WorldCon, the Hugo, and Me
© 1996 by Michael A. Burstein. All rights reserved.
by Michael A. Burstein
First appearance in Mimosa 19 (November 1996).
Q: How many Hugo nominees does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: It's an honor just to be allowed near lightbulbs.
-- Susan Shwartz
What's it like being nominated for a Hugo and the Campbell for your first published story?
I have to admit that that's not a question I ever thought I would be in a position to answer. It is a question that I remember asking Nick DiChario a while back. Actually, I phrased it in the past tense, because by the time I met him, ConFransisco was long over and Nick had already lost both awards, as frequent readers of Mimosa already know. I honestly don't remember what he said.
But I do remember what he said when I asked him the question this past year. Because this time, I had a little more stake in the answer, and he told me just to enjoy the feeling, the way he did.
Readers of Mimosa may recall that in 1994 I attended the Clarion workshop, as I wrote an article about my experiences which appeared in Mimosa 17. Since then, I had sold and seen published two stories in Analog, "TeleAbsence" (July 1995) and "Sentimental Value" (October 1995). I got very little outside feedback when the stories appeared -- it seems that not a single person wrote to the magazine to comment on my stories -- and I thought that was pretty much the end of it.
Until the following year, when I found out that "TeleAbsence" had won the Analytical Laboratory Award for Best Short Story of 1995. And been nominated for the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. And had somehow gotten me nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
To answer, myself, the question I had posed to Nick, being nominated for the Hugo elated me. It came out of nowhere and totally blew me away. I was thrilled, ecstatic, and also scared.
Why scared? For one simple reason, which I think will make a lot of you nod your heads wisely, or explode with laughter. You see, my wife Nomi and I decided that this would be an experience we would never forget. So, even though we live in the Boston area, we made plans to attend L.A.con III, just in case I won. I wanted to be present at the Hugo Awards Ceremony to accept.
And that meant attending my very first Worldcon.
Fortunately, it was not Nomi's first Worldcon, as she had attended Noreascon 3 back in 1989. And it wasn't my very first convention, either, as I had been attending conventions since Arisia in 1992. But the prospect of going to Worldcon was slightly more intense than the prospect of just going to one of the regional cons which we try to attend every year.
So I ended up looking at it differently. I teach Physics and Mathematics at the Cambridge School of Weston, and one of the problems with attending Worldcon was that faculty meetings begin the week before Labor Day and cut into Worldcon. Since we wouldn't be able to arrive in L.A. until Thursday night anyway, I told myself that I wasn't attending Worldcon, but the Hugo Awards Ceremony, and that anything else I made it to was gravy. That way, instead of kicking myself for missing all the Thursday and Monday events of a Worldcon, I would see all the Friday through Sunday panels which I attended as extras, side benefits of attending the Hugo Ceremony.
On Thursday night, August 29, 1996, Nomi and I flew out to Los Angeles with our friends Joe and Cindy Lazzaro. Joe is another writer, who has also had work appear in Analog, and he and his wife are frequent travelers, so we decided to plan our trip together. Cindy is wonderful when it comes to arranging flights and car rentals, which took a load off my mind. In turn, I made our hotel reservations.
We got to the hotel late Thursday night -- OK, more like early Friday morning -- and collapsed.
The Worldcon itself passed in a bit of a blur. I remember various parties. I remember going to the SFFWA Suite to receive the Science Fiction Weekly Reader Appreciation Award for Best New Writer. I remember meeting a lot of people I had known only from the Internet or Genie. I also remember a panel here and there. In fact, somehow I stayed sane enough to moderate one panel, called "Writing: The Long and the Short of It," about the differences between writing novels and short stories.
I also remember a very large dealers room, with far too much stuff that I wanted. And I remember one specific event in the dealers room.
Adam-Troy Castro was working at the Science Fiction Age table, and I found him there Sunday morning. The dealers room was filled with small exhibits as well as dealers, and Adam told me that they even had a display devoted to the history of the Hugo statuette. He walked me over to the display, and I got my first look at the 1996 model.
It was gorgeous.
