In recent weeks a culture war has raged in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Hot on the heels of the Gamergate controversy – and to a significant extent running parallel alongside it – in this latest case, a right-wing group known as the ‘Sad Puppies’ have campaigned to correct science fiction of its ‘Leftist’ bias. The fight again highlights the deep schisms running through contemporary popular culture. In the view of Sad Puppy leader Brad R Torgersen, the field is ‘niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun’. In particular, the prestigious Hugo award has become an ‘affirmative action award ‘because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters’.
Although they have made some small attempts to distance themselves from the Rabid Puppies, Torgenson and his fellow Sad Puppy Leader Larry Correia have ended up in a cultural, if not practical, alliance with the more extreme group. The leader of the Rabid Puppies is the odious Theodore ‘Vox Day’ Beale, whose argument echoes in important ways those of the Sad Puppies: ‘we value excellence in actual science fiction and fantasy, rather than excellence in intersectional equalitarianism, racial and gender inclusion, literary pyrotechnics, or professional rabbitology.’ Day is also known to argue that women’s rights is ‘a disease that should be eradicated’. Unsurprisingly, he’s a racist too.
More recently, the Puppies successfully ‘gamed’ the field’s prestigious Hugo award, which is voted for by members of the World Science Fiction Convention (the Worldcon). They organised their own slates and campaigned for them. They were largely successful: the award lists are now dominated by authors proposed by the Puppies. Men now make up more than 80 per cent of fiction nominees, and 71 per cent of the Hugo ballot consists of nominees promoted by the Puppies – the extreme Rabid Puppies list was in fact more successful. One of their nominations, John C Wright, is known for posting online rants calling homosexuality ‘a malfunction of love’ and comparing it to bestiality and child abuse. He is nominated for three Hugo awards. Vox Day himself is nominated for two awards and one of the nominated books was published by a publishing house called – surprise, surprise – Patriarchy Press.
How do we best understand this culture war? The immediate cause, it seems, is the fact that in recent years, the Hugo Awards have been transformed. In other words, there has been a slow, molecular, and very incomplete growth of progressive values within science fiction and fantasy, along with the concomitant breaking down of established racist, homophobic and patriarchal barriers. The number of women nominees, for example, reached rough parity between 2011-2013. In this way, again, it parallels the Gamergate controversy: games having been once the protected turf of white males. In her excellent piece, Hugo award winner Kamron Hurley explains this creeping transition in science fiction:
When I won two awards last year, it seemed like an impossible achievement for me, because I knew the history of the Hugos. I knew they historically rewarded popular work, set in the kinds of old, colonial, dudes-rule-everything universes that my work explicitly challenges. I never thought I’d be more than a fringe writer, but I also didn’t believe science fiction was going to change, or that I’d be part of making that happen. I figured it would continue to tell the same old stories about the same old futures until the last of its readers died out, and that I’d be shouting for a more humanitarian future at the margins with others like me. But, like our wider culture, science-fiction and fantasy fandom grew and shifted; and with it, our vision of the future changed, too.
It’s no surprise that the Sad and Rabid Puppies fight has occurred in the wake of the Gamergate controversy. In both cases you have people who have traditionally been excluded from the forms breaking down barriers. So the Puppies are the reaction of a mostly white male and conservative group who are used to getting their own way in these fields and have been challenged. They now see themselves as the ones who are excluded; they’re the ones hard done by. They want to go back to the mythical olden days when men were men, women were subservient, and Blacks were invisible. They’re also part of an entire movement cutting across contemporary society, which includes Men’s Rights Activists, anti-feminists of different sorts and various strains of racism. This movement, in this incarnation at least, emerged first in the 1980s as a backlash against the radical movement of the 1960s. It popularised terms such as ‘political correctness'; it developed the kinds of anti-feminist culture analysed in the 1990s by Susan Faludi’s book Backlash: The Undeclared War on Women. In its recent form, the movement has become particularly virulent. In the case of Gamergate, the MRA-types have descended to tactics such as death threats and ‘Swatting’ (the illicit calling of SWAT teams to progressive critics’ houses).
