It’s that time of year again. The 2016 Hugo Awards ceremony will be held this Saturday at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The Hugos were once the most prestigious award in the science fiction community, a celebration of diversity and innovation. But for the second year in a row, the nominations have been dominated by a conservative lobby group, one that is intent on destroying the credibility of the awards and making a mockery of the nomination process.
Although the controversy is a continuation of last year, there is something distinctly insidious about this year’s debate. It’s worth having a brief review of what has happened before the awards are announced on Saturday night.
The controversy began in 2013, when author Larry Correia launched a voting campaign named the Sad Puppies to get one of his novels nominated for a Hugo Award. The Sad Puppies were campaigning against what they perceived to be a liberal, leftist bias in the awards, where texts from “underrepresented minorities or victim groups” were privileged over more popular works. (They ignored the blatantly obvious fact that an increasingly globalised market for science fiction means that a greater diversity of writers are getting more opportunities for publication; therefore, they represent a proportionally greater share of the market. The Hugo Awards simply reflected this global trend.) Their 2015 campaign was organised by author Brad Torgersen, who was devastatingly effective at getting their nominations onto the shortlist. Their efforts in 2015 were bolstered by an even more extremist group, the Rabid Puppies, led by author Theodore Beale (who writes under the name of Vox Day). His vitriolic rants against women, black people, and homosexuals have earned him the reputation of “the most despised man in science fiction.”
At its heart, the slating controversy was a political debate about who is authorised to produce and disseminate science fiction. Those responsible for the slates attempted to justify their bias towards conservative writers under the guise of promoting “popular” literature, with the implicit suggestion that authors from other cultures or those with liberal views weren’t capable of writing something that could be enjoyed by the fans. Furthermore, Torgersen/Day’s desire to see the genre return to its days of “swashbuckling fun” represented a critical misunderstanding of the genre’s history. Science fiction has always been progressive and innovative. Its continual encounters with the alien Other has encouraged an ongoing and open dialogue with concepts such as diversity and equality, and this has been increasingly reflected in those who write science fiction. The Hugo Awards have always celebrated this diversity. The famous authors who have won the awards in the past didn’t do so because their texts revisited familiar themes, but because they pushed the boundaries, challenged social conventions, and took the genre somewhere new. A more detailed exploration of last year’s controversy can be found here.
In the end, the 2015 Hugo Awards were a mess. Voters were overwhelmingly opposed to the efforts to manipulate the ballot. Not a single one of the authors promoted by the Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies campaigns won an award. In the five categories where every nominee was listed on a slate, the voters chose to give No Award. The only positive to come from the experience was the reassurance that the broader science fiction community was in favour of diversity and egalitarianism. They said, in a clear voice, that science fiction is for everyone.
This year, the Sad Puppies have adopted a much more moderate approach, suggesting a list of recommendations, rather than a slate. Under the direction of author Kate Paulk, their methodology in collating these recommendations was much more inclusive, one that encouraged a diversity in nominations.
However, the Rabid Puppies seem more determined than ever to destroy the credibility of the award. They have once again been successful at getting their nominations onto the shortlist: out of the 81 nominations posted by Vox Day on his blog, 62 made it to the final list. Four categories are completely dominated by Rabid Puppies nominations. Among the nominations are Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a self-published porn parody by Chuck Tingle (an author who seems determined to undermine the Hugos, whoever he is) and an episode of My Little Pony, which jarringly sits alongside brilliant episodes from Doctor Who and Jessica Jones. Vox Day’s decision to include these in his slate undermine his campaign’s argument that they are endeavouring to address a perceived bias in the nominations. Instead, it reveals the true motivations of the campaign: to make a mockery of the nomination process. Vox Day is trying to troll the Hugos.
Interestingly, some of the Rabid Puppies’s nominations in the more well-known categories – best novel, best film, best graphic novel – were reflective of a broader consensus. There’s Neal Stephenson’s acclaimed novel Seveneves, Neil Gaiman’s long-awaited graphic novel The Sandman: Overture, and Ridley Scott’s film The Martian. Even without the Puppies’s endorsement, these texts would’ve been likely to make the Hugo shortlist. Will these texts suffer from the same backlash that we saw last year, simply because they appear on a slate? Or will fans still choose to vote for them because of their overwhelming popularity? It will be interesting to see how Vox Day and his supporters interpret the results if any of these texts do win an award – can they honestly claim victory if the text was likely to win anyway?
A complete list of the nominated works for 2016, alongside the Rabid Puppies slate, can be found at File770.com.
Last year’s controversy may have focused on diversity and politics, but this year’s debate already feels more spiteful, less about political agendas and more about personal vendettas. Vox Day has manipulated the nomination process simply because he can. His intentions have been revealed to be much more insidious – a petulant attempt to destroy the integrity of the awards by flooding it with undeserving nominations.
The result of this bitter culture war has been that the credibility of the awards has been completely shattered. The Hugo Awards are no longer about recognising and celebrating artistic merit, but confronting and challenging prejudice within the science fiction community. When Space Raptor Butt Invasion was nominated for the same award that has been won by luminaries such as Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Connie Willis (just to name a few!), it was clear that the system that supports this award has been irreparably broken. It is sad to think that the voters participating in this year’s ballot will be more likely to be voting for their political affiliation rather than for the best quality work. And unless the nomination process is changed, the Hugos will always be susceptible to slates.
Thankfully, there is hope. E Pluribus Hugo is a proposed change to the nomination process that will be discussed this weekend at the Business Meeting of the World Science Fiction Society (this occurs at Worldcon). The proposal suggests that each voting member has one nomination in every category. If they wish to nominate multiple works, that point will be divided across the number of nominations (so if they nominate two works, each will receive half a point). The system is explained in greater detail here. Although the proposed system doesn’t prevent slates from occurring, it greatly reduces their potential impact on the overall vote. E Pluribus Hugo needs to be approved at this weekend’s meeting before it can be made a reality for next year’s awards.
It is entirely possible – indeed, likely – that Saturday’s vote may turn out to be a mirror of last year, where the words “No Award” received the biggest cheers of the night. However, it may turn out to be more complicated this year, especially if heavyweight authors such as Stephenson or Gaiman are given an award. The results – and the influence of the slates – may be much harder to interpret. Any “victory” may not be as clear cut as last year. The true reaction to the slating will be most clear in the lesser-known categories – best semiprozine, best fan writer, best fan artist – where the Puppies’s influence was most heavily felt. The outcome in these categories will give a better indication of how the votes were divided.
Yet it is a sad state of affairs when a number of good authors/editors could miss out on awards just because they happen to appear on someone’s slate. Not to mention the numerous writers who didn’t even make the shortlist because the slates garnered a higher number of votes. But their lack of recognition should not be interpreted as a rejection of their work. Instead, it is a rejection of those who have campaigned to manipulate the ballot. It is a rejection of bullies such as Vox Day, who believes he has a right to assert his narrow, conservative views onto an institution that has traditionally celebrated diversity and innovation.
I had a tired sense of déjà vu as I wrote this post. In fact, it seems as though the whole science fiction community is suffering from fatigue over this issue. It’s a shame to see an institution that I’ve always respected mired in such petty squabbling. I never want to write the words Space Raptor Butt Invasion again in my life. We’ll wait to see what Saturday brings.