How you play the game

This year’s list of Hugo finalists held a few surprises for me.

The magazine that published my first short story–SciPhi Journal (SPJ)–and the online group to which I was a contributing member–SuperversiveSF (SSF)–were listed under Best Semiprozine and Best Fanzine, respectively.

Wow, what an amazing year… I would have liked to think.

But it didn’t take long to realize that the Rabid Puppy slate had heavily influenced this year’s Hugo nominations process and that SPJ and SSF had likely benefited from it. This was both highly ironic and highly troubling for me, given that my main contributions to SSF last year–beyond commentary–were two essays criticizing Sad Puppy (RP) and Rabid Puppy (RP) campaign methods.

While mulling over what to do, Anthony M posted an essay at SSF, explicitly arguing that  SSF’s nomination was due to the RP slate and only the RP slate.  His post motivated me to publicly challenge his position at the site while privately raising the question to the group if SSF should decline the nomination.

Sadly the answer was no, and involved a number of responses, some of which were credible and others I felt were less than credible.  The following points go through my process of reasoning based on those responses and the conclusions I have reached.

1) The exact role the RP slate played in SSF’s nomination is unknown

It was a relief to find that others at SSF did not share Anthony’s beliefs.  The fact is that many members of SSF–including the editor of both SSF and SPJ–are active SP and/or RP supporters.  Throughout 2015-16 they were active in publicizing to and networking with those communities, with SSF podcasts targeted primarily to SP/RP interests.  Likely due to these efforts, SSF and SPJ made the SP reading list too, which was definitely not a slate.

With this in mind, it was plausible for them to argue that SPs and RPs alike had a genuine interest in voting for SSF and SPJ.  In that case being on the RP slate did not in itself distort or unduly amplify the interest of those voters in the nomination process.

And if that possibility is true then making the finalist list was not due to anything improper.  Based on this possibility, arguments made by Brandon Sanderson for keeping his nomination, and calls by George RR Martin for finalists not to decline, SSF members had arguable reasons and precedent not to stand aside.

Still, I would argue that “not definitively improper” is not good enough.

2) An appearance of improper conduct remains

Despite the possibility that RP members may have wanted to vote for SSF anyway, we will never know that for sure since they–or at least enough of them–appear to have voted in lockstep fashion with the slate, regardless of their personal interests.  Such suspicions are highlighted by the success of obvious oddball finalists such as Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony, and underscored by statements from people such as Anthony M at SSF, who basked in having benefited from the RP slate. Indeed, claims in his essay read more like an indictment to me–or confession?–than what I would expect from a victory speech.

So even if nothing improper occurred, a clear appearance of impropriety exists and is enough for me to argue that SSF should step aside. That “appearance of impropriety” is a crucial distinction, separating SSF and SPJ from other finalists like Sanderson and those Martin discussed.

3) There are additional levels of impropriety

Two contradictory arguments were made in defense of the RP slate.  The first is that it was meant to expose the Hugos as a sham, given the systemic flaws which allow for such exploitation.  The other was that it was meant to overcome an effective if not intentional slate–so fighting fire with fire–ran by elitist, cliquish, left leaning voters.

The problem is that both of these do not account for the nature of the RP slate.  Neither goal required placing nominees in all categories, much less taking all slots within categories.  Those tactics, if anything, seem to support the argued intentions of the author of the RP slate, which was to act as a spoiler for the Hugos. This was a point not missed by SPs last year, but about which many SPs are found silent or dissembling this year.

But more important, neither reason required the author of the RP slate to place himself or those with whom he is associated on said slate.  This is especially true if the author had any intention of getting broadly positive notice and awards for people and works outside the supposed elitist clique.  Finalists would have looked a lot more credible if not stacked among, or almost solely constituted by, those connected to him. Put another way, it would have been more useful if the author of the RP slate had acted more selflessly, than in a seemingly self-serving fashion.

