Notes From WorldCon: How Zoë Quinn Healed My Soul

Often when I say critical things about Gamergate—or more particularly, about Gamergate’s roots and the conduct of the man who whipped up the initial harassment squad that became Gamergate’s core—I will get a gator in my mentions sidling up to say something like, “Oh, and of course you think that Zoë Quinn is a perfect darling little angel who could do no wrong.”

I don’t know what Zoë Quinn’s faults are, but I’m quite sure that she has them.

I’ve certainly never asked her for her side of the story told by her abusive ex, never bothered to see if she’s told it anywhere. It doesn’t interest me.

I’ve read his side, though, and even if I take everything presented as fact (i.e., just the events, not the editorial asides designed to whip up or channel abuse), the picture he paints of the character of Zoë Quinn as she exists in his story is just a relatively young, somewhat naïve woman who overpromised in a relationship that she wasn’t prepared for, someone who had these ideas and ideals about how things were supposed to be and who ultimately couldn’t live up to them.

The result, in his story, is a bad relationship that ended badly, and sheesh, could I feel him on that, if that were the story he’d wanted to tell.

But nothing in his post justifies his post, or the way he promoted it and the people he promoted it to. Nothing in his side of the story makes him look good, or even like a victim, only someone interested in portraying himself as one.

I was aware that Zoë might be present for at least part of WorldCon. I didn’t think it was likely I’d see her, or that it would be appropriate for a stranger or virtual stranger from the internet to get too invested in finding her, given her recent history, so I didn’t really put her on my “Would Like To Meet” list.

I was never that interested in her as an internet personality until very recently, when I wound up following a twitter handle she uses without initially realizing it was her. I think that was the turning point because it was the first time I was able to see her for herself, and not a character in a drama written by someone else. The ~*controversial figure*~ of Zoë Quinn was based on a real person, but I never assumed it had much to do with her.

The character in the original post is unflattering to say the least; the version of that character in the ongoing spin-off series created by Gamergate is a cartoonish caricature worthy of a political cartoon. The handle I followed on Twitter belonged to a person who said things that were interesting, clever, and funny, to varying degrees. We had some overlapping interests and some similar riffs on topics. I didn’t assume we’d have much in common beyond that.

But when I unexpectedly found myself at a party in a single crowded medium-sized where I knew she was likely to be, I found myself looking for her all the same. Simple human curiosity. The weird thing was I realized I had no idea what she looked like. I mean, that’s not that weird for me. I am not a strong visual thinker and I have medium to severe prosopagnosia. I check the license plate on my parents’ car before getting in because for much of my life, I was more likely to recognize it than them.

I think of people’s appearances in words. I store the words and use them to recreate a rubric for recognizing them in person. But I had no idea what Zoë Quinn looked like, even in words. All the words I found when I tried to call anything about her to mind were from the caricatures, from the stories people told. As it happened, they were no help in spotting her when she was physically present in the room.

Then someone who had bumped into her told me: she’s dressed as a unicorn. Well, not really like a unicorn, but unicorn-like. A unicorn themed aesthetic. Like a unicorn in human form who was still recognizably a unicorn, and also carrying several unicorn-themed accessories.

It was the shoes I spotted. If you’ve seen them, or heard of them, you’ll understand.

I will confess that in all my own human failings, I have wondered how much of the caricature is based on reality. Five seconds after I spotted the shoes, I was pretty sure the answer was 0.

First: she looked amazing.

I want to be clear here that the verb “to look” in the sentence “She looked amazing.” Is not being used as a mere passive linking verb describing her passive appearance. She did a look, and the look was amazing. She—Zoë Quinn—executed a look in an amazing fashion. That’s what I say when I mean she looked amazing.

Sometimes men who have been chastised for objectifying women and/or who aren’t fond of women getting affirmation from sources they cannot control try to draw a parallel between women complimenting each other on our looks (in an all-encompassing sense of aesthetics and fashion choices) and them commenting on our looks in the sense of “On a scale of 1 to 10…” It’s not the same thing. It’s not even close to the same thing, which I think is why my boyfriend Jack says things like “Congratulations on your life and your choices!” so often after complimenting someone, just to make sure they know where he’s falling.

But while you don’t have to be a woman to compliment a woman’s choices, there’s something magical that happens when women and femmes of all stripes compliment each other. It’s a wonderful thing that I really only discovered after I started going to cons and started getting over my shyness at them.

