Space Shuttle Explosions and Hugo Awards — The Normalization of Deviance at Worldcon

Robert B. Marks
10 min readFeb 27, 2024
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Challenger_explosion.jpg

It seems that one can’t get away from the mess that is the Hugo Awards these days. After writing what I thought would be my final coverage of it, a new controversy emerged in my YouTube feed in which there was not only censorship of Western authors at the Hugo Awards in China, but the disenfranchising of hundreds, if not thousands of Chinese ballots on the grounds that their selections had “appeared on a slate.” But, what brings me to write on this is a comment by John Scalzi on his blog where he talked about his point of view, in which he says, “Note: Attempts to re-litigate the Sad Puppy nonsense in the comments here will be Malleted. That was its own mess, with its own dynamic. This is a new problem, and some think possibly a worse problem, and this is what we’ll be addressing today, thanks.”

Scalzi is 100% wrong. And I say this as somebody who teaches disaster analysis at the university level, and runs his students through Human Factors analyses of why airplanes crash (particularly the 737 MAX 8). This latest scandal is indeed related to the “Sad Puppy nonsense” — in fact, it is so built upon it that it could not have happened without it.

So, I’m going to set aside my distaste for everything Hugo related and rebut Scalzi’s point, because there are some very important things that need to be said (whether somebody listens is anybody’s guess). And, as strange as it sounds, I need to start with a space shuttle exploding in 1986.

For those old enough to remember it (like me), the Challenger explosion was a fairly serious generational trauma. But, years after the fact, there was a question that really didn’t quite have the answer it needed: how did NASA, an organization that is very safety-oriented, reach the point where it could make the decision to launch the shuttle under conditions that were unsafe? A sociologist named Diane Vaughan set out to answer this question, and her book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, became one of the best explorations and explanations of the disaster ever put to print.

What Vaughan noticed was a process in NASA’s safety culture that she called a “normalization of deviance.” It worked roughly like this:

  1. The O-Ring (or some other component) is designed to perform within certain specified tolerances.
  2. The O-Ring (or other component) performs outside of these tolerances in some manner (aka a deviation).
  3. A working group is created to examine what happened, determine its impact on safety, and figure out any necessary remedies.
  4. The deviation is determined to not impact safety so long it is within new calculated tolerances.
  5. Instead of redesigning the component to remove the deviation, the deviation is declared to be an acceptable risk, and is added to the specified tolerances.

In the case of the Challenger and its fateful O-Rings, this process repeated over and over again, with the tolerances for “acceptable risk” being widened each time. As this happened, clear warning signs were misinterpreted, and a launch decision that never should have been made was made. At no point did the engineers realize that they were acting in a manner that could compromise safety — in fact, as far as they knew they were following rigorous and correct safety procedures. Now, this is a very brief summary of a far more complicated phenomenon, but it gets the basic process across. And you can find this “normalization of deviance” as a mechanism behind many major disasters.

It is also quite present and accounted for at Worldcon and the Hugo Awards. The “Sad Puppy nonsense,” as Scalzi calls it, was but one of many step in this process for Worldcon.

So, let’s take a look at this mechanism and how it plays out. Like with the Challenger, this will by necessity be a brief summary of a far more complicated and nuanced process. And, to start with, we need a baseline — for this we will use Worldcon and the Hugo Awards of 1960. The reason for this is that this is the year that a novel titled Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for best novel. Starship Troopers was politically right-leaning to the point that to this day there are arguments and debates about whether it crosses the line into fascism. However, there was no question about its legitimacy on the ballot — it had been nominated by Worldcon members in good standing, and therefore it belonged. It won because the members also voted, and it won the most votes. From this, we can deduce the following about this baseline:

  1. Legitimacy of a work on the Hugo Award ballot was based solely on the work being nominated in accordance with the rules.
  2. The political leaning of the book, author, nominators, or voters did not impact this legitimacy.

