The Hugos, Sad Puppies and the Fallacy of the Apolitical

My dog. He's more a bemused neurotic puppy than a sad one but his presence here brings some levity to the current situation,

Smarter and more informed people than myself have written about the absolute embarrassment that is this year’s Hugo Awards shortlist, a noted contrast from the previous year’s forward strides in progressiveness and diversity. Thanks to a campaign known rather facetiously as the Sad Puppies, a slate of approved nominees made the shortlist in practically every category thanks to block-voting. Block voting is nothing new in these kinds of awards bodies and it’s also not against the rules. However, there is a serious problem to be faced in regards to this particular campaign and how it is representative of the organised and systematic backlash against the growing socially progressive attitudes within science-fiction and fantasy.

The Sad Puppies, led by Brad R Torgerson and Larry Correia, and the unsurprisingly more fervent Rabid Puppies led by the vile Vox Day, saw almost three quarters of their recommended picks make the final ballot. This was done supposedly in the spirit of diversifying the final slate and yet what we see is a sea of cishet white men once again. The very notion that socially progressive works couldn’t possibly make the slate based on their own merits is something that’s been bandied around a lot with the Sad Puppies. The same people who scream censorship that the backlash to Sad Puppies and claim the work must be judged on its own merits are the ones avoiding doing just that with the work whose politics they disagree with.

I keep hearing that the Sad and Rabid Puppies process was a protest against the politicisation of SFF. This is a claim that astounds me for a number of reasons. First of all, when has science-fiction ever been apolitical? From Margaret Cavendish to Mary Shelley, from Robert Heinlein to Octavia Butler, from H.P. Lovecraft to Nnedi Okorafor, the genre’s very veins are flowing with the blood of politics. Every genre of fiction has embraced the political on some level, whether it intended to or not. Look at the current slate of Hugo nominees too. Politics runs rife in the work and that’s a good thing. The identity politics regarding gender, race, religion, national identity and the heroic archetype made for one of the year’s best comics with Ms Marvel. There are few major science-fiction works tackling society’s expectations of gender quite so successfully as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. The idea that such works, or the demand for more similar works, is ruining SFF is not only false, it gives absolutely no credit to the genre’s audience.

And then, of course, there’s the idea that what the various Puppies are doing is somehow a victory for the apolitical in the face of overwhelmingly opposed and forced progressiveness (because when Breitbart support your efforts, they must be free of politics). The prominence of “social justice warrior fiction” in critical SFF circles simply must be connected to political correctness gone mad, so the best way to combat this politicisation of the genre is to make it exclusively political by gaming the system in favour of those who have always flourished within its circles. Men like Vox Day have flourished in SFF, even with justified backlash, and his continuing appearance on Hugo shortlists prove that his work and opinions have an audience. He has not suffered from the emergence of more prominent diversity in the genre, and its mere existence does not threaten his.

The Hugos were always political. Now, this year more than ever, they’re nothing but political. Regardless of what way the voters go, it’ll be nigh on impossible for any of them to move forward with their final choices and not in some way be influenced by the outcome of the block voting. You can vote for the Puppies choices as a supporter of what they did, you can vote for the non-Puppies choices to counteract that, or you can No Award in protest. All of these are perfectly legitimate ways to vote but it can’t hide how much this has all tainted the original intent of the Hugos – to pick winners based on merit. In the future, these will be the awards SFF fans look back on and wonder what the hell happened. The lie of ‘keeping politics out of SFF’ has scuppered the process for everyone and exacerbated a wider problem in the community. After all, these puppies are the creatures the industry helped to create. Whether directly or otherwise, many of the same hands shaking fingers at all this helped to stoke the fires in the first place.

The Puppies’ actions resemble those of a lot of anti-progressive and deeply bigoted movements springing up in various pop culture circles with depressing frequency – an explicit backlash against what they see as invasion of their hobbies by ‘outsiders’, usually women, people of colour and LGBTQ people. These people have always been there, and many of them pioneered the entertainment these angry people hold so dear, but the difference now is that their voices are being justifiably amplified. Finally, the faces in the work are beginning to reflect the faces of their audience. This is too far for some. It can’t possibly be natural progress or a savvy business decision or basic human decency; it must be political correctness gone mad, and it must be combated with nothing short of silencing tactics, thus making it even harder for much needed diverse voices to emerge. If this nastiness is to be properly tackled, it cannot end with the Hugo Awards. The entire fabric of SFF and its many generations of problems need to be dealt with. There are great people fighting back against this aggressiveness and we greatly hope real change can be made effectively and permanently. In the meantime, some puppies need rabies shots.


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