When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice

Professor Melissa Click shouting at student reporters to leave a public space.
Professor Melissa Click shouting at student reporters to leave a public space.

1.Good Intentions

The recent spate of student protests that started at Yale and University of Missouri are self-evidently ominous. At Yale, students shouted down Yale professor Nicholas Christakis for failing to make them feel safe enough (“You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”). At the University of Missouri, student and faculty protesters and faculty allies forcibly barred student journalists from recording the public protest (which the journalists were legally entitled to do) and, when the journalists did not retreat fast enough, professor Melissa Click called out, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some more muscle over here.”

There have been apologies at Yale, resignations at Missouri, and copy-cat protests (and resignations) are starting to spread to other schools. At Claremont McKenna College in California, the dean of students replied to a Hispanic student’s public complaints with an attempted overture, writing in a student paper:

Would you be willing to talk with me sometime about these issues? They are important to me and the [Dean of Students] staff and we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold.

I would love to talk with you more.

Despite the dean’s obvious concern and goodwill, her use of the phrase “don’t fit our CMC mold” prompted two CMC students to threaten a hunger strike. The dean promptly resigned.

I have a lot of good friends who are supportive of the protesters at Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere. I know that they are good people. They are guided by principles of justice and equality that I also value. And so, for me, the thing I have wrestled with the most over the last week has been the attempt to reconcile the dissonance between their stated principles and motivations and the outcomes: hair-trigger intolerance, a climate of fear, and disregard for free speech.

I have come to this belief: when good intentions pave the path to Hell, it is because better principles have been allowed to fall by the wayside. The reason this can happen, the reason there is a tendency to let go of better principles, is that once they become ubiquitous we no longer recognize their importance. Unless we take the effort to remember the past, we will not understand how much we stand to lose.

Nowhere is this contrast more poignant than at Yale. Early in the controversy, the President Salovey wrote an email reiterating the school’s commitment to free speech, “not as a special exception for unpopular or controversial ideas but for them especially.” This stance is official Yale policy thanks to the Woodward Report. This document, formally called the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, was issued in 1975 and the first section of it was adopted as official policy. It’s not every policy that begins with lofty prose and poetry, but the first section of the Woodward Report begins with this quote from John Milton:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.

Next come these words from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

The section then culminates with a stirring defense of the principle of free speech:

The conclusions we draw, then, are these: even when some members of the university community fail to meet their social and ethical responsibilities, the paramount obligation of the university is to protect their right to free expression. This obligation can and should be en­ forced by appropriate formal sanctions. If the university’s overriding commitment to free expression is to be sustained, secondary social and ethical responsibilities must be left to the informal processes of suasion, example, and argument. [emphasis added]

The principle of free speech is more than narrow legal statutes. It is an attitude of protecting unpopular views from silence and overbearing retaliation. The arguments of student protesters and their defenders are an explicit repudiation of this broad vision for free speech. Therein lies the danger. The pursuit of justice, divested of the burden of protecting unpopular opinions and unflinching fidelity to truth, risks veering into vigilantism and fanaticism. No matter how noble the ambitions, when we no longer take it upon ourselves as a matter of principle to defend unpopular ideas and to allow truth to wrestle falsehood in a “free and open encounter,” we abandon the first right and cornerstone of our pluralistic society.

2.Liberal Intolerance

The protests at Missouri and Yale should not be analyzed in isolation. They are part of a disturbing trend that has attracted criticism not only from the right but increasingly from the center and left. It will be worth our time to survey some of that context before we move on.

Andrew Sullivan launched the mainstream movement to legalize gay marriage when he wrote “Here Comes the Groom” for the New Republic in 1989. Twenty-five years later, he looked on in horror as the movement he had helped to launch spiraled out of control in what Sullivan described as “McCarthyism applied by civil actors.”

Sullivan was reacting to the forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich. Only days after being promoted to lead the company he had helped found in 1998, word spread across the Internet that Eich had donated $1,000 to California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in 2008. Although Mozilla had long been committed to diversity and support for gay rights, although there was not a single alleged incident of prejudicial conduct or statements by Eich, and although Eich publicly committed to preserve Mozilla’s progressive culture and policies, this donation tainted him irrevocably. The Internet-based outrage spread across Twitter and soon other companies (like dating site OKCupid) got into the act of pressuring Mozilla to fire Eich, who stepped down on April 3, 2014 after being CEO for less than two weeks. The next day, Sullivan wrote his blog post, arguing that:

When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line…This is the definition of intolerance… It’s staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society.

At about the same time, John McWhorter wrote an article for Time: “‘Microaggression’ Is the New Racism on Campus.” He argued that “the nature of microaggressions — subtle, unintended, occurring in the hustle and bustle of social interaction — is such that they will never cease to exist entirely,” and that this ubiquity entailed that “being white is, in itself, a microaggression.” This, he wrote, “is just bullying disguised as progressive thought.”

In December 2014, Jeannie Suk wrote “The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law” for The New Yorker. Rape law was not taught in law school until the mid-1980s, she writes, because rape was not taken seriously. Feminists fought to change that, and when they won law schools began to teach rape law. Now, however, some law professors are starting to abandon the topic again, this time because of hypersensitive students who are afraid of being traumatized. Suk describes just how far their paranoia extends:

Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering.

In January 2015 Jonathan Chait wrote “Not a Very PC Thing to Say” for New York Magazine. He documented numerous examples of harassment and intimidation of those who dared question conventional socially liberal dogma and concluded that “the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence.” In February, Jon Ronson wrote “How One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Life,” for the New York Times Magazine. He observed that

In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it…Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

In February, Laura Kipnis wrote “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She criticized new dating policies strictly barring dating between students and professors for infantilizing students and dismissed the “prohibition and sexual terror surrounding the unequal-power dilemmas of today.” She went on:

If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.

As a result of her article, Kipnis was the subject of a formal Title IX inquiry.

In March, Asam Ahmad wrote “A Note on Call-Out Culture” for Briarpatch Magazine (the sort of publication that, according to its Wikipedia page, “is printed by union labour on FSC-certified paper using vegetable-based ink.”) He noted that “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out.”

In April Damon Linker wrote in “The shunning of Ryan T. Anderson: When support for gay marriage gets ugly” that the outrage that erupted when a profile of Ryan T. Anderson was posted on his alma mater’s website and the school’s decision to remove the profile were

depressing signs that liberal public opinion is evolving in the direction of theological certainties and illiberal forms of intolerance. These so-called liberals want Anderson to be shunned. Expelled from the community. Excommunicated from civilized life. Ostracized from the ranks of the decent. That is something that should trouble all fair-minded Americans.

In June, an anonymous professor wrote an article for Vox: “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” He explains that the thought of possibly offending one of his liberal students caused him “to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik,” and he laid much of the blame at the feet of “a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice.”

