The Improbable Author

Labels, Libels, Hugos, and the Future

Once you start thinking in labels, you stop thinking.

I don’t mean to say that labels aren’t useful, or that I don’t employ them, but whenever I do, I try to tread carefully.  Labels are shortcuts to communication, conveying a complex mix of features to the identity of any group.  They are convenient tags for identifying ourselves and our compatriots, or for grouping things apart from us.  When we paste on a label, everyone knows at an instant who and what we are talking about.

Except that pretty much isn’t true at all, or at least not beyond the first order.  Because labels, while neat and tidy and concise in appearance, tend to be messy and broad in application.  As communication moves outward from the first person to apply a label, its meaning grows indistinct.  New qualities are glommed on.  Other associations are conflated that may not apply in general and almost certainly do not apply to any random, specific member of that group.  Who is using the label becomes almost as important as the word itself. Labels are polarizing — they allow you to stereotype those who disagree with you as “the other” and disregard them out of hand.

What comes to mind when I say Conservative?  Liberal?  Libertarian?  Progressive?  Moderate?  What about Muslim or Jew, Christian or Atheist?  Is it Pro-Life or Anti-Abortion, Pro-Choice or Pro-Abortion?  When I say “Person of Color” or “diversity,” do you roll your eyes at new labels for the same old groups, or do you cheer at our growth as a culture?  If someone talks about political correctness, what do you assume about them, just from those words?  At what point does working toward greater social justice diverge into becoming an over-reactionary Social Justice Warrior (SJW)?  Who is a SMOF or a CHORF or a Sad Puppy, and who may refer to those labels with impunity?

I ask as an outsider looking in while the community of science fiction and fantasy fans and content creators publicly immolates itself, apparently along ideological lines, lines defined by labels and both their use and mis-use.  Should anyone pay any heed to any blathering I do here?  No.  I’m just a newbie with no real experience in the community, who has no dog in this fight, and whose “accomplishments” are relatively pathetic next to the names which are embroiled in this battle.  But I’ve seen a lot of things — on both “sides” — that struck me as pretty screwy and just-not-right, so I thought I’d say something.

If what I say sounds like clueless bullshit, treat it as such and forgive me the exuberance of the uninitiated.

For those that don’t know the controversy, lemme sum up:  the SF/F community gives out awards for the best works every year.  Widely regarded as the most prestigious of these is the popularly awarded Hugo, which is voted on by the supporting and attending members of each year’s World Science Fiction Convention or WorldCon.  A not-insignificant group of fans, largely conservative, felt excluded from the running and by the predominance of the WorldCon attendees, and thus (they say) the award was increasingly being given to strongly liberal works in which a heavy-handed progressive social agenda or message outweighed the plot or characters.  They felt that possibly better-selling, more entertaining, less message-centric works should be getting on the ballot and have an equal shot at the awards.

Disregarded by the WorldCon majority, there began to be mutterings of insularity, elitism, ideological ostracism, and “whisper” campaigns by industry insiders to award only certain groups, people, and ideas, excluding others even if their quality merited inclusion. Was any of this true? I don’t know. Most of it has been building over decades and it very much depends upon whom you ask. But outspoken conservative author Larry Correia felt like kicking the hornets’ nest. He organized what he called the Sad Puppies campaign, for the stated purpose of exposing ideological bias and to show that the voting WorldCon community did not represent larger SF/F fandom.

There are much better histories of the Sad Puppies campaigns, but the gist of it is that Sad Puppies 1 (SP1) made some points and SP2 got some stuff on the ballot, but no awards. SP3, however, achieved the near-impossible, sweeping the entire ballot. Organized by Brad Torgerson, this version of the campaign addressed criticisms of SP1 and SP2, recommending works by a diverse group of authors who don’t write the type of stories the Hugo gets awarded to, but ostensibly for merit rather than their conservative bent. It also recommended a “slate” of five works in most categories, which is a full ballot of selections. Coupled with a strong “Get Out The Vote” push, as well as an analogous Rabid Puppy campaign by controversial editor Vox Day/Theodore Beale, SP3 succeeded so well, it pretty much broke the internet like Kim Kardashian tried to do.

When the nomination list came out last week, SP3/RP had taken 61 out of 85 slots with their recommended works. Heads EXPLODED. Vitriol and victory cries in equal measure sprang forth from the internets. Mike Glyer’s blog, File 770, has a running tally of all the different blog posts, both pro and anti-Puppy (he himself seems to be firmly anti-Puppy). I recommend you visit there at least once to take a survey of the field for understanding.

