On Awards, Chess Mastery, and Ponds of Varying Sizes

Well, yesterday the Hugo nominations for this year came out. I had some positive buzz surrounding my satirical writing, but whether I had a shot was always a question of how disruptive the self-proclaimed “puppies” would be in their attempts to control the ballot. As it happens, they succeeded in disrupting the process again for a second straight year. This isn’t terribly surprising.

For those just tuning in, the puppies are two closely related group (Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies) who use the paper-thin excuse that they believe a shadowy cabal of “SJWs” have conspired to control the content of the Hugo Award ballot for years in order to give themselves paper-thin moral cover while they conspire to control the Hugo Award ballot.

The two things they have conclusively proven two years running are 1) it’s pretty easy for a small, dedicated group to overwhelm the proceedings, if everybody else is voting as an individual, and 2) everyone else has been voting as individuals. Last year when the data showed that there was no other organized effort to control the nomination process, the Sad Puppy leaders’ explanation was that the vast, all-powerful SJW conspiracy was “too incompetent to even rig the award right”.

This year there was a record number of nomination votes cast. Given the way the record number of newly registered voters voted last year to repudiate the Puppy slates, I think it’s safe to say that most of those nominations weren’t cast by puppies. But thousands of people all voting their individual tastes, wills, and consciences are apt to vote for hundreds of different things. A few hundred people who agree to vote for the same thing can easily ram a slate through in the less popular categories.

Rabid Puppy ringleader Vox Day is running his campaign for the same reason he does anything: it’s easy enough for a man of his shockingly limited abilities to do it, and it allows him to maintain his flattering illusion of himself as a tactical genius.

To put it shortly, Vox is a man who has discovered that it is easier for one who is dedicated to upend a chess board to do so than it is for anyone else to stop it from happening, and that it is easier to scatter the pieces than it is to put them back where they were. Having determined that he has the power to end the game by flipping the table, he has determined that this makes him the reigning grand master of chess.

Vox fancies himself a Christian, of what you might call the “flaming sword” variety; i.e., his pretense to religion is an extension of his desire to see himself as a victorious general riding forth. He’s one of the specimens of U.S. Christianity who believes that the first coming of Jesus Christ was essentially a feint, a sucker-punch, or a sequel hook for the second coming, when there will be fire and blood and conquest.

If Vox were Christian in the sense of being Christ-like in comportment or thought, he would understand the difference between conquest and victory. Christ’s victory over sin and death, in actual Christian theology, was not wrested from an enemy at the point of a sword, but purchased with humility and self-sacrifice.

For something like the Hugo Awards—or a society or community in general terms—to function, it requires a certain amount of decency from participants. A chess game cannot be played if both players do not agree to the rules, including the unwritten rules like “you have to actually play the game” and “you can’t flip the table if things aren’t going your way.” A player who wins following those rules has won, well and truly. A player who loses still has the dignity of a game well-played.

The player who flips the table has neither.

The player who was playing their best when the table was flipped?

This player has not lost.

Vox Day flipped the table on several of the “weaker” Hugo categories. If any of his pet projects “win” a Hugo as a result, it will be a meaningless victory.

Those of us who were shut out by his actions, though? Well, we can’t win a Hugo this year, but we can be satisfied knowing that we can’t lose, either. The game was upended before we could find out how we did. When the nomination data becomes public (which I believe is something World Con does as a matter of course, after the dust settles), we might get some notion of whether or not we would have made the final ballot.

Frankly, even with the buzz I had, I’m not convinced that I would have made the shortlist. Nor am I bothered by that possibility. While Larry Correia, the original Sad Puppy, and his flunky Brad Torgersen consider making the shortlist and then not winning to be an unforgivable slap in the face, I have the supreme advantage of recognizing that it is, in fact, an honor just to be nominated. I know of several people who stated their intention to nominate me, and I respect their opinions.

I mean, the award would be nice. It might be a nice boost to my ego and career. But in absolute terms, the award is just a ratification of a sentiment, and I don’t need a trophy to apprehend that sentiment.