Clearly, the RP slate had the potential to benefit its author, both directly–the author placed himself on his own slate–and indirectly–listing business/personal associates.  This kind of conduct is described by terms such as self-aggrandizement and cronyism, and adds another level/form of seeming impropriety to the RP slate.

4) Declining would not show a lack of gratitude

It was argued that declining the nomination would be an insult for those that voted for SSF. That it would show a lack of gratitude.  I am not sure why this is true.

If I had an extended family that got to feeling sorry for my never winning an award, and then bought enough voting memberships in order to vote me in, with many of them not having read anything I wrote, that would be improper.  And it would not show a lack of gratitude on my part to say “Wow, thanks guys for wanting to help me out, I really appreciate your effort, but this method does not get me what I wanted in the way that I really needed to get it. So I have to decline.”

When people vote, even if they pay to vote, there is no guarantee you will win, and there is no obligation that you have to take the nomination or prize if their votes place you there.  Appreciation is different than accepting the benefits of their actions, which can be declined for numerous reasons, both personal or practical.

As it is, if what those at SSF claim is true, that the RPs were likely to vote for SSF anyway, then the RP slate was the biggest slap in the face–the biggest show of ingratitude–to both SP and RP voters, since it cast an unnecessary shadow over the value of their votes.

And it would seem that anyone championing the RP slate at this point is de facto showing ingratitude to SP voters, by downplaying the importance of all the work done by that campaign to improve their methods this year. In fact it forms an argument that they and their kind are no longer needed next year as they were entirely superfluous.

Frankly, I would have been more impressed with this argument, when used to support keeping the nomination, if it had been backed by actual words of gratitude at the SSF site beyond a singular tribute to the RP slate.

5) Accepting it means hypocrisy and more of the same

For those SPs at SSF that railed against the RPs last year, accepting this year’s nomination would mean becoming hypocrites.  And while I am not an SP, or perhaps because I am not, that would go double for me.

Some argued that the No Award reaction to the slates last year drove many SPs to the RP campaign this year, or made them sympathetic to RP methodology. The strength of this argument is not clear to me. If No Award was a reaction to what one considered an unworthy method last year, then how did its use–even if it was admittedly ridiculous–make that first unworthy method acceptable this year?  It would seem the only stable ethical position is to be critical of both again this year.

What’s more important however, is that in accepting the nomination, and so rewarding such methodology, SSF loses its ability to criticize that method in the future–from any political quarter–while signaling its openness to be party to such methods.  And that makes it more likely such things will happen again.

6) Reaching conclusions.

SSF is a young movement still in the process of finding its character and audience.

While described as a literary movement, the line between that and a political movement has become increasingly blurred.  That is to say SSF has allowed itself to get caught up in political machinations, placing temporal political interests above artistic goals.*

Along these same line, it has yet to decide if subversive acts and statements are in keeping with superversive ideals.  With this nomination SSF has become openly aligned with a provocateur whose general repertoire appears subversive in nature, methods I will point out once again were criticized by SSF members last year.  I do not see how this aligns with the ideals SSF has stated it intends to promote artistically.  Some expressed feelings that they are tired of “losing nobly” and/or suggested that subversive acts are allowed to support superversive concepts. Both appear the exact opposite of what I thought superversive was about. It would seem crucial for SSF to settle this question in order to develop a consistent voice and persona, regardless of larger political interests.**

I should point out that SSF–to their credit–wants to build a diverse community of authors.  I was invited and allowed to contribute despite holding very different political, social, and religious views from many at SSF. I have always been treated well, having been asked to stay on despite the recent issue and told my voice would be of value to SSF. Indeed, I was asked to write a post such as this to show that Anthony’s position is not the only one held at SSF.

The problem for me is that with its character still unsettled, and trending in ways I am not interested in taking part, I find the best solution is to step away from SSF.  Not in anger or as an enemy, but as someone who is no longer clear that SSF will end up fitting with my character, or vice versa.

