On the Hugo Awards and Villainy

I don’t believe that anyone is a write-off as a human. Especially not thousands of people. Yet, in the recent Hugo Awards, around 1,800 people voted for the slate of the Sad/Rabid Puppies. A group that most media outlets have tagged as sexist at least, and are frequently called racist, misogynistic and trans/homophobic.

If you don’t know the story, I suggest this article for a good introduction.

Every story needs a strong antagonist. But mustache-twirling, evil-to-the-core characters don’t work, because they don’t exist in life. That’s why I’m trying to work out where they are coming from. Especially since they are part of a fandom I love.

I’m not going to worry about the Rabid Puppies or Vox Day here. Day cynically had a lot to gain personally from the slate he proposed, and there will always be trolls. There may be otherwise reasonable people swept up in their passions in that, and there are true bigots there too. But other than a full psychological profile on each individual, it’s not going to be possible to do them justice.

But the Sad Puppies seem a little different. Often attempting to justify their position more carefully, and making some attempts to distance themselves from the obvious hate of the Rabid Puppies, many of them seem to honestly believe they are in the right.

So, as I understand it, here is how the whole Hugos debacle might look from a moderate Puppy’s point of view:

A load of novels with similar takes on feminism, diversity and sexuality are suddenly winning lots of Hugos. They’re pushing out excellent and just straight-up fun novels that don’t conform to their politics. So there must be people working behind the scenes to get them preferential treatment. And when an attempt is made to redress that, the ‘SJWs’ (social justice warriors) come out in full force to slap it down, and push their worldview on everyone else.

Many of these Puppies enjoy sci-fi and fantasy for the escapism. Some love novels that conform to a traditional or conservative world view (which they consider to be ‘not political’), and want to see those books recognized with awards.

And there is room in the genre for all of that. The mistake comes when they think most fans want the same for the genre as they do, so a minority must be skewing the awards.

The funny thing is that novels that feature feminism, diverse protagonists and progressive views on society and sexuality may seem to be over-represented at the Hugos – but not for the reason the Puppies think. Because of two natural factors in the public vote process.

To understand the first factor, reverse the roles. Picture a world where sci-fi and fantasy barely featured straight white men or their issues for decades. There were a few excellent books they could see themselves in, but barriers and prejudice in the publishing industry meant even the best white male authors found it hard to get their novels taken seriously. They were seen as ‘special interest’, and not something the wider readership would want.

But then came more a small rush of books that featured white male heroes, and not just in a token or supporting role. Fully-rounded, realistic white men, exploring the full diversity of problems they face. People were excited to see their issues represented.

In the real world the Puppies already vote for novels that predominately feature white men, and they haven’t faced this historic disparity. So they should empathize with the excitement at recognizing yourself and your struggles in a protagonist.

But straight white men are still demographically over-represented in the genre. People who don’t fit into that group have fewer novels to choose from that resonate with them. So their vote isn’t as split as the straight white male vote. As long as there is a demographic imbalance in publishing, these books do not need a conspiracy to do well; they’ve got simple mathematics on their side.

Also, with more barriers to minority groups (such as being seen as ‘not commercial’ or ‘too political’), their novels have to be of a much higher quality to get published. So they do better in award ceremonies.

The second factor is that many of us are drawn to sci-fi and fantasy because of our love of the new. So we’re attracted to books which surprise us, challenge the status quo and feature diverse points of view. Those that are just fun or reinforce traditional roles may be enjoyable, but are less likely to spark such strong passions. And people vote for books they are passionate about.

Since there was no organized SJW conspiracy (as proven by the success of the Puppies’ slates in sweeping most of the nominations), the Puppies’ attempt to fill the Hugos with straight white men (with a few transparently token others) came across as a white supremacist, sexist attack on the rest of us and the books we love.

Many Puppies honestly felt they were defending the Hugos against an unfair takeover by a political minority. However, the final Hugos result, with 4,000 voters rejecting the Puppies’ slate, proved this was no fix by a clique of ‘SJWs’ but the will of the majority of fans. And I hope the more moderate Puppies will be able to see that.

And there are many excellent award-winning books by straight white men exploring traditional ground in sci-fi and fantasy. A quick glance at the last few years of the Hugos shows they are not excluded at all. They simply no longer dominate.

Sci-fi and fantasy are wide enough genres for us all to find our place, and watch it go in and out of fashion. None of us have to be the villain, or make others the villain.

There are all kinds of new worlds to explore. Give them a try.

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