BLOG Hugo Award interview with Cheryl Morgan

Blogger Lee Harris talks to Science Fiction Awards Watch's Cheryl Morgan about the state of SF awards

Cheryl Morgan is a two-time winner of the Hugo Award (once for her magazine Emerald City in 2004, and last year she won the Best Fan Writer award). She is the non-fiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine and is part of the team running the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards, ConReporter.com and the Science Fiction Awards Watch . I caught up with her to ask about SF awards in general and the Hugo in particular.

Lee Harris: With so many other literary awards around, what makes the Hugos so relevant?
Cheryl Morgan: I think the best thing about the Hugo is longevity. They were first awarded back in the 1950s and have been going strong ever since. It's an award that people grow up hearing about. When you're a kid and you're buying science fiction paperbacks from the cheap store, you see one with "Hugo Winner" on it, and you get to think that's something good. Twenty years later as an adult, the Hugo is something you recognise.

Harris: Is it a sign of quality, do you think?
Morgan: I spend a lot of time looking at awards of various types, particularly science fiction awards and quality is not necessarily something you get from an awards, and it's not even something I would be happy defining, in that what works as quality for one group of people may not work as quality for another group.

Harris: So why should somebody outside of fandom take notice of any particular award?
Morgan: Well, that depends on what you mean by "somebody outside of fandom". If you're talking about somebody who reads science fiction outside of fandom, then the Hugo is evidence that large numbers of science fiction fans have read and enjoyed these works. If you're talking about people that don't read science fiction at all, well it's an interesting way to sample. Then again, that depends on what you're interested in, and if you've more of a serious literary bent then perhaps you'd be better off looking at the Clarke or the World Fantasy Award, which are juried awards, rather than fan-voted.

Harris: Tell me a little bit about the way the Hugos are voted.
Morgan: It's a two-stage process and both are there for good reason. One of the interesting things about the Hugos is that everything that is published in the year is eligible. You don't have to submit your work to a jury. The mere fact that it's been published is good enough. It doesn't have to have been published in America; it doesn't even have to be published in English. If you've written a science fiction novel in Sanskrit and you've published it in India it's still eligible for the Hugo. Now you'll have difficulty in getting people to vote for it because there are not many people in India who read Sanskrit who are likely to join WorldCon and vote, but in theory it's there.

So, you have to have some means of coping with that vast field, and clearly there's nobody in the world who can read every eligible book and decide what they want to vote for. So, what we have instead is this nomination process, where everybody is able to suggest five works in each category, and you then tot those up and you see what's the most popular, so it's essentially a sampling system. You're getting a large number of people and sampling their preferences and you should end up with a relatively diverse list of five works in each category. Having done that, you then go on to the final ballot, which is a very different thing.

There, you only have five works in each category, and you expect that people are going to attempt to read them all and judge between them. And there we use something that the Americans call "instant run-off voting". It's occasionally called the "Australian ballot" because they work their parliamentary awards in a very similar way, and here I believe it's quite close to the "alternative vote" that our friends Cameron-Clegg are proposing to put to referendum. So the idea is that instead of just voting for one work you rank them in order of preference and if no work has an absolute majority of first place preferences on the first round of voting, then there's a process whereby the work that gets the least number of first place votes is eliminated and the second place votes from that are redistributed among the remaining works, and so on and so forth until somebody has a 50% plus of the total ballot. And the net result of that is that the winning work is generally one that is not widely disliked. You can have some fairly weird results. It makes it difficult for a particularly unusual work to win, but the general result is that we get winners that most people are reasonably happy with.

Harris: You have to be a member of WorldCon to vote in the Hugos…
Morgan: You do, yes, but you don't have to attend. There's a lot of nonsense gets talked on the internet about how it costs hundreds and hundreds of pounds to vote in the Hugos, and that's simply not true.

This year it costs £25 and what that gets you is something called a supporting membership of WorldCon, which gives you voting rights in the Hugos, it gives you nominating rights for next year, you get a nice glossy souvenir book from the current WorldCon, which in this case will tell you about Australian writers and Australian fandom because this year WorldCon is in Melbourne, and in addition to that, in recent years we've been putting out what we call the "Hugo Voter Packet". This is a collection of eBooks – stories, sample artwork and whatever, from the Hugo nominees.

So, this year you'll get (off the top of my head): all six novels, several of the best related works – critical books, free graphic novels (not all of them are necessarily in the packet, some of the publishers don't agree to participate) and there'll be something like twenty pieces of short fiction in there, sample artwork, sample magazines. It's well worth 25 quid, as long as you're happy reading eBooks. It's very good value, I think.

Harris: Any other awards you think are particularly relevant at the moment?
Morgan: The world is pretty much deluged with awards at the moment. Everybody is always starting a new one. One of the good things about the Hugos is that they've been around a long time, so people know them and respect them, but if you're looking for science fiction, the Clarke Award in the UK is a high profile thing that's got a big money prize, it's got a supposedly respectable literary jury to choose the best science fiction book of the year, and that fits in more with your standard literary science fiction award.

The World Fantasy Award is a similar sort of thing, although the "world" thing is a bit of a misnomer – it's essentially for books that are published in English in America. And it's also very limited in the sort of fantasy it tends to consider. You won't find books that get on the Gemmell shortlist in the World Fantasy Award, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The Nebulas are the other venerable science fiction award in that it's given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It's voted on by the members who one should think at least know what they're talking about.

Harris: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

This interview was submitted by site blogger Lee Harris. To get your Hugo Voter Packet, head on over to http://aussiecon4.org/index.php?page=87 to register. Not only will you get hundreds of pounds worth of eBooks, magazines and short fiction, you'll get to help shape this year's Hugo winners.