Letter v Spirit
Abi Frost

AJF turns repro-room lawyer

What, you may ask, could possibly make a respectable, Liberty-print clad lady fanzine editor in her late 30s suddenly start stomping about the Tun, waving her arms and yelling: "Kill the fuckers! KILL THE FUCKERS!" until restrained by an anxious Dave Langford? Those few who remember the buzz-topics of the late 70s -- when I got sucked into all this -- might be able to guess: the Hugo Awards. Yes. Makes me embarrassed to think about it. But since the topic's come up, what about the Hugo nominations?

As to the fanwriter and fanzine categories, I shall affect an airy lack of interest. If I had a vote, I might have a hard time ordering mine between the fanwriter who clearly wants the thing (even more than the 1988 Nova) and the one who deserves it/whom it would serve right. But on the whole, mutatis mutandis for the category, I think Joe Nicholas had it right:

The Hugos are now so devalued that a randy ginger torn cat would probably win one if it were to be published in Analog (and such a thing wouldn't surprise me in the least, so fucking immensely awful has it become -- Christ! even Spider Robinson, who has less brain than a coconut mat and is as bent as a corkscrew to boot ....

(Or was that the ghost of Kevin Smith?) We must get West's campaign better organised for 1990, and that's all I have to say about the fan Hugos this time. I'm routinely shocked by the revelations about block voting, but at least the administrators seem to have nailed this abuse, and let the people know it was going on: brownie points for both. But two ballot categories -- both, on the face of it, unlikely to have been tainted by the fix machine -- aroused an interest which led me into, the impenetrable swamp of Worldcon regulations. I return to give you my report, sticky and smelly and shaken, but alive and a better woman for the ordeal. It seems to me high time that the rules were given a going-over to introduce a bit of logic, consistency and simple reality.


The category which got me behaving badly at the Tun was "semiprozine", and I might not have noticed if Dave Pringle hadn't been there on a walkabout among the plebs of fandom. A bit of simplified background and declaring of interest: I designed six issues of Interzone in 1983-84, departing after a fight with Pringle, which I think we made up eventually. After the 1987 Hugo ceremony, greatly to my surprise, I found myself realising I really wanted IZ to win. (Yes, of course I'd voted for it.)

You wouldn't after all expect anyone (let alone me) to take much interest in the semiprozine category. It was only invented to take the widely-distributed productions of Geis et al out of the fanzine category, letting a few things the knowledgeable might recognise as fanzines compete for the wretched bauble. But IZ's appearances on the ballot have redeemed the category. IZ, alone among the semiprozines recently on the ballot, is in the business of publishing fiction. Science fiction. New science fiction, often by new authors. Not fan-fiction, but serious work for which there was no UK publishing medium before Malcolm Edwards, Pringle and the Yorcon II committee did some controversial cahooting over the convention's unexpected profit. Is it really necessary to labour the point? IZ is of a completely different order of sheer worthiness to small-scale trade magazines, or those devoted to reviews (though -- hi, there, Nielsen Haydens -- New York Review of Science Fiction sounds interesting).

The point of awards, in the end, is to recognise valuable achievements; and IZ's achievements should be recognised, pronto. Because, it seems, its very success may pull it off the ballot before 1990, when (for tedious reasons of nationality which shouldn't matter but realistically do) it might have a better chance of winning. Critical Wave Update 9 carries an alarming little note from the administrators: "While Interzone had a print run of over 10,000 by the end of 1938, its average for the entire year was only 9000 and it thus remains eligible as a semiprozine this year."

That is, because while "the mindless mongs and half-witted Americans who comprise the Hugo electorate" (generic Nicholasism c 1979, retrieved by my own ouija-board) have been too busy disputing the precedency of Locus and SFC to vote it a Hugo, dogged marketing and astute print-buying have brought dear old IZ up to a print-run which is still piffling by commercial standards, next time round it may be competing with Asimov's and F&SF -- or rather, since there is no "professional magazine" category, Pringle as an individual will be fighting it out with the US fix machine. And not because of anything about the nature of the zine, but because the category itself is an ill-drafted lash-up, designed around negativities, and possibly, in this case, malinterpreted. More later.


