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What's It All About, Alfie?

About those awards...

Let's begin with another lesson in Hugo history. First stop, 1953. The first Hugo Awards were presented at the 11th worldcon, in Philadelphia. Robert Silverberg tells me that they were not even called "Hugos" back then, just "Science Fiction Achievement Awards." Isaac Asimov was the Toastmaster. There were only seven categories that first year. Forry Ackerman was "# 1 Fan Personality," Philip Jose Farmer was "Best New Author or Artist," Willy Ley took one for "Excellence in Fact Articles," Virgil Finlay was "Best Interior Illustrator," Hannes Bok and Ed Emshwiller 'tied' for "Best Cover Artist," ASTOUNDING and GALAXY 'tied' for "Best Professional Magazine," and -- drumroll, please -- Alfred Bester won for Best Novel (the big one, then as now) with his soon-to-be-classic THE DEMOLISHED MAN.

Several things should be noted about the Philadelphia awards. First, they were widely regarded as a one-time thing; no one imagined at that time that they would become an annual event and the climax of worldcon. (And, indeed, no awards were given the following year, at the 1954 worldcon).

Also, there were no losers that year, only winners. No voting, no shortlist. These were all what we would call today 'committee awards,' the honorees chosen entirely by the members of the concom by some arcane process. The 'ties' did not result from an equal number of votes, therefore; it was just that the con runners felt both were worthy. Fannish legend tells us the first awards were made from Oldsmobile hood ornaments (but more on that later).

There has been much debate of late about the value of a Hugo. Whether or not it has actual monetary value, whether it can boost a writer's career or lead to larger advances. Back in 1953, no one was thinking that way. Look at those first awards, and you can see what the rocket is all about. The Hugos are an "Attaboy! You did good." They are SF thanking one of its own for enriching the genre, for giving them pleasure, for producing great work. Also, they come with a really cool trophy. Bottom line, that's what matters.

After skipping 1954, the awards came back in 1955 at the Cleveland worldcon, and have been with us ever since. Clevention was well before my time, but my understanding is that this was the first time we had actual balloting for the winners. This may also been the first time the awards were called Hugos, though I have been unable to document that. The categories were slighly different from 1953, and have continued to evolve and change ever since.

Fast forward to 1976, and that first Hugo Loser Party in Kansas City. I have written, below, of how Gardner Dozois acted as a herald/ doorman at that bash, loudly announcing each guest who attempted to enter, and proclaiming them either a winner or a loser. Losers were cheered and welcomed, winners booed and pelted with peanuts, etc.

Which leads me to the moment when Alfred Bester himself appeared in the door. "ALFIE BESTER," the great Gargoo roared at him. "You may not pass! You won the FIRST Hugo!!!" And the boos rose up like thunder. But Alfie was undeterred. "Yes," he shouted back, "but it was an Oldsmobile hood ornament, and it's all pitted and rusted and corroded now!" And the boos changed to cheers, and Alfie entered the party and proceeded to drink us all under the table, thereby establishing the principle that even legendary winners can become losers with sufficient time and corrosion.

Here's a fiddling footnote, though. In the twenty-three years between the Philadelphia and KC worldcon, Alfie's rocket almost certainly suffered pitting and rust. I have seen other Hugos from the 50s, and time has left its marks on all of them. But he was wrong as well; the '53 rockets may have been inspired inspired by the Oldsmobile hood ornaments, but they were not actually made from same. Maryland fan Jack McKnight made those first awards himself in his machine shop, working all through the con and finishing just in time for the presentation. Which is not to say that the 'hood ornament' legend is entirely wrong. Just the date is off. It was the 1956 Hugos that are actually Oldsmobile hood ornaments. Dave Kyle made the awards that year. Kyle presumably lacked McKnight's machine shop and metal-working skills, so he raided some junkyards for hood ornaments from the 1950 or 1951 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, and screwed them to an upright wooden stand. Take a look for yourself:

1950 Oldsmobile hood ornament

1953 Hugo

1956 Hugo

[[You can find all this history, and pictures of every Hugo since the beginnings of the award, at the official Hugo site at http://www.thehugoawards.org/ Go check it out, it's cool]].