I tend not to like provocateurs or intentional negative provocations–no matter what political stripe–and I do not like having to deal with their fallout. By attaching itself to, or accepting benefits from, a known provocateur it would seem this will become a regular part of SSF membership. That would not be very fun or rewarding for me, no matter how many awards sticking with it might promise.

Since diversity is one of SSF’s goals, I encourage the group to rethink their position on things like the RP slate. In order to attract authors still willing to “lose nobly”, or who have zero interest in winning “by hook or crook”, it will arguably have to do so.

Outside of dire circumstances, life to me has always been about how you play the game. And with luck it always will be.

In this case, I feel certain that playing the game justly demands stepping away. If not from the nomination, which is not my call, then from SFF.

And so I go.


Kieran Sterling Holmes

*Anyone who wants to dispute this point is encouraged to explain the superversive qualities of Space Raptor Butt Invasion.  Granted, Tingle is all about Love…

** A somewhat cheekier version would be to ask the question: “What good is it to gain the Worldcon and lose one’s soul?”  As cheeky as it is, it is something worth considering.

  • Joe Katzman

    You clearly aren’t at all familiar with the My Little Pony episodes you are baselessly criticizing. They are very nearly the epitome of superversive fiction, very well written and well presented. To the point where I had to re-evaluate some personal prejudices.

    Guess that’s beyond you. The only other explanation is that you were uninterested in finding this out. Neither speaks well for the rest of the essay.

    * Re: Chuck Tingle, I haven’t read him. And there are other worthy nominees in that category. That said, I find it hard to imagine how he could be LESS worthy than “If you were a dinosaur, my love.” Perhaps you could explain that.

    “What’s more important however, is that in accepting the nomination, and so rewarding such methodology, SSF loses its ability to criticize that method in the future–from any political quarter–while signaling its openness to be party to such methods. And that makes it more likely such things will happen again.”

    That train left the station 20 years ago. Try to keep up.

    “The problem for me is that with its character still unsettled, and trending in ways I am not interested in taking part, I find the best solution is to step away from SSF. Not in anger or as an enemy, but as someone who is no longer clear that SSF will end up fitting with my character, or vice versa.”

    There is only one unsettled character here. And I think we can agree on that last sentence.

    The only soul being lost is the one who would rather conform and run away than represent something they supposedly believe in, and welcome all friends. But your soul is in your masters’ keeping, and to them you return.

    So you have lost your soul. And mark me, you have lost Worldcon.

    The former is the only one of the 2 that you can still do something about.

    • ksterlingh

      Hi Joe, I hope I can set your mind at ease on a few points.

      To start with, to say that SSF’s character is not yet settled is neither controversial nor an insult. You are absolutely right that my own character is not completely settled either! I am also very new to SF, still trying to find my own voice and audience. However, I am settled regarding slates, appearing to benefit from them, and the costs that come with such benefits.

      SSF appears to be settling in a different direction than me on those issues. Though I should note not everyone at SSF has exactly the same views either. It is just that I am far enough from the current consensus, this makes a practical difference for me.

      Second, I didn’t criticize My Little Pony, or say anything about it’s superversive content. If you look again you will see this is true. I simply called it an oddball finalist. That is not a statement about its quality, but the seeming unlikelihood it would have been nominated by RP supporters, unless it was slated. Perhaps I am wrong about this and MLP is something most RPs watch regularly and talk about and recommend to others, with these episodes being considered within the top 5 of all possible content in that category. I am open to evidence on this.

      I only questioned how well Space Raptor Butt Invasion fit with the artistic goals most superversives want to promote. If you haven’t read SRBI, my obvious next questions would be if you voted for it, and if so, why? I never read the other dinosaur story either. Let’s say the spacey one is better, that doesn’t make it worthy of a Hugo nomination, particularly if you felt that the other one was so bad it shouldn’t have been there at all. Or we can put it another way: two wrongs don’t make a right.

