Sturgeon’s Law is known by pretty much everybody who loves science fiction (Strictly speaking, though, it’s Sturgeon’s Revelation or, as I prefer to think of it, Sturgeon’s Second Law of Things, since there’s another Sturgeon’s Law): 90% of everything is crap. “Everything” includes society. But unlike art, which is rather fixed, and a given piece of art is “crap” or “not-crap”, societies change. So we can hope to maybe be less crap as a society over time. Attempts to diminish the crap quotient (Cq) below the Sturgeon Threshold are always contentious.
On the heels of the Gamergate fiasco (summed up pretty well by Ryan Sohmer’s Least I Could Do), nerd culture had another big schism event in the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies Hugo Award dramathon. While drama isn’t really a good thing in its own right, I think having drama can be an important growth step. Society is a macrocosm composed of microcosms, so as each one has lurching steps towards treating people like people being its baseline, there’s gonna be people who struggle, and people who take things too far, on both sides of any given debate. As I’m pretty passionate about science fiction generally, I figured it was worth talking about (If my blog had been up and running during gamergate, I’m sure I would have had several rants about that. Not least of which is one decrying the use of the -gate suffix for all scandals).
I’ve been reading science fiction since I could read books with chapters. When I was a kid, I’d go to the Barnes & Noble once a month or so, and pick up a new book. I’d finish that in few days, and then reread some of the books in the library until I went back to Barnes & Noble and did it all over again. I remember that the books I wanted were upstairs; genre fiction didn’t get a lot of love from the B&N I went to back in the distant past of the early-to-mid-nineties.
I would always–always–look in the sci-fi/fantasy section first. I would always–always–be somewhat frustrated that the two were married. The unholy union of the sci-fi/fantasy “genre” has always bugged me. They’re two separate things, with two separate fandoms and different trends. There’s overlap, sure, but at the edges they’re very different. Don’t get me wrong, there’s fantasy I like. Neil Gaiman springs immediately to mind, and anyone who doesn’t like Terry Pratchett hates joy. Or British people. But to be honest, I discovered those a bit later in life. My experience with fantasy as a kid was limited to sword-and-sorcery stuff, and while there’s nothing wrong with The Once and Future King, Narnia was too preachy for me and Lord of the Rings would have been better as one book. There were so many oil-painting-covers of Chosen Ones holding swords that they all blurred together and I lost interest. Occasionally I’d pick one up (I really liked Through the Ice for a variety of reasons as a kid, though I fear it didn’t hold up as well when I reread it), but I was a sci-fi kid. With my thick glasses and my difficulty with hew-mon emotions, of course I was a sci-fi kid.We don’t go to the “romance/action” section, so why we go to the “fantasy/science fiction” section as though that’s legit has always ground my gears.
But I digress.
So I’d be at the store, and looking for sci-fi books. I loved Asimov’s short stories (That Susan Calvin, amirite?). I stole my older brother’s copy Do of Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (I gave it back and the copy I have now is mine, dammit). Science fiction was the section I always gravitated towards, is what I’m getting at. It’s almost exclusively what I read–not because I refuse to read anything else, but because when I’m looking for a new book, inevitably, it’s the science fiction (or sci-fi’s pretentious sibling, speculative fiction) that appeals to me.
And those lovely covers, with their critical-acclaim blurbs and turgid plot descriptions, were what sold me on the books. I’d look at the picture as though it had anything to do with the plot (it didn’t, but there were certain “vibes” of the art that were probably BS but which rarely steered me too wrong), I’d read the back cover, I’d think for entirely too long, and eventually I’d make my decision. If I found a new author that hooked me, I’d read all the books they had of him or her. This was pre-internet, or at least pre-real-internet, and certainly before the rise of ebooks. And as a kid with no patience, I certainly wasn’t going to order a book. What they had on the shelves was, as far as I was concerned, all the books there were.
Which, it might be worth noting, meant that it was almost exclusively white dudes with white dude protagonists. So as a kid, I read mostly white dude authors writing white dude protagonists. Not because I really really wanted to per se, but because options were limited, and Mom wants to go home soon, and I’ve been holding this three books and deciding between them for like an hour and could I just hurry up and pick one already?
What never really factored in to my decision, except possibly to help catch my eye initially as I scanned the shelves, was the awards it had won. Sure, I knew awards were good to win. Awards are always good to win. But awards didn’t hold much sway with me. I found Alfred Bester by way of “Redemolished” (I was always a sucker for short story collections), and The Demolished Man was my third Bester book. It was years before I knew that he’d won the very first Hugo (and even more years before I knew he wrote the Green Lantern Corps Oath, but that’s a side point). Now that I’m all growed-up, I occasionally look at awards lists to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy, but since it wasn’t a big deal for my formative years, it’s not really a big deal now. The only award that catches my eye on the cover of a book is the Philip K. Dick Award, and that’s just because it’s Philip K. Dick. I mean, if there were a Bruce Campbell award for Horror movies, I’d immediately be interested. Even a William Shatner Award for spoken-word-singing would at least pique my interest, just on principle. But generally speaking, awards don’t mean much to me. Much like the Academy awards–it’s interesting, it’s a slight bump in my “likelihood to buy”, but I don’t obsess about it.
In part, it’s because awards always reflect the tastes and biases of the people awarding them. Prestigious awards always have that whole “it’s just snobs rewarding pretentiousness” argument. That criticism is more valid for some prestigious awards than others, but there’s always a “culture” of the awards. Awards generally, at least in theory, rewards something more than just sales. They reward quality–quality as defined by what the electorate of the award thinks of as quality. Crash won an Oscar for Best Picture, and Crash is a terrible movie.