The other category to get me raging was "non-fiction". CWU again quotes the administrators: "A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking received enough votes to appear on the ballot but was ruled ineligible since it is not a book 'whose subject is the field of science fiction or fantasy or fandom' as required by the Hugo rules." Martin Easterbrook adds, in Small Mammal: "The administration can't be faulted on the letter of the law, but this does seem a little unfair after The Dark Knight Returns was allowed to win in this category in a previous year. "

Martin has it slightly wrong here (and misled me in the first version of CB); TDKR was nominated in 1987, but it was Watchmen that won a Hugo, in a catch-all category called "Other Forms" which existed only in the 1988 competition. Still, he expresses a point which should concern us all. Since my oldest friend in the sf community, and first fanzine co-editor, rots her brain with far too many comics/is in the vanguard of the critical wing of the New Comics movement, I wouldn't dare sneer at graphic novels from an old-fashioned, High Art or skiffy purist standpoint. More to the point, I wouldn't want to. "Comics" (for want of a better word) have clearly established their claim to be a genuine art-form, with the expressive potential to encompass the full range of the human spirit, right up there with the Great Tradition and I can't keep a straight face and continue this, but you see what I mean. Us Krazy Kat fans may protest that this is no new thing, but only now, in the late 80s, has it become an issue of definition for sf critics and Hugo administrators.

A graphic novel can be eligible for an SF Achievement Award -- but for nonfiction? The Munchen Mafia's whole struggle has been to alert a snobbish literary world to the fact that the form is a legitimate and rich narrative medium: that New Comics are in fact to be valued for their worth as fiction. Presumably they found their way into the non-fiction category because it would be difficult to fit them in to the fiction categories, defined by word-count: and visual books (such as collections of sf artists' work) have rightly made it there before.

A community which couldn't see the difference between New Comics and (say) The Best of Kelly Freas would not exactly encourage confidence in its ability to decide on any literary matter whatsoever. I suspect, however, that people -- at least those sufficiently committed to fill in nomination forms -- do possess this basic level of discrimination, but nominated a fiction as non-fiction in 1987 because they saw no other way of getting it on to the ballot. I think they would have done better to stick to their critical last, and press for a more open definition of "fiction" in the Hugos. The point can best be won in equal competition; and there is a precedent.

In 1979, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with the triple handicap of being British, being radio and being funny, was on the ballot with Superman, and predictably lost. (Christopher Reeve got points with some of us for recognising the audience's Hitcherish mood.) The "Dramatic Presentation" category is inevitably a catch-all for media with great variation in artistic criteria and audience sizes. (I seem to recall nominating Geoff Ryman's Westian Performance for the 1987 Hugo.) Of course, it's always won by films, and perhaps, in fairness to original work in "minority" media, it should be recast as "Best Film". The 1988 "Other Forms" category, though messy (as Matrix drily commented, "the remit ... seems to be simply any item that does not obviously belong in any other category") was at least an honest attempt to recognise that a genre doesn't necessarily fit within narrowly defined media; in fact, had it existed in 1979, it might have been a more appropriate (ie winnable) category for THHTTG. But this one-off category hasn't reached permanent status. Meanwhile, back in the theoretical ivory tower ...

Something that has pleased me about publishing in recent years is the sudden flowering of good, unpatronising, popular science books by proper scientists. My own recent favourite (I -- er -- coff, coff, haven't got round to Hawking yet) was Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. The many friends (not all in the skiffy world, by any means) who have read it have convinced me that Hawking's book is a rather special example of the genre. Meanwhile, back at the ballot, most books "whose subject is the field of science fiction or fantasy or fandom" are pretty marginal when considered as serious books. Work of the high seriousness of the Nicholls Encyclopedia (or even decent popular stuff like Stephen King's Danse Macabre) is quite rare in the field; many ballots are dominated by derivative, glossy, packaged stuff and by autobiography.

In 1987 (date of my last Worldcon programme book), the relevant rule referred to "any non-fictional work relating to the field of science fiction or fantasy ...." Presumably the rule's been changed (to keep out graphic novels? How?); Hawking would surely have made it under the 1987 rule. Carl Sagan's Cosmos actually won in 1981. Perhaps it should be changed back, to take account of genuinely important books which fans consider relevant, rather than leaving the field safely clear for the latest compilation of movie stills or tedious self-serving reminiscence. If theoretical physics is not "relating to ... science fiction", what the hell is? And a serious work on such a subject which becomes a best-seller deserves at least the chance of recognition by the sf community.

I can see that the rule as now (it seems) in force must exclude Hawking. But Hugo rules have been bent a little in the past. More than one fictional work which had a limited circulation in one year has been allowed on the ballot in the year of wider publication. More crudely, why not trust the fans? If so many fans thought A Brief History of Time eligible and wanted it on the ballot, this means something. The spirit can sometimes speak through the people, and should be at least weighed against the letter.

