Thursday, February 25, 2016

Biased Opinion - Why Sad Puppy Complaints Aren't Taken Seriously

Stephanie S at The Right Geek, has some thoughts that she has titled Opening a Moderate Conversation with "Standback". Despite claiming to want a "moderate" conversation, her post is largely just a repetition of tired and false sad Puppy claims. For example, in the middle of her decidedly non-moderate tirade, Stephanie claims:
Others, meanwhile, have repeatedly called us vile and defamatory names in some very high profile venues and have yet to retract their statements.
The Sad Puppies have been called misogynistic. They have been called racist. And they have been called homophobic. The problem is that the Sad Puppies have earned those labels. Many of the Sad Puppy leaders and the prime Sad Puppy advocates have displayed varying degrees of these sorts of attitudes. Just to name a few offenders in this vein, Brad Torgersen, Michael Z. Williamson, John C. Wright all published commentary during the 2015 Sad Puppy campaign that was either sexist, racist, or homophobic, or all three. Some of the works nominated by the Sad Puppy slate - such as Transhuman and Subhuman - were homophobic and misogynistic in and of themselves. Stephanie S may not think of herself as a sexist, a racist, or a homophobe, but by identifying as a Sad Puppy, she is saying that she is willing to support sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Stephanie seems to have confused "accurately describing specific Puppies" with "defamation". The problem is that to be defamatory, a statement has to be untrue, and the sexism, racism, and homophobia of many Puppies has been extensively documented. To put it bluntly, you don't get to sign on to a campaign headed by someone prone to claiming that all previous winners only did so because of some sort of affirmative action, and then claim that it is unfair that your group of slate proponents is described as being racist and sexist. She goes on to make this rather dubious claim:
And lastly, there's a objective double standard in the way the opposing trolls are treated. While the Sad Puppies are urged to denounce Vox Day and other malefactors, Requires Hate continues to be published in Clarkesworld with nary an acknowledgement of the contradiction.
But there is no double standard. What there is is Stephanie making a false equivalence. Vox Day, also known as Theodore Beale, was intimately tied into the Sad Puppy campaigns of 2014 and 2015. Leaving Beale's complementary Rabid Puppy campaign aside, there is the fact that his work Opera Vita Aeterna was on the Sad Puppy slate in 2014. In 2015, several works placed on the Sad Puppy slate (and subsequently pushed onto the Hugo ballot) were published and edited by Beale. Beale is woven into the fabric of the Sad Puppy campaign at a fundamental level. By supporting the Sad Puppies, Stephanie was directly supporting Beale. When Sad Puppies are urged to repudiate Beale, they are being urged to disentangle themselves from an individual that their slating campaigns have explicitly supported and promoted.

On the other hand, Requires Hate, also known as Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is primarily published by a single editor - Neil Clark at Clarkesworld. Since her identity as Requires Hate came to light, Sriduangkaew has not been nominated for any awards, and Clark and the handful of other outlets that have published her stories have received some criticism from fan-related corners for continuing to publish her work. When published a story by Sridungkaew, the resulting comments were almost universally negative about their choice to do so. Of course, the question of who is publishing Sridungkaew is mostly orthogonal to whether non-Puppy fandom has rejected her - a point that Stephanie elides past.2 In 2015, one of the few non-Puppies on the Hugo Ballot was Laura J. Mixon for Best Fan Writer based entirely upon her expose that cataloged Sriduankaew's activities as Requires Hate. Mixon won the Hugo for her efforts. Fandom doesn't need to repudiate Sriduangkaew because fandom already has repudiated Sriduangkaew. When the actual facts concerning Beale and Sriduangkaew and the relating of Puppies and fandom to them are laid out, it becomes clear that Stephanie is being disingenuous at best when she claims there is an "objective double standard".

Even though the rest of Stephanie's post is riddled with similar falsehoods and a narrative consisting of debunked Puppy talking points, that's not the interesting part of her commentary. First she says this:
Let's talk first about what I like to call the "pre-history" of the Sad Puppies. For the past fifteen years (at least), the character of fandom has shifted in a way that many Puppies find very troubling -- and by the way, for the vast majority of our number, this has nothing to do with race, gender, or sexuality.
Let's leave aside the disingenuous claims about the Sad Puppy slating campaign having nothing to do with race, gender, or sexuality. We'll also leave aside her vague hand-waving complaints about "codes of conduct" and alleged "shit lists", although one might note that one reason the Sad Puppies don't get taken seriously is that their complaints tend to be just that sort of vague and hand-wavy griping that is entirely lacking in substance. This important part here is that she gives a time frame: Fifteen years.

Stephanie is a little unclear on exactly when she thinks the Puppy slating campaign began, or whether by "the past fifteen years" she means the fifteen years before the date she published her post or the fifteen years before the Sad Puppy slates started appearing, or if she means after the first Sad Puppy slate (which a lot of Puppies seem to think doesn't count) but before the second one, or if she means something else. In any event, this is a more concrete time frame than most Sad Puppies give, so it is at least something to work with.1 Stephanie then talks about fiction a bit:
Over the same time frame, the Puppies have also become concerned about the artistic direction of our field. The "Human Wave" movement, the "Superversive" movement, and the more generalized complaints about "message fic" and "grey goo" that started gaining steam before last year's Sad Puppies campaign are all flailing attempts by the Puppies to describe the flatness we've perceived in many recent award winners -- particularly in the shorter fiction categories, where the stylistic sophistication and emotional catharsis beloved by creative writing professors and MFA programs the world over appear to be crowding out more accessible stories with identifiable plots and recognizably science-fictional ideas.
The problem here is that although Stephanie has set a date range for when she thinks the science fiction field went wrong, she gives no specifics. But what we can do in response is ask for clarification. One of the common threads that runs through many of the sets of Sad Puppy whining about awards is that in recent years, such awards have been rewarding, as Stephanie puts it, "message fiction" and "grey goo". What is almost always remarkably absent from such Puppy screeds is exactly which works have been honored that aren't "accessible stories with identifiable plots and recognizably science-fictional ideas".

Many Sad Puppies like to point to Rachel Swirsky's If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, or John Chu's The Water That Fall On You from Nowhere as sparks that set them onto the path of joining an unethical campaign to back a politically motivated slate of works, but the recognition of both of those works took place in 2014, and thus post-dates the creation of the Sad Puppy slate campaigns. Chu's work also has a readily identifiable plot, and a recognizably fantastical idea (the Hugos are intended to recognize both science fiction and fantasy works). Some Sad Puppies gripe about John Scalzi's Redshirts, but that book doesn't match what Stephanie claims is the problem with recent awards either, since it is a story that uses one of the classic works of science fiction - Star Trek - as a jumping-off place to tell a quite well-defined story. In addition, Redshirts won a Hugo in 2013, which, as with the previously mentioned pair of works, also post-dates the beginning of the Sad Puppy slate campaigns.

This brings us back to the somewhat ambiguous nature of Stephanie's statement about the "pre-history" of the Sad Puppies. If the fifteen year period she describes is supposed to be the fifteen years prior to the creation of the Sad Puppy slate campaign by Larry Correia, then she is referring to the fifteen year period in which awards were handed out prior to 2013, or specifically 1998 through 2012. On the other hand, if she means the fifteen year period prior to the 2015 Sad Puppy slate campaign that dominated the Hugo ballot, then she is referring to a period from 2000 to 2014. The second version seems a little off, due to the line about the "pre-history" of the Sad Puppies, because including two years in which there were Sad Puppy campaigns doesn't seem at all like "pre-history". To be inclusive, I'm going to resolve this by actually looking to the seventeen year period, ranging from 1998 to 2014.

Which brings me to my question: Which Hugo winners (and Stephanie specifically talks about winners) over this time period have been "grey goo" or "message fiction"? Which have not been stories with identifiable plots and recognizably science fictional ideas? To help out, I'll list the Best Novel winners for the seventeen year period in question:

1998: Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
1999: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
2000: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
2001: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
2002: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2003: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
2004: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
2005: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
2006: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
2007: Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge
2008: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
2009: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
2010: (tie) The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
          (tie) The City & the City by China Miéville
2011: Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
2012: Among Others by Jo Walton
2013: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi
2014: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Over seventeen years, there have been eighteen winners. There is a story about teen-aged wizards, a story about gods living in the United States, a story about alternate dimensions, a post-apocalyptic story, a time travel story, a story about the singularity, a couple of alternate histories, and on and on. These stories are all quite firmly rooted in science fiction, and if any of them are "message fiction", they aren't any heavier on the message than dozens of winners before them. Stephanie did say that what concerned her most was in the short fiction categories, so let's see what won for Best Novella between 1998 and 2014:

1998: . . . Where Angels Fear to Tread by Allen M. Steele
1999: Oceanic by Greg Egan
2000: The Winds of Marble Arch by Connie Willis
2001: The Ultimate Earth by Jack Williamson
2002: Fast Times at Fairmont High by Vernor Vinge
2003: Coraline by Neil Gaiman
2004: The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge
2005: The Concrete Jungle by Charles Stross
2006: Inside Job by Connie Willis
2007: A Billion Eves by Robert Reed
2008: All Seated on the Ground by Connie Willis
2009: The Erdmann Nexus by Nancy Kress
2010: Palimpsest by Charles Stross
2011: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
2012: The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson
2013: The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson
2014: Equoid by Charles Stross

Looking at this list, I see an award dominated by quite mainstream science fiction. Maybe Stephanie can point out which of these seventeen stories she thinks are "grey goo" that don't contain recognizable science fictional (or fantasy) elements. Maybe the Best Novelette category will be rife with examples of non-science fictional "grey goo":

1998: We Will Drink a Fish Together . . . by Bill Johnson
1999: Taklamakan by Bruce Sterling
2000: 1016 to 1 by James Patrick Kelly
2001: Millennium Babies by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
2002: Hell Is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang
2003: Slow Life by Michael Swanwick
2004: Legions in Time by Michael Swanwick
2005: The Faery Handbag by Kelly Link
2006: Two Hearts by Peter S. Beagle
2007: The Djinn's Wife by Ian McDonald
2008: The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang
2009: Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
2010: The Island by Peter Watts
2011: The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
2012: Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders
2013: The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi by Pat Cadigan
2014: The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Huh. What are all of these stories about space, cyberpunk, and monsters doing among these award winners? Stephanie was quite clear that awards were being infested with "grey goo" "message fiction" that had neither identifiable plots or recognizably science-fictional ideas. There's even a Lovecraft-inspired story in this bunch. Maybe in the Short Story category we'll see a lot of non-speculative fiction being honored:

1998: The 43 Antarean Dynasties by Mike Resnick
1999: The Very Pulse of the Machine by Michael Swanwick
2000: Scherzo with Tyrannosaur by Michael Swanwick
2001: Different Kinds of Darkness by David Langford
2002: The Dog Said Bow-Wow by Michael Swanwick
2003: Falling Onto Mars by Geoffrey A. Landis
2004: A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman
2005: Travels with My Cats by Mike Resnick
2006: Tk 'tk 'tk by David D. Levine
2007: Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt
2008: Tideline by Elizabeth Bear
2009: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
2010: Bridesicle by Will McIntosh
2011: For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal
2012: The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
2013: Mono no Aware by Ken Liu
2014: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

Except we don't There are a couple of stories here that could be called literary in nature, which may be what Stephanie is referring to as "grey goo", but this list is dominated by fairly straightforward science fiction and fantasy stories. Until a Sad Puppy specifically highlights which of these winners have been somehow lacking in science fiction or fantasy bona fides, or plot, or how they amount to "grey goo", the only thing one can conclude is that there is no substance to their vague hand-waving complaints. I know this sounds like a broken record, but the point is that one of the reasons that the Sad Puppy claims get so little respect is that they are so obviously rooted in something other than reality. I suspect this is why the Sad Puppies always seem to make their claims about how the science fiction field has gone wrong in such generalities: Because when one actually looks at the facts, their claims simply don't add up. I suspect the other reason is that many Sad Puppies simply haven't read the fiction they are condemning as problematic, and are speaking almost entirely out of ignorance, but that's a question for another day.

So now that a specific time-period and a specific set of stories have been identified, the question is what exactly is Stephanie talking about? Which specific stories are "message fiction"? Which are "grey goo"? Which ones have the "stylistic sophistication and emotional catharsis beloved by creative writing professors and MFA programs the world over" (and why is that a bad thing) and are they indeed "crowding out more accessible stories with identifiable plots and recognizably science-fictional ideas"? This is the challenge to Sad Puppies in general, and Stephanie specifically: Identify the specific stories that have won Hugo Awards that you think are a problem, and show that they are predominating over more standard science fiction and fantasy fare. There are sixty-nine stories listed that won Hugo Awards between 1998 and 2014. Pointing to a handful as your examples doesn't actually make Stephanie's case. You need to point to a sufficient number of winning stories that one could conceivably call their collective set of victories a "trend" or "direction". I doubt any Sad Puppy will be able to rise to this challenge.

Finally, I point to this passage from Stephanie's post:
. . . prominent fannish critics have definitely been agitating against any "traditional" authors who happen to be short-listed. When Larry Correia was nominated for the Campbell back in 2011, for example, one such critic hyperbolically proclaimed that a win for Larry would "end writing forever."
The problem with this passage, like the problem with most of Stephanie's claims, is that nothing in it is true. No critic every said that Correia winning would "end writing forever". There is no such quote anywhere other than on Puppy-related blogs where the writer complains about the unattributed quote. No one ever provides a link to or a citation for the "end writing forever" quote, because there isn't one. It appears to be a quote that Correia invented as part of his "woe-is-me" routine when launching the original Sad Puppy campaign, and which has since become an accepted, and never questioned, part of Puppy-lore.

As to Stephanie's other claim that "prominent fannish critics have definitely been agitating against any 'traditional' authors who have been short listed", one only has to look at the lists of winning authors from the time period she has identified as problematic to see this is simply poppycock. While there may have been some criticism of them or their works, it seems to have been ineffective at preventing "traditional" science fiction authors such as James Patrick Kelly, Bruce Sterling, Brandon Sanderson, Vernor Vinge, Michael Resnick, and Robert Reed (among others) from winning Hugo Awards. To the extent that there have been critics agitating against "traditional" authors (which is a dubious claim, since the only support Stephanie gives for it is a quote that appears to have been fabricated), they have been remarkably ineffective at preventing those traditional authors from winning Hugo Awards on a regular basis.

The simple truth is that all Stephanie's "moderate" conversation has shown is that the Sad Puppy complaints are built on a foundation of sand. There is simply no substance to them. When one gets past all of the vague assertions and works one's way to the actual facts, there's nothing to support the grievances the Sad Puppies have advanced. What remains is the conclusion that the Sad Puppies are angry and disaffected because they want to be angry and disaffected, and nothing more. In the end, the reason that pretty much no one outside of the Puppy camp takes their complaints seriously, because there is nothing there to take seriously.

1 One might note that Stephanie has given herself a little wiggle room with the "at least" parenthetical. She says fifteen years, but that gives her the option to say that the things she is concerned about have been going on for longer. This is typical of Sad Puppy evasiveness, since their claims of how the character of award winners have been different for the last X number of years are inevitably wrong, and when someone points this out and shows that the award winners of the specified period are entirely in line with previous one, the time frame is changed from "X number of years" to "X plus 10" or some similar change.
2 As with many other Sad Puppy apologists, Stephanie S seems to routinely confuse professional publishers with fandom. This tendency on the part of the Sad Puppies to mix the two seems to be driven by the fact that the Sad Puppy slate campaigns have been (and continue to be) primarily driven by professionals in the field who appear to be using the efforts as part of a marketing campaign. Neil Clark continuing to publish Benjanun Srindungkaew doesn't really reflect on fandom, because fandom only has a mild influence on what Clark decides to publish or not publish. Sad Puppies placing works that Beale wrote, edited, or published on their slate and voting them onto the Hugo ballot reflects directly upon the Sad Puppies.

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