Science Fiction Fans Are Fighting About Politics. It's Not the End of the Universe

Science fiction's culture wars have been around for as long as science fiction.


credit: batwrangler / Foter

For the last several months, science fiction fans and authors have been split by arguments about politics and activism. Those arguments came to a head on Saturday night at the ceremony for the 2015 Hugo Awards—the fan award that is among the highest honors in science fiction.

In a highly unusual move, Hugo voters declined to name a winner in most of the major fiction categories, instead voting "No Award" for Short Story, Novella, Related Work, and Editor (both long and short form).

The unprecedented vote is the latest round in an ongoing science fiction culture war that has taken on an apocalyptic cast, with parties on both sides worried that the underlying dispute might ultimately destroy the Hugos, and perhaps even wreck science fiction as we know it. But what this year's Hugo awards really prove is that there's no need to worry. 

"No Award" awards have been presented very occasionally before, but never in this number. The reason for the rejection of all the nominees in so many categories was that many voters felt the nomination process had been manipulated by an outspoken faction within the fan community known as the Puppies. The Puppies are really two related, overlapping factions—the Sad Puppies, organized by science fiction writers Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia, and the Rabid Puppies, led by a writer, editor, publisher, and video game designer who goes by the name of Vox Day (real name Theodore Beale). What both groups did this year was to rally Hugo award nominators around block voting slates—recommendations for who should be nominated in each award category.

Because the voting pool is small, an organized campaign around a specific set of nominees has a chance to make a big impact on who's up for the awards. In this case, it did. Nominees from the Puppies slates wound up taking most or all of the slots in all of the writing categories. It was perceived as, and was, a kind of takeover.

What were the Puppies after? That depends on who you ask. Detractors say the groups were both reactionary movements, driven by conservative white males angry about recent Hugo awards going to stories by and about a more diverse group of individuals. Last year's Best Novel winner, for example, was Ann Leckie's book Ancillary Justice, a space opera revenge story set in a colonialist society that does not distinguish between genders and uses only female pronouns; the winning short story was about a Chinese man who reveals to his family that he's gay. Puppy opponents argue that these sorts of stories are praiseworthy, necessary, and valuable if science fiction is to expand its audience beyond the educated white male cohort that has traditionally dominated science fiction readership. 

The two groups of Puppies see themselves differently. The Sad Puppies tend to argue that their aim is not really political at all—that instead they generally prefer stories without intensely political messages, and want to see the Hugos award fiction that emphasizes science and adventure and reader enjoyment, rather than a more literary emphasis on social and political themes. In an interview with Wired, Correia said that the group's name comes from the joke that "at the leading cause of puppy-related sadness was boring message-fic winning awards." He and Torgerson have argued that too much focus on diversity becomes a goal unto itself, and can distract from the true quality of a work.

The Rabid Puppies take a more aggressive approach, one that is openly hostile to the idea of diversity, and which is often laden with sexist, misogynist, and homophobic over- and undertones. As Wired's story makes clear, Vox Day's approach is intentionally designed to be outrageous; he says that he that wants to offend people, to stir up trouble, to cause chaos and destruction. He also admits that some of his followers are not really science fiction fans, but people who agree with his political agenda and want to help him wreck the awards system. "I wanted to leave a big smoking hole where the Hugo Awards were," he told Wired before the awards were announced.

Given Vox Day's obnoxious character and stated intent, it is not surprising that many viewed the Puppies as a threat to the Hugos and even to the wider world of science fiction and fandom. And while the aims of the two groups differ, they were, in the minds of most opponents, essentially the same.

That's unfair in some ways, but not entirely unreasonable either. While Torgersen and Correia did attempt to separate themselves from the Rabid Puppies movement, they also at times seemed to suggest that they were fighting a common battle. And there was definitely overlap between supporters of the two Puppies groups; outside of the group's leaders, it could be hard to distinguish between the two. Most any of the Sad Puppies could have been Rabid, and some acted as though they were. 

