SINCE 1953, TO be nominated for a Hugo Award, among the highest honors in science fiction and fantasy writing, has been a dream come true for authors who love time travel, extraterrestrials and tales of the imagined future. Past winners of the rocket-shaped trophy—nominated and voted on by fans—include people like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and Robert A. Heinlein. In other words: the Gods of the genre.
But in recent years, as sci-fi has expanded to include storytellers who are women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, the Hugos have changed, too. At the presentation each August, the Gods with the rockets in their hands have been joined by Goddesses and those of other ethnicities and genders and sexual orientations, many of whom want to tell stories about more than just spaceships.
Early this year, that shift sparked a backlash: a campaign, organized by three white, male authors, that resulted in a final Hugo ballot dominated by mostly white, mostly male nominees. While the leaders of this two-pronged movement—one faction calls itself the Sad Puppies and the other the Rabid Puppies—broke no rules, many sci-fi writers and fans felt they had played dirty, taking advantage of a loophole in an arcane voting process that enables a relatively few number of voters to dominate. Motivated by Puppygate, meanwhile, a record 11,300-plus people bought memberships to the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington, where the Hugo winners were announced Saturday night.
Just before 8 PM, in a vast auditorium packed with “trufans” dressed in wizard garb, corsets, chain mail and the like, one question was on most everybody’s minds: Would the Puppies prevail?
Though voted upon by fans, this year’s Hugo Awards were no mere popularity contest. After the Puppies released their slates in February, recommending finalists in 15 of the Hugos’ 16 categories (plus the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer), the balloting had become a referendum on the future of the genre. Would sci-fi focus, as it has for much of its history, largely on brave white male engineers with ray guns fighting either a) hideous aliens or b) hideous governments who don’t want them to mine asteroids in space? Or would it continue its embrace of a broader sci-fi: stories about non-traditionally gendered explorers and post-singularity, post-ethnic characters who are sometimes not men and often even have feelings?
With so much at stake, more people than ever forked over membership dues (at least $40) in time to be allowed to vote for the 2015 Hugos. Before voting closed on June 31, 5,950 people cast ballots (a whopping 65 percent more than had ever voted before).
But were the new voters Puppies? Or were they, in the words of George RR Martin—the author of the bestselling epic fantasy novels that HBO adapted into Game of Thrones—“gathering to defend the integrity of the Hugos”? On his blog, Martin predicted: “This will be the most dramatic Hugo night in Worldcon history.” He wasn’t wrong.
The evening began with an appearance by a fan cosplaying as the Grim Reaper, and it turned out he was there for the Puppies. Not a single Puppy-endorsed candidate took home a rocket. In the five categories that had only Puppy-provided nominees on the ballot—Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, and Best Editor for Short and for Long Form—voters instead preferred “No Award.” (Here’s the full list.)
Laura J. Mixon, who won for Best Fan Writer, gave by far the most stirring speech. Her winning blog post had meticulously described the venomous behavior of a female, left-leaning troll (an Internet troll, not a troll-troll). “There’s room for all of us here,” Mixon said. “But there’s no middle ground between ‘We belong here’ and ‘No you don’t.’ I believe we must find non-toxic ways to discuss our conflicting points of view.” In closing, Mixon, who is white, added, “I stand with people from marginalized groups who seek simply to be seen as fully human. Black lives matter.”
Birth of the Puppies
To understand the Puppies, it helps to know their pedigrees. All are sci-fi authors. All are past Hugo nominees (but none of them winners). To many, this goes a long way towards explaining the Puppies’ motivation: entitled outrage in the wake of defeat. To the Puppies, those are fighting words. As Brad Torgersen, one of the Sad Puppy leaders told me, he and his compatriots “could care less about a silver rocket ship that looks like a marital aid.” (Though this begs the question: Why target them?) The Puppy campaigns, he said, are about just one thing: fairness.
Larry Correia, a 38-year-old Utah accountant and former gun store owner and NRA lobbyist turned novelist, created the Sad Puppies three years ago. When I reached him by phone (he didn’t come to Worldcon this year) he told me he came up with the name after seeing an SPCA ad featuring forlorn canines staring into the camera, with singer Sarah McLachlan. “We did a joke based on that: That the leading cause of puppy-related sadness was boring message-fic winning awards,” he said, laughing. Correia also explained that initially, “our spokesman was a cartoon manatee named Wendell. Wendell doesn’t speak English. You can see we kept this really super serious, right?”
