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How conservatives took over sci-fi's most prestigious award

Science fiction's Hugo Awards have erupted in a controversy some see as the latest skirmish in a larger battle over nerd culture.
Science fiction's Hugo Awards have erupted in a controversy some see as the latest skirmish in a larger battle over nerd culture.
Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.com

"It is the rear-guard action of people who believe that just because other people are coming in with different views, different interests, and different concerns, and aren't willing to naturally accept the previous order of things, that all doom and terror and fire from the skies is happening," John Scalzi tells me.

We're talking about the most recent skirmish in a larger war, a war for the soul of nerd culture. This one involves the Hugo Awards, a literary award ceremony, but it's the latest iteration of a new battle that already feels ancient.

Scalzi is an award-winning, best-selling novelist, the author of enormously entertaining science fiction novels like Old Man's War and Redshirts. If you've read his popular blog, you'll know he's a passionate individual, and he seems incredibly frustrated by those in the science fiction and fantasy community who have launched this "rear-guard action."

Yet if you talk to the people on the other side — who have dubbed themselves the "Sad Puppies" — they will point to Scalzi as part of a larger problem within the community. Yeah, their rhetoric might be a little over the top, but they're the ones saving the industry from political correctness and the "literati."

These Sad Puppies are, depending on whom you ask, the saviors of the Hugo Awards from mediocre books, a bunch of bigots, or part of a cynically motivated awards grab.

Tell me what happened in 100 words or less

Science fiction's prestigious Hugo Awards are chosen by a fan vote at both the nominee and winner stages. However, the number of people who vote at the nominee stage is small enough that a concerted effort by a small group can have disproportionate payoff.

That's what happened with two groups purporting to support traditional space opera science fiction and politically conservative authors, who initially made up 72 percent of all nominees. Once this happened, many accused both slates of supporting racist, sexist sentiments. These voters say — accurately — that they followed the rules.

Who are the Sad Puppies?

The term Sad Puppies is used interchangeably to refer to a group of Hugo voters and a specific slate of works advanced by those awards. It's also often — inaccurately — been used to refer to a completely separate campaign. We'll get to the other campaign — the Rabid Puppies — in a moment.

Those involved in Sad Puppies will tell you their primary motives are, first and foremost, to celebrate science fiction works that return the genre to its space opera roots and, second, to celebrate works by politically conservative authors, whose views may sit outside the mainstream of the current community.

A story often pointed to as an example of why the Sad Puppies exist is Rachel Swirsky's Hugo-nominated "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love." It's a beautiful piece of writing, but the Puppies argue it's not science fiction enough. It's written in the conditional tense, but that doesn't equal a "speculative fiction" story, say the Puppies.

Brad Torgersen, a science fiction author and Hugo nominee who organized the Sad Puppies voting slate this year, says a tiny clique has taken over the Hugos.

"They don’t want the Hugos to be about 'popular' as much as they want the Hugos to be about 'important,' which is an entirely different mindset," Torgersen says of the science fiction publishing community at large. "Especially when you have the arrival [in the last 10 years] of social justice agitators who are demanding that books and stories now be recognized and anointed due to the fact the author [or the characters] meet a given set of minority demographics."

And if you saw that term "social justice agitators" and immediately pinged on Gamergate's sworn enemies — the social justice warriors — you're starting to see where this is all headed.

The Puppies point to an annual blog post Scalzi does asking professionals in the field to cite Hugo-worthy works as evidence of the hidden cabal running the Hugos.

The Puppies claim they're doing a version of this. They just take it one step further.

What's that next step?

The Puppies created a "voting slate" — meaning Torgersen compiled a list of titles to vote for from reader suggestions. The slate was essentially a way to completely fill one's nominating ballot with Puppies-approved nominees. In some ways, the Puppies are the equivalent of a political party — if you support our cause, this is how you will vote.

This proved wildly successful. The Sad Puppies recommended 60 nominees for the Hugos, and 51 of those were on the initial ballot. The Rabid Puppies recommended 67 nominees, with 58 on the initial ballot. (All data is via Mike Glyer's excellent fan publication File 770, which has top-notch coverage of the controversy, if you want a deep dive.)

Correia

Larry Correia's novel Monster Hunter Legion was the impetus for Sad Puppies. (Baen Books)

Several days later, the Hugos ruled one nominee from each slate ineligible, and three separate nominees have opted to withdraw their names from the ballots because of their connection to one of the two Puppy slates. (One of those nominees remains on the final ballot, because the complaint was registered too late.)

