The Three Fractions of Speculative Fiction

A few days ago, Mike Glyer of File 770 linked to this post by Nathaniel Givens at a site called The Loose Canon about the Hugos and the Dragon Awards.

It’s a curious post that attempts to offer a neutral assessment of the conflict. Nathaniel Givens is clearly no puppy, though he is sympathetic to some puppy talking points such as that US SFF publishing* is dominated by what passes for the far left in the US, that WorldCon is a monoculture and that the Hugos are broken and have been awarding substandard work in the past few years. However, unlike most puppies of either stripe, Givens is also critical of the Dragon Awards and criticises them for having too many novel categories, which make it difficult to read everything and cast an informed vote, and for ignoring short fiction, in spite of its importance to the field.

As for which recent Hugo winners Nathaniel Givens considers substandard, he names Redshirts by John Scalzi (slight and forgettable, nadir of the best novel Hugo), Among Others by Jo Walton (unreadable, but not overly political), “If you were a dinosaur, my love…” by Rachel Swirsky (kind of liked it, but it’s not SF and makes a loaded political point) and “The Water that Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu (not SF and makes a loaded political point).

In short, it’s the same names we hear over and over again from the puppy camp as an example of how the Hugos are broken, except for Among Others, which the puppies rarely talk about. Add in Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (which Nathaniel Givens liked, though he found it provocatively political), The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, the non-fiction anthology Chicks Dig Time Lords, “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and “Cat Pictures, Please” by Naomi Kritzer (both works that were ironically handed victory by the puppies themselves) and you’ve got the puppy canon of works that ruined the Hugos. If you’re wondering what on Earth could be objectionable about “Cat Pictures, Please” of all things, S. Schwartz has the answer. It’s the same thing that makes the puppies hate “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere”, namely the fact that it includes gay people and said gay people are neither unhappy nor dead.

As I’ve pointed out before, the puppies’ intense dislike for Redshirts, Ancillary Justice and Chicks Dig Time Lords make little sense, since these are exactly the populist core genre works they claim the Hugos are ignoring. Of course, Ancillary Justice has feminine pronouns used throughout and taverns in the snow, which have no place in science fiction, and Chicks Dig Time Lords had the misfortune of beating the collected columns of Brad Torgersen’s mentor Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, plus it’s by and about women. But Redshirts? What on Earth could be objectionable about a Star Trek parody, except for the fact that it’s written by John Scalzi who is a hate figure for many puppies?

Now let’s take a trip back in time to the 2013 Hugo Awards, the year before the puppy wars broke out. The nominees in the best novel category that year were Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (my personal favourite), Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Blackout by Mira Grant a.k.a. Seanan McGuire and of course the eventual winner Redshirts by John Scalzi. At first glance it doesn’t seem an overly controversial ballot: All five nominees are core genre works, nothing experimental or borderline literary about them. Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, Kim Stanley Robinson and Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire are all established and popular authors with multiple Hugo nominations and a few wins under their belt, while Throne of the Crescent Moon was a debut novel by an author who’d been nominated for the Campbell Award the year before. It seems to have been a bit forgotten since then, probably because the sequel won’t be out until 2017, but at the time Throne of the Crescent Moon certainly got a lot of buzz.

Nonetheless, I did remember that there was a controversy involving the 2013 Hugos at the time, a controversy I chronicled in several posts here, here and here.

Interestingly, most “The Hugos are broken” complaints that year came not from the puppy side (though Larry Correia waded into the fray, being his usual charming self) but from overwhelmingly British critics, who complained about the alleged lack of sophistication of the nominees. For examples, check out these posts by Justin Landon, Aidan Moher, Adam Callaway and Jonathan McCalmont.

ETA: According to Shaun Duke, Justin Landon, Aidan Moher and Adam Callaway are not actually British.

