I’ve been reading a lot over the past few days about the ongoing controversy about this year’s slate of Hugo Awards nominations. For those unfamiliar with the Hugos and what’s currently going on right now, here’s the thumbnail sketch: the Hugos are one of the most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy (SF/F); the nominations and awards are voted on by the membership of Worldcon; last year was considered a banner year by many because of the number of women and writers of colour represented among the nominations; this year is experiencing a Gamergate-like backlash, in which a group of very vocal writers and fans successfully lobbied the Worldcon membership to nominate their slate of choices; they did so, in the words of one of their more vociferous agitators, to strike back “against the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.”
This movement, for reasons I haven’t discerned (nor do I care to), has labeled itself “Sad Puppies,” the architects of which are writers Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia. The group has spawned a more vitriolic spinoff called (of course) “Rabid Puppies,” led by Gamergate doyen and general aresehole Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day (a sad excuse for a human who believes in repealing women’s suffrage and who referred to the talented N.K. Jemisin as a “half-savage”).
Apparently this is the third year that Sad Puppies has attempted this; from what I gather, this year they were successful to a large extent because they gained momentum off Gamergate. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the Hugo Awards, or really to any literary awards. I haven’t read any of the novels or stories being pushed by the various puppy-related groups, and so can’t pronounce on their quality or lack thereof. But in my reading about this controversy, I came across a rationale written by Brad Torgersen for why the puppy-ization of this year’s awards is necessary, and it so perfectly summarizes the kind of narrow, reactionary thinking that was on full display during the Gamergate idiocy that it is worth parsing.
Basically, what Torgersen seems to be lamenting is a sort of false advertising: SF/F no longer delivers to fans what they expect, and what its packaging would appear to promise. To make his point, he offers an analogy so torturously obtuse that I really just need to quote in its entirety:
Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.
Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else. Still cereal, sure. But not Nutty Nuggets. Not wanting to waste money, you eat the different cereal anyway. You find the experience is not what you remembered it should be, when you ate actual Nutty Nuggets. You walk away from the experience somewhat disappointed. What the hell happened to Nutty Nuggets? Did the factory change the formula or the manufacturing process? Maybe you just got a bad box.
So you go back to the store again, to buy another box of good old delicious and reliable Nutty Nuggets!
Again, you discover (upon returning home) that the contents of your Nutty Nuggets box are not Nutty Nuggets. The contents are something different. Maybe similar to Nutty Nuggets, but not Nutty Nuggets. Nor are the contents like they were, with the prior box. You dutifully chomp them down, but even adding a spoonful of sugar doesn’t make the experience better. In fact, this time, the taste is that much worse.
Two bad boxes in a row? Must have been a bad shipment!
Return to the store. Buy another box. Bam. It’s not Nutty Nuggets.
This time, you add bananas, sugar, and berries. This only makes up for the deficit a little bit.
Return to the store again for yet another box. Yup. It says NUTTY NUGGETS proudly on the packaging. You are sure in your heart that you love and adore Nutty Nuggets! And yet, the magic is gone. This is not the cereal you first fell in love with. The box may say NUTTY NUGGETS but you won’t be fooled any longer. Nutty Nuggets are dead. Or at least they are no longer of any interest to you.
So, you reluctantly turn to another brand. Maybe Freaky Flakes or Crunchy Bits? You give up on Nutty Nuggets, and you let some other cereal woo your taste buds. A cereal that is reliably what it claims to be on the outside of the box.
That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure.
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.
Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
Do you see what I am trying to say here?
I’m pretty sure I don’t need to point out the most obvious flaw in this analogy, but I’m going to anyway: you don’t consume stories and poop them out as you do with breakfast cereal. If your favourite packaged food product changes its ingredients, you’re pretty much shit out of luck. But your beloved space operas and bare-chested barbarians haven’t disappeared: there they are on your bookshelf, or at the library, waiting for you to read them again.
