Naming the Stars: The Awards of Science Fiction
By Greg Beatty
6 May 2002
Part 2 of 2
Welcome back to my discussion of the various awards of science fiction (blending over, of course, into awards for the fantastic in general). I hope that the first half of the article got you thinking a little bit, and got you looking around on the web for more information about these awards. Since we were looking at what science fiction as a genre and community is, I hope as well that you've been musing over those points. To continue those lines of inquiry, in this article I'll be looking at the different awards that seek to change science fiction. Some are doing it consciously, as is the case with the first award to be examined; some see themselves more as supporting, rather than changing, science fiction, but the way they go about it changes things in the process, as we saw last time. These awards mostly address issues of gender, genre, region, and/or ideology. Turning first to gender, we have. . . .
The James Tiptree Jr. Award
This award is the single most subversive award in science fiction, subversive in so many ways that it is hard to tell where to start. Let's start with the name. Hugo Gernsback existed. John W. Campbell existed; there are still writers working today who worked with him. James Tiptree Jr. didn't really exist. That is to say, he was a she, a fabrication.
James Tiptree Jr. is the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, who lived a fascinating life; she spent time in Africa and India, had a career as an artist, and worked for the CIA. She started publishing as Tiptree in 1967, and moved very quickly to the forefront of the field, winning a number of awards including the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Jupiter (a now-defunct award, given in the mid-1970s by the Instructors of Science Fiction in Higher Education). Known primarily for her short fiction, Tiptree was a phenomenal stylist, and plumbed areas that most writers, particularly science fiction writers, avoid: gender, sexuality, identity, and death. The finest of her stories, such as "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," address all of these at once.
The Tiptree was created in 1991 at Wiscon, the only feminist-oriented science fiction convention and perhaps the most literate. The award's Web site says that the award is given to "science fiction or fantasy that explores and expands the roles of women and men," but that general statement, which could mean anything, tends to be focused on issues of gender and gender identity. The resulting list of winners includes those who won other awards, but also those who barely consider themselves part of the field. At Wiscon last year I had lunch with Molly Gloss, who won that year's award. She said she was pleased to receive such an honor, but a bit surprised, since she didn't consider most of her work to be science fiction, and that the award winning work (Wild Life), was more of a regional work than a genre work. The city of Seattle agrees; they selected Wild Life as part of their annual "What if all of Seattle read the same book?" promotion for this year. No other traditional genre works have been selected.
By selecting for a specific theme, the Tiptree shifts the standards by which a work is evaluated. Given where most of the gender inquiry occurs in the field, winners tend to write soft science fiction, focusing on social and biological interaction, rather than the hard SF of physics. More of the winners are stylistically experimental, and, frankly, write better prose than many of the winners of the older awards.
But the Tiptree judges don't stop there. Rather than simply tagging an award "the best," without defining their terms, the judges often post discussions of the works that have won, discussing their reading experience, the judging process, and where the work fits into gender theory. Rather than supporting the award through convention fees, sale of an anthology, or sponsorship by a patron, the Tiptree is funded by bake sales and auctions, converting clichéd methods of feminine/domestic fundraising to feminist causes. There is also a great deal of whimsy involved; last year, the organizers added (the loan of) a tiara to the award (which includes a $1000 cash prize). (At this year's ICFA conference, Ellen Klaeges, a board member for the Tiptree, explained that they decided that if the Miss America winners got a tiara, the winners of the Tiptree should too.) In short, the organizers of the award are working hard to bring the fruits of feminist inquiry to science fiction, with openness, explicit discussion of criteria, and challenges to assumptions about the nature of humanity.
For more on the history of the award, read Debbie Notkin's essay "Why Have a Tiptree Award?" It is the introduction to Flying Cups and Saucers, an anthology of the short fiction on the short list for the first five years of the Tiptree. For more on the present, wait a bit and ask Strange Horizons editor Mary Anne Mohanraj, who is serving as a judge this year.
The Tiptree seeks to challenge existing gender roles; the Sapphire seeks, in some ways, to propagate them. The Sapphire Award is given to the best Science Fiction Romances; the name "Sapphire," while it sounds quite appropriate, is the result of Catherine Asaro saying the initials (SFR) out loud. The Sapphire is another recent award, and its origins are as straightforward a mix of innocence and pragmatism as the Hugo and Nebula. At the 1994 conference of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), Jennifer Dunne was talking to an editor about how to raise awareness of the subgenre of science fiction romance, or "futuristics" as they were then called in the field. Their models were the Hugo and the Rita. Dunne told me that she had several goals in setting up the award: to entice readers who read one genre but not the other to cross over (SF to romance, and vice versa), to remove the stigma futuristics carried (of being historical romances arbitrarily transported to other planets), to show that there was some good science fiction being written in the subgenre -- and to get titles of books she might enjoy reading that she'd missed.
