A battle over diversity is raging in the world of science fiction. And it’s a battle for the soul of all popular culture.
THE YEAR IS 2108, and things aren’t going so well for Team Humanity. Earth is so overcrowded that people live in hive-like concrete cubicles called Public Residence Clusters and subsist on reconstituted soy. Things aren’t much better 30 light years away, in Earth’s run-down Outer Colonies. No wonder the hero of Marko Kloos’ first novel, Terms of Enlistment, joins the spacegoing military to escape those terrestrial slums. By Kloos’ second book, Lines of Departure, his protagonist is half a decade into a career that includes vicious interstellar conflict with an indestructible alien species. Think Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers with maybe a dash of James Cameron’s Aliens.
On March 19, 2015, Kloos, a former noncommissioned officer in the German military who now lives in rural New Hampshire, sat down at his computer in his tiny study.Angles of Attack, the third book in his series, was a month away from release; he was on deadline with the fourth. But instead of writing, Kloos found himself staring at an email from the organizers of science fiction’s preeminent awards: “We are very pleased to tell you that Lines of Departure is one of the 2015 Hugo finalists in the Best Novel category.”
He was ecstatic. “This is the Hugo we’re talking about,” Kloos says, “The big one! It was a pretty happy time.” Sure, the genre gives other prizes—the Nebula, the Tiptree, the Philip K. Dick. But since 1953, when the first silver rocket trophies were bestowed, Hugo winners have included deities of the field like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, and Octavia Butler. Named for pioneering editor Hugo Gernsback, the Hugos are the Oscars of sci-fi—with a dollop of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, because they aren’t bestowed by members of an academy. Any and all science fiction fans who care to pay a membership fee can vote. For Kloos, who self-published his first novel before signing with Amazon’s 47North imprint in 2013, being named a Hugo finalist for his sophomore effort was enormously validating.
Which is why it was so devastating when he realized a few weeks later that his short-listing was, in his eyes, a sham. It turned out that activists angered by the increasingly multicultural makeup of Hugo winners—books featuring women, gay and lesbian characters, and people and aliens of every color—had gamed the voting system, mounting a campaign for slates of nominees made up mostly of white men. Kloos, who is white, says he was sickened to see his name listed. “I knew right away I was going to have to sit down and write an email and reject the nomination,” Kloos says. To his publisher, whose authors had never gotten a Hugo nod, Kloos was blunt. “This is the kind of stink,” he said, “that doesn’t wash off.”
IT IS THE EARLY 21ST CENTURY, and things aren’t going so well for Team Humanity. Back in April, when the mainstream press first started reporting on the attempt to hijack the Hugos, few outside the field cared. The edging out of fan-favorite authors who were women and people of color was unfortunate and ugly, but it seemed confined to one of literature’s crummier neighborhoods—nerd-on-nerd violence.
But like the sound of starship engines, the Hugos don’t exist in a vacuum. “Gamergate” spawns rape threats aimed at women who have the temerity to offer opinions about videogames. The leading representatives of mainstream political parties build platforms around fear of Muslims and Planned Parenthood. A certain strain of comic book fan goes apoplectic when Captain America gets replaced with a black man and Thor gets replaced with a woman. (When Thor once got replaced by a frog, no one uttered a peep. Or a ribbit.)Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Charlize Theron seeks to rescue a bunch of women from sex slavery and Max is more of a sidekick, drove the so-called mens’ rights movement into a froth.
It looks an awful lot like a counterrevolution—a push by once-powerful forces attempting to reclaim privileged status. Nowhere is this revanchism playing out more vividly than in the culturally potent literary subgenre of science fiction.
“I love chaos. I wanted to leave a big, smoking hole where the Hugos were.”
“I love chaos. I wanted to leave a big, smoking hole where the Hugos were.”
