Aug 25, 2015

Diversity, Politics, and the Hugo Awards

Worldcon is one of the largest and most recognized yearly conventions in science fiction and fantasy. It is also home to the Hugo Awards, which has been a subject of controversy several times. Most recently, this year's awards fell victim to slate nominations at the hands of two groups: The Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies.

I'll spare you the details on the Puppies themselves. You can Google them. Suffice it to say that the very best of them are ignorant and misguided, while the worst of them have spewed what is honestly some of the most vile hate and bigotry I've seen this side of Gamergate.

In short, the Puppies claimed that science fiction and fantasy had become too political, too concerned with diversity and social issues, and less focused on rocket ships, 'splosions, monsters, and pew pew pew!

It's bullshit, of course. Because SFF has always been political, and has always addressed social issues, right back to arguably the very first sci-fi novel, Frankenstein. I mean, a book where a man uses science to create life? Literally replicating the power of the divine through technology? Creating a being in his own image, only for it to turn on him?

But in any case, the votes are in.

Not only did none of the Puppies' slate win their category, but in every category where only the Puppies' favourites were nominated, the win went to "No Award". No Award came out on top in an unprecedented five categories.

There will of course be much discussion over this result, now and as time goes on and we look to next year, to see will the Puppies make good on their threat to sabotage every Hugo Award from now on. There are some excellent articles already, from Chuck Wendig, Foz Meadows, Amy Wallace, and others.

The Puppies made the mistake of thinking that taking political action could remove politics from a genre which has built its foundation on tackling political and social issues. Opening up discussion is one thing. Extolling the virtues of a particular author or book isn't political. Organising a widespread attempt to rig an award, on the other hand, nevermind how much the rules allow it, is certainly political. Threatening to sabotage those same awards if people don't play your game your way is certainly political.

Why? Because the people being represented more and more in fiction are marginalized. They do not see themselves in stories. And they deserve to. Everyone deserves heroes and villains. Not because of political correctness or because there has to be a particular quota for representation, but because they're people, and people have a burning need to experience stories. We seek them out every day, and we seek out stories that speak to us on a personal level.

By saying that speculative fiction should go back to a mythological era when bare-chested barbarians swung swords while rescuing half-naked damsels, and clean-cut space heroes flew rockets and shot big-headed green aliens with ray guns, and no-one ever spoke of "themes" or "allegory", the Puppies are saying that only the stories they prefer deserve to receive recognition.

There's a word for that. When a group of privileged people look down on those who want what they have and tell them "this is not for you."


The Puppies' message, whether they believe it or not, whether they even intended it or not, was basically to hang a sign up on their clubhouse reading "No girls, no gays, no coloureds". They can swing around that "we just want the story to be considered first" excuse all they want, but it doesn't change what they were saying. It just makes them sound utterly self-righteous, and ensures that sensible, rational people will not want anything to do with them.

And I know, because I used to be that person.

"I'm not a sexist author," I once said. "I'd totally write a book with a woman as the main character, if the story called for it." (emphasis 35 year old me, not past me)

That phrase, "if the story calls for it" needs to be stricken from every discussion about fiction. The story calls for whatever the author wants. That's all a story really is; the decisions of the author.

The simple fact is, diversity is worthwhile in its own right. The fact that a book tackles race, gender, or sexuality, assuming it does so well, automatically sets it apart from books that stick to tired old formulas about straight white men killing brown (or blue, or green, or insect) people and saving damsels from certain doom. We need diversity. We need authors willing to push the limits and expand the genre further.

The Puppies showed us how strong prejudice is in SFF fandom. The Hugo Awards showed the Puppies how strong the desire for diversity is. So let's keep this going, and keep making SFF a better, more accepting place for everyone.

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