So, The Sad Puppies Then: Part The Final — What’s Happening Now

(NB, this is written on not enough sleep, so my apologies if it’s gibberish…)

OK, so to recap, what we’ve established so far:

  • Science fiction grew up from two traditions, the Menippean satire and pulp fiction, which both have a different set of criteria on which they should be judged than does conventional ‘literary’ fiction.
  • In part because of this, Libertarianism became far more prevalent in SF fandom than in the general population.
  • A large proportion (though by no means all) of self-described Libertarians in fandom are actually right-wing authoritarians.
  • Right-wing authoritarians are, in general, likely to tend toward writing and reading the pulpier side of SF, in particular military SF.

But two things in the late 60s and early 70s had a huge effect, one that’s still being felt in SF fandom to this day.

First, a large number of authors rose to prominence, some of whom had a background writing for pulps, but also including many who didn’t, who all got grouped under the name “the New Wave”, although most of them were doing different things from each other. The one thing that these authors all had in common was that they were trying to write SF that worked as SF but which also worked, or tried to, by the criteria of conventional lit-fic. They incorporated at least some modernist advances in prose style, and they tried to write characters that were more like real people than the ciphers of Asimov or the omnicapable manly men of Heinlein. The two Harlan Ellison-edited collections, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, are probably the best guide to this wave of writers.

For a while, these writers were extremely controversial within SF fandom, as young turks always are, and some of them built reputations in part by picking fights with the respected elder statesmen of the community. This group tended to be more left-wing , more feminist, and more open in general to the cultural changes in the world at large than the bulk of the SF “community”.

But these people were, for the most part, absorbed into the SF community without a problem. This generation of writers, while they may have laughed at the older writers’ hackneyed prose styles, still respected them (Asimov, for example, wrote the preface for Dangerous Visions).

But there was another, parallel, SF fandom growing — what became known as “media fandom”.

In particular, at the same time as the New Wave writers were gaining in popularity, a huge community, with its own conventions and fanzines, was starting up around Star Trek. This community, which at first had almost nothing to do with the group that thought of itself as SF fandom, was dominated by women, rather than by men, was more interested in radically reworking the text than in paying homage to it, and (crucially) was far more interested in character interaction than in the other aspects of the show.

As SF media became massively popular in the late 70s, these two fandoms collided, producing the SF fandom that we have today. And those media fans (and the people like them in two successive generations) preferred the work of the New Wave writers and their successors to the pulpy works preferred by Libertarian types.

For a long time this situation was fine for everyone, in large part because of a longstanding fandom rule that you don’t talk about politics within fandom (which actually had the effect of meaning “you don’t challenge whatever bigoted nonsense the old white man in front of you is spouting”). But the Internet has brought those tensions to the fore.

A lot of SF fandom now takes place on blogs, on Tumblrs, and (yes, still) on LiveJournals, and the Tumblr Social Justice Warrior mindset is, in large part, the mindset of a few generations of women and LGBT+ people who have felt marginalised in the SF fandom community. Those people have realised that actually, the opinions held by the loudest voices are not the opinions of the whole group, and may not even be the opinions of a majority of it. They are also writing stories of the kind they like — ones that are more about the interaction between the characters than anything else, and that feature characters like themselves, who aren’t necessarily cis white straight able-bodied men who like guns.

And this has caused a huge problem in fandom, because these two groups share neither politics nor tastes, and the vicious arguments around politics that have taken place have led a lot of people to believe that “the other side” are promoting books (by, for example, voting for them in the Hugos), because the authors share their politics.

The authoritarian military-SF people say “no-one could really like all that whiny messagey shit that doesn’t even have a good story and is full of token minorities to be PC, they’re just saying they do because they share the author’s politics and are her LiveJournal friends”. The Tumblr social justice crowd, in turn, say “no-one with a brain could really like this macho bullshit just rehashing a sixty-year-old Heinlein story that wasn’t even any good the first time. How about writing something with some, you know, characters?”

And the right wing, at the moment, are arguing that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today. And they think this is horribly unfair, because obviously Heinlein was one of the all-time greats.

I think they’re right that Heinlein wouldn’t win a Hugo today, but completely wrong about the reasons. I think people are voting for the kind of book that they like, and that the kind of books that Heinlein liked are not the kind of book the majority of SF fans (who vote in the Hugos) like any more.

The right wing are seeing a lot of books that they consider truly great books, books with all the virtues they appreciate most, being unsuccessful, and so it must be because of the author’s politics, right? Those are good books.

Now, people on both sides say that they are not biased, that they would read books by the other side’s writers “if they’d just write a good story”, but both sides see the other side as liars.

I don’t think they are. I think that, genuinely, when people on one side write a story in the style that the other side like, the other side accept it. John Scalzi, a very-soft-left liberalish writer, started his career as a military-SF Heinlein pasticheur, and was loved despite his politics by most of the right. It’s only since he published Redshirts, a satire that plays with various modernist and postmodernist tricks to do some mildly interesting metafictional stuff, that he has become a whipping boy for them (uncoincidentally, that’s the book of his that is by far my personal favourite of those I’ve read).

Likewise, most of the Social Justice Warrior types I know (in my own age cohort, mid thirties), really liked the first few years of the comic Fables, written by the most right-wing person in mainstream comics, but which had a relatively diverse cast and was driven by character interaction.

I think we have two groups here who just disagree fundamentally about what “a good book” really is.

But the right-wingers, in particular, feel under attack (one of the characteristics of a right-wing authoritarian is that they always feel under attack) and feel like their sacred traditions of Heinleinian stuff are also under attack. And they are convinced it’s entirely politically motivated.

And so this year, the writer Larry Correia (who has been nominated for awards in the past, but never won, for his brand of pulpy gun-fetishist monster-hunter story, but who is very commercially successful) wanted to prove that there is an evil leftist conspiracy to stop right-wingers’ books winning, that people would really like these “good stories” if they just gave them a try, and that they were good enough to win Hugos.

So Correia put together a slate of right-wing stories, posted it on his blog, and suggested that his fans all buy supporting memberships of Loncon so they could nominate them, and vote for them, for Hugo awards.

Now, this would have been absolutely fine many authors, Scalzi for example, post telling people which books of theirs are eligible for Hugos. Some also say “hey, check out these books by my friends, too, I think they’re pretty great and you might want to nominate them”. This is all perfectly OK.

But what Correia did was to troll the awards. He added a story by Theodore “Vox Day” Beale, a vicious, racist, sexist, homophobic bigot who has defended throwing acid into feminists’ faces. The story in question also has no merit by any standards, neither the pulp storytelling ones nor the litfic ones, and its sales numbers before the award shortlists were announced strongly suggest that more people nominated it than had read it.

He did this, one presumes, so that he then has an out. If his book, or those of his friends, do by some miracle win, it means that he’s right — people do like “good stories” when they see them. But if they don’t… well, it’s because they nominated “Vox Day”, so people were just voting politically, and he’s right, people do vote on authors’ politics rather than on whether books are any good or not.

And this is why, throughout the SF fandom blogosphere, there has been a huge amount of anger as to how to deal with this. The Hugo Awards have been politicised — precisely because Correia thought they were already politicised — and trolled to “prove” two contradictory points.

There has been a lot of upset about this being a sign that “our community” is splitting, but personally I think a split in the “community” would be a good thing, because it isn’t one community, but two, with a small amount of overlap. Someone like Correia, a hardline right-winger who writes about manly men with guns, has nothing in common with, say, Seanan McGuire, who writes stories with female protagonists with lots of interiority and runs the SF Squeecast. The fact that both their books are shelved under “science fiction & fantasy” is far more a historical curiosity than any sign of them being anything alike.

But unless and until such a split happens, the resentment, anger, and politicisation will continue.

So now (well, once I get back from seeing the Beach Boys in London tonight and tomorrow), I can get back to writing about the actual books…

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14 Responses to So, The Sad Puppies Then: Part The Final — What’s Happening Now

  1. I think this is a fascinating perspective you’ve got here, and it puts into words better than I was ever able to a split I’ve been trying to describe for years.

    Despite both being solidly in the science fiction category, an author like Anne McCaffery has almost nothing to do with an author like Michael Crichton, despite their attempts to write what are essentially extrapolations of stable social situations disrupted by scientific innovation or disaster. Only McCaffery wrote about romance, mining, memory loss, and dragons, while Crichton wrote polemics about how everything goes wrong and no one can be trusted. (I’m being a bit charitable to Crichton here, as he wouldn’t return to a topic over and over the way McCaffery would. I could have said he wrote about how the Japanese are evil and how global warming is a hoax; there are some very troublesome aspects to McCaffery’s work as well, especially regarding sexual consent while psychically overwhelmed by your dragon.) Not that you’d label them science fiction based on their reputations, either, as McCaffery is still treated by and large as though she were a fantasy author because there are dragons on the covers of her books, and Crichton as a techno-thriller author because of how “realistic” his plots are.

    That their politics split exactly along the lines you’ve described now seems blindingly obvious once pointed out.

  2. Mark says:

    This has been an interesting series of posts. My understanding of the history is almost completely different from your own, or at least, my conclusions are very different (i.e. I don’t agree with the notion of right wing authoritarians being dominant at any real point, though I can see why someone might label them such).

    I always saw the Campbellian/Heinleinian tradition falling into line as insistent on individualism, and a sense of scientific rigor (SF before Campbell was mostly mad scientists and robots run amok, and was mostly terrible except for some key authors). The Futurians and New Wave brought in more literary prose styles, and a focus on character and “soft” sciences (psychology and sociology, etc…) In general, each of these new phases in fandom have been incorporated back into the Campbellian tradition, but not completely.

    In particular, I think the notion of individualism is a core issue that will prevent the Campbellians from ever melding completely with the New Wavers. People who are individualists chafe at the notion of identity politics. Their goal is to treat people as individuals, so the notion of (for example) the Bechdel test seems odd to them and you start to get resentment, anger, etc…. The New Wavers know the value of something like the Bechdel test, so they see the Campbellians as being dismissive or provocative and again, you start to get resentment, anger, etc…

    Another sticking point, one that I’m having trouble articulating, would be that the Campbellians seem to really love the notion of “Sense of Wonder”. That sense of understanding the universe in new and exciting ways. Relying on rational processes to understand the universe and solve problems. The breakthrough. That sort of thing. The New Wave’s embrace of lit-fic sorta jettisons that sort of feeling, because lit-fic embraces things like nihilism and solipsism.

    This isn’t to say that all lit-fic is like that, or that you can’t write a good SF story from that perspective, but if a key defining aspect of SF for you is that “Sense of Wonder”, the New Wave stuff will often feel unsatisfying. Likewise, if you want to explore the dark recesses of human experience, you might not enjoy the Cambellian tendency to focus on rational knowability and conceptual breakthrough.

    It’s tempting to portray the issues surrounding Correia’s Sad Puppies campaign as simply semantic disagreements, but you’re right – the inclusion of Vox Day was clearly meant as a poke in the eye to a certain element of fandom. He was pretty clearly setting out to upset people, then tried to play the victim card once he succeeded in upsetting everyone.

    From what I’m seeing, most readers seem to find some appreciation for Correia’s Grimnoir books, even if it’s not their thing. No one likes the Vox Day story, which is ironic but not all that surprising in my mind, because it feels more like lit-fic than anything else in the novelette ballot (i.e. Campbellians will hate it because it wallows in misery, the New Wavers will hate it because Vox Day is an unrepentant asshole.)

    All of which is probably a drastic simplification of the issues at hand (I don’t really think there are only two elements of fandom that correspond to Campbellian and New Waver, it was just convenient for this comment, which is already too long!) But that’s what I’m seeing. Not entirely divergent from your thesis, but I would also quibble greatly with many individual points.

