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.