The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre, Part 4

Time waits for no one, so on to the Hugo nominees. The Hugos began in 1953, and, unlike the Nebula, was largely a SF award until the 2000s. Fantasy nominees were rare, and fantasy wins were unheard of until J.K. Rowling’s breakthrough in 2001 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In the first 5 decades of the Hugo, there were 211 nominees, and less than 10% of those (17) were fantasy. Here’s the data:

Table 3: Percentage of Science Fiction and Fantasy Nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel by Decade
Hugo Nominee %

Hugo Nominee % Graph

This is a very different chart than the Nebula chart: fantasy has made nowhere near the inroads into the Hugo as it has the Nebula. We are seeing a slow drift in the direction of fantasy, and, given a rough eyeball estimate, it looks like the lines might cross somewhere in the 2030s or 2040s.

We even have an interesting dip in the 1990s, as fantasy, driven by authors like Gene Wolfe and Orson Scott Card, did well in the 1980s before retreating back. This chart was not a surprise: I always thought that the Hugo was the more “traditionally” SF award. The WorldCon voters seems more tied to the idea of SF than the SFWA voters, an interesting divergence for the two most significant SFF awards. Nonetheless, this SF bias appears to be changing very rapidly, and who knows where we’ll be by the end of this decade.

Decade-by-Decade Analysis

1950s: The Hugo is just getting started, and they didn’t even publish lists of nominees until 1959. All nominees are clearly SF. Keep in mind that Return of the King would have been eligible for the 1956 Hugo, so ignoring Tolkein is a pretty strong anti-fantasy statement.

1960s: We’ve got a couple borderline fantasy novels creeping in. Andre Norton snags a 1964 nomination for Witch World. I’ve classified it as fantasy, although I’ve seen others claim this for science fiction. Two fantasy books in 1967 (neither of which I’ve read, or, quite frankly, even heard of) round out the initial incursions: Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians and Thomas Burnett Swann’s Day of the Minotaur. We also have a 1963 French novel called Sylva by Jean Bruller I classified as “Other” because I wasn’t able to find out much about it. So, all told, we see just a little flex, but nothing of real note.

1970s: In its third decade, the Hugo is fully anti-fantasy, with no discernible fantasy books making the slate for the entire decade. It might be tempting to re-categorize some of Anne McCaffrey’s work as fantasy, but the Locus Magazine voters saw books like Dragonquest and The White Dragon as SF, and there is a SF frame story going on, even if the books have a definite fantasy feel. Two “other” books crept in, both horror themed: The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg and Inferno by Niven and Pournelle. But there’s nothing here to indicate that the Hugo is moving in a fantasy direction.

1980s: This is where things get interesting. Fantasy starts to pop up, first with Patricia McKillip’s Harpist in the Wind in 1980, then Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle in 1981, then Gene Wolfe grabbing two fantasy nominations for parts of The Book of the New Sun (parts #2 and #3). This marks a fairly substantial change, and while none of these books win, it looks the Hugo is moving to a 1 fantasy novel per year pattern (20%). Orson Scott Card closes out the decade with a run of nominations for the Alvin the Maker series, grabbing nominations in 1988, 1989, and 1990. At that time, Card was wildly popular, but this continues some of the pattern we saw in the Nebula: the initial entry for fantasy was books by authors already well-known to the SF audience. Silverberg, Wolfe, and Card get some genre-flex due to their reputations.

We shouldn’t discount, though, the nominations by McKillip, or for John Crowley’s Little, Big in 1982, which shows at least some willingness to consider fantasy novels. What’s missing, of course, are the best-selling fantasy novels of the decade: no Raymond Feist, no David Eddings, no Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc.

1990s: Then the lights go out. Only 5 fantasy novels are nominated this entire decade, and, except for Card, these are all relatively minor works. After Prentice Alvin in 1990, we get Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings in 1995, James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah in 1995, City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams in 1998, and Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick in 1998.

What happened? Statistics can’t tell us that, but there were plenty of popular fantasy books in the 1990s to nominate: all the Wheel of Time books, Robin Hobb gets her start in 1995 with Assassin’s Apprentice, and, of course, the biggie: Game of Thrones in 1996. For whatever reasons, mainstream fantasy wasn’t being considered in any fashion. It’s this decade, perhaps more than any other, which gives the Hugo its “SF” only feel. To ignore fantasy all through the 1990s is quite a statement.

