21 April 2014

A Hypothetical Alternate History

<SATIRE> (Although this tag should really not be necessary.)

(Birmingham, April 19) The World Scientifiction Society announced the nominees for the 1914 Gernsback Awards for the best literary achievements in scientifiction in 1913. World Scientifiction Conference Chairman John H. Bankhead, speaking for himself and his late Co-Chairman Joseph F. Johnston, was pleased to announce that a token Englishman had successfully made his way onto the ballot for Most Favoritist Novel-Like Substance, remarking that "Mister Wells's latest work is a reasonable competitor for the omnibus reprint and translation of the entire Amadis of Gaul saga, complete with the segments completed by later hands."

Chairman Bankhead also noted that a wide variety of the usual suspects sources of scientifiction are represented on the ballot. He further proclaimed, in the tradition of the newly-formed Olympic movement, that this year's nominees "are the best yet."

This reporter remains concerned that Chairman Bankhead failed to acknowledge that the nominations resulted from a closed election with a significant poll tax, but nonetheless purport to represent the opinions of all worthies concerned with scientifiction. That concern, however, was dismissed as irrelevant by unnamed sources in the Society, each of whom questioned whether women, colored persons, disabled persons, or the poor were even interested in voting in the first place, let alone qualified to do so.



The kerfluffle over the 2014 Hugo nominations is and was predictable. Perhaps not for this year; perhaps not with this many archly external sideshows; but predictable in its scope and nature, particularly after even cursory analysis of the nomination list (not to mention winners) the last time WorldCon was in the UK (what is it about a tradition of rotten boroughs that makes English elections so deliciously corrupt and unrepresentative?).

Bluntly, the Hugo system is corrupt and probably not worth saving. It is just as representative as the elections (appointments, rather, both de facto and de jure) for office in the former Confederacy before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before women's suffrage, before outlawing of poll taxes. That it was so easily manipulated within the rules by two separate groups with agendas contrary to the WSFS equivalent of "good governance" is somewhat beside the point. Just as old white men of the propertied class ran post-Reconstruction politics, old white men of the propertied class (the SMOFs, as a group) continue to run the WSFS and refuse to acknowledge that anything at all about their vision has any disjuncture from reality... which is infinitely-reflexively ironic for science fiction and fantasy fandom. In no particular order:

  • The poll tax shuts out a substantial portion of the potential nominators and electorate... with many of the same rationales/justifications as polls taxes that shut out the poor (and demographically selected racial minorities) from political elections in this nation. What poll tax? One cannot nominate or vote for the Hugos without being at least a "supporting member" of the WSFS, which currently costs $40US each year — that is, about one and one-half casebound or five mass-market-paperback books. And just how successful has that been in dealing with manipulating nominations (the usual excuse offered), guys? The less said about how actual cost of actual attendance relates to median household income, the better.
  • This year, the nominations were thoroughly sprayed for literary cooties: Every single one of the written-work nominees was published by an archly-and-exclusively-scientifictional publisher/imprint. Since, without thinking very hard, I can come up with half a dozen potential nominees published in 2013 from less-fandom-obsessed sources that were each superior to at least one item on the ballot, this implicates a "party affiliation" analogy. Again. I'd start campaigning now for a non-SF-friendly-imprint novel already published in 2014, but (a) the year isn't closed yet, so I can only state that "it's worth reading" rather than "by comparison, it's award-worthy" and (b) I don't do that sort of thing in the first place.
  • The less said about the racism and other discriminatory animus pervading that nominated overextended novel-like substance (the one that would never reach a conclusion if one sawed the spines off all the volumes and laid the pages end to end), the better. Indeed, this is one of the unstated weaknesses in the Western fantasy tradition, particularly as filtered through/in/around Tolkein: The treatment of certain varieties of genetic/cultural Other as irredeemably evil and worthy only of genocide, by any means, at any cost. And sadly, that's far from the worst offender that has ever been nominated... or won. Notice that I didn't even have to mention the other ardent racist(s) and bigot(s) on the ballot — the obvious ones I would be expected to mention, since I've been the target of personal, ad hominem attacks from more than one of them?
  • It's too soon. Nominations opened before many potential nominators had even finished reading their holiday presents, let alone acquired works from "best of the year" lists that, themselves, had the temerity to wait until the actual end of the year before proclaiming the best! There has been very, very little opportunity to have considered discussion or reflection. That devalues these awards from being not "best," not even "most popular after consideration," but "most popular on first impression" — and that is inconsistent with the proclaimed basis for the awards.

This is not to say that the Nebulas (and the Clarkes, and the World Fantasy Awards, and so on) don't have serious problems of their own. It is to say that the shark was jumped1 by the Hugos about three decades ago, and that it's time to eject the corpses and miscellaneous body parts into space. Were I voting this year — I refuse to pay the poll tax — I would be sorely tempted to rank "No Award" first in every single category... but in the end I wouldn't do it, or at least not uniformly without regard to the particular elections. The alternative of a blank ballot isn't that much more satisfactory (for example, there are one or more works nominated in the four literary categories that don't merit that categorical disdain: They're better than that). Both courses of action would disrespect and denigrate other works and persons on the ballot (some of whom are acquaintances and friends and even classmates of mine). I'm locked out of proposing "electoral reform" due to that poll tax... and, nonetheless, the poll "results" are considered to express my opinion by many outside of fandom who know nothing about the system. So my alternative is disregarding an inherently flawed, unfair election being held in the nation that inspired the US to try to do better (however often it has failed to do so). And that is what I shall do; the irony that this is exactly what fandom believes literati do with scientifiction anyway is not lost upon me.

  1. Jaws would have you know that he bitterly resents this particular metaphor. He despised Happy Days almost immediately during its first run, pointing out even then that all of the girls were stupid and there weren't any minorities or non-xtians or intellectuals or even veterans among the regular (let alone central) characters, or even any who seemed to read a newspaper for anything other than the sports pages, the comics, and the weekly grocery ads. He also knows that he lost this battle a long time ago.