Fast forward again, this time to present.

This past year has been a tough one for all of fandom, and especially those of us who love SF, fantasy, worldcon, and the Hugos. Puppygate injected a note of discord and division and vitriol into the awards process unlike anything ever seen before in the long history of the awards. You all know the facts; I am not going to rehash them again here.

I have been a Hugo winner, and a Hugo loser, and a Hugo presenter, many times. I hated this year's discord, and I could see how much damage it was doing. I felt I had to speak out about what was happening, and I did. I engaged in dialogue (relatively civil) with the Sad Puppy leaders Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia in hopes of somehow finding some common ground and effecting some sort of reconciliation; sadly, that effort failed. With the passage of months, things got worse instead of better.

In any Hugo season save the first, there are more losers than winners. Five nominees per category means one winner and four losers. Multiply that by the number of categories, and the losers way outnumber the winners. Always have, always will. And, yes, it IS an honor just to be nominated... but that does not soften the sting when the envelope is opened and someone else's name is called out. I know, I've been there many times, and not just at the Hugo Awards (six time Emmy loser here, and I will be going for seven next month).

And this year, thanks to the slates, we had more losers than ever before. This year, indeed, we were all losers. Some lost the usual way, finishing behind an eventual winner. Others lost to No Award, an especially galling sort of defeat. (Which also created five losers in those five categories instead of four). Even the winners lost, since their victories will always bear as asterisk in the minds of some because they triumphed under such unusual circumstances, over a weakened field, or whatever. (I don't necessarily endorse this viewpoint. I think some of this year's winners deserve an exclamation point rather than an asterisk. But I have heard a fair amount of the asterisk talk even on Hugo night itself). The Hugos lost: five No Awards is an occasion for mourning, not cheers. The genre lost: I don't buy that even bad press is good, and we sure got a lot of bad press this year. Fandom lost: division and discord poisoned our annual celebration of love for SF, and left wounds that will be a long time healing. The nominees who withdrew from the slates lost; they walked away from a Hugo nod, a painful thing to do, and were abused for that decision. The nominees who stayed on the ballot lost; they were abused for that decision too, and some, who were NOT Puppies and never asked to be slated, saw their Hugo chances destroyed by the Nuclear option. Some nominees managed to catch flak from both sides.

And there was another class of loser, less visible, but still very much a victim of the slates. Those writers who produced outstanding work in 2014, and who, in a normal year, would have almost certainly received Hugo nominations. Some might even have won rockets. But this was NOT a normal year, and the usual word-of-mouth buzz and fannish enthusiasm that generally carries a story to a place on the Hugo ballot could not and did not prevail against the slate-mongering of the Sad Puppies and the lockstep voting of the Rabids. These were the invisible losers of the 2015 Hugo season. Losing is a part of life, and certainly of the Hugos... but it is one thing to be beaten in a fair contest, and another to be shoved aside and denied the chance to compete.

It was for those 'invisible losers' that I decided to create the Alfies. If one accepts that the Hugo has value, these writers had suffered real harm thanks to the slates. There was no way I could hope to redress that... but I could make a gesture. In the door of my room in KC in 1976, Alfie Bester told us that winners can become losers. If so, losers can become winners too. I would give my own awards... and of course I'd name them after Alfie.

So that's how the Alfies came about.

Next rock, I'll tell you about their creation... and who won them.


