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Democracy, social media, and science fiction award nominations

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.)


  1. 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. []
  2. There are two, the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies. The details are not particularly relevant for my argument. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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. []

Getting older

I’ve just realised an interesting feature of our transition from student life into settled domesticity. It’s a commonplace notion that students have time but no money, while now that we’ve settled into stable jobs and started a family we have money but no time. What I’ve just realised is what this implies for the dynamics of visiting friends.

In our student days we lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam: a very desirable visiting spot. Our friends easily found time to visit, and we could offer a place to stay so they didn’t need to worry about costs. In a sense, and with some exaggeration, by offering a place to stay we were doing them a favour.

Nowadays the “favour economy” is inverted. Our friends are scattered around the world and have families and commitments: getting away for a holiday is a major undertaking. If they visit us we can still host them, but now by giving us a chance to spend time together without having to arrange the travelling, they’re doing us a favour!

At least, that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself when I invite myself to visit friends in other places.

A lovely evening

I usually try to keep posts here interesting not just for folks who know me, but for the occasional random internet visitor as well. This one: maybe not so much.

So this is a purely personal landmark moment, but: I played bouzouki seriously for the first time in months last night, and it was delightful. Giorgos and Johnny were playing in a restaurant in Katerini (Giorgos with his fabulous rebetiko guitar and voice, and Johnny on bouzouki and voice), and I joined them for the whole evening. (Olga stayed home, which also meant I was forced to navigate the entire evening on my own Greek, without translatory assistance.) To my great delight, I knew about half the songs well enough to play a competent harmony, and almost all the ones I didn’t I could pick up in media res or fake with baglamas-style chords: I doubt any of the punters realised that I was just tagging along, let alone that I’m not even Greek.

At the end of the evening the last table was some local friends, and I handed over the bouzouki so Giorgos and Giorgos could play a bit together. (The owner of the restaurant, by the way, is also a Giorgos.) Here’s a short clip (starting in the middle of a song, sorry) so you can share my joy:

Giorgos on bouzouki is left-handed (this turns out to be very convenient for the shot framing), and very good. Giorgos on guitar is right-handed, and also very good. Hearing them play together was a wonderful cap to a lovely evening.

Guilty pleasures

A few months ago I came across someone objecting to the notion of “guilty pleasures”. I think it was a science fiction or fantasy author (I failed to make a note at the time, which is a shame), which makes sense: genre writing often comes up when people are admitting to their guilty pleasures. Googling finds me an excellent statement of the case against the notion:

Second of all, the term ‘guilty pleasure’ makes the person who uses it sound like a snob. Probably because when they use the term they are being a snob. To say you have a guilty pleasure is to say that you have a form of enjoyment that you feel is beneath you. … The unthinkable alternative would be to embrace everything we like and make no apologies. –Jocko Benoit, Cafe Terminus

And that’s of course why genre writers object to the notion: their creative output is too frequently “beneath” readers who wish to claim a more discerning taste in literature.

I am just this kind of a snob, but I’m trying to become less of one. I don’t consider SF a guilty pleasure; I don’t even consider EE “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series a guilty pleasure, and that is hilariously bad in terms of literary quality. But there is a sense of the phrase that I think is worth preserving even in a non-snobbish critical vocabulary.

Imagine a sadist with a conscience: he enjoys hurting people, but he feels bad about it. A reformed alcoholic may enjoy his first drink when he falls off the wagon, but he’ll regret that enjoyment later. Adultery is presumably pleasurable at the time. These all deserve the name “guilty pleasures”. And there’s a type of reading that fits the same pattern.

I get pleasure from reading wish-fulfilment fantasies of power and violence, but I feel guilty for it.

I re-read Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series last year. That’s the one where the narration sympathises with an unrepentant rapist. I’m glad to say I didn’t get any pleasure from that aspect of it,1 but I didn’t notice anything particularly problematic when I first read those books in high school. I enjoyed them. I feel guilt for that pleasure: what else should a “guilty pleasure” be?

Less painfully, I enjoy Charlie Stross’s Laundry Files. Their protagonist is a programmer and tech geek, whose geeky skills come in unexpectedly handy for casting magic spells, and who manages to rise to a position of some influence in a bureaucratic organisation despite having a strong anti-authoritarian streak, a well-functioning sense of irony, and a complete inability to keep his mouth shut. This pleasure is guilty because it’s so transparently about effortless wish fulfilment, when read by a programmer and tech geek with an anti-authoritarian streak and a feel for irony.

The word “effortless” is important there: I don’t think there’s anything inherently problematic about wish fulfilment in literature per se. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a wish fulfilment fantasy in which the values of humility, steadfastness, and courage have a power that is denied to them in the real world. If anything, I would say taking pleasure from that particular aspect of Tolkien’s work is laudable.

