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2021 Hugo Awards

Started: 2021-12-26 15:00:13

Submitted: 2021-12-26 17:00:30

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Worldcon panels and the Hugo Awards

Saturday, the 18th of December was the last full day of Worldcon at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC.

Omni Shoreham Hotel
Omni Shoreham Hotel

The first panel I attended was at 10:00 in one of the small side rooms, and like most of the side-room panels I attended the room was packed. The panel was titled "Zoom In. Enhance!" It promised to mock the depiction of science (especially forensic science) in television and other media, and it did not disappoint. The panel also mentioned some positive depictions of science in media. (I did notice that one of the panelists had gotten a PhD in Computer Science from UC Santa Cruz, which is now interesting to me because I live there.)

I dropped by the art show on my way to my next panel, "Real Estate in Space", at 11:30. (Before the panel the grade-schooler behind me in the audience complained that real estate was boring, and the middle-school sibling behind me explained that the real estate was the single most boring thing in the mind of a grade-schooler.) This panel talked a bit about current space law, and also talked about whether we ought to honor property rights in space at all, or whether property ought to be owned communally and shared with anyone who needs it. (This was one of the moments where I felt like I was far too conservative for the room because I felt like we ought to defend property rights, though there's also room for consideration of the environment where food and air are essential to life and must also be carried up, at great expense, from the bottom of a gravity well.) I did feel like the panel missed the opportunity to draw analogies between current international maritime law and a future space law.

I dropped by Chipotle for lunch then returned to the hotel to watch the online-only panel "The Prejudices of Urban Fantasy". I didn't have any luck getting the video to work on my iPhone, but I was able to watch the video on my old Android phone (where the browser apparently supported whatever cross-site cookies that the convention's website were trying to use to authenticate me to watch the video). The virtual panel format allowed six people to participate who were not physically present at the convention; several panelists appeared to be at home in various places in Europe. The virtual panel format was slightly awkward in the way that most video calls are still slightly awkward: it's easy enough for panelists to give a paragraph-sized monologue, especially in the opening round of introductions; but it's harder to get a good back-and-forth and for panelists to jump into the conversation. (A good moderator helps here, making sure to take charge of the flow of the conversation and calling on people to make sure they have room to speak.)

The panel itself was interesting: discussing what "urban fantasy" is, and then discussing what its prejudices are and how they can be addressed. Where the genre draws from police procedural mysteries or detective noir, it often unconsciously adopts the same pro-police prejudices as its inspiration. (One panelist said, "I don't want to write copaganda.") The panel talked a bit about the racial overtones of fantasy in general, though they didn't have a clear opinion about how much that was important in urban fantasy specifically.

Watching a Worldcon panel on my phone
Watching a Worldcon panel on my phone

The last Worldcon panel I attended in person was "2020 Ruined My Novel!", an amusing panel about the problems of writing and selling fiction in the First Plague Year. Two panelists had written (before the pandemic) novels that were about a pandemic; one novel was published in 2021 and the other will be published next year. There was a bit of bemusement from the group of authors who worked at home prior to the pandemic and then all of the sudden found everyone else trying to do the same thing (and, in some cases, disrupting the authors at home).

I hopped onto the metro to do some sight-seeing around the city and watched the "Space Science Fiction at the Smithsonian" panel on my phone. (To be precise, I tethered my old Android phone to my iPhone and watched the video presentation streaming on my Android phone.) This was a virtual panel presented by a Smithsonian curator who showed us around the museums to see sci-fi artifacts in various places, including artifacts that are not currently on display (like the original Enterprise filming model). The virtual format with a slide show meant we could jump between museums; the presenter phrased this as "step through the portal, and be sure to watch your head".

Union Station decorated for Christmas
Union Station decorated for Christmas

I dropped by Union Station to see the train station decorated for Christmas, including a massive Christmas tree provided by Norway in the main hall.

Main hall at Union Station
Main hall at Union Station

The station was active and serving trains, but many of the shops were closed and the public spaces were dimly lit and sparsely populated.

Norwegian Christmas at Union Station
Norwegian Christmas at Union Station

I found a fast-casual Indian restaurant to eat a dosa nearby in Chinatown while I watched the panel "The Complexities of War". This panel was presented in person at the convention, but I decided to watch it remotely while I wandered around the city. I didn't catch all of the panel (between riding the metro and ordering my food) but I think I got the jist of it: war is hell and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell a military intervention.

