The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Genre, Part 7

We’re knee deep in these awards now. Yesterday, I looked at whether or not it makes sense to break the Nebula (2001-2014) down into sub-genres (secondary/fantasy, contemporary/historical, epic series/stand-alone). Today, we’ll apply that same methodology to the Hugo, so you might want to take a look at Part 6 to refresh your memory on the methodology.

By my count, there were 20 fantasy novels nominated for the Hugo between 2001-2014. Here’s the primary/secondary breakdown for the nominees:

Chart 9 Hugo Primary Nominees

A reasonable split, and this reflects what I’d expect. Secondary world fantasies, particularly epic series, are a little more populist/mass-market, and the Hugo is usually more receptive to those kinds of books. The secondary world novels are clustered around well-known authors: 3 Martin novels, 4 Mieville novels, 2 Bujold, and then books by Jemisin, Ahmed, and Jordan/Sanderson. The primary world novels show a better range of authors: Gaiman has 2, but 6 other authors have one each, headlined by Rowling and Walton. Now, with that 60/40 break, you’d expect secondary world novels to do well in the winner’s circle. The stats show the opposite is true:

Chart 10 Primary Hugo Winners

There have been seven fantasy winners from 2001-2014, and primary world novels have dominated: Rowling, Gaiman (twice), Clarke, and Walton. Only Mieville and Bujold have grabbed wins for secondary world novels. That’s quite a flip in from Chart 9 to Chart 10. While the data set is small, we should acknowledge that the Hugo voters are willing to put secondary world fantasy on the slate, but haven’t voted it into the winner’s circle very often. The City and the City is definitely a genre-boundary pushing book, and Bujold probably grabbed her win on the strength of her prior Hugo reputation (she’d already won twice before Paladin of Souls). Despite the enormous popularity of secondary world fantasy, it’s not a sub-genre that wins the Hugo (or the Nebula, for that matter). Is that destined to change?

This, for me, is the “tipping point” of the modern Hugo. When will a book like A Game of Thrones win? Is Martin destined for a win once Winds of Winter comes out? Or will another author break this epic fantasy “glass ceiling”? In terms of raw popularity, a book like Words of Radiance trounces most fantasy and SF competitors, but the bias against a book like that is likely to prevent Sanderson from winning (or even being nominated). As fantasy becomes more popular, though, will this bias hold up?

Let’s break this down into sub-genres:

Chart 11 Hugo Nominee Subgenre

A fairly even division, although “stand alone secondary world fantasy” is propped up by Mieville’s 4 nominations in that sub-genre. The winners list tells a different story: the “epic series” wedge drops out entirely.

Chart 12 Hugo Winner Subgenre

It’s these kind of statistical oddities I find fascinating. If you asked most people to define fantasy, the “epic series” idea would pop up very quickly. Probably Tolkein first, then Martin, and then on through the entire range of contemporary fantasy: Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, N.K. Jemisin, Brandon Sanderson, Elizabeth Bear, Saladin Ahmed, Mark Lawrence, Brent Weeks, and on and on and on. So many well-known (and well-selling) writers are working in this field, and yet the Hugo has never been awarded to this kind of text. The closest you get is Paladin of Souls. Admittedly, the Bujold is pretty close, but her epic Chalion trilogy is clearly three stand-alone texts linked by a shared world.

There’s a tension here that will likely be resolved in the next 10 or so years. Can the Hugo continue to ignore the fantasy series? Is it offering a true survey/accounting of the SFF field without it?

I’m going to take a few days break from the genre study, and then wrap this up by looking at the idea of literary fiction in the Hugos and Nebulas.

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