    In the end, I don’t see any realistic way for the community to split, nor do I think it’s really necessary. From what I’ve read so far, the ballot has been pretty diverse, both in terms of authors and characters, and more importantly, the styles. For best novel, we’ve got 3 books that are arguably New Wavey, one that’s Cambellian, and one that’s whatever you want to call the Wheel of Time:p (Er, sorry for the length of this comment, I was waiting until you finished your series to comment…)

    • misssbgmail says:

      I would totally reject your analysis that people who take notice of identity politics are not individualists. Every person is an intersection of myriad identities – some privileged and some not – which add up to an individual. I am an unemployed bisexual single mother; I am also a reasonably upper class law graduate. All of these things have a bearing on who I am and how others perceive me and make judgments about me; none of them mean I am not an individual.

  3. Cat says:

    This is a very interesting point. I have never in my life looked up an author’s politics to know what to think of the story (leaving out one instance where the author insisted on repeatedly shoving his politics up my nose, which is not large enough to hold them, and which as a consequence is rather out of joint, a discomfort that will cost said author as I fill out my ballot.) But I strongly prefer character driven stories, and female protagonists, and I expect them to get some protagging done.
    So I guess in that sense, and that sense only, I *am* guided by the author’s politics, since that falls out along political lines.

    And as a semantic point, I wouldn’t call people “individualists” if their attitude is that characters are by default straight white cis males and need a good reason to be anything else. That *is* identity politics–it’s just mainstream identity politics. And I get more of a sense of wonder from _Ancillary Justice_’s handling of gender, which made me look at the inside of my own head in new ways, than I ever did from a Lensman book. I strongly prefer science to superstition in the real world, but actively enjoy the supernatural (though I do expect it to follow its own internal rules faithfully) in my entertainment.

  4. Mark says:

    Ancillary Justice is great, both from the female pronoun thing and the exploration of post-human minds. If there’s a fault, it’s with the plot, which I can see some having an issue with. But the ideas are first rate, and indeed, the individualism of a particular ancillary is at the heat of the story! Personally, I loved the book and thought there were enough narrative hooks to keep me interested, and it’s a tough call between Ancillary Justice and Neptune’s Brood in this year’s novel ballot (I haven’t finished Warbound yet, but I’ve read the first two in that series and am pretty sure it will not eclipse those two books). Comparing Ancillary Justice to the Lensman books seems a bit unfair though:p I suspect most Campbellians would enjoy Ancillary Justice as well. (I recently ran across some comments by one of the folks who voted for Correia’s Sad Puppy slate, and she was super high on Ancillary Justice as well, and indicated that she would probably rank it #1, which I found interesting…)

  5. So far, I’ve put my reviews of the short stories and the novelettes. I just finished reading the last novella, so I’ll put that review up later this week.

    What’s striking to me about the Sad Puppy Slate so far is how *bad* they are, in a pure stringing-sentences-together way. I read a *lot* of fanfiction and I know from bad writing, and both Torgersen stories aren’t terribly good for fanfic. I don’t actually consider either of them pro-quality work, even for pulp. Vox Day’s story also isn’t pro-quality. Dan Wells’ story is definitely pro-level, and I give him credit for trying to do something with story structure and theme, even though his skills aren’t quite up to the challenge.

    But I don’t know what the Sad Puppies are thinking, that they’ve put these stories up for Hugos. Do they really think they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with stories by Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, or Clifford Simak?

    Either *all* their nominations are trolling, not just the Vox Day, or they’re living in such a literary bubble that they can’t tell a decent story from dreck.

  6. reading SFF says:

    I’ve followed your posts on the history of where the Sad Puppies are coming from and found them very interesting. There obviously is a lot of science fictional history that I do not know about.

    To me, it boils down to: The Sad Puppies mistook correlation and causality for the same thing (as many, many people who are not scientifically trained tend to do). And were very upset about their conclusions.

    Interestingly, there is not a single Sad Puppy nomination that I liked. (I have not read Warbound, yet, so it might still turn out to create an atypical data point.) It should not be surprising to anybody who read your articles that this correlates to my political opinions ranking somewhere on the left.

    But then the actual reason might be that I am female. Stories featuring war and fighting just don’t hold very much interest for me. I prefer stories about people. (There are exception, of course.)

