Some Thoughts on the Hugo Debacle

The Hugo Awards are, arguably, the pre-eminent awards in Science Fiction and Fantasy literature. There are others, such as the Nebula and the Locus, and those are certainly nothing to be sneezed at… but the Hugos are the oldest (as far as I know) and the best known. There’s a certain cachet for an author in having a Hugo Award attached to their name. Or at least… there used to be.

That’s in serious question now, as this year there is a lot of controversy about the voting process, thanks to a group of disgruntled writers who set up a voting bloc to influence the outcome.

The bloc is called “Sad Puppies”, and this is apparently its third year of operation, albeit its first at having a major impact. The organizers and participants feel that the Hugos have had a political bias in their selection of nominees and winners, and that the “Sad Puppies” slate of nominees addresses this alleged imbalance. The name was apparently chosen to mock the type of writing supposedly favored by the Hugo bias: more “literary” and/or left-wing writing. With the Hugo Awards, which are given out by Worldcon, there are two types of memberships: Attending memberships (those who actually attend the con) and supporting memberships (people who do not attend but are still entitled to nominate and vote). The “Sad Puppies” organizers, Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia, put together a slate of candidate stories and got their followers to buy supporting memberships and push that slate through the nomination process.

It must be noted that this is not against the rules as written. Nobody should be accusing the group of rule-breaking.

But it certainly feels as though it’s against the spirit of the thing, and people are objecting to it strongly on those grounds. We’re used to voting blocs in politics, but I don’t think I’d be stretching the truth to say most of the public isn’t very fond of the reality of the situation. And as far as I can tell, it’s not something that has been a part of the Hugo process before the “Sad Puppies”. And the only other group doing it is the off-shoot “Rabid Puppies” — a more hostile group led by the openly racist Theodore Beale, a.k.a. “Vox Day”, a man who writes on his blog “Vox Populi” (sense the delusions of grandeur yet?) that non-whites are clearly savages because they didn’t build civilizations in the same style as Europeans. Both slates have been successful at getting their nominations on the ballot, including Beale himself, and as a result there has been a lot of vitriol thrown about online regarding the whole thing.

Torgersen and Correia have both stressed that they are not associated with Beale and his movement. They’ve compared themselves to Roosevelt and Churchill, with Beale as Stalin. This analogy is apparently overlooking the willing cooperation in the Conference at Yalta, but I’ll chalk that up to a misunderstanding of history and agree not to apply any “guilt by association” here (I’ll even be generous and assume the “Our opposition are Nazis” implication was unintentional). There may be an overlap in the support base and the slates, but they’ve expressed no support for him. The only guilt they bear in his actions, to the best of my observation, is serving as inspiration. They made a slate, so he made a slate. Enough said about him.

As to their own politics, they’ve complained of being accused of being racist, sexist, and every other negative “ist”. I try to be fair, so I’ll judge their politics solely by their own writing. The slate selected does include writings by women and people of color, and does appear to include some liberal works in addition to conservative works. I have to admit I have only a cursory glance at summaries to judge by, but it might actually be a relatively even-handed slate. I won’t say it definitely is, but at the least I won’t say it isn’t. I’ve read some of their blog posts and skimmed several more, and I haven’t seen anything that is overtly racist, sexist, or other “ist”… so I’m mostly inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on what their intentions are… but I do have to say there are a couple things that caused me to raise an eyebrow.

Correia has used the phrase “Social Justice Warrior” to label his opposition, writing “We use the term SJW because it is far easier than typing out Perpetually Outraged, Searching For Offense, Quick to Accuse Racism / Sexism / Homophobia / Privilege / Patriarchy, Holier Than Thou, Politics Before Fun, Unholy Cross Between Communists and Puritans, Twitter Lynch Mob Forming, Career Sabotaging, Social Justice Crusaders.” Yes, it’s certainly possible — even probable — that Correia has been on the receiving end of unfair accusations since starting this whole thing three years ago. But as counter-statements go, this is an abysmal one. It’s rather like standing on a downtown street corner shouting that you’re not crazy, it’s just that the Reptiloid Moon Men have made everyone think you’re crazy. It does more to plant suspicions of bigotry than anything Correia’s accusers could ever say, because the term “Social Justice Warrior” is — as Correia helpfully demonstrates — inherently a way of “othering” a person. No need to look at the merits of their statements, they’re just a Social Justice Warrior! Of course, if such a person actually exists, they aren’t in sufficient numbers to be worth calling a “movement”. I’ve certainly seen no evidence of any such omni-reactionary person existing. At a minimum, Correia’s repeated use of the phrase on his blog (a search turns up dozens of posts using it) suggests that he is as quick to pejoratively and irrationally label somebody as any of the detractors he says he’s defending himself against. And it’s difficult not to suspect bigotry when somebody is repeatedly using a term that is rooted in bigotry.

