If you follow science fiction literature, you may have heard of Sad Puppies 3. It’s the third iteration of an attempt by conservative / libertarian / contrarian science fiction writers to shake up the Hugo award process. Last year the process was led by Larry Correia, and several of the works he had suggested made it through the nomination process to get onto the ballot. None of them won awards. This was kind of the culmination of a lot of convoluted ideological and personal infighting within the science fiction community for 2014.
Larry Correia decided that twice was enough for him, but this year Brad Torgersen (friend of Correia, albeit a more mild-mannered conservative) took up the torch instead. So you’ve got a lot of blog posts from folks like Correia, Torgersen, John C. Wright, Sarah Hoyt, and others on what the Hugos have come to be about versus what they should be about.
One of the major flashpoints is a short story called, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” To the conservative contingent, this story represents basically everything that is wrong with modern sci-fi. John C. Wright wrote that It “was a story I could — and did — do a better version of in one sitting, in less than an afternoon,” ridiculed it for ripping off If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and called it neither a story nor science fiction. (I haven’t read his version, The Queen of the Tyrant Lizards, yet.) Sarah Hoyt attacked it at great length, writing that “It… could have been written by me at 12 and would have got, from my middle school teacher, exactly the sort of praise it got from science fiction professionals.”
In terms of substance: both Wright and Hoyt have a point. Even folks who have praised the work, like Ana Grilo, point out that there’s not really anything science fiction about it. Hoyt’s argument goes beyond questions of genre or quality, however, saying that “it’s the ideas packed into the story that are truly disturbing.” She goes on:
A story that reveals a total lack of knowledge of an entire class of people (manual laborers) and instead others them as sort of scary all purpose evil that will beat to death anyone who doesn’t look/act like them won an award voted on by – supposedly – adult professionals. Not only that, but adult professionals who keep claiming their tolerance and love of the “other.” What’s more, adult professionals who would almost certainly embrace “Marxism” as a good or at least correct idea. When did Marxists start loathing and fearing the working class? And admitting it?
Hoyt is not wrong. Want to see for yourself? The full text is online, and the whole thing is less than 1,000 words. Give it a read. I only read it after reading Hoyt and Wright trash it and my response was, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” Don’t get me wrong: it’s melodramatic and a little manipulative, but I’m kind of a sucker for that.
The Sad Puppies crew is far from unanimous in anything, but to the extent that there is a consensus, it has two parts. The first part holds that the Hugos shouldn’t be merit badges for doubleplusgood duckspeak. I’m on board with that. Intentionally or not (could just be an offshoot of standard clique behavior), the Hugo process has come to be dominated by a small, ideologically uniform faction. And that’s a bad thing.
The second part of the consensus holds that the Hugos are bound to be a popularity contest, so you might as well make the a popularity contest with the widest possible fan base. Which boils down to pretty much one concept: fun. Again and again the central complaint of Correia, Torgersen, and others boils down to this nostalgia for sci-fi as pop entertainment. I’m not on board for that.
The three books that defined sci-fi for me as a teenager were Dune, Ender’s Game, and Speaker for the Dead. All three won the Hugo, and Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead remain the only two books to win the best novel award for the same author in back-to-back years (1986 and 1987). Ender’s Game is an easy, fun read that has come to be marketed as YA in subsequent editions. I don’t know how many times I reread it, but it was quite a few. But Dune and Speaker for the Dead were not fun. They were grim and a little disturbing to the incredibly idealistic young man I was at the time. I didn’t reread either one until I was in my 30s, although when I did I found that they had aged much better than Ender’s Game (although I do still love Ender’s Game, don’t get me wrong!) If I had to pick one word to describe these books, it would not be fun. It would be great. Not like Tony the Tiger great, but like “great work of art” great.
I don’t think we have any better chance of finding objective criteria for greatness than we do for funness, but it’s still an important distinction. A great work can also be a fun work, and I don’t think that a Hugo award winner should ever be a slog to read. But a great work doesn’t have to be a fun work. A great work is a work that is reaching beyond fun, which may (or may not) come along for the ride.
I’ve read a good proportion (about one third, I believe) of all the Hugo-winning best novels. They do not come close to living up to the standards of Dune, Ender’s Game, and Speaker for the Dead, but the decline in quality is not some sudden, new problem.
The first winner ever, from 1953, is The Demolished Man. It doesn’t hold up very well, but it’s clearly an attempt to be a meaningful, significant book even if the psychological theories are dated to the point of quaint. But if you look at books like They’d Rather Be Right (also known as The Forever Machine) which won in 1955 or Waystation (also known as Here Gather the Stars) which won in 1964, you’re going to see message fiction so didactic, awkward, and transparent that Ancillary Justice (which won in 2014) appears downright subtle by comparison. Let’s be honest: lecturing the reader may be most closely associated with Robert Heinlein, but it’s been a tradition in sci-fi since the beginning. If you want to fil in the gap between the 1950s and the 2010s, look no farther than Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which got a nomination in 1994 and a win in 1995 and 1997. These books are basically just the mirror image of Ayn Rand. (On Mars.)
The fact that message fiction is winning in the 2010s is not news. Message fiction has always been a part of the tradition of sci-fi. That’s just the baggage you carry with you when you’re “the literature of ideas” (as Pamela Sargent referred to sci-fi.) Whether the ideas are political or technical, there’s always the risk that they are going to steal the show and ruin your story. Hugos have gone to books like Ringworld or Rendezvous with Rama which are nothing more than flimsy, slipshod excuses to show off clever inventions. It’s not exactly message fiction, but it’s the same basic problem: a story that exists as an excuse for someone to tell you this really neat idea that they had. It’s like listening to someone describe their dream to you: shoot me now.
