This year’s Hugo Award nominees are a messy political controversy

This year’s Hugo Award nominees are a messy political controversy

The cover of Jim Butcher's Skin Game: A Novel Of The Dresden Files
The cover of Jim Butcher's Skin Game: A Novel Of The Dresden Files

The 2015 Hugo Award nominees have been announced, and there are some strong titles in contention for Best Novel, including books by Ann Leckie, Marko Kloos, and Jim Butcher. However, that doesn’t seem to be what people are talking about, which is probably causing some consternation in the Kloos household, where conversation is usually relegated to arguing over the best pronunciation of their last name. No, this year’s crop of nominees is notable for being overwhelmingly dominated by a group of white guys who formed an organized backlash to the growing inclusion of women and people of color in last year’s awards.

The Hugo Awards recognize the best in science fiction or fantasy works produced in the previous year. (In much the same way the Academy Awards are given to the “best” films, but that’s a debate for another time.) Last year, there was a marked rise in the number of younger women and people of color taking home awards. Depending on your point of view, that was either the world of science fiction and fantasy catching up to the reality of the 21st century, or it was a bunch of elitist lefties imposing their progressive values on the world of genre entertainment. (”It’s about ethics in handing out awards for science fiction or fantasy!” is slightly too long of a slogan, but you get the idea.) As a result, this year the contenders in almost every category outside of “Best Novel” come from a single fan campaign led by people from the latter of those two perspectives.

The fan campaign is called Sad Puppies, organized by writers Brad L. Torgersen and Larry Correia. To briefly summarize Sad Puppies’ beef—because a simple generalization of a huge and messy political firestorm is always the best way to calm things down—the problem lies in the Hugo Award nomination process. Fans submit nominees, and anyone who purchases a supporting membership at Worldcon can nominate for two years in a row. As a result, it‘s often not that tough for a small-but-motivated group of people to secure a nomination for someone or something. In Torgersen’s eyes, this meant that a “rarified, insular” group of fans who dominated Worldcon had become too far removed from “mainstream” tastes, an imbalance he hopes to correct. And Torgersen’s “populist” taste just so happens to look an awful lot like a group of straight white men, not that he cares about that stuff, mind you.

Of course, the argument that critics and others deeply involved with a particular milieu tend to reward artistic prestige and pedigree at the expense of acknowledging more popular works of art is an old one. But critics of the Sad Puppies campaign point to equally widespread criticism that the Hugos are just as likely to reward popular fiction and shortchange literary, or “serious,” works. Charlie Jane Anders at io9 has a post challenging Torgerson and Correia’s campaign, arguing that their politicization of the awards is a reactionary move that only further degrades what was already a politically charged process:

But this year’s list of nominees seems to herald the beginning of the Hugos becoming “political” in the sense that each “side” will have its own recommended slate of nominees. People won’t get to spend months chewing over the best things they read in the previous year and grappling with their own consciences about what to nominate — instead, each side will have to decide early on which standard-bearers to double down on.

Correia has refused his Best Novel nomination this year in an effort to prove that he doesn’t care about personal vindication. “This is just one little battle in an ongoing culture war between artistic free expression and puritanical bullies who think they represent *real* fandom,” he writes, which is an interesting way to criticize people whom you’re criticizing on behalf of other *real* fans. “I want writers to be free to write whatever they want without fear of social justice witch hunts,” he continues, which starts to sound a little odd, because it’s tough to equate some women and people of color winning Hugos with writers not being allowed to write what they want. It sounds like Correia’s worried about writers who choose not to write about certain issues being “silenced,” which isn’t really the same as not winning Hugos, and which also doesn’t seem to be happening. (Of course, not being represented or heard is a state of affairs women and people of color know a little something about.)

You can see the entire list of nominees here, and take note of the close overlap with the entire Sad Puppies slate of suggested nominees. (There’s literally a nominee brought to you by the good people at “Patriarchy Press.”) And just like any time there’s a discussion of diversity on the internet, you can be assured that the subtlety and nuances of the debate will be addressed with the expected sensitivity. Which is to say that you’d be better off flinging yourself lengthwise into a bathtub of burning pitch.


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