The three white men who led this movement broke no rules when they selected and promoted their Hugo nominees. They took advantage of a loophole in an arcane voting process that enables a relatively small number of voters to dominate. First a group calling itself the Sad Puppies posted a slate of suggested candidates to a well-trafficked blog (a slate that included women writers as well as men). Then, a day later, a more militant wing, the Rabid Puppies, posted another slate that captured most of the original writers and added several more—with a directive that people vote it without deviating, creating an unstoppable bloc. Now, all the various Puppies insist they’re trying to expand, not reduce, diversity (at least as they define the word). They say the Hugos have gotten snobby and exclusionary. The Puppies hate the politicization of a genre they love and want to return it to its roots: exploration of the unknown and two-fisted adventure.
Of course, like all fiction, science fiction is inherently political. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably the first sci-fi novel, was a monster story that explored the ethics of technological advance and the responsibilities of parenthood. Sci-fi uses a fantastical toolkit to take apart the here and now—from H. G. Wells’ novella The Time Machine to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a cautionary tale of climate change. So trying to crush diversity of authors, of characters, of stories, of themes in sci-fi crushes the whole point. Which is perhaps the main reason to worry about Puppygate: Sci-fi that accommodates only one future, one kind of politics, and one kind of person just isn’t doing its job.
That’s partially why so many authors with literary aspirations come sniffing around the genre so often. It lets them wrap ethical and cultural issues in highly readable plots. And now that movies are dominated by space and superheroes, television by dragons and zombies, books by plagues and ghosts, science fiction isn’t a backwater anymore. It’s mainstream.
Over the summer, as the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention—where the Hugo winners are announced—approached, the final balloting became a referendum not only on the future of the genre but on the future of the future. “It’s one award,” N. K. Jemisin, the fantasy writer and two-time Hugo nominee, tells me, “but it’s a symbol of a battle for the zeitgeist.”
IT’S THE YEAR 1939, and things aren’t going so well for the humans at the first World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon. About 200 fans have gathered in Caravan Hall at the New York World’s Fair and almost immediately started bickering. The bulk of the assembly suspects some members of a splinter group known as the Futurians—including pre-legendary Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl—of being communists plotting to disrupt the proceedings. Worldcon grandees bar them from entry. Asimov, characteristically, sneaks in.
Undeterred, the Futurians circulate a pamphlet that warns attendees of being “pounded into obedience by the controlling clique.” The pamphlet continues, “It is for YOU to decide whether you shall bow before unfair tactics and endorse the carefully arranged plans of the Convention Committee. Beware of any crafty speeches or sly appeals. BE ON YOUR GUARD!”
The Books and Stories That Sparked a Culture War
The point is, sci-fi and fantasy fandom was born in struggle over who owned the genre. The Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies aren’t even the first to campaign for the award. In 1987 the Church of Scientology successfully lobbied to get L. Ron Hubbard’s novel Black Genesis nominated for a Hugo. It finished sixth out of five nominees, defeated by “No Award.”
This time around, the leaders of the Puppies movement are sci-fi authors. All are past Hugo nominees, though none of them has ever won. Larry Correia, a 40-year-old Utah accountant, former gun store owner, and NRA lobbyist turned novelist, created the Sad Puppies three years ago. He came up with the name after seeing an ASPCA ad featuring Sarah McLachlan and forlorn canines staring into the camera. “We did a joke based on that: that the leading cause of puppy-related sadness was boring message-fic winning awards,” he says, laughing. Correia also explains that initially, in that first campaign, “our spokesman was a cartoon manatee named Wendell. Wendell doesn’t speak English. You can see we kept this really super serious, right?”
But Correia had some serious complaints. He felt that the Hugos had become dominated by what Internet conservatives call Social Justice Warriors, or SJWs for short, who value politics over plot. When Correia unleashed the Sad Puppies campaign for the second time, in 2014, two particular Hugo contenders really set his comrades off. One, a short story by John Chu called “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere,” depicts a gay man who decides to come out to his traditional Chinese family after water starts falling from the sky on anyone who tells a lie. And in Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, most of the characters in a far-future galactic empire do not see gender, which Leckie conveys by using only female pronouns.
