The funny thing about the Hugo Awards, the most prestigious award for science fiction and fantasy writing, is that most geeks I know have heard of them but know very little about them. We see “Hugo Award-winning” or “Hugo Award-nominated” on a book jacket and take it as a general signal that a book has been deemed Pretty Good by some sort of jury of experts, like with the Oscars or the Pulitzers.
The reality is that the Hugo Awards, despite how well-known they are, are still run at a very grassroots level. Without getting into gory details, the Hugos are both nominated on and voted on by supporters of the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon. It only costs 40 bucks to get a membership, and anyone is eligible.
Most people, including the science fiction and fantasy fans that regularly see “Hugo Award-winning” on the cover of books, don’t know this. The Hugo is normally voted on by a relatively small group of hardcore science fiction fans, a few thousand at most. (After all, if everyone in the world who read SF books bought a membership WorldCon would be better funded than the Red Cross.)
The Hugo Awards, unlike the Oscars or the Pulitzers, are a “democratic poll” that anyone can vote on but few people do vote on. Like when NASA holds a poll to name a module for the ISS, or Hungary holds a poll to vote on naming a bridge.
In other words, it’s a ripe target for trolls.
The name “Sad Puppies” comes from notoriously whiny right-wing SF author Larry Correia’s blog post two years ago complaining that the “puppies were sad” he hadn’t won a Hugo Award yet, because of a cabal of left-wing elitists conspiring to deny him the recognition he deserved, and rallying his fans and followers to put down their $40 and vote him in.
When he failed to win a Hugo Award in 2013, Correia organized a sequel, in which he called on his fans not just to nominate him but to spam the awards with a list of authors he deemed worthy. Sad Puppies 2014 did get some attention, but since the Puppies only managed to get one or two of their candidates nominated in each category, they ended up taking a thorough drubbing in the final votes.
Enter “Sad Puppies 3,” where they’ve pulled out all the stops—this time, rather than just putting their people on the ballot, they’ve flooded the voting to the point where the entire ballot (with a few exceptions) is made up of their candidates. The goal is very clear—to take over the Hugo Awards on the grounds that their picks represent real science fiction fans while the “liberal elitist” picks of previous years do not.
A lot of people aren’t cool with this, and have said so publicly, including luminaries such as former Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America president John Scalzi, io9 editor (and 2012 Hugo winner) Charlie Jane Anders, and a writer you may have heard of named George R. R. Martin.
My take, and the take of pretty much everyone I like and respect in the SF world, is that the Sad Puppies are a frighteningly determined and deranged clique of reactionary zealots who are pretty much ruining everything. You know, like a certain hypersensitive cabal of interactive entertainment enthusiasts you can’t say the name of without being bombarded by angry emails.
There’s been a lot of bickering about what the “real” motivations of the Sad Puppies are. As we’ve learned from the habits of reproductively capable worker ants, trying to claim that the Sad Puppies “movement” is motivated by racism and sexism will get people shouting at you, even forcing you to print retractions—because in a ballot with 85 entries on it they can name 11 women and/or people of color they’ve nominated, which in the year 2015 is apparently somehow impressive. (And because we all know using women and people of color as a shield for your own actions isn’t gross at all.)
But let’s leave aside race and gender. Even if we completely ignore those two factors, this is not a “diverse” slate. It’s a frighteningly homogeneous slate, in a couple of really glaring ways.
Out of all the nominated works, nine of them come from the same micro-publisher, a Finland-based outfit known as Castalia House. The founder and sole proprietor of Castalia House, Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day), gets a 10th nomination for Best Editor.
That’s a lot of exposure for one tiny publishing house. Moreover, of those nine Castalia House nominations, one man—John C. Wright—got six of them this year, including three out of five of the nominations for Best Novella.
This is unprecedented. If, as the Sad Puppies claim, what they’re really doing is “taking back” science fiction from the liberal elitists and bringing the Hugos back to the masses… well, Beale and Wright must be the new face of science fiction.
So the real problem is not that it’s a white-male-dominated slate. It’s that it’s dominated by two particular white men—that apparently most of the books worth reading this year were written by John C. Wright and published by Theodore Beale. If the Hugo ballot is at all an accurate representation of what “the people” think then you’d think Beale and Wright would be household names.
And they kind of are. Just not in the way they’d prefer.
What can be said about Mr. Beale that hasn’t already been said? Under the name “Vox Day” he’s on pretty much every list there is of frightening hate-speech radicals on the Internet. He’s said that the Taliban’s shooting of Malala Yousafzai was “perfectly rational and scientifically justifiable.” He was the first SF author ever expelled from Science Fiction Writers of America for calling fellow SFWA member N.K. Jemisin, a black woman, a “half-savage” on the @SFWAauthors Twitter feed. He also declared that marital sex, by definition, could never be rape.
If you have the misfortune to spend as much time arguing on the Internet as I do, that’s how you know him. His fiction? The most exposure I remember him getting was for A Throne of Bones, a bold attempt to create a healthy Christian alternative to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire franchise.
Beale hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. I had to look it up to remember what his best-known book was called, and compared to everyone else I know in real life—including and especially the right-leaning SF fans—I’m obsessed with the guy.
And John C. Wright? The literary giant with the record-breaking year in Hugo nominations?
In 2002, John C. Wright’s The Golden Age came out, and like many other readers I thought he was someone to watch. I was actually a fan of his—even followed his LiveJournal and everything—because although The Golden Age was already too preachily right-wing for my comfort, I admired how he managed to pack so many cool ideas into his dense prose.
As time went on, the prose got denser, and so did the ideas.
