Looking Forward, Moving Backwards: The 2015 Hugo Awards

The winners of the 2015 Hugo Awards will be announced this Saturday at the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington. This year’s awards have been beleaguered by controversy, with conservative voting campaigns called the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies hijacking the nominations by promoting a slate of nominees dominated by their preferred right-wing (mostly white male) authors. They want to “take back” science fiction and fantasy from the liberals, rescuing it from the evils of cultural diversity and women writers. Yes, seriously. The Hugo Awards have subsequently become embroiled in a divisive culture war, one that echoes last year’s Gamergate controversy. Sadly, the repercussions don’t look good for the future of the Hugo Awards, and this Saturday’s results will undoubtedly be marred by further controversy. So what has happened, and what’s the significance for the science fiction and fantasy community?

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The Sad Puppies voting campaign started in 2013, as an effort by author Larry Correia to get his book Monster Hunter Legion nominated for a Hugo Award. Although he was unsuccessful, his second campaign in 2014 did manage to get his novel Warbound onto the shortlist. Author Brad Torgersen took over the group for 2015, expanding beyond Correia’s work to present a slate of suggested nominations that eventually came to dominate the ballot. The Sad Puppies are addressing what they perceive to be a liberal (and literary) bias in the nominations. They believe that Hugo voting has been skewed towards literary and progressive works that aren’t necessarily popular. They believe that voters ignore popular authors, feeling obliged to reward “underrepresented minorities or victim groups.” They are buoyed in 2015 by the extremist Rabid Puppies, led by notorious conservative editor Theodore Beale (working under the alias of Vox Day). Beale is infamous for his rants about women, black people, and immigrants (that last link also features a slur towards homosexuals, just so he ticks all the boxes). The two campaigns have been devastatingly successful at getting their preferred candidates onto the ballot. Their influence has been felt in every single category this year, with two nominations going to Beale himself and eight others to works published under his Castalia House. This includes five nominations for John C. Wright, an obscure author whose views on women are as confusing as they are offensive. The flooding tactic has meant that the 2015 awards are no longer about judging works on their artistic merits, but a political debate about who has the “authority” to produce and disseminate science fiction and fantasy.

A fairly detailed summary of the farce can be found here.

The Hugo ballot has always been susceptible to slating, but this is the first time a group has openly taken advantage of the system. Nominations for each category come from fee-paying members of each year’s World Science Fiction Convention, who are then invited to vote on the shortlist. But only a small percentage of Worldcon members actually go to the effort of nominating works (and, due to varied reading interests, even an excellent piece of science fiction or fantasy may only receive a small number of votes). It is a system ripe for slating. An author hoping to get his/her work on the shortlist could achieve this by having their supporters buy memberships and nominate their particular work. And that’s exactly what Theodore Beale and Brad Torgerson have done. They’ve rigged the nominations by flooding the ballot.

Don't be deceived by their sad faces - these are some feral dogs.
Don’t be deceived by their sad faces – these are some feral dogs.

The 2014 Hugo nominees came from diverse backgrounds, demonstrating how the genre has become a truly global phenomenon that is no longer produced solely by straight, white, middle-class men from England and the US, but from authors of all sexual, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds. It is reflective of a shift in the genre that has been taking place over the last few decades. The genre has become a literary movement that transcends national borders, one that welcomes voices from different cultures. Over at io9.com, critic and author Charlie Jane Anders wrote, “[2014] was really a year that underscored that a younger generation of diverse writers are becoming central to the genre and helping to redefine and expand it.” Given that last year was such a celebration of egalitarianism, it feels like the Sad Puppies campaign to steer the nominations this year is a backlash targeted specifically at those writers who don’t fit their conservative, right-wing views on how authors should live and write.

Ostensibly, the Sad Puppies are promoting quality popular fiction over works that are – to use Torgersen’s words – “niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavour.” So it would seem that they simply want the more popular works to have the spotlight. But, digging a little deeper, the twisted nature of their campaign becomes apparent, with Torgersen writing that he believes many voters are swayed by the question of “Does the author or the story allow me to check a victim group box?” It becomes apparent that Torgersen’s idea of popular fiction is only limited to those authors who are straight, white men.