The argument is that the Sad Puppies stole the Hugos by bloc voting. By drumming up a lot of outsiders and new supporting members to vote for 5 specific works in each category, while everyone else was making 5 selections from among the hundreds of eligible works, they over-represented the popularity of their slate. The counter argument from the SPers was that the insular liberals, the Secret Masters of Fandom (SMOFs) had been doing the exact same thing for years behind the scenes with whisper campaigns, just not as well as the Puppies had done. Also, the SP slate was not the first recommendation slate in history, as many publishers, magazines, and authors of all viewpoints had pimped their own works or offered up their own recommendation slates. The offended WorldCon parties then insisted the recommendation slates and pimpage posts they had done in the past were completely different in kind to the SP slate, in that they recommended a larger subset of works than just 5 for each category, urging folks to pick and choose, rather than narrowing it down to a convenient bloc vote.

Attacks began: None of the Sad Pup stories are worth the paper they’re printed on and don’t deserve Hugos! SPers just want to go back to plots with the white male hetero hero killing the dark-skinned alien and getting the girl as a prize! Untrue! You liberal SJWs are just mad because we exposed you and beat you at your own game! We’re going to vote for “No Award” to be given rather than cave to you Pups! Come and take our Hugos from our cold, dead hands, hippies! Hate and discontent, back and forth, back and forth.

Ideologically and in terms of taste and preference in stories, I side with the Sad Puppies, but I’m not of the opinion all the Hugo and Nebula winners of the past won unjustly. I don’t necessarily agree there was a secret, organized cabal manipulating the Hugos from behind the scenes, but I have no evidence either way to refute the personal experiences many of the Puppies say they’ve seen and endured. My personnel belief is that there may have been some manipulation, but the main reason the awards have increasingly gone to “liberal” works (and a shit-load of Doctor Who) is that WorldCon is a self-selecting electorate. Con-goers and con-volunteers appear to skew progressive around the country. Sometimes SF/F cons represent the only place folks can safely let their freak flag fly.

WorldCon may represent a convention which has allowed that skewing to become entrenched, with progressives taking and keeping leadership roles, then slowly pushing conservatives to the fringe, consciously or subconsciously making them unwelcome or unappreciated. Power concentrates. As that happens, votes for classic-plot SF/F fall off and votes for socially progressive SF/F that reaches past current norms and boundaries rises, especially if the voters can exhibit their sense of social justice and commitment to diversity by awarding them to authors of color, female authors, LBTGQ authors, etc. It was less a conspiracy than a clique, all trying to one-up one another. And if you look at the abysmally low number of voters that usually participate in the Hugos, it doesn’t take much to forever lock the awards into a one-sided bias as strong as a conspiratorial cabal.

My main beef, however, from sitting on the outside, was the willy-nilly application of bad labels, especially when the external media informed the public outside of fandom about this for the very first time. As stated in the beginning, labels are a convenient shorthand, but they can be over-broad, polarizing, and carry associated labels that simply don’t and never did apply.

After the nominees were announced, the vitriolic among the entrenched-left portion of the WorldCon audience instantly started slinging labels on blogs and in online comments. The Puppies weren’t just Conservative. They were Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, Misogynist Fascists. They hated women and persons of color. Their champion was the Devil Vox Day and they only won because they brought in the GamerGaters who advocate violence against women and the roll back of civil rights.

In response, SP advocates started slinging their own. You hate fiction. Last year’s short story winner wasn’t even SF or Fantasy. All you want is affirmative action political correctness over any sense of fun or adventure. Social Justice Warrior fiction doesn’t sell and should not be awarded.

(All in all, my personal belief is the progressive side got more indignant, angrier, and nastier faster.)

But that’s fine. Online arguments get heated and polarized and the Hugos might be well and truly screwed, but nobody is dead and no one’s career has been irreparably ruined. It was all a tempest in a teapot. But then the Media got involved. Blogs at Entertainment Weekly, Salon, Slate, Comics Alliance, the A/V Club, etc. all produced articles solely from the perspective of the indignant status quo. These were internationally consumed reports and they parroted the very worst of the labels and charges found in niche blog comments. And where before it was just some internet asshat spouting off about the SPers and their supporters being Nazis, now it was actual news reports, without the least attempt to consult anyone on the Sad Puppy side. Real death threats started getting tossed about.

