Hugo Awards: Puppies Unleashed

As Hugo Awards nomination season hits full swing, the Sad Puppy slates have finally be unleashed. For the uninitiated, the Sad Puppies are a semi-organized response to the notion that recent Hugo slates have trended away from traditional SF, with it’s emphasis on sense of wonder and storytelling (the name emerges out of the notion that recent Hugo slates were so depressing that they were making cute puppies sad, or something along those lines). There is an ideological component to the movement as well, and it seems the Right/Libertarian are on the Puppies’ side, while Left/SJW are opposed. Or something. In reality, I don’t really buy that dichotomy, and that’s one of the reasons I can’t seem to get on board with the typical responses to the Sad Puppies (for it or against it). To me, it’s just another input into the process, which is pretty much how it’s supposed to work.

For the record, Brad Torgersen has posted the official Sad Puppy slate over at his blog. Vox Day has posted a variant, which he calls (perhaps unsurprisingly, given his usual tone) Rabid Puppies. There’s a pretty large overlap, though enough differences to be annoying. Assorted thoughts and ramblings are below:

  • The first thing that jumps out at me with these slates is how huge they are (both are basically a full nominating ballot – somewhere on the order of 50-75 overall between the two lists). I think part of the reason Sad Puppies 2 enjoyed success last year was that the list was relatively small (12 choices in various categories), so the impact was concentrated on those works. Remember, the people who nominate for the hugo are actually people! They will not have read this entire slate and chances are, there are plenty of things on the slate that they did read, but would not nominate. Anecdotal evidence indicates this was the case last year, and even the hard numbers show that there was significant variance in the amount of nominating votes for each work. I expect people’s votes will be spread out across the entire slate, and since there are so many options, that may spread things too thin.
  • Comparing the two lists is interesting, as is the tone in which they’re presented. Torgersen is very careful to indicate that his list “is a recommendation. Not an absolute.” He has repeatedly mentioned that it’s not about politics, but about story and fun. He also acknowledges the idea that you might not like works on the slate (though “we suspect you might”). Torgersen also, much to his credit, made sure that his own works would not appear on his slate. Day, on the other hand, is extremely combative about the whole situation and appears to be much more ideologically motivated (he explicitly mentions the “science fiction Right”). He encourages folks who trust his opinion on the subject to “nominate them precisely as they are”. He also nominated himself in multiple categories (though in the editing categories, not the fiction categories). On the other hand, he nominated Coherence on the Dramatic Presentation Long Form category, which is a personal favorite that I’d love to see get nominated (even though it probably wouldn’t). This is why I can never get on board with Sad Puppies, nor can I really get too worked up about it either. Just because a work appears there doesn’t mean it is or is not worthy of a nomination.
  • In terms of The Martian, it looks like fears of its eligibility (or lack thereof) means that it was not included in either slate. I actually emailed the Sasquan administrators, but their (perfectly reasonable) response was: “the standard Hugo committee policy for many years has been to not make suggestions on nominations or rule on eligibility of nominated items until nominations close”. Apparently, when eligibility of a specific work was announced in the past, other nominees felt it represented an endorsement, so the policy is to maintain impartiality. This makes perfect sense. Interestingly, Vox Day actually quotes me on the matter, though as usual, his tone is way more combative and makes my post seem equally so, even though I’m not. My example of a self-published work that was later published and then nominated was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Day hates Scalzi, and uses my example as evidence that the Hugos are corrupt or something. This was not my intention at all, and it’s weird to see my words deployed in such a fashion. Indeed, I’ve always thought that the Sad Puppy attitude towards Scalzi has been rather weird. Yes, Scalzi is outspoken on his blog about certain leftist issues, but for the most part, his fiction is fantastic and entertaining stuff. You could make an argument that something like Redshirts was only nominated because he’s popular with a certain segment of fandom, but that’s the kind of thing that happens with populist awards. More to the point, Scalzi’s work tends to be that more old-school science fiction. Redshirts has it’s flaws, but it’s a very fun book, exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to see on the Sad Puppy slate (except that, obviously, it enjoys wide popularity across most of fandom). That never made sense to me. On the other hand, “Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” is, in fact, a pretty lame nomination.
  • Eric S. Raymond appears on both slates as a nominee for the Campbell Award (for the most promising new writer in SF), which, as he himself notes, is a little strange:

    I will stipulate that I think my one published work of SF, the short story Sucker Punch, isn’t bad. If it were someone else’s and I was wearing my reviewer hat, I’d probably say something encouraging about it being a solid, craftsmanlike first effort that delivers what its opening promises and suggests the author might be able to deliver quality work in the future.

    But, Campbell Award material? A brilliant comet in the SF firmament I am not. I don’t really feel like I belong on that shortlist – and if I’m wrong and I actually do, I fear for the health of the field.

    What bothers me more is the suspicion that my name has been put forward for what amount to political reasons.

    I’ve read Sucker Punch and think it’s a perfectly cromulent short story, but if I were to nominate it for something, it’d be for the short story category (which, I suspect will not happen, since it will probably be a crowded category for me by the time nominations close). As a Campbell nominee, I would want some sense that he, you know, intends to write a lot more fiction. I have no doubt that he could write more fiction (even great fiction), I just don’t see him taking that on. He’s been pretty clear that his focus is on hacking and Open Source advocacy (at which, he is very good and very successful) and that he did this mostly on a lark. Which makes this nomination kinda confusing. (Update: he basically confirms this in the comments)

  • Speaking of Eric Raymond, he has some keen insights into the whole culture war of sorts that’s happening in SF right now (of which Sad Puppies is a symptom) that pretty well match up with where I’m coming from. His key insight is that this is not a political issue, but rather a matter of “Literary Status Envy”:

    Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

    People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

    His post on the deep norms of SF is also worth checking out. I find myself mostly agreeing with this analysis (and honestly, he gives a much better primer for the factions involved and general situation than I do above). All those things that literary fiction hates are what I love about science fiction. And I tend to dislike the angst that permeates literary fiction (that this often manifests as wallowing in identity politics and misery is incidental). This focus on literary fiction is why stuff like Wakulla Springs gets nominated for a Hugo, despite not even being slightly SF or even Fantasy. It’s a very well written story, to be sure, but it’s so far outside the boundaries of any type of genre fiction (let along SF) that I can see why the Sad Puppy campaign is happening.

So there you have it. I do not particularly hate or love Sad Puppies. Call that feckless if you want. I just know what I like. Sometimes that happens to coincide with the Sad Puppies, sometimes not. Go figure.

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