Some Authors Were Left Out of Awards Held in China. Leaked Emails Show Why.

The Hugo Awards, a major literary prize for science fiction, have been engulfed in controversy over revelations that some writers may have been excluded based on their perceived criticism of China or the Chinese government.

Suspicions in the science fiction community have been building for weeks that something was amiss with last year’s awards, which rotate to a different city each year, and in 2023 were hosted in Chengdu, China. Now, newly released emails show that the awards were likely manipulated because of political concerns.

Here’s what we know.

The awards, first established in 1953, are given annually at a gathering hosted by the World Science Fiction Convention. Writers are nominated and awarded prizes by members of the World Science Fiction Society, which includes science fiction fans. Each person can nominate five works for each category. Those entries are then tallied so that the six works with the most votes become finalists. Previous winners have included luminaries like Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson and Philip K. Dick.

In January, the Hugo Awards revealed which writers had been nominated for last year’s awards, and by how many people. The information made clear that multiple authors who had enough nominations to be finalists were shut out of the process; award administrators had marked them as not eligible, without specifying a reason. Among the excluded authors were two Western writers of Chinese descent: R.F. Kuang, who is Chinese American and who was widely expected to be recognized for her novel “Babel,” a historical fantasy set in mid-1800s Oxford, and Xiran Jay Zhao, a Chinese Canadian author whose novel “Iron Widow” is a sci-fi reimagining of China’s female emperor.

“I assume this was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility,” Kuang posted on Instagram in January. “Excluding ‘undesirable’ work is not only embarrassing for all involved parties, but renders the entire process and organization illegitimate.”

The exclusion of popular authors of Chinese descent led to speculation that the awards’ administrators had weeded out those whose political views might prove controversial in China. Those suspicions were confirmed recently, when emails leaked by Diane Lacey, a member of last year’s Hugo administration team, were published in a report by Chris M. Barkley, a science fiction fan and journalist, and Jason Sanford, a journalist and science fiction writer.

The email correspondence published in the report showed that Dave McCarty, one of the Hugo administrators, had advised other members to vet the finalists and “highlight anything of a sensitive political nature” in China, including works that focused “on China, Taiwan, Tibet or other topics that may be an issue in China.” Such works, he added, might not be safe to put on the ballot.

“This really just cut to the core of the awards,” Sanford said. “For a genre that believes so deeply in free speech to willingly take part in doing research on political issues of awards finalists, knowing that it’s going to be used to eliminate some of those finalists, it’s outrageous.”

In an interview with The Times, Lacey confirmed that she had provided the emails, and said that she shared them publicly because she regretted her actions, and wanted to ensure that the Hugos would not be tainted again in the future. “I felt very guilty about what I did and wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror again,” she said.

It’s unclear if the awards’ administrators were acting under pressure or were pre-emptively seeking to avoid controversy. Lacey said that she was not aware of overt directives from Chinese officials, but added that McCarty had mentioned getting guidance from Chinese counterparts. In one of the released emails, McCarty told a colleague to be on the lookout for “mentions of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, negatives of China” from writers or in their works, and added that “I will try to get better guidance when I have a chance to dig into this deeper with the Chinese folks on the committee.” McCarty did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

Questions also remain about whether Chinese writers were excluded as finalists for political reasons.

Last month, Worldcon announced that McCarty had resigned from his post and that he and two others had been censured “for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon.”

Esther MacCallum-Stewart, the chair of this year’s Worldcon, which will take place in Glasgow, issued an apology for last year’s debacle and said that steps would be taken “to ensure transparency and to attempt to redress the grievous loss of trust in the administration of the Awards.”

Writers who were excluded from last year’s award have expressed outrage.

“The Hugo Awards tried so hard to appease the Chinese government they circled back to being racist by preemptively disqualifying Chinese diaspora,” Xiran Jay Zhao wrote on X.

In an email, Kuang called the revelations “disappointing.”

John Scalzi, who was a finalist last year, said that the 2023 awards were “fraudulent,” and that he felt betrayed by the administrators.

“The Hugos, because they are a fan-given award, are the ones that are closest to the hearts of dyed-in-the-wool science fiction fans,” he said. “To have them compromised like this is a punch in the gut to a whole lot of people.”

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