A sub-category of my broader genre study, this post addresses the increasing influence of “literary fiction” on the contemporary Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, 2001-2014. I think the general perception is that the awards, particularly the Nebula, have begun nominating novels that include minimal speculative elements. Rather than simply trust the general perception, let’s look to see if this assumption lines up with the data.
Methodology: I looked at the Hugo and Nebula nominees from 2001-2014 and ranked the books as either primarily “speculative” or “literary.” Simple enough, right?
Defining “literary” is a substantial and significant problem. While most readers would likely acknowledge that Cloud Atlas is a fundamentally different book than Rendezvous with Rama, articulating that difference in a consistent manner is complicated. The Hugos and Nebulas offer no help themselves. Their by-laws are written in an incredibly vague fashion that does not define what “Science Fiction or Fantasy” actually means. Here’s the Hugo’s definition:
Unless otherwise specified, Hugo Awards are given for work in the field of science fiction or fantasy appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year.
Without a clear definition of “science fiction or fantasy,” it’s left up to WorldCon or SFWA voters to set genre parameters, and they are free to do so in any way they wish.
All well and interesting, but that doesn’t help me categorize texts. I see three types of literary fiction entering into the awards:
1. Books by literary fiction authors (defined as having achieved fame before their Hugo/Nebula nominated book in the literary fiction space) that use speculative elements. Examples: Cloud Atlas, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
2. Books by authors in SFF-adjacent fields (primarily horror and weird fiction) that have moved into the Hugo/Nebulas. These books often allow readers to see the “horror” elements as either being real or imagined. Examples: The Drowning Girl, Perfect Circle, The Girl in the Glass.
3. Books by already well-known SFF authors who are utilizing the techniques/styles more commonplace to literary fiction. Examples: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, Among Others.
That’s a broad set of different texts. To cover all those texts—remember, at any point you may push back against my methodology—I came up with a broad definition:
I will classify a book as “literary” if a reader could pick the book up, read a random 50 page section, and not notice any clear “speculative” (i.e. non-realistic) elements.
That’s not perfect, but there’s no authority we can appeal to make these classifications for us. Let’s see how it works:
Try applying this to Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s novel consists of a series of entirely realistic novellas set throughout various ages of history and one speculative novella set in the future. If you just picked the book up and started reading, chances are you’d land in one of the realistic sections, and you wouldn’t know it could be considered a SFF book.
Consider We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler’s reach meditation on science, childhood, and memory. Told in realistic fashion, it follows the story of a young woman whose parents raised a chimpanzee alongside her, and how this early childhood relationship shapes her college years. While this isn’t the place to decide if Fowler deserved a Nebula nomination—she won the National Book Award and was nominated for the Booker for this same book, so quality isn’t much of a question—the styles, techniques, and focus of Fowler’s book are intensely realistic. Unless you’re told it could be considered a SF novel, you’d likely consider it plain old realistic fiction.
With this admittedly imperfect definition in place, I went through the nominees. For the Nebula, I counted 13 out of 87 nominees (15%) that met my definition of “literary.” While a different statistician would classify books differently, I imagine most of us would be in the same ball park. I struggled with The City & The City, which takes place in a fictional dual-city and that utilizes a noir plot; I eventually saw it as being more Pychonesque than speculative, so I counted it as “literary.” I placed The Yiddish Policeman’s Union as literary fiction because of Chabon’s earlier fame as a literary author. After he establishes the “Jews in Alaska” premise, large portions of the book are straightly realistic. Other books could be read either as speculative or not, such as The Drowning Girl. Borderline cases all went into the “literary” category for this study.
Given that I like the Chabon and Mieville novels a great deal, I’ll emphasize I don’t think being “literary” is a problem. Since these kinds of books are not forbidden by the Hugo/Nebula by-laws, they are fair game to nominate. These books certainly change the nature of the award, and there are real inconsistencies—no Haruki Murakami nominations, no The Road nomination—in which literary SFF books get nominated.