2000s: Then the voters totally changed their minds. Beginning with Rowling’s 2000 nomination for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, fantasy of all stripes begins pouring in: Rowling again in 2001 (she wins), Neil Gaiman for American Gods in 2002 (he wins), Lois McMaster Bujold picks up two nominations for her 2002 Curse of Chalion and 2004 Paladin of Souls (she wins), China Mieville starts grabbing nominations for every fantasy book he writes, including Perdido Street Station (2002), The Scar (2003), and Iron Council (2005). Martin gets into the act with A Storm of Swords (2001) and A Feast for Crows (2006), although A Clash of Kings is oddly absent.

Throw in more nominations and wins for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2005) and Graveyard Book (2009), and you’ve got the single most transformative decade for either the Hugo or Nebula award. When the floodgates open, they open, and WorldCon voters all of a sudden feel comfortable voting for fantasy novels in ways they haven’t been before.

I don’t know how to account for this sudden change, or, quite frankly, what to make of it. You have a 40 year period where the Hugo is a SF award; overnight, it changes to a joint SF/fantasy award. Was this an internet effect, with more people talking about their love of fantasy in the 2000s? Was this a British invasion—Rowling, Gaiman, Mieville, Clarke—where British fantasy somehow felt more “serious” and “award-worthy” than American fantasy? An after-effect of the Lord of the Rings movies raising the fantasy profile? Whatever it was, it was sudden and profound, and we’re still sorting through what this means for the Hugo.

2010s: Fantasy continues to roll in the 2010s. Mieville finally gets his win in 2010 for The City and the City, and we see plenty of fantasy nominations for Catherynne Valente, N.K. Jemisin, Jo Walton (and a win), George R.R. Martin, Saladin Ahmed, Larry Correia, and Robert Jordan. WE’re now up to around 30% fantasy nominations.

Will the Hugo continue to be hospitable to fantasy? Will popular fantasy writers like Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks or Lev Grossman begin to make an impact in this category? Will urban fantasy begin to crash the party? Or will there be a reaction against fantasy, and a return to the SF-only Hugo of the 1950s-1990s? It’s pure guesswork here, but if anyone has any solid opinions/interpretations, I’d love to hear them.

Here’s the raw data, if you want to look over it: Hugo Genre Study.


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3 responses to “The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre, Part 4”

  1. Niall says :

    I don’t know how to account for this sudden change, or, quite frankly, what to make of it.

    Now with correct formatting, I think there are probably two main factors at play:

    1) Increase in the voting population. Frustratingly, there doesn’t seem to be a single page listing the number of Hugo ballots per year for the whole run, but this page indicates that it was consistently in the 400-500 range throughout the ’90s; but by 2004 (and the internet probably did play a role in this; and a couple of years after this the Hugo packet came along) they were over 1000, and this year [pdf] it was about 3,500. To be fair, this year is probably an outlier, but the trend is still upwards. On the assumption that fantasy is more generally popular than sf (see below), you’d expect a larger voting population to mean more fantasy nominees.

    2) Market shift towards fantasy. In its year-in-review issue every February, Locus publishes a graph showing the breakdown of books they receive by genre. What it shows is that up until the late 90s, there were about the same number of sf and fantasy titles published each year, in the 200-300 range. Since 2000 (so not quite coincident with the LOTR films, but they’re probably part of the same cultural moment), the number of sf titles per year has remained about the same, but the number of fantasy titles has shot way up to the 600-700 per year range. On the assumption that nominees will to some degree reflect what is being published, you’d expect more fantasy published to lead to more fantasy nominees.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      Some great sources there, Niall, and now that I have the basic genre information down, it’ll be increasingly easy to correlate this with other data. I think the # of ballots is an interesting one, and it’d be interesting to chart that against the # of fantasy nominations. I’ll work on that for the new year. I hadn’t thought of using the “books received” to chart the increased popularity of fantasy, but that’s a great idea.

  2. Daniel says :

    In 1991, Publisher’s Weekly published a subjective survey of editor’s predictions of the future of genres and subgenres:

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