The monthly newsletter Science Fiction Romance (details at www.sfronline.com) has over a thousand subscribers and is still growing. Readers nominate books, novellas, and short stories; the subscribers then vote on the resulting top five list for the award. In 2001, the Sapphire was given at Worldcon in Philadelphia. As a subscriber, I can tell you that the subscribers are very enthusiastic, and, on the romance side, open-minded about seeking new authors. It is less clear how many science fiction readers cross over. Readers are very aware of the publishing world, and of their own history; as soon as I asked about the history of the award, a summary of it went out in the next issue, for readers who might not know.
Dunne indicated that the list of nominees, and the resulting list of winners, tended to alternate between science fiction and romance publishing houses, but that there were times when everyone nominated the same book, as was the case with Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign. Given the way romance readers dominate the paperback market (the RWA Web site claims romances account for 55% of the paperback sales in the U.S.), I wouldn't be surprised if the Sapphire changed the science fiction field. It is clearly drawing readers for genre writers such as Bujold and Asaro; it has the possibility to change paperback sales radically for a new author. Given the stylistic conventions of the romance, the award also has the potential power to keep science fiction aimed at a mass audience, to change its pace, and to keep its focus on the interpersonal and emotional, not usually the strengths of classic SF.
The Prometheus Award
My analysis of the Prometheus Award and the works that have won it is available in this earlier article, so I'll keep this discussion fairly brief. The Prometheus Award is given by the Libertarian Futurist Society to the best work of libertarian science fiction (usually a novel, sometimes a short story collection). The Prometheus actually preceded the organization that now gives it. It was created in 1979 by L. Neil Smith, but fell into limbo due to the absence of a supporting organization. The Libertarian Futurist Society was created in 1982, and the award has been given annually ever since. The award is now a coin containing one ounce of gold mounted into a plaque. Like the price of gold itself, the award has seesawed a bit in value, peaking in 1979 at $2500; the award was consequently reduced to half an ounce of gold. There is also a Hall of Fame award, given to classic works in the field that examine freedom or rights in a profound way.
Looking at the list of Hall of Fame winners, it is impossible not to recognize that there is a long history in science fiction of grappling with issues of freedom, and that some of our greatest writers have done so: Le Guin, Zamiatin, Heinlein, Orwell, and others. The list of current winners is also impressive: Vinge, MacLeod, Varley. The winning books crackle with energy and innovation. The best of them are among the best science fiction has, and the worst are often still a fun read. However, the focus has narrowed, and gotten tangled with other issues. All of the current winners are male, and, except for an occasional exception (most notably MacLeod), rework a fairly doctrinaire libertarianism, without examining how the very concept of liberty might change if historical circumstances change.
To be fair, all three of these first awards can be a bit rigid due to their focus. Tiptree winners are always recognizably feminist. Sapphire winners accent romance to such a degree that they can ignore other factors (one of this year's short list nominees, Wen Spencer's Alien Taste, contains some nasty power fantasies and a lot of violence). And the Prometheus Award winners tend to ignore other factors like gender.
The Spectrum Awards
The Spectrum Awards, or, more properly, the Gaylactic Network Spectrum Awards, were first given out in 1998, and haven't been around long enough to judge for an ideological tendency. However, it is clear that the judges read and view widely and voraciously in pursuit of fantastic works that include "positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues." The resulting list of winners and honorees (available on their Web site) is at times predictable, even mainstream (Buffy the Vampire Slayer won the People's Choice Spectrum Award in 2001, for work in any category), but at other times, quite ambitious. The best novel category included The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, a mainstream novel about life in the comics industry; the category for "Best Other Work" included my favorite recent comic, DC's The Authority, which features a pair of kickass male superheroes, Apollo and the Midnighter, in a long-term relationship. The Spectrum carries no immediate financial rewards (the trophy is a small statue), but clearly represents a highly engaged readership.
