Historic Hugos

So, recently, the 76th Hugos happened, and contained a historic event: N.K. Jemisin won her third straight “Best Novel” Hugo, having won a Hugo for each of the books in her “Broken Earth” trilogy. Both “sides” in the recent Hugo/Sci-Fi conflict immediately declared victory, with The Guardian declaring that her win “signals and end to the influence of the rightwing “Puppies” groups” — despite the fact that her first win came when they were definitely active and influencing things (triggering a rules change) and her second win probably did as well — while Vox Day declared that that is what victory looks like, because her triple win shows that the Hugos have no credibility. So, with both sides declaring victory and both sides being willing to accuse the other of claiming victory only to avoid admitting defeat — or, as is more likely to be the case coming from Day, that they are too stupid to realize that they actually lost — which side is right? In my view, I think that Vox Day’s side is more right. Why do I say that? Well, as Tony Dunst might say, let’s break it down:

What is responsible for Jemisin’s historic run of Hugo Award dominance? Well, what the anti-Puppy side would like you to believe is that she won that strictly on her own merits: she really is that good. Of course, I read the first book in her trilogy and wasn’t that impressed, but let’s put that aside for the moment and think about just how good she had to be to have this historic run simply on the basis of merit. She has won three straight Hugo Awards in three years, for each of the books in her trilogy. Winning three Hugos in a writing career is pretty impressive: looking it up on Google, Roger Zelazny only won two for Best Novel in his career (although he won a number of Hugos for novellas and novelettes), and none of those were for any of the books in his most famous work, the Amber series. He also was, in his career, 6 out of 17 in terms of winning when he was nominated, while Jemisin is 3 out of 6, which is an impressive win to nomination ratio. So even over an entire career Jemisin would have had an astounding achievement. To win a Hugo for each novel in a trilogy is also incredibly impressive; I don’t think it happens very often, if at all (I’m not inclined to Google to see if it has ever happened before, but again it’s almost certainly very rare). And she managed to churn out each novel in the trilogy in the span of three years, which is what allowed her to win three years in a row. Now, the thing is, writing good novels takes work. Jemisin herself says in her acceptance speech that she “works [her] ass off”. But work does not happen in a timeless vacuum. Work takes time. There’s editing, rewriting, reworking, proofing and a ton of other things that go into creating a novel. More skill, however, reduces this time. So Jemisin was able to shorten down the writing time sufficiently to get them out at a level of quality that trumped all other novels out there, including ones that had taken more time to edit and polish their works to get them into their presumably ideal states. Thus, Jemisin was able to produce works of such high quality while arguably not taking as much time to refine them as others did … three years in a row.

To judge this entirely on merit suggests, given all of that, that Jemisin would have to be the greatest science fiction and fantasy author who ever existed by a huge amount. Sure, to return to the comparison to Zelazny, he had nominations for multiple works in the same years and had nominations for consecutive years, some of which he won in both while Jemisin didn’t seem to do anything else in those years (or, at least, nothing that was nominated this year) but to not have anything else break her streak or to have a downturn in the quality of one of the works, again, would reflect incredible talent. And that isn’t all that plausible, even if you haven’t read her works.

So, another possibility is that while she had merit, the more plausible reason for her success is that there wasn’t really all that much competition. She was good and the alternatives were mediocre, and so she managed to get there because, really, every time the voting came around there just wasn’t anything better, but she shouldn’t really be considered that much of a historic great. This, to my recollection, is what happened with Steve Nash in the NBA. He’s a great player, and deserved to win the NBA MVP awards that he won, and almost did the same as Jemisin and won three straight which would have been historic, but few consider him to be the same caliber of superstar as Michael Jordan or Lebron James or Wilt Chamberlain or any of the other greats, and of the other greats that his winning the MVP award back-to-back places him in the same sentence as. In fact, I recall that when he looked like he might win the award back-to-back-to-back there was consternation for precisely that reason: he was getting it because he was the best available in all of those years, but his winning it would place him in a rarefied position that would imply that he was more of a superstar than he really was in historical context. (Meanwhile, the Hugos seem to be embracing that, definitely trying to imply the first case for Jemisin). But his back-to-back wins were seen as more a reflection of a lack of dominate competition than a straight reflection on his overall skills and dominance itself.

