How you play the game

This year’s list of Hugo finalists held a few surprises for me.

The magazine that published my first short story–SciPhi Journal (SPJ)–and the online group to which I was a contributing member–SuperversiveSF (SSF)–were listed under Best Semiprozine and Best Fanzine, respectively.

Wow, what an amazing year… I would have liked to think.

But it didn’t take long to realize that the Rabid Puppy slate had heavily influenced this year’s Hugo nominations process and that SPJ and SSF had likely benefited from it. This was both highly ironic and highly troubling for me, given that my main contributions to SSF last year–beyond commentary–were two essays criticizing Sad Puppy (RP) and Rabid Puppy (RP) campaign methods.

While mulling over what to do, Anthony M posted an essay at SSF, explicitly arguing that  SSF’s nomination was due to the RP slate and only the RP slate.  His post motivated me to publicly challenge his position at the site while privately raising the question to the group if SSF should decline the nomination.

Sadly the answer was no, and involved a number of responses, some of which were credible and others I felt were less than credible.  The following points go through my process of reasoning based on those responses and the conclusions I have reached.

1) The exact role the RP slate played in SSF’s nomination is unknown

It was a relief to find that others at SSF did not share Anthony’s beliefs.  The fact is that many members of SSF–including the editor of both SSF and SPJ–are active SP and/or RP supporters.  Throughout 2015-16 they were active in publicizing to and networking with those communities, with SSF podcasts targeted primarily to SP/RP interests.  Likely due to these efforts, SSF and SPJ made the SP reading list too, which was definitely not a slate.

With this in mind, it was plausible for them to argue that SPs and RPs alike had a genuine interest in voting for SSF and SPJ.  In that case being on the RP slate did not in itself distort or unduly amplify the interest of those voters in the nomination process.

And if that possibility is true then making the finalist list was not due to anything improper.  Based on this possibility, arguments made by Brandon Sanderson for keeping his nomination, and calls by George RR Martin for finalists not to decline, SSF members had arguable reasons and precedent not to stand aside.

Still, I would argue that “not definitively improper” is not good enough.

2) An appearance of improper conduct remains

Despite the possibility that RP members may have wanted to vote for SSF anyway, we will never know that for sure since they–or at least enough of them–appear to have voted in lockstep fashion with the slate, regardless of their personal interests.  Such suspicions are highlighted by the success of obvious oddball finalists such as Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony, and underscored by statements from people such as Anthony M at SSF, who basked in having benefited from the RP slate. Indeed, claims in his essay read more like an indictment to me–or confession?–than what I would expect from a victory speech.

So even if nothing improper occurred, a clear appearance of impropriety exists and is enough for me to argue that SSF should step aside. That “appearance of impropriety” is a crucial distinction, separating SSF and SPJ from other finalists like Sanderson and those Martin discussed.

3) There are additional levels of impropriety

Two contradictory arguments were made in defense of the RP slate.  The first is that it was meant to expose the Hugos as a sham, given the systemic flaws which allow for such exploitation.  The other was that it was meant to overcome an effective if not intentional slate–so fighting fire with fire–ran by elitist, cliquish, left leaning voters.

The problem is that both of these do not account for the nature of the RP slate.  Neither goal required placing nominees in all categories, much less taking all slots within categories.  Those tactics, if anything, seem to support the argued intentions of the author of the RP slate, which was to act as a spoiler for the Hugos. This was a point not missed by SPs last year, but about which many SPs are found silent or dissembling this year.

But more important, neither reason required the author of the RP slate to place himself or those with whom he is associated on said slate.  This is especially true if the author had any intention of getting broadly positive notice and awards for people and works outside the supposed elitist clique.  Finalists would have looked a lot more credible if not stacked among, or almost solely constituted by, those connected to him. Put another way, it would have been more useful if the author of the RP slate had acted more selflessly, than in a seemingly self-serving fashion.

Clearly, the RP slate had the potential to benefit its author, both directly–the author placed himself on his own slate–and indirectly–listing business/personal associates.  This kind of conduct is described by terms such as self-aggrandizement and cronyism, and adds another level/form of seeming impropriety to the RP slate.

4) Declining would not show a lack of gratitude

It was argued that declining the nomination would be an insult for those that voted for SSF. That it would show a lack of gratitude.  I am not sure why this is true.