The Carl Brandon Society
The Carl Brandon Society should be mentioned as another recent attempt to bring attention to and to correct one of the strange long-standing weaknesses in science fiction, namely representation of people of color. As the recent anthology Dark Matter has shown, individual writers of African descent have been writing wonderful speculative fiction for over a century. However, for far too long, the public face of science fiction was, well, white, and some writers envisioned marvelously new futures with archaic racial attitudes still firmly in place. Many others simply sidestepped the issue of race altogether.
The Carl Brandon Society doesn't give an award yet. It was only founded at the 1999 Wiscon, and while they have discussed giving an award, they decided that they don't yet have the infrastructure for it. What they do at present to support the representation of people of color is to publish an annual list of speculative writing by people of color. The society takes its name from the name Terry Carr sometimes wrote under, Carl Brandon Jr., in which he played with issues of race. (Their Web site explicitly credits the Tiptree as a model -- the pseudonym used to address issues previously invisible.) For more information (or to get involved), visit their Web site.
The Best of Soft Science Fiction Contest
Sponsored by the Soft Science Fiction Writer's Association, the Web site for this award hasn't been updated recently, and several months' worth of emails have gone unanswered. The award may, in fact, be defunct, joining a list of awards that have come and gone (the Balrog, the Apollo, the Gandalf, to name a few). Nevertheless, announcements keep coming out, so I will treat the award briefly, as an attempt to change SF that is likely to fail. (Sorry -- please prove me wrong! Answer my emails, update the list of winners, do something!) The association defines soft science fiction as science fiction that accents "emotional content and artistic effect" over "plot and deterministic science."
Recently, there have been calls for a return to hard SF, interwoven with claims that a new golden age of hard SF already exists. This movement has a number of champions, and in many ways crystallized in David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's 1994 collection The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF. This was followed by various collections by editors such as Gardner Dozois (Worldmakers: SF Adventures in Terraforming) who champion one strand of science fiction's complex history over the rest. In some ways, these collections and this award are re-fighting the battles of the New Wave, in which the old guard championed science and story and members of the New Wave championed emotion, art, and politics.
While some of the stories that have won this award were published in pro magazines (Analog, Amazing Stories), many of the winners published in the small press, or outside the traditional bounds of the genre completely (Tales of the Unanticipated, Kalliope: A Journal of Women's Art). This suggests that the small press may be where the artistically risky stories are published, and, more cynically, that the hunger of writers working in these publications may keep them alert for any award for which they might qualify.
The Sidewise Awards
The Sidewise Awards are another relatively new award. Steven H. Silver founded the award in 1995 to recognize excellence in the sub-genre of alternative history. The impetus was both to consciously encourage the growth of alternative history, and to compensate for the fact that fine works of alternative history have not often won existing awards such as the Hugo. The six judges for the award read and evaluate every alternative history story that they know of. Works that receive an average evaluation above a set level are formally nominated for the award, allowing informed flexibility from year to year. (It is possible for no award to be given.)
As the larger Uchronia site indicates, alternative history is an old and well-developed sub-genre. In fact, looking at the list of works that have won the Sidewise Award, I am reminded of Joanna Russ's essay on the wearing out of genre materials. In the initial stage of a genre, Russ argues, possibilities explode in all directions, in a raw, crude fashion. As the genre matures, genre codes are established, and rules about what can and can't be done are taken for granted. In the final stage of a genre, the rules are so well-known that they can either collapse into fatigue, or can be lifted to the level of suggestion, poetry, and pastiche.
The Special Achievement Awards for alternative history give nods to creators like L. Sprague de Camp, whose Lest Darkness Fall is a seminal work in the field. However, I would not consider that novel as formal alternative history, but rather as a variation on the time travel story, in which a time traveler splits an alternative branch in the time stream (admittedly, a fine distinction). And wonderful as the Lord Darcy novels by Randall Garrett are, and as rigorous as the historical extrapolation is, they also posit a fundamental change in the physical rules of the universe; Darcy is a criminal investigator in a world where magic works. That's more than just alternative history; that's alternative realities.
The recent winners group similarly. Some are strictly science fictional in the alternatives they propose to current reality, but others, such as Kim Newman's wonderful The Bloody Red Baron (a Sidewise nominee in 1995), use history as a backdrop to add rigor to an amazing pastiche series in which vampirism spreads across Europe, and in which essentially all past vampires appear in one form or another (as do other pulp heroes of the period). The game of history, a very selective form of "what if" that can be evoked with fewer and fewer clues, is being played here, and it is pretty far from classic SF. The subtlest examples of alternative history approach the delicacy of the haiku: beautiful, evocative, and not immediately accessible to outsiders.
