Pop Culture
Feb 17, 2016, 06:42AM

The Great Hugo Wars of 2015

Online culture tends toward radicalization.

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I’ve been putting off this article for months now, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe because it means writing about something I still don’t really understand, but which means a lot to people. Maybe because it’s about me, and also about something I never asked to be involved with. And maybe because it’s about a small corner of the American culture wars, where nothing ever really ends.

About a year ago I heard that Breitbart.com had published an article about science fiction. Curiosity led me to read the article, which focused on recent controversies in SF (for the record, “SF” from here on stands for “speculative fiction,” meaning science fiction, fantasy, and horror). In particular, the piece spoke glowingly of the Sad Puppies, a group of right-wing Americans attempting to resist “radical activists” allegedly dominating the SF world. They were doing this by trying to get a slate of their picks nominated for the Hugo Awards, well-known prizes in the field. Puppies aside, I thought the article’s ideological slant made it misleading, and pitched a piece to Splice Today that would fact-check the Breitbart story.

I got approval, and started doing basic background research. Obviously that meant going over the Puppy slate. So I did; and found I was on it. It would be fair to characterise me as “taken aback.”

For several years I’d been writing posts for Blackgate.com, a site that covers fantasy and genre fiction. Somebody must’ve been impressed. The Puppies had named me one of their five picks for the Best Fan Writer Hugo. There are 16 Hugo categories, four for fiction of various lengths, two for dramatic presentation, two for editors, and so on. Best Fan Writer isn’t one of the marquee awards, as it’s essentially for people who write about SF without getting paid. But among the fans who vote on the award, it means something. Any Hugo means something to fans. This one has to do with the fandom as a whole—the community of fans rewarding a fan. Which made my nomination especially strange: I wasn’t a part of that community, beyond writing for Black Gate.

I was bemused, but my instinct was to do nothing. As a left-wing Canadian, I didn’t agree with the Puppies’ assessment of the field, but then it wasn’t really my field as such. And I wasn’t sure how much of an effect the Puppies would actually have. The Hugos are voted on by members of Worldcon, a convention primarily dedicated to prose SF. It costs as little as $40 to become a member, and each one can nominate up to five works in each category of the Hugos. In April the top five vote-getters in each category are unveiled as official Hugo nominees. The members then vote on those nominees in a ranked preferential ballot, with the winners revealed during Worldcon—this year, in late August.

The Puppy campaigns had started in 2013, when self-described pulp writer Larry Correia ran a campaign to get his book Monster Hunter Nation a Hugo nomination for best novel because, he wrote, he wanted to “stick it to the man” and explode the heads of the “literati” he believed ran the awards. Correia, who’d been nominated for a Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2011, jokingly dubbed this the “Sad Puppies” campaign, and over a few weeks expanded it to include some recommendations for works in other categories. Some of those got nominated, but not Monster Hunter Nation. Not deterred, Correia ran an expanded “Sad Puppies 2" campaign in 2014, eventually putting together a slate of 12 potential nominees across eight categories. Seven made it to the final ballot.

The Puppies succeeded because the slate concentrated their voting power. Other voters were choosing from among hundreds of eligible works, but Puppies who voted the slate were all voting the same. The Puppies argued that other well-known Hugo recommendation lists unified voters the same way. Some claimed that under-the-table campaigning and “cliques” conspired to limit the Hugos to a select in-group.

Most non-Puppies felt that a slate was something different than a recommendation list, which usually had significantly more suggestions and so didn’t concentrate the vote. And I could find no proof online of the various conspiracies the Puppies alleged. Clearly once everyone was voting on the same five works the Puppies were a minority. None of the Puppy nominees had won in 2014, and only one didn’t finish last. In fact, because voters had the option to vote “No Award” in any category, one of the works actually finished sixth in a field of five.

