A thousand miles west of Shanghai, on a vast plain between two mountain ranges teeming with giant pandas, it looks like an alien spacecraft has landed in the fourth-largest city in China. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects to resemble a star nebula, this is the 59,000-square-foot Chengdu Science Fiction Museum, constructed at lightspeed over the course of a single year to host the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, also known as WorldCon. For writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy, it's like the National Book Awards, the Academy Awards, and San Diego Comic-Con all rolled into one.
On Saturday, October 21st, 2023, thousands of people gathered here for panels, parties, and the annual Hugo Awards ceremony, which celebrates the best works of science fiction and fantasy published or released during the previous calendar year.
In Hollywood, a Hugo Award for best film or TV series may not carry the same cachet as an Oscar or an Emmy, but in bookstores from New York to Moscow, a bright Hugo Award badge on the cover of a novel can help it stand out. “We usually make a display in the store for the nominees and winners,” says Matthew Berger, co-owner of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. In their early days, the Hugo Awards recognised writers who have since become genre legends, like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Frank Herbert; more recently, honorees have included modern masters like George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and N.K. Jemisin.
That evening in Chengdu, in a massive auditorium shaped like the belly of a whale, Dave McCarty—a middle-aged software engineer for an Illinois trucking company and lifelong sci-fi fan who was chosen by the convention’s leaders to oversee last year’s Hugo Awards—walked onstage to thundering applause. Within the WorldCon community, he’s nicknamed the “Hugo Pope” for serving on so many awards committees over the years.
“With the help of fans from all over the world, including many fans here in China participating for the very first time, we identified a ballot of 114 deserving finalists,” McCarty said behind a podium, wearing a black tux over a white waistcoat and bow tie. “We then asked the community to rank those choices as they saw fit.”
But that’s not what happened. Something had gone horribly wrong.
Three months later, the truth came out when McCarty shared the Hugo nominating statistics on Facebook: Someone had stolen nominations from The Sandman legend Neil Gaiman, Babel author R. F. Kuang, Iron Widow novelist Xiran Jay Zhao, and fan writer Paul Weimer. All four of them earned enough votes to be finalists—and therefore eventually winners—but for unknown reasons, someone had secretly marked their works as “ineligible” after the first rounds of voting.
Among sci-fi and fantasy fans, the uproar was immediate and intense. Had government officials in the host country censored the finalists? Did the awards committee make a colossal mistake when tallying the votes, then try to cover it up? Or did something even stranger occur?
To get to the bottom of the mystery, I spoke with more than a dozen past Hugo winners, finalists, and committee members, some of whom requested anonymity. But to understand what these insiders believe really happened —and what it means for the future of the Hugos and other literary awards—we have to utilise a science fiction trope and go back in time.
The Hugo Awards have courted controversy before. In 2015, a right-wing voting bloc led by Brad R. Torgersen dominated the ballot after he complained that the Hugos had become “an affirmative action award” for “underrepresented minority or victim group” authors and characters. In 2021, the voting process to select the host city for the 2023 convention became a lightning rod for conspiracy theories.
Each year, anyone who purchases a membership in the World Science Fiction Society can vote on where WorldCon will be held two years later. In 2021, voters could choose between Chengdu and Winnipeg, Canada for the 2023 convention. “There were concerns that a couple thousand people from China purchased memberships [in the World Science Fiction Society] that year to vote for Chengdu,” says Jason Sanford, a three-time Hugo finalist. “It was unusual, but it was done under the rules.”
While Sanford welcomed the participation of new Chinese fans, other people were alarmed that many of the Chinese votes for Chengdu were written in the same handwriting and posted from the same mailing address. The chair of the convention that year, Mary Robinette Kowal, says some members of the awards committee wanted to mark those votes as invalid. “But if you’re filling out a ballot in English and you don’t speak English, you hand it to a friend who does,” she says. “And the translation we’d put in could be read as ‘where are you from,’ not ‘what is your address.’”
Eventually, a few votes were invalidated by the committee, but most were allowed to stand. “China has the largest science fiction reading audience on the planet by several magnitudes, and they are extremely passionate,” Kowal says.
Later, when Chengdu was announced as the winning site for the 2023 convention, more than 100 authors—including N. K. Jemisin, G. Willow Wilson, S. A. Chakraborty, and Tochi Onyebuchi—signed an open letter “in protest of serious and ongoing human rights violations taking place in the Uyghur region of China.” Other authors were concerned about the Chinese Communist Party’s history of censoring LGBTQ content, as well as material that criticises the party’s government.
These concerns planted the seeds for this year’s crisis, which reached a boiling point on January 20, 2024.
