The 2015 Hugo Controversy – A Few Thoughts

I usually don’t get involved in online “discussions.” Partly because so much of what we “discuss” happens on Facebook – the equivalent of trying to teach recalcitrant students rocket science exclusively through the use of bumper stickers.* And partly because I’m busy, you know, writing for a living.

But a number of events have come together to… ahem… encourage me to jump in. One is that I’m currently sitting here with ice on my junk and in too much pain to feel like working on my current work in progress (the product of an enthusiastic infant who thinks my groin is really a trampoline… ahhh, the joys of fatherhood). The other is that I just have too many friends who are supporting something that I find personally reprehensible.

A bit of history:

The Hugo Award is one that is given for excellence in science fiction and fantasy writing. A group of
people calling themselves the Sad Puppies (a name they took to make fun of liberal causes du jour) started
a few years ago to encourage people to vote for books that were not (to use their words) “message
fiction,” but rather simply fun books, books that “normal people” (whatever those are) like to read.
Anyone who wants to and is willing to slap over 40 bucks can vote for the Hugos, and the Sad Puppies
actually got a few of their works on the ballot.

The Sad Puppies were the brainchild of Larry Correia, the New York Times bestselling writer of the Monster Hunter International series. Larry is also so right-wing he “throws away the left Twix in every package” (this is pretty much word-for-word from his site).

This is important to the narrative.

Correia is not a white guy. He is of Portuguese descent. Also important.

Fast forward to this year. The Sad Puppies were still supported by Correia, but were taken over by another author named Brad Torgersen. Brad is a sci-fi author who has won numerous awards. He has also been married to a black woman for about 20 years. This, too, is important to the narrative.

Along with the Sad Puppies, another group sprang into being. Latching onto the success of the SPs, they called themselves the Rabid Puppies. The person who birthed them goes by the online moniker Vox Day and, from what I can tell, he has said some pretty nasty things about pretty much every racial, sexual, and other minority possible.

The Sad Puppies made it clear from the beginning they were not happy with the Rapid Puppies using their name, but because there is little they could do to stop it – short of actually beating up Vox (which, based on what I can tell of his persona, he might have enjoyed) – the RPs kept on keeping on. So did the SPs, telling people at every turn that they were not affiliated with and by and large did not agree with the RPs.

In this year’s Hugo voting period, the SPs suggested to their “followers” (I have no better name than this) that certain books be considered for the Hugo awards in most if not all the categories. Among those requested for consideration were works by women, minorities, and people of both straight and homosexual orientations. They also included some of the top-selling and most respected writers working in sci-fi fantasy today.

The books suggested were vetted primarily by Torgersen, and came with the exhortation that the books a) be read, and b) only be voted for if the people voting thought they were worthy.

The RPs also suggested works. There was some overlap.

Come Hugo nomination time, between the SPs and the RPs, their slates pretty much swept the major categories. Though there had been campaigning before with regard to the Hugos (some of it quite open), no group or groups had ever before organized a slate of this nature, and certainly no group had ever organized a slate of works that were nominated on this scale.

People who had supported previous winners and people ideologically opposed to the SPs and/or RPs immediately began crying foul. Saying that the Hugos had been used and ill-used by evil people (and I am not exaggerating when I say “evil”). There was a piece written in Entertainment Weekly that claimed without basis that the SPs were racist and sexist. A retraction was later published.

Still, the claims were picked up and repeated. Add to that claims that the SPs/RPs (for the two are most often conflated as if they are two heads of a single hydra) are homophobic, white men who have a desire to subjugate those with whom they do not agree and turn the Hugos into an exclusively white male offering.

Among the claims made were that Torgersen, specifically, is a racist and a homophobe. He eventually pointed out that he had been married to a black woman for over twenty years and had a child with her. The response: that his marriage was a sham and his wife and child were “shields.”

Through all this, Torgersen and Correia kept posting on their blogs, repeatedly calling for opponents to provide hard evidence of their racism, sexism, etc. To my knowledge, none was provided. That said, they certainly got angry at times – Correia, in particular, has made a name for himself as being very… hmmm… abrasive at times. And certainly whenever someone posted something mean in a public forum about the SPs and/or RPs, their supporters tended to flood comments with statements ranging from reasoned arguments to wrathful screeds.

Later, an editor at Tor named Irene Gallo published the following on her personal Facebook page (for those who don’t know, Tor is one of the premier publishers of sci-fi fantasy, and several of its authors are up for Hugo awards). This was in response to a question re who the SPs were:

“There are two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, misogynist, and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.”

This caused an uproar. Many SP and RP supporters wrote to Tor calling for action against Gallo. Eventually the head of Tor, Tom Doherty, wrote an open letter in which he stated that Gallo’s opinions were her own, but that she had not made that clear and had been remiss in doing so. Further, that that fact had been impressed upon her anew and that Tor employees generally had been told to make clear when they spoke for themselves, and when they spoke for Tor.

A few portions of the letter:

“The Puppies groups were organized to support a slate of authors for the Hugo Awards, given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year. Media coverage of the two groups initially suggested that they were organized simply to promote white men, which was not correct. Each Puppies’ slate of authors and editors included some women and writers of color, including Rajnar Vajra, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson and Amanda Green. Some of the authors on the Sad Puppy slate have been published by Tor and Tor.com, including Kevin J. Anderson, John C. Wright, Ed Lerner and Michael F. Flynn. Many, many Hugo Award nominees and winners are our authors too, including Kevin J. Anderson, John C. Wright and Katherine Addison this year and John Chu, John Scalzi, Cherie Priest and Jo Walton in past years, just to mention a few.

