Before I get into this–Chinese science fiction is so much more than the chauvinist, authoritarian “Three-Body Problem” series. A great place to start is the short story collection Invisible Planets, and its eponymous story which you can read for free here. I’m also enjoying the Sinopticon collection right now. If you’d like to support the victims of this farce, you should check these out!
There are a handful of awards in the sci-fi & fantasy world that are considered the Big Ones. There’s the Nebula, where the guild (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association) votes. Most of the rest are decided by fans–the Locus and BSFA, for instance. The most famous of these is the Hugo, voted on by attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention. The Hugos have been roiled by controversy in the past, most notably by a gamergate-adjacent group called the Sad Puppies attempting to elevate an anti-diversity slate. This led to “No Award” winning several categories, and ultimately, the introduction of some changes to their ranked-choice system to disempower slate voting (discussion in the comments).
One fun thing about ranked-choice voting is that it’s tamper-evident. Which brings us to 2023, where the voting was extremely, extremely tampered with.
2023 Worldcon was held in Chengdu, China. When this was announced, fans of human rights expressed concerns that this might endanger both participants and the awards themselves, in addition to maybe just not being an appropriate venue for a genre that has traditionally opposed oppressive governments. It felt, perhaps, like a cash grab on behalf of the industry; certainly reputation-washing on the part of China. This is far from an unheard-of arrangement; similar things have happened with golf and chess in the Middle East, for example. But it was surprising to see something with such an anti-authoritarian reputation go for this. (Some future hosting bids have come in from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uganda; a Tel Aviv bid is also controversial. These are now expected to go down in flames.)
So, were we right? Did this seriously damage the Hugo awards? Oh goodness yes. It even seems to have damaged civil rights in China.
The entire process was suspect from the get-go, and it’s only gotten worse as more has been revealed. People noticed three weird things about it right away:
- The nominees were announced ninety-one days after the start of the convention, which was the maximum allowed delay. This has never happened before; they’re usually released almost immediately. Figuring it out is a simple process–you count nominations. So why the delay? No clear explanation was given.
- A lot of works that probably would have won were declared ineligible, most notably those by R.F. Kuang and Xiran Jay Zhao, two North American writers who are not always friendly to the Chinese government. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman TV series was also declared ineligible–once because it was eligible for two awards and you’re only supposed to be eligible for one; and a second time for unstated reasons. Gaiman is an outspoken critic of China’s tendency to imprison dissident writers.
- The ranked-choice results don’t look right at all.
Hypothesis #3: The math is bogus. That is, the reported nomination statistics include large numbers of nominations attributed to the “top group” that do not arise from an actual nomination process. […] There really aren’t any conclusions other than the ones that were immediately apparent from the raw data. The 2023 Hugo Nomination Statistics are implausible and anomalous and as a result we don’t actually know who should be on the Hugo Long List. (And–based on factors that I haven’t discussed here–we don’t entirely know who should have been on the Hugo Short List.)
The whole thing stank to high heaven. Most assumed this was a case of state-encouraged self-censorship, though there was considerable pushback from the left against the idea that China would ever do such a thing. Well, guess what–some emails leaked, and we were right.