The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre, Part 6

Well, back to work. In my previous posts about genre, I’ve looked at the basic stat breakdowns of science fiction versus fantasy in the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Today, I want to take a closer look at fantasy and the Nebula Award for Best Novel, 2001-2014, to see if we can find some useful patterns based on fantasy sub-genres.

A couple preliminary notes: I’m using 2001-2014 because as a data range because this isolates recent statistical trends. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s likely has little relevance to the modern Nebula or Hugo award, particularly given how rapidly the awards have changed vis-a-vis genre. Different publishing environment, different review environment, different set of readers, etc.

Second: for this sub-study, let’s work on simple hypothesis. Proposed: The Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel have been biased against serialized secondary world fantasy. This is an impression I’ve always had, and I want to see whether or not the stats back this up.

Let’s break down the terms: by “serialized” I mean books that are part of a series, i.e. a trilogy like Lord of the Rings or a seven-book sequence like A Song of Ice and Fire. The defining feature of a series is that you can’t/shouldn’t read the books individually; I don’t think anyone would suggest reading Assassin’s Quest before you read the first two volumes in Robin Hobbs’ trilogy. This would be different than China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where the books share a common world (and even characters at times) but not one over-arching plot. You can read The Scar before Perdido Street Station, or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls before The Curse of Chalion.

Second is this idea of “secondary world.” That’s a term drawn from Tolkein, and has come to mean a fantasy world with no explicit narrative connections to our world (the primary world). Here’s a decent online definition. While this is only one of many possible ways to slice fantasy sub-genres, I think it’s a useful one. A book that has connections to our world (Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.) asks us to make a different leap of imagination than a book that takes place in an entirely fantasy realm. A primary world novel operates against the backdrop of our history, and thus the motivations, educations, philosophies, etc., of the characters are readily intelligible. A secondary world novel interrupts that familiarity, and forces us to take a different kind of cognitive approach. Different authors utilize those concepts in very different ways, and fantasy has ebbed back and forth between those two different models over the years.

So, for my initial division, I split the 36 Nebula fantasy nominees (2001-2014) between primary and secondary world novels. The split was remarkably even. Keep in mind, these are my categorizations; there’s no way to do this objectively. I classed a book as a “primary world” novel if it had any connection to our world at all:

Chart 5 Primary Nebula Nominees

That’s a fascinating split, and shows that my hypothesis might be wrong: there’s plenty of secondary world novels, ranging from Martin to Mieville to Le Guin. Even Pratchett sneaks in once! It’d be interesting to know how many total secondary world vs. primary world novels were published from 2001-2014, but that’s a piece of data we don’t have access to (and likely never will). The SFWA voters seem fairly evenly split between liking primary world and secondary world novels. Now, who wins?

Chart 6 Primary vs Secondary Winners

From a statistical perspective, this a good and a bad chart. There’s only been 4 fantasy winners in the Nebulas from 2001-2014 (low data = unreliable results), but at least the chart is proportional to the nominee chart. This limited sample shows that there isn’t much of a bias for the SFWA writers once they’re actually voting on the slate. Walton and Gaiman are the winners for their primary world novels American Gods and Among Others, with Le Guin and Bujold grabbing secondary world wins for Powers and The Paladin of Souls.

Here’s a great moment to stop and comment how a low data set can yield garbage results: both primary world novels start with “A,” and both secondary world novels start with “P.” Does that have any significance? Absolutely not, but in a small data set, garbage like that shows up. In cases like this, we should just note the trend, not invest too much “meaning” into it, and move on.

Still, we haven’t born out my hypothesis: you seem just as likely to get nominated/win a Nebula for a secondary world novel as a primary world novel. You do statistics just as much to disprove things as to prove them, so we should count this as a win.

Now, onto the serialized part. I further broke the 36 fantasy nominees down by additional questions. For primary world novels, I asked: is this book set in the present (post-1960s) or the past? I was interested if a book like Strange and Norrell was kicking off a trend. Primary world novels tend not to be heavily serialized; only Kowal’s books seem to fall into that category, so there wasn’t any interesting data to be found there.

For my secondary world novels, I broke them down by the following question: were they stand alone or part of a series? This is obviously somewhat difficult; someone might argue that Paladin of Souls is a sequel to Curse of Chalion; I consider it a stand alone. Take that into account when you look at the chart:

Chart 7 Nebula Sub Genre 2.0

That’s a pretty even divide across sub-genres. Now, the winners (keep in mind there are only 4):

Chart 8 Nebula Sub Winners

Those floating 0%—no wins for serialized secondary world fantasy or historical primary world novels—reveal a glimmer of bias. Serialized fantasy has only ever won once, and that’s only if you consider The Claw of the Conciliator fantasy. We’re getting into the upcoming “Sequel” study here, but I think we can conclude the following: the Nebula voters will periodically nominate secondary world fantasy series, but will rarely, if ever, give those books the award. Something that shook out here is the equal dismissal of primary world historical fantasies: that appears to a sub-genre the SFWA voters are not interested in recognizing.

I think we should also acknowledge that the two wins from 2001-2014 for secondary world fantasy were by authors already extremely well known to the Nebula audience: Le Guin and Bujold. Was it their general level of fame that grabbed them those wins (i.e. overcoming a bias against secondary world novels)? Or does this represent a loosening of the Nebulas?

Unfortunately, we can’t reach any grand conclusions. In terms of making it into the slate, most primary and secondary world fantasy seem to have an equal chance. Some sub-genres drop out when you zoom in, but we’ve only had 4 fantasy winners and can’t overcommit to those results. These patterns make sense, though: the Nebula is friendly to stand-alone secondary world novels and to primary world novels set in the present.

Tomorrow, I’ll put up the relevant charts on these issues for the Hugo awards, 2001-2014. As always, here’s my data if you want to double-check: Nebula Sub-Genre Data.

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