Hugogate 2015 Edition: Third Time’s the Charm

Sci-fi art by Cronus Caelestis in the Wikimedia Commons.
Sci-fi art by Cronus Caelestis in the Wikimedia Commons.

The Hugo award nominations will be announced publicly this Saturday.1 You might remember the Hugo awards vaguely from last year when there was a giant political kerfuffle. The way the Hugos work, anyone who wants to attend WorldCon or even just pay $40 for a non-attending supporting membership is eligible to nominate a work and vote for it. Historically, only about 10-20% of the approximately 10,000 WorldCon attendees have actually voted, however, and as a result science fiction’s most prestigious literary awards2 are decided upon by a very small group of people.

925 - Sad Puppies 2So last year, bombastic arch-conservative Larry Correia decided to prove that this small population of voters was not very representative of fandom generally and, more to the point, that there was actually an insular, politically rigid clique dominating the Hugos. To make his point, he suggested an alternate slate of nominees (mostly from the right end of the political spectrum) and then encouraged his fans to purchase memberships and vote. This initiative was called Sad Puppies 2. His fans responded in great numbers, several of his nominees made it onto the ballot, and–although none received an award–the entire sci-fi community was riven by controversy and anger. At Corriea (for politicizing the Hugos) or at the social justice advocates who opposed him (for politicizing the Hugos even earlier.)

924 - Sad Puppies 3Fast forward to a new year and a new Hugo season, and moderate conservative Brad Torgersen (whom Correia has affectionately referred to as “the Powder Blue Care Bear” among conservative sci-fi authors) decided to spearhead Sad Puppies 3. And, as I mentioned at the outset, the results of this third initiative will be announced on Saturday. Leading up to that announcement, however, Teresa Nielsen Hayden published an absolutely astonishing post on the blog she runs with her husband.

The Haydens, just so you’re aware, are prominent members of the social justice advocacy clique that vehemently opposed Sad Puppies 2 (under Correia) and 3 (under Torgersen). It may or may not be worth noting that, between the two of them (both editors at Tor), they have one Hugo award and fourteen nominations. In any case, her post was titled Distant thunder, and the smell of ozone, and here it is in its entirety3:

I’ve been keeping an ear on the SF community’s gossip, and I think the subject of this year’s Hugo nominations is about to explode.

Let me make this clear: my apprehensions are not based on insider information. I’m just correlating bits of gossip. It may help that I’ve been a member of the SF community for decades.

If the subject does blow up, I may write about it in this space. In any event, watch that space.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t get the big deal when I first read that. It was only after reading a variety of pieces by Correia, Torgersen, and Sarah Hoyt (another conservative / libertarian sci-fi author) that I realized what was going on. And then I was both shocked and a little excited. Let me break it down for you.

Sad Puppies 3 is Working

Corriea explained the most plausible explanation for where Hayden got her information about the unannounced Hugo slate. First, he quoted Hayden’s description of how the notification process for the Hugo nominations works:

When you’re nominated for a Hugo, you’re contacted ahead of time by the Hugo administrators, who check to make sure you’ll accept nomination. If they’re going to have to add the next-highest nominee in a category, they want to do it before the general public sees the ballot, so that no one knows who’s the lowest-ranked nominee.

Then he drew the obvious conclusion: “Teresa is worried. Why? Because as an insider, the people she already knew were SUPPOSED to get Hugo nominations haven’t been contacted… ” This explains Hayden’s statement that “I think they’ve succeeded in f*cking up the ballot beyond all expectation.” If nobody in her clique is getting one of those phone calls, she must assume that the Sad Puppies 3 slate is going to dominate the final ballot. The ironic thing, of course, is that she outlined the Hugo process in order to complain that Sad Puppies organizers might coordinate to reverse-engineer the approximate votes:

If the SPs got all or most of their slate onto the ballot, and those people had their nominations confirmed by the Hugo administrators, and they were comparing notes behind the scenes, they’d be uniquely able to reconstruct most or all of the final ballot.

Apparently “comparing notes behind the scenes” is bad when the Sad Puppies folks do it, is perfectly justifiable when Hayden coordinates with her buddies (and then writes public, panic-tinged posts) doing the exact same thing.

