When I was studying at Christendom College, I had to read a book called Piers Plowman. It was part of the core curriculum that all students had to study, a set of 24 separate classes (plus the math, science, and language requirements) that comprised the entirety of the freshman and sophomore years, as well as some of the junior year. This might sound a bit heavy, but it was actually very efficient and allowed a lot of information in both the lower and upper courses. All professors knew what their students had covered, and so little to no time was wasted on remedial material. This meant more in-depth study of a type normally seen only in graduate courses. With a few exceptions, we were rarely bored.
Piers Plowman was one of those exceptions. The only reason it isn’t a cure for insomnia is because of the torturous pain we suffered by studying it. In fact, in a student parody film based on 24, the villain tortures someone by tying him to a table and reading aloud from Piers Plowman. The actor’s screams were, no doubt, not entirely faked.
What makes this book so horrible? It’s a 14th-century English allegorical poem, a morality play so overt that high explosives are more subtle. Does that seem harsh? Well, we follow the characters of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best as they strive to understand the meaning of being good Christians and loyal members of a medieval society where certain people are just born better than everyone else. This is done, in part, through the efforts of a simple farmer named Piers, who is of course an expert on theology, philosophy, and governance.
Want a little more? Here’s an excerpt that mentions the names of Piers Plowman’s wife, daughter, and son.
Piers wif highte;
His doughter highte Do-right-so,-
His sone highte Suffre-thi-sovereyns-
I’m sure that the vast majority of my audience is fluent in Middle English, but as a courtesy to those who aren’t, here’s a translation. Piers’ wife’s name is Mrs. Work-While-There’s-Time. His daughter is named Do-Rightly-Or-Your-Mother-Will-Beat-You. His son has the honor of the very sesquipedal name of Suffer-Your-Sovereigns-to-Have-Their-Will-and-Judge-Them-Not-for-If-You-Do-You’ll-Really-Regret-It.
See what I mean? The shockwave from the latest episode of Mythbusters is like a gentle breeze compared to this particular hammer to the head.
There are those who enjoy this story. There’s no accounting for taste, as they say, but such persons are particularly strange. I should know, I’m related to one. (Hi, Mom.) The reaction to this book was so strong that in my class that our professor made a point of saying Piers Plowman wouldn’t be on the midterm, adding “I think that would be a violation of the Geneva Conventions.”
What does this have to do with the Hugo Awards?
Unless you’ve managed to avoid the gossip, name-calling, groaning, kvetching, and snarky commentary on blogs and Facebook groups dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, then you know about the controversy about the Awards. If not, here’s a quick primer.
The Hugo Awards (established in 1953 as the Science Fiction Achievement Awards) are a set of awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy; while it’s historically focused on written literature, its categories also cover movies, television, documentaries, graphic novels, music, fan-targeting magazines, and so on. It’s administered through the World Science Fiction Society, and voted on by paying members of the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon). WSFS describes a Hugo as “science fiction’s most prestigious award,” a claim echoed by many other reputable sources as well.
It’s also a very inclusive award process. It’s open to anyone, anyone at all, who buys at least a supporting membership for that year’s WorldCon. Considering that many publishers will provide free ebooks of the nominated titles, it’s also a great way to sample what a large population considers to be the best that SF&F has offered in the previous year. Publishers do this on a voluntary basis, recognizing the prestige of a Hugo win, as a courtesy to WorldCon members who may not have already read all the nominated titles.
Yet this claim — that of both its prestige and its openness — is where the controversy begins. The Hugo Awards are the SF&F awards, world wide; and they’re awarded at WorldCon, the SF&F convention, world wide. Last year’s WorldCon, held in London, was the second-largest event in the history of the World Science Fiction Convention, surpassed only by the one held in 1984, and clocking in a massive 7,951 attendees.
Ah. Um. Yes. Less than eight thousand people showed up. A grand total of 10,833 memberships were sold (including supporting memberships, and thereby eligible voters who aren’t showing up anyway), and that total is the largest in WorldCon history.