Correia’s Warbound lost to Leckie’s novel at the 2014 Hugos. This year, the Puppies got his Monster Hunter Nemesis a nomination, but he turned it down. “I very specifically don’t want this to be about me,” he says, “and I didn’t want them to be able to make it about me.” Correia and Brad Torgersen, a 41-year-old chief warrant officer in the Army Reserve who took over the third Sad Puppies campaign this year, tell me they’re not racist or sexist or antigay. They just want sci-fi to be less preachy and upper-crusty and more fun. Torgersen calls his books blue-collar speculative fiction; on the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen laments what he calls “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 ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’”
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 tells me. Torgersen says the Hugos are beset by identity politics—and are the poorer for it: “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. At least, not the Rabid faction. Their leader is a self-described libertarian blogger named Theodore Beale who goes by the pen name Vox Day—loosely, “the Voice of God,” though he says the meaning of the name is more complex. He’s a 47-year-old former rocker (he wrote songs for Psykosonik) and is the son of a wealthy Minnesota entrepreneur and Republican leader currently in jail for tax evasion. Beale speaks five languages, he tells me, and one of his children “is the youngest male published author in history.” The book came out when the boy was 6.
“Science fiction is not actually the literature of the future. It’s the literature of the present.”
“Science fiction is not actually the literature of the future. It’s the literature of the present.”
Beale also says that he’s not white. “I’m Native American. My great-grandfather rode with Pancho Villa, and I get to do that—make that claim—according to the rules of SJW.” When I ask how much Native American blood he has, he says, “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.”
Based on his voluminous writings, Beale—who writes fiction, edits for a small publisher called Castalia House, and designs games—opposes racial diversity, homosexuality, and women’s suffrage. Speaking by phone from his home in Northern Italy, Beale quibbles with that analysis. For example, he says he doesn’t oppose all women’s suffrage, just women voting in a representative democracy. 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.
Having a conversation with Beale feels sort of like walking around a room designed by M. C. Escher. It turns in on itself in unexpected and at times dizzying ways. A sampling: When I ask him why he once called Jemisin, who is black, an “educated, but ignorant half-savage” on his blog, he says it wasn’t because of her race. Then he launches into an explication of what he calls “new” genetic research, which he says he doesn’t expect very many people to understand.
When I point out that he was intentionally baiting a person of color with a term that has racial overtones, his answer sounds positively gleeful. “I’m calling her a half-savage because I know it’s going to offend the crap out of her,” Beale says. “She’s going to run around screaming ‘Racist! Racist!’ for the next 10 years.” A beat, and then he adds: “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, OK? This is not civilized behavior.”
Torgersen says he believes Vox Day is a character Beale plays. “It’s performance art, like Andy Kaufman. He’s Darth Vader breathing heavily into your phone. He wants people to be enraged and flipping out and tearing their hair and losing their minds. And he gets that every single time.”
Beale—whose slate got five of Castalia House’s writers and editors, including himself, on this year’s Hugo ballot—acknowledges his rogue reputation. “I love chaos,” he says. “I wanted to leave a big, smoking hole where the Hugo Awards were. All this has ever been is a giant ‘fuck you’—one massive gesture of contempt.”
IT IS … WELL, SOME VAGUELY MEDIEVAL period in a land with teleportation and magicians called scriveners, and things aren’t going so well for the brown-skinned, matriarchal warriors in the barony of Darr, one of many territories in the world of N. K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (first in a trilogy, of course). To obtain birth control, poorer people buy illegal, bootleg spells called sigils that last only a month, or they risk sterilization or death by trying to apply sigils to themselves. The Darre people have also managed to enslave several of their gods. And the gods? They’re pissed. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Jemisin’s world is what’s called in the trade a secondary world, “but it’s not meant to emulate anything that looks like our world or any of our cultures,” she says. And that, of course, is part of the point.
