The Hugo Wars start up again

The Hugo Awards saga is getting ugly again. One of my favourite authors, with whom I’ve had quite a few entertaining conversations on Twitter, has a novella included in the infamous Sad Puppies list, and has demanded its removal.

It was probably a vain hope that there would be any kind of reconciliation and bridge-building this year; the mass use of No Award last year probably killed any chances of that, and since then both sides have doubled down. Now they just trading insults and engaging in competitive name-calling. Innocent authors like that favourite of mine get caught up in a bitter war that’s not of their making and forced into a position where whatever they do it will be wrong.

I had considered signing up for supporting membership this year and voting in the nominations process, but now I’m very glad I didn’t. I want no part of this.

At the heart of the war over the Hugos is the question of what these awards are supposed to represent and who they belong to.

The best music awards are those that are honest and unambiguous about what they represent. The Brits represent mass-market commercial pop without pretending to be anything else. At the opposite pole the CRS Awards represent the favourites of a small and self-selecting circle of enthusiastic supporters of the grassroots progressive rock scene and doesn’t claim to be anything more than that. Even the Prog Awards with its entirely arbitrary nominations process exists solely to gain positive media coverage for progressive rock as a whole, and doesn’t really pretend otherwise. Nobody really cares who wins.

The worse kind of music awards are those that give out mixed messages over what they’re supposed to represent. The juried Mercury Music Prize is the poster child for this, with its opaque nomination process and the way it’s always highly genre-specific, or at least genre-excluding, while pretending it isn’t. And we can’t not mention the fiasco of last years Guardian’s reader’s album of the year, when they held an open public vote, then eliminated the finalists they didn’t like for reasons that have never had a satisfactory explanation.

Worldcon does need to make up it’s mind exactly what they want The Hugos to be. Do they want to preserve its purity even at the expense of its continuing relevance? Or do the Hugos need to be held in a bigger tent covering a wider range of science-fiction and fantasy in order to maintain its cultural prominence? Or will the change in the voting system next year sufficiently defang the puppies to take the heat out of the thing?

And similarly the Sad Puppies need to ask themselves; why do The Hugos matter to them? Should they stop trying to gatecrash a party for which they’ve repeatedly been told they’re not welcome at, and instead start their own?

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5 Responses to The Hugo Wars start up again

  1. Colum Paget says:

    # Worldcon does need to make up its mind exactly what they
    # want The Hugos to be. Do they want to preserve its purity
    # even at the expense of its continuing relevance?

    To be fair to worldcon, the situation is well out of its control, and is a reflection of bigger problems in the community/genre. Many of the puppies accusations against the Hugos are accurate, they are a non-representitive award given by a bunch of faux-lefty weirdos to their mates. Unfortnately, if the puppies had their way, the would become a non-representitive award given by a bunch of righty weirdos to their mates (though at least I think they would be ‘real’ righty weirdos, the current lot claim to be left wing but are profoundly anti working class, so I’m not sure what left wing means in this context).

    The fighting over the award represents a wider problem in the state of written science-fiction, which has become elitest and out of touch with what most people think. People are far more concerned with “beautiful writing” or clever literary devices than in commenting on anything that’s really happening in the world. Largely this is due to the fact that very many people in the writerly crowd are from upper-middle class achedemic backgrounds. A community stocked with Marxists/socialists who believe in the inevitable march towards a utopian one-world culture are utterly unable to understand a world in which great-power geopolitics is back in force, and religion is more assertive and relevant than they are. Indeed, for many of them, SF has become a retreat from the world: even among writers/people I’ve got respect for I hear the claim “SF is just entertainment, it’s not supposed to be political”. SF is the most political form there is, but when the politics of most people in control of the genre is anachronistic, bonkers, or both, SF cannot breathe.

    Worldcon is not able to correct what the community has become. There’s many good people in SF, but if you pan out and look at the community as a whole it’s basically a cult. If you start to question any of the core beliefs of the community (e.g. that socialism is still revelvant, that class does not exist and everything purely race and gender, that there’s no such thing as racism towards white people ) you’ll quickly find yourself in hot water. Such a community can’t be a safe-space for free expression or free thought. Thus the awards can never really be relevant, because a lot of stuff that’s truely relevant would scare the pants off the sci-fi crowd (and I think that’s true both of the lefty incumbents, and the righty rebellion).

    # Or do the Hugos need to be held in a bigger tent covering a
    # wider range of science-fiction and fantasy in order to maintain
    # its cultural prominence?