Now, given what I thought of the “Best Novel” nominees for the year she first won, this could be a plausible explanation. Jemisin’s work was good — or, at least, really, really liked by a large number of people — and there was no competition strong enough to overcome that and make it a challenge. This, of course, would not reflect well on modern science fiction and fantasy, and on top of that would mean throwing other authors like Naomi Novik, Anne Leckie, Jim Butcher and John Scalzi under the bus. And I do believe that Novik, Leckie and Butcher are all better at the writer’s craft than Jemisin, at least, even if their works aren’t necessarily more interesting or better overall. So claiming that they just weren’t very good writers or their work just wasn’t up to snuff seems odd; surely someone out there somewhere in science fiction land could write a work that deserved to win and was as good if not better than hers, especially since, well, her work doesn’t seem like that much of an overwhelming classic to me.

So, then, we can go back to the overarching debate and the fight against the Puppies, and come to what I think is the most plausible reason: she won to tweak the nose of the Puppies, and especially the nose of Vox Day. It seems like far too much of a coincidence that the person who came out on top here is the same person that, out of all the candidates, Vox Day most hates. He advocated for no awarding “The Fifth Element” and almost certainly all of the books in her trilogy and nastily insulted her at one point with an insult that he keeps repeating pretty much any time he talks about her. His feud with John Scalzi — who came in second this year — is civilized compared to how he treats her. So it is reasonable to think that a large factor in her wins are people, consciously or unconsciously, thinking about how much it would tick Day off to have her, the one he most dislikes, be the one to win and, presumably, to frustrate all of his designs … at which point he replies that having someone like that win three times in a row pretty much satisfies them, showing that it isn’t talent but politics that determines who wins the awards.

And that’s the real issue here, and why I think that Day’s side is more reasonable in declaring victory. For Jemisin to win three times in a row for all three books in her trilogy simply on merit is something that strains credulity. As her works, to most people, won’t rise above “Okay” — they may rise above that for people who have a personal interest in her themes — people will see this historic win — and everyone is going to want to advertise that historic win — and if they have managed to ignore all of the things that have been going on to this point will decide to try it out, and read these historically good works. This is the result of hype, which anyone trying to sell a product loves. But the problem with hype is that it sets out expectations, expectations that a merely “Okay” work won’t be able to fulfill. And so new people will read it, see that it’s not that historically brilliant … and wonder what was wrong with the Hugos to claim that the trilogy was simply that good to deserve its historic ranking. And thus will wonder what I already wondered: can I trust that Hugo Award really indicates the level of quality that it implies or has implied in the past?

Defenders of Jemisin and of the Hugos want to appeal to the Hugo Awards she’s won as a sign that her works are good, and by extension that, as she herself said in her speech, that minority authors can produce work that can be enjoyed by people who are not minorities themselves and so can be, presumably, marketable. Putting aside that it’s sales that matter there and not awards (I tried be failed to find sales figures for those books), that only works if people think that getting a Hugo Award is really an indication of quality. To elevate Jemisin’s works to such an astoundingly high level of quality that she achieves something that even the greats couldn’t do will hurt that because I think it safe to say that while some people may indeed enjoy them to that level they aren’t objectively at that level. I mean, “The Lord of the Rings” is almost certainly not that good. “Dune” is almost certainly not that good. Zelazny’s “Amber” series is not that good. None of the classic series or authors have ever managed to hit that level, and I don’t think Jemisin’s work is objectively that good. For some, it may be their favourite series ever, but it’s not the sort of series that everyone will agree is a classic above and beyond all other works ever even if they themselves don’t like it. And that’s what the wins imply.

Thus, this will weaken the credibility of the Hugos. Most people will have no rational choice but to conclude that it was some other factor than pure merit that is responsible for her win, because even if they haven’t read the trilogy it being simply that good is too incredible to believe. And then if they know or hear about the political battles — that the Guardian and Jemisin herself are quick to remind everyone of — they will naturally conclude that that was the main factor. And then the Hugos will be seen as politicized as opposed to merit-based. And that’s what both Puppies groups at least claimed was true of the Hugos and what their main gripe was. And if that’s what they wanted, this then would have proved their case.

That sounds like a victory, if not entirely the one they wanted. And I don’t see what other victory the anti-Puppies have that could balance that.

As for me … I have hundreds of books sitting in my spare room to read, along with hundreds more less interesting ones sitting in my basement. I think I’ll stick with them.

2 Responses to “Historic Hugos”

  1. Overall Thoughts on Ben Bova … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I said off the top, I don’t think the works I read did, at least. But this only reveals how the recent historic wins of N.K. Jemisin really seem like more of an own goal than an amazing triump… In terms of overall writing, I’d say that Bova and Jemisin are fairly comparable. Depending […]

  2. Puppies and Hugos Summary | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the biggest impact was to essentially say “A pox on both your houses!”, although when I assessed whether the historic win of N.K. Jemisin in 2018 was a win for the Puppies or for the Social […]

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