Thursday, April 2, 2015

Biased Opinion - Another Sad Puppy Fails History

One of the dominant characteristics shared by Sad Puppy proponents is the lack of historical knowledge they display concerning the science fiction genre in general, and science fiction awards specifically. Sarah Hoyt decided to opine on the subject of the Sad Puppy campaign and talked about what kind of book she thinks should win the Hugos in a post titled By the Numbers.
Take as an example of something that should have won a Hugo but didn’t Barry Hughart’s Chinese trilogy. It didn’t sell much (marketing and distribution being crazy then – and now, but worse then.) It won a World Fantasy, but his publishing house didn’t even take notice. He’s written nothing else. However now that the word of mouth has had time to percolate, there are very few intense sf/f fans, of the kind who reads books, who hasn’t heard of it. And there are fewer who, reading it, don’t go “oh, wow.”

That is the sort of thing that should be winning the Hugo.

That is the kind of award that the Hugo was when Heinlein, Asimov and Ursula Le Guin won it.

It wasn’t a “oh, you’re so nice, and you attend all these cons, and you’re nice to us, and your publisher sends tons of books.” No. It was a “This is science fiction that won’t be forgotten in ten years.”
The trouble with this kind of sentiment is that it ignores context. A book doesn't need to merely be good to win a Hugo-award (or, for the most part, any other award), it has to be considered along with its competition. Although Hoyt says that Hughart's "Chinese Trilogy" won a World Fantasy Award, that is not entirely accurate. The first book in the series, Bridge of Birds, won a World Fantasy Award in 1985 (tying for the honor alongside Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood). It also won the Mythopoeic Award in 1986. Other than that, Bridge of Birds did not garner any notice in the awards sphere. It didn't place in the annual Locus Award poll. It was not nominated for a Nebula Award or a Campbell Award. The two sequels had marginal success: The Story of the Stone placed seventh in the Best Fantasy Novel category in the Locus Award poll, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen placed third in that same category.

But what of Hoyt's contention that Bridge of Birds is the sort of novel that should win the Hugo Award? Well, the only way to fairly assess this is to compare it to the other novels that were nominated in 1985, the year Bridge of Birds would have been eligible. When we look to see who won that year, we find that William Gibson won with his novel Neuromancer. And this is the point where the Sad Puppy contentions collapse in on themselves. I doubt you could find more than a tiny handful of people who would seriously argue that Bridge of Birds would have been a more deserving Hugo award winner than Neuromancer. When placed in context, the fact that Bridge of Birds did not win a Hugo Award is not only not surprising, it seems almost like a foregone conclusion. So when Hoyt says it "should have won a Hugo but didn't" she is revealing her lack of knowledge and research on the subject.

Perhaps might contend that Bridge of Birds should have received at least a Hugo nomination. To evaluate this, one must look to the other nominees from 1985. Fortunately, the Hugo awards have kept good records since the late 1950s, so we know who the other nominees for the award were in 1985. They were:
Emergence by David R. Palmer
The Integral Trees by Larry Niven
Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein
The Peace War by Vernor Vinge
Looking at this list, one wonders which book one should kick off of it to make room for Bridge of Birds. The weakest book on the list is probably Job: A Comedy of Justice, but given the pull Heinlein had with Hugo voters throughout his career, it seems unlikely that it would be bumped for a work by a first time novelist. There really isn't a particularly good argument for moving any of the other nominees off the list in favor of Bridge of Birds - all three of the novels are at least as good as Hughart's book, and in at least two cases, are probably better. Once again, in context it is entirely unsurprising that Hughart didn't get a Hugo nomination, because when one looks at the actual nominees, there's not a good argument for replacing one of them. This is a fundamental truth of the Hugo awards that none of the Sad Puppies seem to understand: There are, and always have been, many good books that never become Hugo nominees for perfectly understandable reasons. When evaluating whether books "should" have won awards or not, if you hold up a book as award-worthy without considering it in the context of its competition, you are presenting an essentially false narrative.

Then Hoyt goes entirely off the rails, claiming that Bridge of Birds is the sort of thing that should be winning a Hugo, and that this was the sort of award that the Hugo was "when Heinlein, Asimov, and Le Guin won it". Except, it wasn't. In 1985, Heinlein, Asimov, and Le Guin were still heavy hitters in the awards arena. Not only was Heinlein nominated in 1985, he had also been nominated in 1983, and would be nominated again in 1990. Between 1980 and 2003, Le Guin was nominated for the Hugo Award twelve times, winning once. Asimov won a Hugo Award in 1983, and then again in 1992 and 1995. He was also nominated five more times between 1980 and 1996. Hughart's novel is not merely the kind of book that didn't win the Hugo "when Heinlein, Asimov, and Le Guin won it", it is an actual book that didn't win the Hugo during that time period. When the Sad Puppies look back on the history of the genre, it is readily apparent that they don't look back on the actual history, but rather a made-up version that only exists in their minds, and then they make sweeping pronouncements that are so at odds with reality as to be almost mind-boggling.