      Third, I am not sure what you meant by “That train left the station 20 years ago. Try to keep up.” I was arguing that accepting the nomination could hinder SSF’s efforts to criticize slate voting, while putting it in the position of being slated again, which could further compromise its efforts. Your comment is hard to understand in that context, unless you are criticizing SSF?

      Finally, I said my comment about losing one’s soul to gain the Worldcon was being cheeky. That means it was not serious, or meant to be taken that seriously. So, yeah, your comments on my soul and having a master and something about running away rather than representing what I believe in… a bit over the top.

      Relax, man. It’s just a contest. It is not worth all this anger.

      • Ending puppy-related sadness involves inviting authors and works in (via nomination recommendations) who would otherwise be excluded by the cliques, either through failure to kiss the ring, or author BadThink.

        It also involves attempting to break the power of said clique, because they make puppies cry. Do it for the puppies, man!

        The RP strategy involves mostly the latter (if used in an iterative prisoner’s dilemma model: until the CHORFs sign onto the Geneva convention, giving them the benefit of civilized accords is foolish, unfair, and unkind to everyone they exclude.) the Campaigners, use the former. There’s a lot of overlap.

        Also: The use of “slate” as a buzz-word that unthinkingly means “wicked” wouldn’t seem to be part of the superversive zeitgeist. Eschew that sort of nonsense. You’re a thinking man, not a pre-programmed member of the Comintern Committee for Public Thought Decency.

        Your post reads like the SJW storybook character who agrees with the villain who declaiming: “If you don’t poison the village well, I’m going to kill this hostage. It’s your fault if he dies!”

        • ksterlingh

          Hi Hobbit, I used the term “slate” because that is what it is. If you have a different term I’m open to something else. I should note that slates are not inherently “wicked” but in certain contexts slates are contrary to the goals of a system and so constitute undesirable if not unethical behavior.

          I’m not sure why you consider recognition of this point outside of superversive zeitgeist. There were SPs at SSF criticizing RP methods last year, by whatever name you want to call it.

          I’m also not sure how you pulled that analogy out of what I said in my post. I wouldn’t agree with that situation at all.

  • dgarsys

    The Hugo’s have been… meh… for about two decades now. To the point of “avoid barring independent and trusted recommendation”

    Larry set out to show it was all about having the “right (left) politics and being with the in-crowd in the big publishing houses. He was told “hey, you think what you like is underrepresented, bring some fans”

    So he put himself up and didn’t get very far.

    So he tried again. Recommended a few works including his. This time a couple things he recommended got nominated. Yes, including Opera Vitae Aeterna – which was a damn good story, regardless of its “tainted” provenance.

    Holy crap. People said such vile things about him that his wife’s friends were calling her to ask if she was OK living with such an abusive monster.

    Keep in mind, this was a reaction to an SF author of the “wrong” (moderate right) philosophy getting on the nominations without being in the big “in crowd” publishers, and demonstrating his market reach compared to the current hugo crop by simply asking fans to vote for a few things a couple times….

    The reaction to getting even more works on the noms last year? Lies, Libel in national news media. Histrionic accusations of racism, sexism, etc. Publishers declaring that their own authors wrote substandard and crappy works.

    Two books sit on my office desk. A complete collection of Kipling prose, and the Principia Discordia. Leaving aside “better than ‘If You Were a Dinosaur'” – I look at getting SRBI on the ballot as a brilliant bit of chaos. The other recommended works were solid – further evidenced by the attempts to say “nothing to see here” over the “Safe Space” and Moira Greyland pieces.

    Also, the presence of those pieces and SRBI puts a lie to Scalzi’s spin about how the puppies are simply marching in front of the parade while “claiming” to lead it.

    But scalzi and testing his statements against reality don’t seem to go well together.

    So – since the opposition seems to be acting in the best spirit of shrieking harpies and SJW thought-tyrants, we’ll respond with a laugh and mockery, in the best spirit of Eris and the prisoner’s dilemma.

