Sad puppies, rabid chauvinists: will raging white guys succeed in hijacking sci-fi’s biggest awards?

More and more women have been nominated for Hugo Awards in recent years—until this year. Here’s what’s at stake.

Miles Schneiderman
21 August 2015
 Wikimedia Commons.

Pulp science fiction cover from 1957. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Orson Scott Card is one of my all-time favorite science fiction authors. As a kid, I was enthralled by the Alvin Maker series and devoured Ender’s Game in a single day. I still consider Speaker for the Dead to be one of the greatest stories ever written, and it’s a source of continual inspiration to me, both as a writer and as a human being. In 1987 that book quite deservedly won a Hugo Award, one of the most prestigious honors an author can achieve in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Card has been nominated for the Hugo seven times and won it on four occasions.

The best and most lauded speculative fiction has always been about real issues

Orson Scott Card is also a devout Mormon (a direct descendant of Brigham Young, no less) who has vocally opposed same-sex marriage and supported the U.S. War on Terror. In these arenas, among others, my politics and Card’s are diametrically opposed. Nonetheless, were anyone to call into question the legitimacy of Card’s Hugo Awards on the basis of his political and religious beliefs, I would be the first to defend him.

This is why I find the current controversy over the 2015 Hugo Award nominations so interesting. I know what it’s like to love an author despite his or her controversial statements about real-life political issues. And I also feel that this year’s Hugo slate is an unmitigated outrage that has serious implications for the future of speculative fiction. Next week, on August 22, voters will decide if these awards are still about celebrating excellent writing and innovative ideas, or if they are just another blood-drenched battleground in the conflict between white male traditionalists and everyone else.

For those who don’t follow the genre-fiction awards circuit, here’s what’s going on. A shifting contingent of science fiction authors, editors, and fans—led by Larry Correia (author of the Monster Hunters series, among others) and Brad Torgerson (author of “Ray of Light,” “The Chaplain’s Legacy” and other Hugo-nominated novelettes)—has spent the last several years fighting against what they perceive to be an escalating liberal bias in the Hugos. Dubbing themselves the Sad Puppies, this group has engaged in an annual effort to mobilize fans into voting for a specific slate of nominees, usually headlined by authors of a conservative political persuasion. The Hugos are vulnerable to this sort of manipulation because fans purchase the right to nominate works of fiction onto the ballot and vote—anyone who has bought a supporting or attending membership in the World Science Fiction Convention (aka Worldcon) can do it.

Historically, the Sad Puppies have not been successful in their efforts to swarm the Hugos, but this year it worked. Alongside their more extreme counterparts—the Rabid Puppies, led by Castalia House lead editor Theodore Beale, alias Vox Day—they orchestrated a campaign that resulted in the 2015 Hugo nominations being dominated by their selections. Beale himself received two nominations, and eight went to works published by Castalia House. Of these, five were by John C. Wright, who would have broken the record for most Hugo nominations in a single year by a single author if one of his stories hadn’t been disqualified because it was originally published in 2013. In the category “Best Novella,” three of the five nominees were written by Wright, and a fourth was another Castalia House product (Tom Kratman’s “Big Boys Don’t Cry”).

“The Hugo Award process has always been hackable,” says 2014 Hugo winner Kameron Hurley. “There was just never anyone narcissistic enough to hack it.” The Puppies broke no rules, they were simply well-organized.

The sociopolitical conservatism of the Puppies’ leaders and their highest-profile nominees is not inherently a problem; Orson Scott Card is merely one name in a long line of right-wingers who have written phenomenal speculative fiction and been honored at the Hugos accordingly. But John C. Wright and Theodore Beale go well beyond the pale when it comes to their views on women, people of color, and homosexuals. That’s the point. In championing Wright and Beale, the Puppies are taking the Hugo Awards out of the realm of literary appreciation and into the new culture war that has arisen in the age of #GamerGate.

The Puppies, of course, would argue that “social justice warriors” and the “Secret Masters of Fandom”—the snobbish liberal elites that cliquishly control the Hugos, in their view—had already started this shift, and that the 2015 Hugo nominees represent a justifiable backlash against the unfair persecution of writers who choose not to pander to the politically correct issues of the day. Correia and Torgerson, in particular, have crafted a narrative of returning to the “good old days” when speculative fiction was about swords, lasers, and general excitement, rather than gender issues, inequality, and other real-life concerns. They claim that in recent years the science fiction and fantasy communities, particularly those who vote on the Hugos at Worldcon, have selected works not because of their quality, but because they “allow [the voter] to check a victim group box.”

This narrative, however, is fundamentally false. The halcyon days being mourned by the Puppies have never existed in any genre, much less science fiction and fantasy, whose bread and butter has always been the exploration of new and challenging ideas. The Puppies aren’t “taking back” speculative fiction; they are trying to mold a new speculative fiction in their own image. In their ideal world, the genre would be defined by the shallow rather than the meaningful, its most respected scions determined by mass popularity rather than thought provocation. And there would be no room for anything that challenges their own ideologies, including the empowerment of people of color and women.

