Here we get to another of the controversies surrounding this year’s Hugos — the “Sad Puppy Slate”.
Novelist Larry Correia put together and promoted a slate of works for this year’s award, which he promoted through his blog, and almost all of which have made it to the shortlists. Correia’s aim was, apparently, to get on the ballot himself, to promote his friends, and to promote right-wing science fiction and fantasy (the people whose work he included on the list were for the most part hard right, like Correia himself).
Now, Correia’s defenders have said that the reason people are getting upset with him is simply because he “gamed the system” by encouraging people to vote for a slate. This is nonsense. What he did was perfectly fair. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with including your friends in your nominations when you make them, if they do good work — I intend to nominate David Allison for Best Fan Writer, Dan White and Lawrence Burton for Best Fan Artist, and Phil Purser-Hallard for Best Editor (Short Form) next year, among others, because I think that frankly they deserve those awards. Nor is there any problem with telling other people how you’ve voted and suggesting they do the same. Nor is it bad to encourage people to vote for yourself — I’d promote my own novel and short stories for next year’s ballot if I thought there was even a one in a million chance to get on the ballot. Some of those things may seem gauche to some people (though not to me), but those aren’t the problem.
The problem is that Correia was trolling. And we can tell he was trolling, because in the Best Novelette category (which I’ll come to in a day or two) he included a story by Theodore “Vox Day” Beale.
Now, Correia and many of the other writers in the list have been nominated for major awards in the field before, and Correia at least is a best-selling author with a large fanbase. They could all possibly have got on the ballot on their merits, irrespective of their politics or anything else. But Beale… I have never, ever, heard a good word said about Beale’s fiction by anyone who has read it. The man is primarily known in SF fandom not for his fiction, but for his blog, which is a prime example of “Dark Enlightenment” slime — racist, homophobic, and misogynist, and utterly incapable of behaving in ways compatible with basic humanity (he has, for example, advocated throwing acid in the face of “independent” women, and defended rape).
I’m someone who’s reasonably inclined to separate art and artist — I am, after all, a fan of Dave Sim’s work — but Beale has the same prose style and lack of coherent thinking ability that characterises most of the dark enlightentment/MRA/ultra-right pseudo-libertarian blogosphere, and has never been considered a good writer outside Beale’s own head (fewer people read Beale’s story before nomination than actually nominated it). He is, however, a symbol for the culture war going on in SF fandom. Correia included him purely and simply so that he would enrage people, and that rage in turn would allow Correia to say “hur hur, see, those libtards aren’t really so liberal are they? They can’t tolerate intolerance, and that’s why they don’t vote for my novels in their awards, so I win”.
Opinion has been split among fandom as to how to cope with this, with some advocating the equivalent of a no-platform stance , and voting them at the bottom without reading them (which has the downside that it gives the “sad puppies” proof that they’re being victimised and judged on things other than the quality of their work”), while others, notably John Scalzi, have advocated judging the works on their merits (which has the downside that it’s rather easier for a straight white man to take that attitude than for a woman who doesn’t want acid thrown in her face).
There is, simply, no right answer here, and I don’t want to get into an argument with anyone. My own attitude is that I’m going to review them here under their own merits, but that I 100% expect that to put all of them below “No award” anyway, as even ignoring the political side of things, all of the authors involved are of the “SF should be just about turn-off-your brain fun adventure stories” school, when what I want more than anything when reading genre fiction is to be exposed to new, fresh, ideas. So I’ll be putting them on the bottom of the list on their merits, but I don’t want to say that’s the “right” thing to do, or that anyone else should.
Anyway, the stories, ranked best to worst:
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M Valente (not available to read online) is an absolutely lovely, haunting, retelling of the Snow White story set in the Wild West, written in a gorgeous prose style that switches mid-sentence between the spoken plainness of Mark Twain and the ornate beauty of a fairy tale. It’s disturbing at times (and it contains child abuse and attempted rape, for those who get disturbed by such things), but it’s extremely good, and will definitely win. And for those who care about it, pretty much every speaking character in the story is a woman.
Equoid by Charles Stross is part of his Laundry series, a series of comedy/horror novels that are equal parts Dilbert (90s Dilbert, when it was funny), Yes Minister, spy novel, and Lovecraftian horror. This novella is firmly in the horror camp — what comedy there is mostly comes from spotting sly references to other works, or from Stross’ dead-on impersonation of Lovecraft’s incredibly leaden prose style (in flashback sequences supposedly taken from Lovecraft’s own letters — most of the story is in Stross’ normal narrative voice for the Laundry series), and most of all from the fact that Shub-Niggurath, the deadly goat with a thousand young, is here reinterpreted as… a unicorn. I enjoyed it immensely, but it does feature a scene of tentacle rape, described rather vividly in the Lovecraftian section, which makes me hesitate to recommend it unreservedly.
Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages is a beautifully written, well crafted, story about race, nature, and the effect films and stardom have on people. It’s easily deserving of an award — but not the Hugo. Other than one brief sequence where a chimp appears to talk (which is presented ambiguously, so it could be a hallucination, a dream, or a trick played by one human on another) and a couple of lines of description which hint at cryptids, there is nothing even vaguely SF/F about this novella — and those sections could be excised from the story without any real change. The Hugo Awards are “awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy”, and this is neither by any reasonable definition. Were this a lit-fic award, this would go right to the top, but it shouldn’t even have been eligible for the award, in my opinion. It’s not bad, at all, but giving it a Hugo would be a category error on a par with giving it an Oscar.
The Chaplain’s Legacy by Brad Torgerson (not available to read on the web). The better of the two “sad puppies” here, this is actually a perfectly decent story of its type, and one I don’t regret reading, though I doubt I’ll ever reread it. It’s definitely not deserving of the Hugo, but it’s a perfectly competent piece of work, albeit in a genre (Space Marines In Space!) that I find dull in the extreme. It even has one or two ideas in it. There are definitely worse Heinlein imitations out there, though there are also far better ones.
The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (not available to read on the web), the other of the “sad puppies”, is a tie-in to a tabletop miniatures game, and so badly written I couldn’t get through more than a third of it before giving up in utter boredom. It is “Book II of the Warcaster Chronicles”, and just proves my general rule that “Book X of the Y Chronicles” is another phrase for “book Andrew Hickey shouldn’t bother reading”.