Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reviewing the Hugos: peeling back the polemic to ask the big questions

Although I love science-fiction and fantasy and review it here on the blog, I'm at least one degree of separation from actual SFF fandomThat's one of the main reasons why I've held back from writing about the controversy surrounding the shortlist for the 2015 Hugo Awards - the premier global award for the genre, spanning everything from novels and short stories to fan writing and art.

Well, that, and the fact that last year's op ed piece on the Hugos worked so well. :)

But as I've registered for the first time to vote in the Hugo's - and reading the shortlist by e-book over the next month and a half is likely to result in reviews of some of it here - I wanted to explain why I've stepped over that invisible line. 

If you're new to the story, I'm going to point you to this article in io9 as a primer instead of offering my own reportage.

Read that - then read on.

On one level, the controversy is simply the discovery that the Hugo nomination process is easily manipulated - all within the rules - as it was this year by two small factions putting up voting slates and dominating the shortlist as a result.

Viewed another way, it's the latest instalment in a long-running and usually creative argument between the classic/commercial and literary/experimental tendencies in science-fiction and fantasy. The slates' stated purpose is to champion critically neglected authors towards the classic end of the spectrum, and that's certainly how the shortlist has skewed.

But the affair is also an unhappy congruence of political disagreements and personal animosities in fandom. It's exacerbated by the internet's propensity to amplify conflict and a narrative borrowed from American culture wars. And its coloured by the fact that the spokesperson for one of the slates has views which are problematic, to say the least (see this Grauniad article by Helen Lewis for context). 

In short, it's an unholy mess. 

So, why review?

Reviewing the Hugo nominees here is a way of peeling back the polemic to look at the core issue as I see it. 

What - at its best - is science fiction and fantasy? And is this science fiction and fantasy at its best?

In reviewing the shortlist, we can't help but talk about what we value. We celebrate the work we think worthy of an award and we explain why. We try to account for why others don't move us quite so much. We measure it all against the best from the past, and we look to the future of the genre. 

And the question of merit - subjective as it might be - is fundamental here to the controversy. Either we have neglected authors and works to acclaim. Or the literary debate dwindles, and we have something else. Perhaps equally important to understand and address for those involved, but not the same thing.

And yes, in doing so we also engage with (understand, explore, critique) the politics behind the shortlist. That's called reading with context. Or just plain reading the text, I suspect, in the case of the fan writing.

It would be disingenuous of me to present myself as coming to these reviews completely unformed. My politics are progressive - although I don't necessarily look for that in my reading material. I'm sniffy about voting slates as a tactic. And I want my science-fiction to blow my mind like Stand On Zanzibar, and I want my fantasy to give me the same sense of vertigo as the end of A Hundred Years of Solitude.

But I am not writing off a skewed shortlist in advance, or considering voting No Award in any category without reading everything first.

To review effectively, I've got to at least allow the possibility that work on the slates might be seriously good. They might have gotten onto the ballot through the equivalent of the Hand of God, perhaps, but they could also be the equivalent of the Goal of the Century.

So let's put our classics on and have a little dance, shall we?

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