This article is inspired by an incident that occurred recently on the /r/Fantasy subreddit. I had covered the Puppy Wars as a columnist for The Escapist back in 2015 and 2016. I came to it from a perspective somewhat different than most. I was a published fantasy author, but I had been driven out of the convention circuit about ten years before by a rather nasty streak of politicking involving a false complaint (in this case, being told that a non-existent complaint had been made against me and I had no chance of fighting it), so I didn’t really feel a part of the community. I was not American, but a Canadian centrist — this gave me an outsider’s view of American politics that left me neither buying into either side or turning a blind eye to their excesses.
To write these columns, I did what was referred to as “primary source” research. This means relying not upon news coverage of what had happened or what people had said, but finding the original source. My editor required me to have a link for every factual statement I made — if I said that Larry Correia had said “X,” I had to provide the document or tweet where he had said it. This left me in a somewhat rare position — I had read what all three sides (Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and “Hugo Defenders,” as my mother-in-law aptly named them) were saying, analyzed their words for myself, and drawn my own conclusions.
So, when one day on the Fantasy subreddit I had pointed out in a thread that the Sad Puppies had actually nominated a diverse slate and that it was the Hugo Defenders who had been making voter suppression arguments that would be on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement with a simple word replacement, I found myself receiving a seven day ban for the baffling “crime” of being “dismissive of diversity” and going “against our values of inclusion.” I demanded that they substantiate this claim when I had been pointing that diversity had existed and that authors had been unjustly excluded. I was then simply told, “The Sad Puppies were fundamentally a right wing movement geared towards silencing and disempowering marginalized voices. We are not here to debate this, as we consider it a settled matter” and warned that any further defending of the Sad Puppies on the subreddit would result in a permanent ban. I was also directed to a Hugo Award finalist book titled Debarkle, which was claimed revealed their actual motivations and methods.
What I saw in the book (and, to be clear, I skimmed part of it rather than reading all of it, and am only speaking to what I read) was typical of American political writing — it was highly partisan, gave the benefit of the doubt to the side it supported while denying it to the side it did not, and made implied value judgements based on whether somebody was a gun owner, participated in gun forums, or had voted for Donald Trump. Inconvenient facts were glossed over or ignored.
So, I decided to take a second look at the Puppy Wars and see to what degree my original observations had held up eight years later. Was I right? Did I miss something? And, what can we make of it today?
NOTE: Before I go any further, I need to lay out where I stand on the matter. I did take a side eight years ago, and I remain on it to this day — I am on the side of the authors who got thrown under the bus as category after category went “No Award.” These authors are often forgotten, but they were the ones who were arguably hurt the most. They didn’t ask for this controversy, many were women or people of colour, and they were rejected out of hand based solely on the fact that they were nominated by the wrong people. To this day, I am not aware of any apology that has ever been issued to them for this treatment, which is in and of itself abominable.
So, that out of the way, let’s get started…
Vox Day as Provocateur
Back when I first covered this material, I couldn’t figure out if Vox Day was being sincere or playing the provocateur to get a reaction…and I still can’t. I don’t have any idea of whether he actually believed any of the things he said.
Back when I was doing strategic communications research for Canada’s Department of National Defence, I got some exposure to studies of radicalization. And, during my MA at Royal Military College, I presented a paper at a security conference analyzing the public statements of Osama bin Laden. And, one of the things I noticed about figures like Bin Laden was a lack of a certain type of theatricality. They were very sincere, and clearly believed what they were saying. But, people like Bin Laden or Hitler never presented themselves as a “Snidely Whiplash” type of figure. They never presented their plans as evil, or dastardly, or wicked, or looked like they were about to start cackling maniacally while twirling a moustache.
And Vox Day, well, DID. He presented himself as the moustache-twirling villain. He could very well have believed every far-right statement he ever made. He could also very well have believed none of them. Or maybe he believed some, but not all. The only person who knows the truth is Vox Day, and if it really was all an act to stir the pot, it seems unlikely he would admit it.
All I can say with the benefit of hindsight was that his stated aims were to act as a provocateur and provoke as much chaos as possible, provoking categories to go to “No Award.” And in this, he succeeded.