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Aug. 27th, 2015 07:27 pm (UTC)
That's very clever, to modify the Rocket 88 hood ornament. They're still for sale on EBay for about $100.
Aug. 27th, 2015 07:51 pm (UTC)
Eric Wagner
Dear Mr. Martin,

I have enjoyed your blog throughout this Hugo season, helping me to navigate the world of puppies, etc. I look forward to reading about the Alfies. I remember the controversy in Denver in 1981 when Thomas Disch accused you, Ed Bryant, and others of writing just to make money and win awards like a bowling team. I heard you give a great reading wearing a bowling shirt, and I loved it when Ed Bryant hosted the Hugos in a pink tuxedo.
Aug. 27th, 2015 08:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Eric Wagner
Burgundy. It was burgundy. And don't forget his roller skates.
Re: Eric Wagner - John Kessel - Aug. 28th, 2015 09:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 27th, 2015 08:11 pm (UTC)
The Alfies were an outstanding idea, way to make lemonade in a lemon year.

I'm currently reading all the nominees that could have been that I have not read already. There really was some outstanding stuff in there. I'm very much enjoying "City of stairs" at the moment.
Aug. 27th, 2015 11:25 pm (UTC)
City of Stairs was the heartbreaker for me. There were several great books last year that I think I would have nominated if I'd felt qualified (I pretty much just read novels and don't feel well-versed enough to nominate in other categories, so haven't bothered to nominate in the past; I am actively working to change that this year), but City of Stairs is the one I would have nominated out of pure love. (This year, so far, The Mechanical is at the top of my list for being a really well-done world and story AND being pure love. I've still got a long list of requests at the library, so the rest of my list is in flux, but it's highly unlikely anything will bump The Mechanical off of the list. Push it further down the list, maybe. But it will not get bumped out of the top 5.

In terms of 2015 books that feel like City of Stairs, The Buried Life (Carrie Patel?) was satisfying. I didn't love it quite as much, but it definitely scratched the same itch.
(no subject) - jere7my - Aug. 27th, 2015 11:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - flake_sake - Aug. 28th, 2015 04:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - flake_sake - Aug. 28th, 2015 04:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bitty - Aug. 28th, 2015 01:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 27th, 2015 08:14 pm (UTC)
It only just now occurred to me that there is a House Gard(e)ner who are mainly known as losers of the Game Of Thrones And Related Pointy Things, and now I'm wondering. :3
Aug. 27th, 2015 08:19 pm (UTC)
The Kermode Awards
Sounds similar to the Kermode Awards which British film critic Mark Kermode give out each year to the best films that have not been nominated for an Oscar in an attempt to show that it's often possible to create a better list of winners that way.
Aug. 27th, 2015 08:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing all this. I wouldn't mind being a Hugo Award loser someday, though hopefully under better circumstances than this year.

Incidentally, last night on NPR I heard a piece on The Three-Body Problem winning the Hugo, wherein they referred to "the prestigious Hugo Award" and didn't mention the recent unpleasantness at all. It really helped to lift my spirits. I'll have to see if I can find a link to it to share.
Mike Glyer
Aug. 27th, 2015 09:21 pm (UTC)
Intent in creating Hugo Awards
If you look in the progress reports of the 1953 convention, they documented their intention to create an annual award. And I interviewed Ben Jason of the 1955 Worldcon committee about Hugo history, and that was his testimony too.

A nitpick, I suppose, but also an opportunity to get the info in front of people.

Nevertheless enjoying all your Hugo commentary.
Frank Probst
Aug. 27th, 2015 09:28 pm (UTC)
I don't think that your dialogues with Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen were failures. They were tense but ultimately civil back-and-forths with each man. While you found little (if any) common ground, I think everyone gave pretty clear descriptions of their viewpoints, and I think that was extremely informative for those of us following the debate.
Aug. 27th, 2015 11:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Dialogues
Glad to hear it did some good.
Donato Giancola
Aug. 27th, 2015 10:10 pm (UTC)
Alternative Awards
Well stated George. It was too bad that the Puppies saw the need to corrupt the Hugo process for their hopes of achieving recognition for their arts. They should take the lead, not only of yourself with the Alfies, but with many other institutions that now pass out respected awards for their industries. the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (ASFA) have done so with the Chesley Awards, as well as the Annual Spectrum with their own awards for artists not typically recognized by mainstream illustration competitions like Communication Arts and the Society of Illustrators.

