Agony Column Exclusive Commentary


Worldcon Hugo Ceremonies 2005
The Agony Column for August 24, 2005
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
You know, I didn't think about it at the time. I was just consumed with getting the tape, getting the coverage. But when we got the train to the SECC for the Hugo Ceremonies, that was out last trip for the convention. Originally, we'd planned on poking about a bit on Monday, but when we went to get train tickets to Hereford from Glasgow, we heard a few dire predictions about how long such a train trip would take. We were told that it might take like, eight hours, perhaps ten. If that was the case, we didn't want to end up in Hereford at 10 PM; we were only there for a couple of days and wanted some daylight upon first arriving.

So on the way to the Hugos, we bought our train tickets, leaving Glasgow bright and early at 6:58 AM and arriving at Hereford around 1 PM. We loved the Scotsrail passes they gave us, the little plastic ticket holders that now double as debit-card holders. Having acquired our tickets for the morrow, we headed downstairs to catch our final train. Given that it was about six-thirty, seven PM on a Sunday night, it was pretty quiet -- other than Con-bound traffic, most of us instantly identifiable by the tags round our necks, if not our bags of books.

I'd set up via the press office to record the ceremonies on the same handheld unit I'd used for the interviews, the Edirol R1. Manufactured by a subsidiary of Roland, it's very nice and performed quite well, so long as you gave it good batteries. Fortunately, the same people who handled the sound for the opening ceremonies were doing so for the Hugos. All I had to do was check in at the truck and follow the total-pro sound man who was such a blessing. For that particular portion of the gig, I'd been sort of unprepared, in that I hadn't brought my usual connector cable, thinking I'd do it all via microphone. But the sound folks had the cable, and actually wanted my sound file as a backup. Claire and I ascended to the second level of the very plush SECC, and I got patched in to the mixing board. I joined Claire near the stratospheric heights of the auditorium, in what proved to be the highest occupied row. But with the "stadium-style" seating we could see quite well and were very comfortable. All this goes a long way towards making the event much nicer. In Toronto, I recalled sitting in folding chairs on a flat floor in a booming room. This was luxurious.

A nice bit of kit -- no flash photos in the Hugo room, alas.

Things got underway quite on time, and the presenters were Paul McAuley and Kim Newman. These guys should always be the presenters. They set up a rather brilliant conceit, stuck to it, explored it, and it made the whole ceremony far more entertaining than it had any right to be. What's more they brought in the shortest Hugo ceremony on record.

I have to admit a flash of great embarrassment when I first saw what McAuley and Newman were up to. Early in the history of this column, shortly after firing up the site, I posted something about the Hugos in which I made the mistake of thinking that the Hugo award was named for Victor Hugo. About an hour after posting the damn thing, I realized my error -- it's Hugo Gernsback -- and corrected it, but I was utterly mortified. So when I saw that Newman and McAuley were basing their entire Hugo presentation around the idea of an alternate history in which Victor Hugo ended up as the father of the science fiction genre, and indeed had the Hugo named after him -- well, I have to admit that my first thought was "Omygod, I've been tumbled." Of course my next thought was, "Nobody knows who the hell I am," a sort-of comforting realization.

But McAuley and Newman carried this off brilliantly. They put in all the necessary details to keep the joke alive and frankly made the whole award ceremony a lot more interesting than it had any right to be. Here we were, watching a ceremony for science fiction that was itself science fiction and damn good science fiction at that.

The Hugo awards were preceded by the First Fandom Awards. These awards give you an idea of how deep and complex the whole society on the edges of science fiction really is. Now, myself, I'm here for the literature, plain and simple. There's a lot of it and quite a bit is very good indeed.

But there is also this deep, deep history of science fiction fans who publish their own magazines, not unlike my website. This stuff goes back sixty, seventy years. Just seeing these awards presented is like glimpsing into a secret society, with a history as complex as the literature upon which they opine. It does give you pause, and if science fiction readers wonder why the extreme fandom gets all the coverage, well, it is a pretty interesting construct.

