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September 8th, 2019

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The 2019 Hugos, part one

In 2017 I was the Administrator of the Hugo Awards for Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, an experience I wrote about here and here. I repeated the experience for last month's Dublin 2019: An Irish Worldcon.

I was an early if passive supporter of the Dublin Worldcon campaign. James Bacon, who I have known since I really joined fandom in 2002, had announced the Dublin bid before the 2014 London Worldcon, and gradually made it an inevitability which won the vote in Helsinki without opposition. I had much earlier expressed my interest in taking on the role to Vince Docherty, the WSFS division head for Dublin (and twice a former Worldcon chair), and he accepted my offer in time for my name to appear on the first published list of the Dublin 2019 Committee - unlike in 2017, I was also one of two deputy heads of the WSFS Division, the other being Mark Meenan. (The three of us were not very geographically diverse, with me being Irish and the other two Scots.) I initially appointed Niall Harrison as Deputy Hugo Administrator; he had to drop out due to work commitments, so Sanna Lopperi-Vihinen came on the team to replace him.

I did a few things for Dublin 2019 which were largely unrelated to the Hugos. I wrote a couple of blog posts on the Telescope That Disproved Liberalism (here and here), one on Fantasy and the Easter Rising, and another on Doctor Who in Ireland. In August 2018, I found myself on a mission to Áras an Uachtaráin with young F, to negotiate details of a message of welcome to Dublin 2019 participants from President Michael D. Higgins.

As history records, our mission was successful. We supplied the President's team with a short draft note; he personally expanded it to about four times the length of our draft, and made clear his very real interest in the genre.


(click to embiggen)

Going back to the Hugos, the very first decision that had to be made was the timetable, specifically the deadlines for close of nominations and close of voting. In 2017 those had been 17 March and 15 July, driven by the relatively early date of Worldcon 75 (and by caution on my part at not having done this before). Dublin 2019 effectively started a week later in August, so that meant that we could allow voting to extend to 31 July as is traditional, and in my view preferable. I feel that it's desirable to allow as much time as possible to read the works on the final ballot, so once again the second Friday in March (the 15th) looked best for the close of nominations, giving voters sixteen days more than they had had in 2017.

In retrospect I wonder if even mid-March is unnecessarily late. In 2008 and 2009, nominations closed on 1 March and 28 February, reflecting the much earlier Worldcon dates of those years (both started on 6 August). Do nominators really need an extra two weeks? The nominating votes cast in 2008 were more or less at the average level for that period, and the 799 cast in 2009 were the largest number ever, in retrospect the first step in the 2009-2016 surge of participation that seems now to have plateau'd.

We also had to decide quite early whether or not to carry out the Retro Hugos for 1944, with Worldcon 76 in San Jose having already decided to do the 1943 Retro Hugos in 2018. I was instinctively in favour - I felt that The Little Prince would be a strong runner for Best Novelette, and Perelandra for Best Novel, and that it would give us one more thing about sf to celebrate. One member of the Dublin team chided me for wanting to diminish partying time, but as a whole the committee agreed and we made a joint announcement with San Jose just before the 2017 Smofcon. Having done it once, I now feel more ambivalent about the Retro Hugos; more on that in another post.

Another crucial early decision was software. We decided to re-use and adapt the open source system developed by Eemeli Aro for Helsinki; this meant a certain amount of upgrading to the interface, most particularly to cope with the Retros. My old friend David Matthewman, who I've known since we were students at Cambridge more than thirty years ago, came on board to help with the coding along with Dublin's IT head Arnaud Koebel. To test the software in October and November, we got the Committee to submit dummy nominations (rather than the public testing we did in 2016). That worked well and I'd recommend that process to future Worldcons. The Helsinki software is very useful for administering the nominations count, a complex process which requires matching differently expressed names across categories. It has other drawbacks, though, particularly in managing the various levels of voting eligibility among nominators and members, and I understand that New Zealand is developing its own software for 2020.

Another question was whether or not to have a special category Hugo this year. I allowed myself to be persuaded that this could be an opportunity to test the proposed Hugo for Best Art Book; I've already written about this, but in summary I'm not convinced that it should be adopted as a permanent category, though I was very glad that it was won by Charles Vess and Ursula K. Le Guin.

