Right-Wing Reactionaries Are Trying to Take Over the World of Science Fiction

If you think America's culture wars are only taking place over such hot-button issues of health care, gay rights, abortion, and/or religious freedom, think again. Unbeknownst to those of us who are neither regular readers of speculative fiction nor follow it in the blogosphere, for a short time awhile back it looked like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) might fall into the hands of an ultra-conservative culture warrior. It didn't. However, culture war battles – particularly as related to gender and social justice issues – have found a new front; the prestigious Hugo Awards,


This week, the Hugos - awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements - will be announced. Given out annually since 1955, the awards were originally called the Science Fiction Achievement Awards until 1992, and then they were renamed for Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories.

Like just about any awards ceremony, controversy is guaranteed.

This year, however, the controversy over the Hugo awards may have reached a tipping point, as a well-organized conservative-minded group called the "Sad Puppies," and their allies, dominate the Hugo nominations.

First, a few not-so-secret confessions: I have never seen Star Trek or Star Wars; I haven't read much science fiction, fantasy novels or short stories (except for those written by the late Kurt Vonnegut, Shirley Jackson, and my second cousin Michael Greenhut); I have great respect, and admiration, for Rod Sterling and have probably seen just about every Twilight Zone episode ever made; and, finally, I am a fan of HBO's Game of Thrones. In short I am not an expert on the genre or sub-genre or even micro-genre.

I have, however, been monitoring and reporting on a broad array of conservative movements for a long time, and I know culture wars when I see them.

YES! Magazine's Mike Schneiderman explains the current situation with the Hugos:

A shifting contingent of science fiction authors, editors, and fans…has spent the last several years fighting against what they perceive to be an escalating liberal bias in the Hugos. Dubbing themselves the Sad Puppies, this group has engaged in an annual effort to mobilize fans into voting for a specific slate of nominees, usually headlined by authors of a conservative political persuasion. The Hugos are vulnerable to this sort of manipulation because fans purchase the right to nominate works of fiction onto the ballot and vote—anyone who has bought a supporting or attending membership in the World Science Fiction Convention (aka Worldcon) can do it.

Historically, the Sad Puppies have not been successful in their efforts to swarm the Hugos, but this year it worked. Alongside their more extreme counterparts—the Rabid Puppies, led by Castalia House lead editor Theodore Beale, alias Vox Day—they orchestrated a campaign that resulted in the 2015 Hugo nominations being dominated by their selections.

According to Schneiderman, the "Sad Puppies" and their allies see the fight as being against "the snobbish liberal elites that cliquishly control the Hugos": "They claim that in recent years the science fiction and fantasy communities, particularly those who vote on the Hugos at Worldcon, have selected works not because of their quality, but because they 'allow [the voter] to check a victim group box.'"

This narrative, however, is fundamentally false. The halcyon days being mourned by the Puppies have never existed in any genre, much less science fiction and fantasy, whose bread and butter has always been the exploration of new and challenging ideas. The Puppies aren't "taking back" speculative fiction; they are trying to mold a new speculative fiction in their own image. In their ideal world, the genre would be defined by the shallow rather than the meaningful, its most respected scions determined by mass popularity rather than thought provocation. And there would be no room for anything that challenges their own ideologies, including the empowerment of people of color and women.

The SFWA Survives a Bitter Challenge

Conservatives trying to dominate the conversation about what qualifies as legitimate science fiction and fantasy writing is not a new phenomenon. When the SFWA survived a challenge by a radical right-winger, it set off a firestorm of accusations, charges and counter-charges in a fired-up science fiction blogosphere.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in America was founded in 1965, under the name Science Fiction Writers of America, Inc. by Damon Knight. According to Wikipedia, SFWA "has approximately 1,800 members as of 2013." In order to become a member, writers "must be professionally published in a qualifying market as listed by SFWA."

The organization publishes a quarterly magazine called the "Bulletin," which carries nonfiction articles of general interest to writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers. Over the past few years, the "Bulletin" has been the locus of a controversy over sexism within the SFWA community.

In June of 2013, Jean Rabe, a fantasy and science fiction author and editor of the SFWA Bulletin, left the magazine "in the wake of tons of criticism of the organization's official magazine, which featured regular contributors talking about 'lady editors' and commenting on how hot they are," io9.com's Charlie Jane Anders reported.

According to Anders, "SFWA's official bulletin featured a column by longterm contributors Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg in which they wrote about 'lady editors' and 'lady writers' who were 'beauty pageant beautiful' or a 'knock out.' The next issue had an article by another male author, praising Barbie for maintaining 'quiet dignity the way a woman should.' The issue after that had an article in which Resnick and Malzberg complained about censorship because people had complained." Resnick and Malzberg referred to their critics as "liberal fascists."

Will Conservatives Succeed in Hacking the Hugos?

Over the years, Schneiderman writes, "the traditionally male-dominated Hugos have experienced a steady narrowing of the gender gap since 2011…. [and] In 2014, more women were nominated than men than ever before." As in greater society, whenever historically underserved/under-recognized groups begin to make gains in traditional white-dominated spaces, there will be a backlash.

The backlash people "must be defeated at WorldCon" says Schneiderman, "because the speculative fiction community needs to make a statement that anti-woman crusaders armed with unrepentant hate speech are not to be tolerated in 2015, much less awarded."

On August 22, the Hugos will be announced. Schneiderman points out that "Hugo voters will decide if the future being explored by speculative fiction has room for all of us, or if those worlds and sagas yet undreamt should be stripped of all resonance, significance, and dignity until nothing is left but the high-pitched cries of a lone white man, squealing in vindictive delight as his space laser makes 'splosions."

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