The Truth is Coming Out

In another comment to the same post, Hayden wrote that:

Why are people talking about what would happen if everyone who reads SF voted in the Hugos? IMO, it’s not a relevant question. The Hugos don’t belong to the set of all people who read the genre; they belong to the worldcon, and the people who attend and/or support it. The set of all people who read SF can start their own award.

This is a very abrupt departure from rhetoric back in 2014. At that time, the ruling clique still had the power to kick the Sad Puppies around. After all, some of the Sad Puppies 2 works made it into the ballot, but none of them actually won an award. In fact, most of the prominent awards that year (Hugos and others) were a sweeping success for the social justice crowd, and there was much celebration. In those days, they emphasized the universality of the Hugos as the pre-eminent sci-fi award bar none. This was the genre’s award. But now that they sense they are losing control, they are suddenly eager to denigrate the awards and start gatekeeping overtly.

I should add that Hayden clarified her remark subsequently, writing that “When I say the Hugos belong to the worldcon, I’m talking about the literal legal status of the award.” It’s hard to see that backpedaling as genuine, however.

There was an even more remarkable admission from Hayden in the comments, however. She stated that

Indications are that a fair number of them [nominees on the Sad Puppy slate who got onto the ballot], maybe a majority, are respectable members of the SF community who, for one reason or another, are approved of by the SPs while not being ideologically Sad Puppies themselves.

First, let’s take a moment to ponder where she gleaned the identities of the SP folks who made it into the ballot. Correia’s theory explains how she could know the quantity, but if she actually knows who they are then her protests of not having “insider information” ring entirely hollow.

But what’s more important is that she is willingly conceding that the SP slate is not ideological. More on that in the next section. For now, let’s focus on why she is making the effort to separate the goats from the sheep, as it were, and point out that some of the folks put forward by SP3 aren’t really bad guys: You can’t call the dogs off of some folks without implicitly admitting that you’re happy to have them sicced on other folks. This is a big give-away from the social justice folks. She’s tacitly admitting what the Sad Puppies folks have always been alleging: that if you don’t toe the ideological line they will savage your reputation and torpedo your career. Sarah Hoyt, picking up on exactly this logic, wrote a powerful first-hand account of what it is like to live in that climate of fear: All The Scarlet Letters. Remember that the Haydens are editors. Teresa is a consulting editor, but her husband Patrick is Manager of Science Fiction, both for Tor which is one of the biggest sci-fi publishers out there. Then try to keep in mind how absolutely cutthroat the writing industry is: making your living as an author is the dream of a millions and the reality of a privileged few. Only a tiny fraction of authors out there (like Larry Correia, for instance, who was a self-publishing phenomenon and can thumb his nose at the publishing industry) are free to speak their minds without worrying about devastating ramifications for their careers. For folks who wield as much institutional and corporate power as the Haydens do to be so unabashedly political is frightfully immoral, but hey: at least they’re not hiding it anymore.

There’s Reason for Hope

923 - Skin GameLet me backtrack a minute to talk about what I think is really the most important fact we can glean from Hayden’s comments: Sad Puppies 3 is a diverse slate. Sad Puppies 2 was not, and Correia made no bones about it. But Torgersen’s slate is a grab-bag that includes authors from across the political spectrum. Rather than attempt to prove how biased the typical Hugo voters were, Torgersen’s goal is to rehabilitate the awards by de-politicizing them. Pretty much the only criteria for his list was that a writer (1) have written something really good and (2) not be the kind of author who would usually be up for an award. A great example of this is Jim Butcher. Butcher is my favorite living author, and is best known as the man behind the Dresden Files, one of the all-time best-selling urban fantasy series. He is being nominated in the best novel category for Skin Game, which is his fifteenth novel in that series (and one of his best, in my opinion.) The last seven or eight consecutive novels in the series have all hit the NYT Bestseller List as soon as they come out. Butcher has, with one exception, never spoken out publicly about politics or controversial current events. Butcher is exactly the kind of guy who I think deserves an award, and also exactly the kind of guy who would never have stood a chance under the old regime.

