Tuesday, June 14, 2016

And the Award for Best New Award Goes to …

I guess maybe the Puppies are to blame for the Sputnik Awards. Or at least: for the Sputnik spark.

The Hugo Awards, arguably the most prestigious literary prize in genre fiction, have been going through a bit of a funny patch. Here’s one of the Chief Puppies, Brad Torgerson, giving his side of the story:

“Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or –” SHUT UP BRAD! INSERT SHUT UPNESS!

For two years, a loose-knit fan community – the Puppies – have been eyeing up the Hugo nominations process like they’re h4ck3rz or something. Entryism! They’ve spotted the Hugo Awards’s vulnerabilities! They’ve managed to pack Hugo ballots with right-wing entries that almost nobody who votes actually wants to vote for, thereby making the Hugos like any other election.

And many of the liberal or progressive or radical science fiction and fantasy type people are really upset. Crushed. The crushedness itself is slightly nerve-wracking, actually: it’s always a bad sign when your political enemies seem to be having more fun than you are, and Sad and Rabid and Near and Quasi Puppies seem to be kind of yukking it up.

Every cloud has its Dr Chuck Tingle, of course, kissing the sky right in its kisser. And every cloud has its zany strobe of camera flashes: in this case, a bit of mainstream press attention for speculative fiction, in a you’ve-been-papped-by-like-The-Guardian-at-your-shambolic-dumpster-fire-worst kind of way. Seeing yourself the way others see you … that can be a wake-up call, right? So could Puppygate turn into speculative fiction fandom’s long, emo stare into the mirror, the one that then cuts to an inspirational training montage?

In other words, what are the Hugo Awards for?

Okay, they are something to do with having an enormous party, but if this way of having an enormous party is bumming everybody out … I don’t know, could we do it differently somehow?

Or okay, they are something to do with bestowing honour, but do we need all this honour? What is all this honour for?

Juried awards can claim that they surface books of literary merit, books that would otherwise languish in obscurity. Languish. It’s a good bet that the judges who decide awards like have read everything on the shortlist. But the Hugos are a popular vote, decided by the fans. That means the judges are anyone who is willing and able to pay at least $50 for a supporting membership of the World Science Fiction Society: giving them voting rights for both the current year’s nomination stage, the final ballot, and the right to nominate for the following year’s awards.

Anyone who is willing and able to pay, and nobody who isn’t willing and able to pay. I’ve done it twice, and felt super special and powerful, and included in a community, or an illuminati – a communinati? – and also like a total interloper and impostor. How many Hugo voters actually read everything on the novel shortlist? I sure didn’t! You guys I am barely literate.

So should we feel bad if we haven’t read all those books, or most of them? Or even some of them? How much weight should we put on a trusted recommendation, or on knowing an author’s other work? What about the fact that some books tend only to reveal themselves on re-reading? But then again, isn’t a book that really knows how to serve it even on a shallow skim something worth honouring? And if books do sometimes get honoured because it is in some sense that author’s time – maybe because they wrote a great book in a previous year that somehow didn’t nab its accolades – what are the pros and cons of that? And when you vote for a Member of Parliament in a General Election, how much do you know about all the different candidates? Have you read them, drag style?

I don't know how I'd answer many of these questions. It's plausible that it's at least an okay thing to have a big SF award that is fairly open to a lot of voters, although with some kind of filters even if they're not perfect, and where the voters have often read the book they're voting for, even if they've not exactly exhaustively examined the shortlist, and where there's enough of a critical mass that everyone can get bit excited and argue and squee, and of course have some speeches and a big party, and people can either dress up fancy, or maybe just hang around outside and be a bit sarky and check Twitter a lot, or maybe just watch it online from some other part of the world. That seems like a reasonable model.

Although, if that is our model, shouldn't some of that be reflected in how we talk about the accolade, once it's been awarded? Shouldn't it be reflected in how we feel about the accolade? And is that really how we feel about, say, the Hugo Awards? Hmm.

The Hugo Awards have no doubt played a crucial role in constituting speculative fiction fandom as a public from the 1950s to the present. Digital technologies have now probably taken over much of its functionality, in terms of giving people the incentives and means to stay connected. And speculative fiction itself has a momentum that doesn’t require any further acceleration force: speculative fiction is already everywhere. It's bigger than the Hugos. It’s Hollywood, baby. It’s Patreon. If WSFA memberships used to use “put your money where your mouth is” as a way of sorting the truefen from the fakers and wannabes, then Patreon now allows the same thing on a bigger scale and at a finer grain.

