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OPINIONBooksAugust 5, 2020

How NZ’s best fantasy and science fiction writers got shafted on a global stage

(Image: BlackJack3D/Getty)
(Image: BlackJack3D/Getty)

The Sir Julius Vogel Awards last Thursday were meant to be a celebration of some of our best genre writers. It didn’t turn out that way, as Casey Lucas, one of the winners, explains.

This is the story of how the nominees and recipients of the 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, New Zealand’s most prominent honours for science fiction and fantasy writers, were sidelined at an event meant to centre them.

In August 2018, voters at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California voted to host the 78th iteration of the convention in Wellington. The convention, known colloquially as WorldCon, is the world’s most prominent celebration of science fiction and fantasy literature. It’s a chance for fans to mingle with the creators they love, for experts in their fields to share their wisdom with fans and fellow authors, and for attendees and authors to vote for – and perhaps even win – the coveted Hugo Awards, one of the eminent awards of genre fiction.

This convention was to take place over July and August 2020, bringing some of the biggest names in the field to Aotearoa. Our Sir Julius Vogel Awards, recognising the best in New Zealand science fiction and fantasy, would be awarded on the same stage as their prestigious international counterparts.

But, well, we all know what happened to international stages in 2020.

The organisers of CoNZealand and their team of volunteers worked tirelessly to convert the convention, which wound up on Sunday, into a virtual experience. Unfortunately, now the dust has settled, and despite CoNZealand’s apology, many of us fans, writers, nominees, and award winners are left feeling like the air has cleared to reveal something ugly.

Criticism has been rightly levied at Hugo Awards toastmaster, bestselling author George RR Martin of Game of Thrones fame, who presented the awards via a series of livestreams and pre-recorded introductions from his home in America. These criticisms point out his transphobic jokes, his insistence on glorifying racists and sexual assaulters of the past, and, most damningly, his careless mispronunciation of many nominees’ names.

Many silly hats were worn by George R.R. Martin during his debacle of a Hugo Awards Toastmaster performance (Photos: Supplied)

Others more eloquent and more immediately affected than myself have covered Martin. I urge you to read the responses on Twitter from L.D. Lewis of FIYAH, Chimedum Ohaegbu of Uncanny, and the many-times-nominated author and editor Nibedita Sen. The Spinoff’s own Sam Brooks has covered the Hugo Awards ceremony fiasco here.

But I’m going to do what the Hugo Awards committee was afraid to do and stop giving Martin airtime. Because I’m here to document a completely different phenomenon – one that has only been generating chatter once the immediate shocking aftermath of the Hugos’ disrespect to its own nominees had passed.

It began as murmurs in chat rooms, posts on social media platforms, questions posed on industry Slacks and Discords: say, where was the New Zealand representation at the Hugo Awards ceremony? The New Zealand presenters? What of the karakia, the acknowledgement of mana whenua? Aside from a few jokes, a ramble about our gorgeous country, an admittedly brilliant segment on the artists who crafted the physical Hugo trophies, and a stuffed kiwi on a desk, there was no New Zealand content.

Those who attended the WorldCon held in Helsinki, Finland in 2017 commented on the stark contrast. That ceremony, organised in part by the Turku Science Fiction Society, presented Finland’s Atorox Award alongside its international counterparts. So … what about our local awards ceremony?

The Sir Julius Vogel Award ceremony, pre-recorded the prior Sunday night, was broadcast to the convention at 11am on a Thursday, meaning it was competing for attention with the convention highlight, a Guests of Honour talk running concurrently. Not only that, it was tacked on the back end of the Retro Hugo Awards, a ceremony that pays homage to genre greats of the past, and which this year dedicated valuable airtime to extolling the virtues of famous dead racists John W Campbell and HP Lovecraft, among others.

Imagine yourself as a young writer nominated for your first literary award. Imagine finding out that award will be part of the biggest, most prestigious gathering of your genre’s luminaries. Imagine then finding out that your ceremony will be broadcast while everyone else is watching the guests of honour speak.

Imagine yourself logging into the broadcast of your ceremony regardless, because damn it, this is your moment. And your friends are there with you, so many talented friends who have spent hours volunteering to make this event happen and many more hours yet writing the works that got them on that ballot.

Cover art by Vivienne To (for the book Dragon Pearl) which won a Sir Julius Vogel award for best professional artwork (Image: Supplied)

When the prerecorded Retro Hugos ceremony began highlighting the works of Campbell and Lovecraft, many viewers were rightly disgusted. They tuned out. They changed the channel to watch a different slot of programming.

Imagine yourself as that young writer, watching people speak their disgust and depart. “Haven’t these ghosts of our past won enough awards?” someone asked in the chat. “Did we really need to prop up Lovecraft’s corpse again?” asked another. The viewer count ticked down as, due to a combination of technical difficulties and backward-thinking content, convention attendees gave up.

It’s the equivalent of watching the crowd at your ceremony get up and walk out the door just as you’re about to take the podium.

Imagine then finding out, not through an earnest apology but through internet gossip, that your voter packet – the free archive of nominated books disseminated to thousands of convention attendees so that they can make informed votes – was never even sent out to the audience.