In September, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind” for The Atlantic. They described some of the student protests that had already occurred by then as “border[ing] on the surreal.” They went on to contrast the current movement to the wave of political correctness that swept academica in the 1980s and 1990s:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

All of these writers come from the left or the center of the American political spectrum. And all of these writers are united in their belief that a sea-change is taking place within American society. Something is wrong. Some new trend is tying together extreme emotional sensitivity, simplistic notions of social justice, and intolerance of thought or speech. What is going on? And how did it get so bad?

The best explanation comes from an academic article: “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.

In their article, Campbell and Manning describe social evolution from honor cultures to dignity cultures and on to the dawning of a new culture: the culture of victimhood. Honor cultures tend to arise where central authority is weak. This leads to “self help” justice, so named “because it involves the aggrieved taking matters into their own hands rather than relying on the legal system.” Honor cultures are typified by extreme sensitivity to insult combined with a tendency towards direct confrontation. When more powerful formal authorities arise, honor cultures give way to dignity cultures. In a dignity culture, “self help” justice is itself punishable by the authority. As a result, minor offenses are ignored and major offenses result in formal appeals to central authority. In contrast to honor cultures, dignity cultures have low sensitivity and an aversion to direct confrontation.

Victimhood culture is something new, and according to Campbell and Manning it has evolved on college campuses in response to four key factors:

  1. Increased equality and diversity. This may seem counter-intuitive, but Campbell and Manning point out that the more equal and diverse a society becomes, the less tolerant it is to violations of equality or diversity. Thus, the increase in equality and diversity on college campuses since the 1960s and 1970s creates an atmosphere where people are hypersensitive to comparatively minor violations of diversity or equal status.
  2. The legal and administrative authority that college officials wield over their students has increased dramatically in recent decades. This means that students are more and more inclined to appeal to administrators for redress of insults or offenses.
  3. Social atomization–the breakdown of small organizations like clubs, extended family networks, and mutual aid societies–makes it harder for individuals to respond to offenses directly. When these groups were stronger, they created a tendency toward direct confrontation because the group would support you. In their absence the tendency to avoid direct confrontation with an offender and seek official assistance has increased even more.
  4. Social networking technology allows individuals to propagate a message to a very large audience. This factor is perhaps the most decisive, because it is the potential to reach a vast audience that allows offended parties to use public pressure to coerce university authorities into assisting them.

Campbell and Manning make one additional key point: appealing for official assistance to redress a grievance is significantly more likely to succeed when the grievance is seen as part of a pattern of offenses that target an identifiable, victimized group. That is why there is such a close connection between social justice and victim culture: victimhood is at its most potent when it is seen as a symptom of systematic oppression.

The Campbell and Manning model is a theoretically sound and compelling explanation for the observations of Sullivan, McWhorter, Chait and the rest. The reason it feels as though there is a seismic shift going on, with college students becoming hypersensitive to perceived offenses to diversity or equality resulting in draconian punishment, is that such a seismic shift is indeed taking place.

3. Instrumental Victimhood

Campbell and Manning chose to study microagressions because “the anatomy of microaggression… has broader implications,” not because victimhood is relegated only to this particular tactic. On the contrary, they write that other “tactics such as hunger strikes, hate crime hoaxes, and protest suicides” are all potent weapons that can implement the strategic logic of victimhood culture.

The strategic logic of honor culture is to deter attacks by maintaining a reputation for violent reprisal. The strategic logic of dignity culture is to avoid unsanctioned feuds or conflicts by ignoring offenses unless/until they are so severe that the central authority will decisively take your side. The strategic logic of victimhood culture is to proactively construct a narrative of perpetual victimhood that will enlist the central authority on one’s behalf while simultaneously providing immunity from that central authority.

This gets to the fundamental problem with victimhood culture: the perverse incentives of acquiring power through victimhood tend to the hijacking of genuine social injustice by those who seek power. Or, as Campbell and Manning bluntly put it, “whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else) confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it.”

As you can imagine, if victimhood has become a valuable social commodity, then the people most likely to be able to obtain it are those least likely to need it. Campbell and Manning make the same observation, remarking that “these campaigns for support do not necessarily emanate from the lowest reaches of society… rather… microaggression complaints and protest demonstrations appear to flourish among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities.” This is also why you will see ample evidence of social justice causes for blacks, gays, or women but will hear comparatively little about social justice activism for the mentally ill, young children, the unborn, or the infirm. It is not that blacks, gays, and women do not face systematic discrimination. They do. But these groups also include individuals who wield enormous social, political, and economic clout. And it is these individuals who are most able to powerfully establish a victimhood narrative and draft institutional authority into coming to their aid. The other categories, however, truly have no social capital. There are no industry tycoons or media moguls among the population of those living in psychiatric institutions , in foster homes, in their mother’s womb, or confined to their beds. And so it is no coincidence that the student who began the hunger strike at the University of Missouri comes from a prominent and extremely wealthy family.

Of course it is possible and even desirable for the most powerful members of oppressed communities to agitate for justice for those who are unable to do so as effectively. The problem, however, is that upper-class members of these groups may be so detached from the concerns of lower-class or ordinary members that—even despite their best intentions—their efforts may be unhelpful or even counter-productive.

This is another common theme from several of the articles we have seen already. Jeannie Suk, for example, describes how refusing to teach rape law rolls back decades of feminist activism. This fits with the U. S. Department of Justice observation that risk of rape is higher for women living in households with low income and rural households, not exactly the populations best represented at Harvard Law. Laura Kipnis also sees the paranoid fear of power imbalances as a repudiation of sexism, but—again—highly educated grad students are already in an position of relative power and privilege and so have the least to fear from the collateral damage of this particular victimhood narrative. As for race, John McWhorter has written that the social justice obsession with white privilege is practically useless and “seems almost designed to turn black people’s minds from what political activism actually entails.”

The worst-case scenario, of course, is when members of one of these groups act out in direct opposition to the interests of others within that group. Let’s explore one particular case to see how this plays out in practice. Just as with Campbell and Manning’s decisions to focus on microaggressions (instead of the full range of tactics available to victim culture), we will see that the anatomy of this controversy too has broader implications.

4. The Women You Are Not Supposed To See

This year has been a tough one for the science fiction community. A bitter controversy erupted over the annual Hugo awards (think: Oscars for science fiction) and eventually attracted national and international media attention.

One side of the controversy consisted to two groups with unlikely names: the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies. The Sad Puppies claimed that the Hugo awards were being dominated by an insular clique that privileged the right connections and the right politics over good writing. The Sad Puppies were led by Brad Torgersen this year, and under his leadership they sought to bring the awards back to the people. Their objective was to nominate a diverse slate of outsiders to break the social and political mold. The Rabid Puppies—spear-headed by Theodore Beale—took a different tack. If the Sad Puppies wanted to give the Hugos back to the people, the Rabid Puppies wanted to burn them down. The Rabid Puppies helped the Sad Puppy-nominated works make it onto the ballots just to provoke an angry reaction from science fiction’s many social justice-conscious writers and fans.