When Jemisin was in elementary school in Mobile, Alabama, she noticed that no one in any of the stories in the sci-fi section of her local library looked like her. “I had picked up the fact that science fiction and fantasy was about white people,” she says. So the description of the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn hit Jemisin like a lightning bolt. “I remember the mention of her family name, and the fact that she’d married a Nigerian man, and people’s reactions to her,” she says. “I suddenly had this ‘Oh, my God, she’s black’ moment.” Jemisin came by her confusion honestly: The cover of the 1987 edition featured a white woman with black hair. In later editions, the illustration was changed to a black woman.
Women and people of color have always written science fiction—Butler, Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Samuel R. Delany, Margaret Atwood, and many more. They’ve made comic books and videogames and movies too. But today these properties aren’t alt-texts anymore. As science fiction has become mainstream, the genre has gotten more diverse. Major comic book publishers are foregrounding women and people of color. The casts of the new Star Wars movies have their diversity cranked to It’s a Small World levels.
So you might be asking yourself: Isn’t there room for everybody under the science fiction tent? You guys over there can keep reading hard military sci-fi where the physics of deceleration from 0.5c is a plot point. And you guys over here can read about a transgendered person with dark skin and epicanthic folds pondering the existential implications of sex with an AI.
But here’s the honest truth, as Jemisin has eloquently blogged: White male authors have long enjoyed unacknowledged privileges. Even today, their books are more likely to get published, more likely to be reviewed (usually by white men), and more likely to get those reviews in prominent, mainstream publications—even though, Jemisin says, the audience for sci-fi and fantasy books includes so many women and people of color.
Jemisin recently published her sixth novel—The Fifth Season—which garnered her first-ever review, a rave, in theNew York Times Sunday books section. The book explores themes of oppression that are not foreign to her; indeed, Jemisin has gone to battle with Beale. “He dances up to the line and tries very carefully not to cross it,” she says. “He simply says, ‘This person is not human,’ then opens his comments section and doesn’t stop anyone when they start saying, ‘We should run a train on that bitch.’ This is the standard modus operandi for white supremacists who don’t want to go to jail.”
“Nerd culture brings everyone together. People don’t care what you look like.”
“Nerd culture brings everyone together. People don’t care what you look like.”
Despite all the bile sprayed at her (the “train” threat is a euphemism for gang rape), Jemisin still believes that her chosen genre has a lofty purpose. “Science fiction is not actually the literature of the future,” she says. “It’s the literature of the present, viewing the future as allegory.”
Yet amid the Puppies debate, something else is going on, too: In a genre defined by curiosity, by the question “What if?” and by yearning for a sense of wonder, some fans acknowledge that modern science fiction can feel infected with a certain academic torpor—if not outright self-indulgence. As one Sad Puppy supporter I met at this summer’s Worldcon grumbled, “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: Some of this stuff is unreadable.”
Annie Bellet wouldn’t go that far, but she does admire many of the authors the Puppies championed. The 34-year-old writer of self-published urban fantasy novels had a short story, “Goodnight Stars,” on both the Sad and Rabid Puppies slates and received her first Hugo nomination this year. Still, she—like Kloos—took her name out of the running. “I love the Hugo Awards,” Bellet tells me in an emotional interview in the convention hall. “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 a 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 writers’ workshop. “We came up as baby writers together. We were friends—and I’m using the past tense,” she says, wiping away tears. “He’s hurt a lot of people.”
Blond-haired, fair-skinned, and “covered in tattoos,” as she puts it, 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 says 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.”
She doesn’t think Beale even read her short story. Bellet was on the Sad Puppies slate her onetime friends had promulgated, which he mostly copied. “I’m everything Vox Day doesn’t like—which I consider a badge of honor,” she tells 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 says: “Nerd culture brings everybody together. People don’t care what you look like. If you want to be a black Khaleesi, go for it!”
IT IS AUGUST 2015, and things are looking up for Team Humanity. Or are they? A record 11,700-plus people have bought memberships to the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington, where the Hugo winners are soon to be announced. A record number have also forked over dues of at least $40 in time to be allowed to vote, and almost 6,000 cast ballots, 65 percent more than ever before.