Strangely, their insistence that the awards should solely be about popular fiction implies that only left-wing authors can have literary ambitions, and that right-wing authors should restrict themselves to the sort of comforting pulp narratives that don’t upset the hegemonic norms. It ignores the large number of right-wing authors who have had successful careers in the field. Editor Jeet Heer puts it the most succinctly: “The faux-populism of the Puppy brigade is actually insulting to the right, since it assumes that conservatives can’t be interested in high culture.”

The Sad Puppies’s complete lack of knowledge about the history of science fiction becomes embarrassing to read. In a blog post, Torgersen laments the fact that, “A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds.” But now you’re likely to get a story “merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings.” He seems to hate the fact that the genre has become politicised. But – here’s a twist – the genre has always been politicised. Verne wrote his fiction in response to the lack of science education in the French Catholic school system. Wells wrote about the struggle of the working class. Practically every single one of Heinlein’s later novels was a strong political statement. Le Guin wrote about societies where gender inequality was biologically impossible. All of these authors penned stories that reflected their political convictions. Science fiction is the distorting mirror that reflects our society because it takes the time to examine our society in the first place. Like it or not, science fiction is political.

And these radical politics have long been reflected in the Hugo Awards. They are designed to be awarded to authors who have stretched the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, authors who have taken the genres to bold new places. Winners like Herbert’s Dune (1966), Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1969), Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1970), and even Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2008) have all certainly been popular works, but they have also defied or subverted the standard pulp rocketship stories. Writers such as Samuel R. Delany or Alice B. Sheldon (writing as James Tiptree, Jr.) have been recognised by the fan community, even though they challenged the hegemonic norm of what it meant to be a SF/F writer. Their stories won the Hugo precisely because they weren’t your typical science fiction pieces – they made us think, they made us see a little bit more behind the veil. Hence their popularity. Sure, there’s been some years when groundbreaking texts have been ignored (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974; Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in 1986), and even years when an amazing text has lost to something fairly humdrum (how Asimov’s pedestrian novel The Gods Themselves beat two Silverberg novels in 1973 will always baffle me – I guess the fans just wanted Asimov to finally get a Hugo). But the awards have an established tradition of rewarding innovative politicised texts. So Torgersen’s desire to see the Hugos “return” to stories that embody the “visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun” of the good old days is ignoring the fact that the awards have never been about swashbuckling fun. That definition of science fiction is too shallow; a genre governed by mass popularity rather than thought-provoking fiction. Maybe he should stick to the swashbuckling heroics of Robert Louis Stevenson, because the entire project of science fiction seems to scare him.

Of course, it certainly isn’t the first time that the personal political views of a writer have aroused the ire of the SF/F community. Orson Scott Card’s well-publicised opposition to marriage equality (as well as his other backwards Mormon ideas) led to a boycott of the Ender’s Game film (they didn’t miss out on much – the film was appalling), and a general antipathy towards his novels. Which is a shame, because Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead are amazing works of speculation. The real heart of this problem is that Torgersen/Beale are attempting to assert control over who is culturally “authorized” to write works of speculative fiction, undermining the recent shift away from the traditional stereotype of the genre writer (straight, white male) towards a more diverse and egalitarian model. So they beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The controversy has had serious repercussions for the nominees and wider community involved in the organisation of the awards. For the first time in history, two finalists withdrew from the ballot after the announcement of the shortlist. Marko Kloos withdrew his novel Lines of Departure after it appeared on the Rabid Puppies slate, explaining in a blog post: “I cannot in good conscience accept an award nomination that I feel I may not have earned solely with the quality of the nominated work.” Similarly, the short story “Goodnight Stars” by Annie Bellet was withdrawn, with Bellet writing, “I am withdrawing because this has become about something very different than great science fiction. I find my story, and by extension myself, stuck in a game of political dodge ball, where I’m both a conscripted player and also a ball.” Hugo Award-winning author Connie Willis has declined the offer to present the trophies at the ceremony. Her lengthy blog post on the subject expresses her disgust at the tactics employed by the two Puppies groups: “When I heard about this, I was sick at the thought of what they’d done and at all the damage they’d caused–to the nominees who should have made it on the ballot and didn’t; to those who’d made it on and would now have to decide whether to stay on the ballot or refuse the nomination; of the innocent nominees who got put on Vox Day’s slate without their knowledge and were now unfairly tarred by their association with it; and to the Hugo Awards themselves and their reputation.”