The Question of Diversity
The narrative for the Puppy Wars was that the Sad Puppies were a far-right movement to silence marginalized groups and end diversity in the field of science fiction, or at least the Hugo Awards. This is one narrative that I can say with absolutely certainty was and remains false.
The reason I have this level of certainty is a retraction of a claim that the Sad Puppy slate was without diversity by Entertainment Weekly:
After misinterpreting reports in other news publications, EW published an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the Sad Puppies voting slate, which does, in fact, include many women and writers of color. As Sad Puppies’ Brad Torgerson explained to EW, the slate includes both women and non-caucasian writers, including Rajnar Vajra, Larry Correia, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson, and Amanda Green.
To understand why this is important, you have to understand how a retraction like this comes into existence. Entertainment Weekly is a major publication, and their parent company has a nice large war chest for dealing with nuisance lawsuits. So, for them to walk back a claim in this manner, the following has to have happened:
- The publication received a complaint, usually with a legal threat of a defamation lawsuit.
- This complaint/threat was sent to the legal department, who did their own independent fact check of it and determined that it had merit.
- The publication was instructed to retract the claim so that they would not get successfully sued.
And what this means is that while one can certainly question the veracity of the motivations of any of the people involved, and ask just how true claims of caring about diversity or wanting to remove politics from science fiction really are, we can say with certainty that the claim of the Sad Puppy slate lacking diversity was false. If there had been any truth to that claim, Entertainment Weekly would not have issued a retraction.
But, at the same time, on its face the claim that the Sad Puppies were trying to remove diversity from the genre is ridiculous. The people attacking them are asking one to believe that a movement to get women and people of colour out of science fiction was started by a Hispanic (Larry Correia, whose family is Portugese), handed to the husband of a woman of colour (Brad Torgersen), who then handed it to two women (Sarah Hoyt and Kate Paulk), one of whom is Hispanic (Sarah Hoyt, who is Portugese). This means that of the four people who ran the campaign, half were women, and half were people of colour (based on the odd, and frankly backwards, American understanding of race and ethnicity). This is not how a white supremacist or anti-diversity movement starts.
And then you have the problem raised by two questions:
- If the Sad Puppies were so against diversity in science fiction, why did they nominate women and people of colour?
- If the Hugo Defenders were so keen on including women and people of colour, why didn’t they notice that these people were on the ballot and why did they throw them under the bus?
Clearly, diversity was the rhetorical cudgel and not the issue. To make matters even clearer, the supposed stated goal of silencing marginalized voices in science fiction is a physical impossibility. They’ve always been there, always will be, and there is nothing anybody can do to change that.
To understand why, you need to understand how books get acquired by major publishers. New authors tend to go through what is called a “slush pile.” But, when an author’s book is looked at, all the acquisitions editor has is a name, address (often in a far away city and sometimes a different country), cover letter, and manuscript. They have no way of knowing any personal information that is not disclosed in the cover letter. They have no way of knowing if the name is real or a penname, or if the author is male or female, or what their ethnicity happens to be. And this means that even in the bad old days of Jim Crow, there was no real way for a publisher to prevent people from a marginalized group from getting their books accepted for publication. The only thing that has really changed between then and now is that publicly championing marginalized groups is fashionable, and authors from marginalized groups are free to be open about their identity (which is, make no mistake, an improvement).
All of the people embroiled in the Puppy Wars who had any involvement with publishing had to have, on at least a subconscious level, known this. And this, in turn, makes the claim all the more galling.
The Donald Trump Effect
Donald Trump casts a long shadow. Considering the events of the last seven years, this is hardly a surprise. And, indeed, the charge (and sin) of being a Trump voter or supporter has now been levied at many of the people involved in the Sad Puppies campaign.
And the problem with this is that it is meaningless for understanding what happened. Trump indeed ran a populist campaign changed with racism and xenophobia, warped the Republican Party into his own cult of personality, took actions that delegitimized American democracy and the peaceful transfer of power, and allegedly incited an insurrection. But, none of these things had happened when the Puppy Wars played out in 2015. Back then, Donald Trump was a television celebrity and social media provocateur whose main claim to political fame was demanding President Obama’s full-length birth certificate and using announcements that he was going to run for the presidency as self-promotion before pulling out of the race. He wasn’t taken very seriously as a potential candidate. The actual right-wing political controversies revolved around the Tea Party, who, along with many Republicans, had taken an obstructionist approach to the Obama administration.
