It’s that time of year again. The speculative fiction community is gearing up to bestow its most coveted awards — the Nebulas and the Hugos. In addition to the two heavyweights, dozens of other lesser-known but equally important literary prizes such as the Philip K. Dick will be drawing up lists for the best speculative fiction works in the preceding year. Most of these awards are just now finishing the process of selecting their shortlists of nominees.
As is inevitable in our post-shame era, like a modern-day winter solstice ceremony, as a dog returneth to its own vomit, as a gerbil eats its own young, as a fly descends upon shit, as the sun rises and the sun sets, the pitiable vanguards of fragile white masculinity have gone forth unto Twitter and Reddit and Facebook to declare the awards bankrupt for their failure to prop up white male writers who obviously deserve the awards more than women, people of color, and other minorities.
The conclusion that the nominees are inferior writers follows naturally from their gender, skin color, and sexual orientation. No further evidence need be provided. QED. The argument that the dominance of minorities in the shortlists demonstrates a demographic bias that can only be explained by tokenism and pity is an argument that bitter misogynists inexplicably never seem to apply to the years when the prizes were similarly weighted toward white males exclusively, despite the fact that women generally read more than men and write at a similar or higher rate.
However, what I find most amusing about their bitter rantings is the assumption that awards are ever fairly given. Implicit to toxic male worldview is the idea that the world is a meritocracy that (once) fairly evaluated white males to be objectively better. Their battle cry is that awards should be given based on talent while being [sic] blind to identity.
Once you get to a high enough level, there are simply no objective means of discerning between qualified and highly skilled professionals. There are, however, many subjective ways of distinguishing between them.
The structural problem with this worldview is that it is an illusion rooted in the idea that one can objectively rank human achievement, and it’s an illusion that needs to be shattered. These awards were never fair, and they never will be.
It’s the Astronaut Problem. There are only 38 astronauts in the entire United States. Yet, in 2017, 18,300 people wanted to be astronauts.
No. That’s not correct. Many more people wanted to be astronauts. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. You probably wanted to be an astronaut also at one point. But you and I weren’t passionate enough to move beyond preliminary ambition. Eighteen thousand three hundred people wanted to be astronauts badly enough to actually apply to astronaut school and commit to their dream.
Yet NASA currently has only 38 astronauts. Are those 38 astronauts categorically and empirically the best out of all 18,300 applicants? Not only are they probably not, but the question is meaningless. Once you start getting that selective, any criteria you choose for your selection process will still leave you with a shitload of qualified people. And since you still only need 38, any choice you make beyond that point is going to be arbitrary.
Let’s put it this way. Even if NASA could weed all the candidates down by 95% using legitimate criteria, they’d still have 915 applicants, and they aren’t going to replace every astronaut in one year. They’re probably only going to take on 2–3 new astronauts, tops, in any given year. Not everyone can go into space.
So, of the 915 undeniably qualified applicants, they’re still going to end up randomly throwing darts at a board full of faces or picking someone based on criteria that are nowhere near objective. This is the truth behind our idealized image of meritocracy. Once you get to a high enough level, there are simply no objective means of discerning between qualified and highly skilled professionals. There are, however, many subjective ways of distinguishing between them.
So, if they decide that one of those arbitrary criteria is that they’d like for a black kid to see at least one face that looks like them in an astronaut outfit, boo fucking hoo about it being affirmative action or not fair. Absolutely none of those 915 qualified applicants were ever going to be chosen for reasons that were entirely fair. It was always going to come down to knowing someone, the selection board liking you for highly personal reasons or sheer politics.
Literary awards operate in the same manner. There are way too many authors and books cranked out each year for any of them to be the “best novel of the year.” It’s ridiculous to think that any award is ever going to be objective or that there is even an objective standard for deciding that. Awards aren’t about truth. They’re about recognition. For many many years, that recognition went almost exclusively to white men, regardless of how talented their female colleagues were. The modern-day obsession with awards being fair is just a stalking horse used to attack recognition for the achievements of women and minorities.