Karen G. Anderson explains the controversy surrounding the 2015 Hugo Awards for science fiction that led to a vote of “no award” in five of the most coveted categories.

Hugo Trophy
Photo by David Bliss.

Think of the Hugo Awards as the Oscars of fantasy and science fiction — they involve drama, shiny statuettes, and — this year — plenty of politics.

Named for 1930s-era science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback (founder of Amazing Stories magazine), they’re awarded at the annual World Science Fiction Convention — a five-day volunteer-run gathering of fans, writers, artists, costumers, and industry figures. There is no Hugo “academy.” Anyone who buys a convention membership is eligible to nominate and vote.

Keep that voting process in mind as you read on.

While the Hugos recognize achievements in the genre’s art, dramatic presentations, and fan activities, it’s the Hugo Awards for literature that get the most attention. The label “Hugo Award winner” (or even “Hugo Award nominee”) sells books and ignites careers. Nominees and winners for best novel include household names like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin, literary figures like Michael Chabon, genre stars like Neil Gaiman, Connie Willis, Neal Stephenson, John Scalzi, Vernor Vinge, and new emerging voices like Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Catherynne M. Valente, Mira Grant, N.K. Jamison, Jo Walton, Saladin Ahmed, and Anne Leckie.

Notably missing from Hugo lists in the past few years are names of some best-selling authors in the urban fantasy and military SF sub-genres. This doesn’t sit well with authors from military SF, both the bestsellers and the relatively obscure. Once at the heart of science fiction, they now share shelf space with a new wave of SF and fantasy authors who are exploring issues of gender identity, feminism, and social justice, many of whom write in styles closer to magic realism and literary fiction than space opera. In short, the balance has shifted, the times have changed, and some of the traditionalists don’t like it.

Calling themselves the “Sad Puppies,” a group of traditionalist authors set out to recapture the 2015 Hugo nominations. Brad R. Torgerson and Larry Correia proposed slates for most Hugo categories and asked people to vote for them. The Hugo nominations system (a simple “first-past-the-post” process) was vulnerable to this approach, because in most years only a minority of eligible voters make nominations, most who do will nominate only a few works or individuals. Thus the field of nominations tends to be widely spread.

When a new group, calling itself the “Rabid Puppies,” joined the Sad Puppies (advocating much the same slate), things went quickly from sad to mad, and from divisive to ugly.

The Rabid faction is headed by Theodore Beale, better known by his blogging identity “Vox Day.” He’s a science fiction writer, editor, and publisher who had been expelled from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2013 for using the organization’s Twitter feed to link to a blog post in which he made racist comments about another writer. As the leader of the Rabid Puppies, Day, who prides himself on being a provocateur, reached outside the usual Worldcon community and urged users of the #gamergate hashtag to buy supporting memberships in the Worldcon and vote his slates.

There is no way of knowing how many people joined Worldcon simply to vote Puppy, but the Puppies’ slates triumphed at the nominations level, not merely dominating but sweeping all five slots in five of the Hugo Awards categories (Best Novella, Short Story, Related Work, Editor Short Form, and Editor Long Form).

Stung, the Worldcon voters responded, with even members sympathetic to the traditionalist concerns saying they were offended by the use of slates. The Hugo Awards ballot always includes the option to vote “no award” in a category, and that’s just what this year’s voters did. In the five Puppy-filled categories, “no award” swept the final voting. (Awards were given in the remaining 12 categories, plus the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.)

At the conclusion of the Hugos on Saturday night, both sides were claiming victory — the Rabid Puppies for their disruption of the process and the Worldcon voters for denying awards to the Puppy nominees.

Day, who did not attend Worldcon, told Wired that he and the voters he refers to as his “minions,” will be back in force next year. Meanwhile, Worldcon has passed a new nominations weighting system designed to reduce the impact of slate voting. However, any new system would need to be ratified by attending members of the 2016 Worldcon before it could be used for the 2017 Hugo Awards.

The real losers, of course, are professional authors and editors in the field. Several people whose works or names were on the Puppy slates declined the nominations they received, while others who remained on the slates came in for harsh criticism. Many people who would have been nominated for 2015 through the usual process were beaten out by Puppy slates — the most extreme example of this being in the Best Novella category, where the five nominees included three works by the same author, and four works from the same, tiny publishing house — the publishing house that employs none other than Vox Day.

George R.R. Martin hosted a party immediately following the Hugo ceremony, and at that party gave Alfie Awards (named in honor of author Alfred Bester, winner of the first Best Novel Hugo in 1953) to a number of people, most of them authors whose works had missed out on a valuable opportunity for recognition due to Puppygate.

You can see the list of 2015 Hugo winners on the Hugo Awards website and the list of Alfie winners at io9.com. ◊

Karen G. Anderson is a freelance journalist, arts reviewer and technology writer who for many years reviewed crime fiction for January Magazine. She has recently begun to publish short fiction. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not reflect those of the organizations for which she is a volunteer.

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