The Hugos or “You Just Don’t Understand”

As a result of some of my comments about the Hugo kerfuffle, I’ve received several comments, here and elsewhere, that state or imply that I just don’t understand what happened and why. I think I understand it very well. But I obviously need to go back to some of the basics that appear to have been overlooked.

Human beings work through groups. Those groups range from cliques and gangs to various organizations and businesses all the way up to government. All these groups have rules. Those rules fall into two categories: explicit rules and implicit rules. The explicit rules can be verbal, but in modern society are usually written. The implicit rules are always unspoken and supposed to be understood by members of the group. Often, if people don’t understand the unspoken rules and follow them, they’re considered to not really be a part of the group. Generally speaking, the more structured and larger an organization is, the more it operates on explicit and formal rules. And the more diverse it is, the more it needs a greater amount of written rules to make sure that everyone understands what those rules are, and the consequences for breaking them. That’s why governments tend to accrete more and more laws and regulations as they grow and age.

The World Science Fiction Society is closer to cliques than to governments. It has specific rules and written procedures for how the Hugo awards are determined, but, as the recent Hugo kerfuffle demonstrates, there are clearly unspoken rules of behavior expected by the group I’ve termed “the new traditionalists,” which has dominated the proceedings and award selection process for at least two decades.

Just in the past few days, author and editor Eric flint offered an essay describing, with statistics, the change in F&SF “literary”/award standards and how the field has changed from one where there was considerable overlapping between “popular” fiction and the works getting awards to one where there is very little, if any. This change suggests that “story” alone is no longer as important a factor in determining “excellence.”

The “sad puppies” were formed by a loose group of writers and fans who felt, rightly or wrongly, that the new traditionalists were sacrificing “story” to other factors such as diversity and gender issues in determining what represented the “best” in F&SF. They raised the issue, and, predictably, because they constituted the minority of those voting, were effectively ignored and their concerns dismissed and minimized. So, after several years, this past year, they came up with a “slate,” something that was not prohibited (and, in fact, probably could not be prohibited in any way that would be effective).

Immediately, Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale, came up with an even more radical “rabid puppies” slate, out of motives that appear to be far more grounded in self-interest, and possibly gaining lots of publicity for his small publishing house and the authors he publishes.

At this point, the new traditionalists and their supporters expressed outrage, and have continued to do so, claiming that the puppies “gamed the system,” despite the fact that what the puppies did was well within the written rules. Why such an outpouring of outrage? Because the method used broke the tacit and unwritten rules accepted and followed by the new traditionalists.

What is continually overlooked in this kerfuffle is that the sad puppies expressed a concern, which was overlooked and minimized. Exactly why did they have any incentive to follow unspoken rules which they believe put them at a disadvantage in expressing their concerns?

This underlying conflict then provided Vox Day with the perfect opportunity to “self-publicize” and gain a platform he could not have possibly gained in almost any other way… as well as, incidentally, to further negate the actual underlying issues originally expressed by the “sad puppies.” The reaction to his acts clearly confirmed that there are unspoken rules and that the majority of Hugo voters did not like others breaking those rules. Whether the Hugo majority actually represents the feelings of the majority of F&SF readers is also another question, because even the massive increase in the voting membership of WorldCon represents less than one percent of all fantasy and science fiction readers.

In any case, the fact is that the unspoken rule against “slates” has been broken, and if the new traditionalists and their supporters do not greatly increase their participation in the initial nominating process, something that a number of others have already stated, the same sort of slate versus anti-slate confrontation could happen again next year. And if it does, the only “winner” will be Vox Day.

We have two groups with very different perspectives on what constitutes excellence. Each believes the other is wrong, misguided, or the like. Those on each side can argue quite logically their viewpoint. The problem is that, all too often, people with fixed mindsets believe absolutely and firmly that their understanding of a situation is the only way it can be accurately perceived. It has nothing to do with whether one is liberal or conservative, or any other social outlook. It has to do with a certain firmness of thought, described as “principled” by each of themselves, while describing their opponents as misguided or unprincipled.

In the case of the Hugos, as I see it, and I’ve certainly been criticized for the way I see it, there is some truth in both the cases of the “sad puppies” and the “new traditionalists.” [I have to say that I don’t see much truth or objectivity in the points of the “rabid puppies,” but perhaps my mindset just doesn’t accept what seems to be hateful provocation or use of hate to self-publicize.] And, as I’ve said before, not only do I think the field is big enough for both viewpoints, but the sales of a range of authors prove that rather demonstrably.

