The Puppy Hugos

By Niall Harrison

Strange Horizons is nominated for a Hugo! Thank you to everyone who nominated us. This is the third year we have been shortlisted in the Best Semiprozine category, and it remains an energising honour; we're delighted that people enjoy what we do enough to put us on their ballots.

Of course, the situation is somewhat complicated this year by the composition of much of the final ballot. For those who have not seen or heard the news, this year's Hugo nominees are dominated by a voting campaign led by Brad Torgersen and Vox Day. They called for suggestions from their readers; they assembled heavily overlapping slates of recommendations (branded "Sad Puppies" by Torgersen, and "Rabid Puppies" by Day); and as Mike Glyer's analysis shows, their voters managed to get over 85% of their proposed nominees onto the final ballot, achieving a complete sweep in six of the seventeen categories. (In fact the "Rabid" slate was the more effective of the two; in cases where the two slates differed in their recommendations, such as Best Short Story, it was the Rabid nominees that made the final ballot.) Moreover as the nomination statistics released by Sasquan reveal, they dramatically altered the landscape in almost all categories. Their official rationale is to recognise popular, entertaining genre writers whose books exemplify core SF virtues, that the established Hugo voting base is too elitist to consider; their apparent motivation, based on the nature of many of their nominees, and the rhetoric and actions of their supporters, is reactionary in the extreme, particularly in the case of the Rabid ballot: a backlash against what has been a slow increase in the diversity and inclusiveness of Hugo ballots over recent years.

In our category, Best Semiprozine, both the Sad and Rabid slates included three nominees: Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Abyss & Apex, and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. The first two made the final ballot, while the last did not, which I believe is because it does not actually meet the award definition of "semiprozine". Aside from those two, and us, the other semiprozine nominees are Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

One response to the one-sided skew of this year's ballot, and not an invalid one, is to say: well, it's a write-off, then. Even in the best of years, the Hugos can be a frustrating award, one that rarely represents my taste; and after all, it's only one of the multitude of awards the field has to offer. Over the weekend just gone, at least four other awards announced their winners. The BSFA Awards recognised Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, Ruth E. J. Booth's story "The Honey Trap", Tessa Farmer's marvellous artwork "The Wasp Factory", and Edward James' project researching SF writers during the First World War. The James Tiptree Jr. Award jointly recognised Jo Walton's My Real Children and Monica Byrne's The Girl in the Road, and released an extensive Honor List of recommended reading. The Philip K. Dick Award recognised The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison, with a special citation for Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett. And the Ditmar Awards jointly recognised The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke and Thief's Magic by Trudi Canavan, plus work in a number of other categories. So if we value the guidance that awards offer, there are plenty of other books and stories to be reading; awards derive their prestige from our attention, and we could just direct that attention elsewhere. That is part of my response to this year's Hugo ballot, but not the whole of it.

I spent the weekend just gone at Dysprosium, the 66th Eastercon, held at the Park Inn Hotel at Heathrow Airport, outside London. One of the highlights of the convention, for me, was Caroline Mullan's Guest of Honour talk, "Science Fiction: UK Fandom and Me", a moving memoir of her history within and with that particular SF community. I know Caroline well enough to think of her as a friend, but I know her in the way that you get to know someone when you see them at conventions and other events over the course of a decade. Among other things, her talk highlighted how much I didn't know, exactly how broad and deep her participation in the SF community has been. I knew she had been Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation between 2009 and 2013; I didn't know she had been involved in the organisation for two decades. I assumed she had been involved in at least some conrunning, but I didn't know that she had experience in so many different roles, from programme to finance to the dealer's room and newsletters. I had read a few of her essays here and there, but didn't know how much she had written for The Women's Periodical, a women-only APA, or about the intensity of the debates it provoked in the 1980s.

And it was a talk, ultimately, not just about Caroline's experiences but about how those experiences fit into the ongoing story of one of her communities, which is also one of my communities; about why we build and rebuild that community. Towards the end, she said this:

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and fandom is not inevitable. We are no more intelligent or kind or telepathic or nice to each other than any other group of human beings, and we are still subject to the imperatives of freedom and necessity. Fandom requires freedom to travel, freedom of association, freedom of speech, kindness, forbearance and willingness to get along. It requires that we all participate as equals in the conversation. It can be destroyed for individuals and for groups by abuse of these things, and equally surely by lack of them.

I might frame an answer to the question of "what fandom requires" slightly differently, perhaps emphasise a need for justice explicitly rather than implicitly; but as the Hugo ballot was announced on Saturday evening, I found myself thinking of Caroline's words, and how they contrast with the disregard for community the puppy slates represent. I found myself thinking also of a recent Making Light post by Abi Sutherland, about what the Hugos mean to her. Without wishing to overly romanticise the nominations process, I was struck by her characterisation of it as "intimately, intensely personal", and as a response to engagement in a community. The Hugos are imperfect and frustrating, but the respect I have for them comes from the way in which they transform thousands of personal engagements into one snapshot. In contrast the puppy slates are anything but personal, and while puppy voters may be part of the Worldcon community, they are attempting to direct that community, not respond to it.

