July 4th, 2021

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The Hugo for Best Related Work, including my own votes for this year

The Best Related Work category has been on the Hugo ballot every year since 1980. In 28 of those 41 years, it went to a published monograph or essay collection about science fiction and/or fantasy or related themes. The exceptions were as follows:
  • Popular science books won twice, in 1981 (Carl Sagan: Cosmos) and 1986 (Tom Weller: Science Made Stupid, which is somewhat satirical rather than factual);
  • Art books won five times, in 1988 (Michael Whelan: Worlds of Wonder), 1992 (The World of Charles Addams), 2001 (Greetings from Earth: The Art of Bob Eggleton), 2002 (The Art of Chesley Bonestell) and 2004 (The Chesley Awards for SF & Fantasy Art: A Retrospective)
  • Websites won in 2012 (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition) and 2019 (Archive of Our Own)
  • A podcast won in 2013 (Writing Excuses, Season 7)
  • A blog post won in 2014 (Kameron Hurley: "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative")
  • No Award was made in 2015 and 2016 (the Puppy years)
  • Jeannette Ng's Campbell Award acceptance speech won in 2020.

In the last decade, the finalists in the category have been as follows.
  1. Four books and a podcast. (Winner: Chicks Dig Time Lords, a book.)
  2. One book about SF, one website, one art book, one music album, one podcast. (Winner, as noted above: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition, a website.)
  3. Four books about sf and a podcast. (Winner, as noted above: Writing Excuses, Season 7, a podcast.)
  4. Three books about sf, a podcast and a blog post. (Winner, as noted above: "We Have Always Fought", a blog post.)
  5. Two books about SF, two essays and a humour book that wasn't very funny. (No award; all five were Puppy nominees.)
  6. Slightly tricky to classify but probably it's two books, two online essays/blog posts and one collection of blog posts. (No Award; all five were Puppy nominees.)
  7. (final ballot from here on has six rather than five finalists) Five books about sf and one sequence of blog posts. (Winner: Ursula K. Le Guin's Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016.)
  8. Six books about sf. (Winner: Ursula K. Le Guin's No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.)
  9. Three books about sf, one video documentary, one convention event and a website. (Winner, as noted above: Archive of Our Own, a website)
  10. Four books about sf, one video documentary and a speech. (Winner, as noted above: Jeannette Ng's speech.)
  11. One book about sf, one translated poem, one blog post, one video documentary and two convention events. (Winner: to be determined.)
Only two of the nine most recent years have seen a book about sf win, and both of them were by Ursula K. Le Guin. (And I suspect that this year will make that two out of ten.)

The category description for Best Related Work is currently as follows:
Any work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year, and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.
Some of the finalists in the last ten years fit that definition less obviously than others, and there is one that I would have disqualified if I had been the Hugo administrator that year. That one is the music album which was nominated in 2012. As I wrote at the time, it is an album of songs which all describe more or less fictional situations, of which a bit more than half have more or less clear fantasy elements in the narrative. In so far as the songs themselves are noteworthy regarding the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, it is precisely in their fictional content. I suppose an argument could be made that just being songs is noteworthy, but I don't think it is a good argument.

For the record, there is one other finalist in this category since the turn of the century that I would have disqualified if I had been the Hugo administrator that year. One of the 2004 finalists seems to me to be a collection of short fiction pieces, not noteworthy for any aspects other than the fictional text. In 2002, a nominee in this category was disqualified for exactly this reason.

For completeness, I should add that I was a member of last year's Hugo team who actually did disqualify a nominee from the 1945 Retro Hugo for Best Related Work, as it was clearly not sufficiently related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom to be eligible. (It is a magic handbook, by a writer who thought that magic is real, not fictional.) That's the only disqualification I can find on the criterion of relevance.

So, what about the marginal cases that were permitted to go forward to the voters? The first thing to say is that the instinct of Hugo administrators is generally to let voters put stuff on the ballot and then let more voters choose between the options (or No Award if that's what they prefer). The bar for disqualification should be set pretty high. I've been involved with six sets of eligibility discussions (Hugos in 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2021, and Retro Hugos in 2019 and 2020) and none of the calls that I have been involved with in this category seemed particularly difficult at the time.

