Puppygate and the Progressive Nature of Science Fiction

Locus’ own Gary K. Wolfe pens an article for the Chicago Tribune about this year’s Hugo Awards/Puppygate kerfuffle: Hugo Awards: Rabid Puppies defeat reflects growing diversity in science fiction (if the site asks you to subscribe, try logging in with your Facebook or similar account; worked for me).

This strikes me as a reasonably balanced account of the past several months’ events, though similar accounts (from Blinks: Summaries of Hugo Awards results and attendant issues at Wired, Boing Boing, Wall Street Journal, and Slate) have been criticized — of course — by the Puppies as insufficiently sympathetic to their cause. What I appreciate about Gary’s take is summarized in the last three paragraphs, which note that history has left the Puppies behind, that science fiction is inherently progressive, and always has been.

The final irony in all this is that the Hugo Awards, while more diverse and international in recent years, have never really disdained the kind of adventure fiction that the Puppies claim to champion. I met the winning novelist, Cixin Liu, when he was in Chicago earlier this year, and he made it clear that his idols are classic writers like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. “The Three-Body Problem” itself concerns communications with an alien race, the Trisolarans, whose plan is to invade the Earth as a refuge for their own endangered civilization — surely one of the oldest plots in science fiction. John Scalzi, who became one of the chief targets of Puppy vituperation, is a white male who won the Hugo in 2013 for “Redshirts,” a space opera adventure with knowing references to “Star Trek.” Among the novellas bumped off the ballot this year by the Puppy slate was Nancy Kress’ “Yesterday’s Kin,” a well-written tale that begins with an alien spaceship parking itself over New York harbor.

The problem, I suspect, is that none of these works are only about revisiting these favored old tropes. Sometimes they satirize them (as with Scalzi). Sometimes they introduce political themes (as with Cixin Liu, whose novel opens with a harrowing account of China’s Cultural Revolution). Sometimes they focus on character and family relationships (as with Kress). What seems to threaten the Puppies is not that science fiction has forsaken its origins (which it clearly hasn’t), but that readers have come to expect more and to welcome different voices. The old-fashioned modes of space adventure and military science fiction still have substantial markets, but it’s probably true that such works show up less on Hugo or Nebula award ballots than their supporters would like.

There will always be readers in any genre who seek to celebrate the past, but awards — not always, but often — go to works that are seen as moving the genre forward in some way — they “ask the next question,” as the classic science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon once put it. Women, LGBT writers, international writers, writers of color, all have made measurable progress in the past few years of Hugo voting — but many still find it hard to get published, or are expected to focus on certain kinds of fiction simply because of who they are. The outright rejection by Hugo voters of the Puppy slate — a few of whom, it must be said, might deserve recognition on their own merits — is not a rejection of a particular mode of writing, but of bullying and bad behavior — and, frankly, bad fiction — and of an almost desperate effort to unravel the progress that has already been made, and that is still far from complete.

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