In their own words

One of John C. Wright’s Hugo-nominated pieces (under the category “Best Related Work”) is a collection of essays on science fiction, one of which is titled (seriously) “Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters. ” Wright claims that the “strong female characters” many writers aim for these days are actually “masculine female characters,” and then gives a list of gender characterizations that are, at best, hopelessly outdated:

Masculine in general means direct in speech, confident in action, coolheaded in combat, lethal in war, honorable in tourney or melee, cunning in wit, unerring in deduction, glib in speech, and confident and bold in all things.

He continues:

Feminine in general means being more delicate in speech, either when delivering a coy insult or when buoying up drooping spirits. Femininity requires not the sudden and angry bravery of war and combat, but the slow and loving and patient bravery of rearing children and dealing with childish menfolk. … The female spirit is wise rather than cunning, deep in understanding rather than adroit in deductive logic, gentle and supportive rather than boastful and self-aggrandizing.

Wright’s central objection is that giving female characters “masculine” traits is unrealistic. That’s odd coming from an author whose 2005 Nebula Award finalist, Orphans of Chaos, was about a group of children who don’t age and possess supernatural abilities including psychic powers and molecular manipulation. His insistence on a kind of social realism in a medium rooted in the principle of limitless imagination is paradoxical.

And Wright goes further, claiming that a female character who breaks free of traditional gender roles represents a sickness in both science fiction and society at large:

The objection is that the space hero does the rescuing, his is the initiative and the action, and he gets to fly the spaceship through the palace wall, whereas the space princess is given no role but to languish in prison, perhaps wearing chains or perhaps wearing a silky harem outfit, and await rescue. … I submit that this is not inequality, any more than Fred leading and Ginger following during a stirring waltz is inequality. It is complementary. Those who object that men should not lead in the dance, whatever they say, are not friends of women; they just want to stop the joy of the dance.

By this logic, there was no inequality in the American institution of slavery, as the owners and the owned existed in a complementary relationship. Those who objected to slavery were not friends of black people, but simply wanted to stop the joy of traditional Southern life.

Get out of our treehouse, girls! We’re playing space pirates.

Theodore Beale offers even more toxic proclamations. For example, when creating adistinction between what he calls “Blue SF” and “Pink SF,” he defines the latter as using “the superficial trappings of science fiction or fantasy or war fiction to tell exactly the same sort of goopy, narcissistic female-oriented story that has already been told in ten thousand Harlequin novels and children’s tales and Hollywood comeuppance fantasies.” Beale believes Pink SF to be “the dominant form of science fiction today,” and rages at the unrelenting feminization of science fiction.

“Pink SF is an invasion,” Beale writes. “Pink SF is a cancer. Pink SF is a parasitical perversion. Pink SF is the little death that kills every literary subgenre. … Pink SF is the girls coming to play in the boys’ sandbox and then shitting in it like cats.”

This speaks directly to the crux of the Puppy movement: Science fiction, like video games, belongs to the boys, and when women get involved, they just screw everything up. The Puppies may say they are merely trying to shine a light on conservative authors overlooked by a liberal establishment, but in fact they are trying to inject speculative fiction with the same poison that spread through video game fandom in the wake of #GamerGate. Indeed, Beale is a strong supporter of the #GamerGate movement, and his direct appeal to its followers arguably played a strong role in the success of his Rabid Puppies slate. Beale effectively proposes that speculative fiction is a grade-school treehouse with a “No Girls Allowed” sign nailed to the door.

But what about the more moderate Sad Puppies? Larry Correia and Brad Torgerson say they want nothing to do with Beale and the Rabids, but the same ideas are present in their arguments, particularly those of Torgerson, who writes:

A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women.

Those glory days have been lost, he says, and replaced with an era of pervasive liberal subversion:

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings? There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

In other words, Torgerson seems to think there are merely a handful of science fiction and fantasy stories worth anyone’s time: the ones that are just plain fun. People don’t want uncomfortable ideas or unorthodox characters; they just want “a rip-roaring good story” full of “broad-chested heroes” with “pioneering derring-do” who, of course, “run off with beautiful women.” Anything else is false advertising, tricking the unsuspecting reader into a story with complicated messages and cultural commentary, when all they wanted was escapist adventure. Torgerson’s version of “old school” speculative fiction seems to be primarily for and about men. Get out of our treehouse, girls! We’re playing space pirates. Didn’t you see the sign?

