Thoughts on the Hugo Controversy

Better people than I have already weighed in on what’s going on in sf/f fandom, at extensive length. But I feel like I’d be remiss without at least tossing a few paragraphs of my own thoughts into the aetherweb.

I suppose if I had to pick a side in the War for the Soul of Nerd-Dom, I’d be on the ‘Social Justice’ side. I think nerd media has a problem with representation, I think this is best solved by making sure that artists who fall outside the white-cis-het-male demo get attention and by encouraging artists of all types to challenge themselves to overcome stereotypes. I don’t think this is cultural carpetbagging; I think this is a movement which comes from within fandom and is 100% fan-driven.

I also believe in awards. I believe in acknowledging good work. And I believe that seeing which works get nominations and awards serves as a cultural barometer. I watch the Oscars and Emmys every year, and pay attention to the type of shows and movies which get awards. What are the themes and performances which are rewarded? I track nerd awards for the same reason. The absolute best work may not emerge as the winner, if only because figuring that out is an aesthetically impossible task. But whatever wins at least wins because it’s good.

My prediction is that the Sad Puppies won’t actually see their works get the attention they want. I think Skin Game by Jim Butcher will win as a compromise candidate and George R R Martin will walk away with another shiny spaceship, but No Award will sweep the other categories (though I will laugh and laugh and laugh if Guardians of the Galaxy wins, because I happen to think that movie is the most feminist comic book movie ever made). But the Sad Puppies will win the overall war by destroying the credibility and value of a Hugo award. From now on, the only thing that a Hugo means is that ‘your side’ won the culture war that year.

I won’t accuse the Sad Puppies of cheating. It’d be easy if they actually cheated – throw out any nominations which break the rules, carry on. And the Hugo awards, like every award handed out since the dawn of time, has always and will always have a political dimension. I don’t care how amazingly written and how compelling the characters are, if the story is pro-colonialism, I’m going to hate it. And I’ll promote my favorite female authors just a little harder (because Jim Butcher’s doing okay without me evangelizing for him, but Lilith Saintcrow is the best urban fantasy author you’ve never heard of).

What the Sad Puppies have done is turn the Hugos into an ideological battleground. Authors, editors and other artists aren’t being voted on by merit; but because their work represents or supports an ideology with which the Sad Puppies agree (in this case, the idea that the status should remain quo and science fiction gets ruined if it goes too far into ‘what if’, such as ‘what if a lesbian is a spaceship captain?’).

See, I’m not really thinking of the 2015 Hugos. Instead, I’m thinking of the 2016 Hugos, and the 2017 Hugos, and the 2018 Hugos… No matter how this year’s awards shake out, the Sad Puppies, invigorated by how far they’ve gotten this year, will no doubt propose another slate of candidates next year. And in counter to their favorites, the ‘other side’ will propose another slate of candidates. Chosen partly based on merit, but also partly because those works support an ideology.

And so cue the race to stuff the ballot box. People won’t just be voting for their own favorites, they will be voting against the Other Side winning. To even have a chance at being nominated, you’ll have to either fly the social justice banner high or bang the reactionary drum as loud as you can. Works in the middle, except for the 800-pound gorillas of comic book movies, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who, are going to fall between the cracks, no matter how good they are. The campaigns won’t be, “Vote for this book because it’s good,” it’ll be “vote for this book because the author is politically agreeable to me, and if you don’t, the jerk on the other side will win instead. And also because the book is good.”

The only real winner will be the WSFS, receiving $40 for every foot soldier enlisted in this fight.

And I can’t think of a way to fix it.

Maybe it shouldn’t be fixed.

Maybe the Sad Puppy demi-victory is a sign that there’s more work to be done, more hearts and minds to be won, more stories to be told.

After all, if I approach awards as cultural barometers, what reading should be taken from this? Throughout all of GamerGate, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that, though they are loud, and angry, and destructive, their overall numbers are small. Despite their screaming and crying, Dragon Age: Inquisition, with it’s embrace of powerful women and genderqueer characters, still got a pile of Game of the Year awards. But the Sad Puppies have revealed they are not just loud and angry, but that they are effective and there are enough of them to have a real effect.

That’s disheartening, and I don’t know any easy way to fix it.