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Freeping the Hugos

Depiction of a futuristic city.

I don’t read much science fiction anymore, but it was the stuff of my teens. Perhaps it was geared to 13-year-old boys, but it still allowed me journeys to the Ringworld or to Rendezvous with Rama, worlds so vast and detailed that leaving them and coming back to earth in the 1960s was jarring. I grokked Michael Valentine Smith (or would have liked to) and studied psychohistory under Hari Seldon.

Today I mostly read mysteries for the Monday Murder Mystery series, and sadly my sci-fi reading is limited to cross-genre novels like John Scalzi’s Lock-In, Matt Haig’s The Humans or Max Barry’s Lexicon. But when I have the time, I confess that I look to the Nebula and Hugo award winners and nominees for titles to add to my TBR list.

The Nebulas are awarded by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). The Hugos are nominated and awarded by fans of the genre who are members of Worldcon, making them basically a popularity contest. Which is fine with me as those voters are avid readers of science fiction and fantasy who are dedicated enough to attend the conventions or at least to pay the $40 fee to join. And over the years, the fans have managed to select some pretty good reading.

Until now. This year a right-wing minority of science-fiction writers and publishers have decided which nominees the fans will be allowed to vote for. Nothing that they have done is illegal, although the word unethical could be applied if it held any meaning for them. It doesn’t however, because within their bubble they are the oppressed minority who are being censored and put upon by the “social justice warriors.” Sigh.

Artist's rendering of a dragon.

For those unfamiliar with the Hugo Awards, they are voted on by dues-paying members of the World Science Fiction Convention, also known as “Worldcon,” which is sponsored by World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), an unincorporated literary society that also sponsors the Hugo Awards.

From their website:

The Hugo process is as follows:

  1. During January-March each year members of the Worldcon are each allowed to nominate up to five people or works from the previous year in fifteen categories.
  2. In early April a shortlist is announced of five finalists in each category and a final ballot is sent to members of the Worldcon that year.
  3. The members of the current Worldcon cast a final ballot, with balloting ending around sometime in July (it depends on exactly when Worldcon is that year.) The ballot is a preferential ballot which allows the voters to rank all nominees.
  4. At Worldcon the winners are announced at the Hugo Ceremony and receive a special trophy.

We have a lot more information about the Hugos at our FAQ.

(A voting membership can be had for $40 and does not require attendance at a convention.) These are dedicated fans that read science fiction and fantasy, a lot of it, attend conventions based on science fiction and fantasy, and otherwise familiarize themselves with what is going on in the genre. They are the ones I rely on to nominate, and then vote for what they consider to be the best science fiction and fantasy that they have read that year.

Over the years this has led to a few misses, but many more hits like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, David Brin, and Connie Willis. There is a rich tradition of winners selected by the people willing to do the reading and attend the Worldcon conventions.

Lately there has been a movement to replace the open nomination process with a slate of nominees. A few conservative writers/publishers claim that this has long been done, in secret, (which is why they can provide no evidence to support their claims) by the “social justice warriors.” They do not appear to mean the simple self-promotion that, while frowned upon, has been done openly for years. No, they mean a secret back-room deal to award the Hugos based on criteria that they find suspect.

Their answer to the selections that they have not liked is to freep the vote. The technique that has worked so well for members of the Free Republic website is now being used by their brothers in spirit to “fix” the Hugo vote.

One such group is led by Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day) who is so far off the deep end that he is in an area where pressure suits are generally required. I spent hours reading his blog entries, shaking my head at the hate-filled nonsense he was peddling until I hit this:

We are not given a spirit of fear. We are the sons and daughters of the Crusades and of the Inquisitions, institutions so terrible that they strike terror in human hearts nearly one thousand years later. We are the heirs of Christendom.

Which reduced me to a fit of giggles at the thought of this man, who could claim no more than 10 percent of the vote in a two-man race for the 2013 presidency of the SFWA, whose other writing makes it clear he fears women, people of color, homosexuals and immigrants, claiming to be a warrior for his god. I am sure he will be very surprised to find heaven populated by virgins and those Arabic-speaking Arabs.

He is leading the group of Rabid Puppies, which seems appropriate. He has a slate of nominees that feature not just his own name, but the names of other members of his micro-publishing house, including John C. Wright. As Arthur Chu writes in an article for Salon:

I will point out that if you look at the Hugo Awards’ slate for this year you’ll see a record-breaking six nominations for John C. Wright, including three out of five of the best novella nominations being stories written by Wright.