Imagine the standard rocket statue, gleaming in all its glory, sitting on top of a film can base. The base, a real recycled film can, is surrounded on the edge by a filmstrip with color stills from famous science fiction movies and television shows. On the back of the base, framing the rocket from behind, is a model of the mountains from Destination: Moon. And in front of the rocket are two Hollywood style spotlights, aimed towards the rocket and designed to shine upon it when the back switch is depressed.
The very first battery powered Hugo Award.
I'll admit it. I drooled over this rocket, I put my hands around it, I fondled it. The thought of being up for one of these finally hit home in a way it never had before. Here was actual, physical evidence of the award I was competing for.
I said to Adam, "If I win, it'll be a real problem getting it home."
He replied, "We should all have such problems."
On Sunday night, after taking in one last panel to calm my nerves, Nomi and I headed over to the Arena building at 7 PM for the Hugo Nominees reception, which took place in a large room next to the main auditorium.
I still had trouble believing that I was present as a nominee, as I was surrounded by all these people whom I knew were deserving of the award; I felt like an upstart. Nomi and I met a lot of people during that all too short hour, and we spent a good part of the time talking with Stan Schmidt, editor of Analog, and his wife Joyce.
As it got to be close to 8 PM, the Hugo administrators brought out a sample Hugo Award for us to examine, and to show us how to hold it just in case you happened to be the one called onto the stage to receive it. Once again I found myself drooling over the statuette, and wondering if I'd have to worry about how to get it home.
And then, they ushered us into the auditorium. Quietly, the mass of us walked in the dark to the central seats, which had been reserved for nominees and their guests. Nomi and I sat with Robert Sawyer and his wife Carolyn Clink, whom we've befriended over the past few years. I tend to consider Robert a well-established pro, and it came as a shock to me this year when I realized that we were both up for our first Hugo Award.
Nomi and I sat down, and I looked around us, at the people filling the auditorium to capacity, and at the huge stage with the two movie screens on either side. All of my nervousness came to a head. This was the moment I'd been waiting for since finding out I was a nominee almost half a year ago.
As they say in Hollywood, it was showtime.
Connie Willis was the Toastmaster, which I think was an excellent choice. She is a very funny person, and I enjoyed her performance when presenting an award at the Nebulas a few years ago, but I wouldn't want to have been squirming in my seat while sitting through a monologue placed between her reading a list of nominees and announcing the name of the winner. Having her host the ceremony as a whole was perfect; her humor helped reduce the tension I was feeling enormously.
Unfortunately, the beginning of the ceremony still seemed to drag, especially for me. Think about it. I had never been to a Hugo Ceremony before, and naturally I was assuming that they'd get to the Campbell Award fairly quickly, as it was one of the earlier awards to be presented. But first, there was the First Fandom Award, and the Big Heart Award, and the Seiun Awards, and they felt like they took forever. In fact, they took the better part of an hour.
Finally, it was time for the Campbell Award to be announced. Stan Schmidt walked on stage, discussed the legacy of John Campbell briefly, and stated the names of the five nominees: Michael A. Burstein, David Feintuch, Felicity Savage, Sharon Shinn, and Tricia Sullivan. Then he named the winner.
I turned to Nomi immediately, and said, "That's it. I haven't won the Hugo either."
She wasn't sure if that would be so, but I was. I had figured that although my chances of winning the Hugo were not that great, being both a Hugo nominee and Campbell nominee would help me on the Campbell balloting. (A few other writers had told me the same thing.) But I doubted it would go in the other direction.
Feintuch gave a very nice acceptance speech, and then the ceremony continued, with other Hugos being presented and humorous stories being told on stage. I was feeling a little low, of course, but my spirits rose when the Babylon 5 episode "The Coming of Shadows" won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. I am a major fan of the show, and felt that the Hugo was well deserved, and I cheered along with the rest of the audience when the winner was announced.
What I had forgotten was that the Best Short Story Hugo came next.
After J. Michael Straczynski gave his acceptance speech and the applause had died down, Larry Niven ascended to the podium to present the award. He listed the five nominees, mispronouncing my last name "Bur-STINE" instead of "Bur-STEEN."
