How Bigots Invaded the Hugo Awards

If you’ve heard the rumblings about the Hugo nominations, perhaps you just shrugged your shoulders and said “what’s a Hugo again?” Even if you know that the Hugo Award is one of the two most coveted science fiction and fantasy literary prizes (the other being the Nebula), you still might assume the controversy is a nerdy Alien Vs. Predator situation in which picking a side feels like rooting for an arbitrary monster. But that’s not the case here. What has happened is simple: an angry mob has exploited a loophole in how nominations occur in order to crash a party that they seemingly detest anyway. The gaming of the Hugo Awards Ballot wasn’t executed for frivolous reasons: it was organized by racist, homophobic people who want science fiction to be going backwards instead of looking toward the future.

Was the airlock left open for certain creatures to enter the starship of the Hugo Awards? Yes. On both the Hugo website and the site for the current World Con (SasquanCon) you’ll notice that to become a voting member requires about $40 dollars. Even the Hugo Awards site itself says specifically “voting is easy.” If you have the 40 bucks and you don’t care about not attending the ceremony itself, you can vote. In the past, this hasn’t really resulted in what most would consider overt gaming-of-the-system, but the ability is clearly there.

So, what happened this year? Here it is briefly: a campaign started by largely politically conservative science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts got together and decided they’d had enough of alleged liberal bias in the Hugo Awards. This movement is known as “Sad Puppies,” and sometimes as “Rabid Puppies” in an attempt to mock people (liberals? I guess?) who are (one has to assume) affected by the woes of small animals. If you’ve ever listened to Rush Limbaugh, you can imagine how clever these folks think these code-words/monikers are.

The Sad Puppies campaign began two years ago, organized by two writers named Larry Corriea and Brad R. Torgersen in an effort to de-throne what they perceive as a “social justice warrior” strangle-hold on the science fiction and fantasy publishing awards. Torgersen, for example, lambasted the Hugos as turning into “an affirmative action award” that was given out “because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.” In previous years, their attempt to get “their” authors on the ballot has been less than successful. However, his year’s efforts were overwhelming successful, in part because an even more reactionary splinter ballot put forward by Vox Day. In the Best Novel Category 3 of the 5 nominees were on their ballots, while in the Best Novella, Best Novellete, and Best Short Story Categories 100% of the nominees were Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies. Overall, 61 of the nominees were from one of the two Puppies slates and a mere 24 nominees were on neither.

Now, in fairness, the “liberal elite” that the Sad/Rabid Puppies claim to be fighting against, such as John Scalzi, have encouraged members to vote for titles or to vote to increase diversity in nominations before. From a third-grade notion of “fairness” it could be easy to argue these conservative folks have done the same thing, simply flipped the tables on the liberal masters of science fiction and fantasy. However, the supposed liberal faction has never put forward a single slate that won anything like 61 nominations.

While Larry Corriea and Brad R. Torgersen have gotten a lot of the credit in the press, the real power behind this year’s Hugo nominations is someone else: Theodore Beale. Beale goes by the pseudonym of Vox Day, and is conveniently the lead editor of Castalia House — a new press that landed 9 nominations plus two more for Vox Day as editor. Castalia House publishes a writer named John C. Wright, who, if you didn’t know any better, you might think has suddenly become the greatest science fiction writer in the world, literally overnight. Wright, famous for his homophobic rants, garnered an amazing six Hugo nominations thanks to the Sad and Rabid Puppies ballot stuffing scheme of the Hugos.

Beale himself is a self-described “fundamentalist” who’s gotten into numerous tussles with writers like John Scalzi, and actually managed to get himself kicked out of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for calling the great black writer N.K. Jemisin a “half-savage” among other offenses. As you can guess, and as Jemisin has pointed out, Beale is unapologetically racist.

Now, as someone who has attended a number of SFWA events and occasionally feels like an outsider for my own odd reasons, I will say you have to be some kind of monster to get yourself kicked out of this organization of largely sweet, supportive, and yes, politically diverse group of people. Vox Day/Theodore Beale thinks women can’t go to college or rather, can’t deal with science when they do. He thinks people like Darwin are awful. He once intentionally misinterpreted a satirical letter John Scalzi wrote decrying rape culture and attempted to paint John Scalzi as a rapist.