The two slates were so stunningly effective for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it's not so hard to game the Hugo list. In most categories, it's possible to land on the final list from less than 150 votes on the nominating ballot. The pool of voters — which is anyone who purchases a membership to the science fiction convention Worldcon — is so small at the nominating stage that essentially any coordinated effort stands a good chance at success.

The second reason is that the Puppies used politically radicalized language to promote themselves. If the Puppies had simply said, "Here are some things we liked; please vote for them," the campaign wouldn't have been as successful. By framing themselves as a force warring against political correctness, the Sad Puppies were able to attract attention from others expressing similar points within nerd culture.

This all sounds kinda academic. Why are people pissed off?

To be sure, there are people who are really mad about the very idea of voting slates at the Hugos (including George R. R. Martin, whose books formed the basis for Game of Thrones). And there are people who don't like the politically reactionary bent of much of the Puppies campaign.

But if you really want to get down to it, what people are upset about is the fact that the two Puppies slates nominated some people who have said some things that have proved hugely controversial — and that's putting it mildly.

The foremost beneficiary of the two Puppies slates is John C. Wright, who received six separate nominations for his work on the initial ballot. One of those nominations was eventually disqualified, as a version of the story had been published outside of the calendar year of 2014. But five nominations in one year is still huge.

It's also, according to some Puppies critics, not exactly a great endorsement of the slate's aims as a whole.

"If your argument is that there's a vibrant field of conservative (politically, stylistically, or both) SF being written that isn't being recognized by the Hugos, then the fact that fully one-third of the works of fiction you got onto the ballot are by the same person isn't a strong point in support of it," 2014 Hugo nominee Abigail Nussbaum told me.

But anger with Wright runs deeper than finding his popularity with the Puppies baffling. It, instead, stems from the fact that he has written several anti-gay posts in the last decade (most of which have been scrubbed from the internet), most recently calling a lesbian couple in the TV series The Legend of Korra a "sexual aberration."

The Puppies defend him as an unsung genius — and one whose work should be supported regardless of what you think of his political views.

Wright

John C. Wright's essay collection Transhuman and Subhuman is nominated for a Hugo. (Castalia House)

"Wright’s written some of the deepest, most philosophical and amazing science fiction of the new century. He is wholly able to stand with the greats in the field at this time. All Sad Puppies (and apparently Rabid Puppies) did was aim the spotlight in John’s direction," Torgersen told me.

Should Wright get a pass for his worst comments if his writing is good enough? As Scalzi points out, that's an inherently privileged position to take.

"I'm willing to forgive people a lot of their personal views that aren't related to their art. But then again, I'm a straight white guy," he told me. "If someone's sticking a middle finger in your face and saying, 'You don't exist,' then it's difficult to make an argument that you can treat their art without considering that factor."

The irony here is that the Sad Puppies made an effort to nominate women, people of color, and LGBT writers on their slate. This was the third Sad Puppies slate, and in assembling it the group seemed to at least nominally address former criticisms about its lack of diversity.

Said Kary English, one of the women on the 2015 Sad Puppies slate:

I said yes to Sad Puppies this year because I saw the seeds of change. I saw an organizer who wanted to broaden the slate. Sad Puppies includes greater political variety, more women, more people of color and more non-het writers than it ever has before, and I wanted to support that growth.

But the movement is still fundamentally about defining what science fiction is by excluding all who don't fit into a narrow template. Even without the accusations of bigotry, you're left with a belief that the only true sci-fi writers are those who craft pulpier stories, often involving space exploration.

Thus, the Sad Puppies have become essentially what they campaigned against — an organization that limits the definition of what genre fiction can be.

But that's not what people are really mad about.

"I will say that with the Sad Puppies, a number of the nominees are not overtly bigoted," Hugo-nominated novelist N. K. Jemisin told me. "My general sense is that the Sad Puppies effectively have become a front for the Rabid Puppies."

So what are the Rabid Puppies?

No figure drives more controversy in this year's Hugo nominee list than Vox Day, the lead editor of publisher Castalia House and a three-time Hugo nominee (with two of those nominations on this year's slate).

Rabid Puppies

The logo of the Rabid Puppies. (Vox Day)

Almost all of the criticisms of the Rabid Puppies come back to Day (the professional name of Theodore Beale). To call him a controversial figure is putting it mildly. He has, at various points, suggested women should not vote, called Jemisin half-savage, and been hugely involved in other reactionary movements, including Gamergate.

