This weekend marks a particular event which pilgrims from all over the world have been waiting for. It’s a highly-anticipated event every year, and tomorrow evening, as darkness gathers, groups of the faithful shall come together, united by one desire.

I speak, of course, of the Hugo Awards nominee announcement. Easter’s the next day. Also, Easter involves less shouting, though admittedly it’s associated with at least one dead body.

The Hugo controversy is a hot topic every single year, and it’s only gotten louder in the last several cycles thanks to the campaign known as Sad Puppies. In case you missed my explanation from earlier this week, here’s a shiny and well-crafted link. That post details what the Hugo Awards are, why they matter, and how the controversy started. Or rather, the current controversy. As I said in that previous post, I was voting in the Hugos years ago, before I ever heard of this Larry Correia guy. Disputes happened a lot. That’s okay; I’d actually get worried if everyone was happy about the nominees.

The current dispute over the Hugo Awards boils down to this: books should be judged on their own merits, and good writing rather than ideology should win out. Any push for a book based on its politics, or the politics of its author, is to be treated with suspicion or even outright rejection.

The most interesting thing about this dispute is that both sides are saying the same thing.

The latest prominent individual to take a stand against the Sad Puppies campaign is Steve Davidson, editor and publisher of the venerable Amazing Stories magazine. (Note: Yes, Amazing Stories is currently a shadow of its former self, but it’s being rebuilt from the ground up and I have too much experience with small presses to throw stones. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, and I’d be sad to see it fail.) Davidson, like many others I’ve seen commenting on blogs and Facebook, is taking a stand against Sad Puppies because the campaign is about a political agenda and seeks to game the system, rather than representing an effort to promote good fiction regardless of the author’s own politics.

Of course, history is rife with individuals and groups alike who have promised one thing while actively doing something else. Whether it’s a third-world dictator or the latest guy elected to Parliament or Congress, there’s a reason why we have a simultaneous distrust of and fascination with ideology. Blind ideology is dangerous because it works.

If you have a chance, try reading C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. I promise, it’s not a book on Christian theology or how Aslan is really Jesus. It’s a work of philosophy, and it’s only 88 pages long (at least in my dead-tree edition; some versions are different sizes). You can read it in an hour. In the book, Lewis makes the point that everyone has a desire to be part of “the Inner Ring,” the group of people who are in the know, who have true knowledge about how things work. It’s a dangerous desire because it’s easy to convince yourself that you are a part of the Inner Ring, even if everyone else disagrees with you. Yet, of course, simply agreeing with the majority doesn’t mean you’re correct; to quote G. K. Chesterton this time, “fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

Now, I have a no-politics rule on this blog. That’s not because I have a no-politics rule in my life; it’s just that (as the Hugos are currently demonstrating) politics have a way of dominating any discussion, even if most of the participants are of the same ideology. Since I want the dominant topic on this blog to be focused on writing, I’ve stayed away from it. Politics in my entertainment isn’t nearly as fun as chocolate in my peanut butter.

Sadly, with the arguing over the Hugos, it’s hard to not talk about it. When someone makes a mess and keeps making a mess, eventually I have to say something. Like my friend Declan Finn pointed out to me in a recent conversation, “When politics attacks good writing, this is your wheelhouse. Time to drop a house on them.”

Let’s go back to Davidson. In his recent blog post, he claims that a group of authors have decided that creating controversy over a fake enemy, an enemy that he describes as a “non-existent (yet real nonetheless) SJW cabal that is apparently bent on shoving message fiction . . . down our throats.” He describes their plan as gathering “fans, most of whom have never cared one whit about Hugos, Worldcons or organized fandom,” with the goal of “insuring [sic] that the Hugo awards are only given to sub-standard works of non-science fiction.”

Davidson admits that this description is a loose paraphrase, but offers no evidence of his claim that the Sad Puppies campaign is pushing substandard works of “non-science fiction.”

Regardless, the accusation is that the Sad Puppies supporters prefer bad fiction, and hide this by calling for all voters, pro-Puppy or otherwise, to read all nominees and judge them fairly on their own merits. That seems rather self-defeating. Again, ideologies aren’t always honest; but if you’re calling for people to take a close look at quality, and your own work isn’t quality, don’t you think people would notice rather quickly?