Nope, what is different about the 2010s is not fun-vs-message. It’s that the message has never been so dogmatically uniform. Heinlein and Robinson will both frustrate you with their philosophical meanderings (although Heinlein could also write), but at least they are polar opposites. Being frog-marched through a tour of someone’s neat invention might make you weep for the English language, but at least you’re not going to be labeled as a bigot if you find fault with Niven’s ringworld concept. (For the record: the concept really is stunning.)
The current crop of social justice message writers imagine they are the first on the scene to explore gender or write sympathetically about LGBT characters, but the only way it is possible to think that is if you have not actually read the masters who came before, folks like LeGuin and Bradbury that should be household names even if you don’t read a lot of sci-fi. The philosophies and minority characters of contemporary social justice writers have been an integral part of the sci-fi community for literally decades. There’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants, but it is galling when a writer looks down from their lofty perch and thinks they made it up there all alone. That’s not the real problem, however. The real problem is that these writers are not only interested in expressing their message fiction in their writing, but also in enforcing conformity to it outside of the writing through (e.g.) control of the SFWA and domination of the awards process. The risk is not that we will get stuck with award-winning, unreadable message-fiction dreck. We’ve had a half century of that (off and on). The risk is that genuine intellectual diversity—which has been one of sci-fi’s greatest contributions—may finally be stamped out. That is an existential threat to the genre.
Which is why, as I said, I am basically on board with Sad Puppies. I am particularly happy that they went out of their way to put some authors on the slate who are liberal rather than conservative, as an expression that sci-fi should welcome intellectual diversity. Bravo. Let’s fight back against the homogenization of sci-fi. Down with echo chambers and three cheers for cognitive dissonance and multi-party conversations!
But when we do all that, I’d rather shoot for greatness than for fun. When I think of greatness, I think of a work where a great idea and great writing come together. Not necessarily a great story, however. Wright knocked “If You Were a Dinosaur” for not being a story, but I wonder what he would think of LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” This work is also arguably not a story, since it has not a single named character, no dialogue, and—strictly speaking—no plot. It is also, without doubt, one of the most powerful short stories ever penned in the English language, and it won the Hugo for Best Short Story in 1974. Once again, I urge you to judge for yourself. Here’s the complete text. It’s a little longer than “If You Were a Dinosaur,” but it’s also much better. Be warned, however, it might break your heart. Which is to say, it is not fun. But it is great.
This is why I can’t hop on the populist bandwagon that wants to dismiss literary sci-fi. Literary sci-fi, when it fails, fails miserably. You have fiction that is neither fun to read nor great. Case in point: Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: Archives series. The first book in that series, Shikasta, was literally unreadable for me. (That didn’t stop her from winning a Nobel in literature. Go figure.) But when it is good, it can be really profound. I didn’t like every single story in The Secret History of Science Fiction (an anthology of literary sci-fi), but I did like a lot of them. I also found a book like Never Let Me Go incredibly powerful. I don’t care that The Handmaid’s Tale is message fiction because the writing is incredible and the story is also really, really compelling. I know The Road is trendy, but when I read it last year I decided it deserved the accolades.
I don’t have anything against fun fiction. Every time I start a John Ringo series, I find my self-control vanishing as I pony up for the sequels in Audible instead of waiting for my monthly credit because I just can’t restrain myself. (Side note: no one can tell me with a straight face that Ringo doesn’t have a political agenda loud and clear in his books, either.) Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series doesn’t do it for me, but his Grimnoire books were amazing, and contained some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever read in any genre. Jim Butcher is my favorite living author, bar none, due to his incredible Dresden Files series which is definitely some of the funnest reading I’ve done in my life. Nor am I discounting fun fiction as merely fluff: both Ringo and Butcher have brought tears to my eyes. (That might seem a bit odd, especially of Ringo, but I dare anyone to read the first chapters of Islands of Rage and Hope and not wipe their eye at least once. If you pass the test, congratulations: you have no heart.)
But let’s be honest: the reason most franchise fiction doesn’t get nominated (despite its popularity and despite a lot of it being fun) is that most of it is dreck. There, I said it. It’s mediocre writing just one notch above fan fiction designed to milk diehard fans who would pay money for a book containing nothing but the ingredient lists from breakfast cereals if it had Star Wars or Star Trek on the cover. And let’s further stipulate that if the Hugos were really just a broad-based popularity contest we could skip the whole nominating / voting hoopla and just use pick the best-seller for the year. Then the problem just reduces to data availability and politics are out the window (except as they pertain to the aggregate purchasing behavior of fandom). Nothing says “popular” more loudly than “sales,” am I right?
The trouble is, we don’t need an award for best-seller status. We already have that award. It’s called “best-seller status.” What the Hugos should try to be, in an ideal world, is the best guess of people who are smart and educated (about the sci fi canon in particular) of which of the stories that came out this year are going to be the stories that will still be powerful, relevant, and important in the future. In short: which of this year’s stories are great.
Sometimes, the awards have done a pretty good job of that (as with Dune, Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and several others). Sometimes, the awards have done a lousy job at that. But, until now, the awards may have been very uneven, but they were not hijacked and used as a tool in an ideological war. I’m rooting for Sad Puppies. If the Hugos just went back to their regularly scheduled unevenness: that’d be great. But hey, as long as the topic is open for discussion, I’m pulling for us to aim a little higher.