This is where, sadly, I have to come back and dump on genre writing again. “Sword and sorcery” fantasy2 all too frequently functions as power fantasy3 in which the agency of the characters is expressed through their ability to inflict physical violence. And both fantasy and science fiction share a penchant for whitewashing: for portraying societies that elide non-white people (hence the term) but also women, people of non-binary gender, sexual orientations other than binary-hetero, the very old and the very young, and so on and so on. Because these genres deal with invented worlds, if the imagination of the author fails then the world invented will reflect what the author sees as “normal”; in turn, that world might feel deceptively comfortable to someone who shares the same norms. In both these cases, these are guilty pleasures for me.4

Which brings me to a more complicated case.

Steven Brust’s Dragaera novels have an assassin, Vlad Taltos, as protagonist and frequent narrator. He’s not a heroic assassin, whatever that would mean; he’s a minor mob boss who kills people for money. He’s also extremely likeable. The story is told in his words, with a constant stream of wisecracks and sardonic humour (and the occasional efficient execution). I enjoy the power fantasy of being quick with a clever retort, and even quicker to whip out a rapier and skewer anyone the retort doesn’t subdue: that’s a (relatively minor) guilty pleasure. There’s more to the power fantasy: Vlad is friends with some very powerful sorcerers and warriors (including a two hundred thousand year old undead wizard), and by the time we’ve reached book five or so he’s on a first-name basis with the Empress and with at least one god.

And then something unexpected happens. In the third novel published in the series, Teckla, Vlad’s wife becomes a socialist agitator (very dangerous behaviour in a feudal empire; it leads to a revolt, which is suppressed and the revolting Easterners massacred) and his inability to understand her motivation is a major factor in the breakdown of their marriage. Yes, you read that right: our power-fantasy hero has his marriage fail. Another major factor in the breakdown is his wife’s disapproval of his profession; to ram the point home, Vlad’s grandfather (who is written as a strong moral authority) comes right out and tells him that killing people for money is bad.

The following books (the series runs to 14 at present, of an intended 19) contain just as much violence and power fantasy,5 but they also show Vlad’s slow moral awakening, as he struggles to fit these perspectives from people he loves and respects into his worldview. At the same time, both we and Vlad are learning more about the economic and political workings of the Empire: Brust is a Marxist and his political and social awareness pervades the series.

So on the one hand we have a classic power fantasy with violence as the default solution to all problems; on the other hand, exactly those tricks of narrator identification and sympathy that make this work are also working to drag the reader along as Vlad realigns his moral compass.

I enjoy the series enough to reread it occasionally. I’m still on the fence about whether I should consider this a guilty pleasure; so far I’m leaning towards no, so long as I don’t skip Teckla.


  1. I re-read it to extract what I could of plot and setting, which I remembered being intriguing. I’m also pleased to say that it was much less so than I remembered. “Pleased” because I’m overcompensating for enjoying these when I was younger, by now hating them passionately. []
  2. “Fantasy” the literary marketing label. []
  3. “Fantasy” the trope or technique. []
  4. When I catch myself enjoying them, which is not often. It’s especially hard to notice that you’re comfortably enjoying a whitewashed setting: it’s like fish noticing the water they swim in. []
  5. And it’s mostly just as fun. Teckla is less so, as you’d expect from a book about the failure of a marriage. []

Annual media consumption report 2014

What better way to spend Sponge Day1 than composing a short, undoubtably incomplete, list of the notable things I’ve read, watched, played, listened to, and otherwise “consumed” in 2014? (Rhetorical question.)



  1. The day after Boxing Day, of course. []

2014: Year in review

A year ago I blogged a short review; while I imagine its audience was rather limited, I found the exercise useful enough in itself that I set a reminder to repeat it, about now.


Fatherly pride

Our lovely boy has reached a rather exciting stage of his linguistic development: it seems like every day brings a new word or phrase. This evening we solved a mystery of the last week or so: what does “badidon” mean? (Fair warning: this post may not be exciting to you unless you’ve also been through this phase with your own kids. And maybe not even then.)


Stress-free travel: a how-not-to

The trip back from my latest visit to Amsterdam was more stressful than usual. In the hopes that someone may benefit from my misfortune, I give the whole story here: it’s something of a catalogue of rookie mistakes to avoid.

First, I made the classic blunder and scheduled a fondue dinner with friends the night before flying. Never get involved in a land war in Asia, never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, and never schedule a fondue dinner with friends the night before flying. Or at least, not with those friends. We drank through most of Tom’s wine rack, which made getting up the next morning much less pleasant that it ought to have been; and of course, flying while dehydrated guarantees a second hangover, without the pleasure of the drink (and dirty jokes, and music with bizarre time signatures) to justify it.