Of course, it could just boil down to whose definition of quality matters. Who can be considered the keepers of quality, then? Who shall judge?

We’ll come back to that.

I’m actually more concerned with this one line I already quoted from Davidson’s essay, which I’ll just blockquote here:

[…] fans, most of whom have never cared one whit about Hugos, Worldcons or organized fandom […]

Did you notice something there?

Right now, a lot of involved folks are starting to seriously ask how fandom is going to handle this growing problem.

Did you notice it that time?

“Fandom.” He uses the word “fandom” to describe something different from the fans he disagrees with. It’s almost like they’re not really fans. They’re not legitimate.

I keep seeing this on blogs and comments from the anti-Puppy crowd. I’m not sure what “fandom” is, if it’s not equivalent with “fans.” I’ve been told by pro-Puppy folks that “fandom” means something particular to Worldcon, but I also noticed that Davidson uses it as a tag quite a lot. A quick look at those blog posts shows that he uses it in conjunction with conventions and fan-based activities, not just Worldcon. What, then, is the difference?

Could it be that he means that true fandom consists only of the things he enjoys, and of the fans who like what he enjoys? I’m actually not sure, but he certainly seems to think there’s an obvious difference, and it fits with what I’m seeing elsewhere.

If one group of people is excluding everyone else from the club, while claiming to be more inclusive than the rest, well . . . we’re back to self-defeating ideologies. Not to mention seeing C. S. Lewis’ Inner Ring analogy in action.

I think the following quote does a very good job of refuting this idea:

I don’t care who you are, where you come from, what language you speak, how old or young you are, what gender you prefer to be identified as or who you are shacking up with later on in the evening.  I don’t care what sub-genre is your favorite.  I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, think that manga is better than comics and I’ll even forgive you if you use the phrase ‘Sci Fi’ (as long as you agree to never use it again, lol.) Come on over.  Make yourself comfortable and ask me anything you want to know about Fandom.  I’ll do my best to give you an answer.

There’s only one requirement.

That you want to be a Fan.

One problem, though. That’s Steve Davidson, in another essay from Amazing Stories.

Davidson apparently disagrees with himself, because in addition to not counting all fans as part of fandom, he also doesn’t like the idea of those non-fan fans agreeing that certain books are better than others — even though one might get the impression that this is why we give awards in the first place. His solution for Sad Puppies is to vote No Award over any book on the Sad Puppies list, or on any other list anyone else has put out. He refuses to judge them based on their own merits. Oh, he promises that he’ll read every one of them so that he can rank them properly, but that No Award will be ranked higher, no matter what the book’s quality might be.

This will be a default position.  I don’t want to play the Sad Puppy’s game – nor anyone else’s who decides that they can use the Hugo Awards for purposes other than originally intended – so I’m not going to.  I don’t care what side of the political spectrum the voting slate comes from, nor what its motivations are, nor what the agenda is – good, bad or indifferent.  If a work is on a voting slate (NOT an eligibility list) then it goes below No Award.

It’s funny, actually. He claims that the Sad Puppies campaign uses the techniques of Fox News. I’m actually not sure what that means, because I don’t like Fox News and I don’t watch it. In fact, I don’t watch it because I don’t like any news organization, political figure, or organization that takes a stance on an issue simply because it’s 180° opposite of their opponent’s, even if they might have a point; that is, putting ideological opposition above even your own ideology. That’s exactly what Davidson is doing here. He’s announced that he will downvote, as just one example, the apolitical Jim Butcher’s Skin Game for no other reason than that the Sad Puppies group agreed that it was a good book.

Well, it just so happens that Skin Game is my top choice for Best Novel in 2014. It was a fantastic story, showed amazing character development, and entertained me thoroughly. I didn’t see any political agenda in it, unless a caper story about a human wizard double-crossing a fallen angel who’s trying to steal from a Greek god has some sort of hidden meaning about the interpretation of the United States Constitution in social politics that I’m just unable to grasp. I’m open to being proven wrong, though.

