Justin Landon on "The Hugo Awards: An Entity at War With Itself"
Tuesday, April 07, 2015
Congratulations to the 2015 Hugo Awards Nominees. For all of you this is a life long dream that has culminated in your recognition by your peers. For some it must be terribly difficult. You have been recognized not because of the quality of your work alone, but because of an axe someone else wanted to grind against an institution.
Mind you, this isn’t to say you don’t deserve it. You might. But, it would be silly to ignore the fact that you got there because an incredibly vocal minority chose to make your nomination an ideological line in the sand. Unfortunately, this has created some measure of hysteria within science fiction and fantasy fandom, who have been pretending for years that the Hugo Nominations weren’t already horribly easy to manipulate.
In fact, they have been machinated many times, most recently by bloggers who wanted a blogger to win a Hugo, and certainly by a number of members of the community committed to seeing more women and people of color nominated. Thus, anyone complaining that the awards are somehow compromised because this time they were contorted by agenda-bent like-minded scallawags needs to do a bit of self-reflection. Agendas are a long standing tradition in the Hugo Awards.
What is more revolutionary though, is using the process not to win a Hugo, but to undermine the very underpinnings of the award itself and the community around it. This is what the Rabid/Sad Puppies have done. They have created a movement around tearing down an institution because it does not share their moral compass. And it is a movement that has put people’s hackles up. It's a movement that will destroy the Hugo Award if left unchecked.
It reminds me very much of another movement, a movement that eroded one of the oldest intuitions in America.
Putting things right is hard, but it can be done.
* * *
In 2000, I connected with a political platform. It belonged to Senator John McCain. I voted for him in the Republican Presidential Primary over then Governor George W. Bush. It was the first time I voted and I was proud to vote Republican. When McCain lost the primary, I voted the other Republican in the General Election, in which Vice President Al Gore famously, or infamously, lost by the narrowest of margins.
This wasn't the last time I voted Republican, but it was the last time I voted Republican without thinking hard about why I was doing it. In subsequent years, I became increasingly disenfranchised by an institution around which much of my adult life was based. I worked in politics. It was my profession. But, I was losing faith, ironically, as the things I valued in the Republican Party - limited government and pro-growth policies—were replaced with obsessions I found incompatible - anti-gay and anti-women rhetoric and dogmatic status-quo, or even backward looking, agendas.
The party was becoming regressive. It began to believe that tradition trumped progression. I wondered then, and I wonder now, how can we move forward when we’re convinced that the past holds all the answers?
My experience with the Republican Party is hardly unique. Many people, but younger people in particular, have lost faith with it. Too often the rhetoric is anger. Anger over illegal immigrants taking jobs, or abortion clinics ruining the purity of America's youth, or gays polluting the sanctity of marriage, or President Obama (“who is not a citizen!”) betraying the country with health care. Or, more succinctly put, anger over modernity.
I’ll be the first to admit that’s a generalized and hyperbolic look at the Republican Party. These sentiments are hardly representative of the Republican writ large. However, they have become the rhetorical method by which Republican candidates cement their credibility with an increasingly polarized voting bloc. All of the things I describe above are mere symptoms of the actual problem - the voting bloc is to too homogeneous for the conversation to trend any other direction.
The Republican Party has become Ouroboros, eating itself in a never-ending loop of litmus tests and ideological back slapping.
* * *
In case you haven't been paying attention the last few months, it’s Hugo Awards time. And, as has become par for the course, the odor of it is thick in our nostrils as the discussions have become increasingly diasporic.
Simply put, the online community has grown exponentially over the last half dozen years. It found a voice. It realized it has a stake. It discovered its friends can win stuff. And, by God(!), it wants to make sure everyone knows it.
You can't stop the signal, after all. Unfortunately, as signals become stronger, they collide and push each other out, each with their own agenda and perspective on how an award held so dear should be represented.
It's that last bit that explains why things have come this far. The Hugo Awards, for all their flaws and inherent biases, are the one award that the genre community embraces above all others. It is also the only genre award, at least in the United States, capable of resonating outside the community that awards it. Publishers will reprint a book to make sure the cover says "Hugo Award Winner"; because it does matter.
