Culture War

Culture Warriors Invade Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Mutiny at the Hugo Awards


The latest pitched battle in science fiction is not between space pirates and alien monsters but between fandom factions, with the Hugo Awards as the battlefield. Depending on where you stand, this fight pits either forces of progress against reactionary barbarians or the elitist establishment against anti-authoritarian rebels. The progressive elites have decisively won this round; but was it a pyrrhic victory? One thing is certain: this culture war is here to stay.

The Hugos are science fiction's Oscars, selected by fans—anyone who pays the $40 World Science Fiction Convention membership fee is eligible to nominate and vote—and presented at the annual WorldCon. Earlier this year, a large share of the nominations was captured by the so-called "Sad Puppies" slate, organized by a group of writers opposed to what they saw as a politically correct domination of the Hugos. It was the culmination of an effort that began in 2013. (The group's name is an in-joke born from a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Ad featuring dejected-looking doggies and a quip that "puppy-related sadness" was caused by "boring message-fic winning awards.")

When the nominations were unveiled in April, the science fiction fandom and much of the popular culture media had a meltdown. The Puppies were accused of "gaming the system" by voting as a bloc—and portrayed as a right-wing "white boys' club" reacting to the growing prominence of female, nonwhite, progressive voices in the field.

At the 73rd WorldCon on August 22, the empire struck back. Not one Puppy nominee won a Hugo.  In five all-Puppy categories, the top choice was "No Award," just as progressive sci-fi bloggers had recommended. At the presentation, each "No Award" was met with applause and cheers, which Puppy supporters saw as unseemly gloating at sticking it to "WrongFans." Of course, the "Puppy Kickers" (as the Puppies called them) and their mainstream media backers  saw it very differently: as a defeat for ballot-stuffing reactionaries and a victory for both quality and diversity.

So who are the Sad Puppies and what do they want? In a post-awards blog post, Puppy leader Larry Correia wrote that he started the campaign because he believed the Hugos had come to represent "tiny, insular, politically motivated cliques" that gave awards to their friends and rewarded "correct" identities and politics rather than talent.

Is this, as the Puppies' detractors suggest, all about straight white males trying to protect their turf from interlopers like the women who snagged nearly two-thirds of the Hugo nominations for fiction in 2012? The Puppies' fiction picks were indisputably male-dominated, with only three female authors out of 17; yet some of the group's most dedicated members are women such as writers Sarah Hoyt, Amanda Green, and Cedar Sanderson. (The latter two were Puppy nominees for Best Fan Writer, which recognizes sci-fi related nonfiction work for nonpaying or low-paying magazines or websites.) And Hoyt told me in our email interview last spring that her personal worst example of the Hugos' political corruption was a 2013 win for a white male: the Best Novel award to "Redshirts" by John Scalzi, a satirical riff on "Star Trek." Hoyt, who dismisses the novel as "bad fanfic," thought the award was blatant cronyism on behalf of Scalzi, a recent president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and one of the fandom's high priests of "social justice" ideology.

Then there are the politicized "message" stories. Thus, last year's Best Novel Hugo went to "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie, whose protagonist belongs to a futuristic human civilization with no concept of gender distinctions and with "she" as the universal pronoun. The Best Story winner, "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu, dealt with a Chinese-American man's struggles with coming out as gay.  (The "fantasy" part was a clunky plot device: a mysterious phenomenon that causes anyone telling a lie to be instantly doused in water.) Also high on the gripe list is last year's nomination for "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky, a short story that even some of its fans concede is not really science fiction or fantasy. It is the internal monologue of a woman who daydreams about her comatose fiancé—the victim of a hate crime by men who apparently thought he was gay or transgendered—becoming a human-sized dinosaur. 

Of course, quality is a somewhat subjective thing. Two of my friends who are avid readers of sci-fi and fantasy, disagreed sharply on "Dinosaur": one thought it was an piece of pretentious dreck whose nomination could only be explained by political correctness; another, who has little patience for PC, wasn't crazy about it but thought it was well-written and could be appreciated on merit. Yet another friend thought the Puppies had a legitimate complaint about the Hugos' cliquishness but undercut it with their own mediocre nominations. 

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. 

One might think that "fear" is an exaggeration. But, actually, a much less-noticed controversy tangentially associated with the Hugos this year is a good illustration of the toxic climate in the sci-fi/fantasy community: the story behind the "Best Fan Writer" award to sci-fi writer and blogger Laura J. Mixon.

Mixon's prize-winning work was a long November 2014 blog post exposing Thai author Benjanun Sriduangkaew—one of that year's nominees for the John J. Campbell Award, given to the best new sci-fi/fantasy writer concurrently with the Hugos—as a prolific cyberbully and troll with multiple online identities. As a far-left "rageblogger" using the moniker Requires Hate, Sriduangkaew had terrorized the speculative fiction fandom for years, viciously assailing authors and fans on her blog and in other social media for various thoughtcrimes. Helped by her minions, she intimidated reviewers, sabotaged book promotions, and pressured event organizers to disinvite speakers. She even drove at least one person to a suicide attempt. 