Okay. That’s not actually a bad thing; or rather, it doesn’t make WorldCon, by itself, less prestigious. After all, World Con is a mobile convention; while it mostly sticks around the United States, every so often it travels the world. It’s required by its constitution to move around by a rather significant margin. That’s actually rather admirable; it means there’s little continuity, and yet it also means an increased likelihood that people with fewer travel options can attend eventually. So a lower number of physical attendees doesn’t invalidate the claim of WorldCon to be, well, WorldCon.
Of course, it’s also hard to deny that other conventions pull in a lot more people. I was at DragonCon last year, and that was a tightly-packed mass of humanity that reportedly clocked in at 63,000. New York ComicCon, in the same year, estimated a jaw-dropping 150,000. That’s more than a third of the population of Atlanta, GA, which hosts DragonCon. So why, as I’ve been seeing people ask, aren’t the Hugo Awards connected with a more attended convention? Clearly there are a bunch around.
Short answer: because the Hugo Awards are part of WorldCon. Period. They’re not a separate entity. Can we stop talking about that now? Thank you.
Regardless, the Hugos are extremely open and inclusive, at least in theory. Remember, anyone can vote, as long as you buy a supporting membership. It’s just $40, and I admit that the first time I did it, it was for the ebooks. I got far more than $40 worth of material out of that. But mostly, I like the idea that you can vote as long as you put down the money for it. It’s not decided by industry insiders who just give out awards to themselves. It’s awarded by the fans, the ones who actually buy, read, watch, and enjoy the the products in question.
So no controversy, right?
Sigh. I wish.
There was a claim by a prominent and unabashedly conservative author, Larry Correia, that Hugo winners were being chosen not on the basis of their art, but rather on the ideological purity of the artist. His detractors, quite rightly, challenged him to put his money where his mouth was. Granted, they did so by saying he could never win a Hugo because right-wingers are too dumb to write good fiction (I saw the comments and blog posts), but the more polite pointed out that anyone can buy a membership and vote in the Hugos. He, in turn, pointed out that very few people voted in the Hugos, and that based on his sales, he had a huge number of fans. His detractors, if I may paraphrase them and (in some cases) edit for content, invited him to prove it.
Now, let me pause here. I was voting in the Hugos before the controversy became public. I was finding it odd that some authors were publicly proclaiming that even if their best friends were nominated for Hugos, they wouldn’t attend the convention because they had better things to do. Never having been to a WorldCon, I was astonished at the tales I found about members shunning people who didn’t match a particular, usually politically-based, ideal. The problem was that it was all anecdotal; that sort of thing wasn’t easily documented, even if it was true. While I was inclined to believe many of these sources, I still wanted evidence.
So I looked at the awards. And the nominees in the last few years had been, well . . . subpar. I knew there were better books out there. I was nominating them. Was it just my taste, for which — as I said when speaking of fans of Piers Plowman — there can be no accounting? Was I falling into the trap of only hanging around people who shared my interests, and therefore remaining ignorant of what others thought was better?
And then I took a glance at the authors who were being nominated. They tended to have one of two things in common. Either they were apolitical, or they were vocal about their left-wing politics and social topics. I didn’t care what opinions they held; I just wanted interesting books. Yet it seemed that here, at least, there was some support for the theory of ideological purity. And if it was so obvious here, could it be that the stories about WorldCon itself were true?
As I said, I haven’t been to a WorldCon. I still haven’t, and I probably won’t until it’s in a convenient place for me. (Due to a significant mobility handicap, I tend to ration how much I travel, and conventions take a lot of energy.) However, as controversies at both WorldCon and in related arenas built up last year, I started thinking I shouldn’t go out of my way to attend.
So, back to the Awards. Correia made an effort in 2013 to raise awareness about the Hugos, but those attendance numbers I mentioned earlier mattered here. When most people don’t even know the Awards exist, why would they buy a supporting membership? And remember, even though I knew about the Hugos long before my first supporting membership, I only spent that money to get the ebooks. At the time, I didn’t think my opinion would be all that different from anyone else. So for someone who might not even care about the award, why should they spend forty hard-earned bucks to cast a vote that didn’t exactly change the world? We have a hard enough time getting people to vote in real-world elections, and those are free.