Perhaps one way to deal with the graphic novel problem and open the non-fiction area up a little would be to create a category for visual work in print: open to sf art books, and to sf comics -- or even perhaps to such highly visual fanzines or quasi-fanzines as Rob Hansen's Starfan, or Jake Tilson's early-80s Cipher (something from the artist's-books field of fine art which deserved wider knowledge). Then "non-fiction" could be left for written work.


And so, with the letter of the law, we get back to Interzone again. I quote the (1987 version again, sorry) rule in full:

Best Semiprozine: Any generally available non-professionalpublication devoted to science fiction or fantasy which has published four (4) or more issues, at least one of which appeared in the previous calendar year, and which in the previous calendar year met at least two (2) of the following criteria: (1) had an average press run of at least one thousand (1000) copies per issue; (2) paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication; (3) provided at least half the income of any one person; (4) had at least fifteen percent (15%) of its total space occupied by advertising; or (5) announced itself to be a semiprozine.

Whoosh! Notice, first, that there's no ceiling mentioned here. (It may of course be that one's been introduced later, but if so, why the particular one which may eliminate IZ?) Notice, too, that what look like positive qualifications (all except number 5) are in fact negative ones. They are designed, not to define a positive category, but to keep larger-circulation publications out of the fanzine category without penalising any fan-editor who once in a while accepts a few quid from a local bookshop or convention to defray the print bill. Host people would agree that they have succeeded here: I may not be thrilled by this year's fanzine nominations, but they're ail clearly fanzines.

This is all very well, but in the semiprozine category itself we now have conditions which can easily be met by one whose priority is to play the egoboo game and get a mantelpiece full of rockets, but which will sooner or later form a barrier for any editor whose priority is publishing good work and who does so with some marketing success. A good reviewzine could suffer as easily as IZ. Assuming there is now a ceiling figure, then it must derive from the "best professional editor" category; did the criterion come from the old "professional magazine" category, or was it imposed when the semiprozine category was invented? If the latter, it must surely have been not a ceiling but a floor, designed to stop smaller prozines sweeping the semiprozine awards. If a ceiling has been introduced which has the side-effect of barring worthwhile projects, it should bloody well be disintroduced; if it hasn't, but someone's read one category's rules with reference to another, then someone needs to learn how to read.

As D West says (Performance) the important thing with categories is not where exactly a given zine falls in them, but which way it's pointing. (West's essay* should be required reading for anyone trying to redraft the fan Hugo rules.) The essentially voluntary nature of IZ points at semiprozine, for now, and barring something totally unexpected, it will still be pointing that way in 1990 -- whatever its average print run.

It looks as though we have a set of rules which are constantly tinkered with to prevent the recurrence of whatever has caused concern in the past, and which inadvertently raise anti-common sense barriers against legitimate candidates without ever achieving the tight, logical, unambiguous quality of decent legal drafting. Confusion reigns among fans as to exactly what is eligible for a given category, and good work is lost to the ballot in favour of mediocrity.


The purpose of the Hugos (all of them) is to allow fans to honour work which they want to honour. Once that fact is allowed to slip from sight, the whole thing becomes decadent and such abuses as ballot-stuffing naturally follow. The categories are there to facilitate the fans' choice, not to restrict it. I can't (and wouldn't want to) make the Worldcon membership this year or next vote Interzone a Hugo, but they should have the opportunity. Eventually it may go "fully pro", but when that happens we will recognise the fact -- and West's analysis of magazine publishing will be more help to us than 1000 copies here or there. A Brief History of Time attracted nominations because fans recognised its relevance; we should not be denied the chance to honour it because it happened to be published in 1988 rather than 1986.

Nominations for both Interzone and Hawking are thoroughly in the spirit of fandom -- far more so than some of the crap non-fiction potboilers which have appeared on ballots over the years. Early fans wanted above all to get sf published and the genre taken seriously outside their own circle. IZ has carried on this work, on damn-all money and a lot of hard labour. And, as Rob Hansen's Then makes clear, they also wanted to raise grass-roots enthusiasm for science - indeed, they got distinctly evangelical about it. Hawking's popular success would surely have delighted them, as would the fannish sod-the-rules spirit which got the book its nominations. And a mass write-in might have those bloody-minded old loonies leaping from their graves and shouting "Hallelujah!"

I make no suggestions, or moral judgments: I merely report the possibilities in the interests of a fully informed fannish public. Do I hell?

* Well, maybe not all of it; but the section on magazines (recycled in Now Read On, the Conspiracy fanwriting collection) should.

Chicken Bones 1 (1989)