An outsider’s perspective: the Hugo affair

As someone just starting in SF, I am interested in how this Hugo affair plays out. After all I need to know which conventions to attend, awards to covet, and publishers to approach.

Until very recently I knew very little about the Hugos and basically nothing of the Sad Puppies. At first glance the puppies seemed a clever and humorous—if pity inducing—way to gain attention for works that might get overlooked in the usual nomination process. Suggestions of bias seemed plausible given parallels to the Academy Awards which have been known to pass over popular movies, as well as ‘less intellectual” genres. So I was surprised by such visceral reactions to what I thought was a simple ‘get out the vote’ campaign.

Curiosity quickly overcame common wisdom and I looked deeper into how these Hugo-brand sausages get made. Eventually I found the most civil and informative exchanges regarding the Hugos at George RR Martin’s personal site, with Martin representing Worldcon supporters and Brad Torgerson the Sad Puppies.

Given available evidence, it seems that no rules were actually broken. George RR Martin, who is strongly opposed to the puppies, stated this himself. In that case, if the nominees don’t represent the views of the SF public in general, or Worldcon fans in specific, that is not the fault of the puppies. All those who are upset and did not vote need to kick their own ass and make sure to vote next year. All those who are upset and did vote need to kick their friends´ asses and make sure those guys vote too.

At worst, this incident should be a reminder that the Hugo awards actually mean something to a lot of people!

That said, passing legal inspection does not mean having the puppies run loose in the sausage-factory improved product quality at all, pro-puppy advertising to the contrary. Many in the SF community will be holding their noses in order to swallow what they were handed. And really it should be obvious—at the very least in hindsight—that many people were not going to be happy finding nominations dominated by a single group’s slate. This was basically the number one complaint the puppies themselves had regarding prior awards, making the results ironic nodding toward hypocritical. More care could have been given to how supporters were encouraged to nominate.

Some argue that it was not the first set of puppies that were to blame, but a second set—a very different breed—that fugged up the joint when they followed the first inside. In fact, the results do seem covered in their paw prints. But that seems beside the point. Whether intentional or accidental, the actions of both puppies helped turn something that should have been about having fun into an epic geek tragedy.

Intriguingly, one of Torgerson’s blog posts states that an objective of the puppies was to “have fun!” It is curious how he thought this would be possible given a rather incongruous admission later in the same post (We are Not Rabid):

“I fully grasp and understand that Sad Puppies 3 was going to be controversial no matter what, because Sad Puppies 3 challenges the status quo in an artistic field overloaded with people who think out loud through their blogs and social media.”

Controversial…yet fun? Assuming that is possible, once the other puppies came on the scene it should have been clear fun was not likely. The Sad Puppies could have stepped back so as not to appear to be lending support to their hijackers, and maybe even worked with others to undermine the doppelganger campaign. Really, just because someone crashes the party with you, it is not betraying one’s cause to stop him from pissing in the punch bowl. In any case, only Mr McGoo—or those in deep denial—could mistake so many unhappy statements coming from all quarters, and nominees walking away from their own nominations, as evidence their stated goals were met.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, when some of the very people you try to help feel worse off for your efforts, it is time to admit you may have made a mistake somewhere. Doing that takes guts, but it would be a credible first step toward fixing the situation. And as it stands there is a big mess that someone has to clean up, or the sausages are just going to get dirtier and smellier until they won’t sell at all.

This acknowledgement doesn’t require wailing and gnashing of teeth to show penitence, or throwing friends under the bus. In fact no individuals have to be singled out for punishment at all. Enough pain has already been spread around. The only thing necessary is to recognize and admit that despite best intentions the methods used did not achieve the desired results, while making very clear they won’t—and should never—be used again.

I expect this should not be as difficult a task for those in the superversiveSF community as others. After all, the puppies were a definitively subversive act, as Torgerson admits, designed to undermine a system that some felt had become biased. That is all well and good as subversion does have its uses. But the idea of superversion, as far as I understood it, was to end subversion before it became systemic and ritualized. Before people were locked into factions trying to undermine each other. In other words the place we find ourselves now.

It might be useful to consider superversive acts capable of paving over the deep, black holes sunk across the SF community at this time. And let me be clear, not unilateral acts one thinks others should respond positively towards, but in conjunction with others from all sides so that results will more likely match expectations. Dialogue is required across communities with a solid commitment to walking the awards back to safety.

Brad Torgerson mentioned having tried parlay before, and thinking it had not worked. I am left wondering if he ever tried talking to George RR Martin, whom I should note has joined with Torgerson in arguing against punitive “No Award” votes or adopting rule changes that would reduce the quality of the Hugos. If not, perhaps now is his opportunity.

George RR Martin has been the most consistent voice of civility in this debate, from either side, trying to calm passions to look at evidence, while re-injecting a sense of appreciation for the award itself and the community as a whole. The account he gave of his history with the Hugos was compelling, to the point of inspirational. Yes, he is an award winner. But he has also been a two-time loser, and a complete nobody. None of his wins were assured when he was busy taking his lumps. And to him the Hugo was, and still is, an award where just being nominated is an honor.

This made similar histories recounted by superversive authors, in defense of enacting the puppies, seem a bit shallow and cynical in comparison. And many statements, such as Torgerson’s appeals to the innate tribalism of humanity, left me with the impression that in dark moments of fear and anger otherwise virtuous-minded people had somehow lost sight of their better natures.

Doesn’t viewing the Hugo as a prize one can be cheated out of, as if one—or one’s group—actually deserves it more than others, or know who deserves it more than others, suggest a lack of humility? To be outraged at such things that one becomes bitter, doesn’t this suggest a loss of proportion and perseverance?

…And yes these questions hold for both sides.

Martin made loss seem graceful, courageous, attractive, and almost noble in some underdog fashion. In contrast, the puppies made loss seem pitiable and pathetic, weak and cowardly. I can only hope to someday suffer the great misfortune certain puppy authors cited, after which I would gladly join the rest of the Hugo “losers” to drown my sorrows in feigned tears, while tipping a glass to “better luck next year.”

I apologize if this sounds harsh but it is not meant to be mean spirited. Rather it reflects what I felt as an outsider reading similar tales of woe, followed by very different sets of reactions. I knew who I’d rather be in a moment of perceived defeat. Which kind of crew would be more fun when the ship goes down. Indeed, which reactions I hope to promote regarding loss in a civilized society.

George RR Martin’s cogent analysis of past Hugos proved that bias, if it existed, never totally overwhelmed the awards process. But let’s say they were as biased as puppy proponents suggest. Torgerson was right that just because the awards were not entirely biased, does not mean they were entirely free of bias either. As it is, I understand how experiences of harassment described by the puppies could tarnish their feelings toward the Hugos. Even so, perhaps that baggage needs to be set aside at last, to hoist a cup of good-natured stoicism before having another go.

Losing does not diminish one’s character. It is how one faces defeat, even discrimination, that defines one’s character. It is possible people will find there is more dignity and honour working to recapture their initial enthusiasm toward an award, than working to capture the award itself.

…And it’s more fun. I wish I had gotten into SF earlier. Win or lose, it really sounded like fun. Now the rockets will need some steady hands to steer them back on that course.