The Hugo Puppies affair proceeds apace. As it will for at least the rest of this year, and probably the next as well. Everyone is having their say, and some excellent things have been written about the whole matter lately. I’ll get to those in a moment.
The Internet Breaks the Hugos
Whether you’re for the Puppies or against them, there can’t be any argument that the Hugo nomination and voting process is badly broken. The interesting thing is that the process hasn’t changed appreciably for years or even decades. It didn’t just break on its own. No, the same thing happened to it that happened to so many other processes and industries that had long been taken for granted. The Internet happened.
The music industry. Movies. Television. Books. Newspapers. All of these institutions have found the solid bedrock foundation on which they built their business crumble to shifting sand as the Internet gave people ways of either getting their stuff without paying for it, or getting the same stuff legitimately but more cheaply. The Internet has been a great democratizer, and that hasn’t worked so well for institutions that relied on a top-down distribution model.
But the Internet hasn’t had to affect institutions directly to cause these problems. Sometimes all it takes is connecting people together outside of those institutions. The entire point of the Cluetrain Manifesto was to warn corporations that consumers now had the power to talk to each other the world over about those corporations’ products, and if the corporations didn’t take note and engage in a two-way dialogue, they were going to be roadkill on the Information Superhighway. When Cluetrain was first published, in 1999, this was a pretty bold statement. In the years since, it’s become recognized as a fact of life, not just for corporations but for everyone.
So, here we have the Hugo Awards, adapting their voting process to the Internet by making it possible for associate members to enter ballots by web instead of just mailing them in as before, without taking into account that the Internet makes it possible to organize concerted campaigns by letting people post communications to everyone else on the Internet. Something like this was inevitable. Perhaps the only thing to be surprised about is that it didn’t happen sooner. (And, given that this is the third year in a row there has been Puppy activity, and it takes two years to implement Hugo rule changes, perhaps the Worldcon folks should have started considering this problem a little earlier, before it became the full-blown crisis that it is this year.)
And this could be only the beginning. When I was chatting with SF and romance novelist Mercedes Lackey the other day, she made this prediction:
I cannot WAIT until someone lets the Romance Writers know about this, and how to get a book on the Hugo ballot.
Romance readers outnumber SF readers by about 100 to one, and a very high percentage of them would be gleeful to only pay $40 to get one of their beloved writers an award.
Romance writers are extremely savvy women about energizing their fan bases. They were using social media for that long before SF writers started.
I want to see their faces when Diane Gabaldon takes the Hugo in 2016.
Are the Hugos out of Touch?
By now we’re all familiar with the Puppies’ contention that the Hugos no longer reflect the popular reading tastes of the general public. But did you know the Puppies may have at least part of a point? No less a personage than Eric Flint has spoken out to say that the Hugos are somewhat out of touch after all—but not for the reasons the Puppies think, and they’re going about trying to “fix” it the wrong way. The far-far-left Flint would seem like the last person one would expect to agree with the Puppies on anything, but he makes a pretty good case.
Flint is so long-winded in his explanation that it’s hard to find bits to quote, but the fundamental causes he lays at the feet of Hugos’ disconnection are threefold: First, there’s simply too much stuff being written these days for people to read more than a small fraction of the potential output while it’s still eligible for nomination. Second, the categories the Hugo covers (novel, novella, novelette, short story) no longer reflect the ways in which fiction is actually published. Third, the tastes of the people who care enough about these awards to bother to take part in them have diverged over time from those of the average person.
What’s involved here is essentially a literary analog to genetic drift. Biologists have long known that the role played by pure chance in evolution is greater in a small population than a larger one. The same thing happens in the arts, especially those arts which have a huge mass audience. The attitudes of the much smaller group or groups of in-crowds who hand out awards or do critical reviews are mostly influenced by other members of their in-crowd, not by the tastes of the mass audience. Over time, just by happenstance if nothing else, their views start drifting apart from those of the mass audience.
What the mass audience wants, first and foremost—and this has been true and invariant since the Sumerians and the epic of Gilgamesh—is a good story. Period.
“Tell me a good story.” Thazzit.
But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”
Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status. And what withers away, at least to some degree, is a good sense of what skills are involved in forging a story in the first place.
