It's one of science fiction and fantasy's biggest honors, but two groups are turning it into a political war.
We seem to be going through a time of massive cultural backlash. As the world moves towards more progressive and inclusive modes of thought, there are some who find the changing landscape hard to navigate. In gaming, we have the GamerGate movement; under the guise of wanting to police ethics in gaming journalism, it is actually a counter-cultural movement against what it perceives to be a vast conspiracy to change and even corrupt gaming itself. GamerGate sees itself as the hero, and has labelled its enemies Social Justice Warriors, a catch-all, ironically flattering label for anyone who casts a critical eye over their beloved hobby.
Sadly, GamerGate is not an outlier. You can see similar movements in politics, such as the Tea Party in the US, and in the actions of Australia’s own right-wing government. But it’s also prevalent in other areas of geekdom – and in some cases there’s a crossover with GamerGate itself.
Every year at the World Science Fiction Convention, the prestigious Hugo Awards are announced. Alongside the Nebula Awards, winning a Hugo is a pretty big deal. There are many categories, ranging from short stories, to collections, best editors, and more. But it’s the Best Novel category that’s usually the biggest news, and past winners range from classics such as Robert A Heinlein’s Starships Troopers to more modern works from William Gibson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Neil Gaiman, and Ann Leckie.
Like a lot of areas, the Hugo Awards have been edging toward a greater degree of inclusiveness and diversity, with more women and people of colour being presented both in the nomination ballots, and in the winners themselves. More thoughtful works, too, that do what science fiction does best – explore our common humanity in interesting new ways – have been winning. Of course, so have more space operatic or purely fantastic titles. To many, it seems a pretty good mix, rewarding a wide range of styles and topics under the science fiction umbrella.
But, as with GamerGate, there are those who feel that the so-called SJWs are ruining the genre, and that more worthy authors are being ignored. There are those who are conservative, and Christian, who think any exploration of non-straight values in science fiction is something to fight back against. Some of them are even loud voices in the GamerGate movement, and feel that science fiction and fantasy is just as much in danger as gaming is.
They call themselves the Puppies.
Sad and/or Rabid
There are two groups, calling themselves the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies respectively, that are seeking to sway the voting process so as to represent an idea of science fiction more representative of their own views. The process involves a lot of glad-handing between friends, and not a little bit of self-promotion, but it has been highly effective in skewing the 2015 nominations. And these are not the first efforts of these voting blocks to influence the outcome. 2015 is the third year that the Sad Puppies voting slate has operated. It should also be noted that neither group is doing anything illegal, though it has been suggested by more than one observer that what they are doing is most definitely against the spirit, if not the rules, of the awards.
But what are these groups really trying to achieve? In the words of Larry Correia, who started the sad puppies voting slate:
“I believed that the awards were politically biased, and dominated by a few insider cliques. Authors who didn’t belong to these groups or failed to appease them politically were shunned. When I said this in public, I was called a liar, and told that the Hugos represented all of fandom and that the awards were strictly about quality.”
So he started his first list of suggested nominees in 2013, and despite a backlash from what he then termed ‘social justice warriors’, he did it again last year. Many of the works put forward on these slates tended to the right of politics, because as Correia says on his blog “SP1 was very politically biased because it was just me. SP2 did have a preponderance of nominees on the right side of the political spectrum, again, because that slate was basically my suggested list of stuff that I personally enjoyed.”
For the third year of the Sad Puppies slate, Correia has stepped aside. He’s lost patience with the what he perceives as the overly political system of the Hugos, and in response to the excoriation he’s dealt with for trying to tackle it head on. In this instance, there’s a lot of bile flowing from both sides. Corriea believes the efforts of the Puppies to be the "inevitable result" of what happens when things skew too far in one direction, as he points out while rebutting George RR Martin's take on the Puppies.
It remains to be seen if swinging things back in the other direction is a sensible or constructive response.
But with Correia out of the picture, Brad R. Torgersen stepped in, with the 2015 voting slate. And again, the apparent aims of the Sad Puppies is to give credit to deserving authors. But Torgersen is also bitter about the perceived political bias in the Hugo voting process.
“Gathered here is the best list (we think!) of entirely deserving works, writers, and editors — all of whom would not otherwise find themselves on the Hugo ballot without some extra oomph received from beyond the rarefied, insular halls of 21st century Worldcon ‘fandom.’”