The Ditmar is the Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award. As this suggests, these are the Australian Hugos. (The Hugo is the "Science Fiction Achievement Award.") A look at the Web site for the award will show details both humbling and charming. The first humbling fact: the Ditmar has been given since 1969! There has been a functioning fan community for that long; when I learned this I felt provincial in the extreme. The second humbling fact: Australian SF is not just aware of itself, as might be said of American SF, but it's also aware of work being done throughout the Commonwealth, and even throughout the world. Along with the Ditmar, the Australian National Fan Convention gives the William Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review, and the list of winners there is the third humbling detail. There are full-blown histories of Australian science fiction, and an extensive history of critical inquiry that takes into account what Australian SF is (again, always with an awareness of what is done elsewhere).
The charming points are the tight knit nature of the community, which results in the same names being listed time and again (Sean McMullen, Sean Williams, Greg Egan, Terry Dowling, etc.), and in the amazingly small number of nominations (50 nominations for best Australian novel of 2002).
For a time (1969-1989) the convention also gave awards for best international SF. The winners were mostly American, but an occasional striking outsider (Italo Calvino) is included, suggesting that though the Australian community is small and distant, it may be rather sophisticated.
The Aurealis Award
If the Ditmar is the Australian Hugo, the Aurealis Awards are the Australian equivalent of the World Fantasy Award, with traces of the Campbell and Sturgeon: juried awards that recognize excellence in a number of areas. The Aurealis Awards differ from these awards in several ways. First, they include categories for young adult and children's fiction, acknowledging the long history of fantasy written for these ages. Second, they have different judges for each category (true for the Campbell/Sturgeon). Third, they are consciously intended to complement the Ditmar (most awards define themselves as if they were the only award in existence), and last, of course, they are only given to works written by Australian authors.
The Prix Aurora/Aurora Award has been given since 1980 to the best Canadian science fiction or fantasy. They are selected in the same way as the Hugos; there is a nominating phase, then a short list which must be voted on. Funded by several sources (voting fees, donations, the host convention), they are given at a different convention each year. There was originally just one award, but it has grown until there are now ten categories, including several double categories to recognize works in both French and English.
A look at the history of the award indicates how Canadian SF has come into its own over the years. The 1980 winner was A. E. Van Vogt, who lived from 1944 on in the United States, and who published widely in American magazines of the Golden Age. In 1981, Susan Wood, a Canadian fan, won. She had already been recognized with a Hugo for best fanzine in 1973. Other familiar names follow (Judith Merrill), but soon thereafter an independent path was established. The independent vision of the Francophone Canadians, exemplified for me in the work of Alain Bergeron, whose strikingly poetic works have appeared in collections such as Northern Suns, is but the most obvious form of this. If the science fiction you pull off the shelf seems a bit too familiar to you, you could remedy this by looking for works by some of the winners of the Aurora. They are pleasantly strange.
There are other signs indicating that Canadian science fiction has reached a new level of maturity. One is that awards are multiplying; last year the Sunburst Award, for work in any area of the fantastic, appeared. The prize includes a medallion and $1000. Another is that collections, both popular and scholarly, are coming into being to give overviews. Northern Suns and Northern Stars offer a wide range of Canadian science fiction; a recent volume of The Dictionary of Literary Biography covered Canadian science fiction writers. There will be an academic conference on Canadian SF this May in Toronto.
Some of the topics they'll be discussing are what makes Canadian SF Canadian, and what qualities distinguish it from American SF (or other SF). Discussions like these will be continued on a broader scale at a conference on Commonwealth Science Fiction scheduled for Liverpool in 2004. I for one hope they'll also discuss more subtle questions like why the British awards (the Clarke, the British Fantasy Award, the British Science Fiction Awards) are given to the best works published in the UK, and therefore often work to replicate American awards, while the former colonies insist on their own awards. Sure, it is a marker of a desire for independence and to nurture their own communities in the newer countries, but what is the effect?
Someone might ask the similar questions about the Endeavour Award, which is given for best science fiction or fantasy book by a writer from the Pacific Northwest. Is it a marker of an emerging independent sensibility? Does it denote a secondary hub of SF, after the original East Coast roots of the Golden Age? Or is it just nice money ($1000) that writers get by accident of region?
