Brow Beat

How Sci-Fi’s Hugo Awards Got Their Own Full-Blown Gamergate

Hugo Awards.
Hugo Awards, Dealer’s room, Aussiecon 4, Melbourne, Australia, September 2, 2010.

Photo courtesy Cory Doctorow/Flickr 

What on Earthsea is happening with the 2015 Hugo Awards? On Saturday, nominations for the prestigious science fiction and fantasy prizes were announced. As usual, the finalists were determined by ballot; any member of the 2014, 2015, or 2016 WorldCons (that is, any fan who shelled out the requisite $40 to sign up for one of those conventions) could vote. And yet the names and works that rose to the top provoked a tsunami of controversy. That’s because a group of rightwing activists managed to game the selection process, proposing a fixed slate of nominees and feverishly promoting it. Since small margins are sufficient to secure Hugo nods, what emerged was what many are calling a strange, ideologically driven, and unrepresentative sample of fiction.

How earthshaking is this, really? As Will Shetterly points out on his blog, people have been manipulating the Hugo nomination processes for decades. (Shetterly recalls watching Orson Scott Card glad-handing his way through various gatherings, penning glowing reviews of fellow sci-fi travelers for his column, and otherwise using his superior resources to mount an effective awards campaign.) And it’s true that, in the past, authors and fans often ignited individual crusades around books they wrote or liked. Writer John Scalzi in particular was famous for opening the threads on his blog to sci-fi and fantasy scribes who wanted to remind the community that their work was Hugo-eligible.

But, Scalzi told me on the phone, explicitly anointing and championing a full group of titles, while not illegal, violates convention. It is unprecedented. (At least, it is for the Hugo awards. Read Arthur Chu for a better sense of the long, inglorious history of “freeping,” a strategy beloved in reactionary cesspools, whereby a diabolically galvanized fringe creates the illusion of majority by flooding a space.) Anyway, it is the agenda behind the 2015 ballot, as much as the effectiveness of the tactic, that has prompted so much anger and anxiety.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (last year), the Hugo Awards seemed to undergo a seismic change. Top prizes recognized a generation of younger, more diverse writers, with names like Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley, and John Chu, and fans celebrated what appeared to be enriched levels of awareness/receptivity in the air. But then things took a distinctly Gamergate-tinged turn. Authors Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia re-upped a campaign called Sad Puppies (originally “Sad Puppies Think of the Children,” an ironic send-up of liberal bleeding hearts) that had achieved modest success in 2014, elevating a few ordained works to that year’s Hugo longlist.*

The ostensible raison d’puppy—which multiple sources for this article, including Scalzi and sci-fi scholar Gerry Canavan, took pains to tell me is a perfectly legitimate subject for debate—is the belief that SFF now underserves a particular type of fan, writer, and work. The age of space operas—fun, swashbuckling, populist—may have passed into something less triumphal and more shaded. (At least, that’s the generous framing. To me Torgersen still sounds like he’s blaming SFF’s “decline” on the PC demands of boring scolds.) In his words:

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.

But now:

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…

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.

No longer interested in adventure, argue the Puppies, the Hugos have grown elitist, academic, and overly ideological—irrelevant to the average fan.

The Puppies aimed to right this wrong by using wholly legal freep tactics to advance a better slate of Hugo authors. And it worked. As the Daily Dot observes, the SPs—and their even more extreme cousins, the Rabid Puppies, led by Vox Day—swept all the main categories. “Three of the five Best Novel nominees come from the Sad Puppies list, while the Best Novella shortlist is identical to Vox Day’s own recommendations—including three separate nominations for works by John C. Wright, an author notorious for his homophobic views.” (And not much else, I might add. Wright has not a single bestseller to his name, operates out of a tiny Finland-based publishing house that is run, not coincidentally, by Vox Day, and perhaps wrought his most eternal turn of phrase when he called the creators of the Legend of Korra “disgusting, limp, soulless sacks of filth.” Their crime? Confirming that two female characters in the franchise liked women.)*

A quick sidebar on Vox Day, one of a handful of this saga’s bold-faced names. In addition to writing sci-fi, he’s a video game designer and early proponent of Gamergate, which, he argues, resembles Sad Puppies in that “both groups are striking back against the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.” He is the second human being to be expelled from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), after he used the organization’s official Twitter feed to slam the award-winning black novelist N.K. Jemisin as a “half-savage.” He questions the need for women’s suffrage. And he believes that our national ills can be partially attributed to “the infestation of even the smallest American heartland towns by African, Asian, and Aztec cultures.” Yes, Aztecs. ANYWAY.

Day is far from the only writer to invoke Gamergate as a model for the Puppies. Not only do Torgersen, Correia, and co. seem animated by a similar leeriness of minority voices and perspectives, but Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden have tried to document Twitter cross-pollination between the movements.* Correia in particular appears unperturbed by the Gamergate-SP connection. On his blog, he refers to his progressive enemies as SJWs (“social justice warriors,” a Gamergate coinage describing a shadowy conspiracy of liberals and identity politickers out to trample white male freedom). And he endorses nicknaming the Puppy movement “the slate-ening,” an apparent callback to “The Fappening,” hackers’ approving term for the 2014 celebrity photo leaks. That unauthorized distribution of nude images from starlets’ phones—a delectation to which some dudes felt entitled by, I don’t know, an aggrieved apprehension of looming irrelevance—is an obvious spiritual cousin to Gamergate’s death threats and doxes.  

I could go on trying to convince you that these Puppy people are unsavory characters. (Two more charming names they dreamed up for the pro-diversity crowd: CHORFs, or “Cliquish, Holier-than-thou, Obnoxious, Reactionary Fanatics,” and the HPPC, or “Hyper-Progressive Pissypants Club.”) Or I could try to poke additional holes in their pretexts. (The “science fiction and fantasy has become too literarycritique, for example. Is that more the case now than back in 1975, when ballots were studded with the likes of Ursula Le Guin and Isaac Asimov? Not to mention the elitist charges. In 2013, The Avengers, Torgerson’s example of a neglected lowbrow masterpiece, actually won a Hugo!) But it’s maybe more interesting to look at how various authors on and off the Puppy-powered slates have reacted.

Matthew Surridge declined his nomination for Best Fan Writer, citing “strong” aesthetic and ideological disagreements with Torgerson.

Kameron Hurley seemed inclined to wash her hands of the Hugos altogether. (And this is a danger for the WSFS—that instead of fighting to take the prizes back, mainstream fans will defect for climes untouched by reactionary swill. As Arthur Chu eloquently argues, the Puppies’ success should motivate WorldCon to rework its voting procedure before the trolls tank the entire operation.)

Deirdre Saoirse Moen crafted a new list of nominations, minus Puppies.

And a whole bunch of Hugo voters are pretty excited about a mysterious dark horse candidate, Noah Ward. (Say it out loud, slowly.) He is the perennial lurker on every ballot, in every category, and the last recourse of WorldCon members disenchanted with their options. I’ve crossed my fingers that he gets lots of love come August.

*Correction, April 8, 2015: Deep breath. This post originally misspelled Brad Torgersen’s last name and misstated that the creators of the Legend of Korra revealed that a male character liked men. They revealed that two female characters liked women. It also misidentified Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden as the founder of Tor Books. They are the founders of Ansatz Press. Finally, a sentence was  updated to clarify that the WSFS, or World Science Fiction Society, administers the Hugo Awards.