So, because Larry Corriea and Brad R. Torgersen believed their politics were being excluded from the Hugos they created their latest “ballot” of their “Sad Puppies.” With the help — sought after or not — of Vox Day, they essentially got enough votes to get all of their nominees nominated for awards in numerous categories. I’m not saying Corriea and Torgesen or even Wright are reactionary hate-speech folks like Beale, but his influence helped them win.

So, the Sad/Rabid Puppies have indicated how purely democratic the Hugo Awards actually are, but they also revealed their smallness. Weirdly, these people claim to be championing books and other writing which are more “popular” than the liberal books they excluded. But this “suppressed popularity” just isn’t real. As Jason Sanford points out, novels like The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu and Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer sold better than most of the novels on the Sad/Rabid Puppies slate.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with Scalzi’s tactics and there’s nothing wrong with the tactics of the Sad/Rabid Puppies. Like Scalzi, they’re “just” exploiting a system that’s easy to exploit to get writing on a ballot that they think is worthwhile. But this is not the loyal opposition. These are people using somewhat legitimate tactics to perpetrate a racist and intolerant point of view. Or at the very least, using a racist and intolerant publisher (Beale) to wield power to get their moment in the sun. Just because you play by the “rules” doesn’t mean you’re being remotely fair or kind.

So what next? There are a lot of cries now to open up the voting procedures even more, while other people I’ve talked to feel like making into more of a closed club house is actually the only solution. In any case, while the Hugos assumed everybody would play fair, and perhaps had too loose of a policy, we cannot put the blame on the burgled for leaving their door unlocked.

But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is that there are groups of people motivated in opposition to progress. Last year’s Hugo Nominations were among some the most diverse ever. This year, in the categories untouched by the Sad Puppies, like Graphic Novel, we see the excellent G.Willow Wilson being nominated for her Ms. Marvel “No Normal” series; a storyline about a Muslim teenage superhero, which is certainly something that Beale/Vox Day would likely be opposed to. The Sad Puppies also were only able to influence the best novel category to a point; acclaimed books like Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Sword still made it on. But how are these people supposed to feel about this? Would you even want to show up to the awards?

There’s an old Ali G. sketch in which “Ali G.” interviews Noam Chomsky and ignorantly asks him what would happen if he “invented his own language.” After muttering hilarious nonsense words at Chomsky, the noted linguist says to Ali G. that “no one will pay attention to you if you behave this way.” Which is what the response should be to the Sad Puppies. If people choose to vote in the Hugos this year in the categories they approve of or just simply cast “no award” for all the categories isn’t really that much of an issue, to me. Because what this group of spiteful people have done is demonstrated that we should do nothing except not pay attention to them. At all. If they believe the Hugos or any other organization is trying to exclude them they are, or at least should be, correct. Because these are the people who — by their own admission — are asking science fiction to look backward and not forward.

The Sad and Rabid Puppies might think they have “won,” but their coup isn’t all that relevant. This rude ballot stuff from bigots isn’t a revolution, but instead the last cries of political dinosaurs flopping over. The Nebulas and other awards will solider on with more progressive science fiction and fantasy, and the Hugos may yet survive this. The future is still coming, no matter how loud these angry (or sad) dinosaurs cry.

Update 4/11:

*Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies are different slates. The article talks about both at the same time because there are clear connections. However, it should be re-emphasized the movements are separate.

*It has been pointed out to me that it has been well documented that the Rabid Puppies reached out to GamerGate specifically for advice and assistance. GamerGate supporters have been known to threaten women with rape and death. (Though some members claim those threats are satire.) Presumably, not all Rabid Puppies are like GamerGate supporters and not all Sad Puppies support either. Still, a clear connection between GamerGate and the Rabid Puppies exists.

*Vox Day/Theodore Beale was kicked out of SFWA for specifically calling N.K. Jemisin a “half savage” on the SWFA Twitter feed.

*This article did not intend to suggest everyone who supports the Sad Puppies or Rabid Puppies are bigoted individuals. Instead, that connections to bigoted practices and ideals seem to exist.

*The article did not intended to suggest that the author believes John Scalzi’s suggested Hugo nominations in past years were actually equivalent with the Sad and Rabid Puppies slates. Simply that it could be argued that the methodology was similar. It is my opinion, however, that Scalzi’s suggested nominations were not born out of political/ideological desires, while both the Sad and Rabid Puppies are specifically and overtly political.

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