Tor employees, including Ms. Gallo, have been reminded that they are required to clarify when they are speaking for Tor and when they are speaking for themselves.”

Subsequent to this, people (many of them my friends) began posting on Facebook that they supported – or did not support – Gallo. Some stated that the SPs had ganged up on Tor and “made” Doherty do this. Others claimed it was a dark day for women in sci-fi fantasy, as though the letter had been a product of gender bias (whether on the part of the SPs, the RPs, Doherty, or some combination of the three, I do not know). Still others claimed explicitly that they refused to deal with whether or not Gallo’s claims were true, but that she was an important voice standing up to the bullies that are the SPs and/or RPs. There are others, but these are the ones that most stand out.

Now, some of my impressions and observations. And, by the way, if you’ve stuck around for all this, kudos.

1) The SPs as evil.

I simply can’t address this in its totality. I suspect that they are people. That some of them are nice, that some are not. I suspect they run the gamut of humanity.

But I can say that I know Larry Correia and, to a lesser extent, Brad Torgersen. I know them mostly through conventions and writing symposia we all attend, where I bump into them with fair regularity. At these things, you cannot throw a stick without it hitting someone who is a) of a different gender, b) of a different sexual orientation, c) of a different whatever-it-is-than-you-are.

As far as I can tell, neither Larry nor Brad care at all. They are universally courteous – even Larry, who is so much nicer when you meet him in person that you wonder if he has an evil twin locked up and who he lets out solely to write angry blog posts when the situation demands.

I have seen them interact with people of color, homosexuals, cosplayers, even authors, and they are nice to everyone.

I have observed up close the fact that Larry is not a white dude. Though he is big and often has an amazing beard, under it he is kind of olive-y. Can a Portuguese guy be racist? Or is that not sufficiently far enough from white to keep him from being evil as a matter of course? I don’t know the rules these days (and no, that’s not a joke – some people have rules that come down color lines and I really don’t know them).

I have also observed how Brad treats his wife, and to call him a racist is ludicrous, unless you redefine the word so radically as to render it useless as a descriptor.

2) The slate as a concept is evil.

I can’t really opine on this. I don’t know enough about the Hugos. I can say that, speaking as one on the outside, gaming for awards is nothing new (the Weinstein Company is famous for garnering Oscars, for example), and to act shocked that it occurred is either naive or disingenuous.

That said, the SPs and RPs as groups seem to have a lot in common ideologically and seem to enjoy a lot of the same things as their respective leaders. So for either to say, “Hey, this isn’t just a pro forma thing – we told them to read everything!” also seems a bit disingenuous. People follow recommendations by people they trust. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s the basis for much that is good of civilization! But it does imply a strong possibility that many of the books that made it to the ballot made it on the recommendation of a person, not the reality of the content.

3) Gallo’s words and Facebook and Doherty’s response.

Okay, for this one I have to preface everything with the fact that I was a business owner. I was a lawyer for ten years and part owner of the law firm for a while. And if one of my employees got on Facebook and said something that might impact my business, she and I would have words. Serious words.

This has nothing to do with gender, or color, or orientation. This has to do with the fact that no matter how “personal” a Facebook page is, it is also a public place. Talking to your friends on Facebook is not talking to them in your living room. It is more akin to gathering them about in the park, then standing on a soap box and shouting back and forth: sure, the conversation is personalized, but it’s very easily overheard by others, too.

Doherty responded very well, I thought.

First, an employee had possibly libeled a group of people. And when people like that are sued, the employer is often brought in as a “deep pocket.” It’s just a reality of litigation. So he had to make it clear she was not responding for Tor as a matter of financial protection. This was especially crucial since, even though she made her statements on her Facebook page, it was in conjunction with Tor-related announcements.

Second, an employee had bad-mouthed the company’s own product by calling the entire slate – some of whom were Tor authors, remember – “bad-to-reprehensible works.” This is anathematic to the purpose of the business itself, and if she were speaking as an employee, it probably would have been a basis for dismissal. By making it clear she was speaking of her own accord, Mr. Doherty might have acted to save her job.

From my point of view as an ex-lawyer and business owner – and someone who tries to act professional – Gallo acted wrongly, and Doherty acted extremely professionally under difficult circumstances.

4) The upshot.

It all makes me sad.

I remember reading books that said “Hugo Winner” on them and thinking they’d be great. I remember looking at certain people and thinking they would be above name-calling, ad hominem attacks, an apparent lust to hurt someone simply because they disagreed with them.

I can think neither thing now.

The Hugos are tarnished. Not because a slate won a set of nominations, but because of the way the community that purports to hold the Hugos up as sacred reacted. Anger? Fine. Outrage? Human. Slurs, innuendo, baseless attacks, tarring people with such a wide brush that it would be impossible not to hit innocent bystanders? This is what I find the most disturbing. This is what I find truly tragic.

I will no longer look at Hugo Award winners with such excitement. And I will be wary of certain people. Because what if someday they disagree with me?

* This analogy courtesy of my father.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice