Moving the Goalposts

Every year there's another golden shower of SF awards. Every year someone tries to rewrite the rules – because the system isn't perfect, because a decades-old regulation has sprung a terrible leak in the internet era, or because the pig-ignorant punters are voting wrong. We must make them get it right!

Cynics suspected this kind of thinking was behind last year's controversy over the Locus Awards, run by SF's leading newsletter Locus. These have vaguely similar categories to the Hugo Awards, but attract more voters since it's free to vote online; no need to buy a World SF Convention membership as with the Hugos. In 2008 the Locus masses were guilty of crimethink in the First Novel category, preferring Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind to Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box; and again in Collection, where Cory Doctorow beat Connie Willis with most overall and most first-place votes.

After the polling had ended, though, Locus abruptly changed the rules so their paid subscribers' votes counted double – making Hill and Willis the winners after all. Cory Doctorow, they said darkly, "has a large online fan base", which apparently is cheating. Locus-pocus! These awards became suddenly less credible, and the 2009 voter turnout fell significantly.

Also in 2009, the SF Writers of America tinkered with their Nebula Awards. The amazingly sensible innovation is that the 2010 Nebulas, presented for fiction published in 2009, will in fact go to 2009 work! Previously there was a "rolling eligibility" arrangement that (to please SFWA members) gave older work an extra chance. Serious weirdness ensued when the 2007 Nebulas, notionally for 2006, went without exception to things published in 2005.

Now the World SF Society is fiddling with Hugo rules again. Last year they voted to abolish the Best Semiprozine award (created to stop the professional newsletter Locus winning Best Fanzine) and to add a Graphic Novel category. Most fans expected both changes to be ratified at the 2009 Worldcon. Remembering the "Ministry of Truth" embarrassment, when they remotely deleted countless copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four from customers' Kindle ebook readers, I wondered if I'd wake up after Worldcon to find a gap on the mantelpiece where Hugo hitmen had removed my 2005 semiprozine trophy...

In fact there were several surprises. Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld, another semiprozine nominee, had organized a "Save the Semiprozine Hugo" campaign. The Worldcon business meeting voted overwhelmingly to keep this category. They also nodded through the Graphic Novel Hugo – no controversy there – and rejected a proposal that would add female nominees to Hugo fiction shortlists if the voters got it wrong by picking only men.

At the Hugo ceremony itself, when everyone expected Locus to take Semiprozine as usual, the audience was stunned to hear that Weird Tales magazine had won instead. Locus came fourth, after Britain's very own Interzone. Neil Clarke's high-profile campaign must have made people think harder about their choices; the argument for abolishing this Hugo was, pretty much, that Locus (almost) always won and so it was no fun any more. We live in interesting times.

The smart money was also on Locus because of the sympathy effect. Its publisher and founding editor Charles N Brown died unexpectedly this year – on a plane coming home from another convention; what a way to go – so pundits expected the fans to vote him one last Hugo. We'd had a long rivalry, Charles ending up with 29 Locus Hugos and me trailing with 28; I'm glad he was ahead when he died. Goodbye, Charles.

More upheavals! A second semiprozine won a Hugo in 2009, only we mustn't call Electric Velocipede a semiprozine because the category it won was Best Fanzine. This is traditionally for amateur zines produced out of sheer love; EV is a would-be professional fiction magazine that pays contributors, but evaded the semiprozine category since the rules were carefully designed to nobble Locus and elsewhere have gaping loopholes. EV's editor John Klima had in fact targeted and campaigned for the fanzine Hugo because semiprozine competition is much tougher. All within the letter of the law, but one embittered fanzine nominee grumbled that he'd have preferred to lose to a fanzine.

Aftermath: the World SF Society set up a committee to look again at the semiprozine/fanzine Hugo rules, and I'm sure that like all the best committees of inquiry it will report after several gruelling years of investigation that the Metropolitan Police are guiltless of absolutely everything. Watch this space, but don't hold your breath.

David Langford did the Kessel run in less than twelve furlongs.