We spoke with each other for maybe a minute, mostly about looks. Our looks for the evening were very different. Hers was ethereal unicorn princess. Mine was… I’m not sure. Dangerous clown? I don’t know what vibe my looks put out, but I’m very particular about assembling them, particularly at cons. I’m not going for “Girl version of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI at a literary convention”, but I think I land somewhere near there. If I could put them into words, I probably wouldn’t need to use looks to get the point across. All I can say is that it’s been refined over the years, and I’m getting pretty good at it.

The main thing we talked about was each other’s hair. She told me how she had come to start coloring it, in quick and general terms, and how it now feels real, feels her, to do so. Making her outside match her inside, making her body represent itself, making it represent not just herself but her_self.

And we were actually on our way to the door when I spotted her, so we didn’t really dig into this, but I think I got it. And it provided an interesting contrast to the caricature that both of our overlapping groups of detractors and harassers have of us in general, the caricature that is the gendered form of “SJW”, the “Tumblrina”: always brightly colored hair, often fat and hideously ugly, brittle, angry, and alone.

This stereotype has as much to do with our actual lives as their caricature of “Social Justice” or “Radical Feminism” (they keep on saying those words; I don’t think they mean what they think they mean) has to do with anything we say or do. It’s not a shorthand they use to understand us, but to save them the trouble of needing to.

“Of course she has [colored] hair,” they say.

“Of course she’s on Patreon,” they say.

And of course I do have rainbow-colored hair and of course I do have a Patreon (Hint, hint.), as I’ve been crowdfunding my career since long before that was a word. But they don’t mean these things as bare, unadorned recitations of neutral facts. They’re invocations of the stereotype. They are reminders that we are not to be approached as human beings leading individual lives with distinct circumstances and personalities, but as a series of checkmarks next to a list of identifying features for target confirmation purposes.

Men even outside these alt-right, ultra-reactionary cliques make similar (if less pointed in their formulation) observations about women who sport pastel or neon or multicolored hair, and what it boils down to is something like this: she’s just doing it for attention, but jokes on her because it totally kills every man’s boner, but still a girl that desperate for attention will probably do anything…

If we complain about the attention, or tell a guy that we’re not doing it for them, we get a response along the lines of “Well, who are you doing it for?”

And the answer, as Zoë said, is for ourselves. Our. Selves. To be true to ourselves. It’s like wearing an outfit that suits us particularly well (and is often part and parcel of doing so), but a little more intimate, a little closer to the skin, metaphorically and in some respects literally. Hair color is a transitory and mutable characteristic, but so are clothes, and I think most people would agree that it’s possible to dress up like yourself and dress up not like yourself.

And the mutability of hair color, I think, matches the mutability of one’s self to a greater degree than more permanent body modifications or more fleeting changes, such as a change of clothes. A hair color might last days or weeks or months. It might change over time; mature, deepen. It might be touched up or altered. It might be allowed to grow out and fade.

Zoë’s hair isn’t much like my hair. I am not much like her. But we both looked at each other and were able to recognize that her hair was her and mine was me, which is to say, we were able to look at each other and admire each other, in this respect.

It was a fascinating exchange at the time, and one I wish we’d both had the time to delve into (we were leaving, as I’d said, and I suspect she had many more people to talk to, if not places to be, too), but in the course of sitting down and writing this post, working through what happened and what it meant to me, I’m finding myself working through so much more.

When I talked about the caricature of the Social Justice girl above, even the generalized one… well, that affects her more than it does me, as she’s a higher priority target for the people who make use of it as a rhetorical tool. I have been harassed by many of the same people, but mostly as a corollary to attacking someone with a higher level of unasked-for notoriety or someone with a higher degree of marginalization. My appearance and actions and beliefs (or the caricatured versions thereof) are used as an attack vector for people more important and more vulnerable than me.

But when I do come to the attention of the hate-hives, the way I get talked about… well, I’m not just a Social Justice girl, I’m a trans woman. I don’t just have brightly colored hair, I have rainbow hair. The last time I was told I was mentioned on a Gamergate forum, the comment on my appearance was “She looks exactly like you’d think she would look.”

