come to just being a proxy for book sales.
Until the arrival of the complete nominee anthologies that I pioneered, and to a lesser degree after them, there has been a risk that sales and popularity drive the voting too much. In many ways, having a random set of voters who are given copies of all nominees and who agree to actually read them and judge them independently might be a very good thing.
A new award might replace the Hugo, though as contentious as the Worldcon political process is, I am not sure I would bet on that. If not, it would take some time for it to receive the prestige. In spite of the flaws of the Hugo process, the age of the Hugo award has given it premier status. Publishers and authors believe that winning the award builds an author’s stature and sales, and so they care about it.
One way to combine the ideas of juries and nominators is to have a jury of delegates. Convention members could name a juror. Either the top N jurors would be come the jury, or possibly anybody who can get some number of delegations, like 100, becomes a juror. The jurors can announce their philosophy before receiving support. For example, some jurors might just ask their constituents to send in nominations, and use solely that to pick their nomination ballot. Some jurors might offer to be guided but not bound by that. Some might be free jurors, asking people to trust their tastes. Some might have subgenre or political bents.
Like award juries though, the jurors could communicate and suggest works to read to other jurors, until such time as the jury together builds the final ballot through some systems. To avoid stagnation, jurors might be barred from the next two years, and of course they would be disqualified from being nominated themselves. Juror ballots might well be make public, or this could be part of a juror’s policy sheet. (There is an issue with public ballots because of pressure to nominate friends.) Slates are not a problem here, in fact they are almost encouraged.