On the Hugo Award for Best Series

Last year, the WorldCon business meeting approved a new Hugo Award for Best Series. What’s eligible for this award?

A multi-installment science fiction or fantasy story, unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, appearing in at least three (3) installments consisting in total of at least 240,000 words by the close of 2017, at least one (1) installment of which was published in 2017.

This is, by design, very open-ended. There is no requirement that a series be completed—and that’s fine, because neither the Hugo Administrator nor Hugo voters should be expected to be clairvoyant. The 1966 Worldcon voted Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy a special “Best All-Time Series” award under the assumption that it would end with Second Foundation; in 1966, Foundation’s Edge and its progeny could not have been reasonably foreseen.

However, just because something can’t be legislated doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be kept in mind while nominating and voting. The standard I intend to apply is that to be worthy of a Best Series Hugo, a story must be fully satisfying even if no other installments are ever published. This does not necessarily mean a story must be conclusively over. For instance, while I can certainly imagine new installments in the Vorkosigan Saga, last year’s winner in the award’s trial run (and if Lois McMaster Bujold wants to write them I’d happily read them), my enjoyment of the series will not be diminished if Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is ultimately the final installment. But I don’t think a series that is clearly incomplete is award-worthy, and I’m not inclined to grant credit for future work. Everybody can think of a series that started strong and then went off the rails. I’m not comfortable coming back in the future and saying “this received the Best Series Award but you need to ignore its conclusion”. I don’t even love new books getting a “Hugo-Nominated [or Hugo Winning] Series” stamp from their publisher when the Hugo electorate hasn’t had a chance to read the book yet, although I recognize that marketers are going to pull that kind of thing regardless.

I do not intend to nominate any series that does not meet this criteria, and I urge others to do likewise. I will also likely rank any clearly incomplete series nominated below No Award, although I might consider a series whose final installment is published in 2018 before the voting deadline, as such a series would be ineligible for future nomination. And yes, I fully anticipate that I will rank something I quite like below No Award.

While I strongly believe that an incomplete series isn’t award-worthy, I’m also motivated a bit by necessary reading triage. Last year’s Best Series nominations involved, if I’m counting right, 52 novels and assorted short fiction. I might be able to read all of that in the two-and-a-half months available for voting, but it would be a close call, especially given that I occasionally like to do things with my spare time other than reading. And that’s not factoring in the six novels, six novellas, six related works, the new YA award, the Campbell Award, etc. on the ballot. (Obviously I will have read some of these already, but likely not enough to make a huge difference. I also don’t think I’ve read much from 1942, and there are Retro Hugos….) While I might want to read incomplete series that end up getting nominated (recommendations are a good thing, especially when the Hugo Packet provides free samples), I’m not going to feel pressured to do so before July.

I know I’m conflating “incomplete” with “fully satisfying if no other installments are ever published”, which isn’t completely accurate. The biggest tension here is series that are unified by setting but have neither a single overarching story nor a defined endpoint. The obvious example to me is the Discworld, which I would argue to be clearly award-worthy but also didn’t “complete” until after Terry Pratchett’s death. The old quotation about recognizing people while they’re alive to enjoy it applies. Of course, the same issues with potential future quality decline apply as well. Some questions don’t have easy answers.

While it might be difficult to find satisfactory completed series every year, N. K. Jemisin’s exceptional Broken Earth trilogy is eligible for the 2018 Best Series Hugo. I’m nominating it. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to do so.