How This Year’s Hugo Awards Turned Into a Battle Over Race, Gender, and the Soul of Fandom

This weekend marked the 73rd annual World Science Fiction Convention, better known as WorldCon, and with it, the ceremony for the 2015 Hugo Awards, the prize that has recognized excellence in science fiction and fantasy since 1953. This year’s proceedings, however, were far more than a simple celebration of excellence in a genre. For those who haven’t been following the months-long controversy, headlines like “Diversity wins as the Sad Puppies lose” (or, on the opposing side, “SJWs Burn Down the Hugo Awards”) might seem incomprehensible. So we’ve put together a guide to what went down in Spokane, Washington, what it means for fandom as a whole, and what the hell sad puppies have to do with it.

The “Sad Puppies” are a voting bloc, not a bunch of adorable pets. Key to understanding the Hugo controversy is the awards’ democratic nature — or, at least, they’re more democratic than awards distributed by professional organizations with limited memberships, like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the Golden Globes) or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars). Any science fiction fan who buys a membership to WorldCon (“supporting,” i.e. non-attending, memberships for the 2016 convention run $50) is eligible to vote, first to determine the five nominees that will make the ballot for each of the 16 categories, then on which of those nominees will win the actual award. Voters have the option of selecting “No Award” in lieu of any of the final five nominees; keep this in mind, since it’ll be important later.

Enter the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies, a group of Hugo voters with an agenda. During the nomination stage of this year’s Hugo voting in the spring — ballots were announced on April 4 — it became apparent that the Sad Puppies, created by novelist Larry Correia three years ago and now led by fellow writer Brad Torgersen, and more hard-line subgroup the Rabid Puppies, led by blogger and possible troll Theodore “Vox Day” Beale, had exerted a clear influence on the 2015 slate of Hugo nominees. In Amy Wallace’s excellent long-form rundown of the controversy for WIRED, she speaks to Torgersen and Beale about what they hoped to achieve.

Depending on who you ask, the Puppies are lobbying either for greater fairness or against increasing diversity in science fiction. The Sad Puppies see themselves as populists, advocating for bestselling books against those championed by elitists on the basis of identity politics alone. Quoth Torgersen to Wallace: “As soon as [race or sexuality] becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window… When people go on about how we’re anti-diversity, I’m like: No. All we’re saying is storytelling ought to come first.” Beale, meanwhile, is more… provocative; at one point, he was expelled from the Science Fiction Writers of America for using the organization’s Twitter feed to share a blog post in which he referred to author N.K. Jemisin, a black woman, as a “half-savage.” He regularly refers to his opponents as SJWs, where the Sad Puppies use the less loaded, more specific term CHORFs, for “Cliquish, Holier-Than-Thou, Obnoxious, Reactionary Fanatics.”

Both groups believe the Hugos were exhibiting an unfair preference for works by female authors — from 2011 to 2013, more women were nominated in fiction categories than men — and nonwhite authors like John Chu, whose short story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” featuring a gay Chinese man as its protagonist, won a Hugo in 2014. So the Puppies encouraged their supporters to vote instead for the works they felt were being ignored, often by white, male authors with more conservative politics.

Initially, the Puppies succeeded. Even though the Sad Puppies have been around for a few years, this is the first time they’ve had a noticeable impact on the Hugos — which is probably thanks to the Rabid Puppies, a newer group, and the hostile backlash against increasing diversity in geek subcultures they represent (Gamergate is a much more widely covered, and in some cases much uglier, example of the same trend). Said impact was immediately obvious when the nominees were announced in April, but following the Hugos, the organizers have released a 26-page breakdown of the voting process that shows the gory details of who was shut out and how.

Blogger Chaos Horizon matched up the votes with Beale’s recommendations to arrive at his estimate that the Rabid Puppies made up about 10% of the final Hugo vote at slightly more than 500 members, with the Sad Puppies making up another 10%. During the nomination stage, those numbers were enough to guarantee five categories’ worth of all-Puppy nominees — in Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, Best Editor for Short Form, and Best Editor for Long Form — and, according to iO9’s detailed analysis, greatly alter the makeup of the Hugo ballot.

But the Hugos ultimately didn’t go in the Puppies’ favor. In between the nomination announcement and WorldCon itself, the convention experienced a massive spike in membership. Over 11,000 people bought memberships, an all-time high, and nearly 6,000 people voted — 65% more than ever before, according to Wallace. Until this weekend’s award ceremonies, however, it wasn’t clear whether the new voters were heeding the Puppies’ rallying cry or reacting against it.

The numbers clearly indicate that most voters fell into the latter camp. Every single one of the all-Puppy awards resulted in a No Award vote; Chaos Horizon estimates that a full 2500 voters, nearly half the total voting pool, voted “No Award” across all of these categories on principle. Another 1000 voted “No Award” in at least some categories, indicating they were sympathetic to the anti-Puppy coalition and creating a consensus that dwarfed the Puppies’ vocal minority.

One of the most vocal anti-Puppy voices was noted Santa Fe theater owner George R.R. Martin. Martin has blogged extensively about the controversy on his LiveJournal (yes, Martin still maintains a LiveJournal). His opinion in a nutshell? “I think the Sad Puppies have broken the Hugo Awards, and I am not sure they can ever be repaired.”

So Martin hosted an alternative awards ceremony — technically, an awards ceremony tacked on to a Hugo Losers’ Party, a tradition he actually began in 1976 — this year, which he dubbed “the Alfies.” Alfies were awarded to both snubbed authors, such as Jo Walton, Ursula Vernon, and Patrick Rothfuss, and authors who had been nominated thanks to the Puppies but withdrew themselves from consideration out of principle — namely, Marko Kloos and Annie Bellet.

The Hugo controversy was thus brought to close on an optimistic note, allowing snubbed authors a time in the spotlight. But it remains to be seen whether “Puppygate,” as it’s been called, will spill over into next year’s voting, or if science fiction fandom is finally at peace with its own increasing diversity.