In 2017, the set of blog posts was at that time an unusual nominee, but one or two of the previous year's nominees were similar in form, so there was a clear precedent.

2018 was the only year of the last five where I was not involved, and (coincidentally, I hope) it was the least controversial Best Related Work ballot of the decade, consisting of six solid books.

In 2019, there was much discussion of the eligibility of Archive of Our Own, but really, it's difficult to find grounds for excluding it that would not also have applied to the 2012 winner, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition. True, most of the content of Archive of Our Own is fiction; but that is hardly the most noteworthy thing about it. The wishes of the voters in the end were pretty clear and it won a solid victory on the final ballot. AO3 generously donated their trophy to the permanent Hugo archive. I very much deplore some of the subsequent commentary.

There was very little discussion in 2019 of two other eligibility rulings that we made that year, the video essay and the convention event, a first time for each. From the administrators' point of view, they clearly both had enough votes to qualify, and both obviously were non-fiction related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom; and I don't recall anyone arguing about it. A convention event is clearly work for those organising it; it's a bit less clear if it constitutes a work, but the wording of the rule is "any work", so like it or not, I think it's covered.

In 2020, again there was a certain amount of discussion of the eligibility of the eventual winner, an acceptance speech from the 2019 Hugo ceremony. Again, as administrators this caused us little hesitation. Some commentators suggested that it "really" belonged in Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, because another Hugo acceptance speech had been categorised thus a few years earlier; the argument then ran that, since acceptance speeches are eligible in another category, they therefore are not eligible in Best Related Work ("...and which is not eligible in any other category").

However, a rather crucial step in the determination of eligibility is getting nominated for the category in the first place; and literally none of the actual 2020 voters nominated the 2019 speech in Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. The will of the nominating voters was clear, and confirmed by the final ballot voters: the speech should be considered in Best Related Work. (I think any reasonable person comparing the two acceptance speeches would concede that there is a strong case for treating them as very different things - see here and here.)

Now we have reached 2021. I relinquished my WSFS duties this year a bit earlier than planned, and so am in a position to give some commentary on eligibility decisions regarding works that ended up on the 2021 ballot. (Commentary on disqualifications will have to wait until the final results are announced; at this stage I will not even confirm or deny if there were any this year, let alone which categories might have been affected.)

The two convention events which ended up on the ballot did cause us some head-scratching. But the 2019 precedent and wishes of the voters were both clear. Likewise, the video documentary, which is clearly in line with similar finalists in 2019 and 2020.

The translated poem caused a bit more head-scratching. But it is noteworthy for being a new translation, rather than for the fictional content as such; the poem was first published in 1786, first published in English translation in 1837, and first published in the USA in 1882, which means that it's not eligible in any of the fiction categories, as all of those dates are substantially earlier than 2020. So in fact the case for its eligibility in Best Related Work this year is clear.

It was a bit surprising that the blog post proved the most controversial of the finalists. Of course, this was not because of eligibility - it's clearly commentary on an issue related to fandom, very precisely the 2020 Hugo ceremony - but because it includes a disparaging reference to a very privileged writer in its title. The subsequent discussion illustrated perfectly well why it's a bad idea to litigate code of conduct issues in public.

(Some will ask, should the WSFS Business Meeting step in and resolve some of these eligibility questions? To which I reply, Christ, no. It should be clear from what I have written so far that it is not at all difficult to resolve eligibility questions in this category using the current wording, and I cannot imagine the Business Meeting improving the situation.)

So, those are my comments on eligibility from the perspective of an administrator.

On the other hand, my views as a voter are somewhat different.