For Torgersen, I’ll simply quote from the post he wrote announcing the third year of “Sad Puppies”. Torgersen writes, while explaining the movement’s purpose: “Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.” It scarcely needs anybody to expound on it, but this is not exactly an unbigoted statement. When you accuse somebody of getting an award because of affirmative action, you are stating that they do not deserve it in any other way — that it isn’t even conceivable to you that they could deserve it in any other way. “They got this because they’re a minority.” Yes, if someone says this, people are going to call them a bigot for making that statement, because it’s a bigoted statement. It’s not quite the same as “minorities should never get this”, but it’s close enough that a microscope is needed to see the line.

These two individuals are professional, published writers. A little expectation that they’re aware of the implications of what they write is not unwarranted. And the implications of what they have written in these blog posts do not paint them in a positive light. Maybe if I knew them in person I’d have a different image of them. But I have only what they’ve written. I won’t say that they’re bigots. I will say that they’ve repeatedly chosen to express bigoted notions.

Of course, I try to be fair, as I said. And “bigot” is an “othering” word too: no need to listen to them, they’re just a bigot! In all fairness, even if Torgersen’s and Correia’s blog posts are a little sketchy, that doesn’t mean that they lacked a valid point in forming the “Sad Puppies”. So the question is, do they have a point? Or, more precisely, is there an organized bias at Worldcon, and was this the appropriate way to address it?

I’m not a Worldcon voter; maybe some year, but right now I have other things I need to spend my money on more. I’m certainly not in the inner ranks, so if there were a cabal, I couldn’t vouch to it. But looking at the evidence, I’m inclined to say that there is not. George R. R. Martin took a look and from the examples he provides, it looks pretty balanced. Is there a bit of a leftward slant? Perhaps… I haven’t gone and evaluated the “leftness” of every story. But even if there were, is that really a sign of organized bias? Or is it just the nature of the medium? After all, conservatism is about conserving the status quo (or the “good” parts of it, anyway). Speculative fiction is about speculating on things that are not the status quo. A certain degree of opposition is inherent in the very nature of the concepts. That’s not to say one is right and the other wrong, nor that they can never work together — an honest liberal and an honest conservative should be the best of friends — but the nature of science fiction and fantasy is that they challenge the status quo, and so it’s natural for them to align with the end of the political spectrum that also tends to challenge the status quo. As for “affirmative action”, it doesn’t take any conspiracy to increase the presence of minorities (of whatever type). It just takes successful minorities. Success builds on success. One successful minority inspires another. An award given to a person increases public awareness of that person, which in turn increases their acclaim, and in turn increases the chances of them getting another award. To give an analogy, there’s no pro-Streep cabal at the Oscars; people just like Meryl Streep. Yes, straight white people will typically be the majority in any awards group in western civilization, because they are the majority of western civilization. But there are also going to be a significant chunks of other groups, because there are significant numbers of other groups in civilization. Minorities in the population means minorities in a cross-section of the population, which is all the Worldcon voters and Hugo nominees are. It’s not “affirmative action”, it’s just statistics. It’s math.

As for an organized group pushing this alleged bias… the outcome of “Sad Puppies 3” proves this cannot be the case. The success of the slate is only possible because the majority of the voters are not organized. When a large group of people are voting by their own whims, and a small group votes as a bloc, that small group is going to have a noticeable effect. Meanwhile, if a large group of people are pushing an agenda, and a small group votes as a bloc, that small group is not going to have an effect. They’ll be drowned out and completely unnoticed. “Sad Puppies” had an effect… which means there is no widespread organized bias. And if there were a small cadre of biased leaders in the Worldcon organization, inflicting their political will on the ballot… well, the “Sad Puppies” couldn’t have an effect there either. The “cabal” would simply quash the results and put forward what they wanted to from the beginning. Nobody would know that the nominees weren’t what the people had voted on; when you control the information, you control peoples’ knowledge of it. Even as conspiracy theories go, it’s a particularly poor one, as it relies on the conspirators not taking the single most obvious step. “We’re going to promote a liberal agenda! By not doing anything!” No. The success of the “Sad Puppies” slate, to such a degree (it wasn’t a sweep, but it was very prominent), shows they had nothing to succeed against.

So with that part of the question answered, was the voting slate approach the right way to handle things? It’s easy to say “no”, here, since there is no such thing as a proper solution to a non-existent problem. But it goes beyond that. This is a “solution” which has created new problems. The “Sad Puppies” have shown that a voting bloc can have a significant impact on the outcome of the Hugos. And let’s be clear — while not against the rules, it is against the spirit of it. You’re supposed to vote on what you think is best, not what somebody else tells you to vote for. But now the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to voting blocs. The “Sad Puppies” were successful. There will be others now. Barring some form of rules change — and any enforceable change would probably have a deleterious effect on the general voters — blocs are likely to start dominating the award. The little guys will be excluded. Want a Hugo? Better have a bloc! It doesn’t just cheapen the whole thing, it breaks it.