And finally, we had to decide a clear strategy for the Hugo bases for Dublin. We decided fairly early that the artist(s) should be Irish, and that we would commission them rather than run a competition. The theme for 1944 would be "Other Worlds", and for 2019 "Ireland". After exploring a couple of other options, we asked the legendary Jim Fitzpatrick to design the 2019 base. He was already a Featured Artist for the convention, and he and George R.R. Martin were probably the best known personalities we had on board. I must say that when explaining to my professional contacts what this Worldcon stuff was all about, Jim Fitzpatrick's name would usually guarantee a startled acknowledgement that this was serious stuff.

For the 1944 base, I proposed (and the powers that be accepted) a childhood friend, Eleanor Wheeler, who I have known as long as I can remember (we later discovered evidence that I had attended her second birthday party, which would have been a few weeks before my own), but had not been directly in touch with for over thirty years. Eleanor is a professional ceramic sculptor whose usual commissions are large public works of art; here, for instance, is her work outside the SSE Arena in Belfast, incorporating drawings by schoolchindren and commemorating the four quarters of Belfast. When we went to see it, another group of passers-by were looking for their relative's name and picture.

Jim, who specialises in two dimensions rather than three, gave us some beautiful designs for the 2019 which we then needed to turn into a three-dimensional base, and we turned to Eleanor again to produce a homage to Newgrange incorporating Jim's designs. We were pretty satisfied with the outcome.
We also commissioned Sara Felix to make the first ever Lodestar Award, drawing on her work for the 2018 WSFS Award for Best YA Book. She also made finalist pins for the Lodestar, and Spring Schoenhuth made pins for the Campbell finalists.

Back to the voting. The single most tedious part of the Hugo process is the inclusion of members of the previous year's Worldcon as nominating voters (but not final ballot voters) for the current year. There is no easy way to do this. Basically I sat down with a spreadsheet including both the list of voters from San Jose, and the Dublin membership as it stood in December, and eliminated duplicates by eye. (This also meant eliminating voters who did not have a name, eg "Guest of" or "Friend of" or unnamed club memberships.) At least I had only two Worldcon lists to deal with, thanks to a rule change which took members of the following year's Worldcon out of the equation.

A further complication was that rather than being able to add all of 2018's voters in one go, several hundred of them came through in dribs and drabs. Due to the EU's new GDPR regulation, San Jose were only allowed to pass us the list of those members who had ticked a box allowing Worldcon 76 to share their information with us. (The GDPR requires an opt-in system; the WSFS Business Meeting's expressed preference for an opt-out system is legally irrelevant.) There were 4900 of them - which still left 2800 who had been San Jose members and were entitled to cast nominating votes, but whose data we were not allowed to have. A fair number of those would have been Dublin members anyway, but many were not. We developed a legally sound workaround involving an email sent by San Jose in my name to the missing 2800 inviting them to allow San Jose to give us their details. The key movers here were Kevin Roche and Kathryn Duval for San Jose and Colette Fozard on our side. This picked up only 360 or so by mid-January, and another couple of dozen came through later. It created much extra work for Lea Farr and the rest of our registration team, and also for the Hugo helpdesk team, Rebecca Hewett, Brent Smart and Terry Neill.

Nominations opened on 16 January, a little later than I had hoped (mainly because of the GDPR problem). I am not a gaelgeoir, but I felt that official communications from me should acknowledge the Irishness of the convention, so most of my emails to voters and finalists in my capacity as Hugo administrator started with the greeting "a chara" or "a chairde", depending on the number of people being addressed, and I usually signed off with "le gach dea-ghuí", "with all best wishes", or in some cases "go raibh maith agat", "thank you". One other tweak to the template became necessary when Sanna got married and changed her surname.