If the victory of SP3 just meant a palace coup where one clique replaced another, that would be nothing to celebrate. And so you can see that I’ve saved the best for last. I’m not a partisan at heart, and the idea of the Hugos moving away from the ghetto of political insularity and becoming more mainstream (at least as far as sci-fi goes) is great. Not everything is coming up roses, of course. Correia, Hoyt, Torgersen, and others seem to think that nothing matters other than fun and popularity. I certainly think enjoyment matters, but I don’t think it’s the only metric that should be considered. I think sometimes important works–works that deserve recognition and awards–aren’t fun or enjoyable in any usual sense. But that is exactly the kind of quibbling I’d like to see happen where the Hugos are concerned instead of this knock-down, to-the-knife, existentialist ideological struggle that is happening right now.

There was a time when I would buy any book that had won a Hugo award without knowing a single other fact about the book or the author. That was all it took. Once I started reading them systematically, I learned quickly that there were a lot of duds in there as well. The Hugo system has never been perfect, and that’s fine. But these days sci-fi as a literary genre is struggling and the most important award is under a cloud of suspicion and animosity. I’d love to see some improvement and Hayden’s post–and her subsequent comments and the analysis from Correia, TorgersenHoyt and others4–have finally given me some hope.

17 thoughts on “Hugogate 2015 Edition: Third Time’s the Charm”

  1. Can’t speak for the other guys, but in my case, oh, hells no, I don’t mean just “fun” works should be nominated. I think COMPETENT works should be nominated though. What is the difference?
    Well, take The Left Hand of Darkness for instance. I disagree with its rather obvious message. (Well, I’m a libertarian so the whole communal thing gets on my nerves, and also I was raised in Portugal and the Communal Child Raising thing is not all those who’ve never experienced it think it is) On many levels it is an SJW book.
    OTOH it is a GOOD book. It not only works within its universe, but it poses questions that one can think about.
    Then there’s Barry Hughart. His works were utterly effed up by distro. HOWEVER I don’t know anyone in the field who reads them and doesn’t think they’re great. They’re not message fic as such, but they present us with several narrative techniques that fall under “chinoiserie” and lead us to ponder different approaches to civilization.
    Now, I’d stay away from saying “uncomfortable” books SHOULD be nominated. The most uncomfortable book I ever read was The Man In The High Castle. It’s stayed with me despite my never re-reading it. The same could be said for 1984 and Brave new World. All those are worthy books. BUT if we take “makes me uncomfortable” as “Must be important” we risk nominating the equivalent of Piss Christ or the wall of vaginas over and over again — which arguably is exactly what’s happening.
    I think Brad chose “Books and authors who change the field” as his criteria. Not sure, because though we are friends I’ve been undergoing surgery and our social interaction has been limited. I have no idea what criteria my friend Kate Paulk (to the left of Brad, but non-progressive enough to be considered “right wing” by the vile progs in control of the field) will follow. If I’m well, maybe I’ll pick up the guidon for 17.

  2. Sarah-

    First, thanks for stopping by and posting.

    Second, it sounds like your view and mine are pretty identical on the fun / uncomfortable conversation. I do think that uncomfortable books can be quite important, and I also think Left Hand of Darkness is a very good example. I really like Le Guin a lot, and I liked The Dispossessed even more than LHoD, but neither one of them are anywhere close to my politics. And that’s fine. Brave New World and 1984 are also good examples: I happen to agree with the politics (broadly speaking), but that doesn’t mean the books are enjoyable. And yet, at the same time, I absolutely think that “If it makes you squirm it must be art,” is a horrible over-reaction.

    So, sorry if I mischaracterized your views, and thanks for correcting them.

    EDIT: FWIW, if you or anyone else is interested in more of my thoughts on the fun / important / uncomforable / literary merit question, this post might be worth a read: A Life Lesson on Literature and Beauty.

