Two Steps Back, One Step Forward: reflections on 2016 Hugos

Now that the 2016 Hugos have come and gone, and this year’s “puppy” slate has been defeated again, it’s worth reflecting on the state of SFF in the aftermath. On the one hand, N.K. Jemisin’s deserved victory for The Fifth Season is a lovely punch in the face to Vox Day and his supporters, particularly since Day’s genre counter-revolution was signalled by his racist comments about Jemisin. On the other hand, this victory is rather dismal: the “puppy” interference with the Hugos in fact reveals deep-seeded problems with the SFF mainstream that might in fact be reified by these liberal common fronts against obvious reactionaries.

But first the good. Victories by the likes of Jemisin and Okorafor should indeed be celebrated. The “puppy” slate functioned according to the racist proposition that works by women and people of colour were only winning awards, or even being nominated, because of some PC conspiracy: true to racist form, Day and his ilk simply assume, a priori, that any SFF book that isn’t written by a white dude could only win because of some affirmative action liberalism. Such an attitude is common to a pseudo-meritocracy approach to art where a privileged artist-to-be presumes that if there was no affirmative action or multicultural ethos affecting the cultural industry then their work would not be excluded from an establishment that supposedly is only accepting work from oppressed people groups. “If only there was a level playing field based on merit,” they crow, “Someone would look at my book/art/music/etc.” The ignorance of this attitude should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to study society, culture, and the cosmetic “affirmative action” ventures that actually do exist. There is no level playing field based on merit, the game was rigged for people who occupy sites of social privilege for a long time, and these paltry “PC” ventures are generally cosmetic attempts to make the playing field even so that merit can be considered in a broader sense – cosmetic because they really haven’t accomplished that much except open some cracks. Cracks through which thankfully creep, for example, the victories in the 2016 Hugos.

For anyone who has bothered to read the winners it should be clear that the works indeed merit the awards and that it’s only because of tireless activism amongst fans and activists who care about more voices being published and heard – who are tired of the bland work of the singular muscular male golden age voice – as well as SFF being taken seriously as a literary object. That is, the so-called “PC conspiracy” is about “merit”, the fact that other voices and their works have merit. You really have to be a committed racist to believe otherwise, although most people who push this “I-want-to-back-to-the-days-of-merit” argument pretend otherwise: unless they’re like Day and his friends, who are pretty honest about their racism (though completely dishonest about their assessment of “merit”), these kinds of people are simply average liberals who refuse to accept that the good old days of the culture meritocracy were the good old days of excluding large swathes of humanity for consideration of potential merit. The literature and arts industry does not exist in a vacuum cleansed of all the shit that determines a social formation; it operates according to the messiness of multiple social relations.

So in this context it is definitely worth celebrating the victories of the 2016 Hugo winners. Let’s be clear: the books that won deserved to win because they merited the win and not, as the “puppy” conspirators (they’re the ones who really launched a controlled conspiracy movement) would have it, because of an affirmative action attitude. For example, Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was one of the best fantasy novels in the past year: it had an extremely creative world-building conceit, it was uber-epic, it had an organic history and back story, its characters were compelling, its story punched you in the gut, and it was very well written. The real victory, here, is that we now have people who have been traditionally excluded from SFF being published and being read by the establishment… Prior to this crack opening social exclusion would have been such that similar possible works would have never been published let alone received the promotion necessary to make it to the Hugos. This is a good thing… But is it enough?

The thing with the “puppy” controversy is that in some ways it functions to help obscure a larger problem. If we’re all completely honest about Vox Day and his slate supporters we would have to admit that they don’t really represent the average SFF reader and consumer let alone critic and producer. Day runs a shitty little vanity press that puts out mind-numbingly boring, derivative, and hackneyed work that anyone who has been reading SFF seriously for even a year – even if all they read was Tolkien and Asimov – would dislike. The fact that Day’s followers are “fake sci-fi boys” was brought home by We Hunted The Mammoth‘s article on the 2016 Hugos where the authors screen-cap reddit comments from “puppy” supporters that demonstrate their ignorance of the genre: they talk about reading Asimov and Herbert as children, as if their SFF experience is in the foggy past and not contemporary; they complain that The Fifth Season was a novel about “climate change” (and by a black woman, no less, which is their real problem) when in fact the “climate change” it is about has no real world resonance; they have nothing interesting to say about the genre’s history, and most probably the old names they mention (and that they can barely remember) would hate them as well. It’s pretty easy to dismiss Day and his followers as being SFF outliers trying to “game” the SFF establishment because they’re a bunch of illiterate “philistines”.