Given the spiffiness of the presentation, the awards themselves were their usual mixed bag of insider trading and pleasant surprises. Things started off on a positive note, to my mind as the Con committee gave David Pringle, the retiring editor over at Interzone, a special award for service. Given that Pringle helped make and shape the careers of some of today's top writers, well, there's a reward that's richly deserved. And it wasn't even a Hugo, just an off-the-cuff deal that hit the mark.

Next up was the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, also "not a Hugo award". This was a tough category for me; I knew and really liked the work of many of these writers. I loved the debut novel by Steph Swainston, 'The Year of Our War'; it was her first year of eligibility. I'd read a lot of work by Elizabeth Bear (in her second year of eligibility), in Interzone and her novel 'Hammered'. I enjoyed K. J. Bishop's 'The Etched City' (in her second year of eligibility). I think Chris Robberson is on a roll with his editorship of 'Adventure 1' and his new novel 'Here There and Everywhere' from Pyr. And in the usual scheme of things, I didn't know boo about David Moles. I now know he has a very nice looking blog.

OK, so I feel a bit of vindication that Elizabeth Bear won because I seem to remember long ago saying such a thing. And she does have a story on this site. But mostly, like, she deserves it, and not a little bit because, I think John W. Campbell would have really loved her stuff. Now I have no concrete, arguable reason for thinking this. But in my opinion, this was an award well done in a tough field where pretty much everybody I knew would have been appropriate. Good work all around.

Having stripped away everything else, we're left with...the Hugos. So. Hmm. Where to start. You probably know the results by now, and if not you can get them here. Take a gander, then come back. Then take a look here at the vote totals. Shocking, I say, shocking.

So, for all the hoopla more people voted for the movie awards than the book awards. Sigh. So, I get over it, I do, and go on to the actual winners, as well as the field. Talk about all over the map!

For Best Fan Artist, once again we have that weird thing where people I would regard as pros -- Frank Wu, whose wonderful stuff graced some of Jay Lake's work -- end up in the fan category. Sue Mason won, but refused to give us a cat story. We were the losers in that transaction.

Next up was Best Fanzine. Here, at least, the competition seemed pretty even, though Plokta won again. I seem to remember that they won before, so perhaps that's not surprising. But it was heartening to see Cheryl Morgan's Emerald City included in the running.

Peter Weston presented the Hugo for Best David Langford, er Fan Writer. I love Langford's work as much as anyone. I understand that when one awards awards, one awards said awards to the best, in theory. And given all that I was still a bit surprised. Oh the Hugos! One must love them or go mad.

Next up was the Best Website award, still a bit in the developing stages, shall we say. Thus you get SciFiction -- just one part of a huge operation with shed-loads of money to burn for art and to pay writers with -- competing against Emerald City, still pretty much a one-woman operation under the guidance of Cheryl Morgan. Not only are the sites disparate in size, they have entirely different intents. SciFiction publishes fiction, though has a much bigger interest, much of it supporting various SF TV shows. Emerald City is mainly criticism and interviews. In what world do you pit fiction against non-fiction? It just does not make a lot of sense. Moreover, cherry picking SciFiction out of ignores most of the content which does neither SciFiction or any favors.

Clearly the Worldcon committee has a bit of work to do here. SciFiction and Ellen Datlow won this time around. What a wonderful world it is.

It was nice to see Jon Courtenay Grimwood presenting the "Best Semi-Prozine" award, into which Emerald City appears to be headed. Now to this observer, none of the nominees were "semi-prozines". David Langford -- who won again -- expressed I believe the feelings of many when he said, "I can't believe how semi-professional this makes me feel." Maybe they could just call the Fan/Semi-pro awards the BackHands. I can imagine a great JK Potter statue for this.

Having dispensed with all the awkwardly-conceived Fan and semi-pro awards, things got into the "Professional" realm. Here at least, the competitors seem on an even keel and the categories make a fair amount of sense.