That was a novella by a conservative writer named Theodore Beale, who writes and blogs under the name Vox Day. Beale, the son of former WorldNetDaily board member Robert Beale, had been blogging at Black Gate when I started writing there, but that stopped following a controversial post he wrote criticising another SF award. Later, in 2013, he ran for president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a professional organisation for fantasy and SF authors, and lost. A few months later he was expelled from the organization following his use of their Twitter account to link to a blog post he’d written that made racist comments about another writer. Beale, who has only grown more notorious for his racism and misogyny, does not acknowledge the validity of the expulsion.

This year the Sad Puppies were led by a writer named Brad Torgersen, who’d had two works selected for the 2014 Sad Puppy campaign and had agreed to take over for Correia for 2015. I looked at the post on Torgersen’s blog where he’d solicited suggestions for the Sad Puppy slate. My name wasn’t mentioned in the comments there. I had to guess that Beale, who’d said positive things about my work in the past, had suggested me to Torgersen. I soon found a post on Beale’s site putting forward what he called a “Rabid Puppies” slate. I was on that slate as well, and Black Gate was a suggested nominee for Best Fanzine.

I explained to Splice Today that I had to back out of writing about the Breitbart article, now a clear conflict of interest. Then I threw the Puppy question out to Facebook. I’d learned that a few days before a writer named Dave Creek had asked Torgersen to remove his novella “The Jenregar and the Light” from the Sad Puppy slate, citing philosophical and political disagreements with the Puppies, and Torgersen had obliged. I asked: should I do the same? I didn’t then realize that Torgersen’s Sad Puppies and Beale’s Rabid Puppies were two different campaigns. I don’t know if it mattered, at that point.

Most people who responded said that if I made a public statement that I had no affiliation with the Puppies, Hugo voters would probably understand. But a minority, people on more deeply involved with the SF world, seemed disgusted by the Puppy initiatives and suggested that if I was uncomfortable with being on their slates, the sensible thing to do was ask to be taken off.

What I wrote then: “I feel like this is pulling me into a controversy in fandom which I maybe grasp, but am uninterested in. Given that I'm not much for fan politics, is there anything to actually be gained by e-mailing the guy?” And: “The question is something along the lines of, “Do I want to be involved in the SF community enough to take a side over this?” And phrased like that, well, with no disrespect to the SF community, “I don’t, particularly—I like individuals in the field, I like writing for Black Gate, I love reading SF and fantasy. But this sort of weird political factionalism is the sort of thing that’s always alienated me from fandom.”

As I was searching my feelings, I found the results of the previous year’s Hugo voting, and the full nomination data. Looking at it, I guessed that the Puppies didn’t have enough voters to get me nominated. I’ve made better guesses. But, frankly, I wanted to think I could ignore the Puppy slates and go on with my life. How do you write an email to a perfect stranger asking him not to nominate you for a valued award?

And, honestly, I couldn’t help but think of the fact that I was about to put together e-book collection of my Black Gate essays. Hugo nominees could put samples of their work in a packet that went out to all Worldcon members. If I were nominated, even if I didn’t win, wouldn’t it be good to have my stuff in front of people who might not come across it otherwise? On the other hand, what if being on the Puppy slate alienated my potential audience? I don’t think these questions made a difference to me, then. But it’s hard to say, now.

I kept half an eye on the Puppy controversy over the next couple of months. Debate over the Puppies grew. This year the Sad Puppies had again increased the number of works on their slate, and with the Rabid Puppies putting forward an overlapping slate, Puppies could conceivably flood entire categories. Still, I largely forgot about the whole thing until early April, when I began hearing that nominees were being notified by email.

The nominees would have the chance to decline the nomination if they wished, and in any event were asked not to share news of their nomination for a week so the confirmed nominations could be all announced together. I learned this because the author of one of the nominees for Best Related Work, a Puppy pick, overlooked the request not to write about it and mentioned it on his blog in late March. The Hugo administrators got in touch with him and the announcement was taken down, but word spread quickly on Twitter. Having received no email, I figured I had nothing to worry about.

Then the next night I opened my email to find a message from the Worldcon administrators congratulating me for being nominated for a Hugo. If I wouldn’t be at Worldcon, could I please select someone who’d be able to pick up the award for me if I won?