The notoriety is a function of how old the award is, and how many icons of literary history have won it. In other words, the passion stems from a deep and abiding love for the institution. Or, at the very least, the nostalgic memory of the institution and a desire to see it restored to some ideal that never really existed.
Originally founded in 1953, the Hugo Awards have been awarded every year since 1955. In the beginning, the award was a discussion between a few like-minded fans. Over time, it became something more significant, with rules and regulations. Eventually, it became a thing about promoting the best and brightest of a science fiction and fantasy community that spread across the socioeconomic spectrum.
In recent years, this 'mission' has changed yet again. The Hugo, rather than a medium to praise the best and brightest in the field, has become a political football - a battle between fandoms struggling to shape the award to suit their purpose. As a result, no longer is a Hugo nominee required to be the best, or even the most popular. It is only required to hold sway with the (roughly) two thousand people in the world who care enough to spend $40 for nomination privileges.
Really, two thousand is being generous, as in the case of Best Novelette in 2014, it took a mere 69 votes to launch Vox Day from absurd bigot curiosity to Hugo Nominated Author. It took 98 to put Mira Grant on the Best Novel ballot for the fourth straight year. And it took around 65 votes to create the most surprising Fan Writer ballot in Hugo history, turning a category historically dominated by white dudes, into four women and a person of color.
The point is that as constituencies decrease in size, the winning argument requires less ubiquity. Cottage or niche markets can dominate because of an impassioned base willing to spend money or social capital more balanced people simply are not. Let’s not kid ourselves though. The voting pool for the Hugo Award has always been small. Every year the number of nominators has grown, but only in relative terms. In fact, it would seem that the vast majority of new voters come from highly motivated and/or under served populations. Whether it was the initial rush to see more women represented on the ballot, or the more recent full-court press to see more right-wing oriented white guys on the ballot, the Hugo voter has become increasingly polarized. It has become an 'are you' or 'aren't you' kind of debate.
Regardless of the facet being argued, it is being reinforced in the Hugo community on a daily basis. Just like Fox News or MSNBC dominate the conversation surrounding politics, bloggers and authors are in a constant competition to be first, loudest, and most controversial. Kameron Hurley is angry because anger gets results. Brad Torgersen points to conspiracy theories because conspiracy theories get results. Pandering is the soup du jour, and who can blame them? Voters want to be pandered to. We just give them what they want.
In other words, everyone believes they know what the Hugo Award should be, an equation whose only solution is the dissolution of its other half. It has become a breeding ground of ideological absolution. It has become the thing that the vast majority of its adherents loathe. It has become quite Republican.
* * *
Republican is a term that, to most, means conservative. But, in reality, the term Republican is rooted in a very different truth. Founded in 1853 by abolitionists, the Republican Party was created to stop slavery. It wasn’t until the early 20th century it became the party of business. Concepts like the "Christian Right" were nonexistent until the late 1970s, and the Tea Party was a creation of the mid-2000s. In other words, the Republican Party was once a big-tent organization, designed to inspire people toward making positive and progressive change. Overtime, it became something else entirely. Today, it is a niche gathering of ideologically homogeneous individuals trying to further homogenize themselves.
The question isn't why, but how? And it's a rather simple answer. Because the system made it a foregone conclusion.
Every four years, America elects a President. To get there, each political party elects its own representative for the ticket. This is done through the Presidential Primary within each state. The states, some of the smallest, who vote early in the year have a disproportionate influence. They force the candidates to campaign in communities where only a few thousand voters make the difference. Win in one of these early states and a Presidential candidate has demonstrated actual and tangible electability. The result is that these few voters are empowered to speak for the silent majority. They decide who we get to vote for come November.
By allowing tiny constituencies to make the decisions for the larger group, only the ideologically organized individuals emerge. Statistics show that only the most dedicated voters show up during these primaries. And, as is human nature, these voters aren’t motivated by civic duty, but by an ideological imperative. They believe their perspective is right. In these smaller elections, where the electorate is known to be more extreme, the narrative quickly changes from "we disagree on some points" to outright litmus tests. The fulcrum is reduced to who can satisfy the most active and extreme wing of the base.
On top of this, the internet and talk radio and cable news have bridged the gap, that for centuries, kept fringe perspectives apart. The Tea Party developed so rapidly not because its message had an immense amount of widespread social power, but because the methods of delivering the message were more precise than ever before. Today, a hundred people can seem like ten thousand, singlehandedly overwhelming call-in shows, internet comments, and social media.