"TeleAbsence" by Michael A. Burstein. "Life on the Moon" by Tony Daniel. "A Birthday" by Esther M. Friesner. "The Lincoln Train" by Maureen F. McHugh. "Walking Out" by Michael Swanwick.
And the Hugo went to "The Lincoln Train" by Maureen McHugh.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who published the story in F&SF, went to accept the award on Maureen's behalf, while I sat in the audience, applauding. I had been expecting this, so it wasn't too much of a shock. Besides, Maureen's been deserving of the Hugo since her first novel, and furthermore, she's a very nice person. While Kris accepted the award, I kept thinking of how Maureen came to my reading at Boskone last year, and how pleased I was that an established pro of such magnitude would be interested in my work. Her attending my reading had meant quite a lot to me.
The other fiction categories were left, and the worst part of the Hugos is the fact that there can be only one winner in each category. As I told Esther at one party during the convention, I wanted to win, but I didn't want her to have to lose for me to win. So I was ecstatic when James Patrick Kelly won Best Novelette for "Think Like a Dinosaur" and when Allen Steele won Best Novella for "The Death of Captain Future," but at the same time there were other people on the ballot for whom I felt disappointed, as I had been rooting for them too.
I do want to express my deep appreciation for something Jim said, though. I had helped him with a small piece of science in his story (to the point where he named the protagonist Michael Burr), and during his acceptance speech he thanked me by name for a key piece of research, thus correcting the mispronounciation which Larry Niven had made. It felt good to hear my name as part of the awarding of some Hugo, even if it wasn't a Hugo for me.
The last category was Best Novel, which Neal Stephenson won for The Diamond Age. A fine book, indeed, which I enjoyed highly, but I had been rooting for The Terminal Experiment by Robert Sawyer.
The Hugos were over, and Nomi and I headed outside with everyone else. We were talking to each other and looking for friends when Priscilla Olson handed me a copy of the Hugo edition of Stat!, the convention newsletter, and directed my attention to the Hugo balloting.
My short story had been the last one to be eliminated; I lost the Hugo to Maureen by a final vote of 242-232.
I had lost the Hugo by only ten votes.
I was thrilled; I screamed with delight. If I had lost by only one vote, I'd have been devastated; if I had lost by a large margin, my slight disappointment would have been intensified. But ten votes was just right.
I barely remember the Hugo Nominees Party (or Hugo Losers Party, as some people call it). I had a chance to congratulate David Feintuch, and I finally got to meet Dick & Nicki Lynch, the editors of Mimosa, who had published my first piece of fanwriting since I was a teenager. But it was all over and we had an early flight, so after only about an hour of socializing, Nomi and I returned to our room to sleep.
The story doesn't quite end there, though. When I got back to the Cambridge School of Weston, I announced at an assembly that I had lost both awards. At the very next assembly, a group of my students took to the stage to announce the inception of the first ever CSW Bug Eyed Critter Award for Best Short Story. They read the list of nominees -- and of course, my story was the only one on the list. They presented me with an adorable Folktails "Alien in Spaceship Puppet" (the bug eyed critter, of course), which I could control by sticking my hand inside. It even has a control stick for the spaceship, which you move with your thumb, and it glows in the dark.
You know something? It's better than the Hugo.
Am I upset? Well, of course I'm disappointed -- who wouldn't be? -- but I think of the story of one of the American Olympians in Atlanta this past summer, who lost the gold medal and was asked by a reporter if he felt crushed about it.
The athlethe stared at the reporter increduously, and with a big smile on his face, exclaimed, "Are you kidding? I've just won a silver medal!"
And that's how I feel. It's hard to be disappointed when your first published story gets nominated for the Hugo, no matter how you do in the balloting. Getting nominated was a fluke, I know, as it usually takes years for someone to make it onto the Hugo ballot. If I ever want to look at an award, well, I've got my bug eyed critter. And in the end, I have to agree with the truth of what it's like to be a Hugo nominee, no matter how much it's been turned into a joke:
It really is an honor just to be nominated!