When the nominees were announced in April and it turned out that the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominations had swept much of the ballot, those angry reactions came fast and furious. The narrative that quickly emerged—promulgated by science fiction writers and fans with the assistance of sympathetic journalists in major outlets—was that the Puppies were a bunch of straight, white, males out to purge gays, minorities, and women from science fiction out of sheer homophobia, racism, and misogyny. This may seem like a cartoonish caricature of a wide swathe of the fanbase, but articles like Entertainment Weekly’s Hugo Award nominations fall victim to misogynistic, racist voting campaign show how seriously this narrative was taken.

The EW piece was so egregiously false that it was subsequently corrected, but the basic narrative was perpetuated in countless other venues. This is because victimhood culture requires control of narrative to a greater degree than honor culture or dignity culture. Honor culture relies on direct confrontation. Dignity culture downplays conflict until an appeal to formal authority is necessary and sure to win. Only victimhood culture treats the court of public opinion as a first resort.

To show how far journalists are willing to go in defense of their narrative, consider the most recent piece on the Sad Puppies from a major publication. That would be “Sci-Fi’s Hugo Awards and the Battle for Pop Culture’s Soul,” which Wired ran on October 30th, 2015. The piece, by Amy Wallace, did not indulge in subtlety. It was subtitled “Equality in a Digital Age.”

The most striking thing about the article are the choices Amy Wallace made in choosing whom to interview. She spoke to Brad Torgersen and Theodore Beale of the Sad and Rabid Puppies. She also spoke to several science fiction writers opposed to the Puppies. But there was one group in particular that Amy Wallace did not speak to. In fact, their names do not even appear in the article at all. They include people like Sarah Hoyt, Kate Paulk, Amanda Green, and Kary English. Who are they? Well, the first three are the leaders of this year’s Sad Puppies campaign and Kary English is one of the female authors nominated by last year’s Sad Puppies campaign. If you spend even a few minutes talking to them, which I did, you quickly see why Wallace wanted to steer clear. They threaten the narrative that vitcimhood culture depends on and that Wallace was so careful to help fabricate.

Let’s start with the fabrication. Leaving these women out of the picture is more than just an accidental omission. It is a deliberate decision to falsely characterize the leadership of the Puppies as all-male. “This time around, the leaders of the Puppies movement are sci-fi authors,” writes Wallace, before going on to name and discuss Larry Correia (who started the first Sad Puppy campaign), Brad Torgersen and Theodore Beale. But Sad Puppies 4 is active right now. It was officially announced on September 3. Their official website is not hard to find. What’s more, the leadership of Sad Puppies 4 had been common knowledge for months before September’s announcement. There is no way that Wallace did not know these women existed. So make no mistake, when Wallace talks about “the leaders of the Puppies movement,” she is leaving out the leaders that she doesn’t want to talk about.

Nor are these leaders late-comers. Sarah Hoyt was the first choice to head Sad Puppies 3 (ahead of Brad Torgersen). She had to drop out due to health concerns, and he took over at the last minute. This is something Wallace would have easily learned if she had talked to Hoyt, but she never did. According to Torgersen:

Amy Wallace lied to me. I knew she would be slanting her coverage against Sad Puppies, that wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was the fact that she promised me on the phone that she would contact Sarah A. Hoyt for the article Amy was doing for WIRED, and she never did.

I confirmed this with Sarah Hoyt myself. I also spoke with Kate Paulk, Amanda Green, and Kary English. Each and every one of them confirmed to me that Wallace made no attempt to contact any of them.

Of course, if you spend a few minutes talking to them, it’s not hard to see why Wallace wanted to stay clear. Her version does not survive contact with the reality they are more than happy to dish out. For example, Hoyt told me, when I asked her what she thought of Wallace’s article and it’s omissions, that “I’m tired of these people, who are the de facto power mongers and gatekeepers, speaking power to truth.” She continued, “These people want to be heroes for doing nothing. They are the ones silencing women.”

Upon learning that she, Hoyt, and Green had been scrubbed from Wallace’s account, Paulk told me “That’s so much bad faith you could open the gates to Hell with it.” Paulk went on to say, speaking of women who do not toe the right ideological line, that “We’re the women who are invisible. We’re ‘traitors to our gender.’”

And this brings us back to the main point of this example: what kind of feminism is it, exactly, that calls for the erasure of women?

Kary English is a good person to ask about that. English refused to withdraw her short story “Totaled,” from contention when it ended up on the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy nomination lists. English’s participation with the Sad Puppies has nothing to do with political alliances. She is a liberal with no love for Theodore Beale and the Rabid Puppies. In fact, a large part of the reason she continued to support the Sad Puppies was because she believed they were doing a better job of presenting a diverse set of works. “Sad Puppies 3 was run by a brown guy and a man in an inter-racial marriage,” she told me, referring to Larry Correia (who started the first Sad Puppies campaign and is Hispanic) and Brad Torgersen (who is married to a black woman). She went on, “The list included women authors, queer authors, and non-neurotypical authors. It included conservatives, liberals and authors whose politics no one knows.” A reader of Amy Wallace’s article—and a great many more—would know nothing of that.

Because she refused to back down, English was punished by being “no-awarded” at the Hugos. Even though her story beat out all contenders, voters preferred to give out no award at all rather than let a woman associated with the Puppies win any way. When “No Award” was announced in her category, the audience applauded vindictively. (Booing “No Award” was barred by the emcee, who was an open critic of the Sad and Rabid Puppies.)

Not that backing down would have helped matters. English compares the way she and other nominees were treated to witch dunkings:

Once you’ve been accused of being a fascist, you get thrown into a pond with your arms and legs bound. If you’re innocent, you’ll withdraw. You’re dead and drowned as far as the award goes, but at least you’re not a fascist, right? If you stay in, if you float, you’re guilty and you’ll be burned at the No Award stake. Evidence? Who cares about evidence. If you were innocent, you’d have withdrawn.

And as for poor treatment of women, English points out that this does not seem to be a problem coming from the Sad Puppies side:

The women who remained on the Sad Puppies list were systematically attacked. We were called fascists, racists and homophobes despite the fact that there was zero evidence against us. We, along with our work, were dismissed as tokens and shields. Multiple media reports claimed that the Sad Puppy authors were all male. This is sexism. This is erasure. Where were our defenders and allies?

5. The Future of Social Justice Activism

I chose this example for two reasons. First, it illustrates how far the social justice / victimhood culture phenomenon has spread beyond the borders of college campuses. Where do liberal humanities and social science students go when they graduate? Well, a good number of them become journalists and authors, and in this way the social mutation of victimhood culture escapes the borders of the campus petri dish where it originated.

Second, it underscores the extent to which social justice activists—when infected with the values and tactics of victimhood culture—repudiate their own principles. Amy Wallace’s story for Wired—a story that was entirely typical of media coverage—reveals the extent to which feminists defending feminism are willing to sacrifice the dignity, voices, and identities of any women who get in their way.

