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?
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.
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, “ 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.