The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre: A Chaos Horizon Report

It’s that time again: today we launch the most ambitious Chaos Horizon report yet, a look at genre and the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. Note the lack of dates: we’re doing the whole thing, from the beginning of both awards to the present!

When the Hugo Awards started in 1953 and the Nebula Awards in 1966, they were exclusively science fiction awards, and this SF bias is still part of the Hugo/Nebula DNA. Consider their names or the statues they give: I imagine it’s odd to win a rocket ship for a fantasy novel.

Over time, both awards have changed, moving beyond SF to other speculative genres: fantasy, literary speculative fiction, slipstream, urban fantasy, horror, etc. In this report, we’ll try to quantify and chart out that change. Like always, I’m going to break this into several parts:

Part 1: Introduction and Methodology (this post)
Part 2: Genre and the Nebula Award Best Novel nominees
Part 3: Genre and the Nebula Award Best Novel winners
Part 4: Genre and the Hugo Award Best Novel nominees
Part 5: Genre and the Hugo Award Best Novel winners
Part 6: A Closer Look: Fantasy Sub-Genres in the Nebulas
Part 7: A Closer Look: Fantasy Sub-Genres in the Hugos
Part 8: A Closer Look: Literary Fiction in the Nebulas and Hugos

Whew, that’s a lot of upcoming posts! And, of course, I’ll entertain any requests for clarification/further data that my readers might have; it’s very helpful to have different eyes on statistical project, as this can help me see my own blind spots and biases.

Basic Methodology: For this report, I assigned a genre for each of the almost 600 nominees for the Hugo or Nebula award for Best Novel. That breaks down to 311 Nebula nominees and 288 Hugo nominees, with some obvious overlap between the two awards. For the first pass—we’ll look deeper at some of the categories—I used one of three categories: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the dreaded Other. So that brings us to our most basic methodological question: how do you define genre?

Defining Genre: For a term we use ubiquitously in our day to day lives, genre is a surprisingly slippery concept. The first temptation is to try to define a genre structurally. So, for instance:

Science Fiction: Takes place in the future, involves advanced technology and/or aliens.
Fantasy: Takes place in the past with no advanced technology, involves magic and/or dragons and other non-real races or creatures.

Okay, we’re good to go, aren’t we? Nice, basic definitions. Classify away! Once you do this, though, exceptions start popping up all over the place. What about Alternate History novels? Those are traditionally classified as Science Fiction, but they don’t fit my definition. I’d have to go back and expand that. Same thing happens with Fantasy: Harry Potter doesn’t take place in the past, but in the present moment. Okay, maybe magic is the defining feature of Fantasy. Then again . . . does every Conan story involve magic? There are also plenty of stories where Conan just gets revenge by hacking up people, no magic involved. What about Steampunk? Is that Fantasy or Science Fiction?

What you’ll find is that any structural definition of Science Fiction or Fantasy blurs at the edges. This is because these are living genres, changing over time and with the different ideas/aesthetics of writers and readers. What “Fantasy” means today is different than what “Fantasy” meant 50 years ago, and it will continue to change in the future.

This is further complicated by the marketplace. From a branding perspective, fantasy was not well-regarded in the 1960s, and many fantasy writers threw a thin gloss of science fiction onto their fantasy books to help this problem. Anne McCaffery, Tanith Lee, Jack Vance, Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc., all did this at times, and you wound up with something like the “sword and planet” sub-genre that can be difficult and deeply unsatisfying to classify.

Maybe we should switch to some notion of authorial intent, and focus on the emotion the book tries to evoke: if the book tries to evoke horror, it’s horror. If heroism, it’s fantasy. If a sense of wonder at a technological future, science fiction. Once again, you’ll very quickly run into problems with this, and you’ll end up being what we call the “Genre Police” trying to re-enforce borders that are constantly being overwritten, and you’ll end up saying things like, “This isn’t real fantasy!” I find that to be one of the more uninteresting observations a critic can make about a work of literature.

All is not lost. Just because blue blurs into green at the edges doesn’t mean that blue and green aren’t distinct colors, and this is also true for genres like fantasy and science fiction. While it might be hard to classify something like The Dying Earth, the difference between Ancillary Sword and A Game of Thrones is very obvious.

I’ve talked in circles, though, and haven’t resolved the basic problem: how do we define genre?

Advanced Methodology:

I ultimately went with a “reader-reception” theory of genre: if the majority of readers at the time of publication thought a book was fantasy or science fiction, that’s what I classified it as. There are several benefits to this approach:
1. It removes my bias from the equation; we don’t want my opinion as to whether or not Claw of the Conciliator is SF or F determining the data.
2. For the most part, this is easy to ascertain (see below).
3. It provides a historical look at genre, rather than reclassifying novels based on our present-day definitions of genre.

To measure reader-reception of genre, I primarily used the Locus Awards classifications. The Locus Awards, a source I often really heavily on, are an annual vote by the readers of Locus Magazine regarding the best SFF novels (and stories, for that matter) of the year. Beginning in 1978, they broke their vote into two categories: Best Fantasy Novel and Best Science Fiction Novel. This information is readily available at the Science Fiction Awards Database.

So, my main form of classification was to look up each Hugo/Nebula nominee on this list, and just go with the Locus voters. I figure these were the most informed SFF fans of their era, and if they believed Claw of the Conciliator was Fantasy, who am I to doubt them?

These leaves me with two problems: what to do before 1978, and what if a nominee didn’t make the Locus list? In those cases, I did the following:
1. If I was familiar with the novel (i.e., if I’d read it) and the classification was obvious (in my opinion, sadly), I assigned a classification. For the Hugos, this was easy, as 99% of the books are unquestionably SF. For the Nebula, it’s a little more difficult, but I only had to deal with 1966-1977.
2. If I was unfamiliar with the novel, I went to and read the book description and reader reviews. If I felt it was obvious (spaceship on the cover, description talking about magic), I went ahead and assigned a genre.
3. If I still felt the genre was still unclear, I marked it as “Other.” Better to have uncertainty in the data than pretend it’s 100% accurate. I’ll note any “borderline” cases in upcoming posts.

Is this classification of genre perfect? Absolutely not, but I don’t think any classification of genre would be. Out of the 600 classifications I had to make, I’d say about 5% of them were difficult. That’s actually not too bad for a data set. While a different researcher might classify books differently, these slight variations won’t throw the results off that badly.

So, I’ll be back tomorrow with the Nebula Award and Nominees! But today’s question is the one of genre: what do you think of genre, and what do you think the best way to classify it is?


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