Reminder: There’s No Such Thing as an Automatic Award Nomination

Over at Inverse, writer Ryan Britt is annoyed that two of his favorite science fiction books of the year, Death’s End by Cixin Liu, and Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey, are not on the Nebula list of nominees for Best Novel. His argument for both basically boils down to they’re both amazing so they should be obvious nominees, obviously, which to be fair is the same general argument anyone makes when they complain about something they love getting what they perceive to be a snub for whatever award they think the thing the love should be up for.

Not to single Britt out — his is merely the complaint about this I’ve seen today, not the sole complaint out there — but to serve as a reminder, as we head fully into science fiction awards season: There’s no such thing as an automatic award nomination for anything, no matter how good you think that thing is. If you think there is, you’ll be finding yourself frequently outraged for no particularly good or useful reason.

Likewise, a thing you love not being on an award ballot doesn’t mean it was “snubbed”. “Snubbing” here basically means someone (or in this case more than one someone) actively going out of their way to keep a thing off the ballot, i.e., something along the lines of “I hate this novel and/or author so much I will instead recommend a different and possibly inferior book and encourage all my friends to do so as well.” It’s pretty much 100% certain this didn’t happen here; instead, people just voted for the novels they preferred, and preferred other books.

But Death’s End and Babylon’s Ashes were good books! Indeed they were. But there were five Best Novel slots available on this year’s Nebula ballot and dozens of SF/F novels (at least!) of sufficient quality to make the ballot. The two novels that Britt points out are only a couple of the novels that could have been on the ballot, from the perspective of quality, but aren’t. There are — thankfully — always more good SF/F novels in a year than may fit on a Nebula ballot.

And not just novels but novellas, novelettes, short stories, YA novels and screenplays, those being categories that SFWA awards annually. I mean, let me use me as an example: My novella The Dispatcher was eligible for the Novella category this year. It was very well reviewed, had a huge audience, and is already up for other awards. I’m a well-known and (mostly) liked science fiction writer, and former president of SFWA, so I’m also familiar to the folks who nominate for the Nebula. The Dispatcher should be a shoo-in for a nomination, yes? Yes! I say yes! A thousand times!

But — surprise! — it’s nowhere on the Nebula novella ballot. Is this a snub? I mean, maybe — perhaps malign forces at SFWA aligned against me simply because of who I am — but the far more reasonable and likely correct answer is: The people who nominated for the Nebula awards this year simply decided on other novellas instead. There were many fine novellas this year, and the Nebula ballot reflects this, as all the novellas on it are eminently worth award consideration. I don’t consider The Dispatcher not being on the Nebula ballot a snub. It consider it a sign that it’s a really competitive year, with many excellent things to read. As a reader of the genre, and as a professional who wants the field to thrive, I really can’t complain.

I think it’s perfectly fine to champion books and stories and to be disappointed when people nominating for awards don’t have the same enthusiasm for them, in aggregate, as you do. But remember when that happens, it’s almost always not a “snub” of the thing you love, but rather an affirmation of the things the other person loves, and probably without reference to the thing you are championing. It’s a good perspective to have, in my opinion.

19 thoughts on “Reminder: There’s No Such Thing as an Automatic Award Nomination

  1. I was annoyed that Inverse doesn’t have commenting so I couldn’t respond to Ryan on this (I could have done it on Facebook, I suppose, as we are friends, but that seemed churlish). Anyway, I had lots of thoughts, but it boiled down to “Which two of these books don’t deserve to be there?” Because they ALL do. This is an extremely strong shortlist.

    Borderline is one of the most original urban fantasy novels I’ve ever read. Ninefox Gambit is mind-bending space opera/military fiction like I’ve never seen it before. The Obelisk Gate deepens the world of the book that won the Hugo last year. All the Birds in the Sky (my pick to win) is deeply moving and fresh and genuine. And Everfair is a vibrant, necessary alternate history. I liked both alternates Britt suggested, but I couldn’t put either above any of these five. (And the reverse would also be true.)

  2. I was disappointed that neither “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead nor “The Book of Esther” by Emily Barton were on the Nebula ballot. But that’s not a snub as much as it is a question of whether or not members of SFWA had these books on their radar as genre books.

  3. Also, I wonder if later books in a series are at a disadvantage, simply because if folks didn’t like the first few Corey books, they are less likely to pick up the new one, even if the writers’ craft has improved.

  4. My only issue with Obelisk Gate (almost typed Obelix, I’m behind on reading my French comics) is that, like the first book, it isn’t a complete story, it merely stops. I’d have been happier nominating the whole trilogy next year for the Hugo, but for the fact that book 1 won it already. Compare this to her Inheritance trilogy, which has three mostly-independent stories. Or Leckie’s Ancillary series, which is a standalone story, then a book that feels like a small episode of a TV series but is really the first half of the second story (that really pays off).

  5. I’ve said the same about the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys et al for years. A snub is an active rejection. If there just happened to be too many contenders the voters liked better than your fave, that’s just how it goes.

