The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre, Part 5

Part 5 already! I’m being more efficient than usual this week—that’s what vacation will do to you. We’re on to the winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel today. By my count, 7 fantasy novels have won the Hugo:

2001: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
2002: American Gods, Neil Gaiman
2004: Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold
2005: Jonathan Strange & Me Norrell, Susanna Clarke
2009: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
2010: The City & The City, China Mieville (tied with Bacigalupi)
2012: Among Others, Jo Walton

That’s quite a run for fantasy: 0 wins for 40+ years, then 7 wins in 12 years. When the dam breaks, it breaks. A couple things jump out: only 1 of those 7 wins is for a “secondary” world novel (the Bujold); the rest take place in some version of our own world. Given the lasting popularity of the Tolkein-style novel (takes place in a made-up pseudo-Medeival fantasy realm and involves defeating a dark evil), you might have expected that sub-genre of fantasy to lead the charge. It most definitely did not: Martin still doesn’t have a win, much less any of the Martin-influenced grimdark follow-ups.

Instead, we get a cluster of fantasy novels that take place in the present and involve the incursion of magic/the unreal into our ordinary world. While the gender ration is pretty close to 50/50 (4 women/3 men), we can’t overlook the preponderance of British wins (5 British authors/1 American/1 Canadian), although Gaiman does throw “American” into his title. I haven’t yet done a study of nationality and the awards (I will), but I presume that that ratio is fairly unusual. Over the last 15 years, it’s largely been British fantasy winners, American science fiction winners. Odd.

Let’s look at this visually:

Table 4: Percentage of Science Fiction and Fantasy Wins for the Hugo Award for Best Novel by Decade
Hugo Win %
Hugo Win % Graph

That’s as strange a chart as Chaos Horizon has ever published: 5 decades of 0%, and then a sudden jump to 50%. That kind of rapid change is statistically unusual. Even if a new group of fans came into the Hugo WorldCon around 2000 (presumably on the wings of Harry Potter mania), change this abrupt and this rapid is difficult to process. I figure that once Goblet of Fire won, everyone figured “there are no rules!!!!” or, more soberly, “if Rowling is going to win, why not other fantasy novels?” and this was enough to fundamentally shift the award.

I think this change, more than anything else, has been the defining transformation of the Hugo in the past 15 years. This is also why I usually tag 2001 as the beginning of the “contemporary Hugo.” Statistical studies like this can’t tell us whether a change is good or bad, but they certainly emphasize how dramatic change can be. I don’t think the Hugo voters have fully processed this move towards fantasy, and it’ll be interesting to see how fantasy friendly the award is for the rest of this decade.

This concludes Part #1 of the genre study. There is still a lot to be learned regarding the issue of genre, and I’ll be looking (probably in a week or two) at what kind of fantasy novels have been getting nominated, as well as trying to fix a number onto scope of “literary fiction” (whatever that means) nominations.

Were you surprised by the genre study? Was it what you expected? Are the shifts—slower in the case of the Nebula, very dramatic in the case of the Hugo—on par with the increased popularity of fantasy? Where will these awards settle down? In a decade’s time, will the Hugo and Nebula be 75% fantasy, 25% SF? Is that good or bad?


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4 responses to “The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre, Part 5”

  1. Van MacLellan says :

    Wow interesting. I’m trying to read potential books for the Hugo awards for next year since I’m going to WorldCon. Great info on the history of the Contemporary Hugo. This will be my first time.

  2. Jo Walton says :

    I’m Canadian. I’m an immigrant, I am not a British writer, I am as Canadian as possible under the circumstances. I wasn’t published in the UK until 2012.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      My mistake! Correction made. Thanks. This shows some of the difficulty in quantifying nationality: I looked at your country of birth (listed as Wales) and made a baseless assumption given the setting of Among Others. This is why I shouldn’t mention things I haven’t done full studies of them; a few details won’t necessarily tell you much about what an author considers herself. I worry that a nationality study would be riddled with mistakes like this.

  3. chaoshorizon says :

    A book on the “History of the Hugos” sounds great! I’d love to see how you and I classed genre differently, and I’ll be launching a full-fledged gender study sometime in January. As a one-man statistical operation, it’s great to have another list/quantification to double-check against. My e-mail here at Chaos Horizon is, and anything you have would be much appreciated.

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