    • No, it is not that you are female (I am, too), nor that you don’t care for stories featuring wars and fighting (not all males do). The problem is that the stories are so very badly written, on an objective level.

      Just as a sample, here are a couple of sentences from Torgersen that I quoted in my post:

      After training was over, it took Chesty and I few sorties to really get the hang of things. Even with the many, many hours logged in simulation, the real thing took just that much more adjustment, before we began to feel proficient. After that, it was very much a lunch bucket job.

      Grammar and punctuation problems: should be “Chesty and me”, not “Chesty and I”. There should be no comma after “adjustment”. Probably need a hyphen in “lunch bucket”.

      Word choice: “proficient” doesn’t sound like the same voice as “lunch-bucket job”. If you’re going to write a casual 1st-person POV, you need to use contractions and other signs that this is speech, not a formal report. He should try reading it aloud to get the right feel, maybe.

      And that’s just a close reading of 3 sentences. It’s hard to explain, because my gut reaction (as an editor and writer) is just, “these sentences are bad! you need better sentences”, which may not be particularly helpful.

      Unlike for literary fiction, lovely sentences are not the be-all and end-all of SF: world-building and ideas are the things we like best. But you need *decent* sentences, ones that don’t stand in the way of readers trying to get to the guts of your story.

      • reading SFF says:

        You’re right. It’s of course wrong of me to assume that I don’t like military SF because I am female. There definitely are women who like that sub-genre and there are men who don’t. (And sometimes I come across stories with military elements that I like, e.g.: The Vorkosigan Saga.)

        You’re also wrong, at least regarding that particular story. I didn’t get the bad sentences. The only thing I noticed from your example was the me/I thing, but I’m never sure about those. Native speakers should know this better than me, right? So the author must be right. (That’s what I usually think, when I encounter a me/I glitch in published fiction. And I bet, I make me/I errors, too.) I never know where to place my commas when I write in English. They never taught me in school and when I try to read up on it, I only get confused. So, I place my English commas by gut-feeling and German comma rules. (German comma rules would demand a comma after adjustment, I wouldn’t place a comma after simulation, though.) And word choice, well, if you ever read fiction by me, you will laugh at my word choice. With you pointing out, what’s bad about the sentences I see it, of course.

        But there were a lot of things that I did not like about the story you quote. The info-dumps were very obvious and so badly done that they had me thinking “Are these people stupid? They should know this! If they teach like that in the military, nobody ever learns anything!”. As they happened early in the story, I was already angry, and quickly found more things to make me even angrier. “Scientists exploring space? No, we need no scientists. Let’s conquer the moon!” (Or something like that.) Plus, I found it kind of lazy by the author to just invoke a new Cold War scenario (that didn’t make sense to me), because those Cold War stories worked so well during the Cold War (or whatever).

        Now, this has gone slightly off-topic. I hope my comment is acceptable, anyway.

  7. mnemex says:

    Nicely wrapped up. Although I’ll note that Seanan doesn’t -run- Squeecast. Listed as moderator are Lynne M.Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, although we got the impression that there was a change-up coming at their Worldcon show last year.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      My mistake — I’m not very familiar with the podcast, or McGuire’s work, and read that she ran it on some website or other. I definitely think it’s worth mentioning, just because “squeecast” as a term sums up one type of writer so well and is so utterly the kind of thing that Correia et al stand in opposition to…

  8. onyxpnina says:

    Very tiny nitpick–Star Trek fandom actually did originate from within SF fandom–and then grew and budded off (so to speak).

  9. Tom Gryn says:

    Thanks for the interesting essay series. It comes to mind that Orson Scott Card won Hugos for the “Ender’s Game” series, yet the film adaptation faced extremely serious backlash from fandom last year. The difference seems to be that EG was published in ’85, and while USENET existed at the time, Internet communication among fans was in no way comparable to what it is today. For much of SF history, a reader could serenely go their whole life without knowing an authors politics, keeping in mind that folks who went to the cons that did exist were in the minority (perhaps the vast minority) of overall readership. These days, its hard *not* to know an author’s politics, assuming the latter is open about their beliefs.

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