The arrival of fall marks the start of the literary awards season. Already Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is being touted as an odds-on favorite to win the Nobel Prize for Literature next month. But the cynic in me guesses that the always inscrutable Swedish committee of judges will bypass the best-selling author of 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in favor of a more obscure, more political writer, preferably a poet.
Meanwhile down in San Antonio, TX, at LoneStarCon 3, the 71st World Science Fiction Convention, John Scalzi and Branden Sanderson were honored with 2013 Hugo Awards, one of sf’s most recognizable and prestigious literary prizes. The rocket ship trophy for Best Novel went to Scalzi’s Red Shirts: A Novel with Three Codas, a satirical look at a certain 1960s TV sf show, on which the lower-ranking crewmen of a particular starship always died on away missions. And Sanderson’s The Emperor’s Soul, a standalone fantasy set in the same world depicted in Elantris, was named Best Novella. Newcomer Mur Lafferty (The Shambling Guide to New York City) received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author.
If the Nobel Prize for Literature committee’s picks are criticized for being too obscure and elitist, the Hugo Awards have the opposite problem: they are—gasp— too populist. Unlike the other sf awards, like the Arthur C Clarke award, the Campbell Awards, and the Kitschies, which are decided by an appointed jury, the Hugos are voted on by WorldCon attendees. And that’s the rub. The Guardian blogger David Barnett reports that few awards divide opinion as much as the Hugos, which come under fire from critics every year both for its quasi-democratic voting system and its winners. Too often these winners, critics say, are “The Usual Suspects”: the biggest-selling names with the biggest fans.
Still despite the criticism, the Hugos have also recognized standout titles of strong literary merit (Paolo Bacigalup’s The WindUp Girl; Jo Walton’s Among Others) And Barnett argues that these awards still serve a vital function in a genre often overlooked by more mainstream critics and readers. “Personally, I’ve always liked the Hugos, purely because they do follow the populist line. The sf world is richly represented by awards that honor different works for different reasons. The Clarkes go for the big, cerebral sf novels of the year. The Kitschies give a nod to the edgy and unconventional. The Hugos celebrate the popular. In a genre whose fanbase is often seen as elitist, this is a very good thing—especially when it comes to perhaps opening it up to a wider, mainstream audience.”