It has even more disturbing implications for the future. When someone suggested that voters could defy the attempts at slating by voting “No Award”, Beale responded by threatening the integrity of future ballots: “If No Award takes a fiction category, you will likely never see another award given in that category again. The sword cuts both ways, Lois. We are prepared for all eventualities.” (I wish I was making this up. His bizarre comments read like the tantrums of a privileged child.) And with the Rabid Puppies campaign set to continue next year, there’s no rules in place to prevent extremist voting blocs holding the Hugo Awards to ransom.

I think it’s imperative that the nomination and voting rules for the awards need to be modified to prevent special interest groups or voting blocs from exerting too much influence. This is a common problem in small votes/elections – I’ve certainly seen cases of “flooding the votes” in my days in student politics. A solution needs to be found which doesn’t damage the democratic process of the awards, nor the spirit with which they are bestowed.

It was George R.R. Martin who gave the best response to the Puppies’s concerns, writing “we’re SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FANS, we love to read about aliens and vampires and elves, are we really going to freak out about Asians and Native Americans?” Bravo, George.

Saturday is shaping up to be an intense debate: the 73rd Worldcon has the highest number of Hugo ballot votes ever recorded (5,950), which surpasses the previous record (London, 2014) by 65%. Like the rest of fandom, I shall be awaiting the results.

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14 comments

  1. I cannot like this post enough.

    Seeing a decent and respectable institution like the Hugos be flushed down the toilet, because of a bunch of conservative imbeciles, really makes my blood boil. They exist to recognise the best of a science fiction, not the best of a narrow field of candidates specialising in one type of SF.

    The best science fiction is essentially an argument by analogy about a prominent contemporary issue. The very best of the best endures, because its author happened upon a concern that spans generations. There’s a reason only die hard obsessives still seek out and collect pulpy sci-fi now, and that it is something that tends to be parodied – it’s dated, often irrelevant, and useful as little more than a window on a different time.

    Consequently, in their worship of this narrow field, these Sad and Rabid Puppies (their manipulation of a voting system notwithstanding) are discrediting the very institution from which they seek recognition. Clearly the irony is lost on them.

    Incidentally, why Puppies? These groups do themselves an injustice by making themselves sound stupid before we can even judge them by their (equally stupid) actions.

    Those authors who withdrew their nominations must be seething that this was the year that morons came to play! I only hope that this doesn’t become a trend in the years to come. A Hugo should be an award one can exhibit with pride, not hide away out of shame.

    1. Thanks, Myles. Yeah, it’s a disappointing development, one that certainly compromises both the democratic process and merit of the award. I definitely feel sorry for the authors who had to withdraw their nominations, rather than being tarnished with the same brush as the Puppies.

  2. ” This includes five nominations for John C. Wright, an obscure author whose views on women are as confusing as they are offensive.”

    Not confusing nor offensive to anyone of ordinary intelligence. I am a romantic, so I respect and adore women, which means I especially respect and adore those ways in which women differ from men. Those below ordinary intelligence deny there is any difference whatsoever, and consequently you scorn feminine virtues and feminine graces, and secretly despise all things feminine, and you attribute that hatred to those of us who love women.

    That is, I am assuming you are merely being dishonest, not stupid. Otherwise, I can explain the obvious things about love and romance to you in simpler words with fewer syllables.

    1. Hi John, thanks for taking the time to write a response – I am glad my post gave you the opportunity to reflect critically on your writing and personal convictions. However, I am sticking to what I wrote above. Your response doesn’t address the actual problem here, which is the language you’ve chosen to describe women on your blog.

      1. Your comment was “This includes five nominations for John C. Wright, an obscure author whose views on women are as confusing as they are offensive.”