To start with the two convention events: each has provided a good amount of material for voters to consider, which is very welcome. The third paragraph of the introduction to CoNZealand Fringe's collection of transcripts from the panels is as follows:
Thus, CoNZealand Fringe was built in the space of 3 weeks, on the foundational principles of broadening access and ensuring inclusion for a broad range of fandom. One of the most important aspects of Fringe was our partnership with BookTube, the community of book reviewers and fans on Youtube, with 11 different channels hosting various Fringe streams and panels dedicated to BookTube itself and to popular BookTube video topics. Our panels were built from the premise that fans of colour, queer fans, fans with disabilities and other marginalised folks have vital things to say about every fandom topic, and that ensuring a diversity of expertise is one of our most important duties as event conveners. We didn't get everything right (nor did we get much sleep) but the set of panels we delivered, and the group of enthusiastic participants who joined them, speak to what is possible in a short space of time when these principles are baked in from the start.
And the third paragraph from FIYAHCon's Retrospective is as follows:
And so when the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd happened, when everyone decided to be vocal about their position on the mattering of Black lives, when those messages went from hashtags and t-shirts and profile pictures and turned into street protests and donations to bail funds and offerings of mentorship and opportunity in the creative sphere, FIYAH, the magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, received…attention. With that attention came 8,000 new Twitter followers, and over 1,000 new subscribers, enough to take us from the semi-prozine category and allow us for the first time to pay our writers and poets a professional standard of .08/word.
The two represent a vast amount of work on behalf of those who produced them, and clearly were important events for fandom. I hope it's clear from what I have said above that I totally accept that voters have a right to put convention events onto the ballot.

However, I am an old fuddy-duddy who likes scholarly or biographical books or works about sf and fantasy to win this category, so I'm not going to vote for either of them. Sorry.

The one blog post nominated this year is Natalie Luhrs' "George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into The Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition)". Its third paragraph is:
That said, I have never in my life seen any awards ceremony that, in its whole, was so blatantly disrespectful of the nominees and winners. And I’m including my high school senior awards ceremony where I learned that half the money my family donated to the music department after my mother’s death had been used not for the purpose for which it had been donated.
The blog post is an angry commentary on how the 2020 Worldcon handled the Hugo ceremony. I share a lot of that anger. I was the Deputy Hugo Administrator last year. Our team worked hard to get the Hugo finalists and winners honoured, and it can fairly be said that that work was among very many things that were not well reflected in the ceremony itself. One point that Luhrs doesn't make, but that particularly struck me on the night, was that it was over an hour into the ceremony before the first actual Hugo winner was announced. For me, this came at the end of a long series of other frustrations with the convention, so I was saddened, sickened and shocked, but not really very surprised at how it had worked out.

Given that there are very few mechanisms for accountability for what went wrong, it's entirely legitimate for fandom broadly to express its displeasure with last year's Worldcon by putting Luhrs' essay on this year's Hugo ballot, and indeed this also applies to an extent to FIYAHCon and CoNZealand Fringe, which both state explicitly that part of their motivation for setting up the events in the first place was frustration with CoNZealand.

But.

Getting on the ballot is one thing; getting the actual award is another. I don't really want a 2021 Hugo winner to commemorate the failures of the 2020 Worldcon, egregious though these were. One year's award should not really go to the previous year's fights, even to the people on the right side of the argument. (NB this very much does not apply to Jeannette Ng's 2019 speech, which was addressed to previous decades rather than to the previous year.)

So I'm not going to vote for Luhrs' essay either. I would not be at all surprised if it or one of the convention events wins - I have no way of knowing, because I left the process before we had started to look at incoming ballots - but it won't be with my vote.

That leaves three. And having said that I like to vote for scholarly or biographical books or works about sf and fantasy, unfortunately I'm putting the one actual book about sf third out of the remaining three. Here is the second paragraph of the third chapter of Lynelle George's A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler, with footnote:
A self-penned commitment to herself:
2-11-1970
Goal: To Aquire
[sic] Free and clear, a cash holding totally of my own of $100,000.00
Plan: To Write. Confessions, television, movies, novels, Science fiction and otherwise, and nonfiction. And to sell what I write.
2
2. OEB Box 56
It is beautifully produced, and conveys very well the sense of awe and reverence that anyone who has ever done archival research knows from dealing with original first-hand materials. But I learned very little from it about what Butler thought she was doing with her work, what her influences were, what external forces pushed her in one direction or the other. It is more of an extended meditation on how Lynelle George feels about Octavia E. Butler and her personal records, which is all very well, but not as interesting as I had hoped for. In case you are reading this after the 2021 Hugo ballot has closed, you can get it here. Of the Butleriana on the ballot this year, I much prefer the graphic novel adaptation of Parable of the Sower.

