This is almost too painful. The volume of wordage created over this Sad Puppies* thing is heading toward the Tolstoyan. Reasonableness will not avail. It’s past that simply because reasonableness is not suited to what has amounted to a schoolyard snit, instigated by a group feeling it’s “their turn” at dodge ball and annoyed that no one will pass them the ball.
Questions of “who owns the Hugo?” are largely beside the point, because until this it was never part of the gestalt of the Hugo. It was a silly, technical question that had little to do with the aura around the award. (As a question of legalism, the Hugo is “owned” by the World Science Fiction Society, which runs the world SF conventions. But that’s not what the question intends to mean.)
Previously, I’ve noted that any such contest that purports to select The Best of anything is automatically suspect because so much of it involves personal taste. Even more, in this instance, involves print run and sales. One more layer has to do with those willing to put down coin to support or attend a given worldcon. So many factors having nothing to do with a specific work are at play that we end up with a Brownian flux of often competing factors which pretty much make the charge that any given group has the power to predetermine winners absurd.
That is, until now.
Proving that anything not already overly organized can be gamed, one group has managed to create the very thing they have been claiming already existed. The outrage now being expressed at the results might seem to echo back their own anger at their claimed exclusion, but in this case the evidence is strong that some kind of fix has been made. Six slots taken by one author published by one house, with a few other slots from that same house, a house owned by someone who has been very vocal about his intentions to do just this? Ample proof that such a thing can be done, but evidence that it had been done before? No, not really.
Here’s where we all find ourselves in unpleasant waters. If the past charges are to be believed, then the evidence offered was in the stories and novels nominated. That has been the repeated claim, that “certain” kinds of work are blocked while certain “other” kinds of work get preferential treatment, on ideological grounds. What grounds? Why, the liberal/left/socialist agenda opposed to conservatism, with works of a conservative bent by outspoken or clearly conservative authors banished from consideration in favor of work with a social justice flavor. Obviously this is an exclusion based solely on ideology and has nothing to do with the quality of the work in question. In order to refute this, now, one finds oneself in the uncomfortable position of having to pass judgment on quality and name names.
Yes, this more or less is the result of any awards competition anyway. The winners are presumed to possess more quality than the others. But in the context of a contest, no one has to come out and state the reason “X” by so-and-so didn’t win (because it, perhaps, lacked the quality being rewarded). We can—rightly—presume others to be more or less as good, the actual winners rising above as a consequence of individual taste, and we can presume many more occupy positions on a spectrum. We don’t have to single anyone out for denigration because the contest isn’t about The Worst but The Best.
But claiming The Best has been so named based on other criteria than quality (and popularity) demands comparisons and then it gets personal in a different, unfortunate, way.
This is what critics are supposed to do—not fans.
In order to back their claims of exclusion, exactly this was offered—certain stories were held up as examples of “what’s wrong with SF” and ridiculed. Names were named, work was denigrated. “If this is the kind of work that’s winning Hugos, then obviously the awards are fixed.” As if such works could not possibly be held in esteem for any other reason than that they meet some ideological litmus test.
Which means, one could infer, that works meeting a different ideological litmus test are being ignored because of ideology. It couldn’t possibly be due to any other factor.
And here’s where the ugly comes in, because in order to demonstrate that other factors have kept certain works from consideration you have to start examining those works by criteria which, done thoroughly, can only be hurtful. Unnecessarily if such works have an audience and meet a demand.
For the past few years organized efforts to make this argument have churned the punchbowl, just below the surface. This year it erupted into clear action. The defense has been that all that was intended was for the pool of voters to be widened, be “more inclusive.” There is no doubt this is a good thing, but if you already know what kind of inclusiveness you want—and by extension what kind of inclusiveness you don’t want, either because you believe there is already excess representation of certain factions or because you believe that certain factions may be toxic to your goal—then your efforts will end up narrowing the channel by which new voices are brought in and possibly creating a singleminded advocacy group that will vote an ideological line. In any case, their reason for being there will be in order to prevent Them from keeping You from some self-perceived due. This is kind of an inevitability initially because the impetus for such action is to change the paradigm. Over time, this increased pool will diversify just because of the dynamics within the pool, but in these early days the goal is not to increase diversity but to effect a change in taste. What success will look like is predetermined, implicitly at least, and the nature of the campaign is aimed at that.
It’s not that quality isn’t a consideration but it is no longer explicitly the chief consideration. It can’t be, because the nature of the change is based on type not expression.
Now there is another problem, because someone has pissed in the punchbowl. It’s one of the dangers of starting down such a path to change paradigms through organized activism, that at some point someone will come along and use the channels you’ve set up for purposes other than you intended. It’s unfortunate and once it happens you have a mess nearly impossible to fix, because now no one wants to drink out of that bowl, on either side.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There will be those who belly up to the stand and dip readily into it and drink. These are people who thrive on toxicity and think as long as they get to drink from the bowl it doesn’t matter who else does or wants to. In fact, the fewer who do the better, because that means the punch is ideally suited to just them. It’s not about what’s in the bowl but the act of drinking. Perhaps they assume it’s supposed to taste that way but more likely they believe the punch has already been contaminated by a different flavor of piss, so it was never going to be “just” punch. They will fail to understand that those not drinking are refraining not because they don’t like punch but because someone pissed in the bowl.
As to the nature of the works held up as examples of what has been “wrong” with SF…
Science fiction is by its nature a progressive form. It cannot be otherwise unless its fundamental telos is denied. Which means it has always been in dialogue with the world as it is. The idea that social messaging is somehow an unnatural or unwanted element in SF is absurd on its face. This is why for decades the works extolled as the best, as the most representative of science fiction as an art form have been aggressively antagonistic toward status quo defenses and defiantly optimistic that we can do better, both scientifically and culturally. The best stories have been by definition social message stories. Not preachments, certainly, but that’s where the art comes in. Because a writer—any writer—has an artisitic obligation, a commitment to truth, and you don’t achieve that through strident or overt didacticism. That said, not liking the specific message in any story is irrelevant because SF has also been one of the most discursive and self-critical genres, constantly in dialogue with itself and with the world. We have improved the stories by writing antiphonally. You don’t like the message in a given story, write one that argues with it. Don’t try to win points by complaining that the message is somehow wrong and readers don’t realize it because they keep giving such stories awards.
Above all, though, if you don’t win any awards, be gracious about it, at least in public. Even if people agree with you that you maybe deserved one, that sympathy erodes in the bitter wind of performance whining.
*I will not go into the quite lengthy minutiae of this group, but let me post a link here to a piece by Eric Flint that covers much of this and goes into a first class analysis of the current situation. I pick Eric because he is a Baen author—a paradoxical one, to hear some people talk—and because of his involvement in the field as an editor as well as a writer.