While these factors have pushed the party into extremism, many of its members have been left behind. With a party no longer tolerant of moderate voices, the term "Republican" has come to mean nothing short of an entity at war with itself.
* * *
Looking at the mechanisms of the Hugo Award, the situation described above should be recognizable. In fact, the same mutually assured destruction that the Republican Party has undergone is currently wreaking havoc on the Hugo.
On one side the Rabid/Sad Puppies rail against the loss of conservative commercial fiction on the Hugo Ballot, while at the same time the more progressive side torpedoes Jonathan Ross as a suitable host for the ceremony. Larry Correia thinks pseudo-intellectualism has taken away the genre he loves, Abigail Nussbaum thinks anyone who would vote for the Wheel of Time should be actually ashamed. Vox Day nominates people he thinks are overlooked by the ballot (mostly white guys), while at the same time many ballots are submitted with no white guys for exactly the same purpose.
Just as the Republican Party has lost sight of how it began—as a party built around the ideas of lifting yourself up by your bootstraps—and become a breeding ground for anger, the Hugo Award has lost sight as well. It is no longer about love of science fiction and fantasy, but about drawing lines in the sand about what should be worthy of recognition and what should not, often based on things unconnected to only the words on the page.
There is only one solution to any institution, political or artistic, caught in such a crucible of self-immolation. Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, must say that no longer can a political party cultivate an exclusion of people because of their gender, or ethnicity, or sexuality. Instead, the Republican Party must embrace a platform around things that cut across barriers. It must become a party of building consensus, not shattering it. It must swell its subscribers, to force the extreme points of view within its membership to become fringe in truth, and in practice.
Much the same, the World Science Fiction Society, the organization responsible for making the Hugo Award rules, must abandon their current exclusionary policies. They must decrease the cost of a voting memberships. They must prune arcane categories, and asinine rules, and early morning committee meetings. They must stop fostering an environment that rewards suppressing the vote of thousands of science fiction and fantasy fans who want to be heard, but feel unwelcome by institutionalized cronyism.
Because you know what we can't stop? We can't stop the fringe elements from being fringe. We can't prevent them from trying to convince the electorate to think their way. All we can do it impact the rules that govern who participates in the game. Sadly, neither the Republican Party nor the Hugo Awards have demonstrated an interest in really changing the participatory model that governs them.
Despite that, I still want to love the Hugos. I believe very strongly that those calling for a better tomorrow, a tomorrow with parity and open mindedness, are right. And those who are looking backward, who believe the status quo is okay, are wrong. But, honestly, I can't look at anyone and find them blameless. The rhetoric has become a self-fulfilling prophecy on both sides. We are no longer, in either institution, looking to grow the message. We are only hoping to carve out the largest share of the carcass on which we find ourselves dining.
Scarily, the only people with the power to change that are those within the institutions themselves. Until they are ready to be part of a positive change, we have the Award or political party we deserve. Until the floodgates are opened up and it is screamed from the rooftops that this thing is for everybody, we cannot grow. We cannot become better. When we limit participation, when we invite homogeneity, we invite extinction. I do not wish that on anyone. Most of all, I don't wish it on an institution I once loved.
To that end, I implore the World Science Fiction Society to immediately convene a committee to conduct a thorough constitutional review. The internet, modern fandom, and the tenor of debate created by them, has fundamentally changed how an institution like the Hugo Award functions. There is no Band Aid solution. Because the truth is, like it or not, the Rabid/Sad Puppies are right. The Hugo Awards as they exist today are broken - and have been broken for years. The right response isn't to tighten the controls. The right response is to open the border. The right response is to show the fringe voices that they are not the majority, and that moderates can still exist.
Change is scary, but it is also necessary.
But, to be honest, not changing is even scarier.
Justin Landon is a blogger, editor, and occasional writer. His work regularly appears on Tor.com. He was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2014 for his editorial work on Speculative Fiction 2012: The Year's Best Online Reviews, Essays, and Commentary.
Images: Pink Army, photograph by S. Juhl, Facsimile of Fiore dei Liberi's Flos Duellatorum (1410), and Watercolor caricature (1836).