The Hugos, one of the most prestigious awards for sci-fi and fantasy writing, have been hijacked. After several years in which the awardees had become increasingly diverse, reflecting the broader reach and appeal of SF/F, readers discovered that this year’s nominees were dominated by a ballot-stuffing campaign organized by a right-wing faction that calls itself, no joke, the Sad Puppies.
The SPs’ slate includes works by Vox Day, a.k.a Theodore Beale, a loathsome right-wing polycrank who rejects evolution, promotes 9/11 conspiracy theories, praises the Taliban’s treatment of women, and was expelled from the Science Fiction Writers of America for describing the author N.K. Jemisin with a racist insult. Another of their standard-bearers, John C. Wright, has become best known for his violent loathing of homosexuality.
Like Gamergate, with whom they have a significant overlap, the Sad Puppies’ stated grievances are nebulous and borderline incoherent. But their real motivation isn’t hard to discern: anger and resentment that straight white men are being asked to share the table with others. Like many other aggrieved emissaries of privileged distress, they fear that women and people of color are taking away something that’s rightfully “theirs”.
Here’s how one of the leaders of the campaign, Brad Torgersen, describes his goals:
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. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure.
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?
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.
This is so pathetic and pitiful, it was initially hard for me to believe it wasn’t a parody. Torgersen is saying, literally, that he wants to be able to judge every book by its cover. He wants every sci-fi and fantasy story to be a retread of the same stale cliches, to tell the same kinds of stories about the same kinds of heroes year after year, and to never contain any message or any viewpoint that challenges him, makes him uncomfortable, or gives him reason to question anything he believes. And it’s not enough for him that he has the option not to read diverse books that tell different kinds of stories – he doesn’t even want those books to exist.
But, Torgersen wants you to know, he’s no racist. He’s just fine with SF/F occasionally touching on social justice issues, just as long as these elements are kept safely off to the side and don’t interfere with yet another story about heroic individual white men saving the world:
Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?
What the Sad Puppies have firmly shut their eyes to is that the purpose of fiction is and has always been to hold a mirror up to the real world. This is especially true of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, which are far less limited when it comes to creating worlds that differ radically from our own. They offer a laboratory to test out ideas in very different contexts from the ones we’re familiar with.Even authors who only want to write mindless entertainment or whiz-bang adventure make political choices, implicitly, with their decisions of what to put in and what to leave out, what to spotlight and what to ignore. The writer’s choice of what to treat as normal and unremarkable, versus what they want us to see as new and strange, carries political freight that tells us a great deal about their worldview. As with the confused atheist fellow who claimed to be against “ideology”, the Sad Puppies don’t really want stories free of politics, because that’s impossible. They just want stories that only reflect their politics.
You can see this in Torgersen’s nostalgia for the safe, predictable SF/F of bygone days. The archetypal “rousing fantasy epic” about sword-swinging barbarians, Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, wasn’t just about a muscle-bound hero in a loincloth fighting dragons and wizards. It sprang from Howard’s political views about the decadence and inevitable downfall of civilization, the supremacy of individual freedom over societies bound by rules and laws, and last but certainly not least, the natural dominance of white men over semi-savage non-white races and submissive, compliant women.
Another golden-age canon, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos horror series, got its morbid power from the author’s fanatic racism and xenophobia, which was extreme even by the standards of his era. The lurking, unnatural horrors of Lovecraft’s imagination represent his dread of intermarriage and racial mingling, blown up to cosmic proportions.
But SF/F can convey positive social messages as well. Torgersen cited the motto of Star Trek – “to boldly go where no one has gone before” – as an example of sci-fi Done Right, while somehow not realizing that Star Trek is and has always been about those social issues as much as it’s about spaceships, laser blasters, and rubber-forehead aliens. Gene Roddenberry’s progressive, utopian and humanist aspirations were evident from the beginning. One of the original series writers, David Gerrold, put it this way on Facebook:
Star Trek was about social justice from day one — the stories were about the human pursuit for a better world, a better way of being, the next step up the ladder of sentience. The stories weren’t about who we were going to fight, but who we were going to make friends with. It wasn’t about defining an enemy — it was about creating a new partnership.
Even the stories and authors that began the genre of sci-fi had messages of their own. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was an argument about the limitations of human power and the danger of hubris. H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau was about the author’s anti-vivisection sympathies, and his The World Set Free was a warning about the danger of nuclear war (which Wells imagined before actual nuclear weapons were even invented).
Finding political messages in fiction isn’t remotely new. If anything is new, it’s that SF/F literature is coming to include an even broader palette of ideas, told from the perspectives of people who’ve historically been excluded from the narrow circles of publishing. For real fans, this should be exciting! It means novelty, new kinds of stories, viewpoints we hadn’t considered before. It promises to subvert stale tropes and expand the horizon of our collective imagination.
There will always be those – the narrow of mind, the dogmatic, and yes, the prejudiced – who are fearful of change and seek to delay it as long as possible. But regardless of petulant stunts like this, the trend of democratization is coming, just as it’s coming to academia, to politics, to tech, and to atheism. And it won’t be stopped.
NOTE: In the comments, a few people took issue with whether Vox Day can fairly be said to be affiliated with the Sad Puppies. For more on that, see these two posts: Vox Day’s involvement in the Sad Puppies slate by Naomi Kritzer, and On screaming “We’re not VD!” while ignoring your relationship with VD by Jason Sanford.