The Hugos, sometimes called The Science Fiction Achievement Awards, were awarded this past weekend at the 73rd WorldCon, held in Spokane, Washington. The Hugo Awards are unique because they are awarded by popular vote of Science Fiction/Fantasy readers from around the world who are members of the World Science Fiction Society. Anyone who pays the supporting membership price, around $50 for 2016, can be a member, vote in the current year and nominate a book, movie, magazine, podcast, short story, etc. for the following year. Translation into English is a per-requisite, making this award a little less “worldly” than all of the promo material might suggest, but still, this is a chance for American/English book fans to speak their piece.
I’ve never given the Hugo Awards much thought, to be honest. I like what I like and make my book purchases based on recommendations and word of mouth, not based on what people I don’t know think about a book I’ve never heard of. However, the pleasant sounding democratic voting of the Hugos was tarnished, if not completely busted, by this year’s ballot manipulation by a group of readers calling themselves the Sad or Rabid Puppies, depending on the depth of their hatred and the violence of their rhetoric. See, these Puppies are a group of self-professed disaffected white men who feel that Speculative Fiction has been taken over by Social Justice Warriors who are more interested in PC diversity than in actual story. They circulated a list of their “approved” nominees, and thus cast their nominating votes as a bloc, stacking some categories only with their own members and knocking out anyone who didn’t fit their profile. (You can read a more in-depth review of the happenings in the recent Wired article “Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters”.) Now I’m interested. Everyone likes drama, right? Especially when it doesn’t have much to do with you.
I’ve been following the story for months now, it all started back in April. I have read the op-eds and talked to a number of people who are WorldCon members, voting ones at that, and I see now how much this all does have to do with me as a reader, reviewer, writer, and lover of the genre. Here’s how.
1. Black Women Writers Matter
If you look back over all the press this so-called Puppygate has gotten, you’ll see that Black female writers have really become the face of the diversity movement in speculative fiction. You can’t click a link about the Hugo Controversy without seeing a reference to Octavia Butler or a quote from N.K. Jemisin. There are some bad reasons for that I’m sure, Black women are often seen as “more approachable” that Black men by journalists, particularly white female ones. But it is also because Black women writers in the genre have been some of the most vocal critics of the whitewashing of science fiction. We’ve always been here, always been fans. And it is about time we started getting some of the credit that goes with being a fan. And with us raising our voices, other people of color who are fans also stand up and demand more — because isn’t the world full of race and color and class and shouldn’t our fiction reflect that? Black women writers also are producing some of its most cutting edge, challenging, and immersive works out right now. I review them here monthly. We are out here.
2. We’ve Got Allies.
What became of the manipulation of the nomination process? Did the Sad Puppies get what they wanted? Well. No. The first result was that some white people who were placed on the ballot due to Sad Puppy interference declined to run. Yes, white people who make their living off of their writing refused to be considered for a national award rather than risk winning one on the basis of a tainted system. Sure, some of them may have just been scared off by the controversy. Some just didn’t want to be caught up in a political game they didn’t want to play. But my optimism tells me that some of them were willing to put their money where their beliefs are — or at least refused to participate silently in a rigged game, even if that game was rigged to hand them the victory. I can respect that.
Now you’ve got a nominee list that is tilted and then gutted as folks jump off the ballot. What happens next? More people buy voting memberships than have ever before. More fans vote than have ever before. And they give out more “NO Award” titles than ever before — that’s right, in the categories of Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, and Best Editor, fans preferred to give no award over giving a dirty one. These people paid $40 for the privilege of casting a vote for no one at all, but a vote against rigging the system. Does that make them saints? No. But it does make them far more reasonable, as a group, than we’re inclined to believe. The readers believe that diverse books = good books, which puts us ahead of where we were even 10 years ago.
3. What gets published is changing.
There are a few areas in which the Hugos has been and will continue to be a big deal. First, libraries. For many readers, especially younger ones, the public library is still the easiest, best place to get books. And librarians use awards like the Hugos to help them determine what to buy. Winning Best Novel guarantees that every public library in the country will buy your book, and that teachers will have a higher chance of recommending your books to teens. This is basically the gateway drug to Science Fiction and if we’re starting to change that, if that drug will be brown and gold as well as white, well, we’re making more fans and expanding the audience. Which is in the category of A Very Good Thing.
The other place the Hugos have weight is with publishers and agents. These corporate entities use awards like the Hugos as indicators of what the public wants and therefore of what they should try to acquire and publish. This outcome tells publishers that diverse books aren’t a fluke. Maybe it increases the chances they’ll take a second look at some unrecognized talent. It is as true now as ever — you never can tell where the next best seller will come from.
Yeah, this whole mess leaves me feeling strangely optimistic. In the pile of shit, threats, and cruelty that is this controversy, I’ve managed to find a few bright spots, and that’s pretty good. We’re not there yet; this fight is still going on. I mean, after all this noise, this year’s Hugo winners still makes for a pretty white photoshoot. And I have no doubt that those Puppies will try to follow through on their threats to bring the entire system down. But we’re a bunch of people who spend our time reading about other worlds and dreaming about how to be in them. We can figure this out. At the very least, I’ll be putting my $50 on the table for voting rights next year. Because now I know it does effect me, so now I have to do something about it.