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The Hugo Awards just made history, and defied alt-right extremists in the process

N.K. Jemisin’s third consecutive win in the Hugo Awards repudiates extremist voters who’ve spent years trying to keep her from winning.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The first-ever threepeat of the Hugo Awards — the prestigious, long-running fantasy awards handed out annually at WorldCon — just issued a giant rejection of right-wing gatekeeping in the struggle to diversify the world of science fiction and fantasy writing.

N.K. Jemisin’s groundbreaking fantasy series the Broken Earth trilogy has won critical acclaim, been optioned for development as a TV series, and received numerous accolades from the sci-fi and fantasy community. And on August 19, it achieved yet another milestone when Jemisin became the first author in the Hugos’ 65-year history to win back-to-back awards for every book in a trilogy. Jemisin won the award for Best Novel three years in a row, starting with The Fifth Season in 2016, The Obelisk Gate in 2017, and now The Stone Sky in 2018.

In an acceptance speech that’s being hailed as one of the best ever made at the Hugos, Jemisin defiantly raised a “rocket-shaped finger” (a reference to the rocket-ship design of the massive Hugo statue) to the racist rhetoric that positions the recognition of her work as being about identity politics rather than her own talent.

“It’s been a hard year, hasn’t it,” she began. “A hard few years, a hard century. For some of us, things have always been hard. I wrote the Broken Earth trilogy to speak to that struggle, and what it takes to live, let alone thrive, in a world that seems determined to break you — a world of people who constantly question your competence, your relevance, your very existence.”

Jemisin knows all too well of what she speaks. Her Hugo threepeat isn’t just a win for her writing and for fans of her work — it’s a decisive statement made by the community in response to ongoing efforts to silence writers like Jemisin.

The Hugos are voted on by WorldCon members rather than by committee, and thus they’re generally seen as a barometer of changing trends and evolving conversations within sci-fi/fantasy (SFF) culture. By voting for Jemisin’s trilogy three years running, the speculative fiction community has effectively repudiated a years-long campaign, mounted by an alt-right subculture within its midst, to combat the recent rise to prominence of women and other marginalized voices in the SFF space.

Jemisin’s Hugo threepeat is part of a years-long push for diversity in fantasy and science fiction

To understand how we got here, we need to travel back in time to 2009, when a yearlong series of conversations within the SFF community, known as Racefail, created a broader understanding of white colonialism’s overwhelming dominance within sci-fi/fantasy narratives. Occurring mainly online, but continued offline throughout various conventions (and arguably still ongoing today), the conversations around Racefail resulted in an emerging awareness of the need to not only embrace the writing of women and people of color, but also to make the community a safer space for all writers.

Jemisin’s debut novel, A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was published the following year in 2010. Jemisin credited Racefail and “the increased awareness of the SFF zeitgeist re race issues” both for her book’s enthusiastic reception, and for making her feel more comfortable as a minority voice within the community.

Ever since Racefail, the push to diversify the speculative fiction genre has been loud and growing. Specific diversity initiatives within the community have led to everything from the anthology magazine series Destroy Science Fiction to the rise of new publishers expressly dedicated to diversity, like the popular publishing branch of the Book Smugglers blog.

This trend toward progressive narratives and diverse representation isn’t exclusive to SFF culture, of course; in conjunction with the rise of progressive voices on social media, geek communities including sci-fi, comics, and gaming have seen broad pushes over the last decade to end gatekeeping and be more welcoming to fans and creators of all kinds.

But as we’ve also seen, these pushes for social change have led to backlash tinged with racism and misogyny — most notably through Gamergate, the unfortunate 2014 movement that essentially underpinned the rise of the alt-right, codified harassment campaigns against women and people of color for years, and helped give rise to the ideological polarization of the internet.

And within the world of SFF specifically, this backlash amplified two disruptive subgroups who’ve been attempting to game the Hugo Awards for years.

Since Gamergate, an alt-right contingent of the SFF community has been trying to elbow progressive writers out of the Hugos

Diversifying the pool of established SFF authors hasn’t been smooth sailing. In 2013, a writer named Theodore Beale, a.k.a. “Vox Day,” was banned from the professional Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) after making posts referring to Jemisin as a “half-savage.” That same year, a writer named Larry Correia made a blog post in which he complained that his “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic” wasn’t getting any Hugo nominations, and suggested that his audience game the awards by nominating him en masse.