But from the start, Correia had some serious complaints. He felt that the Hugos had become overly dominated by what he and others call “Social Justice Warriors,” who value politics over plot development. Particular targets of Puppy derision include two 2014 Hugo winners: John Chu’s short story, “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere,” in which a gay man decides to come out to his traditional Chinese family after the world is beset by a new phenomenon: whenever a person lies, water inexplicably falls on them; and Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, whose protagonists do not see gender. Leckie conveys this by using female pronouns throughout.
Correia’s New York Times best-selling book Warbound was up against Leckie’s novel at the 2014 Hugos. (He thinks he was a finalist because of an earlier Sad Puppies lobbying effort.) He and Torgersen, a 41-year-old chief warrant officer in the Army Reserve who took over the Sad Puppies campaign this year, told me they want sci-fi to be less preachy and more fun. Both bristle at assertions made in the blogosphere that they are racist, sexist homophobes.
In fact, their argument is actually pretty interesting. They say their beef is more class-based; Torgerson says his books are blue-collar speculative fiction. The Hugos, they say, are snobby and exclusionary, and too often ignore books that are merely popular, by conservative writers. The Sad Puppies have a name for those who oppose them: CHORFS, for “Cliquish, Holier-than-thou, Obnoxious, Reactionary Fanatics.”
On the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen lamented what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”
Torgersen often notes in interviews that he’s been married to an African-American woman for 21 years, so “I don’t need some know-it-all to come lecture me about race stuff.” He says the Hugos are beset by identity politics. “When people go on about how we’re anti-diversity, I’m like: No. All we’re saying is storytelling ought to come first.”
Ah, but of course that’s not all the Puppies are saying—particularly not when you add in the more militant Rabid faction. Their leader is a self-described libertarian blogger named Theodore Beale. He calls himself Vox Day (loosely: the Voice of God, though he says the origins of the name are more complex than that). While the Sad Puppies offered their slate on the first day of February as “a recommendation, not an absolute,” Beale (who posted the Rabid Puppies slate a day later, on February 2) directed his followers to “nominate them precisely as they are.”
And who is Beale? He is a 46-year-old former electronic rocker (he was in the shortlived group Psykosonik) and the son of a wealthy Minnesota entrepreneur and Republican leader who is currently jailed for tax evasion. Beale speaks four languages, he told me, is married, and is the father of a son (among other children) who “is the youngest male published author in history.” (He says the boy published a book at the age of six). Beale also says that “I’m not white, I’m Native American. My great-grandfather rode with Pancho Villa, and I get to do that according to the rules of SJW.”
When I asked how much Native American blood he had, he said, “I’m not going to go into details, but I will say that it is so significant that even my kids qualify for tribal membership. I’m a mix. I mean, I’m also considered a Mexican. I have the genetic analysis.”
Nonetheless, based on his voluminous writings, it can be said that Theodore Beale—who writes fiction as a hobby while working as a game designer—openly opposes racial diversity, homosexuality, and women’s suffrage. Beale quibbles with those assertions, as he did with me when I reached him at his home in Northern Italy. For example, he says he doesn’t oppose all women’s suffrage, just women (and most men) voting in a representative democracy, like the one we have, um, in America. The reason: “Women are very, very highly inclined to value security over liberty” and thus are “very, very easy to manipulate.” (He favors direct democracy—and, obviously, men). At one point, he emailed that he would be “very disappointed” if I failed to quote theWall Street Journal’s label for him: “the most despised man in science fiction.”
A conversation with Beale feels sort of like walking around a room designed by MC Escher. It turns in on itself in unexpected and at times dizzying ways. A sampling: When I asked him why he once called noted fantasy author NK Jemisin an “educated, but ignorant half-savage” on his blog, he said it wasn’t because she is black, then launched into an explication of what he called “new” genetic research that he says he doesn’t expect very many people to understand (but which he claims supports his use of the term “half-savage”).
When I said that he was intentionally baiting a person of color with a word that has racial overtones, he acknowledged, “I’m calling her a half-savage because I know it’s going to offend the crap out of her, because she’s going to run around screaming, ‘Racist! Racist!’ for the next 10 years.”
A beat, and then he added: “I don’t consider all black people to be half-savages. I mean, some people are. Here in Europe, for example, we have actual proper Africans, not African-Americans. This leads to problems, like people shitting on top of the closed toilets. They don’t know how to use indoor plumbing, okay? This is not civilized behavior.”
(Jemisin, by the way, who goes by Nora, has been nominated for a Hugo three times, including once for her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, about a world populated by the brown-skinned, matriarchal warrior Darre people. Jemisin characterized her interaction with Beale like this: “He simply says, ‘This person is not human,’ and then opens his comments section and doesn’t stop anyone when they start saying, ‘We should run a train on that bitch.’ So, you know, this is the standard modus operandi for white supremacists that don’t want to go to jail.”)
Torgersen told me something that helped me understand Beale, which is that he believes Vox Day is a character Beale plays—“Performance art, like Andy Kaufman,” Torgersen said. “He embraces this nemesis role that he inhabits. He’s the dark star circling around the outer rim of the solar system. He’s Darth Vader breathing heavily into your phone. He wants people to be enraged and flipping out and tearing their hair and completely losing their minds. And he gets that every single time.”
Beale acknowledged as much: “I love chaos,” he says. “I am generally pretty destructive.”
Given this kind of incendiary rhetoric, it’s possible that the Sad Puppies were at best naïve when they let Beale piggyback on their idea. At worst, they have been accused of providing a politely moderate front for a shit-stirring provocateur. Certainly, both Correia and Torgersen have worked hard to distinguish themselves from Beale.
“Look at it like this,” Correia blogged at one point. “I’m Churchill, Brad is FDR. We wound up on the same side as Stalin.” But when I asked Torgersen whether he felt the Sad Puppies had been tarnished by their association with Beale, he said no. “If he went away, I don’t think it would have changed much. People would have been just as hacked off about Sad Puppies. They just would have found some other reason.”
For his part, Beale—who is lead editor1 at a small publishing company, Castalia House, which got five of its writers and editors (including Beale himself) on this year’s Hugo ballot—has been outspoken about his goals. “I wanted to leave a big smoking hole where the Hugo Awards were,” he told me before the winners were announced. “All this has ever been is a giant Fuck You—one massive gesture of contempt.” Some nerds just want to watch the world burn.
Going forward, he said, no matter how the Hugo administrators modify the nominating process to try to prevent manipulation (and there are two proposals being considered), he will still have enough supporters to control future awards. Specifically, “I have 390 sworn and numbered vile faceless minions—the hardcore shock troops—who are sworn to mindless and perfect obedience,” he said, acknowledging that his army wasn’t made up solely of sci-fi fans. On the contrary, “the people who are very anti-SJW said, ‘Okay, we want to get in on this.’” When I asked him how he might deploy those people in the future, he continued, “It’s very simple. The dark lord speaks, the minion acts.”
What the Hugos Mean
The mainstream press first started reporting on the gaming of the Hugos’ nomination system back in April, when fan-favorite authors who were women and people of color had been largely edged out of the final ballot. But few outside the field really cared. They treated it like nerd-on-nerd violence—unfortunate and ugly, but confined to one of literature’s crummier neighborhoods.
It’s not inconsequential, though. Not by a longshot. The Puppies’ revolt did not merely push back against the gains traditionally underrepresented people have made in a maligned literary sub-genre. It was a backlash against gains they’ve made everywhere. Like the sound of starship engines, the Hugos don’t exist in a vacuum.
Consider: A woman named Adria Richards Twitter-shames two white dudes for cracking off-color jokes at PyCon, a tech developer conference (and then is fired and fields murder threats). GamerGate makes a political movement out of threatening with rape any woman who has the temerity to offer an opinion about a videogame. A certain strain of comic book fan goes apoplectic whenever Captain America gets replaced with a black man or Thor gets replaced with a woman. This is more than just hatred of change: When Thor once got replaced by a frog (yes, that really happened) no one uttered a peep (or a ribbit).
The Culture Wars are raging at the highest levels (and all corners) of American society. Substitute weaponry for verbiage, and this could easily be the stuff of a sci-fi novel.
Now, in the same year that the so-called mens’ rights movement was driven into a froth by Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Charlize Theron seeks to rescue a bunch of women from sex slavery (and Max is little more than a sidekick), another flashpoint emerged: Puppygate.
In our telephone call a few weeks back, Beale explained that his plan was a “Xanatos gambit.” “That’s where you set it up so that no matter what your enemy does, he loses and you win.”
No surprise then, that in an email sent after the awards ceremony, Beale was crowing. “The scorched earth strategy being pursued by the SJWs in science fiction is evidence that we hold the initiative and we are winning,” he wrote. The number of major categories in which no awards were given “demonstrates the extent to which science fiction has been politicized and degraded by their far left politics,” he continued, predicting that the 2015 Hugos would “convert many Sad Puppies into Rabid Puppies. They said they wanted to send us a message and we heard it loud and clear. The message we heard was: ‘Bring more Puppies.’”
But even as Beale claimed victory, John Scalzi, a novelist and three-time Hugo winner who has been among their most outspoken opponents, said the war was over. “None of these folks”—authors who are not straight, white, and male—“are going anywhere. Nora Jemisin stands on the shoulders of every other woman and minority and gay and lesbian and trans- or bisexual folk who had to put up with shit before, a groundwork that has been laid for decades and decades. And she and lots of other people are now in a position where they can firmly plant their feet and say, ‘This is bullshit,’ and have a large number of people go, ‘You’re absolutely right.’”
What the Hugos Really Mean
To go even a little ways down this rabbit hole is to see an attempt to force out a vanguard of new creators and consumers in the nerdiverse. As complex as this story is—several nominees who were on the Puppies’ slates withdrew their names in protest (more on that in a minute)—it’s also very simple: When a certain subset of nerds see other people playing with their toys, it often feels to them like the toys are getting taken away.
But something else is going on here, too: In a genre defined by curiosity, by the question “what if?” and by yearning for a sense of wonder, even left-leaning fans acknowledge that modern science fiction can sometimes feel infected with a certain academic torpor. Political correctness aside, one Sad Puppy supporter I met at Sasquan grumbled about self-indulgence. “Just because you had a dream doesn’t mean we all want to read it,” he said. “Just because you have an MFA and write a story, you may win a Hugo, but don’t kid yourself: Everybody’s had a dream, but they didn’t write it because they knew it wouldn’t sell. Some of this stuff is unreadable.”
The Puppies aren’t the only ones who think so. While waiting for Sasquan’s annual Masquerade costume competition to begin Friday night, I overheard a man clad all in tie-dye tell his tie-dye swathed companion something very similar: “I like the type of books the Puppies were promoting. I just don’t like the way they did it.”
Annie Bellet would agree. The 34-year-old writer of self-published urban fantasy novels (among other things) had a short story, “Goodnight Stars,” on both the Sad and Rabid Puppies slates and received her first Hugo nomination this year at least partly because of it. But 11 days later, she turned the nomination down.
In a sometimes emotional interview in the convention hall this week (her first, she said, since the controversy), Bellet told me she was not “bullied by ‘the SJWs’ into turning down my nomination,” as some in the community have said. The reason she withdrew: “I love the Hugo Awards. To be nominated was awesome. But I’m a writer. That’s what I want my public face to be. I don’t want people to think of me as some political figure, or some ball in the political game.”
For Bellet, the Sad Puppies aren’t abstractions—they’re people she actually knows. She thinks Correia is a “great guy” and loves his seven-book Monster Hunter series. And she once considered Torgersen an ally. They met in a workshop. “We came up as baby writers together. We were friends—and I’m using the past tense,” she said, wiping away tears. “He’s hurt a lot of people.”
Blonde-haired, fair-skinned, and “covered in tattoos,” Bellet is from Portland, Oregon. “I’m adopted, and I have a sister who is black, a sister who’s Vietnamese. My mom is a lesbian. I grew up in a liberal, inclusive environment. Still, I broke a lot of noses [after hearing] the N-word growing up, trying to defend my little sister. So I do not understand this white persecution narrative.”
Bellet said she thinks Beale “rode” Correia and Torgersen “like ponies. I told Brad that. He said, ‘Just because we’re on the freeway in different cars heading the same direction doesn’t mean we’re together.’ I said, ‘Dude, you’re in the same car, and Vox Day is driving.’ He doesn’t get it. It makes me so sad.”
What’s more, for the record, she doesn’t think Beale, who folded much of the Sad Puppies slate into his own, even read her story. “I’m everything Vox Day doesn’t like—which I consider a badge of honor,” she told me. “I’m a queer female writing about shape-shifters—that fantasy ‘crap’ that’s not ‘real’ science fiction.” Here’s the thing she thinks Beale doesn’t grasp, she said: “Nerd culture brings everybody together. People don’t care what you look like. If you want to be a black Khaleesi, go for it!”
Winners and Losers
Which brings us back, in a roundabout way, to George RR Martin, one of the select writers at Sasquan whose works are considered both literary and popular. While surely more than a million words have been written about Puppygate (Need proof? All of them have been collected and linked to on a blog called File 770), few have been as well-considered as those on Martin’s own “Not A Blog.”