As for the Hugos, only 4 out of 72 nominees met my “literary” definition. Since the list is small, let me name them here: The Years of Rice and Salt (Robinson’s realistically told alternative history), The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The City & The City, and Among Others. Each of those pushes the genre definitions of speculative fiction. Two are flat out alternative histories, which has traditionally been considered a SFF category, although I think the techniques used by Robinson and Chabon are very reminiscent of literary fiction. Mieville is an experimental book, and the Walton is a book as much “about SFF” as SFF. I’d note that 3 of those 4 (all but the Robinson) received Nebula nominations first, and that Nebula noms have a huge influence on the Hugo noms.
Let’s look at this visually:
Even with my relatively generous definition of “literary,” that’s not a huge encroachment. Roughly 1 in 6 of the Nebula noms have been from the literary borderlands, which is lower than what I’d expected. While 2014 had 3 such novels (the Folwer, Hild, and The Golem and the Jinni), the rest of the 2010s had about 1 borderline novel a year.
The Hugos have been much less receptive to these borderline texts, usually only nominating once the Nebula awards have done. We should note that both Chabon and Walton won, once again reflecting the results of the Nebula.
So what can we make of this? The Nebula nominates “literary” books about 1/6 times, or once per year. The Hugo does this much more infrequently, and usually when a book catches fire in the Nebula process. While this represent a change in the awards, particularly the Nebula, this is nowhere as rapid or significant as the changes regarding fantasy (which are around 50% Nebula and 30% Hugo). I know some readers think “literary” stories are creeping into the short story categories; I’m not an expert on those categories, so I can’t meaningfully comment.
I’m going to use the 15% Nebula and 5% Hugo “literary” number to help shape my predictions. I may have been overestimating the receptiveness of the Nebula to literary fiction; this study suggests we’d see either Mitchell or Mandel in 2015, not both. Here’s the full list of categorizations. I placed a 1 by a text if it met the “literary” definition: Lit Fic Study.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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?
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:
That’s a pretty even divide across sub-genres. Now, the winners (keep in mind there are only 4):
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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.
Yesterday, we looked at the Nebula slate; today, we’ll look at the Nebula winners. I show seven fantasy novels (out of 50 winners total; there was a tie in 1967) as having won the Nebula Award:
1982: Claw of the Conciliator, Gene Wolfe
1988: Falling Woman, Pat Murphy
1991: Tehanu, Ursula K. Le Guin
2003: American Gods, Neil Gaiman
2005: Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold
2009: Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin
2012: Among Others, Jo Walton
Interestingly, the 1980s were better for winning than the 1990s (we’ll see that also reflected in the Hugo in the upcoming days), and things have picked up a great deal in the last 15 years for fantasy. This is a pretty broad slice of fantasy: we have secondary world novels with Bujold and Le Guin, contemporary fantasy with Walton and Gaiman, and Wolfe’s nearly unclassifiable Dying Earth style book. Here’s the data and charts:
The chart is pretty zig-zaggy because we’re dealing with such small numbers (10 per decade), although you do see a gradual increase over time in the direction of fantasy wins. Still, the “win” chart is nowhere near as dramatic as the “nominee” chart, proving that it’s easier to get nominated as a fantasy novel than to win as a fantasy novel.
We can conclude that fantasy novels tend to underperform once they reach the slate: since 1980, fantasy novels have made up 32% of the slate but only account for 20% of the wins. That’s a statistically significant bias against fantasy novels winning, something I need to take into account for my future predictions.
In an odd way, the more fantasy novels get nominated, the harder it can be for a fantasy novel to win, as the fantasy vote ends up getting split between the slate. 2013 is a perfect example of this: one SF novel faced off against 5 fantasy novels. 2312 ended up winning, because I imagine all the “the Nebula should go to a SF novel” SFWA voters voted for Robinson, and the fantasy votes were spread our across the other 5. If we’re considering genre alone, fantasy books are at a disadvantage of winning. Of course, genre alone does not determine the winner, as many other factors—familiarity, reception, popularity, demographics, etc.—also come into play.
In a statistical study like this, you have to think about what the “baseline” might be, i.e. what the stats would be like without bias. Is the Nebula an award moving toward a 50/50 split between fantasy and science fiction? Why should/would 50/50 be the baseline? Isn’t fantasy more popular than science fiction, at least in terms of readers in 2014? What about critical prestige? What about the nebulous and nearly impossible to define idea of “tradition”? How about the bias towards well-known authors? How about potential biases regarding gender? What about the bias against books in a series or sequels?
