Not that long ago, if you’d spun a dystopian yarn about some future society where culture wars were so pervasive that nobody could enjoy reading a novel without first approving of the author’s politics, it would have been almost too fantastical to be believed. But within the insular world of science fiction, that future is becoming a reality.
For more than 50 years, the Hugo Awards have been handed out at the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) to honor the best science fiction and fantasy writing of the previous year. But when the nominees for this year’s Hugos were announced, it touched off a firestorm unlike any in the awards’ history.
That’s because so many of this year’s nominees are perceived (not always correctly) to be conservative or libertarian. A group of right-leaning science fiction authors organized a campaign to stuff this year’s Hugo Awards ballot with writers they felt had been overlooked.
There are other science fiction awards, but the Hugos hold a special place among fans. Anyone who pays $40 to Worldcon can nominate an author. The awards thus have a special legitimacy because they are seen as being selected by the most dedicated readers.
The fact that Hugos are voted on by readers means that authors and publishers have engaged in various levels of politicking over the years to try to win. Big-name writers are not above posting lists of their favorite works on their websites or popular science fiction message boards in an attempt to whip votes.
However, among certain elements of the science fiction community, there had long been a suspicion that campaigns to gather Hugo votes were more coordinated and less reflective of the fan base than they might appear.
The schism over the Hugo Awards is aesthetic as well as political. For some time now, a handful of stars in the science fiction firmament—notably popular author John Scalzi and some polarizing editors associated with Tor, arguably the most influential publisher—have been pushing to elevate the genre by embracing certain literary and political themes. Critics contend that in practice this means an overabundance of “message fiction” where, say, encounters with an alien civilization become leaden metaphors for gay rights and other politically correct themes. The fans opposed to this want science fiction to stay focused on story-telling and adventure—and they are annoyed by the attempt to banish cherished genre conventions, such as book covers with buxom babes and musclebound heroes.
The literary crowd counters that the science fiction traditionalists are a bunch of white male retrogrades. There’s some truth to at least part of that characterization—a 2011 reader poll by the Guardian produced a list of the 500 most beloved works of science fiction. Just 18 were written by women.
There’s little doubt, however, about which faction has had more success at the Hugos in recent years. Last year, “the Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy were swept by a younger group of women and people of color. [I]t looked as though science fiction and fantasy were finally catching up to reality—the best stories aren’t only the ones told by straight white men,” notes the science fiction news website i09. But BookScan sales figures for some of these culturally enlightened Hugo winners show they’re not exactly embraced by the reading public, and thus suggest that perhaps more sub rosa politicking had gone on than was being admitted.
“In the last decade . . . we’ve seen the Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters,” observes science fiction writer Brad R. Torgersen.
Further, many science fiction fans have become alarmed by how a perceived lack of sensitivity to liberal social justice issues suddenly started destroying careers and reputations. Meeting the publication requirements to join the prestigious Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) had long been a goal of aspiring science fiction writers. But in 2013, a large number of SFWA members resigned in disgust over the organization’s political agenda.