And this is, and was, the predictable outcome of the “Sad Puppies”. It’s already happening; the “Rabid Puppies” got Beale onto the ballot. Correia and Torgersen may not support that slate, but they are the ones who introduced the concept of the slate. They claim to love the Hugos, that they are doing this out of a desire to see it return to what (they feel) it once was. But they chose this path. They chose to break things. To say otherwise is either reckless naivete or blatant dishonesty.

Just so I’m absolutely clear: I am not objecting to conservative values in a voting slate. I’m a moderate; I don’t have a horse in that race. I tend to be taking potshots at both sides (my first presidential election was Bush v. Gore; can you blame me for being a bit jaded?) No, my objection is to the slate itself: its very existence is anathema to what awards are supposed to be about. Sure, any award with public voting is a popularity contest, but at least before it was a group of people all liking something and not a group of people voting a particular way because somebody told them to. The whole notion of slate voting is dependent on dishonesty; you cannot vote for the best if you’re voting someone else’s will. The “Sad Puppies” and any other voting bloc are nothing more than shills.

The integrity of the Hugos has been broken by the “Sad Puppies”, and to claim otherwise or lay the blame on Worldcon is nothing more than a transparent lie. I feel sorry for the people involved, from the nominees who are weighing their participation (two have retroactively declined nominations so far) to the administrators who have to figure out how to handle it, to the voters who have to try and honestly evaluate works which were voted in dishonestly. Nobody wants an award with an asterisk. It seems likely that there will have to be something done to restore the integrity of the Awards, but I have no idea what it could be, given the desire to not exclude the existing honest voters. It’s a sad state of affairs all around.

And I have to wonder: what was the end game here, for Torgersen and Correia? What did they hope to gain? All they’ve accomplished so far is tarnishing the awards for everyone. If that wasn’t their goal, what was? There was no bias to redress, no cabal to expose, nothing broken until they broke it. I’ve tried to figure out what they were after from their blog posts, but there’s nothing of substance there. Gloating about “winning”, complaining about people attacking them, and a certain degree of “See? I told you so!” that flies in the face of all evidence, but not one thing saying how they plan to fix things. And that’s the mark of someone who actually cares about their espoused principles: if they think they’ve “won”, they don’t gloat, they just get on with what they were aiming for. These guys aren’t doing that. It’s all bluster, in one form or another. And blustering about victory instead of acting on it is the mark of a bully. As far as I can tell, that’s all these guys are.

They don’t seem to have considered the personal ramifications of their actions either. I don’t mean the name-calling. I mean the appearance of impropriety. It’s going to cost them in the long run.

Like most readers, I didn’t start off picking up award-winning novels. I started off picking up recommendations from friends and family. I don’t value Isaac Asimov and Roger Zelazny because they are honored by a Hugo. I value the Hugos because they honored Isaac Asimov and Roger Zelazny (although come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read Asimov’s Hugo-winning work). On some level, it’s always been a form of recommendation to me that is akin to “If you like this, check this out.” The Hugo voters liked Asimov and Zelazny, guys whose work I liked. If they liked somebody else, maybe I’ll like that somebody else as well. And it had the appearance of honesty, and it hadn’t lost that. Until now.

But it’s not just the award that has lost that cachet. It’s Torgersen and Correia themselves. They have shown — publicly, overtly, without the slightest trace of remorse — that they are willing to game the system. I can no longer take it on faith that they aren’t going to game others. In fairness, neither was actually nominated this year — though they did try to get Correia on the ballot — but on the other hand, both were nominated last year, and the “Sad Puppies” campaign was in place then as well (if not as prominently). The nominations therefore cannot be trusted. Other awards, public reviews… they’re just as vulnerable. Sure, theoretically, other authors could be doing the same. I don’t know that Robert McFakeauthor doesn’t have an army of shills out there boosting the books and authors that McFakeauthor wants to see. But I do know that Torgersen and Correia do employ an army of shills — because they’ve said they do. Proudly. Outside of direct recommendations from personal friends, there is no endorsement of their work that I can ever trust again. And since I am mortal, and have finite time, I cannot read all the books ever published; I have to prioritize. I now have no reason to prioritize the works of these guys. So I won’t be buying from them. And I am certain I won’t be the only one. Others may express it differently, or have different reasons — note my reasons aren’t political, but simply a question of honesty — but there are going to be a lot of people who are going to remember these names, and not positively. So if the “Sad Puppies” think this was somehow a victory, I hope they’re at least aware that it was a Pyrrhic one.

And for what? Because an award was being given to people they didn’t want it given to. (Or not being given to people they did want it given to; as awards are finite, the statements are equivalent). Because praise wasn’t doled out the way they wanted it. Because they held their views as paramount. I am reminded of a very apt quote from Zelazny’s Prince of Chaos:

“I don’t know that I ever wanted greatness, on its own. It seems rather like wanting to be an engineer, rather than wanting to design something — or wanting to be a writer, rather than wanting to write. It should be a by-product, not a thing in itself. Otherwise, it’s just an ego trip.”

A writer wants to write. An author wants to share what they have written. Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia are going to find that more difficult now, all because they went for the ego trip.

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About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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