The suggested nominees are pretty broad, ranging from Jim Butcher’s latest Dresden Files novel Skin Game to The Lego Movie, and even local ‘zine Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine. But there are also some more worrying inclusions. There are many writers from controversial author Vox Day’s Castalia House, including John C. Wright’s novella One Bright Star to Guide Them, and his essay Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth.
Wright is a troubling figure. In the Amazon blurb for his above essay, it explains that he attempts to “show(s) how the genre's obsession with strong female characters is nothing less than an attack on human nature.” But that’s small beer. In his reaction to the ending of, of all things, the cartoon show The Legend of Korra, Wright was rather upset at the image of two women walking away holding hands, and he had this response to the show's creators:
“Mr DiMartino and Mr Konietzko: You are disgusting, limp, soulless sacks of filth. You have earned the contempt and hatred of all decent human beings forever, and we will do all we can to smash the filthy phallic idol of sodomy you bow and serve and worship. Contempt, because you struck from behind, cravenly; and hatred, because you serve a cloud of morally-retarded mental smog called Political Correctness, which is another word for hating everything good and bright and decent and sane in life.”
Vox Day (that’s his pen name, by the way) is another divisive character. He is, by his own ready admission, an eclectic individual, having featured in a band, developed games, and is a prolific novelist. He also vocally supports GamerGate, and is a proponent of what Pick Up Artists call ‘game’ – one of his blogs focuses on just that. He also pretty much distrusts and dislikes women in a general sense.
While Day was not on the Sad Puppies voting list, he did publish his own slate, under the Rabid Puppies moniker. John C Wright and other Castalia House names show up, as does Brad R. Torgersen, and, again, the reasons behind Day’s list are ostensibly to promote quality, but to also thumb his nose at established voting mores.
“We of the science fiction Right do not march in lockstep or agree on everything. We span a fairly wide variety of political perspectives and we have very different opinions concerning the optimal way to deal with the corruption and ideological rot that is rife within the world of modern science fiction and fantasy. My recommendations for the Hugo Awards last year were not precisely the same as Larry Correia's in Sad Puppies 2, nor are they identical to Brad Torgersen's recommendations in Sad Puppies 3. But they are similar because we value excellence in actual science fiction and fantasy, rather than excellence in intersectional equalitarianism, racial and gender inclusion, literary pyrotechnics, or professional rabbitology.”
Specific politics aside, Torgersen, Correia, and Day all believe they’re only playing fair – they’re fighting left-wing fire with right-wing fire, in an effort to bring back something approaching balance in the awards.
But have the Hugo Awards actually been as rigged as they claim?
Hugo, I go, we all go to Worldcon!
Zara Baxter is a name that some of you may remember. She was editor of PC & Tech Authority a few years ago, and is a long-time attender of the World Science Fiction Convention, and also has had access to the inner runnings of the show. She’s also been involved with Andromeda Inflight Spaceways Magazine, the zine nominated on the Sad Puppies block. So when we got wind of this, I couldn’t resist reaching out to my old colleague about the state of affairs at Worldcon, and if the Puppies’ sense of an SJW conspiracy was at all represented in the facts as she has seen them.
“Worldcon isn't really a monolith - "worldcon" is essentially everyone who has joined the convention for that year - but as a group fandom has, since 2007, gradually and noticeably started to call out the lack of women, the lack of people of colour and the lack of alternate voices on the Hugo ballot,” she told us. And WorldCon is far from alone, it seems.
“Numerous projects have worked on this in various ways throughout fandom,” she said. “Strange Horizons, which is one of the major news sites, has kept logs of how many works by women and minorities appear in ballots, in reviews for major SF magazines, and how many women and people of colour are reviewers for those magazines. Conventions around the globe have started to include more people of colour and GSM guests (women have had a decent run, already). And the world hasn't collapsed: it's instead gotten kudos and more women and minority attendees. So they've kept at it.”
In one sense, it seems that the fears of the Puppies groups are not unfounded. There is a concerted effort to change things – but is it also one that is in turn disenfranchising supposedly ‘traditional’ authors?
“Popular authors, which the SP/RP crew say they want on the ballot, have appeared frequently,” Zara pointed out. “Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time - that appeared on the ballot last year. Terry Pratchett turned down a nomination in 2005, or he would have appeared, too. It's hard to say that the awards are broken in the way the SP/RP think they are broken, and there's little evidence of that.”