I emailed Black Gate editor John O’Neill, and asked him if he’d be in Spokane. He said he wouldn’t, and also mentioned that Black Gate had been nominated for a Fanzine Hugo. That meant I’d now heard of three Puppy picks who’d gotten nominations. I poked around some message boards and found speculation from various people plugged into the field guessing that the Puppies would do spectacularly well when the full list of nominees was made public. One (non-Puppy) editor said that he’d heard that the Puppies had three of the nominations for Best Novel—the most prestigious category. I began to wonder if I wanted to be nominated for an award that was being shaped by the Puppy tactics. If nothing else, what kind of backlash would this create?

Over the next few days I did more research on the Puppy program. Beyond politics, it was clear I didn’t share the Sad Puppy sense of what was good and bad in fiction. Beale only spoke about “the science fiction right,” but Torgersen was putting forward an aesthetic argument about the value of adventure writing over “message fiction.” I like good pulp fiction, but prefer experimental writing. More: it became clear to me that Torgersen and Beale knew that what they were doing was a slap in the face of the SF community—the people who attended events like Worldcon and administered the Hugos. As far as they were concerned, many of the existing institutions of science fiction fandom were not only dominated by liberals, but corrupt, and therefore had to be either reformed or burned down. The Puppies were looking for a fight.

Emotions were already running high on both sides. A lot of fans were treating the Puppies as a threat to the Hugos. To the existing fandom, and apparently to the Sad Puppies, too, who wanted the Hugos to acknowledge their own vision of SF. But not to me. The Hugos didn’t generally go to SF novels that were important to me. But so what? I wasn’t the one giving out the awards. What right did someone else have to try to hijack the process?

Turning the nomination down meant picking a side, if only by implication. But accepting it was also taking a side. Of course, people could be Puppy voters and also genuinely believe I was a good candidate. Did I have the right to back out on them? From another angle, could I win? If the category was entirely flooded with Puppy picks, I thought I might do well. And, realistically, the No Award option existed—and people were already talking about using it.

The more I thought about it, the more confused I got. There was a lot at stake. But I didn’t really know how much; this was not, in the end, my world. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I did have a sense that a lot of people involved in the debate had a history with each other, and that a certain amount of subtext in the online discussion was based off of meatspace encounters. (Much later, it’d come out that Correia felt he’d been excluded and mocked at the convention where the 2011 Campbell Award was presented.)

I went back and forth for a couple of days trying to figure out the right thing to do—for me, for Black Gate, for the science fiction field in general. I talked with some people in SF, I read and read, and I still wasn’t sure. Finally I thought: What do I know, exactly? I’d been put forward for a prize—but as part of a program that I didn’t agree with. I didn’t like the tactics the Puppies had used, I didn’t like the fact that they’d pulled me into what they knew was going to be a fraught situation without asking, and I didn’t agree with much Torgersen had to say about SF. Put like that, it was simple enough.

I sent an email declining the nomination to the Worldcon committee, and at once felt a sense of calmness. I realized I’d been under stress, trying to work out options and alternatives. Now, for better or worse, I’d made my choice.

I did think that, having declined the nomination, I owed voters an explanation. At the least, my declining the nomination would come out after the award ceremony in August, when the nominating data would be released. I sat down and began a post for Black Gate explaining myself to the people who had voted for me in good faith.

As I began working out what I wanted to say, I found the post growing longer and longer. The disagreements I had with the Puppy assessments of SF, of the Hugos, of fiction, and of literary awards were extensive and interrelated. I worked out a structure for the post, and dealt with everything I could think of point by point. It took me four full days of writing. By the time I was done, the piece was over 15,000 words.

I set the post to go live an hour after the Hugo nominations would be announced on April 4, then watched the announcements through a live stream. The Puppies did remarkably well—the Rabids better than the Sads, but several categories had been swept by Puppy candidates, including Best Short Story and Best Novella. There was only one non-Puppy in the Best Fan Writer category.