China Miéville presented the award for Best Professional Artist to the quite deserving Jim Burns. One of the things you get when you see the Hugos is how much history there is in the genre. Burns has been around for a lot longer than I ever realized -- "nearly three decades," he told us, but his work is as strong as ever and certainly sells me books. Though I have to say the latest Interzone was a little, well, over the top, so to speak. While still being entirely within the top. Again, so to speak.

With Best Professional Editor, Ellen Datlow once again took the stage as winner, this time in a category that was entirely appropriate. But once again, there is a bit of confusion here. There are clearly two types of editors at work in the SF world; those who edit periodicals and websites -- like Ellen -- and those who edit at the book publishing level, like say, Simon Spanton or Patrick Nielsen-Hayden. The Best Professional Editor makes no distinction. Now, on one hand, you have category bloat, which could make the Hugos longer and that would be a bad thing -- but on the other hand you have category confusion. The presumption amongst voters seemed to be that Best Editor meant best Fiction Periodical or Website editor. Yes, I'm happy to see the "interweb" as the presenters called it get some notice. I'd be a bit happier if book editors and magazine editors were separated out. Or maybe not. But it does bear thinking when you're nominating. Assuming of course, you PAID FOR THE PRIVILEGE and BOTHERED TO VOTE.

Ahem. What followed were the awards for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. "So that's an episode of a TV series, then?" Newman quipped. "Not necessarily, My Preciousssssssss," McAuley responded, just in case there was a rock video presentation that had garnered a nomination. (Great presenters, these two, please bring them back ad infinitum, resurrected if required.) Now, the Hugo audience loves to watch these clips. But I have to say that the state of SF TV is pretty sad. 'Battlestar Galactica' won. Now, I know that lots of people love this TV show, but all those whizzing spaceships make me dizzy and all the yelling in between just gives me a headache. And I suspect that awards like this to shows like this cement most of what people think about science fiction.

"Next up is the Hugo Award for Long For– Oh the hell with it, Best Film!" Kim Newman was clearly having a bit too much fun now, being something of a specialist in this particular field. Once again, the spotty quality of science fiction glared in the choices. 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow'? I liked the imaginatively titled 'Spider-Man 2', but only the Big Tent offered by SF gets this film underneath. Still, that's one of the appeals of SF. The 'Harry Potter' installment was clearly the best of the batch so far. 'The Incredibles', which won, was one of those critical favorites that I enjoyed, but not all that much. Perhaps I'd heard too much build-up. To my mind, the best choice was 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', but a science fiction movie without elaborate special effects -- other than a good script -- was clearly doomed in a year when a movie seemingly without a script but incredibly elaborate effects -- 'Sky Captain' -- was also nominated. Sort of the two sides of science fiction on the screen, right there for us to see. Interesting to say the least.

Of course the fact that more people voted for Best Movie than for Best Novel should send shockwaves through the systems. Consider yourself shocked if you aren't already. We're talking the difference in impact on a reader who picks up say 'Iron Council' versus the viewer who watches 'Sky Captain'. For me, there's no comparison. We're talking popcorn and caviar. But then, perhaps that's a decent summary of the SF biz.

I liked this one best. Ah the power of sentiment.
"The last five awards are to do with the written word, and as far as I'm concerned, it’s the best art form yet invented," quipped McAuley. Amen to that! Best Related Book included my favorite 'The best of Xero' edited by Pat and Dick Lupoff from Tachyon Press; the award went to the more scholarly (read defensible) choice, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. I can live with this, but my heart was with the Lupoffs.

While I enjoyed all the short stories nominated for a Hugo, my favorite was James Patrick Kelly's 'The Best Christmas Ever'. With that said, I found myself surprised that Mike Resnick -- a total veteran pro (and a big fan of Joss Wheedon's Firefly SF TV series) -- won with two nominations. I'd been told that the common wisdom was that two nominations practically guaranteed no award; common wisdom that this evening proved to be quite wrong. Here was an honorable category, honorable candidates and a good competition. Presented by George R. R. Martin ("For which task I have been selected because of the extreme shortness of my own work"), it was an excellent Hugo Moment.