But what Correia managed to do, using his cheekily-named “Sad Puppies” campaign, was get people to take more than a passing glance at the Hugos. As a result, like a catchy tune you heard on the radio and stays with you for the rest of the day, the question started sticking in peoples’ minds. If the Hugos really were the premier awards for SF&F, why shouldn’t more people get involved? And why shouldn’t popular works get nominated?
That culminated in last year’s campaign (“Sad Puppies 2”), and arguments began erupting online with a ferocity I’d never seen outside of the above-mentioned real-world election cycle. It became clear that at some point, politics really had entered into the Hugos — real-world politics, with a left/right divide, and arguments over social issues and why the color of your skin matters when considering whether or not you can write a good book.
And that’s why I started thinking about Piers Plowman, that frustrating, message-heavy medieval morality poem I’d had to read in college. Because it really did seem to be that a large group of people were upset at the idea of being inclusive, upset at the idea of the Hugo Awards actually being voted on by more people, and very upset at the idea that story should come first. It prompted me to write a blog post last year on that subject. Just because I have particular beliefs doesn’t mean I want to continually be preached at, even when I agree with the preaching. I don’t believe there’s a single point of theology or spirituality in Piers Plowman that I disagree with, being Catholic myself. I still found it one of the worst books I’d ever been forced to read. Yes, worse than Twilight. (Though that one I read willingly. Hey, it was new back then. I hadn’t heard anything bad about it.)
But speaking of Twilight, there was another point that kept recurring: the idea that just because you’re a popular author, just because you sell lots of books, doesn’t make you a good author, a real author. I found that particularly interesting. On the one hand, I could agree, since Twilight was incredibly popular, and yet sucked. (No, that’s not a vampire pun.) But on the other hand, it can’t be denied that a lot of fans found something they’d been looking for in the pages of that book; and I’d never deny that Stephanie Meyer is a real author. In fact, she’s a very successful author. That’s objectively true, whatever I think of her prose.
And I also made it clear, whenever I critiqued Twilight, that I was speaking of Twilight the book and not Twilight the series. After all, I only made it through the one book, not all four. I didn’t think that I would like them, but I couldn’t make even the slightest pretense at judging their objective qualities (inasmuch as art has truly objective qualities). And yet I saw person after person judging books that they hadn’t read. I saw this happen on both sides of the Hugo divide, but it seemed to happen the most with those whose politics fell on the left side of the aisle. I saw right-wing fans deciding they wouldn’t like a book based on an author’s politics; I saw an equal or greater number of left-wing fans saying that a given book was horrible because the author was white (even if he wasn’t), male (even if she wasn’t — seriously, this kept happening over and over, despite an obviously female name), right-wing (even if he was rabidly pro-choice and pro-gay), or owned a gun (which actually seems to be a rather large percentage of authors of many political stances, as I found out to my own surprise). I even saw left-wing fans declaring a book to be badly written because of the cover art, which only self-published authors have any control over.
Eventually, the nomination lists were made public, and the Internet (or at least my corner of it) exploded as these left-wing fans discovered Larry Correia (or rather his novel Warbound) was on the ballot. Correia’s detractors started pulling out lie after lie about him; and I can safely say they are lies, because one of his biggest opponents asked for help in proving them and never published a list. This despite the fact that this person used The Guardian, a venerable UK paper that’s been around for nearly two hundred years (no, really!), as his platform to argue his opinion on politics in fiction, or to talk about how overt messages in fiction make fiction better. Considering his rather poor quality control when it came to facts (Mr. Walter, I play WoW a lot more than you do, and men playing female characters and women playing male characters isn’t a sign of wanting to switch sexes; it’s usually about which models’ backsides the players want to see for hours at a time), I’m pretty confident he would have come up with something to post if he had anything.
And yet the backlash was so huge that it even got noticed by mainstream media . . . and normal-person media outlets try very hard to stay away from weird-person events like *exaggerated face* science fiction. I knew it was a Big Thing in my corner of the Internet, but I’m a fiction editor and SF&F geek who lives in the nation’s capitol (or rather, just outside the DC border) and I’m used to people looking blank at my non-normal-person activities. The idea of it spilling over into USA Today, even in the online journal, honestly surprised me. (And that was just the first one I saw. I know there were others, but I didn’t bookmark them.)
