Explaining The Censorship Scandal At The Hugo Awards

The Hugo Awards, the most prestigious science fiction and fantasy literary awards in the book community, has recently been blanketed in scandal.

It all began when esteemed sci-fi authors like Neil Gaiman, R.F. Kuang, Xiran Jay Zhao and Paul Weimer were no longer eligible as finalists for the awards even though they had earned enough votes to be considered finalists. This week, leaked emails from the event committee suggested that several of the authors were excluded from the shortlists last year for flagged comments or works that could potentially have been seen as sensitive and offensive to China, where the awards were held for the first time last year. 

The contradictory data that showed that the authors were eligible for the awards but left off the ballots without explanation has sparked concerns that the awards have been tainted by censorship. The scandal has resulted in a member of the 2024 Worldcon committee resigning and has put the prestigious book awards reputation at stake.

Here’s a breakdown of the Hugo Awards controversy and the fallout that followed:

Chengdu, China chosen for awards location

The annual awards, run by members of the World Science Fiction Society who vote for their favorite works authors across a handful of categories, were held in Chengdu in October at the global sci-fi convention Worldcon, which is held in a different city every year.

However, the 2023 location for Worldcon and the Hugos was not met with open arms from some sci-fi and fantasy writers who had signed an open letter protesting the choice, which was voted on by members of the convention. In the open letter, the collective of authors asked the committee to ”revoke the 2023 Worldcon bid to Chengdu, China,” protesting against the alleged abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in China that the country has long denied.

“As science fiction and fantasy authors, we imagine brave new worlds in our fiction. We challenge power, authority and the status quo, where grave injustices may be perpetrated without accountability or reparation. We write underdogs and outsiders who disrupt power structures and overthrow cruel overlords,” the letter read.

“So often, our characters make unthinkable sacrifices, and undertake impossible quests to bring down tyrants and oppressive regimes,” the letter continued. “They do so for a chance at a just and more inclusive future, where their people no longer suffer violence and discrimination.”

The outcry from the authors was not enough for the event location to be moved.

The nomination stats released to backlash

Months after the awards, the voting body released the nomination statistics that show which authors made finalist rounds. According to Esquire, the voting body usually releases the numbers the same night as the ceremony or within days of the event. In a break with tradition, this year the stats weren’t made public . . . until three months after the awards.

On Jan. 20, the statistics reported that “Babel” by Kuang (one of Salon’s favorite books of 2022), an episode of “The Sandman” by Gaiman, ”Iron Widow” by Zhao, and Weimer had all received more than enough votes to be finalists for the awards. But after a first round of voting, the writers were disqualified with an asterisk noting that each of their works was “ineligible” for awards consideration.

When Dave McCarty, division head of the Hugo Awards, posted the report to his Facebook, he was met with a barrage of criticism from authors, fans and finalists. In the comments of the post, he said to a person asking why certain works were deemed ineligible to the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) constitution, “Are you slow?” He wrote to another person, “Clearly you can’t understand plain English in our constitution.” 

Even Gaiman questioned the nomination process, commenting on the post, “Is there anyone who could actually explain WHY ‘Sandman episode 6 was ineligible?”

McCarty later apologized for “inappropriate, unprofessional, condescending” comments but did not address the censorship theories bubbling up online. People speculated that the exclusion happened because both Kuang and Zhao were born in China and now live in the West, Kuang’s main character is queer, Zhao is non-binary and all the authors have criticized the Chinese Communist Party and/or its policies at some point in the past.

On Instagram, author Kuang shared a statement calling the situation “embarrassing.” She continued to say that she “did not decline a nomination, as no nomination was offered.”

She wrote that until a reason is given that “explains why the book was eligible for the Nebula and Locus awards, which it won, and not the Hugos, I assume this was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility. Excluding ‘undesirable’ work is not only embarrassing for all involved parties, but renders the entire process and organization illegitimate. Pity.”

In a video posted on Zhao’s page, they told their followers to “make a fuss about this to get us some answers” after they got “disqualified for political reasons probably.”

McCarty and a director resign from the Hugo Awards

Following, the blowback from the ineligible authors, the nonprofit that owns the Hugo Awards released a statement saying that McCarty and Kevin Standlee, the chair of its board of directors, both resigned from the organization. The statement also said that the organization has censured McCarthy “for his public comments that have led to harm of the goodwill and value of our marks and for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that he presided over.”

Also, two other members of the awards committee, Ben Yalow and Shi Chen, were censured, “for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that [they] presided over.”

Leaked emails show censorship

This week saw the release of leaked emails from committee member Diane Lacey, which were gathered by Hugo-nominated sci-fi author Jason Sanford and Hugo-winning fan writer Chris M. Barkley. Their special report showed that members of the Hugo administration kept certain books off-ballot because they wanted to follow Chinese censorship laws.

“It’s not necessary to read everything, but if the work focuses on China, Taiwan, Tibet, or other topics that may be an issue *in* China . . . that needs to be highlighted so that we can determine if it is safe to put it on the ballot (or) if the law will require us to make an administrative decision about it,” wrote McCarty, the report showed.

“In addition to the regular technical review, as we are happening in China and the *laws* we operate under are different . . . we need to highlight anything of a sensitive political nature in the work,” McCarty wrote in an email dated June 5, 2023. 

Another email showed the group talking about Kuang’s novel “Babel” and “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The committee noted that while both works discuss China, Kuang’s book “has a lot about China. I haven’t read it, and am not up on Chinese politics, so cannot say whether it would be viewed as ‘negatives of China,’” Hugo Awards administrator Kat Jones said. Jones has resigned as an overall administrator from this year’s awards and Worldcon.

While Moreno-Garcia’s book mentions “importing hacienda workers from China. I have not read the book, and do not know whether this would be considered ‘negative.'” “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau” made it to the final ballot, which ultimately disqualified Kuang for taking place in China.

Weimer, another author who was deemed ineligible, was questioned for what the committee thought was a trip to Tibet. “Brief Twitter mention of Hong Kong and reference to Tiananmen [sic] Square.” Weimer said in the report that he had never been to Tibet.

“I was afraid that in the end this was going to come down to soft or hard or some kind of censorship once things started leaking out,” Weimer said.

Ultimately for author Zhao, they were disqualified because their novel “Iron Widow” was apparently flagged for being a “reimagining of the rise of the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian.”

The fallout of the scandal 

Following the leaked emails, the members running this year’s Hugo Awards in Glasgow released an apology and new rules for the upcoming awards.

The chair of the 2024 awards Esther MacCallum-Stewart said, “I unreservedly apologize for the damage caused to nominees, finalists, the community, and the Hugo, Lodestar, and Astounding Awards. I acknowledge the deep grief and anger of the community and I share this distress.”

She continued that “Glasgow 2024 do not know how any of the eligibility decisions for the Hugo, Lodestar and Astounding Awards held at the 2023 Chengdu World Science Fiction Convention were reached. We know no more than is already in the public domain.”

However, the awards will abide by new rules for the 2024 nominations and are taking “steps to ensure transparency and to attempt to redress the grievous loss of trust in the administration of the Awards.”

Firstly, “when our final ballot is published by Glasgow 2024, in late March or early April 2024, we will also publish the reasons for any disqualifications of potential finalists, and any withdrawals of potential finalists from the ballot.

“Full voting results, nominating statistics and voting statistics will be published immediately after the Awards ceremony on 11th August 2024,” the statement said.

Ultimately, “the Hugo administration subcommittee will also publish a log explaining the decisions that they have made in interpreting the WSFS Constitution immediately after the Awards ceremony on 11th August 2024.”

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