A Modest Proposal: Literary Awards for Science Fiction

A Modest Proposal: Literary Awards for Science Fiction

By Jean Asselin

According to David Hartwell, the literary World Fantasy Awards exist because the genre needed its specificity recognized, mostly as separate from that of Science Fiction (SF.)

Full disclosure: I do not read Fantasy.

To be exact, I only read Fantasy like I cook, or do sports: by accident. Sometimes, the result is unforgettable, like Lucius Shepard’s haunting short story “Only Partly Here.” Understand that I don’t have anything in particular against Fantasy: I simply choose to ignore it.

Unfortunately, Fantasy does not respond in kind.

In bookstores, SF is relegated to the back corner formally assigned to Fantasy. (By the way, SF is restricted herein to mean Science Fiction, not Streamlined Fantasm or other tongue-twisters that really signal “anything goes.”) On cable, Sci-Fi Channel was renamed Syfy, officially because the managers thought the old moniker too restrictive. It is hard to imagine any additional license the new name could afford them, given how loose Sci-Fi was programmed ten years going, with a slew of ghosts, psychics and Nostradamus. Next time the need to Latinate the name arises, I’d suggest Vampyre Channel.

They did refresh Battlestar Galaxative—to borrow Harlan Ellison’s pun. And the new show takes its refreshment after the classic Heineken ad: it insults parts of you other series cannot reach. At least vintage Galaxative did not claim to revolutionize TV SF, only to weasel out of answering its own SF questions. This series finale attitude of “It was Fantasy all along” insults Fantasy as well, as the sudden crossover undercuts any claim to good drama in either genre.

I’ve taken to asking people at random if they read SF. My surprise—“Love it!”—usually turns to dismay—“I watched Lord of the Rings three times.” Ouch. To the public at large, SF means Stories Farfetched, and to add insult to injury is limited to Impossible Stories found onscreen, not even in print. (Thanks for the confusion, Vampyre Channel.)

“We live in a Science Fiction world,” wrote James Gunn in Alternate Worlds. Perhaps people can only handle so much change, that its dizzying pace leaves no inclination to seek more of it in fiction, that a satisfactory escape from the drudgery of this world requires total discontinuity with it. Whatever the cause, it now appears that in order to save the world through Science Fiction, we are first required to save Science Fiction.

By what means? There are endless possibilities. How about a formal recognition of the best written SF through annual literary awards from the fans and writers? Oh, wait…

Don’t we have that already? Not anymore. Between 2001 and 2010, four out of ten Nebula Awards for best novel, voted by professional writers, went to Fantasy. Of course no one is disputing their value as novels. Two were penned by Neil Gaiman, who also wrote a most memorable—and sole Fantasy—Babylon 5 screenplay, “Day of the Dead.” We simply know that within the same ten years, the number of World Fantasy winning novels that were Fantasy was ten out of ten.

Surely SF fared better with the Hugo Awards? After all, the fan-given trophy is shaped like a finned rocket (unlike the Nebulas’ galaxy, which is apparently ambiguous.) In actual fact, no: five out of ten Hugo-winning novels were Fantasy. In one instance, recipient Neil Gaiman apologized for his lack of acceptance speech, as he had fully expected the SF novel Anathem to win. In another, frankly bizarre instance the winning nod went to a Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I’m told is not about a particularly powerful rocket nozzle.

This 21st Century trend is alarming. In a world that needs the perspective of SF more than ever, Hugo and Nebula winners are awarded via “anything goes.” Again, no offense intended to Fantasy, but having their own awards apparently proved insufficient, now they need ours, too!

We need to put SF back into its own awards. We need to ensure the continued recognition of excellence in Science Fiction. This should be achieved in a manner not detrimental to Fantasy, either. (Not that I’m above that, but I’m advised a constructive solution will get better traction.)

Therefore, I hereby submit the following: that each fiction category of the Hugo and Nebula awards be doubled up, one distinct series for Science Fiction, and another for Fantasy. Rationale: the SF genre needs its specificity recognized, separately from that of Fantasy.

Authors would win more—awards, if not money—and marketing departments play with more exclamatory blurbs. Readers would watch more of their favourite SF authors get well-earned recognition. (The only losers are unpaid critics, with more winners to read. You can’t please everybody.)

Impossible, I hear, who will decide which genre a given story belongs to? Imagine the conversations, heated arguments, bar fights…

In fact, this does not require to boldly go where no one has gone before, as they say. Locus Magazine has awarded separate prizes for SF and Fantasy, walking that fine line every year since 1980, no less. Which means their rationale for doing so, 30-year running, has to be an improvement over mine. Let’s ask them, shall we?

Let’s put SF back into its own Hugo and Nebula Awards.

About Jean Asselin
Jean Asselin works for the Ministry of Culture, Communications, and Status of Women
Government of Quebec, Montreal, QC, Canada. He is a past contributor to James Gunn’s Ad Astra.
  1. James

    I could not have said it better myself.

    i think the same thing every year when the award news roll out.

    The last decade has been dismal for SF and its awards.


  2. David Greybeard
    David Greybeard06-12-2013

    Yup. This is exactly why I hold the Locus Awards in much higher esteem than I do the Hugo or Nebula. The Hugo and Nebula were great awards through the 70s, but since then they’ve fallen to the bottom of the pile in recognizing works that will stand up over time. The Locus Awards are where people should look for truly the best in SF and F. (Though I wish they’d have a category for best Horror novel as well.)

  3. Peter Nel
    Peter Nel06-12-2013

    I agree completely.

    It must be pointed out, of course, that a number of SF-specific awards do exist, most notably the Campbell and Sturgeon Awards of the Center for the Study of SF.

    I would love to see the Sturgeons presented in three length categories, just like the Hugos and Nebulas.

    Of course, “Magic for Beginners” came 3rd in the Sturgeon voting in 2006, but what can you do? That, and the Campbell novel award, are the best we’ve got.

  4. A Modest Proposal: Literary Awards for Science Fiction - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums
    A Modest Proposal: Literary Awards for Science Fiction - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums06-12-2013

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  5. Andrew VanHausen
    Andrew VanHausen11-20-2014

    Problem is that the definition of the differences isn’t always clear, and these subgenres, while always named as separate were often lumped together. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are often shelved together in book stores and libraries, in ways unlike any other pair of genres.

    I’m fine with awards for best book/story that differentiate, but that may not be so simple. Some stories will overlap, and can be defined both ways, and may win awards in both categories.

    So what. This is a distinctly inventive genre, and breaking rules and making it work is a big part of it. (When it works well, all liberties are forgiven, otherwise prepare to be harangued)

    I don’t avoid fantasy as a rule (although I do tend to avoid the work of “fantasy trilogists”as if plagued) and I think the definition of “Science Fiction” is slippery. I’ve read one well known S/F author railing against another (probably a more popular one) that his Sci-Fi just wasn’t “hard” enough, so he just didn’t qualify. As if the second guy’s work didn’t count because his science wasn’t logically extrapolatable enough. I tend define it a bit looser. And I think guy #2 wrote better stories.

    If we have separate awards, we have to define that separation. and there is the difficult part. Somehow Fantasy was able to define itself enough to have a “fantasy only” World Fantasy Award, and Science Fiction has not.

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