Most people who’ve heard of Wright as someone other than “that guy who wrote The Golden Age” remember the 2009 massively viral unhinged rant (screenshot here) he posted on his LiveJournal in response to the CEO of the Syfy Network making a vague promise to try harder to include LGBT characters. Highlights include copious use of the term “homosex,” comparisons of gay relationships with bestiality and pederasty—you know, the works.
The eventual result was that, after epic takedowns from colleagues like Hal Duncan and getting way more mainstream attention for his views than his books, Wright apparently decided he had nothing to lose and started doubling down.
The next few years saw him pop up in Internet news for saying the “instinctive reaction” of all men is to beat gay couples to death with tire irons. He fantasized about punching Terry Pratchett in the face for advocating euthanasia, saying this constituted leading souls to hell, and compared Pratchett to Hitler. He complained that Marvel’s new Avengers comic doesn’t have any white guys and argued that Muslim Avenger Kamala Khan is like having a Nazi on the team. (Wright apparently fears only God’s law, not Godwin’s.) Most recently he threw a massive tantrum over two girls holding hands in The Legend of Korra, a popular animated television series, calling the creators “soulless sacks of filth” for advancing the gay agenda.
Well. That certainly sounds like a man who’s got his finger on the pulse of modern science fiction and fantasy fandom.
For the record, I was a Wright fan throughout his Golden Oecumene trilogy. I slogged through his Mists of Everness duology even though he repeatedly broke into the narrative to mention how we should’ve nuked Moscow during the Cold War and why we should’ve stayed on the gold standard. I gave up on his Orphans of Chaos after the gratuitous schoolgirl spanking scene (surely a sign that Mr. Wright is standing steadfast against the moral degradation of our culture).
I haven’t read any of the stuff Wright is nominated for in the 2015 Hugos. Since none of it is available in bookstores or libraries, as far as I know, but has to be ordered in ebook form from the aforementioned micro-publisher, I doubt most of the SF community has. (63 reviews on the Amazon Kindle store!)
But since, mathematically, the Hugo voting pool is small enough that it wouldn’t take more than 200 coordinated voters to dominate the nominations, that doesn’t really matter. The Sad Puppies say that John C. Wright and the ebooks he’s selling through Theodore Beale’s company represent the best the SF community has to offer in 2015. That’s Democracy at Work.
However, it’s pretty clear that the Sad Puppies aren’t about bringing a populist voice to the Hugo Awards, or even explicitly about bringing more political conservatives to the Hugo Awards. That may be the motivation of some people supporting them. If you’re not in the know, you might get swayed by that argument, because of the presence of genuinely well-known names like Dresden Files author Jim Butcher (who, as far as I know, has had no direct involvement in their campaign).
But it would seem the actual Sad Puppies slate is mostly about promoting Theodore Beale’s Castalia House and John C. Wright, his prized star writer.
So it’s not just right-wing reactionaries in general, it’s one particular right-wing clique—and in the face of the fact that their preferred ballot heaps tremendous honors on these two specific guys, the Sad Puppies’s insistence that they’re opposing left-wing cliquishness is laughable.
Worse, the original version of Sad Puppies understood this. Earlier this year, Larry Correia’s colleague Brad Torgersen—who, by the way, is the guy who claims his interracial family makes it an “ontological impossibility” for him to be racist—put up the original Sad Puppies voting slate. It at least tries to look more diverse, nominating only three Castalia House publications and two works by Wright, and not mentioning Beale by name at all, considering what bad PR he brought the last time they tried to do this.
But that scamp Theodore Beale went ahead and put out his own much more aggressive “Rabid Puppies” slate, which pushes him and Wright much harder. And, it turns out, Beale’s followers—who relish the idea of trolling the SF world by putting two perennial bêtes-noires in the spotlight—turned out in greater numbers than the “moderates” voting for Torgersen’s slate.
The actual Hugo ballot ended up more or less mirroring the Rabid Puppies slate. Essentially, the Rabid Puppies stole the Sad Puppies brand—as one friend of mine put it, Beale has been playing the attention-grabbing PR-sabotaging extremist Sarah Palin to Torgersen’s John McCain.
Of course, the original Sad Puppies continue to defend the legitimacy of their project. They say that the only possible objection to how the Hugos shook out this year is elitist liberal snobbery, and have doubled down on their insistence that criticism of their actions is anti-democratic.
But if anything, they’ve done tremendous damage to their own cause by proving that this kind of gaming the vote is most helpful to unscrupulous egotists with a loyal fan base who will hyper-focus their energies on getting Their Guy nominated. Theodore Beale didn’t just beat the “liberal elitists” at their own game—he beat Brad Torgersen and other Sad Puppy “moderates,” who are now claiming Beale’s victory as their own.
And because these ballot results are so unprecedented they’ve shown the falsity of their accusations that these awards were always being rigged by cliques of elitist fans. If they were, then how did they stop genuinely mainstream big names like Neil Gaiman—or influential “liberal elitist” bloggers like John Scalzi—from ever sweeping the nominations as decisively as John C. Wright?
Then again, maybe the guy who rants about gay relationships on TV serving the “filthy phallic idol of sodomy” and his easily-agitated editor—maybe these two guys’ fiction just really is that popular, and I’ve just had my head in the sand the whole time. Maybe the true voice of fandom has spoken and I’m just out of touch.
Or maybe, whatever nice words the “moderates” use for it, Sad Puppies, GamerGate, and other mob movements are tools of trolls and ultimately benefit only trolls.
Look into it. Judge for yourself. And then I encourage you to vote accordingly.