This isn’t a critique of the principles of social justice. This isn’t an attack on equality, diversity, or the existence of systematic oppression. But it is an indictment of what happens when inattentiveness to other considerations—considerations of pluralism and truth and free inquiry—allows fervor to drift toward fanaticism. And it is a warning that, within the context of victimhood culture, social justice activism is particularly prone to being hijacked by upper-class activists who—intentionally or not—increasingly deploy the rhetoric and tactics of social justice activism not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of power.

Cited at Real Clear Politics

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I came across a Real Clear Politics post the other day by Cathy Young: Mutiny at the Hugo Awards. It’s surprisingly fair coverage from a mainstream outlet, but I guess that makes sense since Young also writes for Reason.com. In any case, I was particularly interested when I got to these paragraphs:

Perhaps the real issue isn’t the quality of any specific work, or even the prevalence of “message fiction” in the genre; it’s that, as cautiously Puppy-sympathetic nonfiction writer and data scientist Nathaniel Givens has argued on his blog, “the message has never been so dogmatically uniform.” What’s more, Givens argues, the current crop of pro-“social justice” authors who dominate the field not only use their fiction as a vehicle for ideology but seek to enforce conformity throughout the fandom, posing a genuine threat to intellectual diversity. He points out that, by contrast, the Sad Puppies “went out of their way to put some authors on the slate who are liberal rather than conservative.”

Givens’s observations are echoed by Hoyt, who has written on her blog about the “state of fear” that has existed for a while in the speculative fiction community—the fear of being blacklisted for having the wrong politics. While Hoyt says that this fear has lost much of its grip now that independent publishing has allowed writers to make a living outside the “establishment” sci-fi presses, the elites still control recognition and legitimacy within the fandom. Hence, the Hugos rebellion.

So, that’s a cite in Real Clear Politics to go with the one in The New Republic on this issue. Pretty neat.

The whole post is definitely worth reading. It’s a good perspective, and she has some original–and very interesting–quotes from some of the main participants.

Lots of Hugo Losers

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“Alien Crater” by Flickr user Serendigity. Click image to see original on Flickr.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time following the Hugos this year, including over a dozen interviews with writers and editors in the sci-fi community, and so I was up until 3am on Sunday morning looking through the results. I’ve read a lot of reactions since then–from both pro-Puppy and anti-Puppy sources–and my main take away is that there are an awful lot of losers this year and very few winners.

One of the winners is Liu Cixin, the author of this year’s Best Novel: The Three-Body Problem. There’s no doubt in my mind, as someone who read all the best novel nominees and voted in the awards, that Liu’s novel deserved to win. But how it won is probably the most important take away for me from this whole fiasco.

First, of course, a brief recap. A group of conservative / libertarian authors–originally led by Larry Correia and this year by Brad Torgersen–led an initiative called Sad Puppies 3. Their goal was, according to Torgersen, to strike back against a small social-political clique of social justice warriors who had dominated the Hugos in recent years. The Sad Puppy strategy was to nominate authors who (1) were good, (2) were ideologically diverse, and (3) wouldn’t have otherwise made the ballot. Another group–the Rabid Puppies–mirrored the Sad Puppies slate almost exactly but had a much harder edge to their rhetoric. Their leader, Theodore Beale aka “Vox Day”is a very controversial figure. His real beliefs and actions are often distorted by an unfriendly media, but the reality is that even without distortion he’s not an appealing character.

Things exploded in April when the nominations were announced and it turned out that the Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies slate had basically swept the ballot, pushing almost all other works by all other authors off the slate. This was not intentional, in the sense that nobody–not Torgersen or Correia or Day–believed that their slate would be so successful. This meant, among other things, that The Three Body Problem was initially not on the ballot thanks to the Sad Pupppies / Rabid Puppies campaign.

At this point, the reasonable thing would have been for the Sad Puppies to state publicly that sweeping the ballot was not the intended goal of the Sad Puppies and that they would take steps (Sad Puppies 4 had already been announced) to avoid slate-sweeping next year. They did not.

At this point, the reasonable thing would have been for prominent critics of the Sad Puppies to concede that the Sad Puppies were reacting to a legitimate grievance. The insular sci-fi community is highly susceptible to favor-trading (aka “log rolling“) and the high percentage of social justice warriors in the community made an unwelcome atmosphere for conservatives or libertarians and could certainly have had an effect on the composition of the awards in recent years. They did not.

Instead, the critics of the Sad Puppies launched a truly breathtaking campaign of slander and intimidation that focused on calling the Sad Puppies campaign misogynist, racist, and homophobic. The best example of this is the Entertainment Weekly article that had to be “fixed” almost beyond recognition when Torgersen threatened a lawsuit over the obvious lies. (Original version. Current version.) As a result of these tactics, Torgersen and other Sad Puppies supporters were in absolutely no mood to concede their mistake and make concilliatory gestures. So nobody from Sad Puppies suggested that their tactic had been a mistake or made promises to alter the tactics for next year. In addition, several Sad Puppies nominees backed out of their awards when they saw how angry many in the sci-fi community were, including Marko Kloos. He pulled his novel Lines of Departure (which was really, really good and deserved to be on the slate) and as a result The Three-Body Problem was placed on the ballot instead.

And yet the Sad Puppy / Rabid Puppy tactics obviously were a mistake. First, as I said, there’s the immense problem with The Three-Body Problem not even making the ballot. Sure, taste is subjective, but this book was really, really good. More importantly, however, it’s a book that was originally published in China in 2008. You want real intellectual diversity? Well there you go: a book that is literally off the American socio-political map. Additionally, the Sad Puppies again and again defended many of their choices (like Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars) by referring to the author rather than the work. Best novel is an award for best novel. It’s not some kind of lifetime achievement award. So the repeated references to Anderson’s contribution to the genre (he’s written over 100 books) were not only irrelevant, but a real give-away that the Sad Puppies 3 slate had basically no serious thought behind it. It was just a haphazard collection of books a few of the Sad Puppies folks had happened to read last year, without sufficient regard for quality of the individual works.

As a result, the anti-puppies movement was able to easily cast the Sad and Rabid Puppies as invaders who had come to ruin the Hugos. Their hysterical accusations that the Puppies were Nazi’s were silly, but their accusation that the Puppies were ruining the awards had real validity. Sad Puppy opponents insisted that the only solution was for fandom to rise up in righteous wrath and repudiate the incursion by voting “No Award” above any and all Sad / Rabid Puppy nominations. This surge was quite strong. Nobody knew how strong until the votes were announced this past weekend, but–according to some preliminary analysis at Chaos Horizon–the breakdown of the record-breaking 6,000 voters went as follows:

  • Core Rabid Puppies: 550-525
  • Core Sad Puppies: 500-400
  • Absolute No Awarders: 2500
  • Primarily No Awarders But Considered a Puppy Pick: 1000
  • That sums up to 4600 hundred voters. We had 5950, so I thin the remaining 1400 or so were the true “Neutrals” or the “voted some Puppies but not all.”