Wright, a man so essential to the state of science fiction in 2015 that he doesn’t have a single bestseller, he’s signed with a micro-publisher based in Finland with a total of eight authors on its roster, and I’m the only person I know in real life who’s heard of him. Mainly because I hate-follow his incredible rants about how everything from the Syfy Network to “The Legend of Korra” is too gay for him to tolerate.

Science fiction art showing a planet with two suns.

The other group calls themselves the Sad Puppies, apparently in an attempt to get under the skin of the majority of the science-fiction fans who vote for their favorites for the Hugo Awards. That majority, as reflected in the works that have been nominated and selected for Hugo Awards over the past 20 years, has increasingly become more diverse and more willing to accept the possibility that a science fiction or fantasy world could contain protagonists who are not necessarily straight white males.

But it has not been an easy journey nor is it nearly over, as shown by the recent dust-up within the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

In 2013, not too long after Beale’s landslide loss for the presidency of the SFWA, the Bulletin, the official SFWA publication, featured a column by two senior members, writer Mike Resnick and editor Barry Malzberg, about “lady” editors they had known and how well they looked in swimwear—which offended many women (and men) who were also members of the SFWA and who, thanks to the internet, were able to voice their disapproval. That disapproval led the two men to claim that their work was being censored and subjected to the thought police. Naturally, because disagreement can only mean that their free speech rights were being trampled. Coincidently, the bulletin also published another article in the middle of this dispute, but unrelated to it, suggesting that women should be more like Barbie. Yes, you read that right. Barbie.

John Scalzi, who at the time was president of the SFWA, actually apologized for the offense caused by the sexist article. He took responsibility and apologized. To women. Yes, a leader apologizing for the wrong done on his watch. That is simply not allowed in the world of real manly men.

And while the SFWA has nothing to do with the Hugos, this background may help you to understand the threats that the Sad Puppies perceive in the sci-fi world that is rapidly changing around them. Because the world of science fiction and fantasy is changing. It is becoming more inclusive. Women are no longer decorative objects with whom white male heroes can sexually celebrate the slaying of a dragon. People of color can now captain starships and people of the same sex can fall in love during an interstellar voyage.

Which is exactly why the head of this year’s effort, Brad Torgersen, feels that there is a problem.

In the last decade we’ve seen Hugo voting skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works. Some of these literary pieces barely have any science fictional or fantastic content in them. Likewise, we’ve seen the Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos 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.

So, if the ideology argument doesn’t convince you, the literary one should, because really, who would ever want science fiction to be confused with actual literature? Clearly, science fiction and fantasy should be about shallow, white males doing acts of fantastic content that have absolutely no meaning other than the joy of shooting neat weapons systems at the bad guys, who are equally shallow but do not have to be white males.

Responding to the pushback of his announcement, Torgersen makes clear his intent to freep the awards with people who are not avid readers of the genre, but “might want to have a say” in who gets selected for a Hugo.

Encourage people who are SF/F consumers (but not “fandom” according to Worldcon) to participate in the nomination and selection of works. To include gamer fans, tie-in fans, movie and comic fans, and everyone else who might want to have a say in deciding who gets selected for “science fiction’s most prestigious award.”

So the cheers go up when they are featured at Breitbart and elsewhere in the right-wing echo chamber. Don’t forget, this is the same audience that raised $800,000 for some homophobes who ran a pizza parlor. Surely they had 40 bucks to freep a poll and upset a liberal.

Probably the same reasoning held true when they broadcast their intent to the delightful gentlemen of the Gamergate persuasion—I just don’t have the stomach to go there to find out.

So Brad Torgersen for the Sads and Theodore Beale for the Mads decided who would appear on their respective slates, all the while calling for greater inclusiveness. Greater inclusiveness that would somehow be obtained by two people deciding who all of the fans would get to vote for. All done with a stunning lack of self-awareness.

But it worked. As a result of the freeping, the Rabid and the Sad slates have managed to sweep most of the 85 nominations for the 2015 Hugo Awards. It should be mentioned that the actual numbers of nominating ballots are not that large (2,122 in total), and that the honest ballots were probably split among a broad selection of different works, making it fairly easy to rig the results.

space ship hovers beneath a planet.

The people and publications who are on the slates do not matter to those who are disturbed by the result, because they are not objecting to the content, but rather to the method of the nomination—slates. The current editor of Amazing Stories, Steve Davidson, has indicated how he intends protest the hacking of the nominating process:

I’m going to place ANY nominee that is associated with advancing a political agenda BELOW No Award. If that means that No Award is my top pick in one or more categories, then so be it. (I’ll read the works in the voters pack so I can rate the works as #1 behind No Award, #2 behind No Award, etc.)

