Lots of people I respect are sad, angry, disappointed, or otherwise negative about the Hugo award nominations this year. I’ve been trying to find an overview which doesn’t already assume that you know what’s going on and have chosen a side. The best I’ve found so far is Matthew David Surridge explaining why he declined a nomination (for Best Fan Writer): it’s not disinterested, of course, but he works hard to explain and document the opinions he’s disagreeing with, and he also tries hard to avoid saying anything inflammatory.
To explain my own point of view, which doesn’t quite match any of the ones I’ve seen online so far, I’ll have to give a capsule summary of the issue myself. Bear in mind that I’m not really trying to be impartial with this summary, although I am trying not to be inflammatory.1 It goes something like this:
The Hugo awards are something of a big deal, described on the award website as “science fiction’s most prestigious award”. The awards are chosen via a two-step process: first a number of works are nominated, then the awards are voted from the top five works on the nomination lists. Both nominating and voting are restricted to people who have either attended Worldcon, or bought a supporting membership (which exists largely for this purpose, as far as I know). For the last few years a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies have nominated en masse for a preset list of works. This year they were particularly effective, with the nominee lists apparently almost entirely decided by the Puppy blocs.2 This is a big deal because only works on the nominee lists get voted for: because fewer people nominate than vote, an organised nomination bloc has a disproportionate effect on the final outcome. So much for the summary.
Much less impartially: this is a big deal for me because I totally disagree with the aesthetic and political ideals that the Puppy blocs are promoting as the kind of science fiction they want to see rewarded in these awards. I’m delighted by diversity in sf and fantasy, and I enjoy “books and stories long on ‘literary’ elements“; on the other hand I really don’t care if the Hugos fail to reward SF&F which is already commercially successful without that endorsement. (I use the Hugo nominations as a recommended-reading list. I don’t need any help discovering Game of Thrones.)
So if you’re in my position, of generally wanting the Hugos to continue as an institution and generally disagreeing with the Puppy blocs about what they should be rewarding, what is the best action to take at this point? Here is where my take maybe diverges from the generally accepted wisdom of the moment.
John Scalzi, who is I would say extremely prominently in the opposite camp to the Sad Puppies, is going to vote as usual. He implies, although doesn’t say so explicitly, that voting as usual will probably involve more No Award votes than usual. (A Hugo ballot is a ranked list, which need not include all nominees, and “No Award” can appear on the list: it means just what it says, namely “if my higher choices don’t get in, I would prefer that no award be given for this category.”) Scalzi’s post links to a Steve Davidson who will be ranking “ANY nominee that is associated with advancing a political agenda BELOW No Award“.3
I see the appeal of both these approaches, but I don’t think either really works. Scalzi’s is pretty clearly an attempt to maintain the moral high ground: whatever dirty dealing you do, I’m going to do the right thing when it comes to my turn. There are two problems with this; the first is that it essentially concedes the first victory to the Puppies (since they have successfully chosen the vast majority of the works Scalzi will be choosing between), but the second is even more important: it will encourage this sort of behaviour to spread. If the best we can do is vote on the nominee list that a voting bloc produces, then next year’s Hugos can only be a competition between different voting blocs. This is a prospect that I view with nothing short of horror.
If you think about it, the kind of voting behaviour that the Puppies are engaged in has a lot in common with party politics. Ordinary Hugo nominators are independent candidates whose opinions on different topics are not necessarily tightly coupled: if you see someone’s nominations for Best Novella you might be able to guess their picks for Best Novel, but just as possibly you might not. The voting blocs, in this picture, correspond to political parties: once you know that someone gave the Sad Puppy nomination in the Novella category, you have a good idea they probably gave the Sad Puppy nomination for Novel as well. And just like in politics this gets results. The only effective way for the independent candidates to resist the power of the coordinated action that a party provides is to form their own party in opposition.
The way this seems to work out in (modern Western) politics, you end up with two major parties notionally opposed on a Left/Right, Liberal/Conservative axis. In the US there are no alternatives, so the two parties try to differentiate themselves as much as possible, and to get their hooks as far as possible into the identities of their constituencies. If the Hugo voting goes this way, you’ll either vote on a Puppies ticket or an SJW-and-proud ticket (say), and if you identify with the SJW camp it will feel like some sort of self-betrayal to concede that a book on the Puppies list might possibly have some kind of redeeming features, let alone be serious award material. In countries with more parties, the effect tends to be the opposite: the majority parties are forced together in their stance on real issues, fighting for the center vote, while the extremist positions get taken up by parties with much less support. We already see something like this going on with the Hugos, with the Sad and Rabid Puppies sitting at notionally different positions on the Conservative side of the spectrum.
So why is this bad? It works ok for politics, right? (Please read that sentence again, in the most cynical internal voice you can produce.) Here’s the problem: I believe that the most important thing that a literary award can do is to draw attention to works that otherwise wouldn’t get the attention they deserve.4 As far as I’m concerned, the main reason the Hugos should exist is to help people discover great writing that they otherwise wouldn’t know about. And if there’s one thing that party politics is bad at, it’s surprising the voters.