This could be a good thing for the Hugos, and other high profile speculative fiction awards. The Hugos, having helped to kickstart something big, are now freed up a bit. They don't have to focus on raising the profile of speculative fiction; they can do other stuff. Perhaps reflecting political dispute is actually the right thing for the Hugos to be doing right now? So ... maybe they don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ Maybe they’re … working just fine?

But! At the same time, speculative fiction’s culture wars also feel oddly parochial. Okay, if you’re reading this (see note), most of you probably on the whole want the North American liberals (peppered with North American progressives and radicals and Europeans) to win the literary prizes, and the North American alt-right (peppered with well-meaning but cossetted conservatives and outright neo-Nazis) to not win the literary prizes.

But doesn’t it feel like there could be more at stake here? As though a debate has begun, and just technocratically "fixing" the voting system -- while probably worth doing -- shouldn't be an excuse to dial down that debate?

Just for starters, the institution is called WorldCon, so could it maybe be a bit worldier? On the evidence of who actually makes it onto the nominations list, and the cities which successfully bid to host WorldCon, what ‘the world’ means here is many diverse locales around the USA – or, at best, around the Global North.

There's also the closely-connected question of which currently accessible pipelines culminate in eventually being a Hugo-contender. One nice thing about the Hugos their association with arguably the most prestigious award for baby genre writers, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Because of how it’s set up, it tends to go to writers who can appear in a blaze or splash (or more riskily, a blaze and a splash). For reasons I won’t get into here, I actually quite like that aspect of it, and I generally feel pretty warm toward the award … but my hunch is that citizens of the densely proliferated cultural infrastructures of fandom in North America and the UK have a real head start in concocting these meta-literary forms of blazes and/or splashes.

But more generally, discussions on how to reform the voting system so that the Puppies can never game it again are breathtakingly brilliant in their meticulousness and rigour – and mathematical analysis of mooted Hugo reforms, by Bruce Schneier and Jameson Quinn, suggest how things learnt in the context of fandom might have wider application – but desultory in their lack of any wider examination of political context.

To put it bluntly: is the fear that the Hugos is taken over by racists? Well, historically, the Hugos have been a set of awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements by white men during the previous year. This is starting to shift, but just because you’ve provoked a right-wing backlash doesn’t mean you’ve found the hill you need to die on yet. If WorldCon really wants to put up a fight against racism, maybe it also needs to at least take a good hard look at its US-centrism ... and that $50 voting fee.

I have a sense of there being an awful lot I don't know about the history and current insider controversies and practicalities Hugos, and also of not knowing what it is I don't know. I am just a wee bit wary of, you know, treading on toes that angels fear to tread on. Which is perhaps why the energy which might have gone into a nuanced and well-informed and constructive critique has ended up pouring into a preposterous Something New instead.

Cue Sputnik! Now we need a good trophy. In 1843, after the left Hegelian political philosopher Arnold Ruge overheard Marx and his friends throwing him shade, Marx wrote to Ruge claiming that, “Ruge babes, our task is the ruthless criticism of everything that exists, babes.” Later that day, he wrote Capital. With Marx’s maxim in mind, perhaps the Sputnik Award™ trophy should be a traumatically vituperative critique of the winning novel, written “from the standpoint of redemption” (Theodor Adorno), and embedded a plexi-glass sheet?

The personal is the political: and I also like the idea of trophies being put to work in domestic space. I want to see luminaries dicing garlic on their Sputnik, as sugary squished citrus flows down their Lemonade Award, then turning to tenderize beef schnitzel with the racist face of H.P. Lovecraft. “Uh . . . I think WHUMMMM that beef schnitzel BISH is . . . actually pretty THUNK tender now THOK . . .”

In this post I've gone on for aaages about the Hugo Awards, which might give the impression that the Sputnik Awards is some kind of systematic critique-in-kind of the Hugos. It isn't really. The Hugo Puppies controversy provided a spark, which I fanned, and since then the Sputnik Awards have been blazing their own weird trail.

We're starting slowly. For one thing, the shortlisting process was pure expedience, although shortlisting could easily be a locus of all kinds of interesting experiments (a hybrid popular / juried process, at least). And politics hasn’t seriously informed this year’s selection either. If the Awards do continue in some form, then in the coming years, we’d like the shortlist to give special attention to SFF with radical democratic themes, promoting social and economic justice, and celebrating not just individual freedom, but also collective freedom.

Oh – and it’s Dungeons & Dragons themed, except with hedgehogs and stuff. It’s kind of dumb. Check it out.

Note: This text comes from the long first draft of an Interzone guest editorial. The much shorter final version, which hardly mentions the Hugos at all, appears in July/August.

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