Compared with other literary awards, the Hugos are usually remarkably transparent and democratic. While the National Book Awards and the Booker Prizes are selected behind closed doors by a panel of judges, anyone can vote for the Hugos by purchasing a supporting membership in the World Science Fiction Society for each year’s convention.
Most years, the Hugo committee shares the nominating statistics later the same evening after the winners are announced, or a few days later, at most. This year, Dave McCarty didn’t share the statistics until January 20—91 days after the awards ceremony, with no explanation for the delay. “The World Science Fiction Society’s constitution says the statistics have to be released within three months, but it’s never taken that long before now,” says Sanford.
When McCarty finally shared last year’s nominating statistics on his Facebook page, authors, fans, and finalists were shocked. In the history of the awards, no works had ever been deemed ineligible like this. Many people who had expected Kuang to win for Babel were now stunned to see she very well could have, and McCarty’s refusal to explain what happened made everything worse. (McCarty did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
“Fandom doesn't like people fucking with their awards, no matter who does it or why,” says John Scalzi, a three-time Hugo Award winner who was a finalist last year in the Best Novel category: the very same category in which R.F. Kuang should have been nominated for Babel, according to the nomination count on page 20 of McCarty’s document. “The reason people are outraged right now is because they care about the award, in one fashion or another, and this lack of transparency feels like a slap,” Scalzi says.
Brandon Sanderson, another past Hugo winner, says this incident damages the reputation of the award: “To find out that the committee behind the scenes [overrode] the voter base without saying anything AND with possible political motivations is extremely unsettling.”
Neil Gaiman didn’t respond to my interview request, but he did comment directly on McCarty’s Facebook post: “Is there anyone who could actually explain WHY Sandman episode 6 was ineligible?”
McCarty responded: “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.”
Since then, hundreds of people have asked McCarty to explain what exactly in the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) constitution or rules made these works ineligible, but his responses quickly deteriorated into insults, such as “Are you slow?” and, “Clearly you can't understand plain English in our constitution.” However, there isn’t a single rule in the WSFS constitution that could possibly explain why any of these writers were deemed ineligible.
“When I started seeing Dave McCarty’s responses, I was utterly unsurprised,” a former WorldCon committee member who asked to remain anonymous tells me. “That is very consistent with who he is, and how he’s treated other people. It’s incredibly disrespectful on every level.”
A few days later, McCarty apologised for his “inappropriate, unprofessional, condescending” responses, but still refused to explain the ineligibles. Without answers from McCarty, many Hugo enthusiasts have coalesced around two theories: either the awards committee miscounted early-round votes and realised their mistake too late, or the ineligible writers were censored under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party.
“If they had issued a statement saying there was a miscount and we’re deeply sorry about it, people would have been mad, but it would have been understandable,” Kowal says. Some fans have pointed to mathematical irregularities in the voting statistics compared to past years, and an additional former WorldCon committee member tells me, “I’m guessing someone made a mistake—probably more than one.”
Meanwhile, allegations of censorship have spread like Star Trek tribbles, especially because the protagonist of R. F. Kuang’s Babel is queer, Zhao is non-binary, and all four “ineligible” writers have criticised the Chinese Communist Party or its policies at some point in the past.
Gaiman, Kuang, and Zhao declined to comment on this story, but confirmed on social media that they were just as shocked as everyone else. Weimer says one of his Patreon posts from 2021, where he expressed concerns about holding the Hugos in China, may have marked him for censorship. “It's possible that the [Chinese Communist Party] took umbrage at my piece, or the [convention] felt that they might, and so I was rendered ineligible,” he says.
However, multiple former WorldCon committee members who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity do not believe the Chinese government—nor the Chinese members of last year’s Hugo Awards administration—directly or indirectly censored the awards. Rather, they believe that one or more members of the executive committee mismanaged this year’s awards—and failed to explain why four popular works were deemed ineligible.
On January 31, less than two weeks after McCarty revealed the voting statistics that kicked off the controversy, the California nonprofit that owns the Hugo Awards trademarks released a bombshell statement: McCarty resigned from the organisation, alongside the chair of its board of directors, Kevin Standlee.
Additionally, the nonprofit censured McCarty “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.” Two other members of the Chengdu awards committee, Ben Yalow and Shi Chen, were censured as well, “for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that [they] presided over.”
Yalow and the rest of the 2023 awards committee did not respond to my interview requests for this story. None of my sources know why Yalow or Chen were censured, though as co-division heads of the convention, they would have been McCarty’s superiors.
Meanwhile, organisers of the upcoming 2024 Hugo Awards in Glasgow, Scotland, released a statement of their own to calm the waters: “We will also publish the reasons for any disqualifications of potential finalists, and any withdrawals of potential finalists from the ballot.”