The Puppies are both a political and an aesthetic movement. Part of Torgensen’s argument is that the science fiction community is out of touch with the rest of the public:
While the big consumer world is at the theater gobbling up the latest Avengers movie, ‘fandom’ is giving ‘science fiction’s most prestigious award’ to stories and books that bore the crap out of the people at the theater: books and stories long on ‘literary’ elements … while being entirely too short on the very elements that made Science Fiction and Fantasy exciting and fun in the first place.
This, of course, is a cry for the kind of literature that attracts adolescent boys that form the bulk of the superhero-film audience, and is conservative in an implicit sense: the kinds of ‘heroes’ of these stories are typically male, white, who overcome their odds by action, often violence. The Puppies are, quite simply, conservative both politically and aesthetically, and there’s a connection between the two (though importantly they also implicitly ignore some of the field’s greatest conservative writers like Gene Wolfe and Robert Silverberg).
Progressive sections of the science fiction community have reacted to the Hugo controversy with horror, many of them supporting a boycott. Connie Willis, who has won eleven Hugos, has refused to be a presenter at this year’s ceremony and nominees are withdrawing their names from the awards. Annie Bellet explained that:
All joy that might have come from this nomination has been co-opted, ruined, or sapped away. This is not about celebrating good writing anymore, and I don’t want to be a part of what it has become.
The consensus is that the awards are broken or have been highjacked.
Certainly it’s true that the Puppies have affected the ‘usual’ state of affairs and what would have been normal voting patterns, but we’re entitled to be suspicious of the claims that the awards have been broken. For one thing, the Hugo awards had become, in recent decades at least, something of a popularity contest rather than an assessment of the finest work in science fiction and fantasy (as Erik Flint has pointed out in a thoughtful post). To begin with, the Hugos have always been a reflection of the tastes of a small coterie of active fans, who seem to be become increasingly progressive, but who are also hardly aesthetic radicals: popular (even among the community of afficionados) and good are not in this case homologous. The sheer number and diversity of the fiction published also counts against non-American writers and those who have little profile in the community. What’s more, I have heard claims that ‘bloc-voting’ has occurred before – as indeed there have been accusations of bloc-voting in Australia’s ‘fan’ awards, the Ditmars – but never on such an open or a politically organised basis.
Abstention from this year’s awards or a strategy of ‘Puppy-free voting’ is a fine tactical response, but it does nothing to address the fact that this is an ongoing cultural war – the Sad Puppies have been campaigning for three years already – that transcends the science fiction field. If the rising diversity in the Hugo awards provides a reason for the emergence of the Puppies, I can’t help but suspect that it also springs from deeper social and economic sources. The economic crisis following 2008 has resulted in an increasingly polarised polity. In Europe this polarisation has taken a more political form (in the shape of far Right groups in the north of Europe and far Left groups in the South). For the time being, in the Anglophone world the polarisation has taken a more obviously cultural form – the culture war. In other words, the crisis in science fiction is a sign of the times.
If there’s something to be taken from the entire debacle, it’s that it opens the way for a discussion of what science fiction should be. What kind of literature should we be championing? What kind of forms represent the best science fiction has to offer? The best long-term solution, then, would be to organise the progressive science fiction community, not necessarily in the form of a counter-slate, but rather in terms of an aesthetic and political position for what the best science fiction would look like, and what the science fiction community should stand for.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. Back in 1937, sensing the danger of the rise of Fascism Donald Wollheim, a member of the Futurians (a SF group which included Asimov, Pohl and Judith Merril) delivered a speech at the Eastern Science Fiction Convention denouncing ‘the Gernsback Delusion’ – the idea that technological progress would lead to a glorious technocratic utopia, without consideration to the social arrangements that would need to accompany them. Later, in 1968, Galaxy printed a list of science fiction writers opposed to the Vietnam War (and another list of those supporting it). In my opinion, then, we need more such collective responses asserting the need for progressive science fiction and fantasy, and debate about how this would work aesthetically and politically. The genre is a wonderful way of imagining world’s that might be different to this one – it’s a thought experiment. And yet it is not an essay, but is rather a narrative form. But as a crucial starting-point, it is not a literature or community that should exclude women, the LGBT community, those marginalised according to race, ethnicity or religion. If it can imagine a better world then it can also help, in its own modest way, to contribute to one.