Certainly, looking at previous nominations for books like A Dance With Dragons, Leviathan Wakes, and even Larry Correia’s own Warbound, it seems that there is room for authors of all flavours. And while last year’s winner, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, features a very interestingly gendered setting, it also features a lot of thrilling action and big science fiction ideas – exactly what the Sad Puppies are looking for in their fiction. And nor has Zara seen any evidence of the kind of organised voting that the Puppies claim to be fighting against.
“I attend Worldcons probably every four years, on average, and when I do, I also attend the Worldcon business meeting, where the sausage-making of the Hugos occurs (deciding on rule changes, for example),” Zara told us. “There's a report tabled each year that discusses nominating and voting patterns, and not since L Ron Hubbard's supporters attempted to win him a Hugo has there been evidence of bloc nominating or of bloc voting.”
But she does understand some of the Puppies’ concerns.
“Some of the aims of the Sad Puppies are laudable, such as getting more people into thinking about, nominating for, and voting on the Hugos. The way that they've gone about it is even legal, in terms of Hugo rules, but the way they've gone about it doesn't transform the awards for the common people of fandom; instead it destroys their credibility.”
It's also not very easy for some of those being voted for to come to terms with. Some, not wanting to be connected in any way with figures like Wright or Day have asked to be removed from the list, or have, after the fact, refused their nomination. And there’s a lot of people who’ll be making the final voting decisions, such as John Scalzi, who are contemplating awarding ‘no vote’ to any category they feel has been unduly manipulated.
For the folks at Andromeda Spaceways, it’s been a bewildering few days.
Fly those friendly Spaceways
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, or ASIM, is an Australin zine that’s been around for 12 years , and it received a Hugo nod on the back of being included in the Sad Puppies voting slate. However, the zine had no idea of this until after they had accepted their nomination.
“We learnt about our inclusion on the Sad Puppies slate - and it is only the SP slate we're on, not the Rabid Puppies - on Thursday (April 2nd), and this was long after we'd already sent in our acceptance for the Hugo nomination, because we had no idea that we'd got there through the Puppies' involvement,” ASIM’s Simon Petrie told us. “So by then, yes, it did seem too late to do anything much about it, except to point out, as vigorously and as loudly as possible, that we hadn't asked for the Puppies' ‘help’.” And understanding what to do next has not been easy.
“We have been trying to make the best of what's a very complicated situation - it really does feel, I guess, like we're playing the part of NPCs in somebody else's campaign, and that's not a comfortable position to be in.”
It’s a hard position to tolerate because it’s difficult to see through the Puppies’ motives, and it’s not being helped by passionate arguments from by both ‘sides’.
“One thing that I find, frankly, concerning, is just how vitriolic some of the commentary on this has got, on both sides of the fence. There's an extraordinary amount of name-calling going on, and we've been caught in the crossfire,” Simon told us. “In that context, filtering truth from fiction is a little difficult. But it's tempting to believe, from all that I've read, that the Puppies are more-or-less just out to wreck the Hugos. That's the sense I've built up, from their blogs and comments threads, from the commentary of other people - that I trust, in ways that I wouldn't trust the Puppies - and from the overall reaction to their actions.”
As to the Awards themselves, Simon thinks they’re moving in a good direction – or had been – but it’s not happening fast, and not with the same level of conspiracy that the Puppies assume exists.
“There has been, I think, a gradual move towards greater inclusivity in the awards, more diversity, but I think it has nonetheless been very slow,” Simon opined, but he sees the Puppies’ reaction as out of proportion. “I do think the issue of politics in SF is something that the Puppies care about significantly more than those they see as their opponents.”
So what does this mean for ASIM’s inclusion on the ballot?
“To the extent that a small Australian magazine is even on the ballot at all - we should be grateful, and from a fair vote we would be, but the way the Puppies went about what they did is not right.”
Right or wrong, it’s hard to see how the Hugo Awards can simply ignore the problem, and both Zara and Simon told us that there are a lot of ideas about how to counter this kind of bloc voting, but no real clear direction yet of what to take. As Simon points out “bloc vote slates invite counter-slates from the other side (or from multiple opposing factions), which rapidly gets very unhelpful. 'One fan, one vote' is the ideal, but the slates are the antithesis of that.”
And regardless of what does happen, it is becoming ever clearer that the cultural divide that gaming currently faces is merely an extension of wider faultlines in the community. The campaigns of the Puppies existed before GamerGate was a gleam in Adam Baldwin’s twitter stream – though Corriea does claim Baldwin a friend, and Vox Day proudly states that he was practically born a GamerGater, and that it is now his life.
I wish there were a pat way to end this, but as I’ve said before, this is the new normal for some time to come.