The Golden Duck
Admit it. You had no clue what the Golden Duck award was, and half the reason you skimmed this article was to see what the heck it was and if I'd ever get around to discussing the darn thing! Well, here it is, the last award to be discussed. The Golden Duck is given for excellence in children's science fiction (and carries an unspecified cash award). Around since 1992, the Golden Duck is given in three categories: picture book, middle grades, and young adult. The final award is called the Hal Clement Award, in honor of the longtime hard SF writer who was a high school science teacher, has young adult protagonists in some of his work, and helps out at conventions with programming for kids.
The fantastic has long had a presence in children's literature, and many notable kids' books include fantastic elements (Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, etc.). This is one area where the mainstream literary establishment has long been willing to acknowledge the value of the fantastic. The Newbery Award for most distinguished contribution to children's literature has been around since 1922; that year, two of the books selected for honors contained clear fantastic elements (Bowen's The Old Tobacco Shop includes magic tobacco; Colum's The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles retells Greek myths), and long-time fantasy favorites have won the award (Cooper, Alexander, L'Engle). However, works that would be considered science fiction have essentially been absent.
The Golden Duck sets out to correct this situation. For each award, the rules specify how much fantasy content (as opposed to science) is allowable. The resulting list of winners includes authors who have long been names in the field of science fiction, such as David Gerrold, but more often indicates the wide gap between what kids are reading and what adults are reading. (I was surprised to see Star Wars and Animorphs books among the winners.) Like the list of Sapphire winners, the Golden Duck may better indicate the state of publishing than more established awards in the field. The Golden Duck also provides a list of lesson plans for teachers on its Web site. The organizers are acutely aware of the field; they accept nominations from anywhere, and give special awards for works that deserve special recognition. The Golden Duck is providing a valuable service, not just to science fiction, but to society, by attracting readers to the sciences.
So, what a long strange trip this has been! What does it all mean? What does it mean that there are so many awards for science fiction? Well, notice that as in the first article, the awards examined in this article arrive in waves, roughly 1970 (Ditmar), 1980 (Aurora, Prometheus), 1990 (Tiptree, Soft SF), and later. These awards started arriving about a generation after the Hugos; at times you can mark the date of their creation as a generation after a social movement passed through larger society (feminism in 1970s creates the Tiptree in 1991). The later awards tend to be more consciously ideological, as befit awards intended to change an existing field. As a result, their criteria tend to be more explicitly articulated. They cannot simply accept an existing community's standards of what is "best," but rather spell out what they are looking for, and, more often than with the older awards, how the awards are evaluated.
Do awards change the field? Yes, they do, both for readers and writers. As mentioned in the first part of this article, awards help a community come into being, and help it maintain an identity. Giving an award annually also gives the field a rhythm. Awards that endure help establish a canon; readers outside the field use the awards to guide their reading.
Some of the awards also have a very specific purpose, such as helping new writers, and these do their job. One writer from my class of Clarion West (2000), David D. Levine, has won the James White and placed in the Writers of the Future competition; he is the first writer from our class to join SFWA, in part as a result. They work.
Once a new award lasts for a while, readers become aware of it. Awards like the Prometheus, the Golden Duck, the Sapphire, or the Tiptree represent specific readerships, all of whom are eager for new titles. Readers from minority populations may well be more attracted to works in which they are represented; certainly magazines targeting a gay readership have featured articles on gay detective fiction, and would likely be open to articles on gay SF, thereby providing yet another route through which new readers might enter the field. At the promotional readings for Dark Matter, more than one audience member of color said they didn't read science fiction because it was so white, but they'd now look for works by Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, and others. An award would help bring even more attention to this desire.
No one has yet tracked the specific rise in sales resulting from a nomination, but I've seen many readers snap to attention when it is mentioned that an author is nominated for the Tiptree. And at last year's Clarion, I saw ambitious new writers reviewing the award lists, to see where their work might receive the best attention. I saw other writers among my friends consciously planning assaults on the newer awards. Will they win? I don't know, but the high reputation awards such as the Tiptree have in the field make it certain that they'll try, and this will produce more speculative fiction that is literary, experimental, and, of course, focused on gender. To me, that's a change in the field.
But at least as important as any of this is the fact that writing is hard. Writers work alone, and many of them don't get paid well. Giving these awards is a way of recognizing just how much the worlds these writers create mean to us. To me, that's success.
Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
Russ, Joanna. "The Wearing Out of Genre Materials," College English. 33:1 (October 1971), 46-54.