Also in 2013, ongoing controversy broke out over what was widely perceived within the community to be repeated instances of sexism from the official magazine of the SFWA. The controversy led to the resignation of an SFWA editor, and was quickly followed in early 2014 by complaints from men in the community who weren’t happy with the changing cultural standards — in essence, less pandering to the straight male gaze, and more politically oriented fiction — due to the sudden rise to prominence of women and marginalized writers around them.

In one such thread of complaints under the topic heading “Culture Wars,” a publishing professional named Sean Fodera stated, “I think there’s a battle worth fighting.”

Fodera’s words would go on to be prophetic. Emboldened by Gamergate’s methods, the disgruntled Correia created a set of disruptive collectives known as the “Sad Puppies,” who began fomenting discord within the SFF community in 2015. They were quickly joined by the even more extremist “Rabid Puppies,” led by Vox Day, who has become an acknowledged figure within the alt-right movement since his SFWA banning.

Their targets? The Hugos.

The Hugo awards are voted on by WorldCon members, and anyone can become a WorldCon member, which effectively makes Hugos voting crowdsourced. This meant that the Puppy contingent saw the Hugos as capable of being gamed — and they were right.

Beginning in 2015, both the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies mounted regressive “traditional” voting blocs among Hugo members. The idea was to unite conservative voters in voting for single Puppy-approved authors, against the profusion of diverse names on the expanded Hugo nominees lists. The first year they attempted the voting bloc, the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies nominated a combined total of 127 nominees, and landed 107 of them on the initial Hugo ballot. The blocs got a boost from being supported by the conservative news site Breitbart, which praised the Puppy movement — sometimes referred to as Puppygate — as a blow against “political correctness.”

For the most part, the Puppies have only galvanized SFF culture’s progressive shift

In part, the voting blocs were created out of a sincere wish to honor good writers who were perceived as being conservative-leaning, and who were seen by the Puppies as being in danger of losing deserved critical acclaim due to the push to diversify the awards.

But, paradoxically, they were also created in part to make the Hugo awards look like a joke.

As part of this latter goal, in 2016 the Rabid Puppies successfully nominated erotic fantasy author Chuck Tingle to its voting bloc of recommended authors for his short novella Space Raptor Butt Invasion. The joke, if you can’t tell from the title, is that Tingle’s work is notoriously mystifying, verging somewhere between absurdist surrealism and stream-of-consciousness badfic; it’s anthropomorphic porn as if written by someone with disjointed, half-formed thoughts and limited powers of expression.

The joke backfired, however, when Tingle turned out to be completely savvy in gaming the Puppies right back: he made a website celebrating his Hugo nomination by directing audiences to several of the women writers the Puppies intended to take down, and even joined forces with Gamergate enemy No. 1, game developer Zoe Quinn, who agreed to accept the award on his behalf if he won.

Tingle didn’t win, but his approach to sabotaging the Puppies’ game has proved to be the main method of combating the Puppies over the last four years. The harder they pushed to nominate “traditional” writers, the more the community responded by supporting minority voices. At times, this has even included authors the Puppies attempted to boost: Multiple writers, horrified at being lauded by the Puppies, chose to withdraw their names from nomination in response. In 2015, in response to some categories where the Puppies had managed to commandeer every nominee, Hugo voters by overwhelming majority simply selected “No Award” instead.

In succeeding years, the Puppies continued to generate bad press, but they gained even less traction over the awards themselves. This year, the most prominent awards all went to women. And Jemisin, the same author subjected to racist mudslinging by Rabid Puppy leader Vox Day, took the prize for Best Novel every year she came up for eligibility during the Puppies’ period of agitation.

“I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the zeitgeist,” Jemisin said in her acceptance speech. “We creators are the engineers of possibility. And as this genre finally, however grudgingly, acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalized matter and that all of us have a future, so will go the world. (Soon, I hope.)”

For now, at least, it appears that the SFF world has firmly positioned itself on the side of the marginalized, and against a vocal minority attempting to silence them — and their much-needed visions for the future of science fiction and fantasy.