        In your reply, you said, “Your response doesn’t address the actual problem here, which is the language you’ve chosen to describe women on your blog.”

        You made a comment about one topic (whether or not my views on women were confusing and offensive). I explained my views and offered to explain them in even simpler language just in case you were as confused in thought as you seemed. Your reaction was to pretend you had asked me a question of some sort about the language I’ve chosen to describe women, and that I had not answered the question.

        But the sentence you wrote does not say this. There is no question to answer. You said my views were confusing and offensive. That is irrelevant to whether or not I chose the allegedly correct language to express those views.

        This is a lie on your part, because it is an attempt to deceive. Worse, it is a violation of elementary rules of logic: you answered with an irrelevance. For shame.

        I am also aghast that you seem to think such clumsy slight of hand would deceive me, or anyone.

        Of course you are sticking to what you wrote above, sir! The mechanism rational men use to discover an error in their own thinking is logic. If you don’t use it, you get confusion, error, self deception, and self congratulation.

        You are the one, not I, who lacks respect for women, and is confused.

  3. I’ve tried my best to follow this debate, making sure I’m understanding both arguments, esp. from all key players. I think your perspective is indeed accurate to the situation. And a nice read too.

  4. I really like “Ender’s Game” — although the creepy stuff about all those little boys being kept naked in their barracks was a little… odd?

    Anyway.

    You never know about what “religious conservatives” do in their spare time.

    Still. A pretty good book, nonetheless.

  5. A very good summary of the issue.

    One minor point–I believe there are no slate nominees in the Best Fan Artist category. So it’s not quite true that their influence has been felt in *every* category this year.

    There is a proposal to change the way the nominations are counted to make it harder for a slate–open or secret–to lock everyone else out of a category; it is called E. Pluribus Hugo and is on the agenda for the WorldCon Business Meeting. If passed it would have to be passed again at the WorldCon business meeting next year and take effect for the Hugos after that–so we have another year of Puppy shenanigans to look forward to no matter what.

  6. This is my first comment ever on the Hugos, Sad Puppies or anything even remotely related. I live in London so the range of what’s published here is a bit different than the U.S. I have been fascinated by this debate and give some thoughts. I come at this from a generally pro-Sad Puppies perspective.

    The issue of the Social Justice Warriors vs Sad Puppies is exaggerated. The Hayden Nielsens, Scalzi and a clique from Tor (not all of Tor) wanted to run the show. It wasn’t about the writing and it wasn’t even about the writer (as evidenced by the diversity of those proposed by Sad Puppies 3) – it was about how “in” the nominees were with the clique.

    Both of the changes that are proposed for Hugo voting – the 4/6 proposal and the E pluribus Hugo proposal – will ensure a diversity of nominees/finalists and should be welcomed by Sad Puppies supporters. I believe that the 4/6 proposal was approved very narrowly today. I don’t know whether the E pluribus Hugo was. If approved this year the two changes have to be approved at next year’s Worldcon in order to take effect at 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, i.e. nomination and voting arrangements in 2016 will be the same as this year.

    What will also change Hugo voting is the huge surge in the number of Worldcon members and voters. The Puppies (Sad and Rabid) brought a lot more new people to the voting. So did those who disagreed with them and were angry with slate voting. The truth is that slate voting had been happening for years. If I were Patrick Hayden Nielsen I would be embarrassed about receiving three Hugos in a decade for best editor (long form) rather than bragging about them on my blog. Best editor is very opaque – who apart from the authors and a few industry insiders really knows how much an editor contributes?

    The Sad Puppies were right – the system was broken. Frankly, it was embarrassing for the Hugos that Scalzi won for Redshirts in 2013. Redshirts arguably didn’t even deserve to be nominated. This was the Sad Puppies point – that good work was getting passed over. I think the Sad Puppies were less cynical than they ought to have been – they thought good work was being passed over by the clique because of its ideology/philosophy whereas I think it was passed over simply because of self-interest/ego on the part of the clique.

    The changes proposed to the voting, and even more so the huge surge in the number of voters, will help fix the system and make it better for the future.

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