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Science Fiction Romance & the Hugo awards

Posted: 30 June, 2015 at 3:56 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Science fiction awards season is in full swing and so far, it has been one of the most debated on record due to the controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards.

Just in case you have been living under a rock, two overlapping groups of rightwing writers and fans calling themselves Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies respectively felt that the Hugos had gone stale and too far removed from what they believed to be the tastes of “real” science fiction fans. So they decided to do something about this by compiling two overlapping slates of candidates in close alignment with the Puppies’ political orientation and personal taste and then persuading their followers to nominate these candidates. And because everybody can vote and nominate after purchasing a WorldCon supporting membership, the concerted efforts of the two Puppy campaigns flooded the Hugo ballot with their choices. This has made a lot of people very angry.

A lot of pixels have already been spent debating this controversy—collected by the tireless Mike Glyer at File770 in his daily link round-ups—so I’m not going to talk about puppies, sad or otherwise.

However, the debate surrounding the Hugos made me wonder how science fiction romance has fared in the awards so far. The answer is—unsurprisingly—not very well. In part, this is due to the well-documented antipathy of large swathes of science fiction fandom towards romance. Another factor is that many science fiction romances do not quite achieve the depth of worldbuilding craved by science fiction readers. Finally, the fact that science fiction romances are often published by romance imprints, small presses or self-published and thus never appear on the Hugo voters’ radar plays a role as well.

Nonetheless, there are some bright spots, since several science fiction works with strong romantic elements have been nominated for and even won the Hugo Award. Connie Willis, Joan D. Vinge, C.J. Cherryh and Anne McCaffrey are all multiple Hugo nominees and winners, while Andre Norton has been nominated twice, but did not win. Lois McMaster Bujold has won the Hugo Award five times, tying with Robert A. Heinlein for the most wins in the fiction categories. Though it is notable that A Civil Campaign, Bujold’s most clearly romantic work, was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2000, but lost out to Vernor Vinge’s decidedly unromantic A Deepness in the Sky.

Looking beyond the fiction categories, Jacqueline Lichtenberg has been nominated for the best fan writer Hugo, but did not win. What is more, in 2014 four nominees in the short fiction categories were stories that dealt with the subject of love, though none of them are romances in the strictest sense of the word. So romantic science fiction can and has triumphed at the Hugo Awards.

The omissions are just as notable. For example, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have never been nominated. And though Catherine Asaro has won the Nebula Award with The Compass Rose in 2001 (which according to Rabid Puppy leader Vox Day a.k.a. Theodore Beale marked the beginning of the downfall of that award) and then again in 2008 with the novella The Space-Time Pool, her name is conspicuously absent from the Hugo shortlists.

Finally, let’s take a look at some stunning science fiction romances from recent years, which were published by mainstream publishers and would have been worthy Hugo contenders, if they hadn’t been overlooked by the electorate.

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

Steampunk doesn’t normally fare too well at the Hugos, though there have been a handful of Steampunk novels nominated, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker in 2010.

The Iron Duke, the first novel in Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series, came out the same year as Boneshaker and yet did not even make the extended nomination list. This is a pity because the Iron Seas series contains some excellent worldbuilding, plenty of engaging characters and fabulous adventures. The Iron Duke even features a biracial heroine and includes some commentary on the racism inherent in Victorian style yellow peril scenarios.

Alas, the Iron Seas series is published by Berkley, a romance imprint, and therefore never registered on the radar of most Hugo voters.

Ghost Planet by Sharon Lynn Fisher

One of the Hugo nominated short stories this year is set on a planet where humans manifest as ghosts after death due to the peculiar physical characteristics of said planet. As I read the story in question, I realised that it reminded me of Ghost Planet by Sharon Lynn Fisher, only that Fisher handled a similar idea so much better and threw in an engaging romance as well.

The Paradox trilogy by Rachel Bach

I’m surprised that there wasn’t more Hugo love for Fortune’s Pawn, the first novel in this trilogy, last year. And though we won’t know how the sequels Honour’s Knight and Heaven’s Queen fared until the extended nomination lists are published in September, I don’t have much hope.

This is a pity, because the Paradox trilogy has been one of my favourite science fiction works of the past two years along with the multiple award-winning Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. After all, the trilogy has a fabulous heroine, a wonderful romance, great worldbuilding and enough action to satisfy even the saddest of puppies.

But at the same time, the series is also a scathing critique of classic Campbellian science fiction, its hostility to romance and emotions in general and its tendency to sacrifice individuals, usually women and children, for some nebulous greater good. There are even some bonus swipes against the New Wave. In many ways, the Paradox trilogy is a response to genre classics such as Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas as well as an eloquent plea for a more inclusive genre that does not keep sacrificing women and children for the greater good.

Now the science fiction romance genre already has its own awards with the SFR Galaxy Awards and the Prism Awards. But if you want to see more science fiction romance nominated for the Hugo Awards, what can you do? Well, that’s simple, because for 40 US dollars you can purchase a WorldCon supporting membership, which includes voting rights for the current Hugo Awards and nominating rights for the current and following year.

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