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The Hugo Awards scandal has shaken the sci-fi community


The Hugo Awards have celebrated the best in science fiction literature for decades, honoring writers such as Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick and N.K. Jemisin. Last year's ceremony was held in China, and now leaked emails show evidence of vote tampering and flags on potential nominees over political beliefs. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more on a scandal that has shaken the sci-fi community.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The Hugo Awards are run by the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, and there was already some brouhaha among sci-fi fans that Worldcon 2023 would be held in Chengdu, China, because of the country's record on censorship and human rights abuses. But there's also a huge audience for sci-fi in China, and this was a great opportunity to reach out to fans there. Diane Lacey wasn't naive to the potential issues, but she agreed to volunteer as a committee member anyway.

DIANE LACEY: Because I really do care about the Hugos. I wanted to do my part to make sure they were run well, and I guess that didn't go very well.

LIMBONG: One of the Hugo administrators was a guy named Dave McCarty, who'd been deeply involved with the Hugos for a long time. He asked Lacey and other committee members to start vetting the English-language nominees for potential red flags.

LACEY: Mentions of Tibet, Taiwan, anything that would be seen as a problem in China. And I did, and I'm ashamed of that.

LIMBONG: The Hugos are unique from other literary awards because they eventually release the data showing the vote breakdown, and when this year's came out, things looked suspicious. Some big names were nowhere to be found - authors like R.F. Kuang, whose book "Babel" was a huge crossover hit, or Neil Gaiman, a perennial presence at the Hugos.

JASON SANFORD: All the reason that was given on all this was not eligible, even though under the rules for the Hugo Awards, they were certainly eligible.

LIMBONG: That's Jason Sanford. He and fellow writer and journalist Chris Barkley wrote a scathing report detailing what happened at the Chengdu Hugo Awards, using emails provided by Diane Lacey as evidence. And the emails showed committee members scanning not just the nominated texts for red flags, but the authors' social media posts, too. Barkley actually won the award for best fan writer, but he says if votes worked out the way he thinks they should have, it's likely he wouldn't have won.

CHRIS BARKLEY: I'm having mixed feelings about it because everybody who was on the nomination longlist was worthy of a Hugo, and I include myself.

LIMBONG: Dave McCarty, the guy who asked Diane Lacey to do the vetting, didn't want to do an on-the-record interview and has since stepped down as Hugo administrator. But earlier this month, he did record an interview with Chris Barkley and talked about the difficulty in bridging cultures at Worldcon.


DAVE MCCARTY: China's culture is the most different of any culture that I think that we've attempted to bridge to, and clearly in this instance, that difference has caused some negative reactions. And I understand that.

LIMBONG: The next Worldcon is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in August. Organizers there have pledged to respond to this incident with even greater transparency, and fans right now are talking through possible permanent changes to the awards to prevent this from ever happening again, things like separating the awards from the convention entirely and adding auditors. Diane Lacey has since apologized for her involvement, and she doubts she'll ever be involved in a Worldcon again because fandom has a long memory, which is exactly why she's hopeful the award will regain its pedigree.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.