Monday, August 24, 2015

What the heck is a Hugo? My take on Puppygate, assuming you know nothing about it

Worldcon = World Science Fiction Convention

If you've never been to a Worldcon, you've missed out. They're a bit like a nation of nomads getting together for an annual reunion, a nation made up of tribes: the Gamer Tribe, the Costumer/Cosplay Tribe, the Writer (and Aspiring Writer) Tribe, the Avid Reader Tribe, and so on. Some people never go to the masquerade and some live for it. Some rush from panel to panel, trying not to miss anything, while others skip out on panels entirely and haunt the dealers' room (full of new and used books and craft items. for those who've never seen one).

And on Saturday night of the long weekend that is Worldcon, the convention holds the Hugo Awards ceremony, which rewards writers, editors, artists, and TV and movie producers, for work the fans judge to be the best of the previous year. In the past, a significant percentage of people who payed for attending memberships never bothered to vote for the Hugos, and even fewer bothered to nominate. And when they did nominate, people mostly listed one or two or maybe three works in each category, not the maximum of five, which is why this year there was a huge kerfuffle.

The Puppies, Sad and Rabid

I really think the root cause of most of this mess boils down to ego. A few authors (specifically Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia) felt that since their books were (they thought) really good, and were selling well, therefore, they should win a Hugo. When they didn't win one, they decided the only way to account for this was there must be a conspiracy against them. After all, they're political conservatives and many science fiction fans are more liberal. They were sure overtly literary work was being promoted by a secret cabal who despised them and thus prevented them or writers like them from ever winning. But to me, it looks like "we didn't win a Hugo, ergo the contest can't possibly be fair."

This allowed them to justify forming a group called the Sad Puppies, who promoted a slate of works and people that they thought should be nominated for a Hugo. And after these conservative but not evil people (mostly not evil, anyway. Not too sure about John C Wright since I read this.) put their slate out there, a guy named Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day) jumped on their band wagon with his own slate, which he called Rabid Puppies. He dropped some items from their list, added others, and then he then ordered his minions (his word) to a) buy supporting memberships to Worldcon (which cost about $40 and confer nominating and voting rights for Hugos, but not attendance at the convention) and b) nominate that exact list of works and people on his slate. Interestingly, people talk more about the Sad Puppy slate, but really it was mostly the Rabid Puppy slate that made up the Worldcon ballot. John C. Wright appears on the Sad Puppy slate twice but on the Rabid Puppy slate six times; he "only" got five Hugo nominations, however, as one story was bumped for ineligibility.

The minions (not nearly as cute as the animated versions) obeyed, and with about 400 ballots in lockstep, they were able to shut out anyone else in several categories of the ballot, and to numerically dominate the others.

The Fallout

There was shock and outrage, and it got nasty after that. There is a basic communication disconnect in the situation. Puppy supporters do not think promoting a slate was a bad thing to do, while Puppy opposers do not understand how anyone could expect them to vote for someone who got on the ballot by shutting out all other works not approved by them.  Now mind you, in the past, plenty of people have done some level of campaigning to get a specific work on the ballot. Bloggers publish "Recommended Reads" and writers make a point to say which of their works are eligible.  The difference is these slates were full ballots! That is, there were five entries in every category, so that if enough people nominated the slate, it would swamp the nominations and nothing else in that category would get in. A slate is not "Vote for me!" it's "All your nominations are belong to us!"

Keep in mind that readership is lower for shorter works, which are mostly published in magazines and online. Combined with general apathy about nominating, this means there are never that many nominations cast for the short fiction categories (short story, novella, and novelette), usually nowhere near as many as there are for novels. There were enough non-slate votes for novels that the RP slate could not totally swamp that category (remember Vox Day claims "390 sworn and numbered vile faceless minions"). But the ballot for the three short fiction categories was (at first) only  RP candidates. That changed when some people like Annie Bellet dropped out, preferring not to be used as pawns in politicising the Hugos, and in the novelette category there was thus one non-slate entry.

Unlike the Sad Puppies, I consider that VD (I'll just use his initials) is actively evil. Assuming he means what he says, he holds huge chucks of humanity (women, black people) in overt contempt. The Sad Puppies seemed to think that he was only riding their coattails, but it has become clear they are now riding his. Brad Torgensen says he's really just a "shock jock" who is jerking people's chains for the fun of it. That's Torgersen's excuse for not totally repudiating him, I guess, I happen to think that stirring people up to hatred is a horrible thing to do, regardless of motive. You could say it's worse if you don't believe what you say, because you're not acting from principle but from mischief. 

The Pre-K Analogy

So, imagine a whole roomful of 4-year-olds are playing a game. As time goes on, a few kids get mad because they haven't won, even though there are are lots of kids and only one chance to win per game. These kids decide to stir up the game pieces in the hopes of improving their chances--not against the rules, but no one has done it before. This gives the class bully his opportunity to stomp all over everything, and no one wins. This is pretty much the state of things at Worldcon.

The Hugo ballot is a bizarre thing, in a way, because voting is ranked. You don't just pick one choice per category, you rank each entry as 1st, 2nd, and so on. And there is an option for No Award. which you can use if you don't think any of the entries remaining after you have picked your choices should win.  This option was used a lot this year and in the categories where there were no choices not on the RP or SP slates, then the voters chose No Award and no one got a Hugo in that category.  The only exception was the dramatic presentations (TV show and movies) which were perceived as not Puppy-influenced because they were pretty much all things that would have been nominated anyway.

Outrage again, on the Puppy side, this time. How could those mean people deprive hardworking editors and writers of their chance to win a Hugo? I would ask them, who was really deprived? There were a lot of people who would have made the ballot if it had not been for the slates, so it seems to me that the real villain is Vox Day. First he pushed deserving people off the ballot, and then pushed other people onto it in a way that few people could support. Thus, he let them in for a huge disappointment when most people voted No Award. I'm not saying those people weren't deserving. Certainly, the long form editors (other than Vox Day) were all solid professionals. In a normal year, no one would have questioned their presence or hesitated to vote for one of them. But the person who made it not a normal year made it difficult for Worldcon members to condone the slate by letting anyone win that way. The surge in supporting memberships and percentage of votes cast shows how strong that sentiment was, and it won't go away.

A slate that dictates all possible choices is a bad thing. It is a tool of dictatorship, and I, for one, am not willing to cede that role to Vox Day, or anyone else.



  1. Unless you have access to a good library system, the short fiction magazines --the so-called big ones of Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, anyway-- are out of reach except by bookstore.

    I do want to also point out that there is one subgenre of SF --Mil SF-- that is far more conservative than the rest of bunch. Even though individual writers may be more liberal (Myke Cole, for instance), the reader base skews conservative. It's kind of like how you can tell that certain pencil-and-paper RPG players will skew a certain way politically; players of Steve Jackson's GURPS, for instance, skew libertarian, and players of FATE and Dungeon World skew liberal.

    1. I can readily believe that about military SF fans. Although skewing doesn't mean that it's 100%.

      When I started reading science fiction in junior high (I am old enough to have gone to junior high, not middle school!) you could read almost every science fiction book that came out in a year. Now there are so many no one could read them all! And they have split into subgenres, like military SF, hard SF, character-driven SF, and so on. When you add in that the Hugo include fantasy, it drives home how many good books come out and DON'T win a Hugo. JK Rowling didn't get one until HP & the Goblet of Fire. And I don't think GRR Martin has ever got one, has he? Some people need to get a grip.