The Hugo Wars: How Sci-fi’s Most Prestigious Awards Became a Political Battleground


Few walks of life are today immune to the spectre of political intolerance. At universities, speaker disinvitations and censorship campaigns are at an all-time high. In technology, there are purges of chief executives with the wrong political views and executives who make the wrong sort of joke. In the world of video games, petitions are launched against “offensive” titles, and progressive journalists wage smear campaigns against conservative developers.

It may not, therefore, surprise you to learn that similar occurrences are taking place in the science-fiction and fantasy (SFF) community, too. Previously a world renowned for the breadth of its perspectives, SFF increasingly bears the familiar hallmarks of an ideological battleground.

The story begins, as ever, with a small group of social justice-minded community elites who sought to establish themselves as the arbiters of social mores. This group would decide who deserved a presence in SFF and who deserved to be ostracised.

Their victims are littered across the SFF community. In 2013, the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) were targeted by a shirtstorm-like cyber-mob of digital puritans after one of their cover editions was deemed to be “too sexual.” The controversy did not die down until two of its most respected writers, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzburg, were dismissed from the publication. This occurred despite a vigorous counter-campaign by liberal members of the sci-fi community, including twelve Nebula award winners and three former presidents of the SFWA. 

Unfortunately, the current crop of elite figures in the SFF community have become either apologists or out-and-out cheerleaders for intolerance and censorship. Redshirts author John Scalzi, a close friend of  anti-anonymity crusader Wil Wheaton – was head of the SFWA at the time of the controversy and quickly caved in to activist pressure. This was unsurprising, given that he shared many of their identitarian views.

But Scalzi is, if anything, merely the moderate ally of a far more radical group of community elites. He hasn’t gone nearly as far as former SFWA Vice President Mary Kowal, who handles political disagreement by telling her opponents to “shut the fuck up” and quit the SFWA. Or former Hugo nominee Nora Jemisin, who says that political tolerance “disturbs” her. Or, indeed, the prolific fantasy author Jim C. Hines, who believes that people who satirize religion and political ideologies (a very particular religion, and a very particular ideology, of course) should be thrown out of mainstream SFF magazines.

Most of these people are small fry compared to the true big beasts of the SFF world, like Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, or J.K. Rowling. But through a mix of obsessive politicking in institutions like the SFWA and the familiar whipping up of social-justice outrage mobs online, they have been able to exert disproportionate influence.

Today, no one is safe. Right-wingers like Theodore Beale face ostracization over accusations of racism (Beale is himself Native American), while even progressives or independent authors like Bryan Thomas Schmidt are denounced as “cultural appropriators”; in Schmidt’s case, because he prepared an anthology of nonwestern sci-fi stories. Peak absurdity was achieved in 2014 when Jonathan Ross was forced to cancel his appearance at the Hugo Awards after the SJWs of SFF whipped themselves into a panic-fuelled rage over fears that Ross might – might! – make a fat joke. Even the New Statesman, which sometimes reads like an extension of Tumblr, came out and condemned the “self-appointed gatekeepers” of SFF.

But while the examples of manufactured grievance may be absurd, few members of the SFF community are laughing. New York Times bestselling author Larry Correia told us that SFF is currently in the grip of a “systematic campaign to slander anybody who doesn’t toe their line,” which is breeding a culture of fear and self-censorship. “Most authors aren’t making that much money, so they are terrified of being slandered and losing business,” he says. The only exceptions are a “handful of people like me who are either big enough not to give a crap, or too obstinate to shut up.”

After years on the back foot, that obstinate handful are preparing to fight back.

Sad Puppies

To the outside world, the Hugo Awards are known as the most prestigious honor that a sci-fi or fantasy creator can achieve. However, inside the community they are widely seen as a popularity contest dominated by cliques and super-fandoms. This can be seen most clearly in the dominance of Doctor Who in the TV award categories. The show’s enormous fanbase has garnered 26 Hugo nominations in the last nine years. Episodes from the show triumphed in every year between 2006 and 2012, save one.

The Hugos have an advantage, though: they are difficult for a single group to dominate if others rise to challenge them. All one has to do to vote in the awards is pay a small membership fee to the World Science Fiction Convention. For the few who are brave enough to defend artistic freedom openly, the Hugos are a good place to make a stand.