If I had an extended family that got to feeling sorry for my never winning an award, and then bought enough voting memberships in order to vote me in, with many of them not having read anything I wrote, that would be improper.  And it would not show a lack of gratitude on my part to say “Wow, thanks guys for wanting to help me out, I really appreciate your effort, but this method does not get me what I wanted in the way that I really needed to get it. So I have to decline.”

When people vote, even if they pay to vote, there is no guarantee you will win, and there is no obligation that you have to take the nomination or prize if their votes place you there.  Appreciation is different than accepting the benefits of their actions, which can be declined for numerous reasons, both personal or practical.

As it is, if what those at SSF claim is true, that the RPs were likely to vote for SSF anyway, then the RP slate was the biggest slap in the face–the biggest show of ingratitude–to both SP and RP voters, since it cast an unnecessary shadow over the value of their votes.

And it would seem that anyone championing the RP slate at this point is de facto showing ingratitude to SP voters, by downplaying the importance of all the work done by that campaign to improve their methods this year. In fact it forms an argument that they and their kind are no longer needed next year as they were entirely superfluous.

Frankly, I would have been more impressed with this argument, when used to support keeping the nomination, if it had been backed by actual words of gratitude at the SSF site beyond a singular tribute to the RP slate.

5) Accepting it means hypocrisy and more of the same

For those SPs at SSF that railed against the RPs last year, accepting this year’s nomination would mean becoming hypocrites.  And while I am not an SP, or perhaps because I am not, that would go double for me.

Some argued that the No Award reaction to the slates last year drove many SPs to the RP campaign this year, or made them sympathetic to RP methodology. The strength of this argument is not clear to me. If No Award was a reaction to what one considered an unworthy method last year, then how did its use–even if it was admittedly ridiculous–make that first unworthy method acceptable this year?  It would seem the only stable ethical position is to be critical of both again this year.

What’s more important however, is that in accepting the nomination, and so rewarding such methodology, SSF loses its ability to criticize that method in the future–from any political quarter–while signaling its openness to be party to such methods.  And that makes it more likely such things will happen again.

6) Reaching conclusions.

SSF is a young movement still in the process of finding its character and audience.

While described as a literary movement, the line between that and a political movement has become increasingly blurred.  That is to say SSF has allowed itself to get caught up in political machinations, placing temporal political interests above artistic goals.*

Along these same line, it has yet to decide if subversive acts and statements are in keeping with superversive ideals.  With this nomination SSF has become openly aligned with a provocateur whose general repertoire appears subversive in nature, methods I will point out once again were criticized by SSF members last year.  I do not see how this aligns with the ideals SSF has stated it intends to promote artistically.  Some expressed feelings that they are tired of “losing nobly” and/or suggested that subversive acts are allowed to support superversive concepts. Both appear the exact opposite of what I thought superversive was about. It would seem crucial for SSF to settle this question in order to develop a consistent voice and persona, regardless of larger political interests.**

I should point out that SSF–to their credit–wants to build a diverse community of authors.  I was invited and allowed to contribute despite holding very different political, social, and religious views from many at SSF. I have always been treated well, having been asked to stay on despite the recent issue and told my voice would be of value to SSF. Indeed, I was asked to write a post such as this to show that Anthony’s position is not the only one held at SSF.

The problem for me is that with its character still unsettled, and trending in ways I am not interested in taking part, I find the best solution is to step away from SSF.  Not in anger or as an enemy, but as someone who is no longer clear that SSF will end up fitting with my character, or vice versa.

I tend not to like provocateurs or intentional negative provocations–no matter what political stripe–and I do not like having to deal with their fallout. By attaching itself to, or accepting benefits from, a known provocateur it would seem this will become a regular part of SSF membership. That would not be very fun or rewarding for me, no matter how many awards sticking with it might promise.

Since diversity is one of SSF’s goals, I encourage the group to rethink their position on things like the RP slate. In order to attract authors still willing to “lose nobly”, or who have zero interest in winning “by hook or crook”, it will arguably have to do so.

Outside of dire circumstances, life to me has always been about how you play the game. And with luck it always will be.

In this case, I feel certain that playing the game justly demands stepping away. If not from the nomination, which is not my call, then from SFF.

And so I go.

Cheers!

Kieran Sterling Holmes

*Anyone who wants to dispute this point is encouraged to explain the superversive qualities of Space Raptor Butt Invasion.  Granted, Tingle is all about Love…

** A somewhat cheekier version would be to ask the question: “What good is it to gain the Worldcon and lose one’s soul?”  As cheeky as it is, it is something worth considering.

Charting a different course for next year’s Hugos?

As Jason pointed out, this year’s Hugo Awards produced everyone declaring victory.  It would almost be refreshing to hear someone say they lost.  So I will.

I started writing scifi last year to have fun and get to know fun people. Watching this year descend into political bickering over an award was not fun and quite frankly bored the hell out of me.  To each his own I suppose, but is this really the future of scifi? If so, nuts.

Of course, it doesn’t look like I went down alone. Despite the hype, there are plenty of losers. I mean it seems obvious that unless Vox’s other name is No Award, he didn’t win.  And no offense to Jason, if you find yourself saying things along the lines of “just wait till next year”, or “you haven’t seen us really fight”, well… let’s be honest with ourselves… your side lost.  Take it from someone who spent years watching the Chicago Cubs. And it wasn’t just the puppies. Jason rightly pointed out that the showing for No Award was a Pyrrhic victory at best, whether the people realized it or not.

Clearly some didn’t realize it since they cheered for No Award. That was bad form, and a bit telling for those that cheered.  But it is unfair to paint everyone in fandom with that brush, as Jason seemed to be doing.  George RR Martin has now reported he didn’t cheer, those around him didn’t, and he thought it was bad form too.  As it is, he (an unquestionable part of fandom) was against No Award from the outset. Why artificially expand the scope of your enemies by writing off potential allies?  Also, it felt inconsistent for Jason to heap scorn on the applause, while apparently supporting the chuckles emanating from a certain skull fortress. Shouldn’t Vox have been sighing with melancholy while quietly saying “I wish it didn’t happen this way”?

I think GRRM earlier this year said that the Hugo Awards were in uncharted waters.  As it turns out, Camestros Felapton managed to make a map (reposted at SSF) showing the political terrain of the “puppy kerfuffle”. Most were ok with it.  As for me, I didn’t get how I’d fit into the picture. I clearly side with GRRM’s position, and am extremely liberal, but my writing appears at SuperversiveSF (and will at SciPhi).  Heck, SSF allowed me to publish an essay critical of the puppy slate strategy.  So it can’t be all that rabid can it? Or was I invading from the left?  I hope not.  Not my style.

Sadly, it sounds like Camestros’s skill will be required again next year.  By then continental drift will have pushed everyone further away, except the sad and rabid islands which, if Jason is correct, will merge to form a single, more heavily armed, land mass.

Is this really what people want?  I don’t. Not fun.

As far as I understood, the idea here at SSF is to challenge nihilism.  But declaring one will abandon one’s principles (namely play the system or outright cheat) to get an award, because someone else is doing it, is definitely nihilistic. Values have meaning for oneself, or they don’t. So I don’t get why Vox finds any traction here, beyond emotional provocation.

Ok, perhaps it makes sense to do something which reveals cheating is possible, supported or engaged in by others, or perhaps to let others experience the receiving end themselves.  But if that is the point, the mission was accomplished back at this year’s nomination process, and repeating it does nothing but make one the monster one set out to fight.

Honestly, if the method didn’t produce a clear win, alienated potential allies (people sympathetic to some puppy complaints were turned off by the slate), and is something you’d rail against when others do it… shouldn’t the idea be to not double down on that method next year?

That doesn’t erase complaints raised by many puppies, it just suggests other strategies should be sought to address them.  It is hard to imagine that alternatives based on one’s natural virtues, rather than the perceived vices of others, could do any worse than the method chosen this year (and suggested future abuse).  This is true for both winning awards and bringing the scifi community together… which is the ultimate goal, right? And the bonus is you get to walk away feeling clean.

I realize this is still pretty close after the event and cathartic “wait till next year” venting is natural.  I watched the Cubs, I know.  I just hope that as the months pass and a new year begins, it will come to be recognized as catharsis and not wisdom.

P.S. – Before I could place the post above, Jason added a new post calling for unification.  I don’t think that is a bad idea in itself.  The question is unification to do what exactly?  The devil will be in the details of specified goals and methods.  If it is to build a stronger force to do exactly the same thing as last year, well then my argument and recommendations above stand.

Regarding the name change.  Just puppies is better, more positive sounding, than sad or rabid puppies. However some may see that as a tantamount admission that both groups were the same all along.  Plus, if the idea is to reach people in traditional fandom as well, who might have sympathized with your issues but disagreed with the methods, then you might want to break symbolically from the past and change it to something non-puppy related.  Why not something scifi related?  You guys feel like you’re being alienated from the award’s processes, right? Treated as if you’re invading scifi fandom? So why not go with ‘aliens’?

By the way, at first (very quick) glance I thought the caption read “Adfertote Plus Cthulu”.

Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

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For those who haven’t heard, Sir Christopher Lee passed away last Sunday.  He was a charismatic actor who played in major movies over diverse genres, including science-fiction (the Star Wars series), fantasy (Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit series), horror (The Wicker Man, The Devil Rides Outand many Dracula titles), action (The Man With The Golden Gun), and the list goes on.  He has 281 acting credits listed at IMDb.com so he pretty well covered the field.  I saw him perform live, in his 80s, and he was just as intense in person as in the movies.  His mind was sharp and his voice powerful. And it really says something when people still look forward to more performances when you are in your 90s. He will be missed.

An outsider’s perspective: the Hugo affair

As someone just starting in SF, I am interested in how this Hugo affair plays out. After all I need to know which conventions to attend, awards to covet, and publishers to approach.

Until very recently I knew very little about the Hugos and basically nothing of the Sad Puppies. At first glance the puppies seemed a clever and humorous—if pity inducing—way to gain attention for works that might get overlooked in the usual nomination process. Suggestions of bias seemed plausible given parallels to the Academy Awards which have been known to pass over popular movies, as well as ‘less intellectual” genres. So I was surprised by such visceral reactions to what I thought was a simple ‘get out the vote’ campaign.

Curiosity quickly overcame common wisdom and I looked deeper into how these Hugo-brand sausages get made. Eventually I found the most civil and informative exchanges regarding the Hugos at George RR Martin’s personal site, with Martin representing Worldcon supporters and Brad Torgerson the Sad Puppies.

Given available evidence, it seems that no rules were actually broken. George RR Martin, who is strongly opposed to the puppies, stated this himself. In that case, if the nominees don’t represent the views of the SF public in general, or Worldcon fans in specific, that is not the fault of the puppies. All those who are upset and did not vote need to kick their own ass and make sure to vote next year. All those who are upset and did vote need to kick their friends´ asses and make sure those guys vote too.

At worst, this incident should be a reminder that the Hugo awards actually mean something to a lot of people!

That said, passing legal inspection does not mean having the puppies run loose in the sausage-factory improved product quality at all, pro-puppy advertising to the contrary. Many in the SF community will be holding their noses in order to swallow what they were handed. And really it should be obvious—at the very least in hindsight—that many people were not going to be happy finding nominations dominated by a single group’s slate. This was basically the number one complaint the puppies themselves had regarding prior awards, making the results ironic nodding toward hypocritical. More care could have been given to how supporters were encouraged to nominate.

Some argue that it was not the first set of puppies that were to blame, but a second set—a very different breed—that fugged up the joint when they followed the first inside. In fact, the results do seem covered in their paw prints. But that seems beside the point. Whether intentional or accidental, the actions of both puppies helped turn something that should have been about having fun into an epic geek tragedy.

Intriguingly, one of Torgerson’s blog posts states that an objective of the puppies was to “have fun!” It is curious how he thought this would be possible given a rather incongruous admission later in the same post (We are Not Rabid):

“I fully grasp and understand that Sad Puppies 3 was going to be controversial no matter what, because Sad Puppies 3 challenges the status quo in an artistic field overloaded with people who think out loud through their blogs and social media.”

Controversial…yet fun? Assuming that is possible, once the other puppies came on the scene it should have been clear fun was not likely. The Sad Puppies could have stepped back so as not to appear to be lending support to their hijackers, and maybe even worked with others to undermine the doppelganger campaign. Really, just because someone crashes the party with you, it is not betraying one’s cause to stop him from pissing in the punch bowl. In any case, only Mr McGoo—or those in deep denial—could mistake so many unhappy statements coming from all quarters, and nominees walking away from their own nominations, as evidence their stated goals were met.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, when some of the very people you try to help feel worse off for your efforts, it is time to admit you may have made a mistake somewhere. Doing that takes guts, but it would be a credible first step toward fixing the situation. And as it stands there is a big mess that someone has to clean up, or the sausages are just going to get dirtier and smellier until they won’t sell at all.