Both the two-party system of the US and the many-parties-but-two-main-ones of most other Western democracies are stable political systems exactly because they are so predictable. Stability and predictability are good properties in a political system. But they’re terrible properties in a system that is supposed to discover and promote new and exciting stuff. A US-style Puppies/SJWs bloc-off would lose through the cracks those works that don’t loudly proclaim their political affiliation; I think a multi-party system would be inclined to drop more experimental work, especially when it is explicitly political in intent.
Besides my not being very sanguine about the results of an explicitly politicised nominations round, it’s also terribly sad to see so much of the conversation around these awards diverted from the quality of these works to the politics of the voting process. If bloc voting becomes more popular, I can only see this tendency increasing.
Which brings me to Steve Davidson’s approach, to penalise nominations “associated with advancing a political agenda”. Again, the appeal is clear: the problem is voting blocs, so let’s make people want to dissociate themselves from the voting blocs. But again, I don’t think it works if you follow it through in detail.
The basic problem is that the punishment can only be applied to the nominees, who are not responsible for the bad behaviour. That’s not just dubious morality, it’s probably ineffective as well. Supposing enough people signed up for this approach. If I were a Sad-Puppy-endorsed author and wanted a good shot at a rocket statue, I would deplore the practise of bloc voting on my personal blog, privately communicate my solidarity with the Puppy cause to whoever maintains the list, and sit back and watch as my name came up again and again in discussions of whether my politics were deeply felt or merely convenient. (There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? In party politics, that’s terribly close to true.) And again, this can only divert discussion from the merits of the works themselves to the intentions and affiliations of the people producing them.
A secondary problem is that even if this approach gets traction (I’ve seen the idea floated that a ban on public “slates” –prepared lists for bloc voting or nomination– might make its way into the voting rules, but I have no idea how feasible or probable that is), the same effect can still be quite effectively organised under the radar. We’re talking about a relatively small number of people here. I assume the majority of people voting on this bloc are doing so in good faith (even if I don’t share their politics or aesthetic preferences). So I guess if the rules are amended to prohibit this kind of behaviour, we’ll see lots of marginal behaviour and discussions about what really counts as an infraction. If it’s just a question of voters doing what Davidson advocates because they feel it’s right, though, then the bloc voters will feel perfectly justified in keeping their arrangements secret in order to avoid “unfair” voting behaviour by others. Then we’re back to party-politics, with added secrecy to reinforce how important participating in such a bloc should be to your identity. That doesn’t look good to me.
So what am I going to do instead? I’m not sure, but I’m considering going nuclear: buying a membership in order to vote No Award in all categories.
The message I would want to send with this (admittedly extreme) action is twofold: (1) I care about the Hugos, at least enough to drop 40USD on them, and (2) I would prefer that they issued No Award than continue to administer them in the current manner. And the intended recipients of this message are not the Sad Puppies, but the Worldcon organisers: they are the ones who have the power to change the voting rules, which is the only feasible way I can see to avoid the party-politics breakdown of the award.5
Of course the authors who actually deserve an award lose out if everyone who thinks roughly as I do follows my strategy. I’m inclined to accept the implications this has for my karma, based on the following considerations:
- This ballot is already stacked: other deserving authors were already excluded by the bloc voting.
- Other authors have already excluded themselves because they didn’t feel right being nominated in this way.
- I’m not even sure I can vote on merit at this point: anyone who isn’t a Puppy nominee will automatically get sympathy points from me, while anyone who is will get the hairy eyeball from page one, whether I consciously intend this or not.
- I genuinely prefer two years of no Hugos, if followed by voting reform which eliminates the bloc problem, to an awards list this year followed by years of coordinated nomination-canvassing because that’s the only approach that works.
- I’m cynical enough to suspect that the Worldcon organisers will need some encouragement to actually do something about the problem, although I’m sure there will be lots of discussion.
Despite all that, I’m not at all sure this is the best approach: I’m definitely open to attempts to convince me otherwise. Of course the nuclear option assumes there is some way to rewrite the voting rules so that blocs lose their influence (at least over the nominations round). I’m honestly not sure what that would look like, and if it doesn’t exist then the nuclear option probably ain’t such a good idea.
(Postscript: googling for a link I wanted to add above, I came far too late to The Book Smugglers who said shorter and better than I why voting blocs are a problem. And Django Wexler said it even shorter, followed almost immediately by the US-politics analogy. All I’m really contributing here is the nuclear option suggestion, which I’m still pretty unsure about.)
- If I have to choose an opinion about a group that considers “Social Justice Warrior” an insult, I think I’d quite like it if they called me nasty names too, thank you very much. Or at least names they thought were nasty. [↪]
- There are two, the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies. The details are not particularly relevant for my argument. [↪]
- Incidentally, I believe for technical reasons this will not quite achieve the intended effect. A nominee ranked below No Award will still receive your vote if no higher-ranked choice –including No Award– does. If you intend your ballot to punish a particular nominee, put No Award at the bottom of your ballot and leave that nominee off entirely. Not that I’m advocating punishment votes, but if that’s your intention then at least you might as well be effective about it. [↪]
- Incidentally, the fact that I believe this apparently sets me up in opposition to the Puppies, who believe that the recent Hugos have under-represented commercially successful SF. [↪]
- Someone on twitter whose handle I didn’t note down pointed out this would take a minimum of two years. Seems legit, see Article 6.6 of the WSFS Constitution. [↪]