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Hugo Awards 2023: What Went Wrong?

By Nadia Freeman, Nadia Shah, Michelle Ye and Yumna Iqbal


Amidst unfolding events, the prestigious Hugo Awards, known for honouring excellence in science fiction literature, have become embroiled in controversy. Despite strong fan support, notable works like Babel: An Arcane History faced unexpected disqualifications from the nominations. Allegations of political censorship have surfaced, prompting debates within the sci-fi community. The exclusions have sparked discussions about fairness and transparency in literary recognition. As demands for accountability rise, the Hugo Awards find themselves under scrutiny regarding their role and practices in the science fiction community.

What are the Hugo Awards?


The Hugo Awards, established in 1953 and presented annually since 1955, stand as the most prestigious accolades in the world of science fiction literature. These awards, administered by the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), are highly regarded within the genre. Members of Worldcon participate in the selection process through voting. The awards encompass various categories, including novels, short stories and artwork, honouring outstanding contributions from the preceding year. The winners are announced and celebrated at the Hugo Ceremony during Worldcon, where they are presented with a distinctive trophy commemorating their achievement. Over the years, the Hugo Awards have become synonymous with excellence in science fiction, recognising and honouring the creativity and imagination of authors and artists who have made significant contributions to the genre. However, the awards faced controversy as popular works like Babel, Iron Widow and The Sandman adaptation were inexplicably disqualified despite high nominations. Investigations suggested political censorship, sparking demands for accountability and integrity in literary recognition.


The Ineligible BIPOC Books


R.F. Kuang’s Babel combines magic and history to critique colonialism and the role academia has played in its propagation. Kuang’s story illustrates how the British empire is consumed by its greed for silver and is forcing China into buying opium. The narrator, Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton, is taken to London to become a translator. To wield the knowledge of translation and work at the Royal Institute of Translation, or Babel, is to wield magic. This magic has ensured the empire’s continued success. But as the novel progresses, Robin realises that to translate is to betray, and he must decide if the British Empire can be toppled from within.


Xiran Jay Zhao’s novel, Iron Widow, also inspired by historical events, is a retelling of the rise of China’s sole female emperor, Wu Zetian. Set in the fictional world of Huaxia, people are under constant threat from aliens. To combat their enemy the patriarchal military builds Chrysalises, giant robots piloted by pairs: a boy who will be revered, and a girl who will die for his success. Determined to avenge her sister, who died for her co-pilot, Zetian joins the military. Against all odds, she finds herself in a position of unprecedented power as a female pilot after she kills her male co-pilot and survives victory. As the Iron Widow, she must find a way not only to save herself but also to save the thousands of other girls the military is prepared to sacrifice.


Summary of the Controversy


When the award’s statistics were published in January, notable authors such as R.F. Kuang and Xiran Jay Zhao were revealed to have gained enough votes to be on the ballot in their respective categories but deemed ineligible by the award administrators without reason. Many authors and fans were concerned that censorship may have impacted the awards.


This was proven to be true when a member of last year's administration leaked emails to two journalists, Jason Sanford and Chris M. Barkley. The email came from the Head of the 2023 Jury, Dave McCarty, stating: “We need to highlight anything of a sensitive political nature in the work. It’s not necessary to read everything, but if the work focuses on China, Taiwan, Tibet, or other topics that may be an issue in China…that needs to be highlighted so that we can determine if it is safe to put it on the ballot or if the law will require us to make an administrative decision about it.” (The New York Times).


What Has Happened Since


Authors embroiled in the controversy have spoken out in its aftermath. Following revelations that New York Times bestselling author R.F. Kuang had gained enough votes on the ballot to qualify for a nomination, she took to social media to clarify that she had not received one, deeming the situation “embarrassing.” ( Author Paul Weimer strongly condemned the situation, deeming it “haphazard” and “not even competent.” (The Guardian). Meanwhile, a wave of resignations ensued. It was announced in January that Dave McCarty was stepping down, along with the Chair of the Board of Directors, Kevin Standlee. Kat Jones, a Hugo Awards Administrator who contributed to holding Weimer back, also resigned.


So, what lies ahead? Discussion of the failures of 2023 continues to swirl, with those involved issuing no direct apology. The 2024 Hugo Awards are set to be held in August in Glasgow. Some have already proposed excluding all those associated with the 2023 committee. Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Chair of Glasgow 2024, issued a statement in February assuring the community that she shares their “deep grief and anger” and “distress,” and insisting that steps will be taken to “ensure transparency.” (The Guardian). Will this be enough to save the Hugo Awards? We will have to see.



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