Why I Care About the Sad Puppy Hugo Mess

Worldcon starts this week and I sure wish I were there – hello friends at Worldcon! Hug David Tennant for me if you see him! Seriously, last year at this time my entire Facebook feed was all my friends hugging David Tennant and oh lord, the envy, it burns.

This is, of course, the year of the Sad Puppies, and I want to talk about why this issue matters to me, why I feel passionately about it, and why I would hope that people I perceive as my friends would feel just as passionately as I do. I see the Sad Puppies as a problem not only because they have hurt and angered a lot of Hugo fans this year, but because they are part of a larger pattern of pushback against traditionally marginalized groups who are moving into the mainstream in a variety of fields.

The Hugo Awards are science fiction awards that are voted on by fans. Fans have to pay a fee (currently $40) to vote. It’s a normal practice for individuals to put out a blog post suggesting that their followers consider certain works. In 2015, two groups, the self-named Sad Puppies, led by Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen, and the Rabid Puppies led by Vox Day, conducted an effort to stuff the ballot with a specific slate of nominees (a move which was legal but unprecedented in scale and coordination for the Hugos).

The Sad Puppies have two major complaints about the state of science fiction awards today:

  1. The Sad Puppies feel that their preferred sub-genre (hard military space opera, adventure) is no longer the cool genre. In particular, they feel that “fun” science fiction/fantasy (SFF) has been replaced with “Social Justice Warrior” approved, cerebral, experimental, and political SFF on ballots that are monopolized by a leftist science fiction fan elite. The Sad Puppies view the science fiction of the 1960s, 1970’s and 1980s as an era of “fun” science fiction (a nostalgia that ignores the presence of more cerebral and experimental genre fiction during each of those decades). They feel that not only is their preferred brand of fiction disappearing, but that it is being co-opted by different social and political viewpoints. In his blog, Sad Puppy co-founder Brad Torgersen writes:

A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.

Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.

Do you see what I am trying to say here?

Our once reliable packaging has too often defrauded our readership. It’s as true with the Hugos as it is with the larger genre as a whole. Our readers wanted Nutty Nuggets because (for decades) Nutty Nuggets is what we gave them. Maybe some differences here and there, but nothing so outrageously different as to make our readers look at the cover and say, “What the hell is this crap??”

Regardless of whether Torgersen’s perceptions about science fiction in years past is accurate, his concern is not that science fiction has changed, but that the people he perceives as being published are representing world views that he is at best not interested in and at worst hostile to – and those world views are being presented in the mainstream market, instead of discreetly shelved as LGBT fiction, or Women’s Studies. In the words of Geek Girl contributor Heather Thayer,

The Puppies are a problem not because they prefer a certain sub-genre, but because instead of simply advocating for this sub-genre, they complain about what they view as the encroachment on their territory by people who are different from them and have a different point of view.

  1. As a group of mostly white, conservative men, the Puppies feel they are no longer the cool kids in science fiction. They feel they are shunned for their perceived religious and political views, and that this not only subjects them to discrimination at conventions but also ensures that their work will not win awards. Larry Correia, in a frustrating but admirably polite exchange with George R.R. Martin, talks about being nominated for a Hugo and then feeling unpopular at Worldcon:

So I mostly hung out with the Barflies, because they were cool. But I can hang out with Barflies at fifty other cons where I’m not assumed to be the second coming of Hitler because the Internet said so. And while I hung out with them, I got to hear how many of them were shunned for various reasons too.

Then I went to the award ceremony, and the parties, and the various schmoozefests, and I discovered that the Hugo Awards were like one great big In Joke. And the cool kids told their cool stories to the other cool kids, and lorded it over those who weren’t part of the In Joke. Honestly, it reminded me of high school, and I was the poor fat kid who had inadvertently pissed off the mean girls.

Listen, people like the Sad Puppies come and go. In a few years, no one will care about them. But they are still a problem. The reason the Sad Puppies are a problem is that they are part of a pattern of push-back that happens when women (and people of color, and LGBT people, and other traditionally marginalized groups) are perceived as moving into white male spaces. This is happening in, among other places, the science fiction community, gaming, science and technology fields, and the Atheist/Skeptic community. Some people welcome the increase of diversity in these spaces. But some people say, “HEY! This is the place where I am finally on top of the social heap! Who are all these people coming in and acting like they are my actual peers? I’m losing status! I’m losing privilege! I’m being crowded out of the pool!”

Of course, the frustrating thing about this is that most people will adamantly deny that they are misogynistic/homophobic/racist. I’d actually rather deal with someone like Vox Day of the Rabid Puppies, who is transparently racist, sexist, and homophobic, than someone like Larry Correia, who complains that people dislike him because of his beliefs without wondering if maybe the problem is that his beliefs are oppressive and offensive to much of the human race. Correia and Torgensen are adamant that they are neither racist nor homophobic nor misogynistic, while referring to the 2014 Hugo’s slate as “affirmative action.” (For the record, I’m a huge fan of almost everything and everyone who won a Hugo in 2014. Here’s the list.)

