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Image: Laretrotienda via Wikimedia Commons
Rocket ship in a pinball game: metaphor for 2015’s Hugos (Image: Laretrotienda, via Wikimedia Commons)

The future of science fiction and fantasy’s most prominent award may be decided on its flight from Seattle to Spokane.

If, that is, the prominence survives the trip, thanks to a controversy that makes the journey look like something more out of Mad Max than the Wizard of Oz.

Readers of the genres are undoubtedly familiar with the Hugo Awards. A staple of the field since 1953, the awards are selected by popular vote of fans in more than a dozen categories from novels to films. The rocket-shaped awards are handed out at the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon. This year’s 73rd Worldcon, Sasquan, takes place in August in Spokane. (Yes. Spokane, Wash.)

Image: Deb Kosiba
A past Hugo Award (Image: Deb Kosiba)

Writers love the Hugos for reasons of professional recognition, promotion, and/or ego. Readers have traditionally relied upon them as an indicator of quality, either for an individual writer or work.

But the latter purpose may be doomed in the long run if a determined effort is victorious, in a Pyrrhic sense. Because what’s transpiring for 2015’s Hugos could undermine the relevance of the award as a go-to resource for the best in the field.

A controversy that had been bubbling for several years finally boiled over when the 2015 Hugo finalists were publicly announced in the Seattle area over Easter weekend at the regional speculative fiction convention Norwescon. Bloc voting – for two overlapping slates of nominees – actually succeeded, for the first time ever. In some categories, slate-promoted nominees pushed everything else off the ballot since enough people seem to have voted the same identical way.

Part of this is possible due to the egalitarian nature of the Hugos (anyone who pays for a Worldcon membership of any type can vote) and the unrestricted nature of nominations (any voter can nominate up to the total number of finalists for a category – five finalists mean five nominations can be made). What happened was totally, completely legit, based on the nominating rules.

So what’s wrong with that?, I hear you cry. If different parties have different ideas of what’s “best,” why not push an all-in-one slate?

Image: Brad R. Torgersen
Image: Brad R. Torgersen

Because it looks like the successful slates were at least partly driven by ideological or political, not purely writing or entertainment quality, agendas. The two – Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies (the names provide a not-so-subtle hint as to which is more extreme) – have a decidedly conservative/libertarian tilt, and lead proponents who decry what they see as an earlier takeover of the Hugos by diversity-focused “social justice warriors,” who write what “Puppies” brand as boring stuff.

To give you an idea of what “successful” means, all of the announced finalists in the categories of best novella, best novelette (one was later replaced), best short story, best related work, and best editor (short and long form) were carbon copies of the Rabid Puppies slate. Sad or Rabid nominees made up three of the five best novel finalists, four of the five best new writer finalists, and … well, by now you get the idea.

What worries me and many others is not the spirited disagreement over what constitutes good science fiction or fantasy. (I’m a one-time minor science-fiction writer, and I like some of the Puppies’ choices. ) The problem is the blunt, game-over tactic of ballot stuffing.

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
George R. R. Martin (Image: David Shankbone)
Since the final ballot was revealed on April 4th, tens of thousands of words have flowed in defense of, outrage about, or reflection on the results. Writers, after all, write.

Even George R.R. Martin, guest of honor at Norwescon, apparently set aside his work on the long-promised next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (uh oh) to pen not one, but nine long blog posts on “Puppygate,” concisely noting, “This ballot is the worst I have ever seen, admittedly, and there are stories and writers on it who are not fit to polish a Hugo, much less win one.”

While Martin says there is good stuff on it, too, “I think the Sad Puppies have broken the Hugo Awards, and I am not sure they can ever be repaired.” In other words, “successful” slate voting — by factions representing any kind of ideology or taste — may be here to stay.

At this point, you’re probably crying out again, This may very interesting to those who play this kind of inside baseball to win awards, but what does it mean to me, the reader?

It may mean an upending that will unwittingly and eventually erode what made the Hugo Awards valuable to casual fans in the first place – trust that it’s an indicator of what’s clearly top-notch reading or writing.

It’s not that campaigning is new to science-fiction and fantasy awards. I was the volunteer administrator of another prestigious science-fiction competition, the Nebula Awards, during its major controversy in the 1980s. When I called an author to congratulate her for taking best short story in the peer-voted honors, I was stunned to hear her say she wanted to withdraw the work – after winning.

Her reason was the campaigning by another finalist in the same category. I had the awkward task of notifying the board of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America of the winner’s desire to decline, establishing my unenviable role as the Miles Standish of the Nebulas in the process. (The writer was Lisa Tuttle, the work was “The Bone Flute,” and both remain worth reading.)

But the big difference between the Nebulas then, and the Hugos now, is that the Nebula campaigning didn’t affect the outcome of the vote. For the Hugos, bloc campaigning verging on manipulation dominates the ballot today. And if protest “No Award” votes overwhelm slate-propelled finalists, the Hugos also fail in 2015 because certainly something, somewhere was worthy of a Hugo this year.

Worldcon_073_Sasquan_logoThat could be a sad thing for science fiction, as geek culture has become mainstream popular culture. The irony of this Hugo ballot is that, simultaneous to science fiction’s ascendance, we’ve seen a reduced reliance on “quality” gatekeepers such as awards. Fans can find recommendations of what’s worth reading, even more tightly tied to their tastes, with an online tap or click. Maybe, as once was said about academia, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

A Hugo rocket is a gleaming, vertical seal of approval. It represents perhaps not the best works of a year, but definitely those that are good. Whether it can maintain that reputation – or just fade into quaint memory like the old-time “spaceship” its shape mimics – will be clear in the future. That’s the very near future: Spokane, this August 22nd.

[UPDATE 12:55 P.M. Two finalists who appeared on both the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies lists have withdrawn their works from the Hugo ballot: Marko Kloos in the best novel category, and Annie Bellet in best short story.]

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