The critics who wrote those posts are not puppies. Quite the contrary, they are probably the polar opposite. Where the puppies complain that the Hugos aren’t populist enough and reward obscure literary works, these critics complain that the Hugos are too populist and not sophisticated enough. However, if you read through those posts (and particularly Justin Landon’s remains a marvel of condescension) you’ll notice that their criticisms of the Hugos eerily mirror those made by the sad and rabid puppies a few years later: The Hugos are broken, they are dominated by a small and incestous clique of aging babyboomers who have been attending WorldCon for decades and/or an equally incestous clique of livejournal posters voting for their friends, those cliques are hostile to outsiders and disregard everybody who doesn’t attend cons as “not a real fan”, only works that appeal to that clique of insiders are nominated and the books/authors the critics like are never nominated. So the Hugos should be burned to the ground or reformed to represent all of fandom or maybe a new award should be established to better represent what’s best in SFF. And as if the puppy parallels weren’t striking enough, many of those posts also contain some bonus condescension towards women writers and writers of colour. Oh yes, and they all agree that Redshirts is an unworthy nominee. Ditto for Lois McMaster Bujold and Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire. Opinions are divided on Saladin Ahmed.

So what is going on here? Why do two seemingly diametrically opposed groups make so very similar points?

Let’s take another trip on the time machine, this time to February 2015, when the Nebula nominees for 2014 had just been announced to the usual controversy. At the time, I wrote:

In general, I think that this year’s Nebula shortlist and indeed many genre awards shortlists of recent years are indicative of a generational and demographic shift in the larger SFF community. Speculative fiction is getting younger, more diverse and more international, which influences the works we see nominated for or even winning awards. This is also why we see so many names on this year’s Nebula shortlist we haven’t seen there before.

Now not everybody is happy with this shift. On the one side, we have a block of more conservative and traditional readers and writers, spearheaded by the so-called “Sad Puppies”**, who are not happy with the shift away from stories heavy on the engineering and explosions (and often, but not always, rightwing politics in space) and light on the characterisation (as well as on women, people of colour, LGBT people and anyone who is not a straight white man) towards more diversity and more literary stories. They just want what they consider fun and entertaining stories and are often unaware that “fun” and “entertaining” are both subjective.

On the other side, we have a group of critics who want the genre to blow up and burn down all the old paradigms and who are vehemently opposed to anything they consider nostalgic. These people are actually in favour of more diversity and more literary speculative fiction, but often the writers and stories that actually find their way onto the ballot are not radical enough for those folks.

[…]

Both groups, the traditionalists and the anti-nostalgics, would probably never agree on what makes a good SFF story, though they are eerily united on which works they dislike, namely Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, last year’s Nebula award winning short story “If you were a dinosaur, my love” by Rachel Swirsky (okay, so I don’t particularly like that one either, though I can see why many do) and John Scalzi’s Redshirts (which I do like, but don’t necessarily consider it awards worthy). Both groups are also overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, though the traditionalists lean American, while the anti-nostalgics lean British.

The traditionalists and anti-nostalgics have both been part of SFF almost since the establishment of science fiction as a defined genre and their struggles for dominance have been at root of many a genre conflict over the years. Campbellian SF vs. New Wave is the classic example, the rise of Cyberpunk and the debate about Mundane Science Fiction. In fact, you could probably trace this general conflict all the way back to the exclusion of the Futurians from the very first WorldCon back in 1939. Sometimes, traditionalists and anti-nostalgics reverse position, as the genre moves on, e.g. the Campbellians started out as the radical new kids on the block opposed to Gernsbackian pulp SF in the 1930s and 1940s and wound up the staid old guard resistant to change by the time the New Wave rolled along in the 1960s.

However, there is also a third group of readers and writers, which neither uncritically worships the (largely imaginary) past of the genre nor wants to burn it all down. This group tends to prefer stories that privilege characters over big ideas. They love SFF and its tropes, but don’t mind if genre elements are merely used as furniture for whatever story they want to tell, stories which often contain protagonists (women, characters of colour, LGBT characters, disabled characters) and/or settings (non US/UK settings, non-western settings) not normally found in classic SFF.

