Best Series is a popularity contest

According to Worldcon 75, next year will mark an introduction of a new Hugo award category. Helsinki will trial a Hugo for Best Series. According to press release, it has a simple criteria:

An eligible work for this special award is a multi-volume science fiction or fantasy story, unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, which has appeared in at least three volumes consisting of a total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the calendar year 2016, at least one volume of which was published in 2016.

The actual proposal for 2018 is a bit more wordy (PDF), since it also takes into account some of the problems a non-trial category would face. Either way, I’m, at best, lukewarm about it.

Series galore

Last year, Eric Flint wrote about the discrepancy between popularity in bookstores and winning (Hugo) awards. I then pointed out, that the big time bookstore magnets tend to write series. So, on the face of it, adding a new category could bring the awards closer to general populace.

Of course, taking a look at this year’s Hugo nominees, you’ll soon notice series already play a significant role. The Best Novel winner, N. K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season is first book of The Broken Earth series, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy was part of the Imperial Radch saga, and Jim Butcher started a new series with The Aeronaut’s Windlass. In the novella category, the winner – Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – is scheduled to have a sequel in the beginning of next year. Penric’s Demon already has one (Penric and the Shaman), and anyway it’s part of Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods.

Take a look at past years, and you’ll notice the same – in 2015 four out of five novel finalists were part of a series. And even if the last few years look like it, it’s not just the first parts of a series winning. Past winners include sequels such as Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling.

This means that in some years, we might end up with the same author winning both Best Novel and Best Series with the same work. If some massively successful series comes along, it might win multiple categories with different length installments.

That, to me, is a problem. Series, by definition, is not an individual work. It becomes eligible as a side effect of a work eligible in other award categories.

Reader’s dilemma

The bigger problem with the series award, however, is the strain it puts on the voters and readers.

In an ideal world, nominators nominate the best they’ve read, and when the finalists are announced, all the eligible voters scramble to get their hands on the candidates.

Would people read all 31 books of Terry BrooksShannara series?

How does that work for series? Would people really read four books of The Gentleman Bastard? Six books of A Song of Ice and Fire? Sixteen books of The Dresden Files? 31 books of The Riftwar Cycle?

Many of the voters may be familiar with some of the series, and of course you don’t need to read all the volumes to get a feel of the whole. But it’s still a lot of words for a single category.

Re-eligibility of a nominee

The actual series proposal suggests a non-winning nominee for Best Series could become re-eligible after at least two additional tomes and 240 000 words. If the series is long enough and the writer prolific enough, you might see the same series popping up every few years, adding at least quarter of a million words to the reading effort every time.

You see, that’s another thing about the popular series: they hook their readers. Even if the quality wanes, it’s hard to let go of a series you’ve started – and some of those series have gone on for 40 years.

There’s nothing wrong with the same author and series being nominated multiple times; that happens regularly with other categories. In this case, however, it’s not just the latest installation that should be considered. It’s the whole body of work, which may span multiple authors, media, and decades.

More than any other written fiction category, Best Series has makings of a popularity contest in it: people will vote for whatever they are familiar with and attached to. That’s fine for selecting what to read next, but it shouldn’t be grounds for a Hugo.

P.S. The rules, as dictated in the press release, are fine for a trial in 2017. I’m not sure what we’ll get out of the trial, though.

P.P.S. Particularly with the current self-publishing movement, some authors seem to follow a “release early, release often” strategy. Occasionally that may result in interesting series where none of the individual parts really fit in Hugo categories. I don’t think a series category will change that.

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