I tweeted out the link to my Black Gate piece, and waited to see what would happen. Would I have to deal with angry Puppies in comments? For the most part I did not. Understandably; they’d had a good day, and what was the point of refuting such a detailed post? Some Black Gate readers who had voted with the Puppies were angry with me, and I answered them as best I could.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the tweet announcing the post had a grammatical error. Too late: it’d already been retweeted dozens of times. The link to the post was passed around. In 24 hours that post got more hits than any other in Black Gate’s history. It drew a flood of supportive comments; in fact I was stunned by the amount of positive reaction my post got. It was humbling, if gratifying. Over the following days I saw commentary at a number of other blogs, generally very positive. The Puppies never responded that I saw.

Of course, they had a lot on their plate. Over the following days, weeks, and months, the Puppy controversy raged through the SF field and beyond. Readers who tried the Puppy nominees largely disliked them, and said so volubly (many also noted that Beale had selected a large number of works from his own publishing house). Other nominees decided to withdraw, among them Black Gate. Mainstream magazines like Wired and Entertainment Weekly wrote about the controversy (and were criticized by Puppies for being slanted and inaccurate). George R.R. Martin, a dedicated fan of long standing, weighed in on his blog.

It was difficult to keep up with everything that was happening; when a controversy strikes the literary world, writers are affected, meaning much will be written. And I was out of it. Appreciative reaction to my post continued to come in at Black Gate, but as what Martin called “Puppygate” sprawled on, I was watching from the sidelines. I saw calls for boycotts of publishers, I saw counter-calls to buy books from the same publishers, I saw reports that the number of people buying memberships to Worldcon had hit record numbers. I saw satires and arguments. I saw proposals to change the Hugo voting rules to limit the impact of future slates. I kept track of as much as I could, partly because it was fascinating to watch, and partly because I never knew if my name would come up. Mostly, it didn’t, which suited me fine. If for no other reason than that the culture-war overtones that Breitbart had highlighted in the Puppies became increasingly front and center.

The fact that the conflict fed into broader conflicts in the American political scene probably led to more media attention, which further exacerbated the viciousness. A process of radicalization took place before my eyes. Very quickly, insults, accusations, hurt feelings, and to some extent rabble-rousing made the more extreme voices more prominent.

In the end the Hugo voters opted for “No Award” over the Puppy nominees in almost every category. The Best Novel Award went to Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, which made it onto the ballot when Marko Kloos, whose book Lines of Departure was on Beale’s slate, declined the nomination after learning about the Rabid Puppy actions. Beale, ironically, ended up urging his Puppies to vote for The Three Body Problem; the Rabid vote seems to have given it the margin of victory. Meanwhile, Best Fan Writer was won by the lone non-Puppy, Laura J. Mixon. Later, the final nomination data confirmed a rumour I’d heard that Mixon had gotten the nomination when I declined it.

I expected at least a brief pause in the rhetoric after the awards. That didn’t happen. Arguing has only continued. A fourth Sad Puppies campaign was already planned before the Hugos were handed out. It’s underway now, currently gathering suggestions to build a list of 10 suggestions per Hugo category. Beale is, as I write, in the process of unveiling his picks for this year’s Rabid Puppies slate, one category per day. Worldcon’s begun changing the rules for Hugo nominations to try to minimize the effect of slates, but that takes a minimum of two years. We’ll see how it how shakes out.

So much for my part in the Great Hugo Wars of 2015. Did I learn anything? Sure, I learned about the SF field, and how many people care about the Hugo Awards. And about politics, and how the American culture-war narrative can play into any field. Not to mention I learned about how online culture tends toward radicalization—once you get a bunch of people in an argument, there aren’t a lot of mechanisms for calming things down.

Was it worth it? I don’t know. Like I said at the start: I still don’t really understand it all. I still don’t really know whether I did the right thing. I think I did, which will have to do.

—Follow Matthew Surridge on Twitter: @Fell_Gard


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