[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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What's Wrong with the Aurora Awards?

by Robert J. Sawyer

First published in the June 1997 issue of Alouette: The Newsletter of the Canadian Region of SFWA

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards ("the Auroras") have existed in one form or another since 1980. They have become a valuable, internationally recognized way of raising the profile of Canadian speculative fiction.

Personally, of course, I'm a big fan of the Auroras — and not just because I've been lucky enough to win more of them than any other English-Canadian author. But I'm not blind to the problems with the Auroras, either. So here's my take on what's wrong with the them, and how they could be fixed. I hope it provides some food for thought.

The Physical Trophy

Franklyn Johnson's design for the Aurora Award is distinctive, standardized, attractive, and appropriate. The only real complaint ever raised about it is that the trophies take up physical space, which becomes a problem when one person has lots of them. However, that awards go repeatedly to the same people in certain categories is surely indicative of a problem with those categories and not with the trophies themselves. I believe the pro community should wholeheartedly endorse the current Aurora trophy design. [Ironically, in the year after I wrote this, a new design was used; the old design appears below.]

The Fan Aurora Awards

[Aurora Trophy]

Periodically, there have been suggestions from members of the pro community that the fan Aurora Awards be abolished. However, the Auroras are fan-administered awards, and surely it would be inappropriate, as well as unnecessarily belligerent, to suggest to the fans that the categories that recognize their own valuable contributions to Canadian Science Fiction be eliminated. Indeed, I believe that pro writers should publicly endorse the existence of the fan awards.

However, it is also true that many publications which might give publicity to the professional award winners will be confused, daunted, or simply turned off by the fan awards. Every year, the Aurora committee sends a press release to many places listing all the winners; every year it is ignored except by Locus. Last year, I sent a press release on my own listing only the pro winners; The Globe and Mail gave it prominent coverage, and it was also mentioned in The Toronto Star and Maclean's.

So, while the fan awards should continue, I do believe that the pro community — perhaps through the Canadian Region of SFWA — should undertake to send out its own press releases to media outlets that specialize in books, listing only the professional-category nominees and winners.

The "Other" Category

The "Other" category has caused a great deal of consternation because of the inability to meaningfully compare the disparate works in this category — we've had such things as TV shows, anthologies, critical works, book reviews, museum displays, and more, all competing against each other. There's also a problem with the underlying assumption that every work, no matter how unusual or offbeat, should be eligible to compete for an award.

For instance, while it's true that "Out of this World" was the best exhibition ever at the National Library of Canada on the topic of Canadian Science Fiction, it's also equally true that it was the worst exhibition ever at the National Library of Canada on the topic of Canadian Science Fiction. Does a unique event deserve an award? How can it possibly compete for one, if it's the only event of its kind?

I believe the "Other" category should be confined to works that collect short fiction and/or poetry: chapbooks, anthologies, single-author collections, and magazines. These forms are all sufficiently similar to make reasonable comparison possible.

The French Auroras

In 1996, it took just three nominations to become a finalist for the "Best Long-Form Work in French" and "Best Short-Form Work in French" categories, and just two — perhaps the nominee and his/her significant other — to become a finalist in the "Best Other Work in French" category. Indeed, one of the works that made it to the ballot with only two nominations had two authors — it's entirely possible that the authors themselves, and no one else in all of Canada, were the only ones to nominate it. These paltry numbers cheapen the Aurora awards, and bespeak an indifference on the part of Francophone voters to the Auroras.

An aggressive stance would be to recommend that the French Auroras be abolished; after all, there already exists a separate series of French-Canadian science-fiction awards, the Prix Boreal.

A more conciliatory stance might be to suggest that a minimum number of nominators, and a minimum number of nominations, be required for an Aurora to be presented in any given category. I feel that an Aurora category should be declared vacant if fewer than 20 nominating ballots (from 20 different people) contain at least one nomination in that category.

In addition, I suggest that a minimum of ten nominations be required to be named an Aurora finalist, and that any category with fewer than three finalists be declared vacant for the current year. Finally, any category that has been declared vacant for three consecutive years should be removed permanently from the Aurora ballot, only to be reinstated by the normal CSFFA process for adding new categories.