This reign of terror was made possible by fandom politics. Mixon noted that, as a self-identified lesbian of Asian background, Requires Hate enjoyed support from "progressives… who appreciate[d] that—despite her sometimes over-the-top rhetoric—she unapologetically sp[oke] up for people of color and queer/ LGBTQI people, calling out racist, homophobic, misogynist content in many popular SFF novels and stories." Never mind that her "calling-out" methods included gruesome calls for murder, torture and mutilation ("her hands should be cut off so she can never write another Asian character"; "flay him alive slowly, pour salt, pour acid, dismember and keep alive as long as possible"). 

Commenters on Mixon's post mentioned instances in which moderators of online groups condoned Required Hate's bullying because they worried about silencing a "marginalized" person. They also gave mind-boggling examples of the fear she was able to inspire. Canadian writer J.M. Frey, whose otherwise well-received first novel was savaged by Requires Hate, admitted that it nearly caused her to stop writing: "I second guess everything I write now… I try to be good at representation and gender and sexuality in my books, but nobody is perfect… I genuinely feared putting more books out into the world because I was scared."

It's also telling that Mixon bent over backwards to stress that she supports the righteous anger of the "oppressed" and that most of Requires Hate's victims were themselves female, gay, transgendered, and/or nonwhite. When a commenter argued that treating members of "dominant" groups as acceptable targets was precisely the mindset that enabled Requires Hate, Mixon insisted that "a case can be made for marginalized people's right to punch up." 

Despite all these disclaimers, Mixon's exposé was too politically incorrect for some. Writer and blogger Deidre Saoirse Moen, who drafted the "Puppy-Free Hugo Awards Voting Guide," also opposed the award to Mixon, at least partly because  "it just feels like a white woman elder putting the younger woman of color in her 'place.'" That Mixon ultimately got the award could be seen as repudiating the extremes of left-wing cultural politics. But in a way, it also affirms that criticism of such extremes is allowed only from within the true faith and from within the establishment (Mixon happens to be married to Steven Gould, SFWA president until July).

In this stifling atmosphere of "progressive" authoritarianism, the Sad Puppies' mutiny makes sense. 

Those who revile the Puppies as bigots if not outright fascists point to the pseudonymous Vox Day, a.k.a. Theodore Beale, the leader of his own "Rabid Puppies" faction whose Hugos slate largely overlapped with Sad Puppies. A writer and indie publisher kicked out of the SFWA a few years ago, Beale is also a prolific blogger who urges a radical Christian takeover of America  and espouses views that actually can be called racist and misogynist with no exaggeration. (Among other things, he maintains that blacks are inherently more violent and less civilized than whites, that  female suffrage is bad because women will "vote for whomever they would rather f***", and that curtailing female education is rational because "a society that sends its women to college stops breeding").

It's hard to tell to what extent Vox Day's public persona is performance art played for shock. In any case, this year's Sad Puppy leaders, Correia and Brad Torgersen, repeatedly stated that they do not share Vox Day's views and regard him as an unpleasant tactical ally, the Stalin to their Roosevelt and Churchill. (Hoyt, in turn, has written that she find his views "repulsive.") They didn't quite disavow him; but Torgersen has told Wired magazine that even if they had, their detractors would have found some other reason to demonize the Puppies. 

Given the tenor of anti-Puppy critiques, Torgersen is almost certainly right.  Best Fan Writer nominee Sanderson, who considers herself a pro-equality, anti-misandry feminist, is far more representative of the Puppies' views than Vox Day. But she too got skewered as an "anti-feminist" for such offenses as suggesting that feminist writers who use their fiction as propaganda vehicles are doing a disservice to female authors and defending astrophysicist Matt Taylor's public appearance in a shirt with scantily clad women on it.

As for Vox Day, the Puppies say that the progressive guardians of the fandom and WorldCon voters played right into his hands by "no-awarding" the categories with only Puppy nominees. Vox had planned to instruct his followers to vote "no award" on everything, in the explicit hope that a large number of "no awards" would help him "burn down" the Hugos.

At this point, the Hugos are still standing, and the rules are being tweaked to make slate nominations more difficult (though the changes won't take effect for another two years). In the meantime, the Sad Puppies are still here, and while they may not have gone rabid they are certainly mad. To them, the Hugo results are overwhelming proof that their worst suspicions of bias and cronyism are correct: even Toni Weisskopf, a beloved editor at Baen Books whose merit was widely recognized even by many Puppy critics, was denied a Best Editor Hugo because she was on the Puppy slate. 

The next Puppy campaign to bring in more rebel voters for 2016 is going to be led by Hoyt, Green, and Australian fantasy author Kate Paulk. Says Hoyt on her blog, "We're here, we're not giving up and we're prepared to fight like girls.  May G-d have mercy on their souls."

Maybe they'll call themselves "the Mad Bitches." But, at the very least, no one gets to call them a boys' club.