Not only does this view denigrate women, it denigrates fans of speculative fiction. In fact, it disrespects the entire genre by negating the value of any story element that doesn’t contribute to the reader’s entertainment high. As the Canadian journalist Jeet Heer points out, “the faux-populism of the Puppy brigade is actually insulting to the right, since it assumes that conservatives can’t be interested in high culture.” The Puppy movement is anti-intellectual at its core, and thus anathema to the genre it seeks to redefine.

Beyond the pale

The best and most lauded speculative fiction has always been about real issues, regardless of the politics of the author. Mike Resnick has been nominated for a Hugo Award 37 times and won five of them. His first victory, in 1989, was for the short story “Kirinyaga,” which explored the conflict between Western values and traditional African societies. Robert Silverberg is a 28-time nominee and 4-time winner. He has written about cultural decadence and overpopulation in works like the Hugo-nominated The World Inside (1971) and the Hugo-winning novella “Nightwings” (1968). Both authors are politically conservative.

Robert Heinlein won a Hugo in 1960 for Starship Troopers, which describes a futuristic meritocracy in which military service is the highest form of civic virtue; in 1975, Joe Haldeman countered with the Hugo-winning The Forever War, in which homosexuality is standard practice and a gay soldier discovers that a seemingly never-ending conflict began over an absurd misunderstanding and actually ended centuries before. And of course, there is Orson Scott Card, whose 1985 Hugo-winning novelEnder’s Game has become something like required reading for young adults, and which concerns itself with child soldiers and the motivation behind mass murder.

And these are just the white guys. We haven’t discussed Ursula K. LeGuin, whose 1974 novel The Dispossessed (another Hugo winner) is a renowned examination of a functional anarchist society, or Octavia E. Butler, who wrote about gender role reversal and male pregnancy in her novelette “Bloodchild,” which won a Hugo in 1985. The examples are endless. To claim that speculative fiction has only recently trended toward “message fic,” destroying the fun-loving romps of yesteryear, is to mischaracterize the history of the genre.

But the Puppies may have another concern. As author Jim C. Hines has observed, the traditionally male-dominated Hugos have experienced a steady narrowing of the gender gap since 2011. In 2014, more women were nominated than men than ever before. Among the winners were Ann Leckie’s novel experimenting with an alien race that does not distinguish between males and females (Ancillary Justice), John Chu’s short story celebrating homosexuality (The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere) and Kameron Hurley’s essay on women in science fiction (We Have Always Fought). More than in any previous year, the 2014 Hugos honored people of color, LGBTQ people, and women.

It is this development that has galvanized the Sad and Rabid Puppies, whose victory in the 2015 Hugo nominations resulted in a ballot that looks far more like the old, mostly male slates than last year’s gender-balanced field.

The Puppies claim to be about recognizing good writers as opposed to playing politics, but that claim is debunked by the fact that they chose to honor not the best writers they could find, nor works that exemplified the “just plain fun” style of science fiction, but instead put forward the names of authors and editors known primarily for being controversial. For example, take Wright’s statement that “Men abhor homosexuals on a visceral level,” or Beale’s assertions that women’s rights are bad for society and that black people are incapable of advanced civilization. Their presence suggests that the Puppies’ true intent was to provoke an uproar among those who have cheered the Hugos’ recent progress toward the inclusion of more diverse voices.

It’s one thing to appreciate Card (or Resnick, or Silverberg, or Heinlein) while disagreeing with his politics. It’s something else entirely to consider giving one of speculative fiction’s highest awards to men who openly spew such bile, to watch John C. Wright and Theodore Beale take an undeserved place among giants. This isn’t about shutting conservatives out of speculative fiction, which has never actually happened, nor is it about honoring stories with messages instead of glorifying mindless entertainment. The Sad Puppies must be defeated at WorldCon because the speculative fiction community needs to make a statement that anti-woman crusaders armed with unrepentant hate speech are not to be tolerated in 2015, much less awarded.

On August 22 in Spokane, Washington, the community has a chance to make such a statement. Hugo voting closed at the end of the July, and WorldCon has announced a record-breaking 5,950 ballots received, destroying the previous record of 3,587 from year before. The Hugo system asks voters to rank each work in every category, with the option of including “No Award” at any position. Many people have advocated for placing “No Award” above every option in categories containing Puppy contenders, or even in every category, period, as an act of protest. Others have put together anti-Puppy voting guides, such as Deirdre Saoirse Moen’s “Puppy-Free” Hugo slate. Still others insist on judging based simply on the quality of the work, nothing more. And nobody knows how many of the more than 2,000 new voters filled out their ballots in favor of the Puppies, against them, or without regard for them.

What’s certain, however, is that this year’s Hugo voters will decide if the future being explored by speculative fiction has room for all of us, or if those worlds and sagas yet undreamt should be stripped of all resonance, significance, and dignity until nothing is left but the high-pitched cries of a lone white man, squealing in vindictive delight as his space laser makes ’splosions.

This article was originally published on YES! Magazine.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData