In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Lindsey tries to wrap her head around the incredible white male privilege that has led to the boondoggle that is this year’s Hugo Awards.
Few things will make me “nope” out of a conversation faster than the phrase “Remember the good old days when…” I’m gonna stop you right there.
Or attempt a real-life version of this:
There are a lot of reasons I hate that phrase. The first is that it often leads to an argument about something so subjective that there’s really no way to “win” or “lose” it (and really, once you’re commenting on a Buzzfeed article pitting the 80s against the 90s, no one is actually a “winner”). The second reason is that the phrase is almost never followed by something that is objectively better about the past, like “Remember the good old days when polar bears weren’t sad and the ice caps weren’t melting?” or “Remember when frat boys couldn’t use Facebook to post pictures of unconscious women?”. And even if it is followed by something like that, it makes me depressed and surly, and then Friend K and Friend M start to look worried and remind me that I’m not allowed to watch documentaries anymore because they only upset me.
The biggest reason that I hate the phrase, however, is that it seems to be secret code for “Hey, remember the good old days when the only people who had their opinions matter were white, heterosexual males who were also land-holding Christians? Dang those were good times, when we didn’t have to care what minority groups thought.” “Nostalgia” often seems to be a smokescreen for a desire for “simpler” times when people didn’t need to worry about things like “diversity” or “equality.” You’ll get plenty of this language on FOX News (I swear to God, one day one of them is just going to say “remember when we used to be able to own people? I miss those times…”). However, now my geek heart is heavy because that kind of language is popping up where I had stopped expecting it—at the Hugo Awards.
For those of you who are unaware, a Hugo Award is one of the highest honors in the world of science-fiction. It’s also something of a fan favorite award, since the participants are nominated and the winners are chosen by the fans who attend the World Science Fiction Convention (aka Worldcon). Now it probably won’t shock you to know that for most of the award’s existence, the winners have been dominated by white men. Jeet Heer points out that science fiction fandom and the science fiction genre itself started out as a “white boys’ club,” with female authors using their initials, pen names, or gender-ambiguous names to get published. According to Heer, between 1959 and 2014, women have received roughly 22% of Hugo Award nominations. After a brief, hopeful flash of gender parity in the 1990s, it wasn’t until the period between 2011 and 2013 that women represented 50% (or more!) of the nominees. (By 2014, 62% of the nominees were male again. Two steps forward, one step back.
Now, because the smallest movement forward in the realm of equal representation seems to send some people into fits and cries of “oppression!” we have the emergence of the Sad Puppies (or rather the Sad Puppies 3. Who may or may not have eaten Sad Puppies 1 and 2) and the Rabid Puppies (because these people are really bad at naming themselves.) And what winners these guys are. The Sad Puppies are led by two men named Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen “who present themselves as reasonable conservatives redressing an unfair liberal bias” (the heart weeps for them. We’ll get back to them later). The Rabid Puppies contingent (you can tell they are more hardcore because they are rabid) is led by a man named Theodore Beale, but he likes to go by “Vox Day” because everything is better in pretentious half-Latin. Mr. Beale is, to put things politely, a piece of human garbage. But we’ll get back to him later, too.
What is important right now is what the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies did: namely, hijack the nomination process for the Hugo Awards in an entirely legal, if not entirely ethical, manner. The Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies each created a list of nominees for their followers to vote for (with a lot of the nominees overlapping). Their followers were encouraged to vote en masse for the particular list in order to prevent things like “diversity” from sullying the awards (but actually, it’s about ethics in science fiction, promise).
And because the internet sometimes exists to make me sad, their tactic worked: “71 percent of the Hugo ballot consists of nominees promoted by Sad Puppies 3 and/or Rabid Puppies, with the Rabid Puppies list actually doing better.” Did you read that correctly? The group that calls itself rabid actually did better. What this means in terms of individual works is that a lot of super terrible people (and some not so terrible/innocent bystander people) got nominated. Ty Burr writes that “John C. Wright, a writer who has posted online rants calling homosexuality “a malfunction of love” and comparing it to bestiality and child abuse, is a Puppy-backed author now nominated for three Hugo awards.” I don’t want this person to exist, let alone for him to be nominated for an award. Mr. “Vox Day” got two nominations (because why create a movement if you’re not going to use it for personal gain?) And remember how I said we were going to be coming back around to Mr. Beale? This might be a good time to mention that he thinks women gaining the rights to vote and work is ensuring the downfall of global civilization and has referred to African Americans as “half-savages.” One of the nominated books comes from a publisher that actually calls itself Patriarchy Press. It’s like it heard a feminist joke about the publishing industry and didn’t get the joke, but thought it was a way cool name.