This will be a default position. I don’t want to play the Sad Puppy’s game – nor anyone else’s who decides that they can use the Hugo Awards for purposes other than originally intended – so I’m not going to. I don’t care what side of the political spectrum the voting slate comes from, nor what its motivations are, nor what the agenda is – good, bad or indifferent. If a work is on a voting slate (NOT an eligibility list) then it goes below No Award.

This has been picked up around the web and may become the eventual solution to freeping at the Worldcon. According to the comments of Kevin Standlee (editor) of the Hugo Award comments page, and past administrator of the Hugos, there have been no organized slates in the past.

Those of us who have spent many years in volunteer service to WSFS resent voting slates and bloc voting of any sort. This is not a specific reaction to you personally, but to the tactics used. Historically, the final ballot performance of candidates perceived by a majority of the electorate to have reached the ballot by less-than-ethical means has been poor.

Game of Thrones author George RR Martin remarked on his blog:

If the Sad Puppies wanted to start their own award… for Best Conservative SF, or Best Space Opera, or Best Military SF, or Best Old-Fashioned SF the Way It Used to Be… whatever it is they are actually looking for… hey, I don’t think anyone would have any objections to that. I certainly wouldn’t. More power to them.

But that’s not what they are doing here, it seems to me. Instead they seem to want to take the Hugos and turn them into their own awards. Hey, anyone is welcome to join worldcon, to become part of worldcon fandom… but judging by the comments on the Torgesen and Correia sites, a lot of the Puppies seem to actively hate worldcon and the people who attend it, and want nothing to do with us. They want to determine who gets the Ditmars, but they don’t want to be Australians.

John Scalzi weighed in on the nominations here and on his assigned role as a poster boy for the social justice warriors here. (Although he appears to believe their animosity towards him has other roots, I am pretty sure they are actually pissed off about the apology. To women!)

For a brilliantly lucid, although long, discussion (even longer than this one), please read this Detailed Explanation of why Matthew David Surridge turned down his nomination for a Hugo Award this year. It is the best thing that I have read about the problems with the slating of nominees.

The victims of this freeping are multiple, starting with its leader, Brad Torgersen, who is now frantically trying to talk people out of voting No Award, comparing it to tearing a baby in half and killing it in the process. Something to do with King Solomon. Because voting No Award would kill the Hugos. I am not sure whether his ego is so great that he is blind to consequences of his own actions or he is just that totally lacking in self-awareness that he doesn’t see that his actions have already split the baby in half.

I am not a member of Worldcon, but I too am a victim of the freeping. Writing about mysteries every week leaves me little time to explore science fiction. So I, as do many other casual readers of science fiction, use the shortlist to build my own TBR pile. That clearly cannot be done now. At least for not for 2015 and probably not for 2016 as well, since even if Worldcon wanted to change their nominating rules, it would take two consecutive convention votes to do so. There are other lists, like the Nebula and the World Fantasy Awards that immediately come to mind even though they are not awarded by fans. However, after the winners are announced on August 22, the long list of nominees will be made available at the Hugo website.

Other victims are the dedicated fans who read as much as they could last year, and then sat down and worked through their lists to provide an honest nominating ballot of work they believed deserved the recognition that the Hugo provides. They were completely shut out of their own balloting process thanks to Beale, Torgersen, and the freepers.

Victims too, are the writers, editors, publishers, and others who should have been nominated this year but were also shut out by the organized hacking of the system. Since the awards are presented only for works published within a calendar year, their opportunity has been forever stolen.

Even greater victims are this year’s nominees. Win or lose, there will always be an asterisk following their names, even if it never appears in print. For some of them, like Vox Day and his horde, this is only justice, but for many of the others who were caught up in the freeping of the nominations, they will never be able to be sure that they fairly earned their award.

I have often wondered when the conservative right wing would recognize the importance of fiction in shaping attitudes and ideas. It will never be enough for them to gerrymander the voting districts, not while people they disapprove of are still allowed to vote. Nor will removing a woman’s choice be enough while women are still allowed access to birth control. Allowing marriage equality will not protect the LGBT community from economic or social discrimination. They need to reach the foundations of social justice and tear it out at the root. And since social justice is an idea that is contained in our fiction, that too must be controlled.

This might be more difficult, because while they may hide the fiction that reflects the increasing diversity of our world, they have nothing with which to replace it. If their ideas were ones that still interested readers, or if their writing was good enough to lure readers, they would have no need to rig the system. Sadly, their time has passed and no one thought to tell them.

Originally published at Daily Kos, April 12, 2015