Which brings us to this year’s contentious Hugo Awards.
The Sad Puppies slate of nominations started in 2013 as an ostensibly pulps-vs-literati shill by Larry Correia to get himself nominated for a Hugo, and expanded yearly from there. I don’t begrudge him the shill. I intend to shill in any way I can myself (speaking of which, I’ll be making a post about my collection of short stories soon, and shortly thereafter will start talking about the novels I’m working on). Given recent developments, I object to his use of pugs, but that’s because neither Wubby The Wub nor Tank would condone what became of the Sad Puppies, and is a personal thing.
See, some folks have been stewing for some time, feeling as though the folks nominating and electing books for the Hugos were unfairly rewarding books that merely engaged in “box-checking“. As the Sad Puppies became a thing, the slate was chosen for books that weren’t that. Except, while I’ve read a lot of posts about how that’s what Hugo winners were doing, I have yet to see any specific charges. There’s a lot of handwavy “This isn’t what I want” complaints that don’t specify exactly how things have gone wrong in terms of quality of stories. That the subject matter is diverse is not supposed to matter, right? It’s supposed to be about how good the story is. If it’s not supposed to be a plus, I don’t see why it’s a negative, either.
The response to these non-specific “wrongs” is to “game” the system. The Puppies folks felt that the system was being “gamed” by the opposite side, so they decided that two wrongs do make a right after all, and decided to rig things for an entire slate on political grounds.
This is nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong, as far as I can tell, they haven’t broken any rules. But the spirit of the awards was not “game the nomination system with a slate of prearranged nominees for politics” as far as I can tell. Anybody doing that is a jerk, and I would argue that’s the case on both sides. Politics don’t determine quality. Without the political rhetoric, the Puppies wouldn’t be as popular, but they’d have a better leg to stand on in terms of their grievances and their opinions. As it stands, the politicization seems to my untrained eye far more overt and coordinated from the puppies than it does from their opposition, which is amusing given the context of the complaints.
And then there’s Vox
Vox Day is a terrible person. As I understand it, he’s also an author of fiction. Anyone whose opinion on books I respect who’s read his books has condemned them as bad, but I can’t opine myself. I know that, given his conduct on other sites in the past, if he ever hears I’ve criticized him, he’ll feel free to “deal with [me] in as harsh a manner as it takes to encourage [me] to knock it off, up to having [me] fired or dragged into a police station if necessary.” I suppose I’ll just have to hope I’m beneath his notice.
He decided to step in with a slate of his own: Rabid Puppies. The goal being, based on his post, “blowing up the Hugo Awards”.
There’s a particular irony in using the phrase “Rabid Puppies”. Rabid puppies will need to be put down. Rabies is a contagious and frankly awful disease. I get the rhetorical reasoning behind the use, especially from someone who revels in negativity, as Vox and the Dread Ilk seem to do. But it’s still a less than stellar branding choice, in my opinion. I generally wouldn’t want my name to be “I’m ill, dying, and going insane”, but to each their own.
Umm, what about the stories?
Now, I’ve focused on what seems to be the better-organized side in this little summation. There are responses, and response slates, from the “opposition” in this little culture police-action (I wouldn’t really call it a “war”). I believe the Puppy side believes that there were slates even before their own. Since prior to this kerfluffle, I didn’t care about the Hugos beyond maybe reading an article if I happened across it while internetting to see what the nominated list was, I can’t say I’m aware of it. Certainly their slates and actions clearly are driving the narrative here, are clearly the story being talked about. And, I would argue, I believe the transition to the type of fiction they’re bemoaning has been far more organic than they want to believe. But I could be wrong, and if there’s evidence of that I’d be happy to know what it is; history is interesting even if I’m not invested as a partisan.
As far as I’m concerned, everybody’s kind of an asshole here. Our (Cq) remains constant. In my opinion, such as it is, as a lowly consumer and wannabe author, is that these awards are supposed to be about the stories. Fundamentally, given that as a culture, we’ve had a default setting of “white dude” since the genre existed, I believe that diversity = new, and between two stories otherwise identical, one with a character I’ve seen an infinity of times since the 50s and one that I haven’t, I think that awards should tend towards the second. Not just “Because diversity!” in terms of “social justice”, but “Because diversity!” in terms of stories. If you want to only read one kind of story, without variation, why bother having awards every year? Why not just go “Welp, Bester did it best. We’ve got The Demolished Man, let’s close up shop”. Diversity of story is diversity of the parts of a story, too. I’d like to see more variety in my characters, because variety is good as a general rule.
But notice the important bit there: otherwise identical. Stories rarely are. In this case, there’s a lot of noise about whether the stories are “really good” or not, or if they’re just there for politics. I know I haven’t seen a good comparison of competing slates that says “Here’s why this is better than that.” I haven’t seen much by way of “Here’s why these things deserve this award” reviews. I’m sure they exist, but shouldn’t they be the focus? They sure as heck don’t seem to be.
Instead, it seems it’s not about the stories, it’s about the politics; it’s about the narrative of the awards rather than the narratives being awarded. And that’s stupid and sad, and negates the whole point of having these stupid awards in the first place. So congrats to everyone who broke a prestigious system that’s been around for over 60 years, I guess. Strong work.