Hugo Awards 2024: Best Related Work

The Hugo Award category that’s presently known as Best Related Work began in 1980 as Best Non-Fiction Book, and in 1999 became Best Related Book. In 2010 the name took its modern form, as fans recognized that the field of science fiction and fantasy is a diverse one, and sometimes award-worthy work comes in an unusual shape or form. In a way, Best Related Work has become the Hugo Award for Everything Else. In the last five years, winners in this category have included the whole project of an Archive of Our Own, an acceptance speech at the previous year’s Worldcon and a translation of a thousand-year-old poem, as well as two non-fiction books. Finalists took an even more expansive view of both “work” and “related.” Over the same period, they have included documentary films, a convention, a convention “fringe,” critical examination of an animated series presented in video form, and a translation project, all in addition to the more expected books and essays.

City on Mars by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

This admirable creativity and inclusiveness has led to at least two tensions. First, whether the books for which the category was originally created would get crowded out by works that potentially had a wider appeal. Biographies, book-length collections of critical essays, and in-depth examinations of specific topics (e.g., Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It, a 2014 finalist) are less likely to find large audiences than an online essay on controversies of the day. Would Hugo nominators lean on the “related” to such an extent non-fiction books might need their own category again? Second, how are voters to choose the best among such disparate finalists? When I was a voter for the 2021 awards, the category included one non-fiction book, two conventions (well, one and whatever an unauthorized fringe of Worldcon counts as), a long video of criticism, an online essay, and a translation of Beowulf. That was not so much comparing apples and oranges as it was apples and cumulonimbus cloud formations.

The answer to the first is to wait and see, I suppose. The evolution of the Hugos is like any other kind: slow. Since the low ebb of 2021, more non-fiction books have made it into the list of finalists. Last year, four of six finalists including the winner were books. This year it’s five of six, though one is almost entirely pictures. The answer to the second is idiosyncratically, as the voters do for every other category. It’s silly to pretend there’s one set of criteria for Best Novel or Best Short Story; it’s hopeless to pretend that there could be one way of selecting the best among so many different kinds of work. The only course is to trust to the voters and their ability to recognize excellence when they see it. For my part, I am glad that no more conventions have been selected as finalists, and I am glad that projects or documentation of projects have become sporadic rather than perennial. My votes reflect my idiosyncratic approach to topics and media; if I am shortchanging something amazing, I hope the other voters will make up for it.

Which brings me to 2024, with notes on each Related Work finalist in order of my ascending preference.

The Culture: The Drawings by Iain M. Banks is a collection of the late author’s drawings for his long-running Culture series. No samples were provided to Hugo voters, but bits were easy enough to find online to give me a feel for the complete work. I haven’t finished any Culture novels on a couple of attempts, so I am outside the intended audience. The drawings were interesting and pretty, but this looks to me like a work for completists.

Discover X is a series of in-depth video interviews of people in the science fiction field, produced in China and posted to YouTube, Bilibili and Douyin. I haven’t really made room in my life for podcasts or videos, and I didn’t make an exception here.

Chinese Science Fiction: An Oral History, volumes 2 and 3 by Yang Feng. Volume 1 was a finalist in 2023, when Worldcon was held in Chengdu, but none of the other finalists came anywhere close to Rob Wilkins’ biography of Terry Pratchett. These two volumes are in Chinese, and I can see that they are substantial works. Beyond that, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

A Traveller in Time: The Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid Speller edited by Nina Allan collects reviews and essays by the late writer and review editor for Strange Horizons. This was obviously a labor of love by people still somewhat in shock following her death in 2022; the excerpt provides a foreword by her widower as well as the editor’s introduction. These additions are reminders that science fiction as a field is not all that large and that, despite the proliferation of blogs and such, the group of people who have reviewed a significant amount of science fiction in any depth is smaller still. The excerpt includes three of the roughly 50 essays in the book, presumably chosen to give readers the best possible overview. The tone of the personal essays reminded me of Making Book and Making Conversation, both by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who is of a similar age and a better essayist. In terms of voting, A Traveller in Time is in direct competition with another book of reviews, which I found more engaging and more enjoyable to read. I’m glad that the category found room for two books of criticism among the finalists, and I am glad that this appreciation has found its audience.

All These Worlds: Reviews & Essays by Niall Harrison collects reviews that Harrison published between 2005 and 2014, along with essays that extend into the 2020s. Harrison’s introduction sketches some views of science fiction in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, plus some of his ideas about what science fiction criticism is doing, ideas illustrated by the practice of the reviews that follow. Of larger trends, he observes

A new default perspective on SF coalesced [after 2009]. There are many ways to quantify the shift, but perhaps the easiest is to look at the recognition awarded to the demographic that had long been the SF default: of 40 available fiction Hugos between 2000 and 2009, white men won 37; of 40 available fiction Hugos between 2010 and 2019, white men won 11, none of them more recent than 2014. In the UK, of 10 available Arthur C. Clarke Awards between 2000 and 2009, white men won 9; between 2010 and 2019, they won 3, the most recent in 2016. (p. 11)

The discussion that follows about changing identities within science fiction alongside internationalization of the field is particularly piquant considering how an Anglo man apparently on his own initiative derailed numerous potential Chinese Hugo winners in 2023. The fallout from that incident is still settling, and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, this year’s Worldcon does to try to make amends.

Harrison’s reviews — the ones I have gotten to, as time constraints have kept me from finishing the whole book yet — are interesting and insightful. Given that some of the books are nearly 20 years old now, they are somewhat period pieces, or maybe more kindly, they are the history of the field, brought back to light in this fine collection.

A City on Mars by Kelly and Zach Weidersmith asks in its subtitle “Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?” Again, time constraints have kept me from finishing the whole book, but I really want to get back to it and confirm that the answers are “Probably not, probably not, and definitely not.” It’s possible that by the end of a full reading, I will see that the answers are even simpler: no, no, no. The Weidersmiths look at space settlement as it is, not as its boosters wish it to be. There’s quite a bit of knowledge already out there, and they have gone and talked to probably more experts than the colonization boosters themselves have. For example, the Weidersmiths cite a Stalink end user agreement that disclaims any Earth-based government’s authority over activities on Mars. Pure bunkum, say the Weidersmiths.

This clause is like many statements about outer space settlement: it was promoted by a powerful advocate, widely shared and commented upon, and profoundly misleading. Earth-based governments do have authority over Mars activities—Mars is regulated by long-standing treaties and is an international commons. Admittedly, the treaties are weird and vague, but they do exist and can’t be de- existed via a Terms of Service agreement. (pp. 1–2)

What’s needed?

We can’t make these choices properly unless people actually know what the truth is about space settlement. All of it. Not just the size of the rocket or the power needs of a settlement or the available minerals in asteroids, but the big, open questions about things like medicine, reproduction, law, ecology, economics, sociology, and warfare. Detailed treatments that are honest about the severe difficulty of these things are almost invariably left out of books and documentaries about space settlement. (p. 4)

A City on Mars is a step in that direction. It’s breezy and conversational, but it’s also important for the human future (if people read it). And, in my view, the Best Related work for the 2024 Hugos.

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