For those of you who don’t know, I’m a science geek, and I love reading science fiction (SF). Been reading it ever since I found my first Heinlein story in the library.
Currently, there’s an uprising in the SF world as fans of old school fiction try to wrest control of the field’s biggest award, the Hugo, from a small, self selected group of fans who have come to dominate the voting, not through organized conspiracy, but by the nature of the beast. You see, the Hugo is voted on only by fans attending (or supporting, but I’ll get to that in a minute) a convention called WorldCon. WorldCon is held in a different city every year, and moves from country to country so attending regularly can be a pricey proposition.
Over the last couple of decades, as SF in the media has exploded with TV shows, movies, and videogames, WorldCon attendance has been stagnant, or dropping, with the resulting effect that a smaller and smaller percentage of fans vote on, or are even aware of, the Hugo. As a comparison, the most recent WorldCon, held in London, had just under 8000 people attending. Last year’s Dragon Con had 63,000. San Diego Comic Con had 130,000.
To many members of WorldCon, the small size is a feature, not a bug. They see the Hugo as theirs, as belonging to their own small subset of fandom, rather than to fans at large. Former TOR editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden made this clear on her website, saying that the Hugo belonged to WorldCon fans, and nobody else, and charging the rest of fandom to go make their own award.
This is manifestly NOT what the award was intended to be. If it was, there would be no way for supporting members, those not attending the convention, to vote. But there is. Anybody that wants to can buy a supporting membership for $40 and nominate and vote for the Hugo.
So why is voting so low? Last year, there were less than 4000 votes for the Hugos, despite 10,000 people being eligible to vote.
Basically, after the last decade or so of Hugo awards, most fans couldn’t care less. The works nominated have not been what most fans consider science fiction. Some of it, most fans would not even consider, period. Take ‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.‘ You can read it at the link.
First, allow me to apologize for that, but it was necessary. That story may be many things, but science fiction? Fantasy? Nope. Nada. Not even close.
But it was nominated for a Hugo for best short story.
So you can see why the polish is off the Hugo apple.
But my question is not about what has happened, but why. Why, when the rest of the world is discovering the amazing world of science fiction and fantasy, is our highest award going to crap? Are people consciously voting for crap? Of course not; they’re voting for what they like. So why would somebody like works that most of us find craptastic?
Part of it is ego. If something is popular, say ‘The Wheel of Time,” liking it won’t make you stand out; you’ll just be one of millions of fans of the books. But, if you stand up and sniff with disdain, like Nynaeve while talking to Matt, hey, then you’re somebody different. You are bucking the crowd. You’re a trend setter! I’ve seen several times where fans have said that if a work is popular, they automatically downgrade it as probably not very good*. This is an elitist mindset, and one that is really insulting towards the common fans.
Part of it is power. By proclaiming the Hugo Award to be the best is SF for the year, a relatively small number of fans have an inordinate effect on the field, shaping the direction it takes. Of course, this was more effective when the Hugo Award meant something in terms of sales. In the past, adding the Hugo Award label to a book would generate additional sales, and keep it in print longer. Today, that just doesn’t happen.
And part of it is actual taste. Hard as it is for some of us to fathom, there are some people who simply prefer long, preachy novels where nothing really happens. They’re more concerned with who the characters are than what they do. For me, a steady diet of characters naval gazing for 100,000 words is excruciating; for these folks, it’s heavenly.
But it isn’t science fiction. And I would say that it isn’t very good fiction either. Stepping out of the field for a moment, consider ‘A Death in the Family,’ a short novel where the only significant event, the death of the father, happens before the book opens. It’s considered a masterwork, and as a character study, it absolutely fits the bill. But, is it a story? Does anything happen? No. Everybody just is. Well, except for the father, who now isn’t.
It’s like the old joke:
“To be is to do”—Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.
For most of us, the doing is the important part; for them, the being is the important part. And that’s crucial to understand.
For a lot of people, who you are is far more important than what you do. Surprisingly, this attitude has become very common among the left. Progressives have taken up a banner more commonly associated with ignorant bigots. Where once they marched against anyone who would judge a person based on their race, now they are all too eager to judge based on race. Or gender. Or religion. Identity has become far more important than actions.
Think about all the posts we’ve read recently, talking about trigger words, micro-aggressions, safe spaces, privilege, and the like. It all focuses not on what we do, but who we are. In this world of identity, there are only two roles to play; you are either a victim or an oppressor, and that role is determined not by your actions, but by your identity. As a Christian, conservative, southern, white, gender-normative cis-male, I simply ooze with privilege. Every breath I draw is a micro-aggression. I can oppress an entire gender just by the way I sit down. I wish I were exaggerating.
It isn’t what I do that matters; it’s what I am that counts.
And if that’s your view of the world, then it follows that you will like fiction that focuses on who the characters are, rather than what they do.
Publishing has long been a bastion of the left but it has gotten much worse as the field has shrunk. Conservatives who wish to be published by the major houses must hide who they are in order to do so. Coming out as a conservative, or voicing any opinion not shared by the progressives running your publishing company, and you risked ending your career as a writer. Talk with any conservative who has had to work within traditional publishing and you will find confirmation of that fact. If you are conservative, you are at worst a vile, hateful racist sexist bigot; if you are given the benefit of the doubt, generally after publicly abasing yourself at the altar of Political Correctness, you are considered hatefully or deliberately ignorant of reality, and must be-educated if there is to be any possibility of salvaging your soul.
Reading through much of the crap thrown at the Sad Puppies campaign, this theme repeats over and over. Nowhere is there any credence given to the idea that there might be a genuine difference of opinion based on taste, and not motivated by hatred, racism, or bigotry. And that is the logical consequence of elevating what you are above what you do. By your identity, you become victim or oppressor and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. It removes any responsibility from you as your actions become a consequence of your identity, not your will.
So I guess it’s not really a surprise that they like stories where the action is incidental to the characters, and where what happens is never really as important as how the characters feel about it.Even though to must of us, it sucks.
*Yes, I know, popularity is no guarantee of quality. My point is that you can’t automatically assume it is an indicator of poor quality either. Sure, there’s Twilight, but there’s also The Lord of the Rings. Each work should be judged on its own merits, not its popularity.