On the way back to my hotel I rode another 7000-series metro train so I stopped to take a selfie with the train as I disembarked.

Jaeger with Washington Metro train 7651
Jaeger with Washington Metro train 7651

I waited in my hotel room until it was time to go back to the convention for the Hugo Awards ceremony at 20:00, then I got an email informing me that the ceremony had been pushed back an hour to 21:00. (Somewhere I saw a reference to an electrical fire, and I remembered smelling a vague plastic burning smell in the lower halls around the dealer's hall. On Twitter, Worldcon talked about an "equipment malfunction", which sounded like a euphemism for something.)

This year, because the Hugo Awards weren't given out until Worldcon and Worldcon was postponed until December, I had the chance to read all of the main fiction categories. This is the first year I've read all of the nominees for best novel, and I followed that up by reading all of the shorter fiction as well (and after nominating reforms a couple of years ago to avoid the possibility of a single slate dominating the nominations, there were six nominations in each category, one more than earlier years). I had already read three of the best novels on the list (Network Effect, The City We Became, and Harrow the Ninth), and I requested the remaining three novels on the ballot from my local library.

I ended up liking Piranesi more than I expected: once I realized, a couple of chapters into the book, that the narrator was unreliable I could start to uncover the mystery implicit in their environment and pick up the clues that the author was dropping but the narrator was ignoring. The setting — an endless network of rooms on a sort of grid — reminded me of the Content Collective, a collaborative online short text art project spearheaded by my friend Bitscape that I participated in around 2001 (which only about two of my readers will even remember or understand this reference).

I liked all of the best novel nominees, and thought that each of them had a credible chance of winning, and every one of them would have deserved to win if they had. But I kept a special place in my heart for Murderbot, the rogue cyborg SecUnit that would rather watch dramas than deal with the outside world but occasionally needs to murder things with extreme prejudice and sometimes has to retreat to their closet to have an emotion in private, so I put Network Effect at the top of my final ballot.

(I did not read all of the best series nominees, since I do have other interests besides just reading fiction.)

I arrived at the convention in time to join the line in the lobby for the Hugo Awards, held in a far-off ballroom I had never actually visited yet. (According to the line monitor I was standing somewhere around the 260th place in line, so there ought to be plenty of space in the 1500-seat ballroom.) Before long the line started moving and I followed the line down the stairs and around corners and down more stairs and finally into the main ballroom. I found a seat near the middle of the auditorium, with empty seats around me.

Waiting for The Hugo Awards
Waiting for The Hugo Awards

Once the ceremony got going (albeit a bit late, due to the equipment malfunction) the ceremony zipped along, with very little extra filler between the awards. I did appreciate the computer animated Hugo Award launch, looking very much like the visual effects from The Worst Sci-Fi Prequel Ever! (The one repeated gag was a roadblock for a VIP motorcade, represented by "Hail to the Chief" playing on the PA and red-and-white flashing lights and three people wearing suits with sunglasses and earpieces rushing onto stage to interpose them between the podium and the audience to direct the motorcade past. This brief gag was used to great comedic effect immediately before announcing the winner for the Best Novel award.)

The hybrid format of the convention extended to the Hugo Awards. All of the award presenters were on the stage in person, along with the physical Hugo Awards to be given out, but the finalists were not all present. Some winners were present in the auditorium and ascended to the stage to accept their award. Some were present virtually and accepted their award via live video. Some recorded messages in advance. For the most part this worked, but in at least one case the pre-recorded video message didn't get played on time.

In the main fiction categories, I had read all of the finalists and I would have been pleased with any winner, though I did have my favorites. I enjoyed Ursula Vernon's award acceptance speech for the Lodestar Award for young adult novel ("Not a Hugo Award", the award wants us to know, even though it's administered by Worldcon); she talked about slime molds. Then she returned to the stage a couple of minutes later to accept the short story award for "Metal Like Blood in the Dark", and she confessed that she had already used up all of her award acceptance material, but she managed to give us a few more comments about slime molds before leaving the stage with the Hugo Award rocketship.

Martha Wells accepted her Hugo award for best series for Murderbot, then returned to the stage to accept the best novel award for Network Effect. She also confessed that she had only one acceptance speech prepared so her second speech was a bit anti-climatic. But I was excited to see Murderbot win at the Hugo Awards, since I voted it first place in both categories.

And with that the Hugo Awards ceremony was over, and the biggest award in SF fandom had been given out for the year.

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