The result has been only positive for all, as the fields broaden and expand and more creatives are recognized for their various contributions!

Donato Giancola
Aug. 27th, 2015 10:43 pm (UTC)
Bad press, good press
I don't buy the idea that "bad press is good press", either (and I say that as a political communications professional). But I honestly don't think the Hugos or WorldCon got a lot of bad press this year.

The Puppies got a lot of bad press. Some was objective, some was opinionated. Some was fair and, probably, some was unfair. But a lot, and bad - that's to be sure.

As for the Hugos and WorldCon and Hugo voters, I think they got a lot of good press. Controversial press, yes. Painful scrutiny to be subjected to, yes. But they came out looking stronger for having survived it.

Put this in perspective:

2,400 more people voted for the Hugos this year than ever before. Based on nomination data, at most, about 500 of those *new* voters were Puppies. That means at least 2,000 people, who wouldn't have voted otherwise, were spurred on by media coverage of this controversy to buy a membership for Worldcon and vote.

Think about that.

Thousands of new people - people like myself who may have only had a passing interest in these awards previously - rallied to their defence. Why? Because that dreaded "bad press" convinced them that the Hugo awards were something worth spending their own hard earned money to protect. Not bad, IMNSHO.

All the "bad press" we might speak of has peaked the interest of a new generation of fans. Hopefully, the next few years of work will be hold and foster that interest. Only time will tell.
Robert Day
Aug. 29th, 2015 06:30 am (UTC)
Re: Bad press, good press
I am a long time reader, but never involved in "fandom". Growing up it all seemed so far away over there in America. The whole Puppies saga certainly galvanised me to spend my money (and even more precious time) defending something that I have long valued.

For the record, I tried to vote for the best I could find and am sad as a puppy that the Editor categories got No Awarded.
Aug. 27th, 2015 11:06 pm (UTC)
Maybe one of the most interesting updates on your Blog, Mr. Martin. Thanks for sharing it. Could you please, in further post, show us a picture or a drawing of the actual shape of the award itself (hood model)?

Edited at 2015-08-27 11:09 pm (UTC)
Aug. 27th, 2015 11:29 pm (UTC)
I was watching the world athletics championships today, the 200m final. The main protagonists were Usain Bolt, the hero, the good guy, as far as we know and Justin Gatlin, the bad guy, the twice banned doping cheat.

They had met before, on Sunday in the 100m when Usain Bolt won by a whisker and was hailed as "The man who saved athletics".

Today, Usain Bolt won again, far more comfortably and again he will be hailed as "The man who saved athletics".

Usain Bolt won with a smile on his face, he didn't say anything derogatory about Justin Gatlin, other than suggesting, tongue in cheek, that Justin Gatlin may have had something to do with a camera man tripping him up after the event.

Usain Bolt won with a smile on his face and raised the roof, Justin Gatlin was legitimately there, he has served his bans, but many feel he shouldn't have been there, he's the villain of the piece.

In an ideal world, Puppygate would have ended like this, the winners with smiles on their face, the other side not having scorn poured upon them, but a fun reference and everyone living happily ever after.

I mention this because to me, this is what The Alfies sound like, a fun way of celebrating the fact that everyone can't be a winner, a fun way of celebrating the genre and people, although disappointed, even if others believed more worthy cases weren't in the running, engaging in a celebration. Fandom should be about celebration.

Everyone can't win, everyone can't be nominated, but everyone can have fun. The vitriol needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history, the celebration, that needs to something everyone involved enjoys and people really need to remember that the idea is to celebrate SFF, not politicise it, and that goes for whichever side of the fence people sit on.