    Well, it’s probably a good thing that SF has somewhat managed to escape the tent. From Atwood to Weir there’s people doing SF without paying any heed to the ‘official’ community. This is, as you imply, the approach the puppies should have taken instead of trying to fight for a slice of a blasted no-man’s-land.

    Looking at this landscape though, it should remind you of something. It should remind you of the way things were in a different cultural ecosystem once upon a time. Things got too elitest and self-referrential, with too many established gatekeepers who defined what ‘the thing’ was. Which means that something needs to happen. You ain’t gonna like it, and I didn’t like it at the time, but you know exactly what I mean. ;-)

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I think you may be repeating a revisionist narrative written by the people who set themselves up a new generation of gatekeepers there, Colum ;)

    Seriously, the acid test for any award is “Does the stuff I like have any chance of winning?”. If the answer to that is “No”, then you have to decide if the award actually matters enough to try and do something about that, or if it’s best dismissed as irrelevant to you.

  3. Colum Paget says:

    # I think you may be repeating a revisionist narrative written by
    # the people who set themselves up a new generation of gatekeepers
    # there, Colum

    Yeah, they did. And unfortunately that’s inevitable. But ugly as punk was, and I’m aware it was a very nasty and cruel period, something like every day in ‘the lowest half of the internet’, it had to happen. Every now and then the reset button has to be pressed on culture. Written SF is disappearing up its own arse. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with beautifully written literary pieces that deconstruct the tropes of Ballardian SF, so long as others are writing some stuff that’s really relevant. But right now I see two camps: Rip-roaring escapist military SF, and achedemic postmodern SF. Both are essentially retreats from reality into gated communities of the mind.

    And the politics of people in SF is puerile. Most of the community dreams of socialist utopias where we’ve done away with money. You’d think the twentieth century hadn’t happened. The alternative political strain seems to be the objectivist model for high feudalism (perhaps because they think it would resemble game-of-thrones with better private healthcare). And their gender politics is basically fascism wearing a dress and a wig and putting on a false accent (and anyone saying otherwise will need to produce of a good explanation of how requires_hate happened).

    Yes, there’s people one can point to who are better than the community overall (#NotAllSciFi), and really what I’m describing here is the writers/critics/thought leaders, the fans just make up the numbers. But in terms of what the dominant orthodoxy is, they’re laughable.

    This is a community that’s intellectually, morally, and ideologically bankrupt. Nothing of any real stature has been written since Neuromancer (there’s been some nice little works that are cool and all, but no one will be reading them in ten years time). Science fiction is too important to be left in the hands of a bunch of aging middle-class loony-lefties, or to fall into the hands of a bunch of ‘God and Guns’ loony-righties. Written science-fiction needs to start publishing truly relevant and challenging work, but it’s not going to do that under the current set of gatekeepers.

    You can tell me that punk didn’t really democratize music, and maybe that’s true, it’s a tough thing to decide one way or another. It did seem to return things to ‘scruffy kids with guitars’, at least some of them from quite working class backgrounds. But you can’t disagree that something like that needs to happen in SF.

    Yes, a new set of gatekeepers is not the optimal result. In time, they will have to be dethroned in their turn. But it would be meaningful change in a genre that (in its written form, not so much in other media) looks increasingly moribund.

  4. I find Colum’s bleak view of modern SF very depressing. And maybe the state of some corners of SF does look like that. But I don’t recognise the SF world I know in Colum’s post.

    I read roughly between six and twelve new works of SF every month, and I see ideas from right across the political spectrum, as well as completely apolitical ideas (or as apolitical as anything can be when it’s written by a human being). I see writers looking back to the tropes of the past and writers inventing the tropes of the future. I see work that’s pure uncomplicated escapism and work that deeply challenges my worldview. I see work that is only “less important” than Neuromancer because it has less reach. Most importantly, I don’t see “camps”. I just see a vast array of talented writers writing anything and everything that takes their fancy month after month. And I don’t get the feeling that any of them (or their editors) are loonies of any age, class, or political stripe.

    I also have no idea who has and hasn’t won a Hugo in recent years, nor do I really care.

    Maybe that last sentence goes some way to explaining why my view of the state of SF is less nihilistic than Colum’s?

  5. Tim Hall says:

    I think SF itself is still in decent shape, it’s that Fandom and many of fandom’s institutions have become dysfunctional.

    There are a lot of parellels with the bitteress of the Punk Wars in music a generation ago. The way so many fans of different sub-genres deny other sub-genres’ right to exist is an obvious one.