The Hugo Awards Controversy and Sci-Fi’s Diversity Problem

Even though I’ve been a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I’ve never much cared about the Hugo Awards. I mean, I’ve followed them in a vague way...

Even though I’ve been a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I’ve never much cared about the Hugo Awards. I mean, I’ve followed them in a vague way since my teens, and I guess I’ve bought books because their authors were winners at least once or twice in the past. But despite the award’s prestige – winners include sci-fi greats like Asimov and Phillip K Dick, which are about as big as big names get – I’ve never felt any kind of special regard for the voters’ choices.

There’s a good reason for that: until recently, the Hugo Award winners haven’t exactly been representative of people like me. Most of the winners have been straight, white and male, writing stories about people who look, sound and act an awful lot like themselves. And while many of those stories have certainly been deserving of the praise lavished upon them, I’ve always felt like there was a little something missing. That feeling has kept me from reading many of fantasy’s “must-read” series: The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, et cetera. While I’ve certainly enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – books by similar authors, I just don’t feel that same need to read the “greats”. Simply put, they don’t seem all that great to me.

The stereotype about fantasy and science fiction fans as cishet white men from middle-class backgrounds is a pervasive one. It pops up on television, in movies and even in the news. It is also increasingly false – not that it was ever particularly true to begin with. More and more, the kinds of people who turn to fantasy and sci-fi for entertainment and escapism look more like me than, say, a character from The Big Bang Theory, that epitome of lowest common denominator broadcast programming. Over the past few years, to paraphrase the late and great Sir Terry Pratchett, we’ve been dragging the fandom as a whole kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat. Even the Hugo Awards were beginning to reflect that steady upwards trend towards inclusiveness and representation.

I say they were because this year was a giant bump in the road onthe stately march of progress. A group of anti-progressive, pro-bigot malcontents styling themselves “The Sad Puppies” gamed the Hugo ballot so that a great number of the finalists – even all  the finalists in some categories – were content creators whose works were more in line with their “anti-SJW” vision. Sad Puppy supporters included Vox Day, a man thrown out of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for being a colossal asshole, which is really all the information you need to make a decision about the kind of movement SP is (but if you really want more information and think I sound biased, read that Wired link).

The Sad Puppy vision for the Hugo Awards is one where nominations are a meritocracy (where people who write innovatively about gender, sexuality, race and other social issues are considered without merit). The Sad Puppy method of achieving this vision involves harassing everyone who doesn’t agree with them, because their arguments can’t actually stand on merit. They’ve even run afoul of George R. R. Martin, who is about as establishment as it gets in contemporary fantasy (I mean, one of his heroines is a literal white saviour in a land full of brown savages, yikes!), which means they’re now very much persona non grata in the SF/F community, something they’ve decided is a badge of honour rather than a damning condemnation of their beliefs and tactics.

That’s all well and good, but the fact that the Puppies got as far as they did – completely rigging five categories so that the only nominees were of their choosing, and skewing several others so there were very few choices who weren’t theirs – says a lot about a community that’s always inhabited a curious place halfway between insular and inviting, inflexible and innovative. It’s strange to think that the Hugo Awards, which have honoured legends like Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler, were turned into a farcical man-child temper tantrum by a bunch of jilted former nominees who wanted to ruin everyone else’s fun. At the same time, it makes perfect sense coming from a community that can accept the War of the Roses with dragons, but not making a fictional god female. There’s always been this element in the fandom of people – mostly men, mostly cis, mostly straight, mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly college-educated – who think escapism and adventure stop being fun once politics that don’t agree with their own are introduced. (They’re fine, of course, with the hard-right libertarian politics of works like Ender’s Game or the oeuvre of Terry Goodkind.) The internet has enabled these squeaky wheels, giving them wider platforms and the ability to organise their bullying and harassment.

I make no pretence at a lack of bias. I love science fiction and fantasy partly because during a time in my life where reality was often hard to face, fantasy novels starring brave heroines like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna of Trebond (Song of the Lioness) or Diana Wynne Jones’ Arianrhod (The Merlin Conspiracy) were my way of coping. There is real power in escapist literature: not only does it distract us from our troubles, it helps us imagine the very best possible versions of ourselves and inspires us to become them. Tales of great heroes and dashing adventurers aren’t just fun – they’re a reminder of what humanity can do when pushed to the limits of its courage, daring and creativity. There’s a reason conquerors have historically attempted to suppress the languages and folklore of the peoples they’ve conquered: because depriving us of our stories eventually crushes our spirits. I think what the Sad Puppies are attempting to do is crushing the spirits of marginalised people who tell and consume stories as a way of feeding their souls, and I think they’re doing that on purpose. I can’t report impartially on people like that any more than I could report impartially on any other kind of monster.

If there’s a way forward for the Hugo Awards – and for the sake of what the institution has meant to so many people over the years, I hope there is – it involves tearing apart the structures that allow bullies like Vox Day to terrorise people who don’t fit their vision of a sterile, unchanging SF/F landscape. It’s not enough to passively stand by as such people attack diversity and innovation in the community – there has to be an active effort on the part of the Hugo Award organisers (which, to their credit, there has been) and the community surrounding them to expunge these toxic influences. Yadda yadda free speech and all that, but at the end of the day, no private organisation is obliged to host bigots. The Hugo Awards should be representative of the very best of the community, not its murkiest dregs. I hope next year represents a definitive move away from the teeth-gnashing and wailing of slighted bigots in favour of honouring the people who continue to make science fiction and fantasy great.

Image courtesy of the Hugo Awards

jaythenerdkid is the nom de net of Aaminah Khan, a queer Muslim writer, activist, tutor, former medical student and terroriser-of-bigots for hire. When she’s not tweeting, tumblr-ing, blogging, arguing with conservatives on Facebook or being blocked by Richard Dawkins, Aaminah reads fantasy novels, plays video games, argues with her husband about Game of Thrones and gets angry that there aren’t more characters like Abed Nadir on television.

  • Teemu Leisti

    I came here via a link on File 770. I’d just like to commend you on a terrific article, especially the paragraph beginning “I make no pretence ….” Very well put.

  • WendyNerd

    This is a fantastic article, and very on point. Bigotry like this is partly why I’ve always been hesitant about a lot of established fandom community events and institutions like the Hugo Awards, or even many conventions. To me, this is just the next step in the anti-political correctness BS that brought us such fun novelties like “fake geek girls” and the Michael B. Jordan controversy that had no business existing.

    Seriously, what makes this so hilarious to me is the inconsistency and inherent assumption that only white cis-men can write the stuff of “merit”. And that inclusion of LGBTQIA, female, and POC narratives must somehow automatically be about an “agenda” and somehow be merit-proof. Meanwhile Robert Heinlein (who was so conservative that he was more or less pro-fascist so I’m not pretending anything else), considered one of the most important foundational writers in Scifi went out of his way to write numerous pieces with POC, women, and even LGBTQIA+ narratives. Not that his narratives couldn’t be insulting and problematic as all get out, but he still put it in his damn books. And that was in the fucking fifties. Or sorry, are we going to pretend that Johnny Rico, the protagonist of Starship Troopers, was white like in the movie and NOT Filipino? When you’re making Robert “members of the military are the only people who should be allowed to vote” Heinlein look progressive, you’ve fucked up.

    I don’t think the Sad Puppies realize they’ve literally become a group of people more comfortable with green skin tones than brown ones.

    But I guess I was under the misconception that science fiction was about looking to the future. Silly me.


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