Controversy at the Hugo Awards: Works deemed "ineligible" lead to censorship speculation

From nominees being mysteriously deemed ineligible to odd data curves, the 2023 Hugo Award voting data just released from Chengdu Worldcon has many in the fantasy and sci-fi community in an uproar.

The Sandman. (L to R) Tom Sturridge as Dream, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in episode 106 of The Sandman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
The Sandman. (L to R) Tom Sturridge as Dream, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in episode 106 of The Sandman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022 /

This past weekend, the nomination data from the 2023 Hugo Awards was released. One of the biggest awards for fantasy and science fiction books, the Hugos are given out at Worldcon, which is a large sci-fi and fantasy convention which occurs in a different city each year. In essence, every year cities bid for the right to hold Wolrdcon in their neck of the woods, and are then responsible for facilitating the Hugo Award ceremony at that year's convention.

In 2023, Worldcon was held in Chengdu, China, which marked only the second time in its 84-year history that the event has taken place in an East Asian country (the other being the 2007 Worldcon in Yokohama, Japan). China has an enormous science fiction community, so to many this seemed like a potentially exciting way to include fans from a part of the world which hasn't been well represented at past cons. However, there were also some concerns voiced about holding Worldcon in Chengdu when the city was bidding on the convention back in 2021; namely, China's ongoing treatment of its Uyghur population and the potential for the country's strict censorship laws to interfere with the con. Those arguments got pretty complicated, but when the dust settled, Chengdu had won the bid.

Fast forward to October 2023, and the convention went off seemingly without a hitch...but now that the Hugo Awards nomination data has been released, it's raising some serious questions in the fantasy and science fiction community. Some works and authors were mysteriously deemed "ineligible" for awards with no reason given, despite being clearly shown to have received enough nominations to nab them finalist slots. The stats themselves also seem questionable; in a few instances the numbers listed exceed the total number of ballots cast, and there is an abnormal "cliff" in the data between the frontrunners in each category and the rest of the pack that is markedly different than previous Hugo voting years.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, these statistics were released on the last possible day that the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) rules allowed, 90 days after the convention. For context, the nomination stats for the Hugo Awards typically come out a few days or even hours after the event. For them to come out at the last possible moment they're allowed to, while displaying such massive irregularities, is more than a bit suspicious. It's led to demands for answers from the organizing committee of Chengdu Worldcon (each Worldcon is its own discreet entity, run independently but expected to adhere to the WSFS rules for the Hugo Awards).

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R.F. Kuang /

What is the controversy with Worldcon 2023?

That's the broad strokes of what went down. Now let's get into some of the specific red flags from the data:

R.F. Kuang's novel Babel was deemed "ineligible" for the Best Novel award. Babel won both the Nebula and Locus Awards last year, and seemed like an obvious choice to at least be in the running for the Hugo. No explanation has been given for why Kuang's novel was knocked out of the Hugos. Babel editor David Pomerico expressed confusion on Twitter about why the book was deemed "ineligible." Kuang later followed up with her own statement on Instagram:

"I initially planned to say nothing about Babel's inexplicable disqualification from the Hugo Awards. But I believe that these cases thrive on ambiguities, the lingering question marks, the answers that aren't answers. I wish to clarify that no reason for Babel's ineligibility was given to me or my team. I did not decline a nomination, as no nomination was offered.

Until one is provided 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.

That's all from me. I have books to write."

R.F. Kuang
The Sandman. (L to R) Tom Sturridge as Dream, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death in episode 106 of The Sandman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022 /

Another piece of work which was mysteriously deemed ineligible was The Sandman Episode 6, "The Sound of Her Wings." The Sandman was up for both Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form as a series, and Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form for its sixth episode. It was knocked out of the Long Form running due to Rule 3.8.3 of the WSFS Constitution, which states that "if any series and a subset series thereof both receive sufficient nominations to appear on the final ballot, only the version which received more nominations shall appear."

In other words, if a series receives more votes for an individual episode or novel from that series in another category, it will only be nominated in the category for which it received the most votes. So because the episode "The Sound of Her Wings" received more votes than The Sandman did as a series, the Short Form category was the one where the show's nomination went through. (This was also the case for Andor, which was dropped from the Long Form category since it's prison break episode "One Way Out" received more votes.)

