Hugo Final Ballot Controversy

For those who do not know about the Hugo awards please read about them at
http://www.thehugoawards.org/ or other online sites.

The finalists for the Hugo Awards were announced a bit over a week ago. When I read the list of finalists I was concerned. The results appeared to have been affected by slate voting of a type which is outside the social norms of the SF Fandom. It was not technically against the rules as written but it did violate the social norms. As might be expected there has been much written about this during the past week and easily found via your favorite search engine.

I will use the term Puppy Contingent to refer to the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies and their various followers; if you do not know about the Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies please use your favorite search engine. And rather than focus on the details of the activities of the persons involved in this contravention of the social norms I am going to comment primarily on some broadly issues.

My first observation is that introducing politics explicitly and overtly into a situation where there is not already overt and explicit political considerations can lead to unpleasant results. And I fear we are already seeing signs of the unpleasantness. As far as I can tell the Puppy Contingent tends to refer to themselves as either conservative or right-wing. Since I am neither conservative nor right-wing please excuse me if I get some of the details a bit wrong and as I use the term conservative below remember that the definition is in flux; even as far as I can tell amongst self-identified conservatives.

My understanding is that they claim either a) that some writers have not received awards because of their political views or b) works with 'conservative themes' are ignored and not given recognition. Or both. Or something else because there is also talk about getting more best selling popular authors on the final ballot regardless of political stance.  Or maybe it is having fewer works considering issues of race, gender, identity or something. The problem is that the complaints of the Puppy Contingent are not quite clear and as far as I can see the main evidence they present is that the voting history for the Hugo Awards does not make them happy. One person involved with previous Sad Puppy campaigns was a Campbell Award (Not a Hugo Award) finalist and as I understand his complaint he feels that there was a whisper campaign by certain persons to urge people not to vote for him due to his political views. Was there such a campaign? I do not know. All I know is that I was one of the voters that year and I am unable to recall anything like that.  All of this is to say that attempting to consider all of this is a bit frustrating but I think these are important issues and I will give it a try.

While it might be possible that many Hugo voters share some political leanings; I have not seen any serious scholarly study of the question and thus in the absence of such a study I urge caution because the political views might also be more diverse than some realize. And let us remember that political leanings do not necessarily always predict taste in SF.

Another concern I have is with conflating political positions and aesthetics as expressed in fiction. A story may contain detailed discussion of firearms, graphic descriptions of military tactics, combat and violence; not to mention space wars and laser battles. It is quite possible for someone to enjoy that story as a story regardless of their political position. My position is that we need to avoid conflating politics and values and aesthetics. Obviously it is a logical fallacy to say in the absence of strong evidence that when the voters of an award do not vote for works which is full of firearms and violence that they are necessarily doing so on political grounds. It might be aesthetics; the majority of voters just might not like stories with violence and firearms. Or possibly the story itself did not measure up to their standards of character, plot, world building, etc. Or maybe the voters liked the story overall but felt that it was not really award quality.  Let me emphasize this point again:  people may enjoy a story enough to make it a run-away best-seller and the author very famous but still not feel that it is at a level where it should be considered for the one of highest awards in the SF field.

Most people have heard of the 'Wisdom Of The Crowd' where there are certain types of questions that if asked to a sufficiently large number of random persons will generate answers which on average in the aggregate converge on an answer which is reasonably close to correct. Voting to determine the list for the final Hugo ballot is not exactly a 'Wisdom Of The Crowd' situation however it is close enough that in some respects it often tends to have similar behavior and function. For the past few decades one function of the final ballot is a person who is not a specialist in SF could typically take the Hugo finalist list and be reasonably sure that the works listed were of at least award level in terms of the craft of writing. A person may be looking for Steampunk instead of a near future urban fantasy but whichever they select it would likely be up to a certain standard in terms of the craft of SF writing. And it is typical to find a variety of works on the final Hugo ballot not just Steampunk or just urban fantasy or any other sub-genre.

I am concerned that slate voting might tend to break this dynamic both in the quality and the range of the works making the final ballot. Now at this point some of the Puppy Contingent might want to claim that all they were doing is putting works they like into the process. To which I say: No that is not an accurate statement. Having a slate misses the point since a slate lacks that individual variation that can counteract group think.  Even if the slate was produced in a bottom up fashion it can inadvertently swamp the votes of 'conservatives' who are not part of the slate creation process thus possibly leading to the final ballot having fewer quality works.  And remember there is a big difference between creating a recommendation list of works that people might want to consider and doing slate voting.  Please do not confuse the two.

Another item which appears to be part of the complaint of the Puppy Contingent is about the concern with issues of race, gender and related matters; which some refer to as the concerns of the Social Justice Warriors aka SJW. At least I think this is one of the complaints since I see what I think are Puppy Contingent members making derisive references about persons and issues that are labeled as SJW however the specifics are a bit vague to me. It is as if they are complaining about the amount of consideration of issues of race and gender in contemporary SF. Yet what would they expect? Seriously? As has often been observed much of SF is about addressing contemporary issues by imagining a different time or place. So why are they upset?  We need to understand this is 2015 not 1955 and I think SF Fandom and society at large have make great strides in understanding people as individuals as well as people in social groups.  We are (I hope) more compassionate and comfortable with diversity and I posit that encountering these issues in fiction is part of the catalyst that has lead to this change.

As has been pointed out by several people such as Mary Robinette Kowal there has been a decades long discussion of race, gender and related matters in much of the SF community. The discussion has been in many venues including blog posts, email lists, panels at SF cons and increasingly in social media. And also in the broader culture at large. Views on race and gender have changed tremendously in recent years and some might be surprised. The reasons for this change is a whole other essay. My point is that people have participated in this discussion to different degrees and those that have not been very much involved in the discussion might find it disconcerting when it starts changing from something relatively small which might be ignored to something that is increasingly part of broader SF discussion. Now of course not everyone is the discussion agrees. And you can find people claiming to speak on issues of race and gender as if they had the final word when actually they have at best a not well thought out position.  My suggestion is for open discussion and a bit of intellectual humility.

My admonition is that just because discussions of race, gender and related topics are unsettling do not point to the most extreme, loudest and most strident voice and say because that voice is extreme then there is nothing to discuss. Instead I urge everyone to try to understand the other person's point of view. Understanding does not mean acceptance. What understanding does is facilitate furthering the discussion.

In closing I will quote the view of one of the Puppy Contingent:
'SAD PUPPIES simply holds its collective hand out — standing athwart “fandom” history — and yells, “Stop!”'

My response is to please consider the phrase from Bob Dylan:
For the times they are a-changin'.

That phrase comes from an era when many thought that the changes in race and gender would cause havoc but we survived.  And if we all behave like reasonable and rational persons we can survive this latest controversy.


Anonymous said...

Good writers are really hard to pin down when it comes to politics. Ken MacLeod is famous for writing novels that seem to be from very different political points of view.

Fred Curtis Moulton, Jr. said...

Exactly. Ken is a great person and a very fine writer who has obviously thought about many of the big questions in life.