Sad Puppies dog the Hugo Awards
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There are very few literary genres that elicit as much cultish behaviour as the twin-headed beast called science fiction and fantasy (SFF). And no award causes as much excitement as the genre’s oldest gong, the Hugo Awards, to be held on 22 August at world science fiction convention Sasquan Worldcon in Spokane, Washington, US. The annual award, now in its 60th year, has been embroiled in controversy this year over its official nominations, which were announced on 4 April. This is a list which threatens to irrevocably damage the awards. Here’s why.
A reactionary fringe of SFF writers, long-time votaries for a return to the genres’ macho and posturing space opera past, called the Sad Puppies (and their more rabid brethren, the Rabid Puppies) have been campaigning for the past three years to have more of such “swashbuckling” fiction win the Hugos. They allege that the awards have been hijacked by a cabal of ideologically left-liberal writers, editors, publishers and fans who are pushing for more diversity of voices, greater literary merit at the cost of good old entertainment, and are awarding writers who are either “minorities”, or who write stories that focus as much on society as on a laser-gun fight, and are more interested in literary “pyrotechnics” than in gripping stories brimming with action.
To game the system, the Sad Puppies came out with a full list of possible nominations (called a slate) in February, with their favourite right-wing authors forming the majority of the nominations in the Best Novel, Short Story, Novelette and other categories. Next, they organized like-minded fans to buy membership to the Worldcon (its members vote for these awards, and membership to the World Science Fiction Society, which runs Worldcon, can be had for $40, or Rs.2,500, by anyone) and overwhelm the nominations by block-voting according to the preferences of the Sad Puppies.
As a result, this year’s nominations are an almost carbon copy of the Sad Puppies’ list.
The Sad Puppies are a loose group of anonymous fans with some writers who are its public face. The full name of the group is Sad Puppies Think of the Children, a moniker designed to lampoon the influential members (writers, editors and publishers) of the SFF community, who are, more often than not, politically and socially liberal. Due to this, the Sad Puppies derogatorily labels them the SJW, or the Social Justice Warriors. Three of these have been at the forefront of the campaign—Larry Correia, Brad R. Torgersen and Theodore Beale (he writes under the pen name Vox Day). Correia was the one to have begun the Sad Puppies, with Torgersen and Vox Day joining its ranks pretty soon. The Tea Party of SFF, Sad Puppies’ orchestrators, have been pouring vitriol on the Hugos. In February, Torgersen wrote on his blog:
“A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women.”
These days, however:
“There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land? A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women. Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues. Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
He has also called the Hugos an “affirmative action award” because it allegedly awards writers who are from an “underrepresented minority or victim group” or writers whose works feature these same groups. This complaint seems to be a common thread linking the orchestrators: Vox Day believes women shouldn’t have voting rights; the writer John C. Wright who dominates the nominations (and is published by Vox Day) considers homosexuality a perversion.
The problem they seem to have with the Hugo Awards is that more than at any other time in its history, the awards are recognizing SFF output from around the world. In 2014, the winners of the Hugo and the Nebula awards were mostly women and people of colour, like the Somali-American writer Sofia Samatar who won the Best New Writer Hugo. The anxiety of the Sad Puppies is less about any ideology and more about the entry of new authors who are writing about different futures, about LGBTQ characters, tackling misogyny and racism, and writing cracking stories. Kameron Hurley, the winner of the Best Fan Writer in 2014, wrote in The Atlantic on 9 April, that despite the Puppies’ gaming of the awards, “like our wider culture, science-fiction and fantasy fandom grew and shifted; and with it, our vision of the future changed, too”.
The Sad Puppies are angry that mainstream tastes are catching up with the visions of path-breaking former Hugo winners like Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, R.A. Lafferty and others who showed the way SFF could go, away from broad-chested white male heroes conquering space in phallic rockets.
Someone like George R.R. Martin, whose books are literary and swashbuckling, calls out the Sad Puppies campaign for what it is and believes that the Hugo Awards might be broken if this stunt succeeds and aggressive gaming of the system becomes the order of the day. Some writers have withdrawn from the nominations in protest, while others are calling for the use of the No Vote option to ensure this year’s Hugos don’t get awarded at all.
Come August, when the awards will be given, a corner would have been turned, for good or for ill.
Bibek Bhattacharya is senior editor, Outlook Traveller. He’s passionate about mountains, books and music, not necessarily in that order.