This is a far cry from the censorship controversy that has erupted for 2023, or what happened in the “Sad Puppy nonsense.” But, right up until the 2000s, it seems that this baseline held true. The awards started to skew towards leftward leaning politics, but this was because that was how the community was skewing. More left-leaning works were making the ballot because more of them were being nominated by the members in good standing. What determined whether a work appearing on the ballot was considered legitimate was whether it had gotten there in accordance with the rules.

What changed was the culture war. This was a slow change. But, quite possibly accelerated by the fraught election of George W. Bush and the following War on Terror, came the idea that the politics of a person mattered more than the book they were writing. This took the form of hostility towards rightwards-leaning authors, causing some to hide their political leanings in fear of blacklisting. Notably, this was a cultural change, not a rules change. To the community, it became acceptable to snub people based on their politics alone (a deviance from the previous norm where the writing mattered more than the person’s political leanings).

Another deviance to become normalized was in regards to identity politics. In the 1990s and before, any attempt to give somebody or their work greater value because of their race, sex, or sexuality was considered bigotry. Pointing out that there were groups who were under-represented was acceptable, but discriminating against anybody for any reason was not. However, with the rise of Critical Race Theory and Anti-Racism, placing greater value on somebody based on their identity as a perceived marginalized group was re-positioned as an acceptable form of creating a more fair society. It also became okay to vilify members of the perceived majority when a dispute arose (something that was not acceptable prior). Again, at this point, these are cultural shifts in the Worldcon community — they are manifesting in the Hugo Awards through what works are being nominated, and the legitimacy of the nominations is still based entirely on whether the rules have been followed.

And this brings us up to the “Sad Puppy nonsense.” The norms of the 1960s Worldcon had changed due to the normalization over time of cultural deviance. So, on the eve of the “Sad Puppy nonsense,” the community norms around what gets onto the ballot can probably be summed up as follows:

  1. Legitimacy of a work on the Hugo Award ballot is based on the work being nominated in accordance with the rules.
  2. Left-wing politics are legitimate and correct, but right-leaning politics are wrong and illegitimate. As such, it is acceptable to discriminate against those who have right-leaning politics.
  3. People who are white males should be willing to step aside in favour of members of “marginalized communities,” and failure to do so is participation in a white supremacist system and makes them racist.

So, when the Sad Puppies brought a bunch of new people with a variety of political leanings and tastes in fiction into the mix, the Worldcon culture was primed to wage war against them. However, both the Sad and Rabid Puppies had followed the rules, and therefore every single nomination of theirs that had made it onto the ballot was legitimate. The only way to avoid these nominations from gaining awards was to prevent any nomination in a category in which Puppies nominees had dominated getting an award, and this was precisely what was done, while the “Hugo Defenders” argued that these works were not legitimate nominations due to having been on a Sad or Rabid Puppy slate.

Had there been a proper backlash from the community of authors, Worldcon community, and media, history might have been different. But, there wasn’t one — most of the media accepted it as just another battle in the culture war, and turned a blind eye to the fact that the supposed “good guys” were making vicious voter suppression arguments that would have been on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement with a single word substitution, engaging in outright defamation, and throwing authors under the bus because the wrong people had nominated them. As a result, this behaviour was given widespread approval, and three new deviancies became normalized:

  1. That legitimacy of a work on the Hugo ballot was based both on the work being nominated in accordance with the rules AND it being in line with acceptable politics (identity or otherwise) — a work that does not meet both criteria is not legitimate, even if its nomination followed the rules to the letter.
  2. That slate voting was a form of “gaming the Hugos” and any work that appears on a slate or a list with any appearance of a slate is therefore of questionable legitimacy.
  3. It is acceptable to judge and/or disenfranchise authors, works, or paying members based on their political orientation or past activities or statements, regardless of how invasive of privacy it may be.