I keep seeing people talking about the Sad Puppy authors as being poor quality. They don’t win Hugos because they just don’t write well enough. On the other hand, as I pointed out last time, the Hugo voting population is tiny. There are small-town high schools with more students than there were voters even last year, which was a huge turnout for the Hugo Awards. How can it truly be a measure of quality if so few people vote?

On the other hand, I’ve seen many people arguing that the Hugos (quoting from the website) “are awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy.” They aren’t awards for books that are the most popular or that sell the most copies. Rather, they are a measure of quality, and should remain that way.

Then who becomes the judge of quality?

If the Hugo Awards are about excellence, and excellence is not about popularity, then why is it decided by popular vote? Why is “science fiction’s most prestigious award” not decided by an equivalent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as is done with the Oscars?

Ultimately, it comes down to who should be considered the gatekeepers of the definition of excellence. If it is true that the general population prefers bad fiction, then necessarily good fiction cannot sell well. Ergo, popularity cannot be a guarantor of excellence. Yet by that mark, the most excellent work of science fiction must necessarily be the one that has not yet been written, because a written work of fiction has at least been read by its author.

So who is the judge? If the judges are the audience, and you disagree with the audience, then which is the saner response: to disqualify the audience, or attempt to educate them on what they miss? To explain what makes truly excellent science fiction excellent, or to dismiss the fans as incapable of understanding excellence?

This should be a familiar argument to SF&F fans, because it’s one we’ve been facing for our whole lives — the claim that science fiction and fantasy is not, cannot, and will never be great literature. In fact, it’s an argument that G. K. Chesterton himself talked about nearly a century ago:

In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the popularity of science fiction and fantasy stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept science fiction stories because they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a book popular. Bradshaw’s Railway Guide contains few gleams of psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on winter evenings. If fantasy stories are read with more exuberance than railway guides, it is certainly because they are more artistic. Many good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more fortunately, have been unpopular. A good fantasy story would probably be even more popular than a bad one. The trouble in this matter is that many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good science fiction story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. […] it must be confessed that many fantasy stories are as full of fantastic elements as one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Exactly why fantasy is okay in Shakespeare but impossible to be good literature today is something that has never been explained to my satisfaction, even with an explanation that I disagree with. I find it fascinating to be told that a story cannot be seriously considered by experts simply because it contains fantastical elements or speculation on future events. I find it worrisome when the same dismissive arguments start creeping into science fiction and fantasy.

While doing research on this subject, I came across this amusing tale from Sarah Hoyt, titled The Redheaded Step Genre. In it, she describes how she came to be an SF&F fan herself, while living in Portugal. She was unable to understand why “proper” books all had to be about how horrible things are, or will be. It’s an interesting read, even if all the animated .gifs get annoying. (There’s a reason I’m not on Tumblr.)

Chesterton, at least, was able to identify a certain and necessary value of fantasy:

The first essential value of the fantasy story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the ‘Iliad.’ [A man] crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery.

Or . . . does he really? Is this truly the value of fantasy?

Confession time. These two passages are from an essay that Chesterton wrote about detective stories, not science fiction or fantasy. I did some word-replacement to make a point. That point is that these arguments have been around for a long time. A century ago, Chesterton was writing this essay, titled “A Defense of Detective Stories,” to refute the same arguments people give today about SF&F that they used to give about mysteries.

Mysteries. Imagine that. A mystery holds no literary value. Ha! Perhaps in a hundred years, we will have laid this argument about SF&F to rest as well.

Or perhaps not. After all, I find the most interesting thing about that essay is the second passage I quoted, where — given in the original context — he is arguing for the merit of detective stories using the terminology of fantasy. It’s as if fantasy was accepted in his day, as if mythology had gravitas that mere murder mysteries could never reach. Perhaps these enemies of popular literature, who explain their points by first dismissing the general population as having no elevated taste in lasting art, shall always be with us.

After a multitude of discussions on Facebook, I have decided to give this group of experts a name. I settled on the Social Fiction Warrior.