My take away, thus far, is pretty simple. The Puppies absolutely have a legitimate grievance, and the vile slander that came out vindicates them. Furthermore, the “No Award” campaign clearly crossed a line from a legitimate attempt to punish the bad tactics of the Puppies to a witch hunt when, for example, it No Awarded the Editor categories. Chaos Horizon again:

I’m stunned at the 2500 No Awarders in the Editor categories; there were some mainstream, decent editors on that list. If 2500 people were voting No Award on that, that’s out of principle.

A lot of those editors had no affiliation with Sad Puppies and may not have given permission to be on the Sad Puppy slate (or even been aware of it). Punishing them is going too far.

On the other hand, the Sad Puppy tactic was a terrible tactic and their refusal to acknowledge this and/or pledge not to repeat it justified a lot of the negative counter-reaction. They also, in my own opinion, picked some really terrible works that didn’t deserve to be nominated on strictly apolitical, aesthetic grounds. (I will include my votes at the end of this post.)

But there was one more thing in the Chaos Horizon data that really, really stuck out to me:

What the Best Novel category would have looked like with No Puppy votes:
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
Lock In, John Scalzi
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

Other initial Best Novel analysis: Goblin Emperor lost the Best Novel to Three-Body Problem by 200 votes. Since there seem to have been at least 500 Rabid Puppy voters who followed VD’s suggestion to vote Liu first, this means Liu won because of the Rabid Puppies. Take that as you will. [emphasis added]

So, as I said at the outset, the fate of the eventual winner speaks volumes about this entire sordid fiasco. First, the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies kept Liu off the ballot. But in the end, it was their votes that put him over the top. That lineup also speaks volumes, I think, about the Sad Puppy’s original accusation. There’s really no way that Ancillary Sword should have won this year. I don’t think it even should have been nominated. It’s mediocre. But it’s also far and away the most politically palatable book and its presence at the top is a strong indication to me of exactly what the Puppies are complaining: politics ahead of quality.

In short, we’ve got two fairly extreme factions (the Sad / Rabid Puppies and the SJWs) who are basically wrecking the Hugos for everyone at this point. If either of these groups had had it their way, The Three-Body Problem would not have come out on top. I am very pleased with the best novel winner this year, but neither of the factions gets credit for this happy outcome.

Next Year: Sad Puppies 4

I support the stated goals of Sad Puppies, and I hope they run the campaign again next year, but only on the following conditions:

  1. Pick better books. Some of the picks were great. Others were… really not.
  2. Pick the books for the right reasons: because the work is good, not because the author is important / wrote a lot / etc.
  3. Make the pre-nomination process more transparent.
  4. Do not ask for or notify any authors that their works will be included. This puts the authors in a terrible position and is not a standard practice.
  5. In every category, nominate either 1-2 works or 8+ works. Doing this prevents the accusation of slate-voting and will also make it very unlikely that the Puppies will sweep any categories.
  6. Tell people that this is the plan, and do so earlier.

If they don’t do this–and it looks like they won’t–then I’m going back to my default position: A pox on both your houses. Damn the SJWs for making this award about politics or identity instead of quality and also for their intolerant witch hunt tactics when confronting anyone who disagrees with them. And damn the Puppies for their disregard for the traditions of the Hugo award and their stubborn refusal to be good neighbors.

My Votes

I’m including my votes for the literary categories: Novel, Novelette, and Short Story. I ran out of time and couldn’t finish all the novellas, so I didn’t vote in that category. My approach was to vote based strictly on quality. I couldn’t always remember who was or was not a Puppy nominee, and I didn’t care. Based on my approach and voting pattern, I would fit as a “neutral” in the Chaos Horizon analysis.

Also: I’m kind of a strict voter. I used “No Award” more than once when I felt that the work just didn’t deserve a Hugo. This is my first year voting, but I’ve read a lot of past Hugo winners (novel and shorter length) and there have definitely been several that I feel are blemishes on the award. So I had an attitude going in that if the book wasn’t one I could be proud of as a sci-fi fan, I would no award it, but only for that reason. Politics had nothing to do with it for me.

I noted which stories were nominated by the Sad or Rabid Puppies (had to look that up), and I also bolded the actual winner.

Best Novel

1. Skin Game (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
2. Three-Body Problem
3. No Award
4. Goblin Emperor
5. Ancilliary Sword
6. The Dark Between the Stars (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)

After reading The Three Body-Problem, I was sure it would get my #1 vote. But then I reread Skin Game (to have them all read at more or less the same time), and it really is one of Jim Butcher’s finest. I would have been really happy either way.

I think Goblin Emperor is very, very close to being Hugo-worthy, but it wasn’t quite there. I wouldn’t have been upset by that one winning. Ancilliary Sword was just mediocre in my mind. And I really, really didn’t like The Dark Between the Stars at all.

The Sad and Rabid Puppies both nominated Marko Kloos’ Lines of Departure and–since it made the ballot before he withdrew it–I read it. I thought it was great, and would have put it right after The Three-Body Problem.

Best Novelette

1. The Day the World Turned Upside Down 
2. The Journeyman: In the Stone House (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
3. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
4. The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
5. No Award
6. Championship B’tok (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)

I can’t overstate how much I loved “The Day the World Turned Upside Down.” I’m quite happy that it won. The rest were pretty good to OK. Except “Championship B’tok.” I am very confused as to how that got nominated. It felt like it could have been part of a decent novel, but it didn’t seem to function as a stand-alone story at all.  It was as though someone literally just grabbed a few random chapters out of the middle of a book and packaged them as a stand-alone story.

Best Short Story

1. Totaled (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
2. Turncoat (Rabid Puppy)
3. The Parliament of Beasts and Birds (Rabid Puppy)
4. A Single Samurai (Sad Puppy)
5. On A Spiritual Plain (Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy)
6. No Award

“Totaled” had a lot of hype going into the Hugos, and it lived up to the hype. The author is also not remotely politically conservative and is, oh yeah, a woman. The fact that the No Award crew took her story out is an example of their defense of the Hugos turning into a witch hunt. It’s really quite indefensible that they No Awarded her story.

Additional Reading and Final Thoughts

I’m kind of running out of steam on this topic, to be honest. When you don’t really feel like there are any good guys to root for, you just want to walk away. But–if you would like to know more!–here are some current articles / blog posts. I’m sure there will be a lot more coming, but I think this gives you a sense of the spectrum:

The Breitbart piece is pretty hard to read because of how one-sided and kind of delusional it is. It’s rather hard to claim victory when your group nominates a bunch of works to win an award and you win 0 awards, but Yiannopoulos sure gives it the ole college try. I’ve seen a lot of this kind of thing from the Puppies, and–as a sympathetic outsider–nobody’s buying it. The Wired piece is, by mainstream standards, relatively fair. It definitely has a bias, however, and frequently passes along as gospel truth fairly tenuous allegations against the Sad Puppies or, in this instance, flat out omits relevant facts to spin a particular narrative:

Consider: A woman named Adria Richards Twitter-shames two white dudes for cracking off-color jokes at PyCon, a tech developer conference (and then is fired and fields murder threats).

