Thursday, August 27, 2015

PuppyGate Opinions and Armchair Quarterbacking

It seems lately that I only update this blog when I'm kicking a hornet's nest, but that's life online, I guess. I was at Necronomicon in Providence, Rhode Island last weekend when WorldCon was happening. And while we had our own scandal to weather, all eyes were on the Hugos and what, if anything, would happen.

The incidents were minor and quickly addressed. But in the wake of five Hugo Awards being not awarded at all, and George R.R. Martin picking up the slack for that fact, the whole sad business came off as an embarrassing incident at the Family Reunion. Both sides claimed victory, and neither side really won anything.

I've kept out of this imbroglio from the beginning, because I have no horse in the race. And I suspect that most of the people in the SF/F community, like me, have felt the same way for the same reason. We're not involved, and so why stick your head in a noose?

But now that it's over, I want to address something that I don't think has been talked about very much. And I'm addressing the WorldCon attendees when I say this. Not just the regional pile-on attendees, but most emphatically the temporary permanent floating WorldCon SMOFs and the people for whom this annual convention is their chosen lifestyle. The folks who have been attending WorldCon for thirty years or more. You guys.

You want to defeat the puppies? Take back your award.

I don't know what changes the Con Committee will make, or if it'll make any difference, but the sanctity and the authenticity of the Hugo Award rests firmly in the hands of those who choose to nominate and vote every year. That's the point, that the nomination and the votes are made by the fans and peers of the authors, right? And haven't we held the Hugo award up as a mark of quality, the kind of thing we can say is indicative of the best of the field of SF/F? Right?

Okay, so, let's put a pin in that for a second and I'll tell you about when I was on the WorldCon committee for 2013, in San Antonio, Texas. I helped with a few tracks of programming, most notably the Robert E. Howard track (since the con was in Texas and REH looms large as a genre author in Texas). There were at least two panels revolving around the theme of What's New in the World of Robert E. Howard. One of them was pointedly named, "You Don't Know Jack About Howard" or something along those lines.

The panels were very well attended. Large rooms, very full, of almost exclusively older fans--older than me, I mean. Guys in their forties, fifties, and sixties. We (my fellow Howardists) talked to most of them in some capacity over the whole convention, before, during and after the panels. On the exhibition floor. At the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press table. And we found something interesting: over 90% of the people in attendance had absolutely no idea what's been going on in the past fifteen to twenty years.

Overlooking all of the deep fan discoveries and concentrated REH studies going on, there's a few things that should have made it to the knowledgeable fan's radar: Howard's Centennial in 2006 was celebrated by the World Fantasy Convention (also in Texas), and Dell Rey has been steadily publishing a whole trade paperback library of Robert E. Howard books with authoritative texts, illustrations, and scholarly essays and notes. Twelve titles in all, one a year. A format so successful that they did the same thing for Michael Moorcock's Elric books.

They had no clue. When asked if they were aware of the new editions with corrected texts, they said, "Oh, I read all of those books when they first came out." In the late 1960s. Most of them were proud of the fact that they'd read all of the REH published in the 1970s, and haven't cracked the books again since. Suffice to say, they were bowled over at the idea of another set of REH books available with new stuff in them.

I told you that to tell you this: those are the same guys who have no idea who the new artists are doing book covers. They stopped reading to discover new things years ago. Some of them are probably still angry that there's no more Xanth books coming out. I'm not making fun of them, not really. But over the years, it's become harder and harder to keep up with new authors, new trends in publishing, and new developments. I would not be surprised if a few of them said, "Cyberpunk? Whaaat? That's it, I'm done. I'm sticking to Niven and Barnes novels from now on."

Where am I going with this, you may ask. I took a look at the Hugo ballots from 1995 to the present day and I found something interesting: there are certain names that show up every year, for multiple years, without fail. This is not a dig on Robert Sawyer, but every year? Really? Each book better than the last? I've read Sawyer and I like him. He's a good idea man. But do I think every one of this books was Hugo worthy? No, I don't. And he's just one example. But there are other examples in every category, without fail.

I think, before Vox Day politicized the issue, that the Sad Puppies maybe had a point--and this does not excuse anything that went on afterward, but I think that they noticed the same names showing up over and over again, year after year, in every category. Rather than ascribe a vast conspiracy, I think that maybe the people who do the most nominating have gotten complacent, if not outright lazy, and found over the years that it was easier to write in nominations for people they liked, rather than new stuff they had read. I don't think there was a campaign to screw certain authors out of winning awards. I don't think there was any political agenda until Vox Day introduced one. I think it was a case of people simply being people. We never run when we can walk. Over the years, we experiment less with our tastes and preferences and stick to the old reliable, what we know. It's human nature and fans are not exempt from it.

So, back to my point. If you want to take the Hugos back, you have the power to do so. I think anyone planning to nominate Hugos and vote for Hugos has an obligation to read more, and read more widely. That includes things you might not otherwise had tried on your own. Now, I know that a lot of people who vote on the ballot make a point to read everything nominated. Laudable. But what good does it do anyone if the same kinds of things are nominated year after year?

I even think it's okay to be more egalitarian, if not outright stingy, with the awards. If author A wins the Hugo one year, she should be exempt from nomination the next year. Or, maybe that should be an understood thing, so that maybe, if she really cranks up the quality the following year, and the NEXT book blows the first one out of the water, and she ends up on the ballot, people will know the reason why.

So, that's my unsolicited advice for the WorldCon Lifers out there: take back your award. Make a personal commitment to read five new (or new to you) authors next year. Re-subscribe to Analog or F&SF. Put a little effort into it. You have become de facto world traveler's, for Pete's sake! You're the hardcore keepers of the flame. But I think there's more to it than just showing up and dashing off your drinking buddies whenever the ballots roll around every year. Take the award seriously and embrace the idea of what WorldCon is ostensibly supposed to represent.

That's how you fix it. That's how you thwart the puppies. The 75th WorldCon looms ever closer. It should be a celebration. A triumph. An all-inclusive event to exchange ideas and be ambassadors for fantasy and science fiction fandom. This divisiveness, this animosity? It's not even close to what Gene Roddenberry--let alone the original founders--had in mind for this.

"Do or do not. There is no try."