That is, the outlier status of Day and his noxious ilk function as convenient scape-goat for the SFF establishment (of which Day was never a part, and that he is resentful of) which is generally liberal. The SFF liberals can lament how Day is ruining their game, even though he’s playing it at its utmost boundaries: “he’s gaming the Hugos,” they complain as if it was never a game to begin with, and one that should necessarily generate people like Day. It’s a bit like die-hard Hilary Clinton supporters complaining about the “stupidity” and “philistinism” of Donald Trump supporters as if US politics was not an imperialist game that always permits a troubling fascism to develop in its underbelly; an elitist and establishment imperialism pretends to be horrified by a movement that isn’t playing the game according to liberal racism but out-and-out racism. The Democrats can endorse “Blue Lives Matter” and send out drones to annihilate Third World bodies, but lord help us when a Republican openly proclaims an honestly extreme version of US capitalism and mobilizes a largely under-educated white garrison population with populist rhetoric.

In order to illustrate what I mean here, let’s think back on the 2015 Hugos where the “puppies” were first accused of “gaming” these awards much to the horror of the SFF establishment… Just like the entire rotten US political establishment reacted in horror to the “gaming” of its elite ranks by Trump’s populism. In 2015 the “puppy” takeover was also temporarily defeated. Left liberals probably congratulated themselves on beating back the reactionaries and preserving the sanctity of the Hugos by generally rejecting the “puppy” slates. The victory was more moralistic than substantial. And yet many of the same people who were opposed to the right wing “gaming” of the Hugos tended to be the very same people who voted for Laura Mixon’s Hugo in the best fan writer category. They didn’t seem to realize that the politics behind the “puppy” slates were the very same politics of Mixon’s article. The fact that they condemned the “puppies” and not Mixon means that the former was victorious, that it was justified to game the slate again, and that you don’t need reactionaries to “ruin” a prestigious genre award when social fascists will do it for you. Indeed, George R.R. Martin lamented in one breath that the Hugos was “ruined” by this “gaming” but in another breath endorsed the Mixon article (which was basically white supremacist character assassination of an author from the global peripheries using identity politics as cover) which was beloved by people who were simultaneously condemning the “puppies.” Hence the establishment can still remain an exclusive operation as long as it functions according to the logic of supposed “good sportsmanship” and not the openly racist logic the “puppies” whose real sin was breaking with said sportsmanship. Mixon’s article might as well have been a “puppy” nomination (and apparently Day liked it) and yet, with the “puppies” as the convenient enemy and Mixon as an ally of those who hated the “puppies”, it in fact represented a declaration of the SFF establishment.

The problem, then, is that we have on the one hand an explosion of SFF work that is challenging the status quo (what I have called elsewhere a new renaissance in the genre) and two responses to this eruption: i) the establishment attempt to contain it according to acceptable boundaries; ii) a reactionary attempt to denounce it entirely along with the genre history as a whole. While the first response seems preferable to the second its logic in fact permits the reactionary option: a tactic of containment and boundary preservation will always signal the supposed necessity to cleanse the contained, the nostalgia for a supposed golden era of SFF is not easily defeated. Nostalgia is most often conservative.

Hence, while we should indeed celebrate the victory of the 2016 Hugo winners over all attempts to silence excellent SFF produced from the margins (which is where, in my opinion, great literature is usually produced), we should also think through the boundaries produced by the SFF establishment. If the same people who complain about the “puppies” can also promote racist hit-pieces (i.e. Mixon’s fan fiction win in 2015) then we are dealing with an establishment that possessed problems long before the “puppies” decided to play its game.

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