Unexplained exclusion of sci-fi works for top award raises issue of Chinese censorship

The international literary community has been up in arms over the unexplained disqualifications, which include works involving Chinese history by two authors who were born in China and now reside overseas.

Lim Min Zhang

Lim Min Zhang

The Straits Times


Four sci-fi and fantasy works and writers were declared ineligible for the Hugo Awards, including R. F. Kuang's (left) book Babel and writer Xiran Jay Zhao. PHOTOS: MIKE STYER PHOTOGRAPHY LLC, XIRAN JAY ZHAO/THE STRAITS TIMES

January 30, 2024

BEIJING – A recent revelation that four science fiction and fantasy works and writers have been declared ineligible for the prestigious literary Hugo Awards has raised concerns over censorship by the Chinese authorities.

The international literary community has been up in arms over the unexplained disqualifications, revealed on Jan 20, which include works involving Chinese history by two authors who were born in China and now reside overseas.

The Hugo Awards in 2023 was co-administered by members of the Chinese sci-fi industry. The awards were part of the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, which was held in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in October 2023.

Chinese-American author R. F. Kuang’s book, Babel: Or The Necessity Of Violence, was one of the four nominees in four categories that was marked as “not eligible” when delayed full voting results for the Hugo were released online on Jan 20.

Babel was tipped to win Best Novel, given that it had topped bestseller lists and already bagged the United States-based Nebula and Locus awards – two other top sci-fi and fantasy literary accolades – earlier in 2023. Babel received the third-highest number of nominations in the 15-title longlist.

The other works and authors excluded were Chinese-Canadian YouTuber and writer Xiran Jay Zhao, who was longlisted for the Astounding Award given to new writers; an episode of The Sandman TV series by celebrated author Neil Gaiman for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form); and Mr Paul Weimer in the Best Fan Writer category.

All four writers have made public statements, saying they have not received official reasons for their exclusion. Ms Kuang wrote that “no reason for Babel’s ineligibility was given to me or my team”.

“Until (a reason) is provided that explains why the book was eligible for the Nebula and Locus awards, which it won, and not the Hugos, I assume this was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility,” she posted on Jan 23 on Bluesky – a social media platform that is an alternative to X.

When pressed by angry fans on his Facebook page, Mr Dave McCarty, the co-head of the Hugo Awards Selection Executive Department, denied that the Chinese authorities had any role to play in the exclusions. Mr McCarty leads the department alongside Professor Jiang Zhenyu, a Chinese sci-fi expert from Sichuan University.

“There was no communication between the Hugo administration team and the Chinese government in any official manner,” wrote Mr McCarty, which only sparked more responses speculating about self-censorship.

The Hugo team of the Chengdu Worldcon did not respond to ST’s e-mail query by press time. But its previous statement was that “after reviewing the Constitution and the rules we must follow, the administration team determined those works/persons were not eligible”.

Chinese sci-fi author Chen Qiufan described the controversy as frustrating and disappointing, and believes it has undone years of hard work by the Chinese sci-fi industry, including writers, fans and publishers, to promote the genre.

“It’s causing serious damage to the reputation of Chinese sci-fi,” he told ST, adding that the lack of explanation for the disqualifications was unacceptable.

“It will be even more difficult to get published and export our authors and works to the international market because people might have biases and presumptions.”

The Chinese sci-fi industry has been on a surge in the past decade since author Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem received international acclaim after it was translated to English in 2014. The Chengdu Worldcon was the first time the sci-fi event was held in China since 1939, after a growth in Chinese sci-fi fans helped to secure the required votes at the Washington, DC, Worldcon in 2021.

But the current episode could be a rare high-profile case of the industry running up against a tight censorship environment that is wary of not just content critical of the Chinese government and its policies, but also fictional works that offer different versions of history from the official narrative.

Ms Kuang’s Babel, published in August 2022, is a fantasy work describing an alternate history set in London at the height of the British Empire, with a protagonist from Guangzhou, also known as Canton, China, and seen as a commentary on colonialism and race. The protagonist from her 2018 book The Poppy War was inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.

The breakout 2021 novel Iron Widow from fellow author Zhao is a reimagining of the rise of China’s first and only female emperor Wu Zetian in a futuristic setting.

Ms Angie Wang, an illustrator and cartoonist based in Los Angeles, who also appeared to be frustrated by the episode, said more communication between Western sci-fi fans and their Chinese counterparts would be helpful.

While there is legitimate criticism of the organising team for how they have mangled the Hugo awards, there is also a lot of suspicion from Western fans who assumed the worst, she told ST by e-mail.

The annual Hugo Awards are administered by the committee organising the Worldcon, which varies from year to year and typically comprises volunteers. Fans nominate and vote for their favourite works in 15 categories.

The full voting results were released on the official Hugo Awards website on Jan 20, right on the dot of the three-month deadline organisers are obliged to release them by. Past full results have been released as early as a few days after the winners were announced.

Works eligible for the Hugos must meet criteria such as being from the sci-fi or fantasy genres and published in the previous year, and meet the stated length for each category, such as 40,000 words or more for Best Novel.

Analyst Adam Ni, who runs China Neican, a prominent newsletter on Chinese current affairs, said that, in general, censorship in China has been on the rise in the past decade. But not every instance of censorship would be coercive, such as outright bans.

The authorities only need to make a case or two to provide examples, he said, such as issuing a fine to a media company or a platform to send a message.

He added: “Often the pressure is indirect, in the form of illustrated cases, announcements, commentary or informal discussions between officials and media actors.”

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