The Anatomy of the Best Related Work Hugo

In an earlier post I spoke in favour of an article condemning Raytheon’s sponsorship of the 2021 Hugo Awards being nominated for the Best Related Work Hugo this year, continuing a recent trend of the category featuring a protest nominee in response to previous lapses. I’ve received some blowback on the grounds that such a nomination would risk pushing a longer, more scholarly and in-depth work off the ballot.

I think that’s a fair point that voters should bear in mind if they’re considering an anti-Raytheon protest vote. Last year saw the publication of Abraham Riesman’s biography of Stan Lee, Robert J. E. Simpson’s book on The Wicker Man, Camestros Felapton’s Debarkle, Rachel S. Cordasco’s Out of this World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium, Claire Tomalin’s The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World, Charlie Jane Anders’ essay collection Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories and the fourth edition of John Clute and David Langford’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Any one of these is a potential casualty of a protest nomination. (And those aren’t necessarily my personal choices, incidentally; I simply culled them from the 2022 eligibility spreadsheet).

All that being said, the objections that I received made me ponder a question: just how much scholarly work is actually being nominated for Best Related Work?

To answer that question, I delved into the nomination stats for last year’s Hugos. Here’s the Related Work longlist:


Let’s break this down…

2020 FIYAHCON (74 votes)
CONZealand Fringe (74 votes)
The list begins with a pair of oddities: a convention, and a series of convention-like events coinciding with (but not officially connected to) a convention. This isn’t the sort of thing that typically goes up for Best Related Work, although things start to make a little more sense when we consider that both events were virtual (that is, livestreams) and so could be termed a species of documentary. Whether this is the start of a trend or simply an oddity arising from the 2020 lockdowns remains to be seen.

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Headley (41 votes)
Moving on, we find actual scholarship. We also find a considerable drop in nomination votes.

A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler by Lynell George (38 votes)
More scholarship: a 176-page book about an important science fiction author. Fair enough.

“George R. R. Martin can Fuck Off Into the Sun” by Natalie Luhrs (37 votes)
Now this is where things get controversial. Natalie Luhrs’ post is a 1400-word rant about how George R. R. Martin flubbed the 2020 Hugo ceremony, and was a protest nomination voted for by people who resented that affair.

The Last Bronycon: A Fandom Autopsy by Jenny Nicholson (31 votes)
The  final contender to reach the actual ballot is a 71-minute documentary. Audio-visual content is gaining ground in Best Related Work, and this is inevitable: the rise of online video-sharing has made the field of documentaries and video essays a whole lot more democratic, opening doors for in-depth material on niche topics (including, as in this case, a controversial My Little Pony convention). What’s eyebrow-raising here is less the format and more the low number of votes. Just 31 people — that’s how many are needed to secure a spot in the Best Related Work ballot.

Moving on, we find some of the works that didn’t get quite enough votes for the ballot, and that’s where things get really interesting…

Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Regina Yung Lee and Una McCormack (27 votes)
Well, if you want to talk about scholarly work being pushed off the ballot by protest nominations, here’s your poster girl: a 320-page academic volume on a significant SF author that would have been a finalist were it not for “George R. R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun”.

The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows (23 votes)
Another scholarly work on a beloved author, this time a 400-page biography of Terry Pratchett… and this time, we can’t blame the Natalie Luhrs post for keeping it off the ballot.

Into the Omegaverse: How a Fanfic Trope Landed in Federal Court by Lindsay Ellis (21 votes)
Returning to fandom documentaries, here’s an hour-long video essay on a legal dispute over fanfiction.

Concellation 2020 Facebook Group (15 votes)
And here we have a Facebook group — specifically, one for people whose favourite conventions were cancelled in the pandemic. It seems to have been deleted since then, although the official website and Facebook groups for the 2021 and 2022 iterations are online.

“Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall” by Alec Nevala-Lee (20 votes)
A 3,200-word article on Isaac Asimov, emphasising his history of sexual harassment at conventions. Incidentally, if you’re unfamiliar with the workings of the Hugos and wondering how this got a lower position in the longlist than the Concellation group despite having more votes: it’s because nomination votes are weighted depending on how many works the voter has listed in the category (a measure introduced to lessen the impact of slate-voting in the wake of the Puppy campaigns). The voting breakdown linked to above goes into more detail.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, And Making Space by Amanda Leduc (20 votes)
We’re back to books here, this one clocking in at 255 pages.

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Excellence” by Nibedita Sen (17 votes)
And now we’re back to short-form work with a 2048-word autobiographical piece (as an aside, this was a finalist at the Ignyte Awards for Best Creative Nonfiction.)

Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom (11 votes)
This is remarkable. The Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom is an annual, open-access spreadsheet designed to collate eligible contenders for the awards. The 2021 iteration has no fewer than 61 suggestions for Best Related Work — amongst them such books as Sarah Cole’s Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, Joseph Norman’s Culture of “The Culture”: Utopian Processes in Iain M. Banks’s Space Opera Series, William Cites’ Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City and Dustin A. Abnet’s The American Robot: A Cultural History — and apparently eleven people decided that the spreadsheet itself was more deserving of nomination. (Specifically, these would have been nomination votes for the 2020 spreadsheet, which — like the Facebook group mentioned above — appears to have since been deleted.)

Visual History of SF Fandom, Volume One: the 1930s by David and Daniel Ritter (11 votes)
At 516 pages, this is a hefty volume of research. With 11 votes, it didn’t stand a chance. It ended up below a spreadsheet.

The Return of Hyper Comics by Steve Stiles (10 votes)
Finally, we have this 160-page celebration of underground cartoonist Steve Stiles, who died in 2020. He clearly has ten fans at Worldcon, and that was enough to get his book on the longlist… just barely.

For some historical context, compare the above to the 2010 Best Related Work longlist. The voting base is similarly tiny, but with the sole exception of a podcast right at the very bottom, the list consists entirely of books:

My takeaway from all this is that if protest votes for works like Natalie Luhrs’ post on George Martin or the (hypothetical) anti-Raytheon finalist are a problem, they’re ultimately the symptom of a larger issue with the Best Related Work category. This issue itself arises from two factors: one, the vagueness as to what constitutes an appropriate contender for “Related Work”; and two, the relatively small number of people nominating in this category. We’re clearly not seeing much appetite to vote for scholarly, in-depth work that will stand the test of time, as evidenced by the fact that a 500-page book on science fiction fandom in the 1930s was beaten on the longlist by a Facebook group and a spreadsheet that, as far as I can tell, have each been deleted.

At risk of sounding like a stuck record, I really think it’s time Best Related Work was split into long-form and short-form sections (a similar division is used for non-fiction at the Bram Stoker Awards). This might encourage people to vote for weightier work while also preventing this work from being pushed aside by ranty blog posts. Had such a system been in place for 2021, the results might have looked something like this…

Best Related Work, Long Form:

    • 2020 FIYAHCON
    • CONZealand Fringe
    • Beowulf: A New Translation
    • A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler
    • The Last Bronycon: A Fandom Autopsy
    • Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold

Best Related Work, Short Form:

    • George R. R. Martin can Fuck Off Into the Sun
    • Concellation 2020 Facebook Group
    • Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall
    • Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Excellence
    • Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom
    • (Unknown sixth finalist)

I think I’ve waffled on for long enough now, so I’ll wrap things up. If you would like to see more scholarly writing up for the Related Work Hugo, then you’ll facing hurdles beyond an annual protest vote.  The category has been slipping away from non-fiction books for a while now (just look at how few have been added to this year’s recommendation spreadsheet) and any effort to return it to its prior focus will need time and dedication toward spotlighting potential nominees.

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