This acknowledgement doesn’t require wailing and gnashing of teeth to show penitence, or throwing friends under the bus. In fact no individuals have to be singled out for punishment at all. Enough pain has already been spread around. The only thing necessary is to recognize and admit that despite best intentions the methods used did not achieve the desired results, while making very clear they won’t—and should never—be used again.

I expect this should not be as difficult a task for those in the superversiveSF community as others. After all, the puppies were a definitively subversive act, as Torgerson admits, designed to undermine a system that some felt had become biased. That is all well and good as subversion does have its uses. But the idea of superversion, as far as I understood it, was to end subversion before it became systemic and ritualized. Before people were locked into factions trying to undermine each other. In other words the place we find ourselves now.

It might be useful to consider superversive acts capable of paving over the deep, black holes sunk across the SF community at this time. And let me be clear, not unilateral acts one thinks others should respond positively towards, but in conjunction with others from all sides so that results will more likely match expectations. Dialogue is required across communities with a solid commitment to walking the awards back to safety.

Brad Torgerson mentioned having tried parlay before, and thinking it had not worked. I am left wondering if he ever tried talking to George RR Martin, whom I should note has joined with Torgerson in arguing against punitive “No Award” votes or adopting rule changes that would reduce the quality of the Hugos. If not, perhaps now is his opportunity.

George RR Martin has been the most consistent voice of civility in this debate, from either side, trying to calm passions to look at evidence, while re-injecting a sense of appreciation for the award itself and the community as a whole. The account he gave of his history with the Hugos was compelling, to the point of inspirational. Yes, he is an award winner. But he has also been a two-time loser, and a complete nobody. None of his wins were assured when he was busy taking his lumps. And to him the Hugo was, and still is, an award where just being nominated is an honor.

This made similar histories recounted by superversive authors, in defense of enacting the puppies, seem a bit shallow and cynical in comparison. And many statements, such as Torgerson’s appeals to the innate tribalism of humanity, left me with the impression that in dark moments of fear and anger otherwise virtuous-minded people had somehow lost sight of their better natures.

Doesn’t viewing the Hugo as a prize one can be cheated out of, as if one—or one’s group—actually deserves it more than others, or know who deserves it more than others, suggest a lack of humility? To be outraged at such things that one becomes bitter, doesn’t this suggest a loss of proportion and perseverance?

…And yes these questions hold for both sides.

Martin made loss seem graceful, courageous, attractive, and almost noble in some underdog fashion. In contrast, the puppies made loss seem pitiable and pathetic, weak and cowardly. I can only hope to someday suffer the great misfortune certain puppy authors cited, after which I would gladly join the rest of the Hugo “losers” to drown my sorrows in feigned tears, while tipping a glass to “better luck next year.”

I apologize if this sounds harsh but it is not meant to be mean spirited. Rather it reflects what I felt as an outsider reading similar tales of woe, followed by very different sets of reactions. I knew who I’d rather be in a moment of perceived defeat. Which kind of crew would be more fun when the ship goes down. Indeed, which reactions I hope to promote regarding loss in a civilized society.

George RR Martin’s cogent analysis of past Hugos proved that bias, if it existed, never totally overwhelmed the awards process. But let’s say they were as biased as puppy proponents suggest. Torgerson was right that just because the awards were not entirely biased, does not mean they were entirely free of bias either. As it is, I understand how experiences of harassment described by the puppies could tarnish their feelings toward the Hugos. Even so, perhaps that baggage needs to be set aside at last, to hoist a cup of good-natured stoicism before having another go.

Losing does not diminish one’s character. It is how one faces defeat, even discrimination, that defines one’s character. It is possible people will find there is more dignity and honour working to recapture their initial enthusiasm toward an award, than working to capture the award itself.

…And it’s more fun. I wish I had gotten into SF earlier. Win or lose, it really sounded like fun. Now the rockets will need some steady hands to steer them back on that course.