The Hugo Awards tout themselves as one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, honoring authors, editors, filmmakers, journalists and advocates since 1953. And that superlative adjective—prestigious— has largely held true. Such sci-fi/fantasy dignitaries as Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Neil Gaiman have all received the ceremony’s Art Deco rocket ship award, a standing recognition of true excellence in the realm of imagination.
This year, that prestige has been questioned by two writers and their curiously-named fan campaign—Sad Puppies 3. Before voters submitted 2,122 ballots collected over the course of three conventions, the Sad Puppies 3 campaign suggested entries that ended up overlapping with 54 percent of the official nominations, announced last Saturday. It’s been a bit of a clusterfuck since and has raised a bevy of new questions, mainly on what an award ceremony can mean if it’s so easily manipulated by two dudes and their Wordpress accounts, for better or worse.
As its name implies, Sad Puppies 3 is the third iteration of a campaign originally orchestrated by sci-fi author Larry Correia and “award-winning speculative fiction” writer Brad R. Torgersen. (Another campaign, the Rabid Puppies from author Theodore Beale, has worked in tandem with the initiative.) Earlier Sad Puppies campaigns sought, with some success, to shed light on authors who are “good, entertaining and wouldn’t normally have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a nomination because they aren’t inclined to kiss the right butts.” Advocating writers excluded from “social justice warriors” publishing circles has been another mission statement (more on that later).
Claiming that Sad Puppies 3 was wildly successful this year is an obvious statement, if not statistically possible; just because Sad Puppies’ suggested nominees overlapped with the final nominations doesn’t mean fans wouldn’t have voted for them otherwise. But, looking over the results, it’s hard to see this outcome as a simple correlation. To reiterate, 54 percent of the final picks can be found on Sad Puppies’ list, and that percentage might have been higher if Correia and Torgersen had provided the maximum number of options for each category. The Sad Puppies list frequently lands clean sweeps, scoring all its suggested picks in such categories as Best Novelette, Best Editor (Long Form and Short Form), Best Professional Artist and, notably, The John W. Campbell Award, which honors new authors.
The fact that a grassroots campaign could influence a literary tradition to such an intense degree is jarring. Even with that simple observation, more media outlets have focused on the initiative’s intentions and connotations with varying degrees of accuracy. Correia and Torgersen have been fairly outspoken on what the campaign isn’t: homophobic, genderist and racist (in response to these allegations, Torgersen posted a picture of himself with his African American wife on the homepage of his website). What Sad Puppies does stand for is a tad more murky. According to Correia, the campaign combats “the politically biased element of [The Hugo Awards] dominated by a few insider cliques. Authors who didn’t belong to these groups or failed to appease them politically were shunned.”
The Sad Puppies primarily oppose groups ambiguously labeled as “social justice warriors” and CHORFs (Cliquish, Holier-than-thou, Obnoxious, Reactionary, Fanatics), as well as individuals and organizations that have prioritized arts as affirmative action over entertainment. The pair also seeks to prioritize entertaining sci-fi against boring and literary incarnations of the genre. According to its founders, the Sad Puppies movement doesn’t purposely exclude any demographic: women appear on the Puppies’ list, as do “socialists, liberals, moderates, libertarians, conservatives and question marks.” From this bramble of statements, the general gist is that the Sad Puppies may not be homophobic, genderist or racist, but they’ll protect authors who may fall within this belief set, or have been excluded because of these views. Unsurprisingly, three works under the banner of Orson Scott Card, who’s never been shy on his homophobic views, pop up throughout the Puppies’ suggested ballot.
If any of the above rhetoric holds a passing resemblance to the straight-white-hardcore-bros vs. creators-stewarding-diversity ugliness of GamerGate, Correia says the movements are exclusively separate, claiming on his site that the Puppies were founded years earlier. But he then calls backing by conservative, pro-GamerGate associations like Breitbart “cool.” “We do share some common members,” Correia explains. “But enemy of my enemy is my friend, and both movements can’t stand Social Justice bullies telling people they are having wrongfun.” So…there’s that.
Paste reached out to The Hugo Awards organization to get its take on this situation. Though we were told that the “Administrators of the awards are bound to not speak on the record on this subject,” Kevin Standlee, a Hugo Awards Marketing Committee Member, offered the following thoughts when asked if this vote engineering contradicts the spirit of The Hugo Awards: “I think that anyone trying to form an organized voting bloc pushing a curated slate of works, particularly slates that contain exactly the same number of entries as there are finalist positions on the ballot, works against what I think is the spirit of an open nominating ballot. Nevertheless, no rules have been broken.”
“The prestige of the Hugo Awards is partially reflected in the fact that, since 1954, the members of the World Science Fiction Convention have been saying, ‘This is what we like and what we want to honor,’” Standlee explains. “It’s not an award for ‘what sold more copies than anything else,’ nor is it meant to be something that reflects the views of everyone in the world who read a book or saw a movie. It’s the collected views of passionate fans of science fiction and fantasy literature who want to share their love of the field with their fellow fans by joining the World Science Fiction Convention and collectively honoring what they consider the best works of the past year. To that extent, any nominations made not in a positive spirit of sharing are harmful to all of us. Any nomination made by someone who is trying to ‘punish’ someone or some group is engaging in self-destructive behavior.”
Ultimately, there’s only one sad, lonely question to ask at the end of all this: what can a prestigious award ceremony mean if it can be dominated this easily by so few voices? This situation also alludes to the strong possibility that the voters have stopped reading the works they’re voting for and are following the suggestions of the slate solely due to political ideology. Correia and Torgersen’s selection for “Best Graphic Story” selection (and it should be telling that there’s only one) is for Carter Reid’s The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate. This raises the question: what the fuck is The Zombie Nation Book #2: Reduce Reuse Reanimate? The endorsement follows Correia’s mission to prop books that would otherwise be underexposed. Zombie Nation appears to be a collection of webcomics that hasn’t warranted one review on Amazon. Are we to assume that every reader of Correia’s website bought and read this book? They may have, and it might deserve this dark horse acclaim. Or the voters might have blindly followed the list, and we can all wonder why The Wicked + The Divine missed out on a nomination because of an obscure zombie webcomic.
Beale of the parallel Rabid Puppies initiative all but confirms this intention in his call to action, encouraging those who value his opinion “to nominate (his selections) precisely as they are. I think it is abundantly evident that these various and meritorious works put not only last year’s nominations, but last year’s winners, to shame.”
With this bizarre development, have the Hugo Awards stopped being a ceremony of popular sovereignty, assuming the battleground for warring niche writers to exert their opinions on the angry and political? And at what moment does a group that prides itself on reclaiming popular entertainment from dominating interests become what it opposes?