George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (RageBlog Edition)

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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August 1, 2020

Hugo Award LogoAs I said elseweb, I am thoroughly thrilled by all the folks who won Hugos tonight. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until I no longer have a voice to speak: we are living in a golden age of science fiction and fantasy and I’m humbled to be a part of this gloriously diverse community. Science fiction and fantasy–and the people who write and talk about it–are a big part of why I’m still here (necrotizing pancreatitis has something like a 30% mortality rate, friends).

I am so happy for the winners and so many of their speeches were righteously fiery in all the best ways. Many of the presenters were also wonderful, with Mary Robinette Kowal being the standout for me–I loved what she did with pulling out a relevant quotation from each nominated work and I hope it catches on in the other fiction categories.

That said, I have never in my life seen any awards ceremony that, in its whole, was so blatantly disrespectful of the nominees and winners. And I’m including my high school senior awards ceremony where I learned that half the money my family donated to the music department after my mother’s death had been used not for the purpose for which it had been donated.

The host for this year’s festivities was George R.R. Martin and he spent an awful lot of time talking about John W. Campbell, noted fascist and racist. Pretty sure that between Martin and Bob Silverberg, Campbell (noted fascist and racist!) was mentioned more than the aggregate of the folks being honored. I aged approximately 67 years during Silverberg’s segment.

We were treated to tales of how Martin is Just Like Us while he was broadcasting from the movie theater he owns for funsies. I lost count of how many times he mentioned that fandom used to be so much smaller that Worldcon was in a hotel and that there was a banquet with rubbery chicken (no one cares).

Because it’s such a goddamn fucking shame that fandom is so much larger and diverse than it was 50 fucking years ago. Because the people nominated for and winning awards aren’t exclusively white and male. The first woman to win a Hugo Award–in any category–was Anne McCaffrey, who tied with Philip José Farmer in 1968 for her novella, “Weyr Search.” The first Hugo Award was given out in 1953. It was fifteen years before a woman won. Four-time nominee James Davis Nicoll has done more work in this area than I have, and I recommend that y’all look very closely at that giant table of doom.

I’ve done a bit of searching–not much–and I can’t find a comparable analysis around race and the Hugos. But I can say that N.K. Jemisin was the first Black person to win the Hugo for Best Novel. In 2016. In 2016.

Speaking of Jemisin, Martin made the decision to first mention her unprecedented accomplishment of winning the Best Novel three years in a row–no one else of any race or gender has ever accomplished a Best Novel hat trick–and then attempt to undermine it by talking at great length the time Heinlein won three Hugos in nine years, culminating in some sort of shaggy dog story involving a white dinner jacket and Stranger in a Strange Land. I’ve forgotten the details because Heinlein is irrelevant to the discussion.

What I haven’t forgotten is this: George R.R. Martin repeatedly mispronounced the names of nominees and, in one case, a publication which was nominated. All the nominees were asked to provide pronunciations for their names in advance. The fact that Martin chose not to use that information is disgusting and racist as fuck, as nearly without exception the names he mispronounced were Black and brown. He mispronounced FIYAH, a publication owned, edited, and written by Black people.

This is thoroughly beyond the pale, especially since those segments were pre-recorded and CoNZealand could have asked him to re-do those segments and pronounce peoples’ names correctly. Names are important. They have power.

There was also a whole segment about the Oscar statuette and its crotch. It was gender essentialist and transphobic. It was so gross I don’t even want to talk about it to be honest. CoNZealand tweeted a non-apology apology about it to people who were offended. I’m not particularly gender non-conforming, but if that segment made me feel gross and unwelcome, imagine how it made not only the trans and other gender non-conforming nominees feel, but also all those who were watching. It was a gigantic “fuck you, you’re not welcome here.”

The proper role of an awards show host is to keep the audience entertained between awards and get the fuck out of the way of the people being honored. Martin did neither.