Flint also thinks that limiting the awards to one particular item per specific year leads to a lot of excellent works failing to be considered—both because there’s not room for them all to be nominated, and because many people may not even get around to reading something until years after it was published.
Flint’s proposed fix is expanding the categories to account for more types of fiction than are currently covered, or even scrapping the current system of annually-delimited awards outright in favor of more overall-in-field recognition. But he admits that institutional inertia makes it unlikely such a thing will ever happen.
Understanding Vox Day
It’s also worth noting that laying all this disruption at the feet of the Sad Puppies campaign might actually be a mistake. If you dig through the statistics, you’ll find something interesting: the Rabid Puppies campaign by Vox Day (aka Theodore Beale), whose slate had significant but not total overlap with Sad Puppies, actually did better in the nominations than Sad Puppies. When the two slates conflicted, the Rabid choices won out. Ten works that were on Rabid but not Sad made it into the final ballot, while only three works that were on Sad but not Rabid did (and they generally did so only because Rabid didn’t nominate a full slate in those categories). It’s possible that if no one had submitted a Sad Puppies nominating ballot at all, the end results would have still been largely similar.
The thing is, a lot of people don’t seem to know a lot about Beale beyond the fact that he was kicked out of the SFWA for using its official Twitter feed to disseminate a blog post in which he called author N.K. Jemisin a “half-savage.” Beale’s defenders have tried to insist that his words (and those of multiply-nominated author John C. Wright, whose work Beale publishes) are taken out of context, but lately (and to John Scalzi’s amusement) Sad Puppies leaders Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen have tried to distance themselves from him. (A bit too late, given that he’s already gotten what he wanted out of them, but better late than never I suppose.)
Here’s a great opportunity to remedy that lack of knowledge. Writer Philip Sandifer has written an epic analysis of Beale and Wright’s political and religious position and how it informs the stories they’ve written and nominated for Hugos. I think that this should be required reading for anyone who wants to take part in the the discussion, whichever side you’re on. I hope I remember this piece when next year comes around, because I feel it should earn Sandifer a place on the 2016 Hugo ballot for Best Fan Writer. It’s extremely long, but well worth reading.
But for all that Beale casts himself as the self-appointed end of history and the prophetic voice in the wilderness that will cast out the unbelievers, his holy mission is not about saving civilization from the forces of barbarism. It’s actually about ethics in science fiction awards. This is, to my mind, the amazing thing about Theodore Beale. It is not just that he is a frothing fascist, but that he believes that the best possible thing he can do with his magical genetic access to Divine Truth is to try to disrupt the Hugo Awards.
You will forgive me, dear readers, if I opt for a different god than him.
What Would Heinlein Think of the Puppies?
Finally, let’s consider one of the deities the Puppies claim to idolize: Robert Heinlein, who wrote a lot of terrific pulpy action adventure back in the day. One of the Puppies’ major goals is to get more of that kind of stuff and less preachy message fiction in the Hugos, after all.
Except…the Puppies are kind of forgetting something. Heinlein was no stranger to “preachy message fiction” himself. In fact, he had some pretty harsh words for critics who wanted all adventure and no message:
He will permit any speculation at all — as long as it is about gadgets only and doesn’t touch people. He doesn’t care what mayhem you commit on physics, astronomy, or chemistry with your gadgets… but the people must be the same plain old wonderful jerks that live in his Home Town. Give him a good ole adventure story any time, with lots of Gee-Whiz in it and space ships blasting off and maybe the Good Guys (in white space ships) chasing the Bad Guys (in black space ships) but, brother, don’t you say anything about the Methodist Church, or the Flag, or incest, or homosexuality, or teleology, or theology, or the sacredness of marriage, or anything philosophical! Because you are just an entertainer, see? That sort of Heavy Thinking is reserved for C. P. Snow or Graham Greene. You are a pulp writer, Bud, and you will always be a pulp writer even though your trivia is now bound in boards and sells for just as much as Grace Metalious’ stories… and you are not permitted to have Heavy Thoughts. Space Ships and Heavy Thinking do not mix — so shut up and sit down!
The rule is: Science Fiction by its nature must be trivial.
This of course rules out… a large fraction of my work — and all my future work, I think.
It’s like he’s speaking directly to the Sad Puppies from beyond the grave, isn’t it?