Day's response when I ask him if he understands why dislike of his views drives so much of the criticism of both Puppies slates is to say that he himself is politically open-minded, so he doesn't understand why others can't be, as well.

"Dismissing great writers because you don't like my beliefs or opinions is ludicrous. I have repeatedly asserted that China Miéville is one of the three best science fiction writers alive, and he's a Trotsky-Leninist who belongs to a revolutionary socialist organization. I'm a libertarian. So would you dismiss Miéville because I think he's a great SF writer despite his ideologically insane views?" he told me.

Kloos

Markos Kloos withdrew his novel Lines of Departure from Hugo consideration. (47North)

Initially, Day's Rabid Puppies campaign actually proved slightly more successful than Sad Puppies. Yet when Markos Kloos withdrew his nomination for Best Novel, he said explicitly that he was doing so because he didn't want to be associated with Rabid Puppies.

Both Torgersen and Day readily say neither campaign had anything to do with the other.

"Brad Torgersen made the calls this year for Sad Puppies 3, while Rabid Puppies was solely my call. The reason for the two separate lists of recommendations is because I was falsely accused of having gamed the system last year," Day told me. (Sad Puppies founder Larry Correia placed Day on the Sad Puppies 2 slate in 2014.)

For the most part, people who are mad at the Sad Puppies on grounds of overt racism or sexism are mad at the Rabid Puppies.

Are there more cynical reads of this situation than even that?

Sure. You could read this as an elaborate career move.

Day's publishing house, Castalia House, received nine total Hugo nominations, in addition to the two Day received for editing. This is the foremost piece of evidence for the Puppies slates as cynical awards grabs.

"Many of their supporters totally believe they’re part of a sincere crusade to purge SF of evil liberalism and stick it to the 'SJWs' [social justice warriors], but as [Guardian writer Damien Walter] observed, that only makes them useful tools for the organizers’ actual agendas," Hugo-winning editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden told me.

Wait, wait, wait. I just realized. Why do they call themselves "Sad Puppies"?

It all stems from Correia's 2013 campaign for Best Novel at the Hugos, for the book Monster Hunter Legion. In the second post of this campaign, he composed a spoof of the ASPCA ad campaign that features sad Sarah McLachlan music over footage of animals in shelters. In Correia's version, he was the sad puppy — the pulp writer who would never receive recognition unless you did your best and voted for him.

Do the Sad Puppies have a legitimate beef with the Hugos?

Not really.

In recent years, the Hugos have definitely taken a turn away from traditional pulp sci-fi toward more literary works. But science fiction has always had pulp and literary writers, and the latter crowd has traditionally been more successful at award ceremonies — just as it has with the Pulitzers or National Book Awards, where Philip Roth is more likely to win than Stephen King.

The Puppies' claim here also ignores that the science-fiction community has traditionally backed all sorts of authors, of all sorts of political stripes.

"What’s actually notable about the SF subculture is its heterodoxy, expressed by things like the Libertarian Futurist Society sometimes giving their Prometheus Award to the Scottish socialist SF writer Ken MacLeod, or MacLeod himself talking about the importance to him of right/libertarian writers like Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson. Robust conservative voices have always been part of the SF&F conversation," Nielsen Hayden told me.

Scalzi

John Scalzi's Redshirts is a recent Hugo winner that has irritated the Puppies slates. (Tor Books)

The Puppies also insist there's an unstated secret cabal running things behind the scenes of the Hugos, and that the only way to fight it is to push back against it.

Said Torgersen again: "Sad Puppies was necessary because everywhere I went in the field (as a young professional) I heard the same gripes: that the same predictable names always popped up in the same categories, that other names were always left out in the cold, or in the Hugo Awards blind spots, and that the way to win a Hugo was not to write a fantastic story or book, it was to buddy up with and schmooze the right people."

Do the same names pop up from time to time? Yes, but not as much as, say, Meryl Streep seems to have a default Oscar nomination every new year. The Hugos frequently work in new blood, right alongside fan favorites like Scalzi or Martin.

As author Eric Flint points out, the science fiction world is so much larger and so different from the one that gave birth to the Hugos in 1953. Is it any wonder voters gravitate toward familiar names?

"It's not about conservatives or particular genres in award ceremonies. It's about being angry at people they don't like, getting awards that they don't believe they deserve, for whatever reason. It really boils down to that," Scalzi told me.