While this may be the last we hear about the Chengdu crisis, each year’s WorldCon and Hugo Awards are run by a different crop of volunteers, leaving many authors, fans, and finalists hopeful about the future, albeit insistent that permanent changes need to be made to the WSFS constitution that can’t be ignored by individual committees.
“At the very least, I think those [writers] who were removed should have their eligibility extended by a year, and perhaps it's time for a long hard look at the Hugo committee and overhaul how the award is managed,” Sanderson says.
Scalzi agrees. “The thing I would like to stress here is that the Hugos have been to this point pretty resilient: there have been major crises involving them before… and the [community] moved to address them,” he says. “So while this is a problem and needs to be addressed, quickly and comprehensively, I feel pretty confident the community will address it and the Hugos will come out the other side a better award.”
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the transparent voting process makes the Hugo Awards special. “I love the Hugo for its unique method of walking the line between being a juried award and an open-voting, ‘who has the most fans’ award,” Sanderson says. “It's like an Academy Award, except if any person dedicated enough to the genre were able to join the Academy and participate.”
Perhaps in the future, other literary awards will be inspired by the transparency of the Hugos, if not the controversies that have occasionally accompanied them. Imagine the thrill and tragedy of finding out a book was one vote away from winning or becoming a finalist for the National Book Awards or the National Book Critics Circle Awards. Imagine the drama!
But when I reached out to those award organisations, they didn’t sound too wild about the idea. “The National Book Awards judges make their decisions independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors, and deliberations are strictly confidential,” says Ale Romero, communications and marketing manager at the National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards.
A rep for the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) says that privacy is part of what gives the award its personality. “Much like the Quakers, nearly every decision made at the NBCC is one undertaken by the entire group, [and] I believe it would be very difficult to persuade a majority of our board to vote for such a change,” says Keetje Kuipers, vice president of awards and diversity, equity, and inclusion for the NBCC. “Releasing a voting statistics tally would not be in keeping with the tenor of our traditional deliberation style, which favours passionate critical argument over all else.”
At the end of my Zoom call with Sanford, I see some emotion in his face around the eyes. “When I was young, science fiction and fantasy books literally saved my life,” he says. “I looked for books that were Hugo finalists or winners, and they showed me a way forward. They showed me there are other people out there who think like me.”
Whatever happens to the Hugos moving forward, one thing is clear: No one should have the power to erase books from the reading lists of future Jason Sanfords.
As award season steadily marches on with the 66th Grammy Awards, the entertainment fodder for us mere mortals watching from home only piles up. Taylor Swift makes history with most Album of the Year wins (four) (still, yawn), Miley Cyrus and Billie Eilish lead with 'Flowers' and 'What Was I Made For' respectively, and Skrillex gets recognised for Best Dance/Electronic Recording (wait, dude's still around?).
Apart from those headlines, here are some key moments that the Internet's been buzzing about.
While accepting the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a couple of notes to raise about the system in an overall humorous speech.
“I don’t want to embarrass this young lady, but she has more Grammys than everyone and never won Album of the Year," he said of his wife Beyoncé, who looked on in the audience with an expression two notches down from a Chrissy Teigen meme, "So even by your own metrics, that doesn’t work. Think about that. The most Grammys. Never won Album of the Year. That doesn’t work.”
The rapper/producer went on to deliver some hard truths about the nominations, but also acknowledged that music is subjective. It's giving "Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you", but he might just have a point. Last year, Beyoncé became the most awarded artist in Grammy history with only one win in a Big Four category and Renaissance was snubbed. Altogether, the power couple have each been nominated six times for Album of the Year but never took it home.
Never knew we needed a Grammy for audiobooks, but here we are. As host Trevor Noah points out, “They’re really hard to twerk to, but they’re still great.”
Another notable new category would be Best African Music Performance, which 22-year-old South African singer Tyla made history for winning. With the number of times we heard/saw 'Water' in 2023, this makes sense.
We don't know why but let's just roll with it.
Less of a weird thing and more of a good one, the singer-songwriter gave a rare live performance of her timeless classic alongside Luke Combs in a duet rendition (you may have heard the latter's cover). The hit first won Chapman Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1989.
Shortly after winning Best Rap Album (Michael), Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, (Scientists and Engineers featuring Andre 3000, Future and Eryn Allen Kane), Killer Mike was booked for “misdemeanor battery”. The 48-year-old rapper was escorted out in handcuffs after an alleged physical altercation backstage. Way to celebrate a win.
It's time to fire up your Oscars ballots, folks. On Tuesday morning, Zazie Beetz and Jack Quaid announced the nominees for the 2024 Academy Awards.