But while Americans tended to support their own elected representatives, their attitudes towards the antics of Congress as a whole was one of embarrassment and disgust — on a good day, Congress might break a 20% approval rating. This played out over the course of the 2016 Republican Primaries as a referendum on the party as a whole, with Donald Trump — who was arguably one of the most leftward-leaning of the Republican candidates during the debates — winning state after state despite all efforts by the party itself to stop him. So, linking the Sad Puppies to Trump-ism holds no water…it just didn’t exist yet when the main Puppy Wars took place.
But, there’s also the guilt by association, which is a problem. It needs to be remembered that the United States has a two party system, and this means that in the 2016 Presidential election there were only two names on the ballot supported by a party in Congress. The Democrats had also put forward an establishment candidate, while Trump was a relative newcomer promising change. So, if you were a Republican, you supported Trump because he was your candidate. If you didn’t like the Democrat candidate or policies, you supported Trump, because he was the alternative. If you wanted change in Congress, you supported Trump, because he was the “change candidate.” None of these requires racism as a justification or motivation. There were certainly racists and white supremacists who supported Trump, but so did a lot of people who had voted twice for Obama.
So, by itself, the charge that somebody had supported Trump in 2016 or later is functionally meaningless for understanding events the year before.
A Storm in a Teacup
Were the Puppy Wars a storm in a teacup, or, as I suggested in my second column installment, a storm in a thimble? Well, yes and no.
The fact is that the Hugo Awards and Worldcon had been decreasing in importance in fandom for years by the time the Puppy Wars took place, and the events of 2015 didn’t make them any more relevant. If anything, the founding of the Dragon Awards as a reaction indicated that the events of 2015 for many fans was a last straw that made them walk away from the WorldCon clique and the Hugo Awards for greener pastures.
But, at the same time, it’s clear that it was a symptom of a widening culture war. The rhetoric that was used to demonize the Sad Puppies became endemic in pop culture in the form of “fan baiting.” The impact of WorldCon and the Hugo Awards were relatively small in comparison to the impact of the ComiCons, but what happened there was also a harbinger of things to come. That makes it anything but meaningless.
What Was It All About?
In the original columns, I concluded that what had happened was a war between cliques, with Vox Day stirring the pot to add additional chaos. Most of this, I think, still holds water. The Hugo voters in 2015 didn’t actually care about the ethnicity or sex of the nominees — they only cared that it wasn’t their clique who had put them on the ballot. And that by itself makes it a tribal fight.
But, at the same time, I think there was an additional issue in play. Once one takes the Entertainment Weekly retraction into account, along with the marked diversity of the Sad Puppy organizers, it’s pretty clear that they were sincere about their intentions. But this intention — that works be nominated based on the quality of the story without regard to politics — was a direct challenge to the belief that award-worthy fiction had to be political.
These two ideas — that award-worthy fiction must be political and that award-worthy fiction does not need to be political — cannot co-exist. If either one is true, then by definition the other is false. And these were deeply held beliefs on both sides. This meant that the conflict was not just a battle between cliques, but opposing ideologies, and this in turn explains a lot about how bitter it became, and how badly some members on all sides behaved.
So, Now What?
I honestly don’t know. As interesting an intellectual exercise as it was to look back on this issue, it’s hard to see it as relevant today. Worldcon and the Hugo Awards are about to take another massive hit in what little prestige they have left with hosting the event in China (and the almost certain manipulation of the awards that will happen by the Chinese government), but it’s rather hard to care about that at this point. They’re an insular clique who threw a bunch of authors and editors, many of whom were women and people of colour, under the bus in the name of diversity and inclusion because somebody else nominated them. They demonized a movement started by a person of colour (and one that may very well have had more diversity by percentage in its organizers than they did), with claims that were patently and obviously false. In any other country than the United States, there would have been a bunch of defamation lawsuits. They probably deserve whatever they get…and they certainly don’t deserve any sympathy from me.
Time, I guess, to shrug and move on.