All of these are going to factors in the eventual fantasy/science fiction split the Nebula arrives at, and all these factors change over time. Trying to cross-correlate all those variables before we have a basic understanding is only going to result in mass confusion. As Chaos Horizon slowly builds up its data sets, the best we can do is think about the statistical moment we’re at right now, as predicting even the next 5 years is very difficult. So, to sum up the situation for the Nebula:
1. The Nebula slate breaks into three eras: a 15 year period (1966-1980) where fantasy was largely excluded, a 30 year period (1980-2010) where fantasy was around 25%-30% of the slate, and a more recent era (2010-2014) where fantasy has overtaken SF on the slate. Are the last 5 years a statistical aberration or something that is likely to continue?
2. The Nebula winners have been more consistent since 1980, accounting for around 20% of the wins, with a general increase in % of winners over time. Be aware that these conclusions are shakier because the numbers are smaller. Nonetheless, fantasy novels have underperformed on the slate, winning at a smaller proportion than their SF peers.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the Hugo Award nominees have shaped up! Any questions so far?
In this post, we’ll look at how genre impacts the Nebula Award for Best Novel from the start of that award (1966) up to the present day (2014). Let’s jump right into the data:
The streams have crossed! Lame Ghostbusters joke aside, there’s a lot of information to sort through here. Obviously, that cross in the 2010s is going to jump out the most, but let’s make some other observations:
1. The Nebula embraced fantasy nominees fairly early in its history, starting primarily in 1981. This was a surprise to me; I thought the change would have come later. The Nebula has been awarded for almost 50 years, and it’s only for the first 15 years that this was exclusively a SF award.
2. The Nebula was fairly consistent through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, nominating around 25%-30% fantasy novels for that 30 year period, or roughly 2 fantasy novels per year.
3. The Nebula has changed drastically in the last 5 years. While the 2010s aren’t over, we’re more than halfway through, and already more fantasy novels have been nominated this decade than in the 2000s. Even if you believe the numbers are a little skewed, a retreat back to that 30% number is statistically unlikely.
1960s: A straightforward SF decade. The Nebula was still finding its way, and we have a very erratic # of nominees per year: 1966 saw 12 nominees, with 1967 only 3. The only “Other” book in this decade was James Blish’s Black Easter, an outstanding horror-themed book about demonic summoning. This is best read with its companion volume The Day After Judgment, usually collected together as Devil’s Day. Blish, of course, was already well-known for the SF audience, and this pattern—genre-borderline books getting nominated if they’re by well-known authors—will continue for the next several decades.
1970s: Plenty of “Other” books form this decade. In 1976, the Nebula nominated an overwhelming 18 novels for the award (check out the sfadb for the full list). With that massive list, some unusual choices creep in: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Throw in 1974’s nomination for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and we have our first inklings of the Nebula’s sympathy for literary fiction. I don’t know if you could classify any of those novels as science fiction or fantasy, although I’ll listen if anyone wants to try.
There are some other hard-to-classify novels from the 1970s. I never know what to do with R.A. Lafferty, and he received a 1972 nomination for The Devil is Dead. Along this horror angle, Robert Silverberg grabbed a 1973 nomination for The Book of Skulls. I know people wouldn’t blink an eye if I classed this at SF, but it, at least in my opinion, is basically a realistic novel with a few horror elements. As a pure aside, this is part of Silverberg’s great “death” trilogy alongside Dying Inside and “Born with the Dead.” In my opinion, these three texts are Silverberg’s greatest achievement as an author, and if you can handle the gloom factor, they’re excellent reading.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were nominated for Inferno in 1977, a variation on Dante’s Inferno. You can see that in the 1970s, the best way to get a Nebula if you aren’t writing SF is to write something horror themed, particularly if it has “devil” or “death” in the title.
Lastly, we see our first fantasy books pop up in this decade. Poul Anderson received a 1976 nomination for A Midsummer Tempest, a Shakespeare-themed magic-infused alternative-history book. Anderson, though, was already a SF star, and he was one of that strange 18 nominee year. Richard Lupoff’s 1978 nomination for Sword of the Demon was a Japanese themed fantasy about demon-killing, and it fits the pattern of needing a horror theme in the title to make it into the Nebulas.
