Sunday, March 8, 2015

Biased Opinion - The Empty Complaints of a Sad Puppy

Brad Torgersen seems to think that the wrong people are deciding who wins Hugo Awards. If you want to read his full screed, you can find it here. Never mind that anyone who wants to get an attending or supporting membership to the World Science Fiction Convention can vote on the award. Never mind that in previous years the problem the "Sad Puppy" nominees had wasn't that they were kept off the ballot, but rather they got on the ballot and everyone then read them and saw just how weak the slate was when compared to their competition. No, Torgersen thinks that the wrong people decide who wins the Hugo Awards because (1) there aren't enough of them, and (2) he asserts they are out of touch with what "true" fans like.

How does Torgersen know what "true" fans like, and how does he know that the Hugo Award voters aren't reflective of those preferences? Well, he doesn't. He has put a pretty little graphic in his post that he claims shows the relationship between Hugo voters and the overall arena of science fiction and fantasy fans, but the graphic has nothing backing it up except Torgersen's say-so. The problem Torgersen faces is that when he tries to substantiate his claims, well, it becomes obvious that he didn't actually do any kind of research at all. He sums up his entire argument with this:
Because “Hugo winner” or “Hugo nominee” has become code for: too boring, not adventurous or exciting enough, too little speculative or fantastic content, too much ideological preaching, and too little optimism.
And that might carry some weight if he could back it up. Except when he tries to he says things like this:
In other words, while the big consumer world is at the theater gobbling up the latest Avengers movie, “fandom” is giving “science fiction’s most prestigious award” to stories and books that bore the crap out of the people at the theater: books and stories long on “literary” elements (for all definitions of “literary” that entail: what college hairshirts are fawning over this decade) while being entirely too short on the very elements that made Science Fiction and Fantasy exciting and fun in the first place!
So one might guess that since they are out of touch with the broad base of fandom, the Hugo voters are ignoring movies like The Avengers and focusing on small art movies that have a tiny bit of science fiction while preaching lots of ideology. So let's see what movie won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): Oh, it was The Avengers.

Wait, what? I thought that Torgersen had assured us that while the mass of consumers were sitting in the theater munching popcorn as Iron Man, Captain American, the Black Widow, and Thor were facing off against Loki and the Chitauri invasion, the Hugo voters were giving awards to boring alternatives. Okay, so maybe the award for The Avengers was an aberration. Let's see what other movies were nominated that it beat out. Surely those are the slow and preachy kind of works that Torgersen is complaining about: The Cabin in the Woods, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hunger Games, and Looper.

Huh. This doesn't seem to be working out very well for Torgersen's argument. I mean, I found The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be kind of slow, but pretending that this selection of movies is not a roll call of the most consumer friendly bunch of science fiction and fantasy films of 2013 is just silly. To put it bluntly, Torgersen's thesis that the Hugo voters are somehow out of touch with the rest of science fiction fandom is directly contradicted by the many Hugo votes in favor of the very movie that Torgersen cited as an example of what the "big consumer world" was voting for with their dollars.

And it isn't just the 2013 votes that contradict Torgersen's counterfactual ramblings. The 2014 Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) winner was Gravity. It's competition on the final ballot was Frozen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, and Pacific Rim. The 2012 winner was the entire first season of Game of Thrones. The 2011 winner was Inception. You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a "small" movie that won - namely Moon. But before that, the 2009 winner was WALL-E. And so on. When determining the winners for Best Dramatic Presentation, the Hugo Awards have consistently given the nod to big budget, flashy adventure science fiction and fantasy blockbusters. In short, Hugo voters have tastes that, by all objective measures, line up quite nicely with the broad sweep of "consumer" fandom.

