Neil Gaiman, R.F. Kuang and Xiran Jay Zhao were deemed ineligible for works that are “sensitive” to China.

The Hugo Awards, highly regarded for their contribution to the science fiction genre as one of the lanterns that lights the way forward, have recently encountered a challenging situation. When Chengdu, China was chosen as the location for the 2023 Worldcon, concerns were raised that the government of China would exert an undue influence on the awards, and, well, here we are.

The 2023 World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, took place in Chengdu, China. Worldcon’s location varies annually, with cities worldwide bidding to host. Chengdu was chosen over Winnipeg, Nice, and Memphis, with Glasgow and Seattle scheduled for the subsequent two years.

The discussion centers on the exclusion of certain works from the 2023 Hugo Awards ballot. These works, previously nominated, were later declared “ineligible” without a detailed explanation, other than a general reference to the World Science Fiction Society’s Constitution. Notably, the removed works shared a common theme: critique of Communist China. To say this raised eyebrows would be a massive, massive understatement.

In 2023, China demonstrated significant enthusiasm for hosting Worldcon, evidenced by building a large science fiction museum for the event and a surge in local WSFS memberships (which, thinking on it, could all have been memberships bought by the People’s Republic of China, the only Communist Party-led state among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. I mean, what did everybody think was going to happen?).

The choice of Chengdu as the venue raised concerns among over a hundred authors, who penned an open letter highlighting human rights issues in China, specifically referencing the treatment of the Uyghurs. The letter stated: “As science fiction and fantasy authors, we imagine brave new worlds in our fiction. We challenge power, authority and the status quo, where grave injustices may be perpetrated without accountability or reparation. We write underdogs and outsiders who disrupt power structures and overthrow cruel overlords.” This open letter was ignored, and plans went ahead anyway.

However, questions arose when the Hugo Award winners were announced but the ballot details were withheld until January 20th. Notably, R.F. Kuang’s “Babel,” Xiran Jay Zhao, and an episode of “The Sandman” were marked as “ineligible.” Kuang expressed her concerns about the lack of clarity regarding this decision.

Now, it appears that it was indeed censorship, but from within the Worldcon organization itself, not the CCP. In a report on File 770, Chris Barkley and Jason Sanford report that e-mails leaked by Diane Lacey, who was part of the Hugo administration committee, confirm that McCarty had directed other members of the 2023 Hugo administrators to “highlight anything of a sensitive political nature” in China, including any works that focused “on China, taiwan, tibet or other topics that may be an issue in China.” (sic) Finalists should be vetted to make sure they would be safe to include on the ballot. In another e-mail, McCarty wrote, “I will try to get better guidance when I have a chance to dig into this deeper with the Chinese folks on the committee.” It’s still not clear whether or not McCarty was taking any “guidance” from the Chinese government.

Lacey confirmed with the New York Times that she had released the e-mails, saying she wanted to make certain the Hugos would not be compromised in the future. “I felt very guilty about what I did and wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror again,” she said. Lacey has served as administrator for the Hugos in 2009, 2011, and 2016, and was on the 2023 committee along with McCarty, Yalow, Shi, Ann Marie Rudolph, Joe Yao, Tina Wang, Dongsheng Guo, and Bo Pang. The e-mail chain appears to include only the Western administrators.

In an apology letter sent to File 770, Lacey wrote, “Let me start by saying that I am NOT making excuses, there are no adequate excuses. I am thoroughly ashamed of my part in this debacle, and I will likely never forgive myself. But the fans that have supported the Hugos, the nominees, and those that were unfairly and erroneously deemed ineligible in particular, deserve an explanation. Perhaps the only way I can even begin to ease my conscience is to provide one.”

In an e-mail dated June 5, 2023, McCarty wrote, “In addition to the regular technical review, as we are happening in China and the laws we operate under are different…we need to highlight anything of a sensitive political nature in the work. It’s not necessary to read everything, but if the work focuses on China, taiwan, tibet (sic), or other topics that may be an issue in China…that needs to be highlighted so that we can determine if it is safe to put it on the ballot if the law will require us to make an administrative decision about it.”

Kat Jones, who was also included in the e-mails, wrote about the Best Fan Writer category on June 7, “This category has the potential to be problematic, under the constraints you’ve listed, for most non-Chinese fan writers.” Jones was peripherally involved in the Hugo process, and she has since released her own statement and has resigned her position as Hugo administrator for the 2024 event in Glasgow. In her statement, she writes, “I was not involved in the evaluation of the data we flagged – and you’ll note in those emails we all expressed confusion over the vague instructions and had no idea whether anything we were mentioning was an actual problem. I had serious concerns at this point about this process. I stepped back and did no further work for the Chengdu Worldcon after the first pass of eligibility research.”

Lacey herself raised possible issues with regard to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. In addition to concerns about Zhao, Lacey highlighted Naseem Jamnia and Sue Lynn Tan. Jamnia would make it to the final ballot, while Tan didn’t have enough nominations.

Concerns emerged about possible censorship influenced by the Chinese Communist Party. However, Dave McCarty, the jury head, stated there was no official communication with the Chinese government regarding the nominations.

Leaked emails revealed that the Hugo administrators were instructed to scrutinize works for sensitive political content related to China. Diane Lacey, a member of the administration committee, released these emails, expressing regret for her involvement and the impact on the Hugo Awards. She wrote an apology letter to File 770:

January 25th, 2024

Let me start by saying that I am NOT making excuses, there are no adequate excuses. I am
thoroughly ashamed of my part in this debacle, and I will likely never forgive myself. But the fans
that have supported the Hugos, the nominees, and those that were unfairly and erroneously
deemed ineligible in particular, deserve an explanation. Perhaps the only way I can even begin to
ease my conscience is to provide one.