For those who don’t recognize the reference, it comes from the pejorative term Social Justice Warrior, or SJW. Know Your Meme has an excellent and short writeup on the rise of the term, part of which I’ll quote here:

Social Justice Warrior is a pejorative label applied to bloggers, activists and commentators who are prone to engage in lengthy and hostile debates against others on a range of issues concerning social injustice, identity politics and political correctness. In contrast to the social justice blogosphere at large, the stereotype of a social justice warrior is distinguished by the use of overzealous and self-righteous rhetorics, as well as appealing to emotions over logic.

The difference with a Social Fiction Warrior is that instead of focusing on society at large, they instead insist that the true judge of a book’s merit is held in whether it includes the right sociopolitical elements. While “Social Justice Warrior” is normally applied to leftists, I’m applying the label Social Fiction Warrior to anyone who puts a sociopolitical message above the story. It’s not just those who claim that a book should be message fic; rather it includes anyone who judges a book based on whether the author’s beliefs or shade of skin are acceptable. I don’t need to know an author’s skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity to enjoy a good book.

The label of Social Fiction Warrior doesn’t describe everyone who’s against the Sad Puppies campaign. In fact, to be honest, if all I was hearing about Sad Puppies came from Social Fiction Warriors, I’d hate them too. I’d be convinced that they were racist, sexist, homophobic, tyrannical fiends out to destroy the Hugo Awards. Of course, I have an automatic reflex to do research, and I hate taking a firm stand without investigating the facts first. Not everyone has the time to do that. Heck, the only reason I can do as much as I do is that I’ve gotten pretty fast at research over the last decade. (Seriously, my friends know this and like convincing me to look stuff up for them. Lazy bums. If I didn’t enjoy it so much . . .)

Instead, the Social Fiction Warrior is someone who doesn’t care about looking up facts, but rather prefers to compare things to a checklist. Like the Social Fiction Warriors of Chesterton’s day, the ones who scoffed at detective stories, they judge art on its parts rather than its whole. They prefer politics to poetry, statistics to symbolism, and quotas to quality.

Life’s too short to waste on bad fiction. Write a good story first, and bring out a message on the second draft. I don’t mind a message. I mind a story that was written only for a message. I don’t care if that story has a great message that dovetails exactly with my religion, philosophy, politics, or personal hobbies; if it isn’t entertaining, I’m not going to read it. The Social Fiction Warrior, on the other hand, thrives on exactly that, and anything else is poor literature.

As Chesterton put it in his book Orthodoxy (emphasis added);

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud.

That concept is a curious thing, but one that becomes clearer as he continues. The above passage begins of of the most famous pieces Chesterton ever wrote, often presented as the essay “Ethics of Elfland” (that name being the name of the chapter in the book). In this chapter, he talks about the importance of stories, and specifically what we would term fantasy stories today, but what he simply called fairy tales.

The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth.

That, right there, is the power of science fiction and fantasy. It is the power to take a step outside of your current reality and gain a new perspective.

In its basic form, SF&F’s purpose is escapism. That might seem bad, but I’m just going to briefly turn to Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” to explain that point.

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. 

The attitude of the Social Fiction Warriors as of late — yet, as we see, not something new — is that the only good kind of science fiction or fantasy is the kind that offers a direct commentary on the present day, or fulfills the current checklist for an ideal society. That’s not fiction that can give you a new perspective, that can take you places you can’t go in Real Life.

It’s also not fiction that can age well and be enjoyed down the road. The only thing worse than reading about the problems of today in a book about tomorrow is if that book only focuses on the problems of yesterday.

Make the problems of your setting your own. Craft them so that they become applicable, rather than allegorical. C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will always be a story with an Easter allegory, and while it’s an excellent story it remains firmly attached to that subject. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a story about war, good and evil, the struggle for freedom, and the value of friendship. It will stay applicable even outside a Christian context.

The key element, the thing that makes it possible to step outside our lives and focus on this new setting and apply its events once we return, is the wonder of discovery — the childlike wonder of being able to imagine things beyond ourselves. I once had the chance to ask Walter Koenig how he was able to play such believable, human villains, as well as the lovable Pavel Chekhov. He answered that the key was never to lose your childhood wonder.

Or, to quote Chesterton’s Orthodoxy again:

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

Perhaps we’ll have to add a Social Fiction Warrior to that, since “modern realism” is what they want science fiction to become.