    The hugo award will either be born again, or finally put out of its misery.

    Hail Eris!

    • ksterlingh

      Hi dgarsys, you start with a lot of history which not everyone is familiar with, or if familiar with are not personally involved with and so lack strong personal emotions/attachments. I keep hearing this history as well as commentary describing the Hugos as if some battleground between two sides.

      The problem, as I see it, is that people in both camps keep forgetting there are a lot of people out there who are not on either side. And so they keep getting hit in the crossfire. And the question comes, couldn’t you guys take this somewhere else?

      That said, points for the Discordia ref. If anything, you have made the first argument that actually sounded vaguely cool and interesting. Of course from an outsider’s perspective it looks like Eris rolled the apple right between you guys, and written on the apple is the word “Hugo”… hilarity ensues.

  • MishaBurnett

    Given all this talk of politics and sides and playing the game, can you give me any reason why an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy who is not part of some existing faction should have any interest whatsoever in the outcome of the Hugo Awards?

    • ksterlingh

      Hi MishaBurnett, well I want to say that I couldn’t give you any reasons. But… I have to admit it is a contest and so people could have an interest in the outcome of the Hugo Awards for the same reason a movie buff cares about the Oscars. It doesn’t have to be about politicking or messages, just personal faves.

      In this case though, the kind of interest we are seeing here? Yeah it seems mostly political, and for those who have not enlisted in the culture war, that just like science fiction & fantasy, the game playing feels a bit much.

  • H.P.

    It’s an award process open to anyone willing to plunk down $40. Their votes aren’t any less valid than someone who just votes for whatever they read and liked without paying any attention to outside commentary, or than someone whose votes are heavily influenced by what someone on the other side thinks. Feel free to impugn their motives and criticize them publicly, but at the end of the day your vote should be based on which works you think are the best. Two years ago I nominated Ancillary Justice and Wheel of Time. Wheel of Time got on in part due to a public push to get it on, and Warbound was also nominated due to Sad Puppies. I put WOT #1, Warbound (which I hadn’t even heard of until it was nominated) #2, and Ancillary Justice #3. What do I care about how WOT and Warbound got on the ballot? I thought they were better than Ancillary Justice (which I liked enough to put on my nomination ballot).

    The thing with the appearance of impropriety is that it only seems to swing one way. The same guys publicly pushing their own works and works of their allies are the ones shouting no fair when someone new tries to sit at the table. If men were angels, we would all just vote based on what we liked and no one would campaign. But I suppose in a fallen world it’s inevitable that voting will look like, well, voting. For it to work in a way that tends to award better works we need (1) more people participating and (2) people voting on the basis of merit.

    Even if you do oppose the Puppies, No Awarding Puppy-supported works last year only invigorated the Rabid Puppies and made things worse.

    • ksterlingh

      Hi HP, let me start with what we agree on.

      The No Awarding was not helpful at all. It appears to have made the situation worse. I will point out that I was against blanket No Awards last year, as were some “big name” authors… all of us on the left. I hope it doesn’t happen this year.

      I also agree it would be better if more people participated and voted based on merit.

      Now let’s move into more “disputed territory.” I can’t speak for how others behave, but I know the appearance of impropriety is an issue for me no matter who is involved. It cuts in all directions. The best solution is unlikely to involve becoming lax with one’s own behavior, citing the fact that others do the same. The Sad Puppies ran a clean campaign this year which got positive recognition from outside that campaign. I think that is a good move.

      I have not argued that anyone’s votes are less valid. My only argument is that voters who vote according to a slate undercut the goal of the vote they are participating in. Their votes may be “valid” in a technical sense, but defy the spirit of the contest as they clearly do not represent works believed to be “the best”.

      And I definitely didn’t try to impugn the motives of voters. The main focus of my post was not the voters at all, but the authors and beneficiaries of slates. It’s true that a voter may not care why something ended up on a ballot, but I think recipients should care about how and why they are on a ballot.