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Science fiction authors were excluded from awards for fear of offending China

Leaked emails show organizers of the prestigious Hugo Awards vetted writers’ work and comments with regard to China, where last year’s awards were held.
Neil Gaiman Portrait Session
English writer Neil Gaiman in 2014.Ulf Andersen / Getty Images file

HONG KONG — Organizers of the Hugo Awards, one of the most prominent literary awards in science fiction, excluded multiple authors from shortlists last year over concerns their work or public comments could be offensive to China, leaked emails show.

Questions had been raised as to why writers including Neil Gaiman, R.F. Kuang, Xiran Jay Zhao and Paul Weimer had been deemed ineligible as finalists despite earning enough votes according to information published last month by awards organizers. Emails released this week revealed that they were concerned about how some authors might be perceived in China, where the Hugo Awards were held last year for the first time.

“As we are happening in China and the ‘laws’ we operate under are different… we need to highlight anything of sensitive political nature in the work,” Dave McCarty, the head of the 2023 awards jury, wrote in an email dated June 5.

Any work focusing on China, Taiwan, Tibet or other sensitive issues, he added, “needs to be highlighted so that we can determine if it is safe to put it on the ballot.”

McCarty, who resigned from his role in the awards last month, did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement on Thursday, the organizers of the 2024 Hugo Awards, which are being held in Glasgow, said they were taking steps “to ensure transparency and to attempt to redress the grievous loss of trust in the administration of the Awards.”

Last year’s Hugo Awards, which unlike most literary prizes are run by fans, were held in October during the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, known as Worldcon, in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu. Scores of science fiction and fantasy writers had signed an open letter protesting the location, which was chosen by voting members of the convention, citing in an open letter allegations of abuses against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minority groups in China that Beijing denies.

The emails, which were first reported by science fiction writers and journalists Chris M. Barkley and Jason Sanford on science fiction news site File 770 and Sanford’s Patreon account, show awards organizers detailing potential “negatives of China” in authors’ published works, book reviews and social media histories.

Some books, like Kuang’s “Babel” — which won the 2023 British Book Award for Fiction — appear to have been excluded simply for taking place in China. Zhao’s novel “Iron Widow” was flagged as being a “reimagining of the rise of the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian.”

Organizers also flagged comments that authors, including Barkley and Sanford, had made about the merits of holding the awards in Chengdu and whether they signed or shared the open letter.

“They went through all my blog posts and all my reviews like a fine-tooth comb,” Paul Weimer, an American author and three-time Hugo nominee who was disqualified, told NBC News in a phone interview on Friday.

Among the reasons cited for excluding Weimer was his supposed previous travel to Tibet, a Chinese region where Beijing is also accused of abuses.

“The funny thing is that I didn’t even go to Tibet. I was in Nepal. They didn’t get basic facts right about me,” he said.

Weimer, whose display name on X had as of Friday been changed to “Paul ‘Nepal is not Tibet’ Weimer,” said the vetting went against the spirit not only of the Hugo Awards but of science fiction itself.

“Censoring people based on what you think that a government might not like is completely against what the whole science fiction project is,” he said.

The emails were released by awards organizer Diane Lacey, who wrote some of the emails and said in an accompanying apology letter that in hindsight she probably should have resigned.

“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,” said Lacey, who did not respond to a request for comment.

“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.”