Next mistake: travelling with friends whose travel strategy is not at all similar to mine. I pad my arrival at the airport by several hours, allowing generous time to recover from the unexpected. (In consequence, the unexpected almost never strikes on my trips, and I get to “enjoy” hours of waiting in airport lounges. I’ll take it though, and thankfully.) Pavlos and Annita, taking their 6-month-old baby to Greece for the first time, are much more relaxed about the whole process. Which is fine for them, but meant I took on both my own portion of travel-stress and the portions that were rightfully intended for them. I’m not sure whether this is when the facial tics started, or if that was only later.

Third basic preparation failure: I forgot my passport. I realised this on the platform at Centraal Station, waiting for the train that would take us to the airport. Pockets: no passport. Bag: no passport. Suitcase: no passport. Because of cutting the timing fine, it was definitely too late to go back to the apartment and search for it. I decided to travel with them anyway, and hope that perhaps I could fly on my Dutch residence permit: if not, I would be no worse off than if I simply quit right now. On the train I gave my suitcase a final, thorough search: still no passport, in any of the internal pockets or loose among my clothing. Just as the train was pulling in to Schiphol, it occurred to me to check the pockets of the pair of trousers I wasn’t wearing: passport.

You would think that the facial tics would subside as the adrenalin disperses through the bloodstream. You would be wrong, though.

The next hitch in the smooth process of our travel (hah!) I can’t really call a “mistake”: the baggage belt for our entire row of checkin counters was broken. Which meant that processing each checkin took twice as long as it normally would, and we were stuck at the end of a Very Long Line. (Just our luck: our checkin clerk left her desk to escort a blind lady to … well, presumably not to her gate, she assured us she would be back very soon, and we stood and waited and wondered.) While waiting in the line, we were spotted by the bloke whose job it is to check that hand luggage will fit in the overhead lockers. Ours, while (we knew from experience) perfectly overhead-locker-compatible, was larger than the official box used for officially checking official compatibility with said overhead lockers. We would have to check it in: and pay for the extra 15 kilos.

By the time we made it to the front, wondering how to go about arranging this payment, I was quite concerned about the time, but the checkin lady was not at all worried (even at the sight of my facial tics), and took our passports.

One, two, three normal passports: all processed, seats assigned. And an “emergency passport”, an A4 sheet on Greek Embassy letterhead with a photo attached, for the infant. Our checkin clerk had never seen such a thing: where did it come from? (“From the Greek Embassy, see, it’s written at the top.”) Didn’t we have a normal passport? (Helpless handwaving: no, we didn’t, that’s why we have this thing labelled “emergency passport”, the provision of which was another tale of bureaucratic complexity of similar length to this one, but which I will spare you because it’s not really my story to tell, but anyway this is what we have and we would like very much to be able to travel with it, please?) She made a phonecall to her supervisor: put the phone down: “No problem, it’s all fine, I just didn’t know what to do with it, I’ve never seen one like this before.” And she went to check in also the baby, the final passenger of four.


“I’m sorry, the flight is closed. I can’t check you in. Final checkin was at 12.25, and look, it’s 12.27 now.”

The poor woman was obviously out of her depth with the whole situation (and I suspect her checkin computer probably enforced this rule by simply refusing to process the request at all), so she sent us to the (more senior) troubleshooting counter across the hall. First chance I got, I asked if we were going to be able to fly: the second major adrenalin dip of the day, as she said that certainly we would make the flight, if we moved quickly. Then we were checked in — how many bags? — give them here (this belt was working) — passports? — keep these luggage stickers, it’s important, because you’re late your baggage might end up on a different flight — now run to the gate.

We ran. Well, Pavlos ran to the oversize luggage counter with the baby’s stroller, while Annita and I walked rapidly (she had the baby in a front-pack) to the gate. (Security check pulled open Annita’s bag and made some kind of chemical-test spot-check of the baby food, while we fumed and twitched and worried.) At the gate we found: an enormous boarding queue, not yet moving.

Which we sidestepped, neatly, citing the baby, so that we boarded at the head of the queue and I could subside quietly into hysterics while Annita changed the baby.

Ten minutes later Pavlos was on board also, carrying the coffee that I had resigned myself to flying without (my gratitude still glows within me, almost a week later), and we settled into our seats and waited for takeoff. In fact, after the rollercoaster my adrenalin levels were running had settled to its final stop, I fell asleep before we even left the runway.

Despite my gratitude for the coffee, I don’t think I’ll be travelling with Pavlos again. He has decided to pursue this tactic deliberately on his next flight, because of its beneficial outcome (did you notice?): we didn’t get asked to pay for the excess baggage.

Culture shock

Hey, hasn’t it been quiet around here?! Don’t worry, we’re still alive! We’re enjoying summer holidays, Manu is walking and talking, I’m starting a new job in October, all is well.

Today I got accosted in the supermarket by a Greek grandma who tried to convert me to Christianity.


Mysterious benefactors

Presumably in celebration of Manu’s birthday, two beautiful books have turned up in the post: “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” said the sloth and All of baby nose to toes. Both are fantastic! But, we don’t know who sent them…

Whoever you was, thanks to you!