What Wired doesn’t tell you is that the two white dudes were fired first. Wired also gives you the impression that only liberal women faced death / rape threats from social conservatives. That is false: conservative women often face identical harassment from liberals. The sad reality is that threatening to kill or rape women over the Internet is a politically neutral activity engaged in by both the left and right. During the Hugo controversy, for example, relatively moderate social justice warriors had to call on their own supporters to stop issuing death threats at the Sad Puppies (men and women) more than once.

And the last piece is from John Scalzi, one of the most prominent SJWs in the sci-fi community. Some of what he says is dead on accurate “They [the Sad Puppies] gloated about the slates getting on the ballot, and the upset that this caused other people. That’s a jerk maneuver.” Yup. I talked to some very prominent writers who didn’t care about politics but hated the Sad Puppies for their tactics and attitude. But then a lot is spin, including his denial that there is any legitimacy to the Sad Puppy complaints about socio-political collusion within the sci-fi community that is quite plain for any unbiased observer. So, as a not-quite-as-sympathetic observer, no one is buying that either.

Well. I hope this is the last thing I write about this for quite some time.


Some Sad Puppy Data Analysis

915 - Hugo Article Cover
Image from Flickr user Bill Lile. Click for link to original.


The list of fairly big-name outlets covering the 2015 Hugos / Sad Puppies controversy has gotten pretty long, but here’s how you know this is Officially a Big Deal: George R. R. Martin has been in a semi-polite back-and-forth blog argument with the Larry Correia for days. That’s thousands and thousands of words that Mr. Martin has written about this that he could have spent, you know, finishing up the next Game of Thrones book. I think we can officially declare at this point that we have a national crisis.

Martin’s blog posts are a good place to start because his main point thus far has been to rebut the central claim that animates Sad Puppies. To wit: they claim that in recent years the Hugo awards have become increasingly dominated by an insular clique that puts ideological conformity and social back-scratching ahead of merit. While the more shrill voices within the targeted insular clique have responded that Sad Puppies are bunch of racist, sexist bigots, Martin’s more moderate reply has been: Where’s the Beef? Show me some evidence of this cliquish behavior. Larry Correia has responded here.

As these heavyweights have been trading expert opinion, personal stories, and plain old anecdotes, it just so happens that I spent a good portion of the weekend digging into the data to see if I could find any objective evidence for or against the Sad Puppy assertions. It’s been an illuminating experience for me, and I want to share some of what I learned. Let me get in a major caveat up front, however. There’s some interesting data in this blog post, but not enough to conclusively prove the case for or against Sad Puppies. I’m running with it anyway because I hope it will help inform the debate, but this is a blog post, not a submission to Nature. Calibrate your expectations accordingly.

One additional note: unless otherwise state the Hugo categories that I looked into were the literary awards for best novel, novella, novelette, and short story. There are many more Hugo categories (for film, graphic novel, fan writer, etc.) but the literary awards are the most prestigious and also have the most reliable data (since a lot of the other categories come and go.)

Finding 1: Sad Puppies vs. Rabid Puppies

I have been following Sad Puppies off and on since Sad Puppies 2. SP2 was led by Larry Correia, and his basic goal was to prove that if you got an openly conservative author on the Hugo ballot, then the reigning clique would be enraged. For the most part, he proved  his case, although the issue was muddied somewhat by the inclusion of Vox Day on the SP2 slate. Vox Day tends to make everyone enraged (as far as I can tell), and so his presence distorted the results somewhat.

This year Brad Torgersen took over for Sad Puppies 3 with a different agenda. Instead of simply provoking the powers that be, his aim was to break its dominance over the awards by appealing to the middle. For that reason, he went out of his way to include diverse writers on the SP3 slate, including not only conservatives and libertarians, but also liberals, communists, and apolitical writers. Even many leading critics of the Sad Puppies (for instance John Scalzi and Teresa Nielsen Hayden) concede that several of the individuals on the Sad Puppies slate were not politically aligned with Sad Puppies. That fact was my favorite part about Sad Puppies: the attempt to reach outside their ideological borders demonstrated an authentic desire to depoliticize the Hugos instead of just claiming them for a new political in-group.

What I didn’t know until the finalists were announced just this month is that the notorious Vox Day had created his own slate: Rabid Puppies. Rather than angling toward the middle (like Torgersen), Day’s combative and hostile approach kept Rabid Puppies distinctly on the fringe. To give you a sense of the level of animosity here, several folks agreed to be on the Sad Puppies slate only on the condition that Vox Day was not. Despite this animosity and the very different tones, when it came time to pick a slate, Vox Day basically copied the SP3 suggestions and then added a few additional writers (mostly from his own publishing house) to get a full slate.

Because Torgersen and Correia are more prominent, when I did learn about RP I assumed it was a minor act riding on the coattails of Sad Puppies 3 and little more. For this reason, I was frustrated when the critics of Sad Puppies tended to conflate Torgersen’s moderate-targeted SP3 with Vox Day’s fringe-based RP. But then I started looking at the numbers, and they tell a different story.

The Sad Puppies 3 campaign managed to get 14 of their 17 recommended nominees through to become finalists, for a success rate of 82.4%. Meanwhile, the Rapid Puppies managed to get 18 or 19 of their 20 recommendations through for a success rate of 90-95%.

What’s more, however, there was one category where the SP3 and RP slates conflicted: the Short Story category. Here’s how those results ended up:

Author Source Result?
Annie Bellet Both Success
Kary English Both Success
Steve Rzasa RP Success
John C. Wright RP Success
Lou Antonelli RP Success
Megan Grey SP3 Failure
Steve Diamond SP3 Failure

In other words, whene SP3 and RP actually went head-to-head, Rabid Puppies beat SP3. It appears as though in term of raw voting power, the Rabid Puppies voters outgunned the Sad Pupppies 3 voters. I put together a simple Venn Diagram that hammers that point home by showing where each of the 20 Hugo finalists came from:

913 - Corrected Venn

If you want to know where the finalists come from, it looks like Rabid Puppies can’t possibly be ignored. For someone like me who really supported the moderate, inclusive aims of Sad Puppies 3, this is a sobering realization.

Finding 2: Gender in Sci-Fi

I put together a table of all the Hugo nominees and winners with their gender. I know that gender isn’t the only diversity issue but it’s the easiest one to find data on. Here’s what I found:

918 - Percent of Hugo Nominees Who are Male

It is easy to see how a social justice advocate would interpret this chart. In the 1960s the patriarchy reigned supreme and often 100% of Hugo nominees were male. As the sci-fi community grew more mature and progressive, however, the patriarchy’s grip weakened. More and more female nominees entered the scene. But now SP3  and RP have rolled back all that progress, and as a result the 2015 finalists are right back at the status quo: the dotted line representing about 80% male nominees on average over the entire 1960 – 2015 period. It’s a simple story: SP3 and RP are agents of the patriarchy sent to re-establish the status-quo. If you want to know why so many social just advocates are very, very angry about SP3 and RP, this is why.