Drink, eat and be merry.
Arcturas Trosper
Aug. 27th, 2015 11:30 pm (UTC)

I think the current controvery has left out the fans who do not vote, but buy and read the books. I understand Hugo's is passed out by a club with dues, but sixty bucks will still a bunch of books.
So for the Hugo committee to callously disregard those who paid their dues, is more or less telling them, your vote means nothing.

Someone owes a really big refund to those people.

Instead of insuring all the nominess get the same shot at winning, the Hugo committee has decided to piss in their sandbox and take its toys inside. A giant FU to everyone who voted, but its their sandbox, right?

There were a lot of good writers nominated this year who took home nothing.
Screw them! They should be happy to just be nominated.

Diversity is now more important than their hard work or anyone's hurt feelings. Diversity is being used as a filter to keep dissenting voices out of the awards process. The Hugo's are now a filter on the writing process to make sure the right people win.

Merit used to be the tool for deciding who gets an Hugo award.
But for a while now, getting a Hugo is about promoting Diversity over the craft of writing a great book.

So maybe, Straight Whites need not to apply.

The Hugo award is now horribly tainted.

This whole mess is not just a failure to communicate, but also to tolerate, and embrace the differences of other people, including their right to disagree. I sincerly hope that the Hugo passes away in a few years, and is replaced by a better award given by a bigger and more inclusive group of science fiction fans.

Don't worry, George. Good writers will always make money, even if they don't have a Hugo on the mantle to validate their work.
At this point, I would think the Hugo is largely a meaningless symbol of pandering to those who fit the 'correct' socially acceptable demographic. It makes perfect sense that the Award is a rocket, shaped like a dildo, cause thats about the only practical use for it now.

Have a good day!

Aug. 27th, 2015 11:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Hugonauts
It's still merit. Always has been, always will be.

And "straight whites need not apply" is such bullshit. Do you care anything about FACTS? Look at all the Hugo awards handed out this past decade. Count the winners. You know who's won the most? Straight white guys!!! The only difference from the 50s is that straight white guys no longer win them ALL.

Everyone's vote counted. That's how elections worked. I voted for George McGovern in '72. He lost. He lost big. My vote still counted. That's what happened in the Hugos this year.
Re: Hugonauts - Arcturas Trosper - Aug. 28th, 2015 02:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - DemoGreenSF - Aug. 28th, 2015 05:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
RE: Hugonauts - apostle_of_eris - Aug. 28th, 2015 12:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - flake_sake - Aug. 28th, 2015 04:51 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - Arcturas Trosper - Aug. 28th, 2015 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - ciaran_laval - Aug. 29th, 2015 12:27 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - questron - Aug. 29th, 2015 05:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - the_corbie - Aug. 28th, 2015 08:20 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - Arcturas Trosper - Aug. 28th, 2015 03:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - the_corbie - Aug. 28th, 2015 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - Farah Mendlesohn - Aug. 28th, 2015 01:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hugonauts - questron - Aug. 29th, 2015 04:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 27th, 2015 11:32 pm (UTC)
I have to admit this whole affair has started me contemplating the relationship between the underlying message of a given work of fiction and its perceived quality.

Someone like Bobby Fischer could be a huge asshat and a raging antisemite and still be a brilliant chess player because chess is a purely technical discipline. His political views and his chess playing were unrelated.

But can the same be said for a writer who knows how to create interesting scenarios, vividly drawn characters and a gripping narrative, yet uses all of those skills to write fiction with an underlying political message that alienates much of the audience? Should the technical excellence still be honored if the implied message is abhorrent?
Ed Robertson
Aug. 28th, 2015 05:35 am (UTC)
George, your posts on the Hugos this year have been a treasure. Working outside the traditional scene, I sometimes feel like I'm working outside of fandom as well. But you make me want to become a part of it. Thanks so much for the glimpse into this world.
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