I’d love to be able to say that Torgersen’s jeremiad is disingenuous, but it feels way too earnest. Given that he is himself a SF/F author of some note, one might expect him to be not so … well, ignorant. Lamenting the fact that SF/F is different today than in previous decades, in part because it incorporates new voices and preoccupations, is like complaining that we haven’t had any good new Elizabethan plays lately. Literature reflects its historical moment, but it also reflects the way in which its authors engage with their literary milieu. Torgersen writes: “SF/F literature seems almost permanently stuck on the subversive switcheroo. If we’re going to do a Tolkien-type fantasy, this time we’ll make the Orcs the heroes, and Gondor will be the bad guys.” To which I say: why not? What’s wrong with that? The Lord of the Rings will always be there for you to read. It spawned a huge number of imitations, which ranged from artful homage to derivative dreck, but at a certain point writers of talent are going to transform the genre because they don’t see the point in simply recapitulating the formulae of the writers who influenced them. Neil Gaiman is fond of saying that he became a writer because he wanted to write The Lord of the Rings and was always annoyed that Tolkien beat him to it. So he wrote Sandman and American Gods instead, and we’re the richer for it because he did not simply give us a new variation on Middle-Earth. When Time magazine called George R.R. Martin “the American Tolkien,” they were correct in the spirit of the compliment and utterly wrong in terms of the substance of A Song of Ice and Fire, a series that has done as much to change the parameters of fantasy as The Lord of the Rings did to establish them.
He goes on to list other representative “subversive switcheroos”:
Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.
Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?
A few points here. First, a fatal contradiction: the adventuresome spirit of SF/F Torgersen ostensibly celebrates here is utterly absent from his argument. His entire rationale is really about advocating Boldly Going Where We’ve Totally Gone Before.
Second, when he claims that these themes are on “permanent display,” I think of that West Wing episode when the president, having listened to a series of impassioned arguments in favour of an anti-flag burning amendment, is compelled to ask, “Is there an epidemic of flag burning I’m unaware of?” Perhaps I just don’t read widely enough, but I have seen no such “permanent display.”
Third, and most important, is the canard that animated the Gamergate idiocy: namely, that the introduction of new voices and new perspectives, some of which you find not to your taste, entails the wholesale destruction of what you love, whether it be gaming or SF/F. Anita Sarkeesian produced a handful of video essays critiquing the representation of women in video games. As such critiques go, they were pretty mild—mainly just taking images from a slew of games and letting them speak for themselves. Given the vitriol with which her videos were met, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d advocated dictatorial censorship of the gaming industry, incarceration of the game creators, and fines to be levied on those who played them. But of course she didn’t—she just suggested that we be aware of the often unsubtle misogyny of many video games, that perhaps this was something that should be curtailed in the future, and further that the gaming industry would do well to produce more games that female gamers—an ever-growing demographic—would find amenable.
The canard underwriting the kind of hostility Sarkeesian experienced is the idea that this is all somehow a zero-sum game. The gaming industry is vast, and SF/F boasts an ever-growing readership, but the gamergaters and Brad Torgersens of the world seem to believe that for every new novel featuring a transgender hero, or every new game lacking half-naked female victims, that they somehow lose something—that their world shrinks. Torgersen seems to believe this will contribute, ultimately, to the “unraveling” of SF/F:
We’ve been burning our audience (more and more) since the late 1990s. Too many people kept getting box after box of Nutty Nuggets, and walking away disappointed. Because the Nutty Nuggets they grew to love in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, were not the same Nutty Nuggets being proffered in the 2000s, and beyond.
He goes on to say that “there may not be enough cohesive force to keep SF/F tied together as a whole.” Seriously? Seriously. I translate this as “The SF/F that I like isn’t being written in great volumes any more, which therefore means that the genre is in its death throes.” The reductiveness of this kind of thinking is truly sad, as it implies yet another canard—that one can’t do sweeping, epic, Tolkienesque fantasy, or bombastic space opera, and introduce the elements Torgersen derides. Except that you can, and writers do, all the time. It might not precisely be Tolkien or Heinlein, but the last time I was at the bookstore (yesterday), Tolkien and Heinlein were still quite well represented on the shelves.
Yes, SF/F has changed. It is changing. It will continue to change. The generic boundaries defining it have blurred as authors and the reading audience grow more inclined toward crossing those boundaries, as more young adults cut their teeth on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, “literary” authors like Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro venture into the SF/F realms, and prestige television like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones make people less prejudiced toward genres long ghettoized as “pulp.” But then, that opening up of SF/F breeds resentment among those fans who see such changes as encroachment of interlopers, and they take on the querulous tones of an old man yelling at the rest of us to get off his lawn.
My cat is sad because he just can’t even with the Sad Puppies.