The Hugo awards controversy

A friend just alerted me to a controversy that’s rocking SF fandom at the moment: a right-wing group called the Sick Puppies or Rabid Puppies have managed to dominate the 2015 Hugo Award nominations, giving them an extremely different flavor to the usual. And some fans and authors, at least, are incensed. Just to scratch the surface, you can read an angry post by SF/cyberpunk author Charles Stross, and a more sympathetic and extensive article from the other side at Breitbart.

The best that I’ve seen on the topic, though, is this very long article by Matthew David Surridge, in which he explains why he refused a Hugo nomination as part of the Sick Puppies slate. It’s a shame that he did so, as in a non-academic context, he covers many of the most important ideas in SF scholarship—it’s an excellent introduction to the field, and to the current state of SF and SF fandom, if you’re not on top of such things (and these days, I’m really not).

Parts of Surridge’s article remind me of Darko Suvin’s seminal academic work on SF and fantasy. One of the key points is this:

SF, and really any literature, has always, explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, had some sort of ideology behind it.

If I’ve understood it correctly from Surridge, the Puppies’ grievance is that SF according to the Hugos has turned overly ideological and ’literary’, and doesn’t reflect the interests of a fandom with a taste for more ideologically vacant SF that provides pure entertainment. They hark back to an imaginary golden age where SF was about swashbuckling adventure.

But SF has always been inherently ideological and experimental/literary, is Surridge’s point, as it was Suvin’s. And for a considerable amount of time, that ideology has often been a subversive one, be it part of current left-wing orthodoxy or something more complicated and iconoclastic (like libertarianism or anarchism).

To be sure, there have also always been elements of SF&F (speculative/science fiction and fantasy) that are conservative rather than progressive or subversive. Suvin takes the conservative elements to task in his essay “Considering the Sense of ‘Fantasy’ or ‘Fantastic Fiction’”, which unfortunately I can’t find a free version of to link to. In his article, Surridge also notes SF editor John W. Campbell’s racism, via an anecdote from Asimov.

Fortunately, this important essay by Suvin is free: Estrangement and Cognition. Therein, Suvin defines the crucial concept of the novum, a new world that produces estrangement when we encounter it, which he identifies as being at the heart of SF’s subversive potential.

And at the head of that article is a note that it derives from an essay delivered in 1968! Absolutely—philosophy, politics, and SF have been tied up for decades—and I personally find that kind of philosophical SF the most rewarding. The 60s and 70s are the “golden age of SF” for me far more than the 30s.

That said, there are now anti-white, anti-male, and anti-religious (read “militant atheist”) elements to SF fandom and nerd/tech politics that I now find decidedly icky. Sad Puppies agitator Theodore Beale (a.k.a. Vox Day) has a particular beef with former SFWA president John Scalzi, and to an extent I don’t blame him: I took an instant dislkie to Scalzi on being sent his “easy mode” piece in an attempt to convert me from my critical stance on contemporary feminism and identity politics. Such SJWs (social justice warriors), as they are sometimes called, can do an appalling job of preaching to the unconverted. Yet Beale/Day himself is even less sympathetic, especially when it comes to his relatively misogynistic views on sexual politics (and people who know me will understand I do not use the word misogynistic lightly).

I’m with the outraged in thinking that the Sad Puppies etc. would have been better to leave the Hugos alone. They serve a specific set of literary, political and philosophical interests, and serve them pretty well as far as I can see. Many of those who they do serve have just had their reading list for the year vandalised by replacing it with works that are not likely to be to their taste.

If the Puppies have a different set of interests, they can set up a different set of awards. The Prometheus awards already do a good job of highlighting great libertarian SF, for instance, and Beale was nominated for an American Christian Fiction Writers award in 2009. The Puppies could begin their own list of honorees that reflects their values.

In closing, though, I’d like to urge readers not to judge this year’s list of Hugo nominees purely on their being put there by the Puppies. The books could be dreck, as some are assuming, but it needs to be demonstrated by discussing the qualities of the work independent of this campaign. Certainly, at least one of their indendet nominees, Burridge, well deserves an accolade. Amazon will let you read the first bits of almost anything for free, so if you want to criticise—go load up on ammunition first. I want to see quotes.

Image: Sad Dog, CC by Consumerist.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.