Sunday, August 23, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Thoughts On the Results

This year's Hugo results are a landmark occasion: they are the closest I've ever come to guessing the entire slate of winners.  In an informal poll last week among friends (which I'm now kicking myself for not putting on twitter) I guessed all but three of the winners, and in two of those categories, Best Novel and Best Novelette, I had the winner as a strong second choice (the only real surprise?  Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.  I was sure that the--inexplicable, to me--love for Doctor Who's "Listen" would carry the day, and didn't think Orphan Black would even be in the running).

I'm mentioning this not so much to brag, but to make the point that this year's results--in which the by-now infamous puppy campaigns were soundly defeated, with all five of the puppy-controlled categories coming back with No Award as the winner, most of the puppy nominees finishing below No Award, and the only puppy winner being Guardians of the Galaxy in Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form--were actually very predictable.  I'm usually pretty bad at guessing the Hugo voters' tastes, but this year, when the voting period closed and the Sasquan award administrators announced that they had received a record-shattering 5,950 ballots--a whopping 66% more than the previous record-holding year--it seemed pretty obvious which way the wind was blowing.  As several analysts pointed out, everything would depend on who those extra voters turned out to be.  If they were puppy or Gamergate supporters, the award would be theirs.  If they were regular Hugo voters who were ignoring this year's political kerfuffle, the results would be difficult to predict.  If, however, the influx of voters came from people disgusted with the puppies' tactics, and with their willingness to burn the Hugos down as "punishment" for not rewarding their favorite authors and works, then the only possible result would be the complete rejection of the puppy nominees.

And the thing is, once you phrase the issue that way, the conclusion becomes obvious.  Option 2 gets thrown out immediately; 3,000 extra people did not take the time to buy a membership (along the way making Sasquan, a relatively modest-sized Worldcon if you only count the warm bodies, the biggest in the convention's history) just so they could vote without regard to politics.  Something was clearly different this year, and so the question became: who do you believe actually cares this much about the Hugos, the puppies and Gamergaters and their fellow travelers, or the people who find those groups' politics, and the behavior resulting from them, disgusting?  I've been following the Hugos, in one form or another, for fifteen years.  I know the people who care about them, and the fandom they emerge from.  So yeah, I was absolutely certain that the huge increase in voters could only mean one thing: an anti-puppy backlash.

If you look at the voting breakdowns (PDF), this becomes even more obvious.  In normal years, you usually see a wide distribution of voter participation in the different categories.  A high percentage of the ballots received tend to include votes in the Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form categories, but categories like Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist receive much lower participation numbers (last year, both circled around 40% of ballots received).  This year, the lowest participation categories, Best Fancast and Best Fan Artist, came in at 57% and 58% respectively, and everything above the best editor categories (themselves not usually heavy hitters) came in in the 80s and 90s.  It's also interesting to note the breakdown of results in the Best Short Story category.  The puppies got a full slate in this category, but among those voters who read the nominees, there was some consensus that Kary English's "Totaled" was the best of a bad lot, and a passable nominee.  Some people were speculating that enough voters might be sufficiently swayed by its literary merits for it to take home the award.  And yet looking at the actual voting stats, "Totaled" never even came close to winning.  It had a little under 900 first place votes, against more than 3,000 for No Award.  Something similar happens when you look at the two Best Editor categories.  Despite the presence of recognized, respected names like Mike Resnick, Sheila Gilbert, and Toni Weisskopf, some of whom are previous Hugo winners, No Award took both of these categories by storm, without even needing to redistribute the votes.  (Weisskopf, in particular, should have a bone to pick with the puppy organizers.  If it hadn't been for her association with them, it's likely she'd be taking home a Hugo this year.)  There can be no question that, overwhelmingly, the people who voted for the Hugos this year did so with one goal in mind: to express their dissatisfaction with how the nominations shook out, and with the people who orchestrated them.

Among the puppy contingent, there are already people claiming that this result and its obvious implications "prove" their point about the Hugos' corruption.  But the truth--if any of them are willing to see it--is that it does the exact opposite.  Of all the many claims and justifications offered by the puppies over the last four and a half months for their actions, the closest they ever came to a coherent claim--largely because it couldn't be immediately disproved, like so many of their other arguments--was that their organized slate voting was merely replicating a process already in place.  That the Hugos had already been corrupted by "SJWs" who were already gaming the vote in order to get work by and about people who were not straight white men on the ballot.  The puppies claimed that they represented "real" Hugo fandom, here to take back the award from a politically-motivated cabal that had commandeered it.

But the thing is, if that were true, it would be true.  If the puppies had truly represented "real" fandom, then "real" fandom would have turned up to vote for the nominees they put on the ballot.  Instead, the people who voted were, overwhelmingly, thoroughly pissed off and eager to kick some puppy ass.  The Hugo is a popular vote award, and what that means is that while it can be manipulated, it can't be stolen.  It belongs to whoever turns up to vote, and in 2015 the people who turned up to vote wanted nothing to do with the puppies' politics and tactics.  Despite the puppies' loudest claims to the contrary, 3,000 voters are not a cabal or a clique.  They are the fandom.

I'd like to believe that there are enough people among the puppy voters who are capable of seeing this.  There's been some debate today about what percentage of the Hugo voters actually represent puppies.  This analysis by Chaos Horizon suggests that there were 500 Rabid Puppy voters, and 500 Sad Puppy voters.  That's a big enough number to suggest that we could be looking at a repeat of this dance next year--another puppy-dominated ballot, another fannish outrage, another puppy shutout at the voting phase.  But to my mind, the real question is: how many of those thousand voters are willing to do that?  How many of them would rather destroy the Hugo than see it go to someone they disapprove of?  How many of them are able to ignore the undeniable proof that they've maxed out their support within the community, and that there simply aren't enough Gamergate trolls to make up the difference?  I'd like to believe that those people are not the majority.  That there are among puppy voters people who can grasp that if you want to win a Hugo, the simplest and easiest way to do it is to play by the same rules as everyone else: write and publicize good, worthwhile work, and do so with a genuine love for the award, not the contempt and resentfulness that characterized the puppies' behavior this year.

The truth is--and this is something that we've all lost sight of this year--no matter how much the puppies like to pretend otherwise, the Hugo is not a progressive, literary, elitist award.  It's a sentimental, middle-of-the-road, populist one.  I rarely like the shortlists it throws up, and am often frustrated by the excellent work that it ignores.  In fact, looking at this year's would-have-been nominees, I see some work that I loved--Aliette de Bodard's "The Breath of War," Carmen Maria Machado in the Campbell Award category--but on the whole it feels like a very safe, unexciting ballot that I would probably have complained about quite a bit if it had actually come to pass.  And for all the crowing about this year's winners being a victory for those who love the Hugos, some of them--particularly in the Best Novelette and Best Fan Writer categories--send as message that is, to my mind, far from progressive.  (Full disclosure: this year's nominating breakdowns reveal that, if it hadn't been for the puppies, I would have been nominated in the Best Fan Writer category.  I don't think I would have won, and all things considered I'm glad that I was out of that mess this year, but it's worth acknowledging.)  It's not that I've never felt the desire to burn the whole edifice down, the way the puppies say they do.  The difference is that I never thought that exasperation could be used to justify actually doing it.

At the end of the day, there are only two viable approaches to dealing with how frustrating we all find the Hugos: walk away in disgust, or keep nominating the things that you love, and encouraging others to do the same.  To be honest, I don't care which one the puppies choose, so long as they stop trying to ruin this for the rest of us.  But for those of us who care about the Hugos, and who want to see them recognize what is truly excellent in the field, we have our work cut out for us.  3,000 people turned out this year to slap down those who thought they owned an award that belongs to all of us.  I hope that enough of them stick around next year to do the harder, and yet so much more gratifying, work of nominating and celebrating the true breadth, diversity, and excellence of our genre.  Last night's results were about rejecting dogma and resentment.  Next year's work should be about embracing difference, and the full potential of our genre.