Yet each side is contending that the other did something hateful and discriminatory, largely because one side refused to abide by unspoken rules that they believed minimized their concerns. In the end, the other aspect of groups that this conflict illustrates, again, is why unspoken rules tend to be superseded by written procedures in larger groups.

One thing I have observed over a moderately long life is that when two sides both feel so strongly, usually neither is as “right” as it professes… and until each addresses the other’s concerns in some fashion, the conflict will persist – unless one side just destroys the other, which has certainly happened in human history.

7 thoughts on “The Hugos or “You Just Don’t Understand””

  1. Robert The Addled says:

    Neither side is correct. I can read and enjoy SF&F with politics (story or author’s) I don’t agree with and enjoy it without problems.

    I also find that the more….. SUITIBLY diverse novels are richer and closer to real life. I’m not saying any and every ethnic/gender/sexual variety has to be there – but when it contributes to and/or does not detract from the plot – its a more enjoyable read.

    One of the things I have most enjoyed about SF&F as a genre over the many years is the ability to encounter worlds – of all varieties and flavors – and live in them for a brief while. Maybe I agree with some aspects of them, maybe I don’t, but they have all contributed to the gestalt that is my current self.

    And on a related note – My own favorite styles of written works have evolved over time – and my mood dictates what I read/re-read and when. I often have put down long awaited series installments because my mood wasn’t right for that particular series. Brust, Bujold, or your own works when I wax philosophical. Weber or Ringo when I want military SF. McCaffrey or Foglio when I wax whimsical.

    Its all a good read – and more enjoyable when read with an open mind.

    1. R. Hamilton. says:

      While every story might be presumed to have some agenda, I don’t care for those to be either heavy-handed or, shades of Big Brother, manipulated by cliques to advance some particular cause.

      Diversity shouldn’t just be a matter of ensuring the presence of representatives of groups thought to be under-represented; it should be a diversity of _ideas_, from which the rest would eventually follow. Contrarians should not be discouraged! Alas, quotas, however informal, do not advance that.

  2. Thom says:

    It looks to me like you understand just fine.

    1. Robert The Addled says:

      Alas – its the extremists (at various ends) within our own systems (social, political, and economic)that give the rest of us ulcers.

  3. Greg says:

    Hi-ho, Greg the frog here, over from File770.

    I think this is a well-reasoned post. I would offer some tweaks/dissents. You’re totally right that block-nominating and campaigning for a full slate is technically legal, but it’s also a huge violation of community norms. But I have a problem with the phrase “rightly or wrongly.” If the Puppies’ concerns are well-founded, and appropriately expressed, they deserve a hearing; if they’re not well-founded, and surrounded by a cloud of free-floating, incoherent rage and unsupported assertions (at best), well, this is the result.

    I think it’s a mistake to ignore the fact that both Larry and Brad were recent Campbell nominees (WSFS award like the Hugos, just not named Hugo) which certainly suggests there never was a bias or conspiracy against them.

    You also gotta know–very few people opposed to slating identify as a “side,” and I sure as heck am not a “New traditionalist.” I view it as people who (legally) cheated via a loophole in the rules vs. everyone who doesn’t like block-nominating.

    There’s also the fact that the Puppies listed a *lot* of reasons as to why they formed Sad Puppies 3, and that this thing about diversity over story is only of many, many things they said. However, no one on the Sad Puppies side was ever able to make a convincing case that a work shouldn’t have won a Hugo. Most of the people bashing Ancillary Justice hadn’t read it, and were unable to explain how a murderous AI not being able to detect gender somehow equals politics. Red Shirts is exactly the sort of fun, politics-free sci-fi that the Puppies claimed was getting short shrift. “if you were a dinosaur, my love” was a sad, sweet story that suggests it’s wrong to beat people to death. (And don’t forget, as the Puppies did, that even if these works are seen as having messages in them, that doesn’t mean *they won because of the messages.* A book can have a message you disagree with and still be viewed by a large number of people as the best book/story of the year because it’s just that good.

    I applaud you for accurately summarizing one of the Puppy arguments, but unless they’re willing to do better citing sources and actually follow the norms of the community they’re trying to win over, they’re going to get exactly the sort of reception one would expect.

    1. I appreciate your comments. You cite “community norms,” but isn’t one of the puppy points that such norms have shifted, and not, in their view, for the better? That’s also the point of Eric Flint’s posting on the divergence of popularity and excellence. Outrage over violation of expected norms is certainly not unexpected, but I’d still have to contend that going outside the norms is not cheating. I’ve noticed that when people go outside the norms in a way that the majority likes, then it’s not cheating, but creative. It’s only cheating when it violates expectations.

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