I never cared much about the Hugos before, but I don’t have to care about a game to care that a group of self-entitled bigots are upending the table where other people are earnestly trying to play it.

Last year, the Sad Puppies’ racist ringleader Brad Torgersen wrote about what he called “the fracturing of a reliable field”; i.e., that science fiction and fantasy used to be homogeneous and predictable, but now it’s all over the place. He was calling this the downfall of genre fiction, but I see it as its apotheosis, its transcendent victory. He lamented the fact that we now have genre romance, genre thrillers, genre mysteries, etc.

Basically, he lamented the fact that science fiction and fantasy are for everyone now, not just him and people who share his tastes and politics.

And the fact that the genre world is so vast and so diverse now means that it’s hard to take its pulse in a meaningful way.

For years, the way the Hugo Awards would shake out is that in the big media categories, the winner would reflect widespread popular tastes and in the literary categories, the winner would reflect who and what had the most solid consensus among the portion of fandom that was most motivated to become informed about and vote on the topic. People (including the puppies and their critics) fought over whether it was a popular contest or a measurement of quality, and which it should be.

In theory, the whole thing should be both, with popular tastes being a rough yet measurable proxy for the immeasurable metric of quality.

But the “fractured field”, as Brad Torgersen calls it, is too big for any award to reliably sample from, which means that in practical terms the Hugo Awards were a popular vote among Hugo voters, roughly reflecting quality as determined by Hugo voters, modulated by caveats relating to things that Hugo voters are aware of.

One of my peculiar hobby horses regarding online discourse is the human inability to grasp the scale of… well, anything that doesn’t fit inside a room, really.

Larry Correia regards being one of five nominees for the Campbell Award in his freshman year as an unforgivable insult because he can’t conceive of how many people he beat out for that slot, much less how many people were technically eligible but never in the running because they weren’t on the radar. That’s an example of the scale problem. He feels slighted because he lost out to the four people he could see as his rivals. He can’t fathom how many people he left in the dust.

Larry Correia makes a decent living writing. To someone who doesn’t understand how many books and above all how many readers there are in the world, his lack of awards and universal acclaim might seem suspicious. This, in general, describes the mindset of these reactionary fandom groups: most everybody they hang out with feels X way about thing Y, so any indication that the world at large does not must be the result of collusion and conspiracy.

We talk about big fishes in small ponds. What we don’t realize often enough is that even a big fish in a big pond is still, perforce, only big within that single pond. Indeed, we often fail to realize that the pond we see is not the whole of the world.

Now, offhand, I can think of five people who expressed interest in nominating my satirical works for a Hugo. There might be a dozen or so who said something to me about it. There might even be dozens of people, period, who put my name forth.

And if you asked them my odds of getting onto the ballot, many of them would have said, “Of course! How could she not?” Because in the waters in which they swim, my name is known.

But that’s all a bunch of individual ponds.

To tell you the absolute truth, I’m relieved that I didn’t get one nomination that people were bruiting about: Best Related Work for John Scalzi Is Not A Very Popular Author And I Myself Am Quite Popular: How SJWs Always Lie About Our Comparative Popularity Levels, my satirical “translation” of Vox’s attempt to get Gamergate to fund his one-sided feud with a more successful author. I didn’t want to dissuade anyone from putting it forth because I didn’t want to instruct others how to spend their ballots, but if I had secured the nomination and then won, I would have had very mixed feelings about that category rewarding a negative work targeting an individual two years in a row. I mean, I would have appreciated the inevitable sales bump and heightened visibility, but I would have preferred to have been nominated as a Fan Writer, or had my more generalized, less-target-specific satire Sad Puppies Review Books nominated as Best Related Work.

And to further tell you the truth, in terms of career goals, I would much rather be where Larry Correia is than have a Hugo. I don’t mean bitter and forever tarnished by association with a failed award grab. I mean: self-sufficient, financially stable, and with a motivated fan base.

Somebody last year (Scalzi? I don’t know, possibly multiple people. It might even have been me.) said that the reward for being popular is being popular. If your work reaches enough people for you to pull down an income in the six figures, this isn’t the same as being objectively the best… but does it need to be?