Hugo Voting, “Good” Stories, and Politics

I just submitted my Hugo ballot for 2015. We’ll know soon enough who won what. We’ve had months of online arguing about who should win and why, and I’m sure we’ll soon have months of arguing about who won and why, and if you’re at all like me, you’re sick to death of the whole business. So, I’m not going to talk about who I voted for or why I think they should win. Instead, I want to talk about two ideas that have arisen from the conversations that have unfolded around the Hugos this year. Both have to do with how we evaluate stories and both, I think, are founded in misguided ideas about what a story is.

The ideas I’m talking about are:

1. “We should vote for stories that are good, not just the ones we like”

Most of the time, I like things because I think they are good and I think things are good because I like them.

There’s some slippage around the edges. There are some things that I can see are technically well executed, but that I don’t enjoy (The Hunger Games, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica), and there are some things I enjoy despite their technical failings (early-season Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Princess Bride). For the most part, though, the overlap between “stuff I like” and “stuff I think is good” comes pretty close to 100%.

There is no objective standard of what makes a story “good.” You can’t measure and quantify it. There are things that a lot of people agree on about what makes for a good story, but subjectivity in large amounts is not the same as objectivity. Lots of people think that Ender’s Game is a great work of science fiction, but in the end all that means is that lots of people like it.

Calling on people to vote for stories that are “good” is meaningless. If nothing else, the controversy around this year’s Hugo nominees has been an excellent demonstration of the fact that we all have different definitions of what good means. We vote for the stories we like because those are the stories we think are good. The winners will be the stories that the greatest number of people liked, and that’s all there is to it.

2. “We shouldn’t judge a story on whether we agree with its politics or not”

As one of my college writing teachers told us: “A story is an experiment in moral physics.” At the core of a story, any story, is an idea about how the world does, could, or should work. You can call that politics or a message, but all it is in the end is an idea, and an idea that shapes how the world of a story works and how its characters interact with one another is just as integral to that story as any other element.

It is just as legitimate to judge a story on its ideas as on its plot, characters, dialogue, or any other element. A vital part of what make so many of us love, say, The Lord of the Rings is the idea that doing the right thing matters, even when it seems like no one will ever notice or care. Without that guiding idea, the story would not be at all the same. When we are deciding whether we like a story or not, we cannot take the ideas of that story out of the picture and it would be a mistake to try.

And that is all I have to say about the 2015 Hugos. You pay your money and you cast your vote. We’ll see the results soon enough.

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.


One thought on “Hugo Voting, “Good” Stories, and Politics

  1. Erik August 31, 2015 / 15:20

    This post sparked an interesting bit of discussion on The Wordsmith’s Forge: – which made me realize that I didn’t do a very good job addressing the specific question of politics in fiction, so here’s a short addendum.

    I would not say, as some people have, that all stories are political. I understand why some people hold that view, but I think it gives “political” too broad a meaning to be useful.

    All stories contain ideas. (At least, I have yet to read one that doesn’t.) Some of those ideas are explicitly political, along the lines of “Socialism is evil and all the smart people should just skip town and build themselves a utopia free of any altruism.” Others are much less so, like “Nice old ladies who listen patiently and pay attention to people’s pasts can be excellent detectives.” People can disagree about how political an idea is. “Feminine pronouns can be the default” doesn’t seem like a particularly political idea to me, but to other people it is.

    Regardless of whether a story’s ideas are political or not, they are a part of it and are just as legitimately up for our judgment as any other part. Liking as story’s ideas (political or otherwise) is as good a reason for supporting it as liking its characters, plot, setting, or prose style.


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