With these normalized, the stage was set for the new controversy. Authors and works could be disqualified from the ballot in spite of the rules being followed because their legitimacy was also based on a political requirement. Hundreds of Chinese voters could be disenfranchised of their nominations because of the mere presence of a work on what might have been a slate. Dossiers could be created on authors to determine political desirability for the CCP, and to remove those who were deemed undesirable. The final deviance to be normalized — that the rules could be disregarded — was not a large step.

In fact, none of the steps in the long history of normalization of deviance in Worldcon were large ones. All were gradual, baby steps at most. The founding principle of the Hugo Award was that it was to represent all of science fiction fandom, but as time went on the tolerances of what was acceptable in implementing this became wider and wider, until eventually excluding those deemed undesirable based on their political leanings became normal. You cannot have the current scandal without the “Sad Puppy nonsense.” Likewise, you cannot have the “Sad Puppy nonsense” without the culture wars. Both would have been unthinkable in the Worldcon and Hugo Awards of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Now, it should be noted that while this provides an explanation of how a scandal like the 2023 Hugo Awards can take place, it does NOT excuse any of the participants. Every single one had an obligation, both according to basic morality and the rules of Worldcon, to act otherwise. Those creating dossiers on authors to determine their political desirability should have refused to do so. The same goes for those who were told to invalidate legal ballots because of whether a title might have been on a slate. The culture being warped does not create an excuse for compliance — it creates an obligation to take corrective measures. Over the decades, at every step where a normalization of deviance took place, those present had the ability and obligation to reject and fight against it. However, few did. Many just accepted the new deviance, turned a blind eye, or actively supported it.

And likewise, it should be noted that this most recent controversy is a problem of CULTURE, not organization. Replacing the people at the top who carried out this “fraud,” as Scalzi put it, will not fix the problem. Whoever replaces them will almost certainly be products of the same normalization of deviance that enabled the Worldcon community to justify declaring Hugo nominees to be illegitimate because they were nominated by the Sad Puppies, disenfranchising authors, and engaging in behaviour that would be considered abominable and unconscionable by any objective observer. The idea that a Hugo nominee can be illegitimate despite being nominated according to the rules is now a cultural norm — replace the people at the top, and the only thing you roll back is the deviance that allows organizers to disregard the rules. The newcomers will be primed to repeat the exact same scandalous behaviour as those who removed authors from the ballot in 2023. It is not a question of whether history will repeat, but how long it will take.

And herein lies the big problem. Returning to the Challenger disaster, Diane Vaughan noted in the enlarged edition of her book that while many of the supervisors who made the launch decision were replaced, the actual normalization of deviance continued. The expansion of acceptable risk went on in other areas, and the end result was the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. She was amazed at the degree to which those in NASA she spoke to after the fact couldn’t see that the same pattern had repeated — they were convinced that they had an iron-clad culture of safety, and had done nothing wrong. That escalating warning signs had been present and ignored was not even on their radar.

And, turning to Worldcon and the Hugo Awards, this same type of problem is endemic to the entire community. Nobody who cheered as authors (including women and people of colour) were denied awards during the “Sad Puppy nonsense” thought they were doing anything wrong, even though the display was sickening to many of those outside of their community (and I speak as one of those who was nauseated by it), and even though most of the SF fanbase responded by writing them off, creating, and embracing the Dragon Awards as an alternative. To fix it so that a scandal like this never happens again would require massive cultural change, and the only way to do that with any speed would be for a massive influx of new blood — outsiders who are not tainted by the normalization of deviance that has taken place in the last twenty years — who outnumber and are able to take control from the existing community and return it to norms closer to that of the 1960 Hugo Awards. But, this isn’t likely — the last time somebody tried to bring in new blood and expand the community was the Sad Puppies, and they were vilified and abused for it. Those they brought in were driven out. The far more likely result is an ongoing slow decline fueled by scandal after scandal.

But, you never know. Miracles can happen.

#endtheculturewar

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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.