Once again we set up a Hugo Research team to test eligibility for nominees as they came in. The team were Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer. The process was this: in early February I gave them lists of the top dozen or so nominees in each category, in alphabetical order, and asked them to verify if they fitted the constitutional criteria; and then updated those lists as late risers emerged. (I also asked the research team to get contact details where they were publicly available.) Looking back now, I see that about two thirds of the eventual finalists were already in the top six for their categories by 19 January, three days into voting; a week before the deadline, 90% of the eventual finalists were there, but that still means that 10% were boosted by late votes. (One kind person actually gave me a nominating vote for Best Fan Writer; of course, as Hugo administrator I was not eligible.)

Hugo administrators only need to make rulings on those nominees who receive enough votes to qualify for the final ballot, but there were several cases where such a decision did have to be made, as already noted in my write-ups of the 1944 Retros and 2019 Hugos. I should also note that my comments on the eligibility of a couple of the unsuccessful Best Art Book nominees, which had copyright dates of 2017, has been challenged by suggestions that those books were not "really" published until 2018. If they'd had enough votes for it to be an issue, we'd have investigated more thoroughly before making a ruling.

One case that I haven't previously mentioned, but that I think points to future eligibility issues, was the case of Bandersnatch, an interactive episode of the TV show Black Mirror where viewers were able to choose paths for the narrative. It received a number of nominations in both Best Dramatic Presentation categories, and so at nominations stage we needed to decide, did it count as Short Form or Long Form? (There is also a question about whether it counts as a Dramatic Presentation at all, but that would only need to be asked if it qualified on the numbers, and anyway the answer is pretty obviously in the affirmative.)

The average length of "play" for Bandersnatch is 90 minutes, which is precisely the boundary between the Short Form and Long Form categories. In the end, we felt that the constitution required us to consider the “complete running time” of a Dramatic Presentation, which suggested that we should count all the 150 minutes of Bandersnatch footage that exist, not just the 90 minutes mean path. (NB also that in 2016, the Puppies got enough votes for two games to qualify for Short Form, but both were ruled way too long for the category.) And in fact Bandersnatch did not get enough votes to qualify in either category, even when nominations were transferred from one to the other, so no official ruling was needed.

I had an unexpected business trip to Nashville, Tennessee on the day that nominations closed, and was finalising the ballot while very jetlagged during a layover in Schiphol airport on the Sunday. (Paper ballots, and there were not many of them, went to Colette Fozard in Maryland and were input as soon as the deadline had passed.) Inevitably, with 38 categories, errors were made, and in particular I regret not spotting that we had incorrectly amalgamated the Retro Fanzine nominations for Fantasy News, edited by William Sykora, with those for Guteto, edited by Myrtle Johnson (Morojo). This came to light only as we put together the detailed nomination results in mid-July, though that was still before the vast majority of votes had been cast in that category.

Thanks to careful preparation, I was able to alert almost all finalists that they had qualified for the ballot early on Monday 18 March, less than three days after the ballot closed. (As usual, the difficulties were mostly in the Dramatic Presentation categories, where can be very difficult to find out who to contact.) Martha Wells immediately declined nominations for two of the three Murderbot novellas that had enough votes to qualify, and Mike Glyer likewise immediately declined for File 770, and I was able to notify the next nominees in line without delay.

I have already written about how the final ballot was announced. One aspect that I have not previously mentioned in public: we had originally (and ambitiously) targeted 30 March as the date for the announcement - all well and good, but then Vince Docherty pointed out that Brexit was due to happen the previous day (as we then thought) and we would certainly get lost in the media shitstorm. Of course, as we now know, history worked out differently. It would have been impossible for James Shields, Fionna O’Sullivan and Mark Slater to produce such a lovely video at shorter notice, anyway. Just to remind you, here it is again:

Although on the two occasions where I have been directly involved, the calendar has been against an Easter announcement, personally I am in the school of thought that would prefer the Hugo final ballots to be announced at a convention over the Easter weekend. I do not buy the argument that we miss out on mainstream media by not making the announcement on a weekday. Outside the puppy years, we have not got and will not get a lot of mainstream media coverage anyway, and when we did get it, it was for the wrong reasons.

When I started writing this, I thought it would end up being shorter than my 2017 write-up. But I've now reached only the announcement of the final ballot, and I'm already 2500 words in, so I think I will leave the rest for next weekend.

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