The community to whom the Hugos mean something—a community which includes me—will, however, respond to the puppies. There are at least two layers of response to be considered. The first is how to respond to the immediate challenge of the ballot in front of us. Some promise magnanimity: they will read and consider the works nominated as they would any other Hugo nominee would be, and rank them in the final vote accordingly. Others advocate zero tolerance: the combination of slate voting as a principle, the nature of the slate that the puppies have chosen, and the tactics they have used to promote it, demands that it be refused entirely, though the use of the "No Award" option included in every Hugo category. Still others highlight contradictions within the slate: within the pages of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, for instance, you will find a number of names familiar from SH; they support initiatives to promote inclusivity and diversity, and they were not aware of their puppy endorsement. Does any of this merit a difference in consideration, compared to nominees who embrace their puppy status with enthusiasm? I don't feel any need to be comprehensively magnanimous, but beyond that I don't have firm answers for myself yet, still less for others.

Further ahead, there is the question of how the World Science Fiction Society (which comprises all Worldcon members—which, at the moment, once again includes me—and which is responsible for the administration of the Hugos), and the wider Hugo-voting community, respond in future years of the award. Some of the options were discussed at a standing-room-only panel added to Dysprosium's schedule on Sunday evening, which included authors Kari Sperring, Gaie Sebold, and Charles Stross, as well as previous Worldcon Chair and Hugo Administrator Vince Docherty. We could, for instance, respond only within the rules as they currently exist: through the comprehensive use of No Award this year and in future years; by working to increase participation among the existing electorate (this year over 2,000 people nominated, but around 15,000 were eligible to do so) such that the puppy cohort of 200-300 voters has a reduced impact; or by attempting to organise and promote a competing slate (though this suggestion met with a cool response from the room, and is probably my least-favourite option).

Or, as members of WSFS, we could (with some effort) amend the rules during the annual Business Meeting held at the Worldcon, in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the impact of slate voting. Several ideas have already been suggested. One is to reduce the number of slots on a nominating ballot, from 5 to 4 in each category, and increase the number of works included on the final ballot, from 5 to 6—which would make it harder, though not impossible, for a slate to completely dominate a category. Another elegant suggestion, from Mike Scott, would (if I've understood it correctly) have the effect of increasing the total number of works shortlisted in each category when the distribution of nominations suggests that a slate is being followed.

But there is an underlying philosophical question to be considered as well: Who are the Hugos for? If they are not just awarded by the Worldcon, but primarily intended for the Worldcon members, there are measures that could be implemented to bring the electorate more in line with that goal—limiting nomination rights to those who have at some point physically attended a Worldcon, for instance. On the other hand, if the Hugos are not just for the community that awards them, but for the broader readership which may be familiar with them, we might consider going the other way, and dramatically increasing eligibility—by extending nomination rights to members of other conventions, for instance, or by making them a lifetime right, or by sharply reducing the amount that voting costs.

In general, my preference is for some version of the second approach. In the short term this may actually be less likely to counter slates—because of the first-past-the-post way that Hugo nominations work, a very large increase in the nominating population would be needed to outweigh the focused effort of slate voters. But it seems more in line with the best values of the Hugo community, an expression of confidence that, in the end, the people who take the award seriously, and want to look forwards rather than back, outnumber those who do not by a sufficient margin.

There is at least one roadblock, however. Last year, the WSFS business meeting gave first passage to an amendment to its constitution that, if it is ratified this year, will prevent any Worldcon selling Hugo voting rights for less than the cost of a supporting membership (see A4 in this PDF summary of business passed on). The amendment does not address an immediate problem in Hugo voting, but it eliminates some possible responses to the threat from slate voting. Whatever else is done at the Sasquan Business Meeting, therefore, I hope that this amendment is not ratified; at the very least it seems worth keeping our options open right now.

Niall Harrison is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.


For my own part, I adamantly oppose any change to the rules that will disenfranchise people who have been voting in good faith (e.g. requiring actual attendance to vote, or weighting attendee votes more heavily), and any social response that encourages the creation of competing slates. I think both of these would produce negative consequences for the value of the Hugos, the first by basing it on an even narrower electorate -- and likely a more homogenous one -- the second by turning into a competition of parties rather than independent candidates.

When it comes to voting . . . well, I've bought a supporting membership, and I'm leaning toward a strict rule of not ranking Puppy candidates, as that seems the most effective way of stopping this slate approach in its tracks. But I will note who did not agree to be on a Puppy slate, and (if they aren't published by Castalia House) check out their work; if I think it's good, I will be happy to support them in future years.

Thanks for the statistics! I made some further calculations to make sense of the numbers, and the situation does look quite interesting:

I'm conflicted about the "No Award" option. How is it going to stop the Sad Puppies? From what I can tell, the Sad Puppies are very aware of the No Award option and are expecting it to win in some categories. There is already a Sad Puppy campaign starting up for next year. So it doesn't seem like No Award winning is sending any message to them at all. Vox Day came in below No Award last year. That didn't stop him this year.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't vote No Award, I'm just not seeing how it's going to have any impact on slate voting.