But there are some serious complications to this narrative. First, the diversity of the early 2010s was not unprecedented. There wasn’t a long, slow, continuous growth of diversity. There were a lot of female nominees in the early 1990s, and this gets omitted from articles that act as though sci-fi had achieved some milestones of diversity for the first time. It’s true that the 2010s were the best yet, but the most important symbolic line was crossed way back in 1992 when 52% (more than half) of the nominees were women. Second, the rebound towards the overall average started last year, not with the 2015 finalists. In 2013 there was an all-time record percentage of female finalists (61%) but in 2014 the numbers had flipped and 62% of the finalists were male. Although Sad Puppies 2 did exist in 2014, it had very little impact and so the rebound towards the status quo cannot reasonably be blamed entirely on SP3 / RP.

While we’re at it, it’s important to note that neither SP3 nor RP were 100% male (as has been widely and erroneously reported). Those little green and red lines at the very end of the chart show what the gender ratio would have looked like if SP3 had won completely (82.4%, the green line) or if RP had won completely (90%, the red line).

But the fourth complication is by far the most important one. Back in 2013 a Tor UK editor actually divulged the gender breakdown of the submissions they receive by genre.

917 - Gender Breakdown of Tor UK Submissions

So, over the history of the Hugo awards from 1960 – 2015, 79% of the nominees have been male. In 2013, 78% of the folks submitting sci-fi to Tor UK were male.

There were a lot of very angry reactions to this post. For example, “I find this article disappointing, ignorant, and damaging,” starts one response which I found from a current Damien Walter blog post. It’s hard to see why an article that basically just presented factual information would be reviled, especially when the article concludes:

As a female editor it would be great to support female authors and get more of them on the list. BUT they will be judged exactly the same way as every script that comes into our in-boxes. Not by gender, but how well they write, how engaging the story is, how well-rounded the characters are, how much we love it.

This is an entirely moderate, reasonable position to take. Science fiction has been called “the literature of ideas” by sci-fi legend Pamela Sargent. And in a genre where ideas are paramount, so is diversity. Diversity is not an intrinsically liberal value. After all, conservatives are the ones who tend to believe in gender essentialism, which would necessarily underscore the importance of having female viewpoints since (if gender essentialism holds), female viewpoints are inherently different than male viewpoints in at least some regards, and thus you will get more perspectives if you include women as well as men. Thus: conservatives can be just as invested in welcoming women into the genre as writers and as fans.

But if you have a situation where men and women are equally talented writers and where men outnumber women 4 to 1 and where the Hugo awards do a good job of reflecting talent, then 80% of the awards going to men is not evidence that the awards are biased or oppressive. It is evidence that they are fair. In that scenario, 80% male nominees is not an outrage. It’s the expected outcome.

Of course this just raises the next question: why is it that men outnumber women 4:1 in science fiction? For that matter, why do women outnumber men 2:1 in the YA category? Why is it that only the urban fantasy / paranormal romance category is anywhere close to parity? These are all fascinating questions and also important questions. I believe we can only hope to address them in an open-ended conversation. This is my primary concern with social justice advocates. Because they are tied to a certain ideological version of feminism that views human society through a Marxist-infused lens that emphasizes power struggles between groups and sees gender as socially constructed, they are locked into a paradigm where the mere fact that 80% of sci-fi writers are male (let alone Hugo nominees) is conclusive evidence of patriarchal oppression. From within that paradigm, there’s nothing left to talk about. Anybody who wants to have a discussion (other than to decide which tactics to use to smash the patriarchy) seems like an apologist for male domination. The social justice paradigm is a hammer that makes every single gender difference look like an evil nail.

So the chart isn’t as clear as it first appears. What you take from it depends entirely on your ideological framework. If you’re a social justice advocate, it’s a smoking gun proving conclusively that sci-fi is struggling bitterly to break free from the grip of the patriarchy. If you’re not a social justice advocate it might be evidence of systemic sexism in the sci-fi community that leads to a greater ratio of male writers or it might be evidence that more men like sci-fi than women. Or both. Or neither. It’s interesting, but it’s not conclusive.

Finding 3: Goodreads Scores vs. Hugo Nominations

916 - Goodreads Scores for Hugo Winners Nominees

If the last chart depicted clearly the reasons why social justice warriors are so opposed to SP / RP, this chart depicts clearly the reasons why SP came into being in the first place. What it shows is the average Goodreads review for the Hugo best novel winners (in red) and nominees (in blue) for every year going back to the first Hugo awards awarded in 1953. The most interesting aspect of the chart, from the standpoint of understanding where SP is coming from, is the fairly extreme gap between the scores of the nominees and the winners in the last few years, with the nominees showing much higher scores than the winners. Here it is again, with the data points in question circled:

916 - Goodreads Scores for Hugo Winners Nominees ANNOTATED

Let me be clear about what I think this shows. It does not show that the last few Hugo awards are flawed or that recent Hugo winners have been undeserving. There is no law written anywhere that says that average Goodreads score is the objective measure of quality. That is not my point. All those data points show is that there has been a significant difference of opinion between the Hugo voters who picked the winners and the popular opinion. What’s more, they shows that this gap is a relatively recent phenomenon. Go back 10 or 20 years and the winners tend to cluster near the top of the nominees, showing that the Hugo voting process and the Goodreads audience were more or less in tune. But starting a few years ago, a chasm suddenly opens up.

Of course there have been plenty of years in the past where Goodreads ranked a losing finalist higher than the Hugo winner, but rarely have there been so many in a row and particularly so many in a row with such wide gaps. To a Sad Puppy proponent, this chart is just as much a smoking gun as the previous one because it shows that something has changed in just the last few years that has led to a significant divergence between the tastes reflected by the Hugo awards and the tastes of the sci-fi audience at large. Whether you chalk it up to a social clique, political ideology, secret conspiracy theories, or just plain old herd mentality, it looks like the Hugo awards and popular taste have parted ways. Which, when Correia and Torgersen talk about eltiism and insularity, is exactly the central accusation that the Sad Puppies folks are making.

Just as with the prior chart, however, closer inspection complicates the picture. First, a social justice advocate may very well reply to the chart by saying, “Gee… lots of women get nominated and win and then review scores go down for nominees and winners. Sexism, much?” Turns out that isn’t likely, however, because Goodreads readers tended to rate female authors higher than male authors (at least within the sample of Hugo nominees and winners).

