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Women and authors of color won big at this year's Hugo Awards

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Five takeaways from the 2016 Hugo Awards

Cover for Nnedi Okorafor's Binti

This year’s Hugo Awards were awarded last night at MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City, with works such as N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti walking away with the top prizes. You can read the entire list of winners here, but this year’s awards require a careful look.

Like last year, a group of fans calling themselves the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies created their own recommended lists that they urged their collective of followers to vote on. Upset with the direction they felt the science fiction field was going, they worked a loophole in the system: anyone could sign up to vote for the awards with a supporting membership. With enough of their followers signing up and nominating from a select list of nominees, they were able to overwhelm certain categories. These nominee slates pushed other works off the ballot and caused considerable uproar within the science fiction community.

The immediate takeaway from last night’s awards is that like last year, a slate of works pushed onto the ballot by a coordinated campaign has considerable trouble actually succeeding, and where it does, it’s where slated works are considered universally popular.

Slated Works weren’t necessarily voted down

There were several categories that were composed of selections from the Sad and Rabid Puppies groups: Best Fancast, Best Professional Artist, Best Graphic Story and Best Related Work. Several other categories, such as the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and Best Fanzine were also dominated by slated works.

In a couple of cases, slated picks were awarded the Hugo rocket. Neil Gaiman (who used his acceptance speech to decry the slates) won for Best Graphic Story, while Andy Weir won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Neither Gaiman nor Weir are unknown figures within the science fiction community, and the voting statistics that the convention released show that there was wide support for each. Interestingly, Alyssa Wong earned the most votes for Best New Writer (by two!), but because of the Hugo’s system of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Weir came out ahead.

Winning slate works did so because they were already widely popular

The Martian, based on the novel that earned Weir his prize was also on slates, and won the Best Dramatic Presentation award by a long margin. Looking at the voting results, it appears that there were around 300 or so slate voters, and The Martian overcame its next closest competitor by over a thousand votes. Slate voters didn’t have any influence here at all.

Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture likewise handily won its category, topping the next competitor, No Award by a good margin.

Best Professional Artist is an interesting category, because No Award actually got the most votes on the first past, but because of IRV, Abigail Larson came through based on the strength of the lower preferences. It does seem that the slated works did have an influence, but by nominating someone with some crossover influence.

These works might have been on voting blocs, but they’re of sufficient quality on their own to actually make it on the ballot. While Vox Day, the creator of the Rabid Puppy slate has claimed that his slate made them "Kingmakers" for these categories, the numbers simply don’t bear this out. They won because there were sufficiently popular on their own.

Slated Awards were still voted down

In other instances, Hugo voters smacked down slated works. Best Related Work, which included works such as SJWs Always Lie and Safe Space as Rape Room was handily overcome by voters who opted to vote for No Award, which took in 1872 initial votes, more than three times the number for the next category, an examination of Gene Wolf’s fiction. The same goes for Best Fancast.

In other categories, voters opted to vote for No Award, boosting non-slated works up the ballot. This happened with Best Fan Artist, Best Fan Writer, Best Fanzine, Best Semiprozine, Best Editor, Long Form, Best Graphic Story, and Best Short Story. Even attempts to troll the awards by placing on works like Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic didn’t work.

Progressive works overcame slated works

The awards that did win were a celebration of some of the genre’s more progressive ideals. Michi Trota walked away as the first Filipino winner of the award for her work on Uncanny Magazine, noting in her acceptance speech that it was important for fandom to create a welcoming environment for those not within traditional fan circles. N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a radically inventive story about characters and attitudes who aren’t typically found in epic fantasy.

Similarly, Jessica Jones walked away with an award, which is notable because the show is essentially a story that deals with concepts around consent and dealing with trauma. The voting blocs of the Sad/Rabid puppies largely came together after 2014, as it became clear that voters were voting heavily for these sorts of works. While voters might personally disagree with some of the political attitudes, the numbers show that there isn’t a minority of voters pivoting the genre in a more progressive direction: it was headed there on its own.

Additionally, there were fewer instances where voters opted to vote for No Award. Where Novella, Short Story, Related Work, Editor (both categories), were issued last year, all were awarded to non-slate works, and the numbers of No Awards this year were down by half.

Authors of color won big

The three fiction longer-fiction categories were each won by a woman of color: N.K. Jemisin (Best Nove), Nnedi Okorafor (Best Novella) and Hao Jingfang (Best Novellette). Additionally, Michi Trota, one of the editors of Uncanny Magazine, noted that she was the first Filipino to win a Hugo.

Jingfang, who hails from China, won for her story Folding Beijing, and is the second Chinese science fiction authors in as many years to earn the award. Her Hugo is also the third ever granted for a translated work. Ken Liu, who translated the story for Uncanny Magazine, earned the second one last year for his work on The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu.

Nnedi Okorafor has earned a number of awards and nominations over her career, but her win for Binti is her first Hugo (it also won a Nebula Award earlier this year). This is a story that is expressly about a person of color from a society that’s expressly outside of what you typically see across science fiction.

Finally, N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fifth Season earned the top award of the night, and it’s a book that is pointedly against the grain. As Jemisin noted in her acceptance speech (read by Alyssa Wong, who accepted for her):

"When it got nominated, I wondered how many of my fellow sci-fi / fantasy fans, in a year headlined by reactionary pushback against the presence and performance of people like me in the genre would choose to vote for the story of a 40-something, big-boned, dreadlocked woman of color waging an epic struggle against the forces of oppression.

Jemisin’s novel pointedly examines characters who are non-caucasian and deal with a range of issues dealing with ethics and sexuality in a world that isn’t in your typical, J.R.R. Tolkien-style epic fantasy.

Women dominated the awards

Women didn’t sweep the awards, but they did have a major presence this year, dominating the top spots in fiction and editing. Each of the fiction categories (Best Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story) went to women, as well as the two categories for Editor and Artist.

This is notable because the awards have largely been dominated by male authors since its inception, and in the last couple of years, there have been much discussion within genre circles about the visibility of women, with special magazine issues such as Women Destroy Science Fiction and anthologies such as The Other Half of the Sky.

The push for more women in the genre is addressing some long-standing issues: authors who state that science fiction is just for men, or worse, as has been seen with the Gamergate controversy.

The ultimate takeaway from this year’s Hugos is that while there has been considerable controversy, things are good. This year’s awards saw almost double the amount of nominating ballots, while those voters largely rejected works that had been pushed onto the nominating ballots. Despite the presence of the slates and their small voting blocs, quality works and authors earned the genre’s top prizes. However, because the Hugo Awards failed to change their voting practices, slated works will continue to have a presence in the future. While Puppy voters might be claiming that they've somehow won the night, it's hard to imagine how that's true, given the winners this year.

Jemisin said it best in her acceptance speech:

Only a small number of ideologues have attempted to game the Hugo Awards. That small number can easily be overwhelmed, their regressive clamor stilled, if the rest of SFF fandom simply stands up to be counted. Stands up to say that yes, they do want literary innovation, and realistic representation. Stands up to say that yes, they do just want to read good stories — but what makes a story good is skill, and audacity, and the ability to consider the future clearly rather than through the foggy lenses of nostalgia and privilege.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how the the first Dragon Awards will turn out, given that it is designed as a sort of Hugo alternative.