The science-fiction and fantasy literature world might seem by its nature to be forward-thinking, but it hasn't been free from the kinds of culture wars embodied by last year's Gamergate controversy—a fact aptly illustrated by this year’s nominations for the genre’s (arguably) most prestigious awards, the Hugos. The tastes of the voting audience for the Hugos (comprised of the attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon) seem to have grown more diverse in recent years. And their selections have reflected that: Last year's awards were swept by writers of color and women, myself included. So it was a surprise when a majority of voters woke up April 4 to a nomination slate almost exclusively overrun by novels, stories, and related fan efforts promoted by a small group of writers who claim the Hugos are turning into affirmative-action awards catering to left-wing ideologies. Their efforts to influence the voting process are led by the novelist Larry Correia and the Internet personality Theodore Beale, who's best known for his desire to deny women the right to vote and his firm belief that black people are “savages.”
When I won two awards last year, it seemed like an impossible achievement for me, because I knew the history of the Hugos. I knew they historically rewarded popular work, set in the kinds of old, colonial, dudes-rule-everything universes that my work explicitly challenges. I never thought I’d be more than a fringe writer, but I also didn’t believe science fiction was going to change, or that I’d be part of making that happen. I figured it would continue to tell the same old stories about the same old futures until the last of its readers died out, and that I’d be shouting for a more humanitarian future at the margins with others like me. But, like our wider culture, science-fiction and fantasy fandom grew and shifted; and with it, our vision of the future changed, too.
Some aren't happy about that. For the last three years, Correia has led a small but vocal anti-progressive campaign called Sad Puppies in an attempt to game the Hugos by mobilizing people to vote for its preferred choices. The secret of the awards is that they're actually very susceptible to manipulation—it costs just $40 for a supporting membership that gives one voting rights. Low participation, paired with the sheer breadth of eligible work, means nominees can get onto the ballot with as few as 50 nominations. After failing to move the needle the first year, Sad Puppies organized around another slate of candidates and garnered an additional 70 or so votes last year to edge a few of their chosen authors onto the ballot. The overall voting membership wasn’t impressed with these choices, and awarded other work in every category. But this year, Sad Puppies, buoyed by Beale’s more extreme, Gamergate-affiliated campaign Rabid Puppies, managed to secure the extra votes needed to dominate the nominations. The result? They managed to push out those seeking to make the Hugos more representative of the diverse works within the genre.
The nominations prompted a lot of response on Twitter.* Some people seemed to commend Sad Puppies for mobilizing effectively.
Congrats and thank you, #sadpuppies You are inspiring us to take back our own award shows.— Mark Kern (@Grummz) April 5, 2015
The Hugos: GamerGate Edition!— Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) April 4, 2015
As the writer and critic Abigail Nussbaum, herself a Hugo nominee, points out, schisms along political lines among science-fiction and fantasy authors aren't new, nor is the subsequent ballot stuffing and logrolling in protest against awarding more literary work. The author Samuel R. Delany wrote about his experience at the 1968 Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. When one of the presenters went on a long rant about how “pretentious literary nonsense” like Delany’s and Roger Zelazny’s was “abandoning the old values of good, solid, craftsmanlike story-telling,” the room got very quiet. Delany won two awards that night—and received a standing ovation for his wins. Isaac Asimov, in a misguided attempt to cut the tension of the night, joked to Delany afterward that the reason they gave him the award was because “you’re Negro,” a remark Delany read as "a self-evidently tasteless absurdity" and a "standard male trope." But it was Delany himself who noted that the worst of the racist backlash in the science-fiction community was yet to come.
The genre has since grown dramatically, and last year, work by women and people of color from a diverse range of publishers swept the Nebula Awards in addition to the Hugos. So why are so many fringe groups escalating their protests in gaming, in comics, and in the science-fiction community? Why should it matter that there was a block vote led in large part by a group whose most vociferous leader wants to disenfranchise entire groups of people?
The truth is that our wars of words and narrative matter, especially those that tell us what sorts of possible futures we can build—and groups like Gamergate, Sad Puppies, and Rabid Puppies understand this. The author Ursula K. Le Guin said it best in her National Book Award acceptance speech:
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
The demographics of the United States are shifting (by 2050, people of color will outnumber Caucasians), and young people’s views are becoming increasingly liberal (even 61 percent of young Republicans favor same-sex marriage). The effects of this are being felt across all aspects of our public life. The media being consumed now is different than that preferred by the dominant culture of the 1990s, let alone the 1950s, and there's undeniably a greater appetite for progressive stories.
So it’s no coincidence that many of the people block voting these awards are the same ones sending death threats to women and people of color, sending SWAT teams to the addresses of critics, and hijacking accounts and identities to try and silence those creating more inclusive stories. Suppressing the recognition that comes from winning awards also serves to silence the futures being written—how many works will we not see this year reprinted in the award lists in major publications?
Historically, science-fiction and fantasy literature is no stranger to controversy, but it has learned how to adapt and endure. Some of the most exciting conversations about power and resistance are happening in the field, and it’s these books and their creators that are increasingly the starting point for original television shows and movies that weave themselves into wider cultural narratives, from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill (the basis for the film Edge of Tomorrow) to James S.A. Corey’s new Expanse series on SyFy with its incredibly diverse cast. Chuck Wendig’s upcoming Blackbirds adaptation on Starz features a tough, trash-talking heroine. The science-fiction authors Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes crowdfunded a short zombie film starring Frankie Faison of The Wire.
G. Willow Wilson and Genevieve Valentine are two science-fiction authors among those writing reboots of the wildly popular Ms. Marvel (now in its seventh printing) and Catwomen comics, reimagining Ms. Marvel as a young Muslim woman and addressing Catwoman’s bisexuality directly. Even Ann Leckie’s gender-bending space opera, Ancillary Justice, which swept the field’s awards last year, has been optioned for film. And these names and titles only represent a fraction of this growing movement. The reality is that much of the stuff you see in film, television, comics, and and children’s cartoons got its start inside the inspired, disruptive halls of science-fiction and fantasy literature.
It’s lucky for us—writers, readers, and everyone else—that the fiction of the future is much more difficult to game than an awards ballot.
* This post has been updated to clarify the context of comments people tweeted after the Hugo nominations were released.