However, "The Sound of Her Wings" was then deemed "ineligible" for the Short Form category. The Sandman author and co-showrunner Neil Gaiman shared R.F. Kuang's post on Bluesky and threw in his own two cents about the matter, saying, "This is how I feel about Sandman Episode 6, with the addition that it wouldn't have been my award, but an award for everyone who made it. That the episode was deemed mysteriously ineligible just makes the 2023 Hugo Awards feel shady."

Another shocker from the nomination data was that Iron Widow author Xiran Jay Zhao was deemed "ineligible" for the Astounding Award. That's the award given out to new authors, and they're only eligible for it during their first two years after publishing their first story. Zhao's debut book Iron Widow released in 2021, which means she should have been eligible for the Astounding Award at the 2022 and 2023 Hugos. And per the official Astounding Award's website, she was supposed to be eligible for it at Chengdu's Worldcon. As with Kuang, Zhao had not been contacted and had no idea she was deemed "ineligible" until the nomination data was released publicly over the weekend.

There are other, similar examples. Writer Paul Weimer was deemed "ineligible" for Best Fan Writer despite having the third highest number of votes; Weimer has since demanded answers of the Chengdu Worldcon team, and has been posting regular updates about his progress.

Prey declined a Hugo nomination

Beyond the shady stuff, there were some other interesting take aways from last year's Hugo nomination data. For instance, Prey, the Emmy-winning prequel to the Predator franchise directed by Dan Trachtenberg, received enough nominations in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category to secure a finalist spot, but declined the nomination. As of this writing, it's not publicly known why the team behind Prey declined the nomination, though the Hugo Book Club Twitter account said that they were "told that the communication from the makers of the movie were brief and did not offer a reason for declining."

We reached out to Hulu for comment about Prey declining the nomination, but did not hear back by the time of publication of this piece.

Prey isn't the only one to decline a nomination. Author S.B. Divya also declined their nominations in the Best Novelette category as well as in the Best Semiprozine category for the Escape Pod podcast magazine. Unlike Prey, Divya did explain why she declined the nominations on her blog back in July of last year, saying she had signed a petition against holding the con in Chengdu to "protest the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province."

Chengdu Worldcon vice-chair responds to controversy

Yesterday, Dave McCarty, Chengdu Worldcon vice-chair and co-head of the Hugo Awards Selection Executive Division, fielded questions on Facebook about why some works were deemed ineligible and why the nomination numbers appeared to be abnormal. Despite being asked for specifics, he fell back on an obviously preprepared non-answer:

"After reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible."

When pressed for more details, McCarty kept referring to that response, becoming increasingly hostile to the onslaught of questions from upset writers demanding answers, asking one "are you slow?" and telling another "You can’t parse a sentence in what I assume is your native language."

Not even Neil Gaiman himself was able to get an answer from McCarty about why The Sandman episode was deemed ineligible. He joined in the Facebook discussion to inquire as to why precisely The Sandman was disqualified without explanation. “Is there anyone who could actually explain WHY Sandman episode 6 was ineligible? I don’t recall any politics in the episode. It was 'SF or Fantasy' and had not been previously released.” He went on to ask why, if The Sandman was disqualified for an individual episode, it wouldn't be reinstated in the series category.

"It was a judgment call on my part whether to list both the same way or note that per the WSFS constitution, only one could be considered. I thought it more appropriate to do it the way it appears," McCarty replied. "The only statement from the administration team that I can share is the one that I already have, after we reviewed the constitution and the rules we must follow, we determined the work was not eligible." When pressed further for specifics, he said "I understand this may be unsatisfying for some, but it is what I can share."

There are plenty more examples of these types of evasive answers on the Facebook thread. If not even Neil Gaiman can get a straight answer about this, it's doubtful anyone in the sci-fi and fantasy community can. The author's reply was scathing and illuminating about just how bad this current controversy is, even compared with the Sad/Rabid Puppy scandal a few years back:

"I've been peripherally involved with the Hugos for the last 37 years. I've been awarded multiple Hugos and failed to win just as many Hugos, and never worried or gave it a moment's thought, other than knowing that the process was fair. Until now, one of the things that's always been refreshing about the Hugos has been the transparency and clarity of the process. Even the Sad Puppies nonsense was something easy to deal with because the process was transparent. Something had gone wrong, but it was fixable and was fixed. This is obfuscatory, and without some clarity it means that whatever has gone wrong here is unfixable, or may be unfixable in ways that don't damage the respect the Hugos have earned over the last seventy years."

