09 April 2015

The Hijacking of the Hugos

In the universe of science fiction writing, there are two very prestigious awards, the Nebulas and the Hugos. And to put it in a certain vernacular, the Nebulas are the Emmy Awards, while the Hugos are The People's Choice Awards. Over the decades, both awards have generally followed the same path of announcing the same list of people and titles nominated for those awards, sort of the way The Golden Globes and The Oscar's lists are generally the same. 
But while The People's Choice Awards is generally considered silly and sort of pointless, the Hugos (with titles, categories and authors selected by every day readers of the genre) still carries an important achievement for writers of speculative fiction, be it in novels, short stories, or fanzines. But recently, a self-proclaimed group of conservative writers and fans in this field call Sad Puppies, are trying to hijack the Hugos, because, as writer and orchestrator of the Sad Puppies Brad Torgersen, is claiming that the winners always tend to be in the "literary" and (shockingly) "ideological" in style. As Torgersen has blogged, the Hugo's “have lost cachet, because at the same time SF/F has exploded popularly – with larger-than-life, exciting, entertaining franchises and products – the voting body of ‘fandom’ have tended to go in the opposite direction: niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun”.
He adds that twenty years 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”. In his opinion, today if you see that same book, it's “merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings".
And this year's effort to get authors the Sad Puppies believe should be nominated on the Hugos shortlist was rather successful, with three of the five best novel candidates being books by Kevin J. Anderson, Jim Butcher and Marko Kloos. But this has also opened a huge can of political worms, as authors like David Gerrold, George RR Martin, and John Scalzi have tried to figure out if this is a good or bad thing. 
Yes, all awards handed out are generally tinged with politics, but the Hugo's were generally thought to be politically free because the voting bloc was made up common people, so to speak. But in Torgersen's theory is that in the last twenty years, the book industry has been baiting and switching with deceptive covers:
"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? A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women. Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues. Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy." In the end, he thinks that "once reliable packaging" has "defrauded" the readers (which is, I think, his explanation of why Science Fiction and Fantasy book sales have tumbled).
But there is a bigger issue here, I think. Science fiction, speculative fiction, call it what you will, has always been about big ideas. It's also been about reflecting the ills of today's society by using science fiction as template to exam social issues as well. Authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark and John W. Campbell told those "swashbuckling" tales and steered away from social commentary, but mostly because when they were writing during the "Golden Age of Science Fiction", it was also the era when social norms dictated that the mainstream media -that would include movies and eventually TV, along with books- stay away from any issue that might be deemed controversial (and then there's the whole issue of women writing science fiction, see Andre Norton and DC Fontana for that). Which meant the social ills of America, always there and always lying just below the surface, could not be discussed because, as  The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling pointed out as far back as back as 1959, that artist "always have compromise" because network TV back then was heavily influenced by "a sponsor", or a "pressure group, a network censor" and getting people upset was a career killer (Serling wrote and spoke extensively about 1950's TV. This interview with Mike Wallace shows how, in many ways, we are still pretty backwards nation when it comes to telling stories that make people think). 
Also, let's realize not just in the last twenty years, but probably well over the last five decades, the field of not only science fiction, but the whole world has become diverse and very complicated. And that's the crux of the conservatives problems, that white straight men are being subjugated by large groups of minorities (liberals, feminists, gays, blacks, etcetera) because no one knows their place anymore. But the folks that have allied themselves with Torgersen, including a group of right-wingers who call themselves Rabid Puppies and led by Vox Day (real name is Theodore Beale) and who've added their voices to the block-voting campaign, are nothing but a group of hate willed white men who feel they're being repressed because awards like the Nebulas and Hugos usually go for quality over quantity. Day has claimed that "the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control" are the same people who are trying to muck up the "game industry". Then there is John C Wright, a writer who is known for his homophobic views and who is backed by the Sad Puppies, and who has three nominations for best novella, and one for best novelette and one for best related work. His own website took on the creators of the Legend of Korra, calling them "disgusting, limp, soulless sacks of filth" for having romantic relationship between two women.  
So whatever Torgersen is trying to do here -whether awards should be given to popular books (and look, I have nothing against Jim Butcher, but his Dresden File books are no where near what anyone would call speculative of old; they're well written pop-fiction, but not designed to stand the test of time. Then again, neither was John Scalzi's Redshirts. I was surprised as Scalzi was that not only was the book nominated, it won as well), versus books that have little in the way of sales, but are critical darlings- is being overshadowed by ultra-right-wing conservatives who once again are attacking intellectualism. 
In the end, this could beg the question that if the conservative speculative writer feels the Hugos and the Nebulas are not representative of their values, they why not just start their own awards, as George R R Martin suggests: "Best Conservative SF, or Best Space Opera, or Best Military SF, or Best Old-Fashioned SF the Way It Used to Be." I don't think anyone would have an issue with that, especially considering award shows are a dime a dozen these days. 
But then I can understand why they wouldn't. The Hugos have been around since 1953, but the idea of creating a "conservative" science fiction award that would carry the same weight and prestige as the Hugos or the Nebulas would be a daunting task (I mean, yeah the Golden Globes have been around forever, but only in the last decade or so has even the networks taken them seriously). “But that’s not what they are doing, " Martin adds. "Instead they seem to want to take the Hugos and turn them into their own awards."
I mean, how is hijacking the Hugos going to stop diversity in science fiction?

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