So, all told, the 1970s show a definite loosening of genre-boundaries in the Nebula, although this seems to be more inflected in the direction of horror or literary fiction than fantasy.
1980s: This is where things get interesting. Beginning 1981, fantasy arrives in a major way: Robert Stallman’s The Orphan, and, more significantly, Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer.
Wolfe’s four volume The Book of the New Sun is the critical series for this decade. Each volume received a nomination, with the second volume (Claw of the Conciliator) winning the Nebula. New Sun is a difficult and hard to classify series. Drawing on elements of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, it hovers on the line between fantasy and science fiction, a fact that I think helped it get nominated. Taking place in the far future, it initially seems to be pure fantasy, only to have some technological elements revealed in the later volumes. The Locus Magazine reviewers were equally confused: volumes 1-3 were voted as fantasy, and volume 4 made it as science fiction. In the 2012 Locus Century poll, it makes the list of both “20th Century Science Fiction Novel” and “20th Century Fantasy Novel.” Maximum confusion for everyone! I ultimately classified the four volumes just as the Locus voters saw them: #1-#3 as fantasy, #4 as science fiction. Make of that what you will.
Wolfe was a driving wedge, though, and after 1981 more and more clearly fantasy books get nominated: Jon Crowley’s Little, Big, Jack Vance’s Lyonesse, Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet, as well as Wolfe’s own Soldier of the Mist. By the time the decade is over, 14 fantasy novels have been nominated, and Pat Murphy wins again in 1989 for her Mayan-influenced Falling Woman.
By this time, the Nebula has loosened it’s genre-policing. While some of these fantasy nominees were already well known for their SF (Wolfe, Vance, Card), others were not, and we see fantasy novels by lesser known authors pop up on the list. We aren’t seeing, though, fantasy novels by writers like Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Daniel Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc. (i.e. the books that are bestsellers). No nomination for Mists of Avalon might be the most surprising.
1990s: The 1990s are filled with fantasy nominations. To mention some of the bigger ones: Elizabeth Scarborough’s Healer’s War, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Tehanu, Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. There are also a number of nominations by lesser known authors, showing a real openness in the Nebula to different types of fantasy literature. Notice there aren’t a lot of nominations for what we might think of as traditional “epic” fantasy: secondary world, part of a multi-volume series, etc. I’ll be taking a closer look at that in a few posts.
2000s: Two more nominations for George R.R. Martin, as well as multiple nominations for Nalo Hopkinson and Lois McMaster Bujold. Even someone like Terry Pratchett is able to get into the mix, scoring a 2006 nomination for Going Postal. We have plenty of lesser known authors grab nominations. For instance, China Mieville is nominated for Perdido Street Station. While it’s hard to remember, Mieville was unknown at the time: to grab a Nebula for a fantasy debut marks a major change.
We also have a broad range of fantasy novels nominated this decade, from more contemporary fantasy like American Gods to 19th century fantasy like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to secondary world books like the Bujold, Martin, or Pratchett.
It’ll be a few more years, though, until fantasy takes over the Nebulas. Fantasy is still stuck around the 30% mark . . .
2010s: And that 30% jumps to 60% for this decade. We’ve seen an explosion of fantasy nominations in the last five years: 2010 had 4 fantasy nominations and only 2 SF nominations, 2012 was the same, and 2013 saw one lone SF novel face off against 5 fantasy contenders. Why the rapid acceleration? I, quite frankly, have no idea. The fantasy novels being nominated now come from all versions of fantasy: contemporary (Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Walton’s Among Others), historical (Griffith’s Hild and Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey), experimental (VanderMeer’s Finch), literary (Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni), and secondary world (the multiple nominations for Jemisin, Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon).
So, to sum up: we saw a slow start for fantasy from 1960-1970s, with horror-themed books breaking the genre divide. Beginning 1981, fantasy leapt into the Nebulas, occupying around 25%-30% of the award. That held steady until 2010, when fantasy leapt into the lead. All genres of fantasy now seem welcome in the Nebulas, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens going forward.
If you want to look at the Excel sheet with the genre classifications, here it is: Nebula Genre Study.