My second preference vote goes to Maria Dahvana Headley's translation of Beowulf. I found myself moved by curiosity from reading it to go back and look at Seamus Heaney's translation, previously read in 2008. There are no chapters in Beowulf, though there is a well-established tradition of short sections of the poem; here's Headley's third of these, with the equivalent passages from Heaney and the original, and Tolkien's prose translation at the bottom.

Headley Heaney Original
Later, God sent Scyld a son, a wolf cub,
further proof of manhood. Being God, He knew
how the Spear-Danes had suffered, the misery
they’d mangled through, leaderless, long years of loss,
so the Life-lord, that Almighty Big Boss, birthed them
an Earth-shaker. Beow’s name kissed legions of lips
by the time he was half-grown, but his own father
was still breathing. We all know a boy can’t daddy
until his daddy’s dead. A smart son gives
gifts to his father’s friends in peacetime.
When war woos him, as war will,
he’ll need those troops to follow the leader.
Privilege is the way men prime power,
the world over.
Afterwards a boy-child was born to Shield,
a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed,
the long times and troubles they'd come through
without a leader; so the Lord of Life,
the glorious Almighty, made this man renowned.
Shield had fathered a famous son:
Beow's name was known through the north.
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.
Ðæm eafera wæs    æfter cenned,
geong in geardum,    þone God sende
folce to frofre.    Fyrenðearfe ongeat.
Þæt hie ær drugon    aldorlease
lange hwile.    Him þæs Liffrea,
wuldres wealdend,    woroldare forgeaf.
Beowulf wæs breme,    blæd wide sprang,
Scyldes eafera    Scedelandum in.
Swa sceal geong guma    gode gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum    on fæder bearme,
þæt hine on ylde    eft gewunigen
wilgesiþas,    þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten.    Lofdædum sceal
in mægþa gehwære    man geþeon.

Tolkien: To him was an heir afterwards born, a young child in his courts whom God sent for the comfort of the people: perceiving the dire need which they long while endured aforetime being without a prince. To him therefore the Lord of Life who rules in glory granted honour among men: Beow was renowned – far and wide his glory sprang – the heir of Scyld in Scedeland. Thus doth a young man bring it to pass with good deeds and gallant gifts, while he dwells in his father’s bosom, that after in his age there cleave to him loyal knights of his table, and the people stand by him when war comes. By worthy deeds in every folk is a man ennobled.

This excerpt is actually quite a good illustration of why Headley is different from Heaney, let alone Tolkien. Her take is much more deliberately gender-conscious (Heaney's and Tolkien's are of course gendered, but unconsciously so) and adopting very contemporary language ("We all know a boy can’t daddy / until his daddy’s dead") which doesn't always relate very closely to the original text.

The last sentence of this extract is especially interesting. Translating "Lofdædum sceal / in mægþa gehwære    man geþeon", Heaney's take is basically approving: "Behaviour that's admired / is the path to power among people everywhere." So is Tolkien's, if clunkier: "By worthy deeds in every folk is a man ennobled." Headley's take challenges the reader: "Privilege is the way men prime power, / the world over." She's also a step farther away from the original; a "lofdæd" is a praiseworthy deed, rather closer to Heaney's "behaviour that's admired" or Tolkien's "worthy deeds" than Headley's "privilege". Both Headley and Heaney get "power" and Tolkien gets "ennobled" from "geþeon", the last word of the original part of this text, which is more "flourish", "do well", without the connotation of ruling that all three translators give it; but I suppose context supplies that.

Headley's translation is a provocative and enjoyable experience, another valid take on a text from a thousand years ago which remains vital, but Heaney's is basically better than hers (let alone Tolkien’s), closer to the original in meaning, and will not date as quickly, so I can't quite give Headley my top spot. You can get her translation here, Heaney's here and Tolkien's here.

Somewhat to my surprise, my top vote goes instead to Jenny Nicholson's video documentary, The Last Bronycon: a fandom autopsy. I am not at all familiar with My Little Pony - the Puppies put two episodes on the Hugo ballot in 2016 and I didn't last three minutes into the first one. But this successfully persuaded me that there was important stuff going on in MLP fandom all that time, with wider ramifications not only for politics but also how fans operate. Watching it was 71 minutes well spent; I found it completely fascinating, and it gets my top vote.