Chengdu Hugo controversy leads to censorship speculation

As of this writing, one of the predominant theories about what went awry with the Chengdu Worldcon nominations is that concessions were made to appease the strict censorship laws in China. McCarty "categorically den[ied]" this with a carefully worded response. "Nobody has ordered me to do anything. Nobody is changing decisions I have made," he said. "There was no communication between the Hugo administration team and the Chinese government in any official manner. I got to meet the mayor and the vice mayor and there were a couple dinners with the vice mayor, the Worldcon team, and local dignitaries where the conversation was purely on our love of the literature and everyone’s excitement to hold the event. The government wasn’t involved in things beyond the local government liking the prestige of holding the event and doing things to support us like helping us connect with key sponsors and supporting those sponsors and us."

Many remain skeptical of McCarty's explanation. He says that no pressure was placed on the Hugo Awards, but that doesn't mean preemptive choices may not have been made to head off any censorship. For example, Babel is a novel which deals with social revolution and colonialism. If it won the Hugo Award in Chengdu, might that have brought undue scrutiny on the event and its organizers? This is pure speculation on my part, but without any official explanation, speculation is unfortunately all we have.

Adding fuel to the fire are statements like this one from Tammy Coxen, another member of the Hugo Awards Administration, who replied on Facebook to another writer that they should "think about the fact that throwing someone in China under the bus could have very different consequences than it would in the U.S." She went on to say that if McCarty had wanted to falsify the data completely, he could have; instead he released it with clearly questionable red flags. Perhaps he was trying to signal something was amiss without saying it outright?

Writer Cheryl Morgan, who has won multiple Hugo Awards over the years and is very familiar with the system, had similar thoughts:

If I wanted to fix the results of the Hugos, there are two ways I would go about it. The first is that I would put out an entirely falsified set of nomination statistics. After all, the ballots will have been destroyed by now. How would anyone know that they were false?

The other option is to simply not issue the nomination statistics at all. Sure, they are supposed to, but there is no effective comeback if you don’t do it, and the outrage at them not doing so is likely to be far less than what is happening right now.

Instead they have chosen to put out a set of nomination statistics that makes it very clear that shenanigans have taken place. Maybe we should be thinking about why they did that.

What does the Chengdu controversy mean for the future of the Hugo Awards?

However you slice it, the 2023 Worldcon will likely go down as a prime example of why the convention needs to be extremely conscientious of how local laws and precedents might affect the legitimacy of the Hugo Awards. Sci-fi author John Scalzi had some interesting thoughts about this over on his Whatever blog:

"Even the speculation of state censorship should give pause to site selection voters regarding future Worldcons. For example, there is a 2028 Worldcon proposal for Kampala, Uganda, and while the proposed Worldcon itself offers a laudable and comprehensive Code of Conduct page, Uganda is a country with some of the most severe laws in the world regarding LGBTQ+ people, including laws involving censorship. If the state leaned hard on the local Worldcon regarding what was acceptable on the Hugo ballot, would it be safe for the organizers to ignore this pressure? This is now an issue we will need to consider, among the many others, in where the Worldcon lands every year."

To me, this seems like a very smart take. I happened to be at DisCon III when Chengdu won the bid for this year's Hugo ceremony, and one of the prominent arguments in its favor that I heard floated around was that Worldcon should be a world convention, not just one that floats back and forth across the U.S. and a handful of other western countries. Bringing it to countries in, for example, East Asia and Africa would be a great way to include fans in parts of the world who have not typically been able to attend, and to recognize the writers doing amazing work in those regions.

However, if each Worldcon must logically abide by the local and regional laws of the country where it's being held, and those laws mean that the Hugo Awards cannot be conducted legitimately and fairly because of things like censorship — or even worse, that certain groups of people might have their safety put in jeopardy — then that must be considered as well. We have a situation right now where it's being speculated that there was government censorship on the 2023 Hugos, and regardless of whether there was or not, it seems clear that the people behind the event do not feel that everyone involved is safe enough to explain the situation in full. In that sort of circumstance, it's hard to imagine any scenario where the awards can actually take place in a legitimate manner.

We'll see where things go from here. This story is still very much developing. Should anything more break, we'll update this post.

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