What are the Hugo Awards?

In the next few days I’m going to review the 2011 Hugo Awards. But before I begin, let’s take a look at what they are and how the winners are picked.

The Hugo Awards are special because they are completely selected by fans. This means that they are popularity awards, rather than true best-of awards. Nevertheless, the Hugos are generally considered the highest honor in the science fiction and fantasy world. Sometimes some odd choices are nominated, and occasionally works win that in retrospect may not have deserved to, but generally, most of the voters can live with the winners, and a large percentage of winners remain in print and well read.

When Did the Hugos Begin?

The Hugo Award is named after Hugo Gernsback, who founded the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926. The awards were first given in 1953 at  Philcon II as a one-time award. The awards were reinstated in 1955 and have been presented every year since. The criteria for the various categories were codified in the 1960s, but new categories have been added over the years, and old categories are occasionally modified or even dropped. There were seven categories in 1953; there were fifteen categories in 2011.


The Hugo trophy is a rocket ship. The design varied in the early years, but has been standardized since 1984. The base of the trophy is changed every year, using the winner of an artistic competition.

How are the Hugos Selected?

The Hugo Awards are chosen by members of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) for works of science fiction and fantasy that appeared in English for the first time in the previous calendar year. Supporting or attending members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention are members of the WSFS.

Works are nominated by members of the current year’s Worldcon and members of the previous year’s Worldcon. A new rule was approved this year so that from now on, members of the following year’s Worldcon will also be able to nominate. The Hugo rules are deliberately vague as to what qualifies as science fiction or fantasy, so sometimes some odd works get nominated. The top five works in each category are put on the final ballot, along with No Award. There can be more than five works nominated if there is a tie for fifth place, and there can even be as few as three nominees if the number of votes for a work is less than 5% of the total number of votes (this can happen if the votes are spread out over a large number of nominees).

To me, nominating is the most important part of the process. If a work is not nominated, it can’t win. Since fewer people nominate than vote on the final ballot, each person who does nominate has a larger influence on the ultimate outcome.

Only members of the current Worldcon can vote on the final ballot. This ballot is voted on using the instant-runoff method. This tends to select a consensus winner. Voters rank their choices from 1 to 6, but are not required to rank every nominee. Voters are not required to vote in every category. The work with the fewest number of votes is dropped and the remaining votes are recounted. This process continues until a single work receives a majority of votes. A final check is made to confirm that the winner received more first-place votes than No Award.


One response to “What are the Hugo Awards?

  1. Thanks for a great overview, it gives me a much better insight into the process.

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