Surprise, surprise: Oppenheimer led the field with 13 nominations. The film about theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was recognised for Best Picture, Best Director (Christopher Nolan), Best Actor (Cillian Murphy), Best Supporting Actress (Emily Blunt), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr.), Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Original Score, Makeup & Hairstyling, Editing, Sound, and Production Design.
Meanwhile, Poor Things exceeded expectations with 11 nominations, while Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon garnered 10 nominations. In what's easily the biggest shocker of the morning, Barbie failed to break double digits at this year's Academy Awards, with just eight nominations in total. Though the film was nominated for Best Picture, director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie were both snubbed from the field. However, Ryan Gosling was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, America Ferrera was tapped for Best Supporting Actress, and Gerwig earned a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Other big winners include American Fiction, Anatomy of a Fall, The Holdovers, Maestro, Past Lives, Poor Things, and The Zone of Interest. They'll compete against Barbie and Oppenheimer for Best Picture. Paul Giamatti and Cillian Murphy will square off in the Best Actor race, alongside Maestro's Bradley Cooper, Rustin's Colman Domingo, and American Fiction's Jeffrey Wright.
Leonardo DiCaprio's exclusion from the Best Supporting Actor list may come as a shock, but the actor has always had a strange relationship with the Academy Awards. Remember, he had to fight a bear in 2015's The Revenant to finally win the coveted award. With Margot Robbie out of the Best Actress race, this year's awards-season mainstays—Flower Moon's Lily Gladstone and Poor Things' Emma Stone—are now joined by Maestro's Carey Mulligan, Nyad's Annette Bening, and Anatomy of a Fall's Sandra Huller.
Elsewhere in the field, Best International Feature Film nominations included Wim Wenders's Perfect Days (Japan), Society of the Snow (Spain), The Zone of Interest (UK), The Teacher's Lounge (Germany), and lo capitano (Italy). Anatomy of a Fall—which is up for Best Picture—and France's other critically acclaimed film of the year, The Taste of Things, both fell short. Many Best Documentary Feature titles came as a surprise, including nominations for Bobi Wine: The People’s President, The Eternal Memory, Four Daughters, To Kill a Tiger, and the timely 20 Days in Mariupol.
In the Best Animated Feature competition, Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Pixar's Elemental, Netflix's Nimona, and surprise international contender Robot Dreams will duke it out. As for Best Original Song, Barbie's "I'm Just Ken" and Billie Eilish's "What Was I Made For?" will battle it out for the golden statue. They'll see competition from "Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)" from Killers of the Flower Moon, "It Never Went Away" from American Symphony, and "The Fire Inside" from the Eva Longoria-directed Flamin’ Hot.
Other snubs include the performance of May December, which received praise for Charles Melton, Natalie Portman, and Juliane Moore's turns, only to walk away with one Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The Color Purple also received just one nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Danielle Brooks). Ferrari, Asteroid City, Priscilla, Napoleon, AIR, Bottoms, Origin, and All of Us Strangers were completely excluded from the final list of nominations.
The 96th Academy Awards will air on ABC on March 10, with Jimmy Kimmel hosting for the fourth time.
Awards season kept rolling on Monday night, when the 2023 Emmy Awards graced Los Angeles's Peacock Theater. As usual, the star-studded event honored the best television series of the year and the actors who brought each project to life. The night began with a monologue from Anthony Anderson, who—unlike, you know, Jo Koy—made the audience laugh. I didn’t expect anything less from the black-ish star, though. He’s been nominated 11 (!) times for his comedic skills. Anderson closed his monologue with a plea, asking winners to keep their acceptance speeches short. Then his mother cut in from the audience, yelling, “Time’s up, baby, cut to the chase!”
In case you missed it, here’s how the rest of the night went down. Succession, The Bear, and Beef swept the ceremony. Meanwhile, Ayo Edebiri continued her reign on the awards-season circuit, taking home the trophy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She delivered yet another charming speech, too. Elton John finally clinched the EGOT after winning an Emmy for his concert film, Farewell from Dodger Stadium. Oh, and Brian Cox kissed Kieran Culkin.
Elsewhere in the ceremony, Quinta Brunson was the first Black woman in over 30 years to win Best Actress in a Comedy. Better Call Saul lost… again. Christina Applegate—who is battling multiple sclerosis—earned a standing ovation from the crowd. The cast of Martin (Tisha Campbell, Carl Anthony Payne II, Martin Lawrence, and Tichina Arnold) reunited on stage to celebrate the sitcom's legacy. Plus, Pedro Pascal joked about his feud with Kieran Culkin, RuPaul stood up for drag queens, and a green goblin appeared on the red carpet.
Naturally, viewers at home tracked the entire ceremony on X (formerly known as Twitter).