Friday, August 28, 2015

My Proposed Rules Changes for Future WorldCon

Prior to this year, I had never voted for a Hugo Award. To tell the truth, I didn't know that I could. I had believed that the Hugos were selected by professionals acknowledging excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. Due to the recent controversies around the event, I learned that participation was open to all of fandom. In this way, it is similar to the way that the Origins Awards were run in their early days when fans nominated (often by turning in ballots they photocopied/mimeographed in Space Gamer Magazine). They differ from the early Origins in that only people actually attending the Origins Convention get to vote for the winner. I imagine that the similarities between the two are not accidental and that the Hugos informed the way that the Origins Awards were run early on. The Origins Awards have evolved over time, but mostly in the nomination process. It's still attendees at the Origins Convention who get to vote on the award winner. This is not without its controversy, but I'm not here to criticize that process which I think is fine for what it is.



Awards have no value in themselves, unless they come with a cash prize, and as one of my favorite authors (David Gerrold) describes it, "The credential of an award -- any award -- is not the award itself, nor even who bestows it. The credential of the award is a cumulative one, created by the quality of the previous nominees and winners." In the case of the Origins Award, a lot of wonderful and groundbreaking games have won the award. Savage Worlds won in 2003, Dungeons and Dragons won in 1977, and many more have won over time. When someone wins the award, they are winning the same award as these excellent predecessors and the prestige of the honor is in those prior winners. This is one of the reasons that the rules of the Origins Award are constantly debated and discussed and why the Award evolves over time.

The same is true of the Hugo Awards. The prestige of the Hugo is in prior winners, and that is why there was such an uproar this year. Those who regularly participate in the Conference that determines the Hugo pushed back against those they believed had advocated a process that could lessen that historical prestige. Let us set aside arguments about whether the contributions on this year's various slates were actually Hugo worthy. That is a distraction from what the real underlying question is. That question is whether slates, qua slates, especially when combined with voting blocs threaten the prestige of the Award. Over time, in repeated games, the answer is likely "yes." Not in who wins. Repeated games will mean that there will be an equilibrium of sorts around the winners that approximates what the community as a whole really values, but it will mean that the prestige of being nominated will likely diminish - at least for a protracted period of time. To be honest, that period of time need not be long to do damage to the prestige of being nominated. I would argue that the mere taint of the existence of slates damaged the prestige of being nominated this year. This is too bad, because some worthy nominees were punished by this process.

Who's "right" is it to determine the rules and the how the Hugo is distributed? This is a simple answer, one that is once again provided by David Gerrold. The Hugo Awards "are a gift from the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention." You have to be a paying member, supporting or attending, to vote on the Hugo. I was a supporting member this year and I voted. I will continue to vote and support the Hugo because I really liked getting the nomination packet. I think that the World Science Fiction Convention community was well within their rights to protect their award. I don't think they handled it perfectly, but I have read accounts of interactions between Puppies and Presenters that occurred outside the Awards Ceremony that lead me to have a great deal of hope for the future of the WorldCon community. As tendentious as this year's Hugo Awards were, I think that some new friends were made and some great material for bridging the gap to a community that felt excluded has been produced. This will require work on both sides of the gap, but I see enough people making efforts. I also see people attempting to blow up the bridges as they are being built, but that is some people's nature. If we can learn to ignore the sowers of chaos and focus on our shared love of the genres, we will all be better for it.

Given the conflict, there has been a lot of talk about a need to reform the rules of how things are nominated and voted on. I'm one who is skeptical of most efforts of this kind in general as they tend to lead to unintended consequences. Take California's implementation of Term Limits after the 1990 passage of Proposition 140. The results of that law have been to create a new kind of career politician who constantly aims to jump from job to job, a lack of issue experience among legislators, an empowering of the lobbyist class due to the lack of issue experience and institutional memory in the legislature. Some people predicted these outcomes, but not many. These were all unintended consequences of a law intended to stop "career" politicians that only rerouted that career and made it less accountable to the people because we don't elect lobbyists and that's what many former legislators become after they have earned expertise.