Most people who push back against minorities won’t state their bigotry as openly as Rabid Puppy Vox Day, who is somewhat infamous for making incendiary comments about various groups. Instead, they will voice more coded complaints, but ones that are clearly based in their fear of losing privilege and status. For instance:

  • Cons are overrun by fake geek girls. All these women who keep coming to conventions now aren’t true geeks.
  • Women complain about harassment over every little thing. I don’t see why they are so easily offended.
  • All the awards/panel spots/publishing contracts are given out to people who don’t look like me; it’s a plot because their work is clearly not as good as mine.

The mistake these people make is in believing that they are entitled to something. No one is entitled to an award, or a contract, or a seat on a panel. The Sad Puppies and people like them are so used to a playing field that favors them that if other people get on the field they think it’s unfair when it’s actually just a tiny hint of parity. Heather Thayer points out that the 2014 Hugo slate that attracted the wrath of the Sad Puppies is hardly monopolized by minority writers:

I agree that the winners were diverse, but was the slate “dominated” by diverse writers, or was there simply a fair representation of all writers (including white males)?

Let’s look at it:

The Novel category was two women and four white men.

Novella (won by a white male) was again two women and four white men.

Novelette (won by a white woman) was two women, an Asian man and two white males

Short story: Asian male, two women, and one white male.  Okay, that one is “dominated” by diverse people, but nothing out of whack with demographics.

Of course, I cannot comment on LGBT diversity based on a picture, but looking at who the white males are for most of the categories, I think I can safely say that the slate was not overrun by gay white men.  And oh yeah, if a person is a gay woman of color, that doesn’t count as three – that’s just one diverse person.

The point is that the Sad Puppies BELIEVED that the 2014 list was “dominated” by diversity.  But it wasn’t.  It was simply “diverse” – including plenty of white male (or space opera) representation. In fact, both Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen were nominated, so they certainly had someone to vote for.

Evidence suggests that these people are not victims in terms of professional success. Larry Correia, for instance, made the New York Times Bestseller List in 2010 and 2011, and was nominated for a Hugo in 2014. George R.R. Martin, in his conversation with Larry Correia, did an epic takedown of the notion that marginalized people have suddenly taken over. But what if previously marginalized voices did take over? What if Larry had to say, legitimately, “No one reads my books anymore?” Well, that would be too bad. I’ve heard good things about Correia’s writing (I’m completely unfamiliar with Day and Torgersen’s writing). But tastes change, the market fluctuates, and no one has to buy anyone else’s’ book. No one is entitled to market success. Which is why being a writer can kind of suck.

So why not just ignore the Sad Puppies? Because the Sad Puppies are part of a bigger picture and sometimes that picture is ugly at best and deadly at worst. The Sad Puppies are part of a culture that includes Gamer Gate (a separate movement) and its followers who use trolling, harassment, doxxing, swatting, and death and rape threats in an attempt to intimidate people, usually women, to stop talking about sexism in the gaming industry. The Puppies, while not affiliated with Men’s Rights Activism, are also part of a culture of threatened privilege and entitlement that make MRA groups popular. At best, this is a culture that discourages women, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQIA from participating in fandom (and the sciences, as well as other professional and fan communities). At worst, this larger culture is physically dangerous. Women, LGBTQIA people, and people of color are victims of discrimination, harassment, and violence on a regular and highly disproportionate basis, at cons, online, at home, and in the workplace. This shit is real.

The Sad Puppies aren’t advocating violence in any way – all they want (this year) is for their slate to win a bunch of awards. But they are part of a culture that is both enraging and terrifying. There are serious consequences when a privileged group furthers an agenda of exclusion, paranoia, and victimhood because they see that their privilege ebbing away. I take their campaign personally because the Sad Puppies have attempted to make me feel unwelcome in a space (science fiction fandom) that is my home. I don’t mind sharing my home but I do mind being told I can only live in a corner. The Sad Puppies have embarrassed a community that has worked hard to battle bias and hate speech and harassment within its own ranks. They have contributed to the alienation of multiple groups of creatively diverse people who have wonderful things to share. They have contributed to a culture of fear and bigotry in a community that has been fighting so hard to become more welcoming and equitable.

I don’t know what to do about the Sad Puppies, but here’s what I do know – please don’t say that you don’t care. You should care. Keep a sense of proportion – in immediate terms, the Sad Puppy debacle is not an issue of life or death in the same sense that, say, reform of the justice system is a matter of life or death. But I do believe, strongly, that the Sad Puppies’ efforts to hijack the Hugo’s contribute to a culture which is actively, violently dangerous to women, to people of color, and to people who identify as LGBTQIA. The pushback reflected in Sad Puppies, the sense of fear and victimization because of a perceived loss of privilege, is the same pushback we see in so many violent crimes and institutionalized injustices. The Sad Puppies are a tiny, whiny drop in a bucket – but it’s our bucket, SFF community, so it’s our job to deal with it.

Full disclosure: As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to dislike Vox Day he attacked the other webpage I write for (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) because he felt we were acting as “thought police” for objecting to a romance novel in which the heroine (a Jewess, saved through faith in Christ) falls for a Nazi concentration camp commandant being nominated for an award. So there’s that. Honestly this is the least of my reasons to dislike him, but if it comes up, hey, you heard it here first.