The 2015 Hugo Controversy FAQ for Librarians

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Image Credit: Cory Doctorow, CC BY 2.0

So the Hugo Awards are awarded annually at WorldCon, which this year is being hosted in my very own adopted hometown of Spokane. Except this year, long before the luminaries of sci-fi and fantasy are due to arrive, the awards process has already turned into an absolute clusterf*ck. On the other hand, this year’s awards may well prove to be the most talked-about Hugo Awards yet. Yay, us?

In any case, apart from a very brief news item in Library Journal, the mess hasn’t yet made much of an appearance in the usual library-related blogs and publications. I do think it has some important implications for librarians though, so here, in as neutral of terms as I can muster, is my 2015 Hugo Controversy FAQ for Librarians (and related book nerds).

So, wait, what happened to the Hugo Awards?
Earlier this month, the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards were announced as usual, but it turned out that many of the nominees—in some award categories, all of the nominees—were from among those found on just two voting slates, respectively called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, that had been organized and promoted by politically right-leaning authors. Within a few days, headlines began to appear about the “right-wing hijacking” of the Hugo nominations.

Sad Puppies?
Sad Puppies is a campaign, now in its third year, started and promoted by sci-fi authors Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia on their respective blogs. The campaign was founded to counter, in Torgersen’s words, a shift among recent Hugo nominees towards works that were “niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun.” The Sad Puppies campaign instead proposed a slate of authors, editors, and works of the type that the Sad Puppies organizers felt had been excluded in previous years due to literary elitism and political ideology.

And there are Rabid Puppies too?
Rabid Puppies is another, alternate slate of candidates promoted by writer and publisher Theodore Beale, otherwise known as Vox Day. Although often described as a “Christian libertarian,” Beale has been criticized for his extreme political and social views, including arguing against women’s suffrage and insisting that marital rape is an oxymoron. In 2013, he was expelled from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for using an SFWA twitter feed to link to racially charged remarks on his own blog, wherein Beale referred to black author N.K. Jemisin as an “ignorant half-savage” and asserted that he and Jemisin were “not equally homo sapiens sapiens.”

While Beale’s Rabid Puppies slate included a number of candidates in common with the Sad Puppies slate, Beale also notably included himself in both the long-form and short-form editor categories, as well as a total of seven works published by Castalia House, the tiny Finland-based publisher that Beale himself owns. Since the controversy erupted, the Sad Puppies campaign has explicitly distanced itself from Beale and the Rabid Puppies.

Did the puppies cheat, then?
Not technically. The founders of the puppy slates and those who voted for them didn’t violate any existing Hugo rules, which even critics of the puppies have freely acknowledged. Puppy supporters have also argued in their defense that other authors and publishers have long promoted their own works for nomination, so the puppy slates were nothing new.

Critics of the puppies, however, have countered that, while soliciting votes for individual writers or works has long been accepted practice, assembling a comprehensive slate of nominees and encouraging fans to vote as a bloc breaks precedent and crosses an ethical line.

So if they didn’t cheat, how were they able to sway the vote so easily?
Technically, anyone can vote for the Hugos, but to do so, you have to pay $40 for a “supporting membership” to WorldCon (or more for an “attending membership” that also entitles you to attend the convention). Consequently, the actual pool of voters on any given year is relatively small. This year, for the nominating round, there were just over two thousand ballots submitted in total, and of those, not every ballot included nominations for each category, reducing the numbers for any given category further still.

In the Best Novelette category, for example, which was initially swept entirely by puppy-slate candidates (one nominated work was later disqualified and replaced by a non-puppy runner up), at least one novelette made the shortlist with a mere 72 votes, roughly 7% of those who voted in the category and only 3% of nominating ballots overall. Thus by mobilizing their supporters to vote as a bloc, the puppy campaigns appear to have disproportionately influenced the vote, while likely representing only a small minority of actual voters.

Did the nominated authors know about this?
Not all of them. According to Torgersen, attempts were made to notify all the authors about their inclusion on the Sad Puppies slate, but some authors have since claimed that they weren’t informed. It’s also likely that others, not savvy to Hugo politics, may have been informed without really understanding the significance of their inclusion. Nonetheless, two of the nominees have since voluntarily withdrawn their nominations due to the controversy: Mark Kloos, whose Lines of Departure was nominated for Best Novel; and Annie Bellet, whose “Goodnight Stars” was nominated for Best Short Story.

I heard this has something to do with GamerGate?
Maybe, but probably not in any organized fashion. There was at least one prominent Twitter user using the GamerGate hashtag to solicit Hugo votes from GamerGate supporters, and there’s certainly some ideological overlap between both groups. Both, for example, feel that their respective interests — science fiction and fantasy on the one hand, and video games on the other — have been under assault by so-called “social justice warriors,” a term used pejoratively to describe those who raise concerns about the treatment of race, gender, and sexuality in popular media and advocate vocally for greater inclusivity.

So it’s certainly possible that the puppy vote was inflated by GamerGate supporters, but there’s no concrete evidence for the claim.

So what happens now?
With the final round of votes to be divided across only a limited number of nominees rather than the whole of 2014 science fiction and fantasy, it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the puppy supporters will be able to sway the final vote to the extent they did during the initial nomination round.

However, since some categories’ nominees were largely or entirely reflective of the puppy slates, puppy critics have been split on how they intend to counter the puppy vote: The Hugos use preferential balloting to determine the winners, with each voter able to list their preferred candidates in descending order. Some critics have proposed a protest vote of “No Award” — a valid option in any voting year — for every category on the ballot; others for ranking only the non-puppy nominees above “No Award”; and still others have claimed that they still intend to consider every nominee honestly and vote accordingly.

How it turns out is anyone’s guess, but it wouldn’t be surprising if, in the final tally, “No Award” rose to the top in at least one category at this year’s WorldCon.

What does this have to do with libraries?
For those librarians who use book awards as a guide for collection development or a tool in readers’ advisory, the Hugo controversy may leave them rightfully questioning whether this year’s Hugo nominees really do represent the best in 2014 fantasy and sci-fi.

The goods news is that the categories that most concern the average public librarian — such as the best novel, graphic novel, film, and television categories — were the least affected, and even where puppy nominees occur among those categories, they tend to be popular items that may well have ended up on the list even without puppy involvement.

Nonetheless, this year’s controversy stands to illustrate the potential pitfalls of depending too much on book awards as a guide for selection and retention decisions and for readers’ advisory, given how easily some awards might be swayed by an organized minority and fail to reflect overall demand or quality.

Where can I go to read at mind-numbing length about the minutiae of the controversy?
This is as editorial as I’ll get in this FAQ: My recommendation is “don’t”. Seriously. There are things I’ve read while obsessing over this controversy, by Vox Day in particular, that I wish I could unread. If you insist, though, Mike Glyer’s SF fanzine, File 770, has been doing an admirable job following the controversy and documenting the drama from all sides.

But really, there are no winners here, least of all the readers caught in the middle. So I’d recommend spending your time with a good book instead. Perhaps something from last year’s winners?

Addendum: I rarely get comments on my infrequently updated little blog, but in the unlikely event that this actually garners attention from anything but spam bots, please be civil. 

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