In response, two nominees that were included on both the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies slate, Marko Kloos and Annie Bellet, have withdrawn their acceptance of their nominations. Author Connie Williams also withdrew as a presenter.
But what is it that the Sad and Rabid Puppies actually wanted? What was their motivation for hijacking the awards, and ensuring that whoever the resulting winners are, they will always have a mental asterisk next to their name and their work?
Well do you remember the good old days when science fiction didn’t try to make you do something silly, like think about stuff? These guys sure do. Torgensen seems to think that any time a woman or author of color is granted an award, it is because of affirmative action and not merit. Apparently belonging to, or featuring, a “victim group” in your work is supposed to be the new ticket to a Hugo Award (except for all of the years where that was not even a little bit the ticket to a Hugo Award). More than that, though, Torgensen longs for the “good old days” when science fiction and fantasy were supposedly uncomplicated, and didn’t make you think about anything besides spaceships and swords (don’t you dare think about how both of those things are phallic symbols of power, Mr. Sad Puppy will make SAD EYES AT YOU). In his own words:
That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure.
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.
Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
Insert world’s smallest violin solo here.
Now, first let me laugh at the idea that “simplistic” science fiction and fantasy have entirely disappeared. I work at a library. I can promise you that in five minutes, I will find you five books published within the last three years that are about uncomplicated space adventures or fantasy vikings. These books are alive and well, and have weird Fabio-like knockoffs gazing at you from their covers. The fact that they aren’t receiving Hugo Awards might have something to do with the fact that A, they might not be any good, or B, we have read books like this for about a century and we’re bored now. The same thing that makes these books a fun escape read and “classic” examples of the genre might also make them unworthy of a nomination—they are filled with genre tropes that have been ground into itty bitty space particles by the collective weight of the “been there, done that” in the industry.
Next, let me laugh at the idea that science fiction and fantasy are just now becoming political, and that these stories are just now becoming allegories for social issues or way to explore political messages. Are you freaking kidding me? Science fiction has pretty much always been the realm for political extremists on either side of the fence to take their ideas out to play. Heer puts it pretty well when he points out that “most major science fiction writers—including the ones who have won Hugo awards from the start—have had strong political convictions which have been reflected in their word [sic]. A genre that includes the socialist H.G. Wells, the libertarian Robert Heinlein, the Catholic conservative post-colonialist Gene Wolfe, the feminist Margaret Atwood, the feminist anarchist Ursula K. Le Guin, and the Marxist China Miéville can hardly be thought of as essentially non-political entertainment.” Science fiction has been political from the start. Just because you suddenly don’t agree with the politics being represented doesn’t make this idea “new.”
Finally, let me laugh at the idea that there isn’t room in the wide realm of science fiction and fantasy for diversity. As George R. R. Martin (aka The Whitest Dude You Know) put it, “We’re SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FANS, we love to read about aliens and vampires, and elves. Are we really going to freak about Asians and Native Americans?” Apparently science fiction has plenty of room for buxom green women, elves, trolls, space cats, vampires, werewolves, space bugs, energy beings, ogres, giants, dwarves, dragons, spaceships, and ray guns, but “women and other minority groups” are where we draw the line. Give me a break.
One of the reasons that I have always loved science fiction is that it is a genre in which anything can happen. It is a genre in which we are looking forward. Everything from traffic cameras to cell phones to synthetic food was first dreamed up in science fiction, and then made into a reality. Accepting diversity as a natural and necessary part of both culture and fiction shouldn’t even have to be “looking forward” at this point, but it still is. Yet the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies don’t really want to look forward at all. They want to look backwards. They want to look back at the “good old days” (that don’t really entirely exist) and they want to artificially create a playing field that is stagnant, dull, and nostalgic.
That’s not just bad for culture in general—it’s bad for anyone who loves the true heart of science fiction, and who wants to see science fiction continue to look towards the future instead of the past.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not dropping the mic on #Meninist groups with terrible names, she studies gender in popular culture.