  6. I have very little to say about this post, other than to say that a bunch of recent posts of yours have revealed to me the fact that “malign” can be used as an adjective, as well as a verb (whereas I always would have used “malignant” in the past, for adjectivish purposes. Hrmm, that’s not right. Adjectival? Chrome spellcheck likes that one. Let’s go with that.)

  7. Am in total agreement that 2016 was a blast of outstanding SF/F coming at us from all directions. Really good year!

    For the record, Corey and I got off to a rocky start. That whole zombie vomit thing lost me immediately, so I fit into Becca Stareyes comment above. Cixin Liu’s a genius, but the reality of an increasingly isolationist-protectionist world scene would have lost him the award this year. No one will reward that right now. Yes, a political view, but why list a book doomed to lose?

    The biggest surprise to me is all the hype around Ninefox Gambit. Perhaps I’m just too stupid to get it. Can anyone explain to me simply exactly what a calendric hexarchate is, and why anyone would choose that as a world view? I love Yoon Ha Lee’s short stories, even though some of them are in that same universe, but just can’t see why this has captivated so many.

    And absolutely true that the only part of this comment that is relevant to anything is the first sentence.

  8. I have a feeling series, especially long series, have a harder time getting nominated as there is a smaller pool of potential readers(unless the previous book actually won).

    As for The Dispatcher, the fact that is wasn’t published in print surely didn’t help.

  9. Travis:

    Possibly didn’t help, although audio-first work has been nominated for Hugos before, including one of mine: Metatropolis got a Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form nod. But the Hugos are indeed a different award.

  10. Do they release how many nominations and the votes all the nominees get for the the nebulas? I know they do for the Hugos. This is limited to just SFWA members. I dont know how many care enough to even vote. The nominee totals and vote totals could be pretty low.

  11. I wouldn’t limit a snub to deliberate efforts to keep something off an awards ballot; more like something else of generally inferior quality (however that’s defined, and of course subjective as all get out) was nominated instead. The Boston Globe has that example in their annual Oscars preview. The two critics choose which nominee “Will Win”, “Should Win” and “Shouldn’t Be Here”, the latter being something or someone they consider to be inferior to several other potential nominees who didn’t make the cut. Again, very subjective. I don’t recall the category, but in it this year, one critic’s “shouldn’t be here” was the other’s “should win”. YMMV.

  12. @vonneanton : I pretty much bounced of Ninefox Gambit myself, but I think the idea is of a magic system that depends on the belief (and, in a sense, a kind of loyalty/obedience) of the population.

    If you’re familiar with Terry Pratchett’s idea of gods as creatures that are created, shaped, empowered by human belief, this is kind of like that — except the belief here isn’t in one being; it’s in the metaphysics of the universe.

    It’s even closer to the conceit of the Mage: The Ascension roleplaying game — which posits that the world works how people think it works; that demons and magic exist because people believe it does. And that Technocracy isn’t studying and applying science to the world — it’s getting people to believe in the idea of technology — because that’s what’s going to keep demons and crazy bad stuff from existing (believing that they don’t exist!), and because in this paradigm, powerful wizards will be creating stuff everybody can use (i.e., technology) instead of just being insanely powerful themselves.)

    So the idea isn’t that people believe in the hexarchate calendric system specifically, and certainly not on its own merit. The idea is that those in power need to keep the population in line, believing their very specific, well-calibrated system, because their power depends on that belief. It’s an intriguing dynamic.

    To be honest, I felt like the system was underwhelming — at least as far as I got, it felt hand-waved, with no real explanations what it was capable of. All the actual details kind of wound up as “and then my computer did some mathy math math.” OTOH, it’s a cool idea. And I’m sure a lot of people loved the protagonist, or the military tone, or the robots. (Or the dead general. Him too.)

    What I do highly recommend, whether you liked Ninefox Gambit or not, “Foxfire, Foxfire” — a short story by the same author, Yoon Ha Lee. It’s about a fox who needs to kill one hundred men to become human themselves. It’s a great piece, and short, and I highly recommend :)

    (Possibly double-posted, apologies if so.)

  13. @ Rochrist & Joel Cunningham: Particularly annoying since he cites and links to the Nebula rules in support of Death’s End’s eligibility but obviously didn’t read them far enough to find how nominations work.

  14. “Can anyone explain to me simply exactly what a calendric hexarchate is, and why anyone would choose that as a world view”

    Ninefox Gambit takes place in a universe where if enough people believe in and celebrate the same holidays/rituals then you can tell the laws of physics to shut up and sit down. The hexarcate (an empire divided into six clans) therefore wants to enforce strict adherence to their calendar, because otherwise all of their superweapons don’t work. Don’t worry that not understanding this meant you missed out on anything, because I can promise that Ninefox Gambit is still a lousy book, and an excellent answer to the “What would you take off the list?” question, even if you do understand it.

  15. @Joel Cunningham

    Thanks for your first comment. Your single-sentence descriptions of each book succinctly capture the reason I should care about it.

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