To further reinforce the special significance of Aurora nominations, only two-way ties for last place on the final ballot should be accepted. If there's a tie for fifth place on the final ballot between three or more works or individuals, none of the tied works should be included on the final ballot. It should be a real honor to be an Aurora finalist, not something that practically everyone working in that category receives.

Terminology and Categorization

The professional Aurora Awards are currently awarded as follows:

  • Best Long-Form Work in English
  • Best Short-Form in English
  • Best Other Work in English
  • Best Long-Form Work in French
  • Best Short-Form in French
  • Best Other Work in French

These arcane names are awkward and unmemorable. Never has the "long-form work" winner been anything other than a novel; the long-form category should be renamed "Best Novel."

Poetry should still be allowed to compete in the "short-form work" category, but this category should be renamed to simply "Best Short Work in English/French."

And, assuming the suggestion I made earlier is adopted, the best "Other" category should be renamed "Best Collective Work."

New Categories

Periodically, new Aurora categories are suggested. Among those put forth recently include best graphic novel, best TV show or movie, best poem, and best web site — many presumably with separate French and English trophies to be presented. I believe there already are too many Aurora Awards; adding more simply cheapens the value of each one. However, when a new category is proposed, I believe the proposer should be required to put forth mock ballots listing full slates of credible nominees for the previous three years in the suggested category: if five truly award-caliber works cannot be found in each of the preceding three years in a proposed award category, clearly there is insufficient quality work being done in that area in Canada to justify an annual competitive award for it.

The Two-Year Eligibility Rule for Novels

Currently, novels are eligible for two years. However, there's a proposal that may be ratified this year [1997] that will prohibit any work from making the final ballot in two different years.

Although, at first blush, not letting works be on the ballot twice seems reasonable, it in fact invites strategic nominating: an author of a 1998 paperback original knowing that he might have to compete against the 1998 paperback reprint of a 1997 hardcover bestseller might encourage friends to nominate the competing work in 1997 so that it gets on the ballot then, thus eliminating it from competition the following year. There's already enough manipulation going on as is; this proposal simply invites more.

Further, as Aurora Awards chair Dennis Mullin points out, the proposed amendment takes the crazy position that the sixth-best novel of 1997 should get another chance in 1998 (because only the top five novels made the 1997 ballot), but the second-best novel of 1997 doesn't deserve another chance in 1998 (because it lost in 1997).

Although the current unrestricted two-year eligibility system has its flaws, I believe it should be retained as is or eliminated altogether. [Ultimately, it was eliminated altogether.]

Residency Requirements

I believe only Canadian-resident authors should be eligible for the Aurora Awards; the idea of California's William Shatner winning one for a Tek novel strikes me as madness, and the list of eligible works is already long enough without padding it with books by Joel Rosenberg or Gordon Dickson. Residency should be defined as at least six months of living in Canada in the two years preceding publication of the work in question. As Dave Duncan points out, giving an Aurora to an American resident who wrote his or her book in the States is as silly as giving Dave a Scottish Award.

Timing of the Awards Ceremony

The Aurora Awards have been presented at various times throughout the year. Because of the need for reasonable nominating and voting periods, and to give works published in December a fair chance, it seems to me that the Auroras should never be presented earlier than April 15.

Society Awards

The Aurora Awards have achieved major national and international recognition. This has been hard-fought, over a period of sixteen years. No other country has two major science-fiction awards (the assertion that the United States has both the Hugo and the Nebula is spurious: the Hugo is an international award, presented by the members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention, which in this decade has been or will be held in locales as diverse as Winnipeg, Manitoba; Glasgow, Scotland; and Melbourne, Australia; and which in all years has broadly based international voting).

The nascent National Science Fiction and Fantasy Society proposes creating a second, juried English-Canadian award. This will undermine the credibility of the Auroras and confuse the public. I believe writers should at the very least refrain from supporting the effort to establish a second Canadian science-fiction award, and I would prefer to see an outright condemnation of this well-intentioned but misguided idea. [The Society collapsed late in 1999.]

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