That is precisely what is now happening. Ahead of 2013’s Hugo Awards, Larry Correia began making public blog posts about his nominations, inviting his readers to discuss and agree on a shared list of Hugo nominations, and vote collectively. The idea was to draw attention to authors and creators who were suffering from an undeserved lack of attention due to the political climate in sci-fi. The “Sad Puppies” slate was born.

(The original idea was to call it the “Sad Puppies Think of the Children Campaign” – a dig at those who take their social crusades too seriously.)

What began as a discussion among bloggers has turned into an annual event. Last year’s Sad Puppies slate was extraordinarily successful, with seven out of Correia’s twelve nominations making it to the final stage of the Hugos. Among the successful nominations was The Last Witchking, a novelette by Theodore Beale, also known as Vox Day – a writer whose radical right-wing views had put him at the top of the sci-fi SJWs’ hit list. The fact that an author like Beale could receive a Hugo nomination was proof that SJW domination of sci-fi was not as complete as the elites would have liked.

In addition to humiliating the activists, the slate also triggered significant debate. Even John Scalzi, the privilege-checking SFWA President discussed above, was forced to admit that works of science fiction and fantasy ought to be judged on their quality, not on the politics of their authors. This greatly upset some of Scalzi’s more radical supporters, who openly called for exclusion on the basis of political belief. The debate also spread beyond sci-fi to the pages of The Huffington Post and USA Today
Stirring up debate was, of course, precisely the point of Sad Puppies. As well as ensuring that quality works of fiction made it past the cliques at places like SFWA and to be considered by the fans themselves, the Sad Puppies slate also forced radicals to show their true colours. Those who supported political ostracism were outed as a tiny but vocal minority. As Correia explained on his blog, the slate managed to expose the “thought police” of the community before votes had even been cast.

This year, the Sad Puppies slate returns once more, championed by Hugo and Nebulanominee Brad R. Torgerson. Although run by conservative authors, it includes many authors and creators who are left-wing, liberal, or non-politically aligned. In this way, the slate hopes to protect what radical activists want to eliminate: diversity of opinion and political tolerance. 

The battle continues
The debate generated by the Sad Puppies slate could not have come at a timelier moment. Although the radicals are in the minority, they have proven as disruptive to sci-fi as they have been to universities, secularism, and video gaming.

Character assassinations, doxing, and abuse campaigns from radical activists happen all the time, with little to no condemnation from the self-proclaimed opponents of “online harassment.” Activists urge conference-goers to avoid “unsafe” authors like Correia, in an echo of the excuses used by ‘Stepford Students’ to bar speakers from campus on the grounds of preserving “safe spaces”–an argument that has come under increasing fire from liberals and conservatives alike.

(The world of sci-fi even has its very own Shanley Kane. Last autumn’s controversy du jour was the outing of a notorious online abuser known as “Requires Hate,” a social justice activist who relentlessly abused anyone who got on her wrong side – regardless of their politics.)

Indeed, the reaction to the Sad Puppies slate proved that anyone can be a target in the new environment. When the slate was chosen, several authors came under attack simply for being recommended on it. In other words, the radical activists of sci-fi are no longer a threat just to right-wingers.

Even if social-justice radicals were only a threat to right-wingers, that would still be a problem in need of a solution. The breadth of perspectives accommodated by sci-fi has historically been one of its greatest strengths, allowing it to reach ever-wider audiences throughout the decades. The great dystopian writers of the early-to-mid twentieth-century included socialists like George Orwell, liberals like Aldous Huxley, and of course the objectivist libertarian Ayn Rand.

In the postwar period, conservatives like Robert Heinlein and liberals like Isaac Asimov were both among the leading figures of science fiction. Political tolerance, an idea loathed by radical activists, has ever been the norm in the community, and it has thrived because of it.

Wherever they emerge, social-justice warriors claim to be champions of diversity. But they always reveal themselves to be relentlessly hostile to it: they applaud people of different genders, races, and cultures just so long as those people all think the same way. Theirs is a diversity of the trivial; a diversity of skin-deep, ephemeral affiliations.

The diversity that writers like Correia and Torgerson have set out to protect is different. It is a diversity of perspectives, of creative styles, and, yes, of politics. It is the kind of diversity that authoritarians hate, but it is the only kind of diversity that matters.

Follow Allum Bokhari (@LibertarianBlue) and Milo Yiannopoulos (@Nero) on Twitter.


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