What has the fallout been?

The mildest fallout has been the two disqualifications. Jon Eno, a Sad Puppies nominee for fan artist, had not produced any work in 2014. (Torgersen addresses this here.) One of Wright's nominations from the Rabid Puppies' slate was determined to be too heavily based on a story he wrote in 2013. (Day addresses this here.)

However, there have also been three separate nominees — Kloos, Short Story nominee Annie Bellett, and fan publication Black Gate — who requested their work be removed from the ballot. Black Gate submitted its request for withdrawal too late to be pulled from the Hugos' ballot.

Writes Bellett:

I am withdrawing because this has become about something very different than great science fiction. I find my story, and by extension myself, stuck in a game of political dodge ball, where I’m both a conscripted player and also a ball. (Wrap your head around that analogy, if you can, ha!) All joy that might have come from this nomination has been co-opted, ruined, or sapped away. This is not about celebrating good writing anymore, and I don’t want to be a part of what it has become.

I am not a ball. I do not want to be a player. This is not what my writing is about. This is not why I write. I believe in a compassionate, diverse, and inclusive world. I try to write my own take on human experiences and relationships, and present my fiction as entertainingly and honestly as I can.

Finally, acclaimed author Connie Willis declined to participate in this year's Hugos ceremony.

Addressing Torgersen, Day, and Correa, she said:

You may have been able to cheat your way onto the ballot. (And don’t talk to me about how this isn’t against the rules–doing anything except nominating the works you personally liked best is cheating in my book.) You may even be able to bully and intimidate people into voting for you. But you can’t make me hand you the Hugo and say "Congratulations," just as if you’d actually won it. And you can’t make me appear onstage and tell jokes and act like this year’s Hugo ceremony is business as usual and what you’ve done is okay. I’m not going to help you get away with this. I love the Hugo Awards too much.

Can the Hugos do anything?

No.

Everything both Puppies slates did was perfectly legal according to the rules of the Hugos. Nobody disputes that, and when I contact the Hugo marketing committee, I'm told by Kevin Standlee, a member of that committee, that the nominations process is "susceptible to passionate minorities."

However, the process of voting for the winners is different. It's conducted via instant-runoff voting, off a preferential ballot, and all voters are allowed to rank "No Award" above any of the nominees. (If "No Award" wins, then no award is given.)

Both efforts tend to undercut said passionate minorities. Thus, even in the categories where the two Puppies slates received all five nominations, it's possible all five will lose.

At the nominations stage, there's little the Hugos can do, short of finding more voters.

"The number of nominators has been increasing steadily and consistently — but it's still not enough. Something like 15,000 people were eligible to nominate this year, and only 2,200 did," Nussbaum told me.

So what's this really all about, anyway?

As with so many things in nerd culture right now, it's about the idea of who gets to be part of the community and who's on the outside, looking in.

In the years leading up to the rise of the Puppies slates, the Hugos increasingly went to books written by women and people of color, or to books that featured main characters who didn't fit the usual straight white male paradigm. Thus, the rise of the Puppies campaigns has been read by many as virulently sexist and racist.

Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy is one of the best fantasy series of recent years. (Orbit)

But what's happening here is very similar to Gamergate — a place that used to be a small, safe space for a group of people who have often themselves felt like outsiders is opening up, more and more, to people from outside the typical community. It is no longer safe to automatically assume the average sci-fi fan — or protagonist — is a straight white guy.

While many see that as a sign of progress, others feel like they're being criticized for liking all those stories featuring white men at their center and, thus, feel demonized. Nerd culture has traditionally been a place for people who felt picked on to band together. Yet diverse voices entering this sphere increasingly want to have oppression completely separate from geeky pursuits acknowledged. It requires a genuine shift in how those in nerd culture perceive themselves, one that isn't always easily made.

But as Jemisin points out to me, the overwhelming white maleness of science fiction was artificially created. The influential early science fiction editor John W. Campbell, for instance, rejected stories written by or featuring women or people of color, believing his audience wouldn't like them.

"There's a sense out there that the artificially created monochrome all-male stuff that we used to see was the way the genre was supposed to be," Jemisin tells me. "What we're seeing lately is what is actually more natural. ... I don't think that it is possible to go back."

Correction: This post initially said I contacted the Hugos' "board of directors." In fact, the awards don't have such a centralized body. The post has been updated to reflect this.