Ann Leckie, one of the big names of the third group, says it best:

If SFF is a huge Lego castle that we’ve all been building on for decades, some of us might want to tear their part down and set it on fire and then build on the ruins. Fair enough. But some of us might want to renovate a particular wing that’s taken their fancy. Others of us might just want to add some filigree to a particular battlement.

All of these approaches, and a zillion others, can produce great results. But if you insist that only the set it on fire approach is going to produce great work, you’ve erased the work of everyone else. Go a step farther (too much of what’s published didn’t radically transform the genre! Set it on fire!) and you’ve denied those other artists the right to even exist.

And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing. Sure, we all probably could profit from looking at our assumptions and cultural baggage, and being aware of that as we write.*** But burning the whole castle down? When we’ve uncovered and rebuilt these parts here, so painstakingly? When we love the castle so much and want so badly to be there, even when others are trying to push us out? “Burn it all down and start over!” doesn’t sound terribly appealing. Quite the opposite.

This third group is more diverse than the other two, more female, more international, less straight, less white, less cissexual***. They have been around for as long as the other two and have left their mark on the genre as well, e.g. the rise of Star Trek fandom and media fandom in general is probably due to this group, as is the rise of fan fiction. I was tempted to call them Social Justice Warriors, but that term is both loaded and overly reductive****, so I decided to go with diversity fraction or character-driven fraction*****.

Until fairly recently, this third group was often reduced to the role of a spectator watching the fights of the other two (though I’d argue that the suppression of feminist SF by the Cyberpunks was an example of a fight between the anti-nostalgic and the character-driven fraction). However, the character-driven fraction is growing due to demographic shifts in SFF fandom and due to the internet, which allows previously isolated fans and writers to find each other. And in the past five to ten years, their preferences have started to influence awards shortlists and winners. RaceFail in 2009 was a watershed moment and it’s probably no accident that from 2010 on you see the number of women, writers of colour and LGBT writers on the awards ballots sharply increase after holding largely steady at a low level for the previous ten years or so.

Neither the traditionalists nor the anti-nostalgics are happy about this demographic shift, since it means that the genre mainstream is moving away from the sort of work they prefer. Besides, as Samuel Delany predicted back in 1998, the SFF world is liberal and welcoming as long as there are only a handful of women, writers of colour, LGBT writers and other marginalised people. As soon, however, as the numbers begin to rise to the point that straight white men feel squeezed out, the backlash will begin. Though the anti-nostalgics usually limit themselves to writing long, more or less polemic think pieces (and note that quite a few notable anti-nostalgics have stopped blogging altogether in the past few years), whereas the nastier fringe of the traditionalists has started flinging poo at the opposition, their writers, awards and institutions.

So where does the genre go from here? At the moment, the swinging pendulum seems to favour the character-driven fraction, since the traditionalists seem to have decamped to the Dragon Awards after thoroughly getting trounced by “No Award” two years in a row, while the anti-nostalgics have decamped to the Clarke Award and are either still writing the same polemic think pieces they were writing a few years ago or have given up on blogging altogether.

However, the pendulum can easily swing into another direction again. And women, writers of colour and LGBT writers, who make up a large part of the character-driven fraction, are a lot more susceptible to erasure than straight white men of either fraction. Just remember how Cyberpunk – knowingly or not – erased feminist science fiction.

Comments are off, since I don’t feel like dealing with angry traditionalists or angry anti-nostalgics.

*Mind you, puppy talking points, particularly those of the sads, are exclusively focussed on the US. The rest of the world doesn’t exist, as far as the sad puppies are concerned.

**Though not every traditionalist is a puppy.

***Though it should be noted that every fraction includes women, people of colour and LGBT people.

****Also note that I did not call the traditionalists “puppies”, because again that would be too reductive.

*****”Diversity” is also a loaded term in parts of the SFF world, so let’s go with the more neutral character-driven.

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