Further, Hoyt's support for Hughart's book runs almost entirely counter to the avowedly populist sentiment touted by the Sad Puppies. I find their claims to only be seeking for people to "nominate books they like" to be disingenuous in the face of angry rants that talk about "taking science fiction back from the leftists", and Larry Correia loudly asserting that he "hates social justice warriors", and so on. These claims become even more dubious when one considers the works touted on the Sad Puppy 1 and Sad Puppy 2 ballots, which were both uniformly conservative and uniformly weak pieces of fiction. But even if one takes the populist assertions of the Sad Puppy proponents at face value, then if they succeed in their campaign a work like Bridge of Birds would have even less chance of winning a Hugo than it had in reality. One cannot talk about how small works with limited visibility were unfairly overlooked and, at the same time, promote a movement designed to appeal to commercial popularity as the appropriate measure of worthiness. The Sad Puppy proponents have frequently complained that the Hugo Awards have been decided by a small slice of fandom (while, at least in Torgersen's case, at the same time sneering that this small slice was not comprised of true science fiction fans) and celebrated the vast body of science fiction fan that turns out to watch big budget movies such as The Avengers and the Hunger Games, claiming that they want to draw those fans in and make the Hugo Award reflect their preferences.

But if the Hugo Award electorate were to change to such an audience, a book like Bridge of Birds wouldn't even be noticed. The reason that Bridge of Birds won a World Fantasy Award is directly attributable to the fact that that award is selected by a jury made up of a handful of judges drawn from the ranks of publishing professionals. The World Fantasy Award is, in effect, exactly the kind of award that the Sad Puppies are supposedly complaining about. When Hoyt describes the people who are familiar with Hughart's work as "intense sf/f fans, of the kind who reads books", she is describing exactly the kind of Hugo Award voters that the Sad Puppies want to push aside in favor of people who aren't intense science fiction and fantasy fans who read books. In fact, one of the common complaints issued by Sad Puppy proponents is that the Hugo Award voters have taken to honoring books that are too obscure - a charge that Hoyt herself makes while at the same time touting a book that was incredibly obscure when published, and remains so outside of a select group of dedicated fans. The brutal truth is that if the Sad Puppies are successful, then books like Bridge of Birds will never be nominated for Hugo Awards, which makes Hoyt's touting it as the kind of book that "should" have won a Hugo Award completely disingenuous.

To cap off her foray into being wrong about the history of science fiction and the Hugo Awards, she launches into a claim about what the awards were like "back then", saying:
It wasn’t a “oh, you’re so nice, and you attend all these cons, and you’re nice to us, and your publisher sends tons of books.” No. It was a “This is science fiction that won’t be forgotten in ten years.”
The problem with this claim is that is a completely untrue. Furthermore, it is untrue with respect to some of the very authors she references: Isaac Asimov, and to a lesser extent Robert A. Heinlein. By the time the 1980s rolled around, Asimov's best years as a writer were well behind him. In fact, by 1970 his best years as a writer were behind him. And yet, Asimov garnered all of his Hugo award victories after 1970. While Asimov's stories that were honored with Hugo Award nominations and wins were not bad books, they were definitely his second- and even third-tier material. Every single one of Asimov's Hugo wins was given to him because he was "so nice, and attends all these cons, and nice to us, and his publisher sent tons of books". And the same is true for Heinlein - pretty much every one of his nominations after 1970 were not because the books being nominated were top notch work, but rather because Heinlein was well-regarded by fans for his past work and because he spent a lot of time going to conventions.

As usual for Sad Puppy proponents, Hoyt has thrown out a collection of falsehoods built upon what one can only presume is her ignorance of the history of the award she is opining upon. And that is the thing that I think so many fans outside of the Sad Puppy bubble react to. The Sad Puppies are, in many ways, like a clumsy newcomer who barges in to an established operation and proceeds to smash things he doesn't understand. I think this is fundamentally because, despite their protestations, the Sad Puppies are a conservative movement promoted by people who have been living inside a conservative bubble for so long they don't realize how the outside world works. The true danger for the Sad Puppies isn't that they will not get onto the Hugo Award ballot, but rather that they will. Every author from Sad Puppies 2 that got placed on the ballot had their work exposed as the not-ready-for-prime-time material that it was. This year, it seems likely that many of the Sad Puppy 3 nominees will share that fate. When exposed to the wider arena of readers, the Sad Puppy books seem to receive much the same reception that Ted Cruz does when he leaves the small Tea Party cocoon and gives his stump speech to an audience that isn't one of the fawning conservative Christian audiences he is used to. The carefully inserted pauses for applause become painful silences. The laugh lines fall flat. The audience wonders why they are listening to the ranting crazy man on stage who is talking about abolishing the IRS. Being an extreme right-wing politician works well in the primaries, but doesn't sell so well in the general election.

And so it is with the Sad Puppy proponents. So many of them are so far inside their safe cocoon of ideologically like-minded friends, that they are stunned when they leave the nest and discover that their work is regarded as sub-par. When, as seems likely, their nominees sink to the bottom of the field and wind up last, or even below "No Award", they will be shocked. They've been told by their close friends and fans that their work is fantastic, so they reject the idea that someone could find their material to be less than excellent on the merits, instead spinning paranoid conspiracy theories about blacklisting and vote irregularities that have no actual basis in reality. So they will stand in their sad little circle, gently massaging one other's wounded egos, pretending that the silent majority agrees with them, and making up a version of history that lines up with their deluded fantasies.

Biased Opinions     Home

No comments:

Post a Comment