Hugo Awards: The No Award Conundrum

Since I know you're all curious about the voting system for the Hugo Awards, I thought I'd spend some time babbling about it, just for your edification. Believe it or not, voting systems have a lot of interesting pitfalls, not the least of which is that there isn't a particularly great solution to discerning the preference of a large community of individuals. Every system has its flaws, even something as simple as Plurality voting (i.e. the choice with the most votes wins).

Fortunately for you, I'm not going to babble on about this too much (and you don't want to get me started on the Electoral College, our misunderstood friend), I'll just note that the Hugo Awards uses an Instant Runoff System. In other words, I don't just vote for my favorite novel, I rank all the nominated novels in order of my personal preference. When it comes time to vote, unless there is a clear majority favorite, most winners can't win based solely on the voters who ranked the winner #1. There is an additional wrinkle in that there is an option available in every category called "No Award", which means that you think that no one should be awarded for that category (or that the category should be abolished). There are some finer points to the voting process, and this has already been discussed to death in other venues so I won't belabor the point.

Add in a particularly controversial ballot this year, and I think the voting process is going to play a particularly big role, especially when it comes to the Best Novel ballot. When the awards were announced this year and the entire The Wheel of Time series was nominated for Best Novel, there were a number of people who seemed to think that it was a shoe in to win the award. Given the Hugo Award's populist nature and just how popular The Wheel of Time series is (despite it's length, it's got more readers by at least an order of magnitude), that's probably a fair supposition... except that I think Instant Runoff Voting will squash any hopes that it will win.

While I assume the dedicated fans of the series would vote for it in the #1 position, I suspect few will rank it at #2 or below... and many have already expressed the notion of voting for it below No Award (or, as the link above notes, not include it on the ballot at all). Some will do this because they actually hate the books, but many will be doing this as a sorta protest of the obscure rule that allows multiple books to be nominated as one.

Personally, while I recognize the need for the No Award option (and the ability to leave options off the ballot), I'm also hesitant to deploy it except in extreme circumstances. The No Award option makes me a little uncomfortable. I mean, I am voting, so I'm obviously considering my opinion to be worthwhile, but on the other hand, the No Award option feels sorta petty, except in extreme circumstances. I'm even a little on the fence about the Wheel of Time situation, though I think I'm leaning towards ranking No Award above it because it is ridiculous to nominate a 14 book, 11,000 page, 4.4 million word work for a best novel award. The only other situation I'd consider deploying No Award is when a nominee is not at all Science Fiction or Fantasy. Given the fuzzy nature of genres, it would also have to be an extreme case, but in this year's Novella category, we have a great example: I'm sorry Wakula Springs, but there is nothing even remotely science fiction or fantasy about this story (except insofar as all fiction is a fantasy, I guess). We could quibble about a couple lines in the story, but this is ultimately historical fiction or maybe literary fiction. It's a fine story, but I have no idea what it's doing on the Hugo ballot, except that it was published by Tor (a genre imprint).

So there you have it. I'm still pondering, and obviously I'm not done reading all the stuff, so maybe I'll turn around on the No Award option in some other categories. I'll be sure to post my final ballot once I submit it (probably towards the end of July, which is when the deadline is...)