Martin loves Worldcon, having attended every year almost without fail ever since his first one in 1971. There is a sense of community among sci-fi fans, he says, that is special and sustaining. Having won four Hugos and lost 15 (and that’s not counting any related to the HBO show), he says he can say with utter sincerity that it is an honor merely to be nominated—not because the Hugo is a hoity-toity accolade bestowed by Ivy Leaguers (a frequent Puppy claim), but because of the caliber of past winners. And, for the record, those winners have also included women writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, who was black. Novelist Connie Willis, meanwhile, was referred to at the 2015 Awards as “the Meryl Streep of science fiction”—she’s been nominated for 24 and won 11.2
Martin, the son of a longshoreman, rejects the idea that anyone has been excluded from the Hugos for not being either highbrow or politically correct enough. But just being popular shouldn’t be enough to win, he told me on the second day of Sasquan. “The reward for popularity is popularity! It’s truckloads of money! Do you need the trophy, too?” he said as we sat in his hotel room overlooking the convention center and the Spokane River. “Can’t the trophy go to the guy who sells 5,000 copies but is doing something innovative?”
Some Sad Puppies say Martin’s enormous success has blinded him to their struggles, but nearly everyone (except Beale) agrees that Martin has been a voice of reason amidst the screaming throngs. He acknowledges that some Sad Puppies claims have merit. For example, he agrees that people like Bellet who self-publish will increasingly be a force to be reckoned with, and predicts they will eventually win their share of Hugos (though he rejects the idea that they have been formally discriminated against—it’s merely too hard for most Hugo voters to learn which ones to read). He doesn’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with campaigning for nominations—logrolling has gone on during the run-up to the Hugos for years.
The Sad Puppies are certainly right that the graying of fandom is something to be concerned about. (To get a sense of the average age at Sasquan, consider this attempt at a Baen Books event to give away a few free volumes: “Any teenagers in the audience?” Baen editor and 2015 Hugo nominee Toni Weisskopf asked. No one stirred. “Anyone with teenagers at home?” She was swarmed).
But the hateful discourse and the name-calling? People’s refusal to acknowledge that there should be—and actually is—room for everyone under the sci-fi trufan tent? At one point earlier this year, Martin blogged that the Hugos had been “broken. I am not sure they can ever be repaired.”
Still, by this past week, he was more optimistic. Optimistic enough, in fact, to throw a Hugo Losers Party—a tradition he’d started back in 1976, but then let fall into other hands. Martin printed up invites—“Losers Welcome. Winners Will Be Mocked. No Assholes!”—hired a band, and rented a 12,000-square-foot historic mansion. Winners who showed up—including Ken 3 Liu, the translator of the Cixin Liu’s Best Novel-winning The Three-Body Problem—had to don rubber coneheads. Losers got magic markers to write on the winners’ cones.
After midnight, Martin announced that for the first time (and hopefully the last) he was bestowing his own awards—dubbed “The Alfies” in honor of Alfred Bester, whose bookThe Demolished Man won Best Novel at the first-ever Hugos in 1953. “This year all of us were losers,” Martin said, explaining that the Alfies, each made from a streamlined 1950s hood ornament, were his attempt to take a little of the sting off.
Late Saturday, Worldcon released data from a parallel universe, one in which the Puppies hadn’t intervened. That let Martin give trophies to the people who would have been on the ballot, as well as some extra winners decided “by committee, and that committee is me,” Martin said.4 Sci-fi writer Eric Flint got an Alfie for his “eloquence and rationality” in blog posts about the Puppy kerfuffle. So did legendary author Robert Silverberg, who has attended every Worldcon since 1953, just for being himself.
The biggest cheers, though, broke out when Martin honored two people—Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos—who’d been first-time Hugo finalists this year until they withdrew their names. The new data showed Bellet would’ve been on the ballot anyway; the Alfie clearly stunned her. “I want these awards to be about the fiction,” Bellet said, “and that was important enough to me to give one up.”
The final Alfie of the night went to Kloos, a German-born writer (now he lives in New Hampshire), for turning down his Puppy-powered nomination and making room for the winner, The Three-Body Problem. “I may get nominated again,” he said after shaking Martin’s hand. “But knowing why I got this and who gave it to me—tonight, this beats the shit out of that rocket.”
1 UPDATE 8/23/15 12:52 PM This story originally said Beale owned the publishing house.
2 UPDATE 8/23/15 1:03 PM Added to clarify that women and people of color have indeed been major players in science fiction all along.
3 UPDATE 8/23/15 12:56 PM This story originally gave Liu’s first name as “Kevin.”
4 UPDATE 8/23/15 1:00 PM Added clarification of where the Alfie winners came from.