Why Puppies are sad, and always will be
Let me state from the outset that I have zero interest in awards. While they are an honor when fairly awarded—and it would be fun to have that merit badge in my collection—the reality is that in the big game, Hugos, Nebulae and other awards really mean nothing to the life of a working writer. Aside from having an editor decide to include your winning story in an awards anthology, the economic impact is pretty much zero. As Jerry Pournelle once commented, “Money will see you through times of no awards better than awards will see you through times of no money.”
That said, it would have been easy for me to blissfully ignore the rabid puppy hijacking of the Hugo awards. As many others have noted, SF awards have always been political. The Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies are far from the first people to ever stuff a ballot box to get their friends (or themselves) on the ballot. And a study of winners cross-correlated to the geographical location for both them and the convention produces a bias for “home town heroes.”
The reasons I can’t ignore the current controversy are legion, but chief among them is having to own responsibility for what’s going on in my field. To be silent is to be complicit, apathy is approval. Because I care about the field, and the state of humanity, I am sharing my thoughts.
I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies and was smart enough, perhaps precociously so, to understand the effects that the Civil Rights movement (being the movement to promote equality for everyone) would have on my life. Redressing centuries of oppression would require, I reasoned, a minimum of three generations. Because of my situation, I’d be smack-dab in the first generation, and that meant things would get a bit bumpy.
Generation One: To work toward equality and a stronger society, those who were in the privileged class would be required to share power and opportunities with those who had little of either previously. Having been trained as a historian, I knew this wasn’t anything unusual, but that in earlier times this power sharing had generally been accomplished by non-governmental means. Disadvantaged parties banded together to create secret societies, criminal associations, and political machines. They gnawed away at the current power structure. This is seen most easily by studying how the Irish integrated into the American political landscape. This process began in the middle of the 19th Century and culminated in the election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960. And yet, discrimination against Irish and Catholics did not vanish—and are alive and well today.
Thus, as I became a thinking adult, I understood that were I to apply for a position and if I was deemed just equal to another candidate, I might get passed over. Fact is, that’s the reality of any employment situation, which is why working as hard as you can to do better is a winning strategy.
I’ve heard a lot of carping about the inequity of affirmative action. People complain about how it’s not fair, since white males born when I was didn’t do any oppressing. Why should we pay for the sins of others?
“Why me?” isn’t the question that needs to be answered. The question is, “Do you want this society to become stronger or not?” I figured out that I was strong enough to endure a little unequal treatment so folks who had endured far more could have an even chance at success. Just as I’d not oppressed anyone, neither did those who sought fair treatment deserved being treated as some underclass because of skin color or gender. And there are those who will claim the pendulum has swung too far, but I’ve always found that to be the whine of thwarted entitlement and frustrated privilege. I mean, really, if you see yourself as superior, pull on your big boy pants and work hard like everyone else trying to make a buck.
Of course, every candidate who is passed over feels he was more than equal to the competition. Thus the choice becomes either acknowledging that they were just equal or, gosh, inferior to the competition; or that they were discriminated against. Guess which ego-salving choice is the easiest to accept?
What I accepted is that things would be rougher for me than they might have been in the past. But I was okay with that. My career choice minimized the effect of affirmative action. Entrepreneurs—especially freelance creatives—face such an uphill struggle that going a more traditional route would have been easier. But this was the life I chose, and because I made that choice, I realized I had no right to whine about how I got treated.
Puppies take note.
Generation One forced people of diverse cultures and genders into community together. From the very first I don’t think there was anyone who thought this sort of affirmative action would result in Harmony and Enlightenment en masse or would be without pain. People got jostled and smacked around. People got upset. People retrenched and went underground with their prejudices. That was predictable, to be expected, and ultimately didn’t mean anything. That’s because Generation One was prep for Generation Two.
Generation Two: Because people were forced to work together in Generation One, their children had opportunities to get to know each other as people from their first moments of cognition. Kids don’t start out with prejudices, they learn them from their parents. And as they grow up, and grow to be distinct from their parents, they adopt their own opinions and coping mechanisms. Generation Two kids grow into adults that see diversity as normal. It’s about who the person is on the inside, not the outside, that matters.
Sure, there’s going to be complaining; but that’s normal. A suck-up at work is always going to be a suck-up. A whiney asshole will always be a whiney asshole, regardless of gender, skin-color or sexual preference. And we’ll always be suspicious of that which is unfamiliar—a survival trait that helped get us into this mess in the first place. (If the Neanderthal had that trait, Homo Sapiens likely wouldn’t have wiped them out.) There will be tension—there will always be tensions—but they ease.
Until recently, I used to play indoor soccer here in Phoenix (a Generation Two sport if there ever was one). I played on a co-ed team. There were players on other teams that I absolutely loathed because I only saw them in an adversarial situation. They might celebrate putting the ball past me, but I’d see that as gloating. There was one player, in fact, from Europe, who was arrogant and mouthy and, unfortunately for me, hugely skilled. I could have bricked over the entire mouth of the goal, and he’d still get it past me.
And he gloated. During the game. After the game. Before the next game. Insufferable.
Then something miraculous happened. Someone told him who I was. Turned out, he was a huge Star Wars fan. He’d actually read my X-wing novels and loved them. And from that point forward he still scored, but didn’t gloat. On those occasions where I filled in on his team, he was incredibly encouraging and helpful. Why? Because we’d found a way to connect.
Generation Two is all about creating those connections.
Generation Three: Generation Three is where we’re headed now. I don’t have children (of which I am aware), but their children would be Generation Three. They’d be growing up in a world that still had prejudices, but they’d not be immediate or automatic. Growing up in the internet era, they’d have friends that they only knew through reading their blogs or chatting with them in IM. They might not even know the physical nature of the person they’ve become friends with. Contrary to certain opinions, this doesn’t spell the end to civilization.
Unless, of course, you define civilization from a reactionary position and declare anything smacking of progress as deviant, corrupt, corrosive and blasphemous. There have always been people who have done that. There always will be. According to studies cited in John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience, approximately 23% of the human population is conservative by nature and highly resistant to change. These people, regardless of gender, gender preference or skin color are as much victims of their genetic makeup as, well, the people they pigeonhole because of their genetic makeup.
The problem for them, quite simply, is in the numbers. More of us look toward progress, and accept change as good, than exist in the reactionary reservoir of humanity. That reactionary forces slow things isn’t always bad—the pace of change especially now really demands that we take some time for proper reflection on the consequences of our actions. Given that tech can now allow us to wipe out our own species, and most of the rest of the world, thoughtfulness isn’t a vice.
To me, the oddest part about the Rabid Puppies and their lamenting that they don’t get awards is that they’re pointing to the wrong reason why they’re left out in the cold. It’s not because they’re an oppressed minority. It’s because they don’t write the kind of work that gets awards. The Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards have traditionally been handed out to new voices addressing new ways of telling stories, addressing new issues and new technology. When geographical bias is factored out of the awards, over and over again they go to works which are imaginative, well-written and, more often than not, of diminished popularity. After the fact they might become classics, but their more-likely fate is to go out of print despite having won an award.
I’ve been working in this field since 1988 (when my first two novels came out). I’ve never been short-listed for an award of any sort in the field. Why? Because I write series fiction. Because I write fantasy. Because I write military SF. Because I write franchise fiction. I’ve been just as solidly frozen out by the literary establishment as any of the puppies, but it doesn’t bother me.
1) Awards don’t move the needle on sales.
2) I can’t eat awards.
3) Awards are not a referendum on quality of writing.
4) Awards reflect notoriety during a mote of time, neither conferring immortality nor success upon the recipients.
5) Readers who only read or respect award-winning authors and their work are outside my target demographic: that being people who want to read a rousing good tale that, maybe, will allow them to reflect on an issue or conundrum now and again.
I get the fact that some of the Puppies are writing the sort of SF which they grew up reading and enjoying. Some of the real classic SF. They love it. They want to write it. I have had many writers and students tell me that’s all they want to do: to write the sort of classic stories that they grew up reading.
Fact is, I love old time radio drama. I could easily write radio dramas and record them as podcasts and make them available to anyone who wants them. I’d have fans who liked them as well, but none of us would ever expect those dramas to become “mainstream” or to be treated as anything more than quaint nods to what had been done 80 years previously. There’s no rational person who could look at the current landscape and assume that the case would be otherwise.
As I’ve told many writers and students, it’s fine if you want to write the SF you loved when you were a kid. If you want to sell your SF, get a time machine and sell to editors back then, because today those stories aren’t cutting it. That is simply a fact, just the same as the fact that any writer who couldn’t do characterization after 1988 had his career die, no matter how big he was before that point in time. We are dealing with market realities, and while they might seem utterly unfair and arbitrary, that’s the real world. Suck it up.
Writers write. Professional writers write and get paid for their output. That’s it. Writers existed before there were awards, they’ll exist and keep writing long after awards have faded away or, worse, there are so many awards that everybody wins one. And, at that time, there will be a sliver of the community that bitches about winning an award they didn’t want to win. (And if you don’t believe that, come on over to the gaming industry. We have examples. And dice.)
The one thing the Puppies did get right was their name: Puppies. Puppies are immature, are full of sound and fury signifying nothing, tend to chew up things they shouldn’t, and make messes everyone else has to clean up. The problem is that the discussion they pretend to be having is an adult discussion, which requires serious consideration and thoughtfulness. That’s something Puppies aren’t capable of, and thus it falls to the rest of us to see to it that they are not rewarded for their misbehavior.
I love science fiction and fantasy. I love its ability project into a future as a cautionary tale. I love that it takes me away from the everyday. I love that it introduces me to people who are nothing like me and allows me to see life through their eyes. If SF/Fantasy has a mission beyond entertainment, that’s it. SF is the literature of diversity. Anyone who doesn’t understand that and rejoice in it will forever, alas, be sad.