It’s been said that laws are a bit like sausages: it’s best not to know how they’re made.
I submit that the same is true of book awards.
Consider the Hugo, which is—along with the Nebula—among the highest honor for works of science fiction and fantasy. As a bit of marketing copy on a book cover (“Hugo winner!”), the award is great. But the more you know about how the winners are chosen, the less confident and more nauseated you become. The sausage-making isn’t pretty.
A quick primer for the uninitiated: the Hugo is perhaps the most democratic book award out there. The nominees and winners are selected, essentially, by fans: by supporting or attending members of Worldcon, which takes place in a different city every year. The sole obstacle to voting for the yearly winners of the Hugo is a relatively small membership fee.
Not that this is a bad thing; historically, the Hugo voters have been a very smart bunch, with impeccable taste. A look over the past winners of the Hugo reveals such names as Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula LeGuin, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke. I don’t know many who’d disagree with these choices.
The downside of the Hugo being a populist award, however, is that it inevitably reflects the current state of fandom. And fandom is going through some stuff right now, as anyone who’s familiar with the world of comics and gaming can attest. The same dynamics that gave rise to the #gamergate phenomenon—essentially, the trolls’ backlash to women, people of color, and LGBT people adding their voices to the fan and creator community—are present in the science fiction community as well.
It’s called the Sad Puppies slate. Headed up by SF writers Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia and supported by the libertarian site Breitbart, the Sad Puppies slate is a literal slate of suggested nominees intended to combat the perceived hijacking of the award by ideological elites. What it feels like instead is a bunch of angry white dudes who are angry that they’re being made to share the stage with more diverse voices—voices who just happened to take home many of the awards last year. Worst of all, they appear to have won: with the exception of a few categories, the Hugo Nominations this year are dominated by authors and editors from the Sad Puppies slate, many of whom have been noted in the past for their bigotry and misogyny. (One of the nominated titles is literally published by “Patriarchy Press”; however other nominees don’t share the Sad Puppies politics and aren’t too happy to have been included in the slate.)
What’s ironic is that while the Sad Puppies (which by the way is a dumb name that makes even “gamergate” sound cool by comparison) object to the award being hijacked by ideology, they’re actually the ones who’ve pushed the Hugo into being a completely political award, dominated by rival factions who campaign for their preferred slate of candidates. They’ve become what they claim to be against: a small group of tastemakers manipulating the award behind the scenes for largely political reasons. And they, more than anyone else, are hurting the award in the eyes of fans who look to the Hugo Award as a yearly arbiter of what’s best in the genre—not as the end result of an us-vs.-them dirty tricks campaign.
What choice does the other side have but to compile their own slate next year, and to ask everybody to vote for it? As John Scalzi has pointed out, concerted campaigning and ballot box stuffing isn’t contrary to the spirit or rules of the Hugo Awards. This is precisely the kind of stuff that the award process allows. So: game on. May the best side win. Vote for the best nominee in each category—and if, because of the Sad Puppies slate, you don’t like any of them, choose “No Award,” in which case there’ll be no winner in that category this year.
Ugh. That’s how the sausage gets made? I think I’m going to be sick.