Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Wheelbarrow of Books - My Offering for a Hugo Nomination Process

It was in the Theatre Department at Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga that I got my first, best lesson in the nature of awards for creative endeavors.  
The lesson came from Gary, the head of the technical theatre department.  In truth he WAS the technical department, at least when it came to set design, set construction, lighting and sound.  His wife, Pat, was the costume department in much the same way.  Gary, a quiet and insightful man, was one of the most creative people I've met in theatre.  Just watching the lights come up on one of his sets could move you.      
One day, while taking a break in the midst of building a set for the next "main stage" show (another misnomer, since Chaffey had only one stage everything was pretty much a "main stage" show) the cast and crew that volunteered to pound nails and lift platforms were talking about whatever the most recent set of award winners that had been announced.  Gary was standing nearby, listening to a bunch of college kids with stars in their eyes give their opinion about which picture was truly the best or which actor deserved to win for which role.  
"You know..."  Gary had this mischievous smile that would peek out of his beard when he was going to make one of his very dry, understated jokes.  It was gleaming at us now when he interjected in a pause in our discussion.  "I've have an idea for a great way to choose someone for the Best Actor award."  
"Yeah?"  We turned our attention toward Gary.  He was the E.F. Hutton of the Theatre Department.  "What would that be?"  
"Well...  I've always thought...  You could..."  He mimicked grabbing something heavy with his two big hands.  "Take this big wheelbarrows and fill them with bricks.  Then have a bunch of actors get in a line, like at track, and push the wheelbarrows as fast as they could.  And whoever got to the finish line first..."  Gary dropped his pretend wheelbarrow and opened his hands to us.  "That person would be the 'Best Actor.'"  
We stared at him.  He looked back at us, with a twinkle in his eye that a young Kris Kringle might have on his first day interning at North Pole, Inc.  Some of the people who were new to the department screwed their faces up and looked at each other.  I knew Gary was kidding, but...  Yeah.  He was kidding, sure, but...  
"Gary?"  I had to ask.  "How does that tell us who the best actor is?"  
Gary frowned.  He seemed to think for a moment.  He tugged at his lip.  
"I dunno."  He lifted his shoulders and let them fall.  His smile was there again.  "How do these awards you were talking about do that now?"
That little prologue was prompted by a friend's question as to my opinion on the still boiling "Hugo Controversy."  What has happened is, a number of the Hugo nominees for this year's ballot, to be decided in August at the 2015 WorldCon in Spokane this year, were apparently put on the ballot through the means of "slate voting," where a slate of nominees was offered by a pair of websites called "Sad Puppies" and "Rabid Puppies," which was subsequently submitted to the Hugo Awards Committee in sufficient numbers where the nominees on this slate came to dominate the list of Hugo finalists.  
The problem: This slate of nominees were (apparently) offered with political motivations.  In reaction to the 2014 Hugo finalists list which I've read online heralded as a "breakthrough" in diversity.  On the Rabid Puppies site, one can read their contention that their list values "actual excellence" in the genre over "intersectional equalitarianism, racial and gender inclusion, literary pyrotechnics, or professional rabbitology."  
Hmm.  Ok.  Fine.  
I have no ability to comment on whether or not this claim about "actual excellence" made by the Rabid Puppies site is accurate or not.  It is an unfortunate aspect of my life that I don't have time to read all of the books I've heard my science fiction friends talking about.  Only since the works of Hugo nominees been made available to members of the World Science Fiction society, who nominate and vote for the Hugos, have I been able to read works before the winner is decided, and then usually only the short forms of Short Story, Novelette and some of the Novellas.  I did not recognize the "breakthrough" that the 2014 nominees represented.  Nor do I see anything inherently reactionary in the list of 2015 nominees, which I will provide a link to HERE for your own perusal.  
So.  No rant here of a political nature.  If you're looking for that, you can click away now. 
What I do see, or maybe sense, are two things in this current brouhaha.  One relates to conflicts within groups.  The other to award ceremonies in general.
The group thing is the divisions that seem to be appearing just about everywhere.  It is most obvious in our country's political life, where Congress has only recently started passing bills and confirming nominations again, after year after year of stalled, stubborn political stalemate.  It feels as if every group, nation, people, sect, or in the case of the Hugos, fandoms, are struggling to identify who and what they are, with the most commonly voiced choice being a form of purification.  Shia and Sunni.  Tea Party and Mainstream Republican.  Red States and Blue States.  The science fiction fan community is not immune, it would appear, to someone attempting to manipulate the process by which "actual excellence" in their community is defined and promoted.  
I have no answer for addressing this.  It seems to be something that we will collectively have to grow out of, like being afraid of the dark or throwing ourselves to the floor and crying at the top of our lungs when we can't get something we want.  
And the fact that it is over a toy...  Well, a statue, actually.  A sleek and shiny silver rocket.  That is what makes this kerfufle silly.  
Do I get points for using kerfufle and brouhaha in the same posting?  
Or, it would be silly if not for the comments I've read about how this will "damage" the Hugo selection process beyond repair.  
It is natural for any creative community to award what it deems as the best work being produced by that community.  Every field of creative endeavor has them.  Oscars.  Tonys.  Obies.  Golden Globes.  Hugos.  Nebulas.  People like to argue about which work was best, and an award is one great way of settling that score.  
It is equally natural, though, for that process to get shifted and warped by considerations other than the quality of the work represented.  I've heard it said that Edward Albee's Pulitzer for Seascape (one of my favorite plays to have performed in) was in part to make up for his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf having its Pulitzer withdrawn.  John Wayne's Oscar for True Grit had similar overtones for making up not having been awarded before.  
Acknowledging a body of work by awarding a less than deserving piece happens.  It's the political overtones of the current send-up that makes it more unseemly.  And sad, too.  Because there will ALWAYS BE someone who will feel the "right" winner was snubbed NO MATTER who actually wins.  I stopped watching the Oscars in 1994 when Searching for Bobby Fischer, which I believe to be one of the best movies of all time, was only nominated for cinematography that year and didn't even win that.  The film that won Best Picture that year was Schindler's List.  The film that won Best Picture that year was Schindler's List.  A selection that was, I think, motivated both by a desire to make up for previous snubs toward director Steven Spielberg and due its subject matter. 
But that's how it goes with awards.  And it's how it's gone with the Hugos this year.  What will make it worse is if, next year, to "restore balance" or "express the true spirit of the fandom" another slate of nominees is promoted to correct what is seen as this year's political wrong.  If this happens, and happens again and again, we may as well fill a barrel with books and tell all the prospective nominees that the Best Novelist will be the one who can push their wheelbarrow down the track the fastest.  It will have as much to do with actually selecting a worthy piece of work as what will develop from any reactionary response. 
I like this idea.  If we make it a hiking contest to the top of Eaton Canyon, near Pasadena where I live, instead, I could become the Best Writer of Science Fiction without even typing a single word.


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