There is word of a backlash against Amazon’s policy of preventing authors from reviewing certain books on its web site. The Telegraph reports: “Critics suggest this system is flawed because many authors are impartial and are experts on novels.” However, speaking as the first nationally syndicated game review columnist and a longtime professional reviewer for publications such as the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Atlanta Journal/Constitution, Chronicle Features, Computer Gaming World, and Electronic Entertainment, I can assure those who find this policy to be unjustified and unfair that it is absolutely and completely necessary due to the corruption, both professional and ideological, that is rife within the publishing industry in general and the SF/F industry in particular.
The problem isn’t merely one of authors sockpuppeting and heaping praise upon themselves under false identities. I am a member of the SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and I have had the dubious privilege of sitting upon three of its Nebula Award juries in the past. More importantly, I have had access to the SFWA Forum, and its updated list of Nebula Award nominations, for more than ten years. And one of the things that rapidly became obvious to anyone who attempted to participate honestly in the system between 2000 and 2010 was that the Nebula Award is, first and foremost, a means for various small groups of people to shamelessly and dishonestly promote the works of themselves and their friends.
You need not take my word for it. Anyone who is a member of the SFWA can peruse the back issues of the Forum and quickly see exactly what was happening behind the scenes until the 2010 rules changes. No sooner were works from certain authors published than they were immediately recommended for the award by the exact same group of authors who had recommended the author’s previous books. And, in most cases, those recommendations either had been or would be reciprocated by the author whose new work was being recommended, in some cases almost surely unread due to the timing involved concerning the publication date. Because it only took a small number of recommendations — ten, if I recall correctly — to get a work on the initial ballot, this “logrolling” repeatedly put the same names forward for the various Nebula awards at the expense of other, much more deserving authors.
Jason Sanford, who favors the new rules, described the process thusly:
The old Nebula rules encouraged [logrolling] by making it easy to both nominate friends and supporters for the preliminary ballot (by letting members nominate so many stories) and to verify that these people were returning the favor, since all nominations were public.
There is some reason to doubt that the new rules are any better, especially given section 11(b), which states:
Nominations shall be treated as confidential information and only the names of the works and numbers of nominations will be available for viewing by eligable members after the awards ceremony.
This takes the old problem and makes it worse by allowing the logrolling to take place behind closed doors and hidden from public scrutiny; limiting the nominations to five apiece will only serve to concentrate and streamline the incestuous activity. One SFWA member already noted a consequence of the post-2010 rules: “During the final week, I was barraged with pleas via LiveJournal, Twitter, and Facebook to help get stories onto the ballot at a volume far above anything I’ve ever experienced before.”
The past logrolling is why there are so many undeserving Nebula winners in the recent past. Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose, which won the Best Novel award in 2002, is perhaps the most egregious example; Asaro was the SFWA President at the time, a pleasant and popular woman by all accounts, and the author of a book that in no way merited being even mentioned in the same breath as George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, published in the same year. Asaro won the Best Novel award for what was the sixth book in an entirely forgettable space romance series about strong independent women and the handsome men who find them irresistible… in space. It is worth noting that while George R.R. Martin was nominated for each of the first three books in A Song of Ice and Fire, he never won a Nebula for Best Novel. Other excellent authors who inexplicably failed to win Best Novel awards include Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, and China Mieville.
Contrast with them some of the authors who did win the awards for Best Novel. In addition to Asaro’s embarrassing award, (she was also nominated for best novella that same year), there is 2012 winner Jo Walton, whose banal Among Others somehow beat out Mieville’s brilliant Embassytown. (Read my Black Gate review of it if you are unfamiliar with it.) Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun beat out Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and Nicola Griffith’s Slow River beat out The Diamond Age. If you haven’t heard of these award-winning books despite being a hardcore SF/F reader, there is a reason you haven’t. They aren’t dreadful, but they aren’t particularly good either, their Nebulas notwithstanding. And the fact that Charles Stross couldn’t even make the final ballot for Accelerando or any of his excellent Laundry novels is alone enough to demonstrate what a complete travesty the Nebula Awards have been for more than a decade. Perhaps the new rules will fix the problem; I remain extremely skeptical as I suspect they will actually make the problem worse. Regardless, the need for the change is sufficient to prove at least the past existence of the corruption.
Note that Black Gate itself suffered as a consequence. I recommended several deserving short stories and novellas; they were completely ignored in favor of much lesser stories by the usual small pool of suspects. In most cases, my recommendations were the only ones given to very good stories such as “The Haunting of Cold Harbour” by Todd McAulty.
In light of the subject, I was vastly amused, while writing this post, to learn the name of a reviewer who produced the most helpful five-star review for The Moon and the Sun, which contrasts greatly with the many reviews complaining the book does not live up to the hype:
After discovering this, I checked all 14 of Asaro’s reviews. She has never given less than 5 stars to anyone, and most of the books reviewed are in her genre.
So, the critics are incorrect. Any reasonable examination of the SFWA’s history will conclusively prove that most authors who involve themselves in the reviews process are extremely partial, heavily prejudiced, and grant ratings that are deeply questionable from an objective perspective. Amazon is correct to ban authors from reviewing books published in their genre; indeed, the bookselling giant would be more than justified in banning them from posting any book reviews at all.
And speaking of reviews, I recently finished reading Charles Stross’s The Apocalypse Codex. I will be posting a full review here in the near future. In summary, I found it to be the best and most ambitious of the four Laundry novels.