Rigging The Hugos: A Sad Puppies/George R. R. Martin Explainer
Fandom is alight with scandal right now over the Hugo awards, if you hadn’t heard or don’t follow sci-fi and fantasy writing. I will be totally honest and say from the get-go that I don’t keep up with contemporary science fiction novels by and large. I read comic books, I play video games, I watch sci-fi and fantasy on film and television, I read classic sci-fi and fantasy, and last year I finally made my way through the Song of Ice and Fire series (oof). So I’ll try to provide an overview of what’s going on with the Hugo awards and keep my opinions to the stuff on which I can provide honest commentary.
Authors Brad Torgensen and Larry Correia have been campaigning to rig the Hugo ballot for the last three years. They call it “Sad Puppies,” because they feel aggrieved that science fiction and fantasy writing and awards are tending toward women, people of color, non-Christian writers, and “literary” novels, which is not a pejorative in my world, but to them means “fancy-pants,” I guess, and is less preferable than strict pop sci-fi. Sad Puppies 1 and 2 attempted to get one nomination into each category, and succeeded. That’s not outside the norm of campaigning for the Hugos, apparently, so no one really cared.
But this year, they Torgensen and Correia got ambitious, published an entire slate of nominations, campaigned hard, and rigged the entire ballot. The way that Hugo nominating works is that if you buy a membership to Worldcon – the World Science Fiction Convention – you can nominate for the Hugos and vote on the final ballot. There are two levels of membership – attending membership, which includes attendance to Worldcon and a membership, for $210, or supporting membership, through which you can vote but not attend the convention. It costs $40 – not so expensive. You can see how Torgensen and Correia were able to convince people to buy supporting memberships on ideological grounds.
Or, well, I can. It’s been a rough year for fandoms or geek culture or whatever you want to call it, mainly due to GamerGate. And yeah, that’s where I’m laying all of this, because frankly, this entitlement to majority-white/male representation in sci-fi and fantasy is based on the same complaints as the Gaters had about video games – that SJW’s (yep, the Puppies are using that term too) are taking over the medium and bending it toward representation of women and people of color, the horror. The thing is, Torgensen and Correia weren’t the only people who made a slate – renowned racist and misogynist Vox Day, who was an extremely vocal participant in GamerGate, put together a “Rabid Puppies” slate and also successfully campaigned. By and large, the Hugo nominating list is a mix of the Rabid/Sad Puppies slates. It’s pretty gross. Vox Day is nominated for two Best Editor awards.
It’s not all gloom and doom, of course – the Best Novel category seems to have gone untouched, and some really fantastic nominations were made in several categories (Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals, and the Doctor Who episode “Listen,” which I reviewed as a trauma survival story when it aired and which is truly representative of good TV writing, as are many of the nominees in the category) that were really delightful to see on the ballot. And besides, the Sad Puppies nominees aren’t all low-quality or politically gross. But the problem isn’t really what specifically is nominated, because the ballot by and large seems to be viewed across the non-Puppy board as not terrifically offensive but just mediocre, for the most part (Vox Day as Best Editor being one notable exception to that rule).
The problem is that the Sad Puppies hijacked the Hugos, which have a long-standing reputation for truly awarding the best science fiction and fantasy writing, and why they did it. To paraphrase a friend of mine, using “literary” as a pejorative indicates to me, more than anything, that the Puppies are insecure about the artistic value of the work that they prefer to read. And further, regarding the issue of representation for white guys and Christians, well, I’ll let George R. R. Martin handle it, because he’s put up a series of blog posts that hit the nail square on the head regarding what he’s calling Puppygate. In his blog post “Where’s the Beef?” he breaks down the demographic makeup of Hugo award nominees and winners historically and in the years leading up to the creation of Sad Puppies and made this incredibly shocking finding: Right before they started trying to fix the ballot, Correia and Torgensen were nominated on ballots that were only marginally more diverse than the Hugos had been historically (as in, over the course of 70 years), and they lost. Martin goes on (bolding mine):
“There were no Sad Puppies when Larry Correia was nominated for the Campbell, when Brad Torgersen was nominated for the Campbell, when Torgersen was nominated for his first Hugo. (Subsequent noms, yes, may have resulted from Puppy campaigns). That was the traditional Hugo electorate putting you on the ballot… you, and a lot of other conservative writers, religious writers, white male writers, and purveyors of space opera, military SF, and Good Old Stuff. There was never any need for Sad Puppies to ‘take back’ the Hugos. The feminists, minorities, literary cliques, and Social Justice Warriors never took them in the first place.”
…Which pretty much ends the argument, for me.
Martin also has a series of blog posts up about his own history with the Hugos, his objection to the Tone Argument (he is pro-Tone Argument, meaning that he supports a genuinely civil debate: “I am against punching and kicking. Up, down, or sideways. No punching here, please.“), explaining the history of campaigning for the Hugos and why Sad Puppies is different, and explaining the solutions that have been proposed and what he intends to do as a Hugo voter this year. People have been proposing changing the rules of Hugo voting to avoid another Sad Puppies takeover:
“They started this whole thing by saying the Hugo Awards were rigged to exclude them. That is completely untrue, as I believe I demonstrated conclusively in my last post. So what is happening now? The people on MY SIDE, the trufans and SMOFs and good guys, are having an endless circle jerk trying to come up with a foolproof way to RIG THE HUGOS AND EXCLUDE THEM. God DAMN, people. You are proving them right.”
Martin’s solution: Vote honestly. If a book is Hugo-worthy, vote for that book. If there are only one or two Hugo-worthy nominees in a category, vote No Award for the rest of the spots. Maintain the honesty and reputation of the Hugos by playing by the rules. This year’s set of winners won’t be great, but at least the Hugos will still have integrity. The award can’t keep its integrity if voting devolves into in-fighting, which is precisely the kind of shit that the Sad Puppies are trying to start.
He’s pretty much hitting the nail on the head all over the place, and frankly, all of this matters because it’s indicative of the “culture war” (ugh no with that phrase) we’re experiencing as certain very vocal subsets of not exclusively but mainly aggrieved white guys lash back against what they consider exclusion of their demographic when anyone who’s, I don’t know, sensitive and observant enough to take a minute and step back and view the situation through a wider lens would be able to see that you can either say that not exclusively but mainly straight/cis/white dudes are losing representation that they’ve always had, or you can say that a variety of other groups of people are gaining representation that they’ve never had. Martin chooses to see it as the latter. So do I. So do a lot of people who genuinely love science fiction and fantasy and want the Hugos to be awarded to the best of the genre.
Martin’s argument is that, basically, this whole thing can blow over if we all keep our cool and vote honestly and maintain our principles about evaluating art by its own merits. And look, GamerGate has largely blown over. This will, too. The Sad Puppies have made their point – that they want attention, that they appreciate “Good Ol’” sci-fi better than more contemporary/literary sci-fi, that sci-fi includes people who are socially and politically conservative. Which is fine, because that always has been and always will be true. The challenge is to accept that, and to accept them, as part of fandom whether or not they’re acting in an unsportsmanlike manner. This holds across all of the arts, of course. If people who love art of any kind for its own sake can weather these political flare-ups, soon enough we can get back to loving the art itself.
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