  3. Shall read when less medicated, (had major and rather invasive surgery two weeks ago) and remind me if I space it (head made of cheese, right now) particularly since I’ve wanted to set up a blog… for lack of a better term symposium on what constitutes good literature, since the field seems caught in the post modern trap of “shock means good.”
    One additional thought that occurred to me while reading a Facebook collision on Larry’s page: any group of people who class Larry, myself and Brad as roughly equivalent and “right wing” let alone toss in Vox in that melee is a “anybody but us is evil” group.
    Larry and I agree on a lot. I agree on a lot with Brad, too. And we’re friends despite disagreeing on a lot because we respect each other’s differences, but the only one of those named above I’d even class as “right Wing” is Vox. The rest of us would be tossed out of a right wing group for asking to many questions — if such a group existed.
    More importantly, though, all of us read across the political spectrum, whether we agree or not, provided the story is well written and interesting.
    So claiming we’re pursuing this for ideological reasons is the other side seeing itself in the mirror and screaming.

  4. Argh again. Too many, not to many. This is why I’m having trouble writing fiction. Fingers have a mind of their own.

  5. had major and rather invasive surgery two weeks ago

    That sounds awful. I’ve only had limited experience with surgery (a skin graft for third degree burns once, and an operation on my eye another time), but what I do recall is that recovery is the worst. Hope you can rest and feel better soon.

    any group of people who class Larry, myself and Brad as roughly equivalent and “right wing” let alone toss in Vox in that melee is a “anybody but us is evil” group

    Precisely. The most encouraging thing for me about the (hopefully) impending victory of Sad Puppies 3 is that it’s a broad-based coalition. I’m not familiar with Kate Paulk, but the little I’ve heard so far makes me think that the broad-based, coalition-approach will be continuing and I’m glad that a Sad Puppies 4 is in the works.

    It’s nice to have some hope for a change.

  6. I agree that “shock means good” is a bad way of determining what is worthy, or even what is “art.” At the same time, however, it must be admitted that the entire Sad Puppies phenomenon was designed to shock the “establishment,” and that whether the proffered works were “good” could easily appear to have been a secondary consideration. (I don’t believe that was the case, but under the circumstances, it could be presumed.) And to say that the original slate had no political agenda is simply misremembering.

    The whole “art v. good v. popular” argument merely addresses the symptom. The disease is that fandom reflects the larger world: We are all so busy using the awards as cover for throwing insults at each other that we cannot sit down and talk rationally about the awards (and the works) themselves.

  7. I have a somewhat different opinion on all this than Sarah. All I want to see are GOOD books and stories win.

    Good doesn’t always mean enjoyable. I’ve read utterly mind-blowing books that were NOT an easy, enjoyable read. Charles Stross’ “Accelerando” comes to mind. But it blew my mind with the torrent of amazing concepts and their implications.

    But I side with the Puppies when it comes to being against utterly boring “message” fiction. Embed a message into your story ? That’s fine. But build a story to push for a particular message, hammering and twisting to make the story fit the message, rather than vice-versa.

    And a separate, but possibly telling point: When I was a kid, 12 or so, I signed up for the Science Fiction Book Club. And the first two books (of my 6 or so) were Volumes One and Two of “The Hugo Winners“. Eventually, I got them all (some hadn’t been published yet. . .). But the series stopped sometime in the early 1980s. And starting around that time, perhaps late 80s, more and more of the stuff that won Hugos was increasingly stuff that I quit reading, perhaps a third of the way in. There were, of course, exceptions: Lois McMasters Bujold comes to mind, but, increasingly, a Hugo Award was no guarantee of a good book.

    And that, friends, is what needs to change. . . .

  8. I had the opposite reaction; I could have told you that a book that won the Hugo or the Nebula… unless it did so in the 60s, was a book that I’d actively avoid and expect nothing good of. The Hugos and the Nebulas (and for that matter, the Oscars, the Grammies, the Emmies and Nobel Prizes) all went to works that a handful of soi-disant experts and cultural Marxists deemed “important” but which were not. They’ve all become a laughing stock and made themselves into mocking parodies of what they once were.

    The fact that the Hugos were “vulnerable” to the type of infiltration that Sad Puppies represents means that they actually have some hope of rehabilitation, which the other awards mentioned do not.

  9. I am aspiring to enter this field and working hard to launch a career at the present time. My primary goal is to write the stories that are slamming around in my head so they’ll stop giving me migraines – not to win a Hugo. :) But, as someone who has also watched the Hugo award slowly degenerate into a representation of everything that is wrong with today’s political discourse, and as a supporter of Sad Puppies (the idea), I have to say that most of those who participated in the process, from start to finish (other than Larry Correia, perhaps), did NOT have the goal of pushing one political agenda.