Now it was actual libel. (Note, I am not a lawyer, but that’s still fucked up.) The EW report was “corrected” to remove the grossest of inaccuracies, but the public perception is still that these Sad Puppy authors hate women, diversity, gays, and very likely actual puppies themselves. All the public has seen, if they even care, are labels, firmly branded upon men and women and fans to which they DO NOT APPLY. This really pissed me off, in no small part because I liked a number of the SP3/RP recommendations and put them on my own ballot, and that crap certainly doesn’t apply to me.

But if I’m to be totally intellectually honest, were many of the charges laid upon John Scalzi, Charlie Stross, Tor.com, and others equally specious? Was I applying improper labels for the sake of my own convenience, in order to assuage my guilt from supporting Sad Puppies and forever changing the Hugos? Well, I’ve done a lot of reading and here’s where I fall out:

– In the absence of other evidence, give folks the benefit of the doubt. Take Larry Correia, Brad Torgerson, John Scalzi, etc at face value about their actions and intentions, rather than spinning up grand conspiracy theories about how they run their separate world-controlling cabals. Larry and Brad are not anti-diversity, homophobic, sexist white supremacists and they have no issues with progressive fiction — they just want whiz-bang space operas and the like to be judged on an equal footing, with no bias to any ideology. And John Scalzi is not a master-puppeteer, controlling the Hugos from his shadow presidency of the SFWA. That person is Mary Robinette Kowal. 🙂

– Vox Day is not the devil. We don’t agree on a GREAT MANY issues, but I’ve worked with him and he’s always been pleasant and professional. I think his work at Castalia House has been impressive and I really am proud to be in RIDING THE RED HORSE. Vote for Ken Burnside’s Best Related Work!

– Voting “No Award” is sort of a cop-out just because it was on the Sad Puppy slate. Slates have existed before SP3 and they will exist after SP3. SP3 was not a mandate. It was a recommendation, and no one had to vote the entire thing exactly as it was. There was no illegal collusion. There was no actual bloc voting. By narrowing things down to five selections in each category, they exploited a legal voting system weakness beautifully, and succeeded far in excess of what they anticipated. They may have even succeeded themselves into oblivion. Does that narrowing invalidate the slate? No, but it does tend to over-focus on certain works among a wider pool of deserving, alternative stories. And that’s what separates SP3 from the Scalzi pimpage threads and the Locus recommendations. Those were wider, so there could be no realistic charges of bloc voting. Does SP4 NEED to have more than five recommendations in each category? No, it should have exactly as many recommendations as its leaders desire, but not answering this charge made by the opposition tarnishes whatever comes out in the final nominations. A “balanced” slate that truly represents fandom would be more like 1-3 classic/conservative masterpieces and 4-2 progressive ones, not that any such ratio should be any sort of litmus test. If SP4 has 10 or so recommendations and a good turnout like this year, they’ll have made an honest effort to silence their critics and still serve their goals. Whether those critics stay silent cannot be guaranteed, though. For the “No Award” voters, don’t penalize the SP movement and their authors for being audacious successes. Read the work and vote for quality. Give the Puppies a reason to hope you’ll play fair, to encourage them to widen their slate next year. No Award is a scorched-earth tactic which burns you equally.

The Hugo nomination process has been shattered. It will change this year. Should it? I dunno, but if one side proves a targeted slate can work, every side will do targeted 5-item slates, whether they have pledged to No Award slated works or not. I’d prefer the system remain as it is, with SP4 widening the recommendations. But a number of new voting systems have been proposed, like proportional voting, Single Transferable Vote, extra votes, only allowing attending members to vote (I hate this one as it is a clear attempt to disenfranchise the conservatives who have been reportedly ostracized from the convention). If nothing changes and the No Award types and Sad Puppies stick to their guns, the Hugos could potentially be No Awarded for eternity. They would end. Something has to give. Either the voters should judge the available nominations on un-biased merit, hoping SP4 will convert to a more accepted slate size; or next year could see multiple competing slates, which would likely swamp SP4, but also invalidate the award through excessive pre-narrowing of the field; or the voting rules change to either something more difficult to game, or something far more insular and even less representative.

– I still want a Hugo someday and I would have been proud to be a Puppy, but my work isn’t there yet.

So, sorry about the length of the post. Kudos to you if you made it this far! What are your thoughts?