I was asked to join the Hugo committee for Chengdu, and I agreed to do so because I care about the
Hugos. I’ve been a member of several Hugo committees going back to 2009 and I was the Hugo
Administrator in 2012. The Hugos have always been important to me, and I believed, in part
because of the depth of Dave McCarty’s experience, and because I thought he felt the same way,
that they would be run with integrity.

It happened gradually. We vetted entries, as always, checking length, publication dates, etc. Then
things began being removed from the vetting lists. We were told there was collusion in a Chinese
publication that had published a nominations list, a slate as it were, and so those ballots were
identified and eliminated, exactly as many have speculated*. This certainly accounted for some of
the disappearances. These were all Chinese language publications so I don’t know who the authors
might have been. I was never privy to the actual nomination numbers.

Should I have resigned? Probably, but hindsight, as they say, is 20:20. It was apparent that there
were issues beyond the slate. We were told to vet nominees for work focusing on China, Taiwan,
Tibet, or other topics that may be an issue in China and, to my shame, I did so. Understand that I
signed up fully aware that there were going to be issues. I am not that naïve regarding the Chinese
political system, but I wanted the Hugos to happen, and not have them completely crash and burn.
I just didn’t imagine that there would be so many issues, and that they’d be ultimately handled so
poorly by Dave. (Okay, so maybe I do have a certain level of naivete.) Dave insisted that there
needed to be more time elapsed before the Chinese nationals would be safe from the ensuing
uproar, and he made it clear from the time the finalist names were released that he intended to wait
the entire 90 days. Are they safe now? I hope so, I truly do, but I can’t imagine that ensuing uproar
and the international media attention that came along with it has done them any favors.

As far as Dave’s apparent actions in cooking the results, I have to say I didn’t really expect that
either. And if I had I, like many others have said, would have imagined he’d do a better job. (Again,
my non-zero level of naivete at play.) Had that been the case I might not be writing this, but he
didn’t do a better job. The fallout has negatively affected something I care deeply about, the Hugos,
and I’m not sure they can recover.

Again, I am not making excuses. I sincerely apologize to my community. I don’t expect you to forgive
me when I can’t even forgive myself. I’ve violated your trust, and I don’t deserve your forgiveness,
but I am so very sorry. Mea Culpa.

Diane Lacey

*Although since then, a better explanation has been given for the “cliff” phenomenon in the data.

In response to these developments, McCarty and others involved have resigned from their positions, and measures are being implemented to ensure transparency and regain trust in the Hugo Awards process.

Esther MacCallum-Stewart, chair for the 2024 Glasgow Worldcon, also released a statement promising transparency in the next award cycle:

As Chair of Glasgow 2024, A Worldcon for Our Futures, I unreservedly apologise for the damage caused to nominees, finalists, the community, and the Hugo, Lodestar, and Astounding Awards.

Kat Jones has resigned with immediate effect as Hugo Administrator from Glasgow 2024 and has been removed from the Glasgow 2024 team across all mediums.

I acknowledge the deep grief and anger of the community and I share this distress.

I, and Glasgow 2024, do not know how any of the eligibility decisions for the Hugo, Lodestar and Astounding Awards held at the 2023 Chengdu World Science Fiction Convention were reached. We know no more than is already in the public domain.

At Glasgow 2024 we are taking the following steps to ensure transparency and to attempt to redress the grievous loss of trust in the administration of the Awards.

The steps we are committing to are:

1) When our final ballot is published by Glasgow 2024, in late March or early April 2024, we will also publish the reasons for any disqualifications of potential finalists, and any withdrawals of potential finalists from the ballot.

2) Full voting results, nominating statistics and voting statistics will be published immediately after the Awards ceremony on 11th August 2024.

3) The Hugo administration subcommittee will also publish a log explaining the decisions that they have made in interpreting the WSFS Constitution immediately after the Awards ceremony on 11th August 2024.

Glasgow 2024 will continue to address this matter as we go forward as a Worldcon.

Esther MacCallum-Stewart
Chair, Glasgow 2024, A Worldcon for Our Futures.

The situation remains complex, with ongoing discussions about the extent of governmental influence and the role of the Hugo administration in these decisions. This situation underscores the delicate balance between respecting local contexts and upholding the integrity of international cultural events like the Hugo Awards.

Science fiction fans are very fond of the phrase “What could possibly go wrong?” With this debacle over cooked Hugo Awards results, now we have a pretty good idea. It is significant that the Hugo Awards are so influential that various groups now seek to hijack the awards to their own purposes, with the most recent prior attempt having been the Sad/Rabid Puppies attempt between 2013 to 2017 to unduly affect the Awards and lean incident in which ballot box stuffing resulted in the nomination of mysogenists, white nationalist and racists to various award categories.

At least one winner, Samantha Mills, who won for her short story Rabbit Test, is mortified over the events surrounding this Hugo Awards and the stunning lack of transparency regarding the nomination qualification and voting process, and has opted to return her award.

The Hugo Awards are taking steps to modify the awards so that this sort of thing is harder to do in the future, and it’s important that they do. People with bad intentions should not simply be able to run up, steal something we hold dear and run off with it as though it was theirs.


Gene Turnbow
Gene Turnbow

President of Krypton Media Group, Inc., radio personality and station manager of Part writer, part animator, part musician, part illustrator, part programmer, part entrepreneur – all geek.