That’s right. It seems our works were never even offered to the greater voting body who decided our fate, nor were those people told they were eligible to vote for us, except in two passing newsletter footnotes without links to any voting forms. We had spent hours formatting our work and the organisers had spent ages compiling it into a Google drive – which was then effectively shoved into a drawer and forgotten.

Was this a deliberate omission? Were we simply overlooked? Did they feel this was fine to do to us because as New Zealanders, we are perceived as distant and insignificant? Or, the most crushing thought of all: it’s like they were embarrassed by us.

I do not write fiction for awards. I do not even write fiction for sales, releasing the majority of my work for free online. I am lucky enough to make video games and comics for a living. It would be easy to sigh, shrug, and chalk it up to organisational dysfunction.

But here’s the thing about podiums, be they physical or virtual. When you win something, you have an opportunity to speak up. As the Sir Julius Vogels ceremony was pre-recorded, we were robbed of the opportunity to speak up about how the convention programming treated us.

I want to note that thanks to the hard work of organisers Lynelle Howell and John Toon, who also deserved far greater recognition than the convention lent them, us nominees were treated to a brilliant night in person that we will never, ever forget. So much talent and aroha, in a room full of the bright young queer, indigenous, immigrant, disabled, and neurodiverse voices who are the future of our genre.

Winners with their Sir Julius Vogel Awards (Photo: Twitter)

But on the wider virtual stage? Those writers got the shaft. They got angry tears. They got a gaping, New Zealand-shaped hole in the programming agenda. Like the Hugo nominees whose host could not even be bothered to respect their names, they had their moment of triumph derailed. Why did I mention these writers’ ethnicities, sexual orientations, immigrant status, or disabilities? Because writers like us are used to being pushed to the margins of mainstream programming. We did not expect it to happen so close to home.

I was not formally involved with the convention, save as a panel participant and an award winner. I do not know who made the final call on these decisions. Having worked on events in the past, I can guess it was probably a horrendous confluence of several committees butting up against one another while trying to make an event happen under nearly impossible circumstances. If this is the case, I have empathy.

And hell, to an extent I can even understand the actions of those who worked on the Hugo Awards ceremony – the George RR Martin shambles – even if I furiously disagree with their choices. Martin is as big a name as it gets. In my years as an editor, I have had the unenviable task of wrangling creators who are “too big to fail”. Masters of their genre whose fame and sales and influence tip the scales heavily in favour of them being able to completely ignore any edits you’d make to their work. Of course, in editor land, we all know that makes for worse creative work, but I digress.

These authors, the best in their field that Aotearoa New Zealand has to offer, deserved better.

While science fiction and fantasy are often regarded at eyebrow-raised distance from the wider literary scene, the works on this year’s Sir Julius Vogel ballot addressed subjects as meaty as any literary novel. These works tackled colonialism, history, sexism, family, friendship, belonging, disability, illness, divorce, love, redemption. They gave voices to the phantoms of our country’s history and identity, our lore and our pūrākau and our dreams for the future.

Our longstanding isolation from the wider literary community only makes it bite all the deeper that the SJV nominees had to fight for recognition within our own convention, meant to celebrate our own genre.

Big winners at the 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards. From left: best novel, best youth novel, and best novella (Images: Supplied)

Like many nations across the world, Aotearoa New Zealand must continually confront and examine its colonial history and its colonial present. Genre fiction allows us to explore the tangles of our real-world identities and the scars of our past – while also giving us free rein to imagine something better. Yet the genre fiction community itself must face a similar reckoning: why do we always find ourselves stepping up onto the podium only to look over our shoulder at the past?

When I ponder writing as an act, I think often of Tina Makereti’s powerful University of Auckland Public Lecture: Poutokomanawa — The Heartpost. Makereti herself is a powerhouse who seamlessly blends genre elements into her literary work in a way that is unique to our country, our perspective.

I want you to think about what you would like to see at the heart of your national literature. I know that my literary poutokomanawa begins deep in the lands and seas of Aotearoa, where the stories of this country began, aeons ago, and that even then our whakapapa connected us to the entire Pacific.

I know that eventually our stories became inextricably linked with another culture from far away, and then more. I know that what makes us strong is this story — not of an inherited English literature, but of the extraordinary mix of language and narrative and metaphor that could only take root in this one place on Earth.

Like Makereti says, we as a culture must be mindful of what we center when building things. So too must organisers of events like this. The runners of future WorldCons in Chicago and the bid in Brisbane have promised to do better, but these are promises writers on the margins have heard before. In order for WorldCon to truly live up to its name, host cities must be willing to build their conventions on a bedrock of respect for the local community and culture. CoNZealand had plenty of local flavour in its panels, readings, and book launches, including a brilliant piece on genre fiction and te ao Māori. The programming gave us a glimpse: the awards ceremonies did not have to be this way.

The works on show at this year’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards could not have come from anywhere else. These stories carry in their bones the complex cultural history of Aotearoa, and the world was robbed of the opportunity to appreciate and cherish them. As Makereti says, Aotearoa New Zealand’s stories are kindled in the fires that burned when this planet was still new. Bold new voices in our literary world are already carrying that fire towards futures both realistic and fantastical – now it’s time for our awards and institutions to do the same. To lead us forward rather than hold us back.

A full list of finalists and winners of the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, including links to buy, is available here. Congratulations all. 


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