    I think Correia is a fantastic promoter, but I think he was a bad choice to lead SP, whereas Brad Torgerson is a FANTASTIC choice. The mistake Correia made was to assume that the problem was primarily political in nature and to respond politically. Although the Hugos have a massive left-wing bias, the primary problem is gatekeeping and a bias toward gray goo. Brad’s goal was to promote books that were evocative. That is not the same as fun, BTW. Evocative means it evokes big emotions. That’s what literature is supposed to do. The normal Hugo slate is not evocative in the slightest. It’s ugly, dull, full of predictable and self-congratulatory politicized idea-masturbation. Most in the SP crowd aren’t just looking to push the books toward the right…we’re looking to make the Hugos what they once were – an award for books whose ideas were truly revolutionary and and a salute to stories that create value for the reader. Most of the SP crowd also call themselves “Human Wave” writers/readers. The mandate of this group is to bring back science fiction that reflected the human condition honestly and gave us ideas and experiences worth having. Discomfort just for the sake of discomfort is not worth writing or reading, and that’s really all we’re getting from the SFWA crowd that dominates Worldcon.

  10. I am a former….confidant of Teresa Barbara Nielsen. She’s now Teresa Nielsen Hayden. And I see that her trademarked debate style, honed in high school, is still at work. The structure is like this: (a) “Gee, I’m not sure I totally understand what you mean, but what I *think* you mean is X. Right?” II. OK, since that’s what you mean, let me make sure that the straw man of what I thought you meant is stood up for me to thus demolish. Three. She then proceeds to demolish the strawman she has substituted for what you might have meant, or said, or whatever.

    End of argument. TNH wins

    My best friend of 40 years, Bill Patterson, may (*may*) have volume two of his Heinlein biography nominated in the best related works Hugo category. Neither TNH nor PNH had any love for Bill whatsoever. (PNH has declared me to be An Abusive Asshole, so you might take what I have to say with a grain of salt. But he also says I am no longer anyone who exists for him. Sounds like an interesting paradoxical position. But I digress…) I am saddened beyond belief that the Sad Puppy folks did not include Bill’s book on their slate. As a result it will probably not be on the nominations list. My bad, and Bill, I screwed up and I’m sorry.

  11. Tim,

    Given the field’s bizarre, newfound rejection of (and criticism for) Heinlein, I am sorry we weren’t quick enough on the uptake to include Bill’s book! It’s one of those Homer Simpson D’oh! moments, and we regret it deeply. Because I’d have liked very much to push back against the Committee To Trash Heinlein. Which seems to have gained a lot of supporters of late. So, put simply: our bad.

  12. Brad, I do appreciate that. Bill’s book *may* still make the nominations list; it’s Friday at about 7:30am here in Houston TX, so I guess by Monday or so I’ll/we’ll know.

    And then I’ll push it like hell for votes. Oh, vicious me; actually having thinking about waging a *campaign* for a Hugo vote. I guess I *am* an Abusive Asshole.

    We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Bill’s death. I miss him every day here at work. He and I would spend the day emailing each other to releive the tedium.

  13. Uh – Matthew.

    Look at Hayden’s response, and our dear editor’s response at Amazing Stories, and all the political screeds about inter sectionalism, feminism, and how it’s perfectly acceptable (laudable) even to not read anything by white men, or to insist that no books should have the default binary gender, etc.

    Larry was entirely correct – the problem is politics. Politics over a good story. So yes, he attacked the problem politically, but not by making politics first.

  14. Tim,

    Bill Paterson DIED? Good Lord, why doesn’t anyone tell me anything? I wondered if he was mad at me because I hadn’t heard from him in so long. We met at worldcon ages ago, and talked Heinlein.
    I wonder if I missed the announcement in my own health issues.

  15. Sarah — yep. Bill died of a massive heart attack 22 April 2014 early in the evening. I was talking with him on email earlier that day from my job. We had been talking about…what else? Heinlein. And space.

    We were budds for 40 years and I miss him dreadfully.

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