These were decisions that were made. Made by George R.R. Martin, made by Bob Silverberg, and made by the producers of the awards ceremony. The producers could have edited the pre-recorded statements for length. They could have demanded that Martin re-record all the segments where he mispronounced people’s names (people were asked how their names were pronounced, there is literally no excuse) and if he wouldn’t, they could have found someone with a modicum of respect for other people to present those segments of the productions.

CoNZealand has published an apology, in which they admit mistakes were made–including the decision to “provide an agnostic platform for all the participants, and […] not place restrictions on any speech or presentations.” That was a very bad decision. Editing pre-recorded segments for clarity and length is not a restriction or any kind of censorship. It’s professional.

I think that’s part of what’s getting me here–how unprofessional this whole thing was, from start to finish. I could deal with the jankiness of the livestream production (hey, it’s more than we got from Helsinki! not that I’m still bitter or anything and by the way it took me three years to get my fucking pin), but the jankiness of the content?

Would Martin and Silverberg have felt as free to be gross racist misogynist transphobes if there had been a live audience to contend with? I suspect not.

There was no need for Martin to put all the dolls he has of himself on display or to change his hat in every segment–he clearly put more thought into that schtick than he did into pronouncing people’s names (I am never not going to be mad about that). And the display of books he’d written on his desk in the pre-recorded bits? Well, at least it wasn’t an iPad with a slideshow of all his book covers. And that’s not saying much.

The Hugo ceremony didn’t have to be like this. I don’t know where the breakdown happened–I don’t know if CoNZealand didn’t get the pre-recorded segments in time to ask for re-recording, I don’t know if they didn’t feel like they could edit those segments for length and clarity (based on their apology, it looks like this may have been the case), I don’t know if Martin was just a giant asshole about the whole thing.

After all, he was infamously put out by Hugo losers being upset and angry about being excluded from a party which was ostensibly being thrown in their honor last year (in which he talks about a number of bad decisions made by his team, including not hiring a local event planner familiar with local occupancy regulations and contingency planning not that he admits these were bad decisions), and this whole mess just reeks of bad faith on his part.

In conclusion, let us shoot George R.R. Martin and Bob Silverberg into the sun where they shall bother us no longer.

One positive thing you can do is to use the works listed on voting stats data as the start to a really kick-ass a reading list.

I would like to give a shoutout to both Jay Wolf and Nibedita Sen for their inadvertent but essential assistance in clarifying my thinking; their commentary on this shitshow is well worth reading.

And if you’d like to watch the Hugo Awards ceremony with less George R.R. Martin bloviating, then TheReadingOutlaw has you covered:

P.S. Why wasn’t there anything about New Zealand SFF fandom? It was a weird and curious omission and I’d have loved it if there had been some segments about that instead of what we got.

P.P.S. This post is all Didi Chanoch’s fault. He encouraged me.


Corrections and addenda:

  • Olivia Waite points out in the comments that while McCaffrey was the first woman to win the Hugo for fiction, the first woman to win any Hugo was Elinor Busby in 1960 for co-editing Best Fanzine, Cry of the Nameless. So seven years.
  • Multiple people have pointed out that it wasn’t only BIPOC folks who had their names mispronounced, plenty of white folks did, too. As someone whose name is often mispronounced, I can’t believe I didn’t mention that.
  • While the convention claims to have provided an agnostic platform, at least one attendee had their Zoom background censored for showing support for Black Lives Matter and opposition to the Uighur genocide happening in China.
  • I am hearing rumors that George R.R. Martin was asked to re-record the mispronounced names and refused. Can anyone corroborate this beyond a comment on File 770 or a tweet?
  • My deepest apologies to Nibedita Sen for misspelling her name. It has been corrected.
  • I also managed to deny James Davis Nicoll two of his losses; he has lost four times, not two.

I’ve turned off comments as I’m tired of dealing with tone policing, personal attacks, and abuse (the latter of which I have not been putting through, but it’s a special kind of mean to wish death on someone who survived an illness with a 30% mortality rate).

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