But are the new voters Puppies? Or are they, in the words ofGame of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, “gathering to defend the integrity of the Hugos”? Just before 8 pm on August 22, in a vast auditorium packed with “trufans” dressed in wizard garb, corsets, chain mail, and the like, one question is on most attendee’s minds: Will the Puppies prevail?
The evening begins with an appearance by a fan cosplaying as the Grim Reaper, and that turns out to be an omen for the Puppies. By evening’s end, not a single Puppy-endorsed candidate takes 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 Editors for Short and Long Form—voters choose “No Award.”
Earlier, Beale explained to me 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 he sends after the awards ceremony, Beale is 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 writes. The number of major categories in which no awards are given “demonstrates the extent to which science fiction has been politicized and degraded by their far left politics.”
But even as Beale vows to renew the fight, John Scalzi, a novelist and three-time Hugo winner who has been among Beale’s most outspoken opponents, says the prominence of writers like Jemisin proves the war is already over. “She 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,” he says. “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.’”
Which brings us back, in a roundabout way, to Martin. He has attended almost every Worldcon since 1971 and has won four Hugos and lost 15, not counting any related to the HBO show. So Martin 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, as the Puppies charge, but because of the caliber of past winners, men and women alike.
Martin, the son of a longshoreman, rejects the idea that anyone has been excluded from the Hugos for being too lowbrow or politically incorrect. But, he says, it’s not a popularity contest, either. “The reward for popularity is popularity! It’s truckloads of money! Do you need the trophy, too?” he asks. “Can’t the trophy go to the guy who sells 5,000 copies but is doing something innovative?” Of course, that’s easy for someone of Martin’s stature—and success—to say. But it’s hard to argue with his lament about the hateful discourse and the name-calling that the Puppy-scuffle has prompted. At one point earlier this year, Martin was so despairing that he blogged that the Hugos had been broken. “I am not sure they can ever be repaired,” he wrote.
By the time he shows up in Spokane, however, Martin is more optimistic. Sanguine enough, in fact, to plan a Hugo Losers Party, a tradition he’d started back in 1976 but then let fall into other hands. Martin prints up invites—“Losers Welcome. Winners Will Be Mocked. No Assholes!”—hires a band and a caterer, and rents a 12,000-square-foot historic mansion. The party starts right after the Hugo ceremony ends, and winners who show up are required to don rubber coneheads. Losers get magic markers to write on the cones.
After midnight, Martin takes to a balcony to announce that, for the first time, he will bestow his own awards—dubbed the Alfies in honor of Alfred Bester, whose book The Demolished Man won Best Novel at the first-ever Hugos in 1953. “This year all of us were losers,” Martin says, explaining that the Alfies, made at Martin’s expense from streamlined 1950s hood ornaments, are his attempt to take a little of the sting off.
Before the Losers Party hits full swing, Worldcon releases data that allows a look at a parallel universe where the Puppies hadn’t intervened. That lets Martin give trophies to the people who would have been on the ballot if not for all the barking, as well as some extra winners decided “by committee, and that committee is me,” Martin says. Sci-fi writer Eric Flint gets an Alfie for his “eloquence and rationality” in blog posts about the Puppy kerfuffle. Legendary author Robert Silverberg, who has attended every Worldcon since 1953, receives an Alfie just for being himself.
The biggest cheers, though, break out when Martin honors Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos. The new data show Bellet would likely have been on the ballot even without the Puppy slates; the Alfie clearly stuns her. In her acceptance speech she says she wants the Hugos to “be about the fiction. And that was important enough to me to give one up.”
By turning down his Puppy-powered nomination, Kloos had made room on the ballot for the winner, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. Kloos tells me he was thrilled to have played even a small part in honoring the novel, and earlier in the evening he’d posed for photos with the book’s translator. Now, standing on the balcony with Martin, Kloos grips his hood ornament and grins broadly. “I may get nominated again,” he tells the partygoers. “But knowing why I got this and who gave it to me—tonight, this beats the shit out of that rocket.”