I worry about No Award winning in several categories says about the Hugo Awards. Does it make the award more prestigious? Does it make it more cliquish? Will authors not want to be a part of the Hugos knowing they will get attacked by no award campaigns because they got put on some slate they never heard of? Will we see No Award winning year after year until the Sad Puppies take over completely? Can no award campaigns damage the award as much as slate voting?

The Sad Puppies have put Hugo voters in somewhat of a hostage situation. The No Award option seems like the "we don't negotiate with terrorists" option, but I wonder if it's letting the hostages get shot. Letting Sad Puppy candidates win is the "here's 10 million dollars and a helicopter, now go away" option. Except they won't go away completely unless there are policy changes. And are the policy changes just setting up a Hugo NSA or TSA where candidates have to be strip searched before getting on the ballot?

J, my impression of the Sad Puppies is that some of them will declare victory no matter what happens: if they get a Hugo, if they don't get a Hugo, if they don't get on the ballot, etc. Because they'll either get what they wanted (validation), or more proof that there's always been a conspiracy to stop them. (At the moment, there *is* kind of a conspiracy to stop them. But everyone I know who has signed on, is doing so not because we are eeeebil SJWs who hate fun, but because we think the slate tactic is antithetical to the spirit of the Hugos, regardless of what works it is used to support.)

But there are two other factors to consider:

1) Some of the Sad Puppies will get bored and wander off if their tactics don't eventually result in rockets. I mean, paying $40 gets old after a while, if the only thing you have to show for it is "see, those meanies don't like good books!" Sure, nothing is likely to dissuade VD -- but we don't need to stop *him*; we just need to deprive him of support. It's a bit like ignoring a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, instead of giving him whatever he threw the tantrum for. The idea that No Award will win "year after year until the Sad Puppies take over completely" is pretty unlikely; in fact, it describes the exact *opposite* of what human nature makes likely.

2) It's also a question of what happens with the Hugos themselves. The Hugo actually does mean something; it's one of the most prestigious awards in the field, one publishers will mention on the front cover because it has the power to increase sales with the general (i.e. non-con-going) public. Those people have no idea Sad Puppy Book C got the Hugo because we were paying ten million dollars to make the terrorists go away. If we give that imprimatur to the Sad Puppies, the general public will think that means this is the best of what our field has to offer -- and over time, that will have an effect, one I consider to be highly detrimental to the health of our genre. Whereas if we do end up giving No Award . . . those people will never notice.

In short, I think you are *vastly* overestimating the damage No Award will do, to the point of seeing only the damage and not the good.

I have a minor quibble with one word: "backlash against what has been a *slow* increase". Slow changes are barely noticed (except in hindsight), and certainly don't cause backlash. The whole point of Puppies is that they consider the change too fast (and thus unnatural, forced by a manipulative minority): It is interesting to note that the share of female nominees (in fiction) reached 50 % in 1992-3 and then somehow decreased to 1 out of 20 in 2007, only to rebound back to majority just four years later.

Marie: I know that I'm opposed to competing slates, and I know that I would prefer to grow the voting population. But I'm not absolutely against restricting the voting population if at the same time the prestige and attention accorded to the Hugos decreases accordingly.

Spacefaringkitten: Thanks! There is some more in a similar vein at Chaos Horizon, here and here.

J: I tend to agree with Marie on this one, a year of No Award isn't going to do long-term damage to the award. (To be fair, I don't think even Castalia House being able to put Hugo Winner on their cover will kill it, unless it keeps on happening year after year. The Hugos as an institution are pretty resilient.)

Jan: I certainly agree that the Puppies consider the Hugos to have changed too much, too quickly, but I think it's reasonable for others to disagree. I actually dithered over whether to have that "slow" or not, but I decided that although the recent change for women has been quite dramatic, when you factor in ethnicity, sexuality and nationality progress hasn't been as fast as I would want it; hence, slow. :-)

I liked the idea of the nominating rights to other cons. The idea that popped into my mind when I read that was: If the Hugos are part of "World"Con, perhaps the people involved in countries previous year "Nat"cons could have nominating rights. Make the Hugos really Global not the SF equivalent of World Series Baseball.

Note to puppy supporters: all first-time comments here automatically go into a moderation queue. I'm not going to let them through if they're just a collection of obviously untrue assertions and repetitive talking points.

On a related note, I would like to underline the point made by Abigail Nussbaum here and Kate Nepveu here, that although "Sad Puppies" is the better-known slate, "Rabid Puppies" is the one that had more success. I touched on the fact in the main editorial, but didn't do as good a job as Abigail and Kate of explaining why the distinction is important.

I'd just like to put in a plug for the post by Bruce Schneier over at Making light and its discussion. In my assessment (not entirely unbiased, but attempting to be), there seems to be a developing consensus there that a relatively simple change to the nomination process, such as instituting Reweighted Approval Voting, could solve the puppy problem (though of course there would still be at least one more year before the change could go into effect).

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