George R.R. Martin hosted the digital ceremony for the 2020 Hugo Awards, the annual event dedicated to science-fiction and fantasy writers and creators, on Friday. To celebrate a particularly diverse year of nominations — Comic Years reports that the all-female slate of Best Novel nominees was a Hugo first — Martin opted to repeatedly reference racist figures in the science-fiction community. Martin also bungled the pronunciation of several names, including those of winner Rebecca F. Kuang and FIYAH, a Black quarterly magazine run by Black writers.
The figures Martin referenced included H.P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell. (The late author and the late editor, respectively, each won a Retro Hugo award this year. The Retro Hugos are given to creators from years when the Hugo Awards did not exist. Lovecraft won for a posthumous story published in 1945 and Campbell for editing in the same year.) “Between each segment, Martin repeatedly used his time to promote the work and legacy of Campbell, Lovecraft, and to rambled about a number of self-aggrandizing stories from his time within fandom and of conventions that he attended between the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s,” writer Andrew Liptak said in a newsletter recap of the event. Liptak mentioned that Robert Silverberg, a writer with his own racist history, also gave a speech during the ceremony. Lovecraft was xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and ardent in his white supremacy. Campbell, known for founding the magazine Astounding Stories of Super-Science — now Analog Science Fiction and Fact — as for his racist and pseudoscientific beliefs, was a peculiar choice for Martin given Campbell’s recent history with the awards.
In 2019, during their acceptance speech after winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Jeannette Ng called out Campbell as a fascist. “Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists,” Ng said in their 2019 speech, which itself won them another Hugo on Friday night for 2020’s Best Related Work. The Best New Writer award was later renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. It’s a connection many watching the show were quick to point out on Twitter.
N.K. Jemisin took home the 2020 award for Best Novelette. She had previously won the Best Novel award for three consecutive years in 2016, 2017, and 2018. “Martin made the decision to first mention her unprecedented accomplishment of winning the Best Novel three years in a row — no one else of any race or gender has ever accomplished a Best Novel hat trick — and then attempt to undermine it by talking at great length the time [Robert] Heinlein won three Hugos in nine years, culminating in some sort of shaggy-dog story involving a white dinner jacket and Stranger in a Strange Land,” Natalie Luhrs wrote in a blog about the event. “There was also a whole segment about the Oscar statuette and its crotch,” she also wrote. “It was gender essentialist and transphobic.”
“The Astounding Award is the award for best new writer,” Rebecca F. Kuang said in her acceptance speech Friday after Martin mispronounced her name. (Luhrs says that all nominees were asked to submit phonetic pronunciations of their names in advance.) “But if I were talking to a new writer coming to the genre in 2020, I would tell them, well, if you are an author of color, you’d very likely only be paid a fraction of the advance that white writers are getting. You’ll be pigeonholed, you will be miscategorized, you will be lumped in with other authors of color whose work doesn’t remotely resemble yours.” She later posted the speech online and tweeted a link to her website that said “has easy instructions for how to pronounce my name.”
CoNZealand, the host of this year’s WorldCon — the IRL event where the Hugos are held each year — has since issued several apologies via its website and Twitter. “We sincerely apologise for that hurt. We apologise for the mispronunciations of names, and any disrespect implied. Phonetic guidelines were made available to us, and we did not overcome the challenges we faced,” the organization wrote. “As Chairs, we accept full responsibility for this. The Chairs also made the decision to provide an agnostic platform for all the participants, and did not place restrictions on any speech or presentations.”
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