And so the response from their opponents was to reject the Puppies—both of them—entirely, via the unprecedented number of No Awards. Since Saturday night, Puppies supporters have argued that the No Awards themselves constitute a threat to sci-fi, a radical and destructive action that essentially declares it's preferable to have no awards at all than to let the Puppies have their way.  

But it seems to me that the response from the Hugo voters was not really different in kind than what the Puppies did themselves. The Puppies have stressed, in the face of arguments that they cheated or took advantage of a loophole, that their block voting tactic was allowed by the rules. It was—but it was also a violation of Hugo norms. The same can be said about the No Award votes. Viewing the Puppies as a threat, the Hugo voters responded in kind.

As I said, I think it was reasonable to view the Puppies as a threat, and reasonable to respond in kind. I should note my biases here: I'm obviously no fan of the Rabid Puppies, and I don't share the Sad Puppies' opposition to books with more overt political themes or literary sensibility, and I also think it's sometimes been misapplied (Leckie's award winner, Ancillary Justice, for example, struck me not as "message-fic" but as a rather satisfying and smartly constructed otherworldly revenge story that was built out of various politically charged ideas about gender and autonomy). But I also think the Sad Puppies aren't wrong that it's possible for authors and critics to become too wrapped in identity concerns at the expense of quality fiction.  

Overall, though, my main impression is that the worries about the potential lasting effects of this subculture culture war are overblown, in part because this sort of politically driven fracture in the community isn't new. In fact, it has been with science fiction from the very beginning.

In Isaac Asimov's 1995 autobiography, I. Asimov, the famed science fiction writer described his first experience with science fiction fandom as a teenager growing up in Depression-era New York. In 1933, Asimov, already a prolific contributor to the letters section of one of the era's leading science fiction magazines (the blog comments section of its day) arranged to meet up with the Queens Science Fiction Club.

But shortly before he was to attend his first meeting, the group splintered. On one side were activists who believed that science fiction fans should take a strong anti-Fascist stance; on the other was the fan majority who believed, according to Asimov, that "science fiction was above politics." Asimov joined the activist splinter group, which became known as the Futurians.

It was a foundational moment for science fiction, and a telling one. As Asimov wrote, the split led him to "understand that science fiction fans were a quarrelsome and contentious bunch and that clubs were forever splitting up into hostile factions."

Political disagreements have been with science fiction for practically as long as there has been science fiction. Seen through a longer lens, what becomes clear is that they are an inherent part of the culture—which is, after all, built around detailed speculation about how society and technology will evolve—and arguably even what has helped it thrive for so long. And while politically charged disagreements and disputes may result in turmoil, they do no necessarily result in total victory for one side or the other.

Amongst the Futurians, for example, Asimov and many others in the group's roster of young members would quickly become influential writers and editors whose work would shape the future of science fiction, while Sam Moskowitz, who led the main fan group, went on to become a notable science fiction editor as well. The historical success of the genre is due in part to its ability to incorporate all sorts of ideas and approaches, drawing from what has worked in the past, while also looking constantly to the future.

Science fiction's fans and authors may squabble, but they can and do work things out amongst themselves. For example, the most hopeful moment at Saturday's ceremony came at the end, when the award for Best Novel was announced from the International Space Station. The location turned out to be rather fitting, for the winner was Chinese author Cixin Liu's book, The Three-Body Problem­—the first ever translated novel to win a Hugo. Liu's book, set partially against the backdrop of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, is a book that individuals on both sides of sci-fi's culture war should be able to celebrate: It's an eerie, compelling tale that is, among other things, about the ways that authoritarian governments attempt to shape and control reality. Come for the book's chilling depiction of Communist violence; stay for the international perspective and the final insistence on global togetherness in the face of an otherworldly threat.

It's a book that offers a synthesis of sorts, and its win was made possible only when author Marko Kloos decided to pull his book from the nomination list because it was a Rabid Puppies nominee—allowing Liu's novel onto the list. Far from the end of the world, books like Liu's help us—as the best science fiction always does—imagine a new one.