And that was it. It was over. Larry Correia had only intended to get as far as the nomination ballot, and no further. He didn’t care about the final awards; when they finally rolled around and his book didn’t even come close to winning, it was rubbed in his face, but he’d said back when the nominees were announced that his goal had been achieved. (Among other things. He also talked about the controversy himself, so if you’re still curious, it’s at least worth reading the initial section. Particularly the description of the backlash.) He didn’t intend to go any farther, because, frankly, the Hugo Awards didn’t matter because they just aren’t big enough.
Personally, I’m inclined to agree, but not with such finality. As I said, I like the way that anyone can buy a membership and vote. If more people knew about “science fiction’s most prestigious award,” then it truly could start to matter, the way it used to once upon a time.
Of course, other people disagree. One that was doing so just this last weekend is one of Tor Books’ own editors, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who stated that the Hugo Awards should remain representative of only a small minority of voters, and has been “disemvoweling” (editing posts to remove vowels) people she disagrees with, and then her followers pretend that her opponents can’t use a keyboard. You can view Larry Correia’s response (noting that she agrees with him, and that’s why he started Sad Puppies in the first place) by clicking here. Add this to some other incidents, and you can tell the tension is running high in anticipation of the nominee announcements this coming weekend.
Wait. This weekend? But isn’t the controversy over?
No, because there are others who think that the Hugo Awards should be saved — and, even more, that they should be saved. There’s a Sad Puppies 3 campaign, spearheaded by Brad Torgersen rather than Larry Correia. And unlike previous iterations, it isn’t focused on the goal of promoting the works of right-wing authors claimed to be maligned (or at best ignored) by left-wing fans; rather, it’s focused on good fiction regardless of politics or message fiction.
Not much fear of Piers Plowman there, I suspect.
Of course, the campaign has a long way to go before it can bring back the Hugo Awards as the premier name it used to be. Loncon 3, last year’s WorldCon, may have been the largest WorldCon ever, but only 3,137 people voted in the Hugo ballot. That 10,833 already represents an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny (yellow polka-dot bikini) fraction of total fans who might be interested in buying a membership, and even then we had less than a 33% turnout.
Do people just not care? Or do they just need reminders? Do we need a Get Out the Hugo Vote campaign?
And if so . . . might that campaign be called Sad Puppies?
I don’t see anything wrong with a campaign that, demonstrably, boosted votes for the Hugos. In 2011, there were exactly 2,100 valid ballots. In 2012, there were 1,922. In 2013, there were 1,848. Last year, for the 2014 Hugo Awards, there were 3,137. All of a sudden, next to the previous vote totals, that number doesn’t seem quite so small. I don’t think that can be a coincidence.
And if we don’t like the people behind the Sad Puppies campaign, let’s stop screaming and shouting about how they’re Not True Fans(tm). Let’s get out a Happy Kittens campaign! (Okay, I like kittens. Name it whatever you like. Here kitty, kitty . . .) Just please — please please please — let’s not have any modern Piers Plowmen on the ballot. I got enough of that in college.
Whatever any additional campaigns might be called, I fail to see why promoting the Hugos and getting more people to sign up is a bad thing. I like the idea of the Hugo Awards being restored to their previous position of glory. Previously, I was in the camp of getting DragonCon to start up the Dragon Awards (okay, maybe I should stop naming things), but Sad Puppies has actually given me hope. The controversy has made people sit up and take notice. People are starting to think that the Hugos matter. I can’t see how that’s a bad thing!
The Hugo Awards nominee list goes live this Saturday, April 4th. As long as Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, and The LEGO Movie are on the ballot, I really don’t care what gets nominated. For once, I’m genuinely excited to see the results, because with all the attention the Awards have been given, it’s no longer predictable by the small minority who has dominated it year after year. Right now, it’s up in the air. The only thing being predicted is that a previous pattern has been broken — and both sides of the Hugo Awards divide are admitting that.
And maybe, just maybe, it means we won’t get any modern allegorical morality novels on the nomination ballot.
We’ll find out this weekend. For now, read a good book.
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