On Saturday the man behind Game of Thrones hosted the ceremony for the prestigious Hugo Awards. Sam Brooks recaps.
In a blog post just over a year ago, American writer George RR Martin said that New Zealand had “formal written permission” to jail him if he didn’t have The Winds of Winter (the latest entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, the series now known as Game of Thrones) in hand. Specifically, he said that his fans could imprison him in a small cabin on White Island (eek) until he was done. At the time, Martin was set to be the Toastmaster at Worldcon, the colloquial name for CoNZealand, the 78th edition of the World Science Fiction Convention. It was going to happen in Wellington.
A year has passed. A pandemic has swept the globe like Drogon laying waste to King’s Landing. Martin does not have The Winds of Winter in his soft writerly hands, in New Zealand or anywhere else in the world. Thankfully/unfortunately, depending on your tolerance for cringe, he retained his post as the Toastmaster at the 2020 Hugo Awards, the most prestigious science fiction literary awards in the world, this weekend. But instead of Wellington he found himself in a streaming purple velvet prison of his own making:
To say that Martin’s stint as Toastmaster was a mixed bag is an insult to the institution that is the New Zealand dairy lolly mixture. I’ll put it in terms both you and he can understand: it was the hosting equivalent of the eighth season of Game of Thrones. Long, rambling, unsatisfying, and could use a few more lights.
You knew it was not going to be good from the first few minutes, which were plagued by technical difficulties that continued through the entire ceremony. They should have looked to the Ockhams this year for guidance, honestly. Not only was Martin dressed like someone who would list “card tricks” on his resume, he seemed unsure of where exactly to look, and appeared to have only a glancing familiarity with what he planned to say. There were the requisite tributes to New Zealand; he called us an “amazing, hospitable, friendly bunch”, to which I’ll say: check out a few of our headlines from the past few weeks, bud. He also called us “Middle Earth”.
He spent five minutes listing countries from all around the world (reminding us which countries were beautiful and which he had friends in), hoping that they were tuning in to his speech which looked like it was delivered from a nightclub in a David Lynch film, flanked by plushies. It was an introduction that was full of reminiscing about past Hugo Award ceremonies – and thus about old white guys – recited with the sort of patter that you might expect from a man who interrupts a conversation about a movie to read from the IMDB trivia page. For someone who has made a considerable living from storytelling, he appeared to be pretty shit at telling stories. The entire hosting gig was full of these sorts of memories, the sort that felt garnered less from his actual memory and more from the work of some tireless archivists at the Hugo Awards. Martin’s history with the Hugos is clear, and his words were full of enthusiasm and love for them, even if his delivery was not.
The one disarmingly human moment of Martin’s monologue? Right at the start, when he said, sadly and plaintively, “I am looking at myself and definitely not seeing myself.” The most relatable thing that Martin has ever written, and he probably ad-libbed it. And much like Emilia Clarke’s performance as Daenerys Targaryen, this gig did not get better.
The rest of the ceremony included some inspiring speeches (go check out those by RF Kuang and Thea James – you can view them here in a supercut called “When the Toastmaster Talks Less”) interspersed with pre-recorded announcements of the nominees by Martin himself, in a variety of different hats. Many, many different hats. Think of the most hats you can possibly think of, then add five. That is the amount of hats that George RR Martin goes through in the pre-recorded segments and live segments of this award ceremony.
At one point, he engages in some prop work with a juicer, comparing it to a Hugo Award (a silver rocket ship). Amongst the many things that Martin cannot do, including finish a series of novels he has motivations both financial and creative to finish, is master the subtle art of prop comedy:
It’s what I always say: George RR Martin, you are no Carrot Top.
It’s less that these jokes weren’t funny and more that they were at odds with the often political and pointed speeches by many of the award recipients, including an award given to Jeanette Ng for her acceptance speech the previous year, a speech that led to that award being renamed from the John W. Campbell Award to the Astounding Award. In person, you can imagine Martin would be able to roll with the punches, or at least the politics, but remotely, he seemed at odds with the dialogue going on in the (virtual) room.
In the second hour (!!!!) of the stream, he is accompanied by this woman whose offscreen look speaks for us all:
This woman, whose name I didn’t catch, ended up presenting a few awards, and seemed as delightfully baffled by technical difficulties as I’m sure the audience was.
Further marring Martin’s gig was his consistent mispronunciations of award recipients’ names. To those watching, this was outrageous, given that before the ceremony all nominees provided a phonetic spelling of their name and were given the chance to provide a recording of the correct pronunciation. For this and for discussing certain problematic authors at length, Martin has been widely accused of racism. He contends that only some names were passed on to him, and only shortly before he had to read them; the organisers have issued a broad apology, conceding “we did not overcome the challenges we faced”.
It’s not difficult to forgive Martin for being ignorant of how to pronounce names unfamiliar to him – one or two is within the margin of error. It’s harder to forgive him when he can’t pronounce names that are canon in his genre, or when he celebrates names he should know better about.
Related: let’s also consider this list of names from his book series that Martin presumably expects readers to be able to pronounce, even if only in their heads:
Still, on some level, you have to feel for the guy. In his apology/explanation, delivered via comment on file700, a long-running science fiction zine-turned-site, Martin said:
“As to the general tenor of my toasting … my intent from the very start was to make the evening one of fun and celebration. Since I expected a great many of those present to be Kiwis attending their con, I thought laying out the history of the awards was more than appropriate. Where the Hugos came from, how the trophy evolved over the decades, who has won it in the past — and who has lost it, something I tried to stress throughout, given my long history as a Hugo loser. Plus amusing anecdotes. The year Lester gave the awards backwards, the year RAH burst from the kitchen, etc.
… Most of the stories I told last night were time-tested, in a sense. I have told those same stories before. Usually they get big laughs. Or medium sized laughs, in any case. That was what I was hoping to hear from the audience in Wellington. Laughs. And appreciation for the long and colorful history of this field we all love: the writers, the editors, the fans, the living and the dead.”
Let’s be frank here: hosting an awards show is a hard act. Some of the best MCs in the world bail at the Oscars, with a team of writers and an entire production team around them. To host an awards show of comparable length, with your only support team being your hats, your plushies, the mystery sidekick woman, and some remote presenters, is an epic feat. George RR Martin is not George Carlin, you guys. Nobody read or watched Game of Thrones for the jokes. Even the most experienced, professional MCs, who front up every single night, have struggled in the Zoom era of hosting. To host an award show that aims to honour the entire history of the awards, remotely, mixing both live presentations with pre-recorded ones, is a nightmare.
At least Martin had the hats down.
I would’ve sent this one back for some notes, though:
NB: a piece covering the broader fallout from this year’s convention will be published by The Spinoff shortly.