914 - Average Goodreads Rating by Gender

If anything, it suggests the possibility of mild sexism within the WorldCon community since it could indicate that female writers have to achieve higher popularity in order to get nominated and win. I didn’t run any statistical tests to see if the differences were significant, however, so let’s set that aside for the time being. The point is, blaming the low scores of Hugo winners vs. nominees over the last year on sexist Goodreads reviewers is a non-starter. It’s also worth pointing out that the winner scores haven’t suddenly gotten lower just over the last few years while the proportion of female nominees has gone up. They’ve actually been in a long-term slump (relative to Goodreads ratings) going back to the early 2000s with an average of around 3.7 compared to the all-time average of 3.96. Meanwhile, a lot of the losing nominees have been off-the-charts popular with scores of 4.2 and above. This is bound to lead to some hard feelings and bitterness.

When there are this few data points it pays to start looking at individual instances, and this is where the picture does  start to get a little complicated. The most recent winner is Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice. The rating of that book is 3.98 vs. the books with much higher ratings: Larry Correia’s Warbound(4.41 with 3.6k ratings) and Robert Jordan / Brandon Sanderon’s Complete Wheel of Time series(4.59 with just 376 ratings). Wheel of Time is a special case because it was a nominee for an entire series of books. Only the most devoted fans are likely to leave a rating on the entire series, and that’s why there are so few ratings. It’s probably also why they are so high. A better approach would be to average the individual average ratings of the books in the series, but I haven’t taken the time to do that. In any case, Wheel of Time is suspect as a comparison for that year. That leaves us with Warbound, but it’s a special case, too. Larry Correia drew a lot of fire that year for SP2, and he had no realistic chance of winning no matter how good his book was as a result. Fair or unfair as that might be, it means we can’t really conclude anything by comparing his book with Leckie’s. Take those two out, and Leckie was the highest-rated nominee. With a score of 3.98, her book was also right in line with the long-run average and significantly higher than the short-run average. After digging deeper, it’s really hard to shoehorn the 2014 results into the narrative of divergence between the Hugo winners and the general sci-fi audience.

But there is still a trend worth considering. Going back to 2013 and earlier a succession of fairly low-rated books won despite stiff competition from much more popular nominees. The 2013 and 2010 winners had some of the lowest reviews of the last half century, came last or second-to-last vs. the nominees for that year, and won out over nominees with significantly higher scores. Again: I am not making judgment call on those particular books. Merely pointing out how wide the gap is.

Another shortcoming of this approach is that I’m only comparing Hugo nominees vs. winners, and the Sad Puppies have been claiming that conservative writers can’t get on the ballot at all, not that they keep losing once they get there. The only way to really evaluate that claim would be to contrast the Hugo nominees and winners on the one hand vs. high-rated, eligible sci-fi books that never even made it onto the ballot. If most of the highest rated, eligible books made it onto the ballot in the past but more recently are being ignored, that would be strong evidence in favor of the Sad Puppies fundamental grievance. That analysis is possible to do, but gathering the data is trickier. I hope to be able to tackle it in the coming months.

Closing Thoughts

I still think that Sad Puppies have a legitimate point. Their goal was to get a few new faces out there who otherwise wouldn’t have been considered. I think that’s an admirable goal, and I think that there are some folks on the ballot today who (1) deserve to be there and (2) wouldn’t ever have gotten there without Sad Puppies. And I know that even some of the critics of SP3 agree with that assessment (because they told me so).

The critics of Sad Puppies have a couple of important points too, however. First: concern over gender representation is legitimate. Second: it’s tricky for the Sad Puppies to make their case without appearing to disparage the Hugo winners over the last few years (much as the folks on the SP3 slate are being disparaged even before we know who has won.) Combine that uncomfortable implication (even if unwarranted) with the fact that sweeping the ballot pushed a lot of deserving works out of consideration, and it’s justifiable for the critics to be, well, critical.

I hope that Sad Puppies continues, but I hope that they take steps to avoid hogging the whole ballot. They could recommend a lot more or a lot fewer folks per category. If they recommend 10 folks for best short story, for example, it forces possible voters to (1) read more sci-fi and (2) spread their votes around instead of voting en bloc. If they recommend 2 folks for best short story, any block voting will be confined to a narrow portion of the ballot. Either alternative is better than sweeping most or all of a ballot.

Finally, I’d like for some Sad Puppies folks to get together with some of their critics and see if they can hammer out their differences for the good of the awards and the community as a whole. I have to give props to Mary Robinette Kowal (very much not a Sad Puppy supporter) for being exemplary in this regard.  She has called on folks on her side to knock it off with the death threats and the hate mail, and also has started a drive to get more people supporting WorldCon memberships so that they can vote as well. For his part, Larry Correia has stepped in to stop his supporters from attacking Tor as a publisher. These are all good signs, and I hope that more moderate voices can prevail. Especially because the radicals on both sides are the ones threatening to nuke the entire award system. Social justice warriors are campaigning for Noah Ward (get it?) to shut down Sad Puppies definitively. Meanwhile, Vox Day has already pledged that he would retaliate by trying to shut down the entire award system next year with a No Award campaign of his own for Rabid Puppies 2. Given the first observation in this post, such a threat should be taken seriously.

Sad Puppies 3 was a good idea, but the execution was lacking this year. The best solution for everyone is for the voters to read each book and vote according to quality, including No Award if that’s what they genuinely feel is the right vote based strictly on the quality of the stories. And it is also for SP4 to get out ahead and take steps to avoid repeating the ballot sweep next year as well as to continue to shore up support among moderates, liberals, and apolitical folks to try and depoliticize the entire discussion a little bit.

After all the anger and vitriol over the past couple of weeks, there’s still a way for good to come of this. At the very least, I dearly hope that the legacy of the Hugo awards can be preserved.

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. 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 awards 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 entirety:

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 others–have finally given me some hope.

The Hugo Awards, Dinosaurs, and Me

User-Deevad - Medium
Image from Deevad on the Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Deevad


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.

Book Recommendation: Spin (Robert Charles Wilson)

2014-05-21 The ChronolithsIt could just be me, but I don’t hear folks talk about Robert Charles Wilson enough. The first book of his I read was Spin, which won the Hugo in 2006. I thought the sequel (Axis (Spin)) was good, but not great. I’m listening to The Chronoliths now, which was nominated for a Hugo in 2002. Turns out he’s been nominated a few more times, too (1999 and 2010), but–like I said–he’s just not a name that I hear come up often enough in discussions of great sci-fi.

The reason I like Robert Charles Wilson is that he’s one of the best there is at combining truly human-centered, character-driven stories with real, honest, sci-fi concepts. The drama in his books is emphatically character-driven, but it simply couldn’t exist without the sci-fi elements. To me: that’s what all sci-fi should strive to be.

He also has some prose chops. Look, I realize that sci fi (along with all genre fiction) tends to be less about the art and craft of prose than literary fiction, but there were some parts of “Spin” that rose to the level of good art by any standard.

He’s one of those guys who, when I’m reading their story, I think to myself: “I’ll really be doing alright if I ever get this good.”