Some thoughts on numbers and the Hugo Awards

Via Tobias Buckell’s blog, I found a link to a complete breakdown of the nominations for the 2007 Hugo Awards. It’s interesting.

I kind of already knew this, but the number of people who bother to get involved in the nominating process is quite small, compared to the number of people who are eligible to participate (anyone with a Worldcon membership can make nominations). For example, the most popular nominee in the Best Novel category, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End (which ultimately won), got just 56 nominations. The fifth-place Best Novel nominee, Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, got 35. Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns and Jo Walton’s Farthing topped the runners-up list with 29 nominations apiece, which means they were only 6 kudos shy of making the final ballot. In other categories, the margin was even narrower: for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, “Episode 200” of Stargate SG-1 just squeaked in with 22 nominations, while Heroes’ “Genesis” just missed with 21. Tim Kring, time to phone a fan.

Waxing Machiavellian for a moment, I note the following:

* Each nominator can nominate up to five works in each category.
* Barring ties, the number of nominees that advance to final voting in each category is also five.
* The most nominations any nominee in any category received this year was 102 (The Prestige, for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form).

What this means is that, assuming a similar level of apathy next year, 103 people acting in concert could dictate the entire Hugo ballot. To actually do this Would Be Very Wrong, of course, but it might also be funny. Supporting Worldcon memberships are only $40 a pop, so you tell me: would it be worth $4000 to put Newt Gingrich’s alt-history novel Pearl Harbor in contention? (Just imagine if he won. Newt’s the kind of guy who might actually show up in Denver to claim the award, and if he didn’t, I’m sure Orson Scott Card would be happy to make a Timely Acceptance Speech on his behalf… oh, get thee behind me, Satan.)

One other thing I take away from looking at these numbers: The next time I hear someone complain about the lack of gender or ethnic diversity among the Hugo nominees, I’m going to ask them who they nominated. And when they admit they didn’t nominate anyone, I’m going to mock them. This is a rare example of a democratic process in which a single person really can make a difference, so if you don’t vote, you don’t care.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on numbers and the Hugo Awards”

  1. As an ex-British Science Fiction Award administrator, I would have fainted with surprise at anything getting 35 nominations. I might have needed oxygen if anything got more than six or seven…

    A much smaller pond, though, I admit!

  2. This idea that you must have read a lot before you can nominate is a pervasive meme, but a dangerous one. Huge numbers of eligible novels are published every year. No one can possibly read them all, or even a large proportion of them. A few hardy souls do read almost all of the US-published short fiction because they are compiling anthologies, but even they may miss out on what is published in the UK, in Australia, or elsewhere.

    The way that the nominating system is supposed to work is that every member of WSFS nominates things that they have read/seen and liked. The aggregated results of those nominations then give an overview of what most people have read/seen and liked. If certain groups of readers don’t nominate, then that system falls apart. So the Hugos need you to nominate. Even if you have only read one novel in the year, if it happened to strike you as a really good novel then you should nominate it.

    And if that isn’t enough to persuade you, consider this. Not everyone has the same level of concern about nominating as you. Some people do nominate. They won’t have read everything, or anywhere near everything, either. So by not nominating, you are ceding control of the process to other people who are not that different from you, except that they don’t feel that they are unqualified to participate.

    The final ballot is, of course, a different matter. There you have only five works to consider in each category, so it is not hugely onerous to read them all, especially the short fiction which is generally freely available online.

    1. Hey Cheryl!

      I think for a lot of people, nominating is only fun/worth the bother if they believe their picks have a shot at ending up on the ballot. And in part because there are so many eligible works in each category, I think there’s a not-illogical belief that nominating anything that doesn’t already have strong fan support — like the latest Vernor Vinge novel — is futile.

      But what people don’t realize is how slim the margins really are.

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