So...I'm resistant to changing institutions for the sake of changing institutions. That said, I do think that one category - actually two but I'm going to focus on one - demonstrates that there is some need for a change in the process. This is a change that I believe should be implemented across the award categories and will enable fans to have significant input, take advantage of recent growth in the pool, and lead to better nominations in some categories.

I believe that the Hugo Awards should take "Open List" open nominations from fans as they do now. That these long lists should then be transformed into 15 item "Long Lists" by committees made up of people who have expertise within a category. These Long Lists are then voted on by members who register as supporting/nominating/attending members and turned into 5 item short lists that are the final nominees. This model is a combination of the current way of doing things with the way that the Oscars handle Sound Mixing and Sound Editing (Design) Oscars.

Quick, tell me the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing? I'm going to bet that most of the Academy couldn't answer that question in any meaningful way. Let's just say that films like Whiplash tend to win the Mixing Award (and get nominated) and films like Top Gun tend to get Editing Awards. As I bluntly described it to my wife Jody today. Sound Editing Oscars reward people who create innovative and immersive experiences that allow us to hear explosions as unique occurrences. Sound Mixing allows us to hear the score and the actors while the world is exploding. That's a glib way of saying that one is about sculpting individual sounds and the other is about creating an aesthetic whole or "euphonic" experience. I'm sure that David Bondelevich could do a much better job at explaining the differences, but that's because he works in Sound and teaches Sound for a living. He has expertise. That's why the Oscars, in their great wisdom, allow David and people like Don Hall to vote on the final nominees who will be submitted to the Academy at large...and that's after their committee has selected what they believe to be the best. Sound Editors have a wonderful event called the "Bake Off" where they view highlights of the competition. These editors understand the value of the Award and there have been years without a nominee in the category, and that's without politics entering the picture.

That's a lot of background leading into one of the two areas I've noticed that have led me to think that this is a change that is NEEDED by the Hugos. Those areas are the Best Dramatic Production (both Short and Long Form) categories. The nominations of the past few years have been non-representative of the genre as it is being Dramatically Presented. It is as if WorldCon nominators and voters don't watch movies and shows at the same clip that they read. This is likely a true observation, and isn't even a "critical" one in as much as reading is likely a better activity to stimulate the mind than the passive viewing of another's creation.





What prompted my sentiment in this area was that as a new Hugo voter, I decided to look at past nominees in this area. When the Hugo nominees were compared to the Saturn nominees (the Saturn being the Hollywood Hugo) there was too little overlap in my opinion. When the 2014 Hugo Nominees didn't include About Time in the Long Form category I was baffled. I was even more baffled when I shared my befuddlement in the SF/F reading fandom I knew and none had heard of the film. This demonstrated to me that there was a disconnect between the Dramatic Form genre and the World Con exposure to it. That and the fact that BBC titles are so dominant as to make it possible to create a parody list that fairly emulates the actual list. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In 2014, the following new SF/F television shows aired.

New Science Fiction and Fantasy Series for 2014 

  1. Ascension
  2. Constantine
  3. Flash
  4. Gotham
  5. Z-Nation
  6. Outlander
  7. The Strain
  8. Extant
  9. The Last Ship
  10. Dominion
  11. Salem
  12. The 100
  13. Believe
  14. Resurrection
  15. Bitten
  16. Helix
  17. Intelligence
All of these shows meet the criteria to be considered as nominees for the Short Form Hugo. After the 938 nominating ballots were counted  the nominees were:

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (4705 final ballots, 938 nominating ballots, 470 entries, range 71-170)
  • Orphan Black: “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried”, ” written by Graham Manson, directed by John Fawcett (Temple Street Productions, Space/BBC America)
  • Doctor Who: “Listen”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Douglas Mackinnon (BBC Television)
  • Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper”, written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, directed by Alex Graves ((HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)
  • The Flash: “Pilot”, teleplay by Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns, story by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns, directed by David Nutter (The CW) (Berlanti Productions, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television)
  • Grimm: “Once We Were Gods”, written by Alan DiFiore, directed by Steven DePaul (NBC) (GK Productions, Hazy Mills Productions, Universal TV)
The thought of Grimm (of which I am a big fan) receiving nominations, for an episode that was pretty cool, over The 100 or The Strain or Sleepy Hollow is kind of baffling to me. Let's have a look at the Saturn Award Nominees for 2014.

 
Best Network Television Series:

The Blacklist
The Following
Grimm
Hannibal  (winner)
Person of Interest
Sleepy Hollow

Best Syndicated / Cable Television Series:

12 Monkeys
American Horror Story: Freak Show
Continuum
Falling Skies
Salem
The Strain
The Walking Dead  (winner)

Best Limited Run Television Series:

Bates Motel
From Dusk Till Dawn
Game of Thrones  (winner)
The Last Ship
The Librarians
Outlander

Best Superhero Adaptation Television Series:

Agent Carter
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Arrow
Constantine
The Flash  (winner)
Gotham

Best Youth-Oriented Television Series:

The 100  (winner)
Doctor Who
Pretty Little Liars
Supernatural
Teen Wolf
The Vampire Diaries

There are more categories, to be sure and to be expected from an award dedicated to the media, but there is also a wider representation of the genre. The 2014 Hugos have three shows of what I would call the "arty" SF variety and 2 from the "pulpy" variety, signalling that the struggle of the year was echoed in even the TV nominations. So...let's look back one more year. The year where the Hugos failed to nominate the very "literate" About Time in the Long Form category. What new shows were released in 2013? 

New Science Fiction and Fantasy Series for 2013


  1. Almost Human
  2. Dracula
  3. The Tomorrow People
  4. Witches of East End
  5. The Originals
  6. Atlantis
  7. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  8. Sleepy Hollow
  9. Under the Dome
  10. Defiance
  11. Orphan Black
  12. Utopia
What was nominated?

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (760 nominating ballots)
  • Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter (HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)
  • Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Nick Hurran (BBC Television)
  • Orphan Black: “Variations under Domestication” written by Will Pascoe, directed by John Fawcett (Temple Street Productions; Space/BBC America)
  • An Adventure in Space and Time, written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Terry McDonough (BBC Television)
  • The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, written & directed by Peter Davison (BBC Television)
  • Doctor Who: “The Name of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Saul Metzstein (BBC Televison)
 Let's see...Game of Thrones because social phenomenon, BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC. Wow! Almost Human had some flawed episodes, but it had episodes that are among the best ever made in SF TV. "The Day of the Doctor" was pretty badass, but "The Name of the Doctor" is the weakest of the 2013 nominees. What did the Saturn Awards Nominate?

Best Network Television Series Best Syndicated/Cable Television Series
Best Television Presentation Best Youth-Oriented Television Series
Well...shit...American Horror Story and Hannibal kick ass. We can write off some as not fitting the Hugos, like Hannibal, but American Horror Story is some of the best Fantasy on TV and Falling Skies is a solid show that is worthy of consideration for a category that awarded Gollum's Acceptance Speech during a year that the Saturn was considering Dead Like Me and Carnivale. Let's just say that a "literary" award got out "literaried" in the nominee category in 2004.

I understand that the Dramatic Presentation being two awards is new, and I understand that World Con is first and foremost a celebration of print. Having said that, I think that the Hugo would benefit by creating Juries that winnow the infinite to the Long, then having voters narrow the long to the nominees, and have those nominees voted on. I think that this would expose the SF/F community to a lot of great genre entertainment they might be overlooking.

I also think they might be well served by opening up the categories a bit like the Saturn and asking if there aren't some subgenre's that should have their own awards.
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