But Torgersen isn't done saying things that are flatly contradicted by reality. For example, when referring to his silly little graphic, he is very concerned that World Science Fiction attendees are ignoring vast swathes of media:
The big blue circle is the total body of SF/F consumers (all types, all over the world) while the little yellow circle is the total body of “fandom” at Worldcon; which ignores games, tie-ins, comics, and other forms of popular SF/F.
One has to wonder what sort of things fall into "other forms of popular SF/F" after you account for current Hugo categories like novels, short fiction, short form dramatic fiction (a category that includes television episodes, web productions such as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which won a Hugo award in 2009, albums, songs, and pretty much anything else spoken or performed), long form dramatic presentation (such as movies), art, fanzines, graphic novels, and podcasts. I mean sure, there is no Hugo award for "games", but what forms of science fiction and fantasy media other than that are not covered? I suspect that, as with so many other things in his post, Torgersen didn't bother to do any research before posting his screed, and as a result doesn't know. After all, he complains that the Hugo voters ignore "comics", when the awards have had a category called Best Graphic Story since 2009 that exists explicitly to honor comics. At this point, one has wonder if Torgersen actually knows what the Hugo Award categories actually are, which makes his fact-free whining seem even more pathetic.

As to not honoring tie-ins, one has to wonder if Torgersen miss the 2013 Hugo Award Best Novel winner Redshirts. I'm not sure how one can say that the Hugo voters ignore popular opinion when they bestow the award upon a novel that lovingly pokes fun at Star Trek, one of the most popular and enduring franchises in genre history. The cold truth is that most tie-in fiction is by necessity derivative and not particularly original or even all that notable. I've read numerous Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dungeons & Dragons licensed fiction, and I will probably read many more in the future. That said, while they are usually reasonably pleasant diversions, I can't think of any tie-in fiction other than Redshirts that I would call outstanding, and a novel has to be outstanding to be worthy of a Hugo nomination.

Or, one might consider that perhaps Torgersen is intentionally lying. By itself, getting the kinds of basic facts wrong about the Hugo Awards is not evidence of lying - it could merely be incompetence. But then he says things without context and claims they are damning evidence, such as this:
Witness the literal booing and groans (last year) when it was announced that Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was nominated.
And one has to wonder if he is being intentionally deceptive. The critical fact that Torgersen leaves out is not that there was a negative reaction when the Wheel of Time was nominated. It was that all thirteen books of the series were nominated under an obscure rule that, although technically capable of covering this kind of nomination, probably wasn't intended to be used in this way, and never previously had been used in this way in the history of the awards. The other thing that Torgersen leaves out is that none of the fourteen novels that make up the Wheel of Time were considered to be good enough to earn a nomination on their own. Many of the volumes in the middle of the series were simply not very good at all, so one has to wonder how compiling a collection of decent fantasy books with some pretty weak ones amounts to something good enough to deserve a Hugo nomination. The booing and groans weren't because the Wheel of Time was nominated, or because people didn't like the series, but rather because its placement on the ballot seemed to be almost underhanded.

But rather than provide any kind of context for the negative reaction to The Wheel of Time appearing on the ballot, Torgersen uses it as a means to take a completely dishonest jab at the Hugo voters. One is left with only two options on this point: Either Torgersen didn't know the context, which makes him supremely unqualified to say much of anything about the Hugo Awards, or he did know and is lying by selective omission. Given his apparent lack of knowledge on so many other points, I'm inclined to lean toward being charitable and saying he might just be an ignorant blowhard, but I can't be sure he isn't a duplicitous liar.

It also seems to me that Torgersen is a little confused. Or at least a little bit self-contradictory. He seems to think that the kind of science fiction that is being nominated is "too boring", but then he extols the virtues of the Wheel of Time because it has a lot of fans. But a sizable chunk of the series is deadly dull. In fact, even ardent fans of the series complain that several of the books are turgid bore-fests in which essentially nothing of consequence happens. The Wheel of Time is also incredibly staid and conventional. It employs very standard fantasy tropes to tell what amounts to a fairly standard tale. I would suggest that one reason for its popularity is its lack of adventurous tale-telling. People like the expected. There are numerous iterations of Law and Order and CSI running on television because people want something that is conventional and familiar. The Wheel of Time (and, to be honest, most of the science fiction and fantasy that Torgersen promotes) is the genre equivalent of "innovating" by setting the next Law and Order series in Dallas instead of New York.

Torgersen can't have it both ways. Either the measure of "good" science fiction and fantasy is popularity, or it is having lots of action and adventuousness. There is a lot of science fiction that I would suggest is both really quite boring and unadventurous, and is simultaneously quite popular. But this is just more evidence of the Sad Puppies' confusion, because when Torgersen writes:
SAD PUPPIES simply holds its collective hand out — standing athwart “fandom” history — and yells, “Stop!”
One has to wonder "stop what"? Stop nominating and honoring popular movies like The Avengers? Stop giving graphic stories their own category? Stop groaning when series that have four or five volumes of turgidly slow books in them get nominated? Stop recognizing podcasts, and web series, and fanzines, and television shows, and songs, and science fiction of all types? Stop voting for good science fiction novels and stories? One has to wonder, if, as Torgersen seems to suggest, the Hugo Awards are supposed to be recognizing the most commercially successful science fiction and fantasy works, why is Torgersen not complaining that the story of the last decade or so of the Hugos has not been the battles between J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Rick Riordan, Veronica Roth, and Suzanne Collins for the Hugo honors. After all, those authors have been vastly more commercially successful than anyone that Torgersen wants to push forward as a nominee.

But then Torgersen makes it clear: When the Sad Puppies say stop, they aren't talking about any of that. They aren't talking about it being bad that dull fiction is nominated. Or that political fiction is being nominated. Or even that the most popular fiction isn't being nominated. All of the whining and complaining is entirely beside the point. What Torgersen really wants is for his friends to get nominations. He's dressed everything up in a coat of deceit to try to make his campaign seem more a principled sand as opposed to a personal whine-fest, but his campaign really boils down to nothing more than "you're voting for the wrong people because you're not voting for my friends":
There are lots of deserving authors — Tad Williams? Steven Barnes? Chuck Gannon? Kevin J. Anderson? L.E. Modesitt, Jr? — who have all done tremendous work in the field, and who deserve (I think) very strong consideration for nomination. People who can’t seem to buy a Hugo nomination, even with very good books or stories coming out every year. Individuals who have proven (again and again) that they are top craftsmen and ambassadors of the genre(s). They deserve their slice of the Hugo sunlight too. And not just when they die or retire. When they are still working.
And this amounts to nothing more than a whine that entirely lacks historical perspective. Really, this is what Sad Puppies boils down to: A collection of conservative authors whining that the science fiction they like isn't getting Hugo nominations and awards. Of course, Torgersen tries to claim that he doesn't represent a bunch of conservative authors, but his protest on that point rings pretty hollow:
Think we’re just a crazy minority of right-wingers out to destroy science fiction? You’d be wrong. For instance, we’d love to see Eric Flint on the Hugo Best Novel short list. Eric is not only a popular author who does the genre credit with his work, he’s a card-carrying Trotskyite.
First off, saying "I have liberal friends" isn't really a defense against people pointing out that you are working with a collection of conservative authors to push a political agenda. Second, the authors (using the term quite loosely) who are promoting the Sad Puppy slate -Larry Corriea, John C. Wright, Theodore Beale, and yes, Brad Torgersen - are almost all not merely conservative, but downright reactionary. Not only that, in previous years, the slate of Sad Puppy nominees were almost entirely drawn from the tiny coterie of conservative science fiction authors, seemingly with no regard for the quality of their works. After all, if your slate recommends Opera Vita Aeterna and The Butcher of Khardov then it is fairly obvious that quality writing isn't on your list of requirements for nomination.

But leaving that aside, Torgersen shows that he really doesn't understand how awards work when he talks about these authors deserving "their slice of the Hugo sunlight". Awards aren't a conch shell to be passed around the camp fire until everyone gets a turn. No writer "deserves" a Hugo award based upon anything but writing a book or story that one could consider the best genre story of that length in a given year. And Williams, Barnes, Modesitt, Anderson, Flint, and even Gannon really haven't done that. This isn't to say that any of them are bad authors. In fact, all of the authors that Torgersen named are good authors who have all written some pretty good books. But the salient point is that they have written very few great books. When one looks at their careers, and compares them to both their historical predecessors and their contemporaries, one discovers that they aren't the "top craftsmen" in the field. They are merely pretty good craftsmen who have spent much of their careers overshadowed by better ones.

A somewhat disturbing trend of the last couple of decades seems to be the loss of the middle ground in evaluating media. This is most readily apparent in the video game industry, where a review score of six, seven, or even eight out of ten is seen as "trashing" a game with a bad rating. Similarly, it seems that there are some people in the science fiction and fantasy field who seem to think that anything less than a Hugo nod means that a particular author's work is not being properly recognized. Torgersen seems to be one of these people. But there is a wide gulf between "not worthy of a Hugo nomination" and "this is a crappy story". For example, Torgersen's The Exchange Officers was a decent science fiction story. There wasn't anything particularly noteworthy about it, but it fit in just fine in the issue of Analog that it appeared in. It was, however, not nearly as good as the other stories that received Hugo nominations for Best Novelette in 2014. The story simply was not Hugo-worthy and never should have been nominated. Opera Vita Aeterna on the other hand, was simply crap. The distance between the two stories is vast, but what seems to have been lost in recent years is the ability to recognize that the distance between them is vast. When one says The Exchange Officers wasn't worthy of a Hugo nomination, that doesn't mean it was bad or should be considered in the same category as truly putrid stuff like Opera Vita Aeterna. It just means it wasn't good enough to be a worthwhile nominee for the Hugo Award.

I think the problem is further compounded by Torgersen's obvious lack of familiarity with the history of the genre, which I have pointed out before. The history of the genre is littered with authors who have turned out good work year after year, and served as "top craftsmen and ambassadors of the genre" and received few, if any Hugo nominations. Michael Moorcock never received a Hugo nomination for his fiction. Fred Saberhagen received a single Hugo nomination in the course of his career. Mercedes Lackey has never been nominated for a Hugo Award. Marion Zimmer Bradley was only nominated for a Hugo once. Lin Carter never received a Hugo nomination. L. Sprague de Camp received only one Hugo nomination, for his autobiography (he received a couple of Retro Hugo nominations, but those don't really count). Terry Brooks has never received a Hugo nomination. And so on and so forth. The experience of the authors that Torgersen cites as being denied what he seems to think is their just due is not unusual, it is normal. Most authors, even prolific authors who turn out dozens of popular stories and novels, don't receive any Hugo nominations, or only receive one or two in their careers. Andre Norton only received two Hugo nominations in her entire career. Getting bent out of shape because Flint hasn't gotten one seems to lack perspective.

But let's entertain the notion that Torgersen's friends aren't getting the recognition they deserve because the Hugo voter pool is too small. One might ask if there is a larger voting pool we could look at to see what the "true" results would be if more fans got the chance to vote. And in fact, there is: The Locus Awards. The Locus Awards have traditionally been voted upon by the subscribers to Locus Magazine to serve as recommendations for nominations for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and in recent years the voting has been expanded to include anyone who has an internet connection and wants to go to the Locus Magazine website and vote. The votes of actual subscribers count for more than the votes of internet denizens (twice as much, to be precise), but this has only affected the outcome in a few cases. In any event, the Locus awards have almost always had many more voters than the Hugo Awards, which means that we can treat it as a more representative poll of what the hoi polloi want.

So, how do Torgersen's highlighted authors do in the Locus Awards? For the most part, not that well. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. has never even had a novel place in the Locus Awards, and the Locus awards have both Best Science Fiction Novel and Best Fantasy Novel categories. The Locus Awards list out their results in both categories through the top twenty or twenty-five places. An author who has never had a novel place in the top twenty spots in the Locus Awards really shouldn't even be in the conversation for the Hugo Awards. I might point out that not only has Modesitt never placed in the Locus Awards, he has never been nominated for any awards of note. I don't know what criteria Torgersen is using to put Modesitt on his list of authors who deserve some Hugo sunlight, but I've read a half-dozen novels by Modesitt, and I'm pretty sure Modesitt is not being slighted.

What about Eric Flint, that old Trotskyite that Torgersen likes to bandy about to show how the Sad Puppies aren't just a collection of right-wingers. How does he measure up in the Locus Award? Well, like Modesitt, he's never had a novel place either. He hasn't had any stories place in the Locus Awards, and hasn't received nominations for any other award excepting his win in the Writers of the Future competition in 1993. Once again, I'm not saying Flint is a bad writer, but if a writer has never received any nominations of any kind throughout his career, it seems odd for someone to claim that not having received a Hugo nomination is some kind of snub. Maybe Flint will write something that is worthy of a Hugo nomination, but so far he simply hasn't.

Okay, so how about Tad Williams? He's had some success in the Locus Awards. His best showings were when his novel To Green Angel Tower placed third in the Best Fantasy Novel category in 1994, and The War of the Flowers placed sixth in the same category in 2004. So one can make a decent case that he should have been nominated for one of those two novels. But at the same time, one has to remember that when converting from the Locus awards to the Hugo awards, the Best Science Fiction Novel and Best Fantasy Novel categories are collapsed into the single Best Novel category, and by the rules of the Hugo Awards, the number of nominees in each category is limited to five (except in the rare case of a tie for fifth place in the nominating round). So not only would The War of the Flowers have to have leaped past at least one nominee in the Best Fantasy Novel category to get on the Hugo ballot, it would have had to jump past several of the Best Science Fiction novel nominees as well. That would have meant leaping past novels by William Gibson, Dan Simmons, Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Terry Pratchett, which seems like kind of a tall order.

Further, one has to consider exactly what novels would have to have been replaced to secure a nomination for The War of the Flowers. We know exactly what novels were nominated for the Hugo Award in 2004: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (which won the award), Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, Humans by Robert J. Sawyer, Ilium by Dan Simmons, and Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. Which of those do you knock off to make room for a moderately good fantasy novel that wasn't even regarded as one of the top five fantasy novels of the year? Or when one looks at the competition for To Green Angel Tower in 1994 one finds Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (the winner), Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress, Glory Season by David Brin, Moving Mars by Greg Bear, and Virtual Light by William Gibson. I simply can't see any justification for removing any of those nominees to put To Green Angel Tower on the list of nominees. One can't simply say "Tad Williams writes good books, he should get a Hugo Award", one has to look at the other books published in the same years as his books. When one places the various novels that authors like Williams have produced into context with their competition, the fact that they haven't been nominated for a Hugo Award seems not only not mystifying, but completely expected.

Kevin J. Anderson has a fair number of Locus Award nominations, and even one Nebula Award nomination for Assemblers of Infinity in 1994, a novel he co-authored with Doug Beason. On the other hand, he's never had a novel finish higher than 11th place in the Locus Awards, and that was for Best First Novel for Resurrection, Inc.. If we take Assemblers of Infinity as Anderson's high water mark, one has to look at the set of Hugo nominees that it was up against, which happens to be the same set of nominees that To Green Angel Tower was up against. Once again, I simply don't see how one can say that Assemblers of Infinity deserved to replace any of those novels on the ballot. Awards don't happen in a vacuum, and one can only evaluate whether a novel was truly deserving of an honor by looking at its context. While one can look at Anderson's body of work and consider it to be of generally good quality, his highlights simply have never measured up to the very best of his peers.

Steven Barnes is an interesting case for Torgersen, as he already has a Hugo nomination, although given his demonstrated lack of knowledge of the history of the Hugo Awards, Torgersen might not have known that. Barnes' best work was all done as a co-author, mostly pairing with Larry Niven on works such as Dream Park, The Barsoom Project, The California Voodoo Game, The Descent of Anansi, and Achilles' Choice. Those collaborations resulted in a fair amount of recognition for Barnes' work, with a Hugo nomination for The Locusts in 1980, a novella he co-wrote with Larry Niven, and a fourth place finish in the Best Science Fiction Novel category in the Locus Awards for Dream Park in 1982, also co-written with Larry Niven. The Locusts lost to George R.R. Martin's The Sandkings, a decision that I seriously doubt even Torgersen would find surprising. Dream Park simply ran into fierce competition, as the Hugo nominated novels that year were Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh as the eventual winner, The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe, Little, Big by John Crowley, The Many-Colored Land by Julian May, and Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak. Once again, one has to ask, which one of these should have been bumped off to make room for a Barnes nomination? One might suggest that Lion's Blood, which secured a Campbell Award nomination might have been a good candidate for a Hugo nomination in 2003, but when one looks at its competition - Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer, Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick, Kiln People by David Brin, The Scar by China Miéville, and The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson - its absence from the Hugo ballot doesn't seem particularly notable.

So finally we get to Chuck Gannon, who has managed to garner Nebula Award nominations for both Fire with Fire and Trial by Fire. This is quite an impressive feat for someone who has only had five novels published, and only two in which he is the sole author. It seems almost ridiculous for Torgersen to gripe about Gannon's lack of placement on the Hugo nominating ballots due to the relatively small number of works that Gannon has written and the fact that the Sad Puppies might have had a hand in keeping Gannon off the ballot in 2014. It is too early to determine if Gannon will be on the 2015 Hugo Award ballot with Trial by Fire, and one might note that this novel is mentioned on the Sad Puppy 3 ballot, although it seems almost certain that Gannon's work needs no support from the Sad Puppies to get its just due. The Sad Puppies are, rather obviously, trying to garner credibility by nominating people who don't need their help in an effort to be able to claim that their efforts were responsible for any resulting success. It is clear that the Sad Puppies are piggybacking on Gannon, and not the other way around. On the other hand, Fire with Fire was not on the 2014 Hugo Award ballot. One might point to the Sad Puppy 2 suggested ballot, which left Gannon's book off its list of recommendations in favor of two clearly inferior books by Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt. One might also point to the including of The Wheel of Time as a nominee in 2014, an event that given Torgersen's love of "popularity" as a measure of value seems like something that Torgersen would be in favor of - also served to keep Gannon off the final nominees for the Hugo. The end result is that, to the extent one might consider Gannon to have been snubbed by the Hugo Awards, the Sad Puppies themselves had at least a little bit of a hand in it, which makes Torgersen's complaints ring hollow and empty.

While anyone can suggest a slate of nominees for the Hugo Awards, the Sad Puppies have done so in a way that has drawn substantial ire from many quarters. With their usual tin ear, the Sad Puppy proponents have chalked this up to the fact that their slate was intended (in their words) to "make liberals' heads explode", which is yet another indication that their repeated claims that they are just promoting works they like because they like them to be at least partially a smokescreen for promoting works they find politically palatable. But the real reason they have had a negative reaction is that they have been so ham-fisted and ignorant in their arguments used to justify their position. It would be one thing if they were able to back up their claims of bias against them and their favored authors with supporting evidence. But when they try to do so, they either show that they are unaware of basic facts about the awards (such as apparently not knowing that The Avengers won a Hugo Award, or that an entire category exists to honor graphic stories), or simply lack any kind of historical perspective on the awards. In the end, when one unpacks and analyzes all of the complaints raised by Torgersen in his quest to paint the Hugo voters as out of touch liberals who are unfair to the authors that he likes, one finds that there is simply no substance to them.

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