One of the odd things about science fiction is the presence of the "mid-length" categories, "novelette" and "novella". But be that as it may, I like both categories and I liked just about every entry in them to some degree. That said, in the novelette ("That's French for 'quite a long short story," quipped McAuley) category, I was pulling for Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" from 'All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories'. John Clute offered an erudite introduction before announcing the winner. Not surprisingly, Kelly Link's 'The Faery Handbag' won. It was in a Datlow-Windling anthology, typically a mark of both good quality and good distribution. Link is certainly one of the great forces for short fiction in the genre, and is justly mentioned as an example of how science fiction makes it possible for writers who specialize in short fiction to succeed.

As far as the novella was concerned, I have to admit that I was quite pleased to see Charles Stross win for 'The Concrete Jungle', as published in 'The Atrocity Archives' by Golden Gryphon. I loved Bradley Denton's 'Sergeant Chip' as well, and would have been happy there. Stross' other story, 'Elector' became part of his novel 'Accelerando' and to my mind did not stand as well by itself. Presented by Kim Stanley Robinson, the award went to Stross, who must have heard the common wisdom about the two awards and came unprepared with an acceptance speech. He was prepared with a kilt, which he explained, he was wearing because his wife backed him into a corner. No, we're not buying that for a moment, Charlie.

The final award was presented by Guest of Honor and total cut-up Christopher Priest. Now, I should have been prepared for this, having seen him in action on the 'Room 101' panel, but he really tore it up at the conclusion. He referred to 'The Algebraist' as being by "the man who makes so much money he's now known as the Royal Banks of Scotland." I'd read every novel and enjoyed them all; 'Iron Council' by China Miéville, 'Iron Sunrise' by Charles Stross, 'River of Gods' by Ian McDonald and 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke.

When Clarke won, I have to admit to being totally surprised and totally happy. To me, it seemed to indicate that maybe science fiction and the bigger umbrella it lives under, speculative fiction, were not growing up, but growing out -- getting bigger, more inclusive and frankly more interesting. Now as I said, I enjoyed all the novels chosen, but Clarke's struck me as being the least traditionally science fictional, and the perverse fact that it won a Hugo was simply delightful. Clarke's speech was delightful as well, making I believe a not-so-sly reference to the recent supposed feud between Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling vis a vis the supposed fantasy aspects of the Harry Potter novels. She spoke of a man who told her, "'But I'm rather worried by your tendency to call this a fantasy novel. Couldn't you say it's a novel of the fantastic, but not a fantasy novel?' And I said, it's got magicians and faeries in it. Of course it's a fantasy novel!"

And thus does the genre grow outwards, one notch at a time. It's a fascinating process to watch, to read through and to live through. Newman and McAuley finished up with a bang on their Victor Hugo and FS (Fiction Scientifique) thread. They did an outstanding job, and let me mention again that they should be brought back as often as possible. They added a level of both science fiction and entertainment to the proceedings that I found most enjoyable.

For my wife and I, it was back to the back stage --or in this case the sound console on the second floor, run by some outstanding and helpful technicians. It took some 18 minutes to transfer the audio file to their PC, and by then the auditorium was mostly empty.

Claire and I walked to the train station and waited in the near-dark for the train. Our second Worldcon was over, and we were rather sad to see it go. It is a great damned vacation. It was dotted with the party we'd attended, the dinners with friends and just the two of us, rather outside the SF world. I love that SF world, especially seen through the window as I see it. It's exotic and energetic, obsessed and unself-conscious. We were already in our minds and hearts partway to Hereford, for another literary adventure after Worldcon. We’d not even been particularly connected to Worldcon, having spent a day in Edinburgh, and hours outside the panels in interviews and just walking about together. But that together thing, it goes a long way.