At one point, someone made an animated gif meme using my face cropped from a profile pic and text representing the sort of thing that the person making the macro would imagine the character of me would say. It wasn’t something I’ve ever actually said. It doesn’t accurately represent my beliefs or behavior in the sort of discourse they were commenting on. But it’s not about me. It’s so not about me that people only two and three degrees of separation removed from me were sharing the image as a joke about “those Social Justice types who go to far”, honestly and earnestly believing that the person in the image was literally a caricature, not a real person.

When I found out about that, it freaked me out badly. I felt violated in a way that’s how to describe. I knew the reductive stereotyping the picture represented. I had even had it applied to me. But never so widely or so viscerally.
It affected me deeply. I reacted very badly. And I never really got over it, the knowledge that the picture is out there and being circulated.

But after talking to Zoë Quinn at the party, I found myself feeling better in a way that was hard to describe. I felt my spirits had lifted. I felt like I was suddenly less worried, though about what, I couldn’t say. It’s not like I’d gone around thinking about the picture all the time, or all the other pictures like it that might exist now or in the future. I wasn’t actually actively caring about it at the time, so it’s not like I could have noticed the moment I stopped caring, except in retrospect.

I didn’t—and don’t—believe that Zoë Quinn or anyone else is a precious perfect darling angel who can do no wrong. Nor do I believe that anyone can be.

And I’m certainly not the sort of person who seeks approval from certain people because they’ve been elevated to authority figures in my mind or that of society. I can get half a dozen earnest compliments on my hair in a day when I’m not at a con, and at a con it’s often non-stop. It gives me a little boost. Of course it does. And when I can return the compliment, about the other person’s hair or anything else, there’s this little moment of connection that makes it better.

It lifted a weight I hadn’t even noticed I was carrying. As I write this post, and think about the caricatures, and the way I’ve been caricatured, I realize: I’ve put the weight down. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Not at all, or at least not noticeably, not right now… it probably will flare up and twinge a bit in the future at odd intervals, but right now I’m thinking about it, thinking about how it felt, thinking about it cropping up on Facebook where I could see it, and this used to destroy me, and it doesn’t bother me.

That brief exchange with Zoë… it healed my soul. Honestly. That sounds hyperbolic, but that’s what it felt like.

Not because Zoë Quinn has magical powers or Zoë Quinn is perfect or Zoë Quinn is some kind of an authority on my very different life, not even because I know Zoë Quinn has been there done that but because I stopped and talked to another human being who gets it, not about the harassment that is heightened but about why we did it in the first place rand why we do it anyway.

Zoë Quinn, I’m told, is into body modification. I don’t know what’s true about her and what’s story. As I’ve said: I don’t ask Zoë Quinn about her life. My thing is idiosyncratic accessories. I don’t pick them to be idiosyncratic. I pick them because they are me and I recognize that they are idiosyncratic. I like wearing distinctive sunglasses—novelty, fashion, or costume—over my actual glasses. I hang them off the o-ring on my collar when I’m not wearing them. I collect hats. Just lately I’m into wearing long cardigans that make me feel like I’m wearing a wizardly trenchcoat or cape without actually wearing one. Though for that matter, my winter coat is a long black woolen cloak.

When I was of middle school age, I tried a thing for a couple of weeks where I had a bandanna tied round my neck like a scarf. The other children asked me if I was trying to be a cowboy or a pirate or what. I wasn’t trying to be anything, except me, wearing a thing around my neck that for a time made me feel more like myself.

The hair is the same, except in all the ways that it’s not. Hair is more visible than discreet body mods and more constant than any given accessory. It’s there. Always. Or at least usually.

There is a whole genre of posts that go around Twitter and Tumblr where the punchline is basically, “I don’t dress for boys/other people, I dress for the moments when I see myself reflected in a store window.” And that’s basically me, in terms of how I stopped dressing as a shapeless mass of dark cloth and started dressing in ways that make me feel like me. I still dress for the reflections, but not just dim and accidental ones in windows. I dress for how I look reflected in a mirror. I dress for the way it gets reflected back to me from other people.

My hair is part of that. It is part of me.

And Zoë Quinn was part of me internalizing that.

I know she’s not a darling perfect angel. I know she’s not some platonic exemplar of victimhood who has suffered worse than anyone in the history of the world or the internet. I know she’s not the character in her ex’s nasty little play, nor the one presented in the MS Paint webcomic drama that is Gamergate. I can’t really claim to know her as a person after sixty to eighty seconds of interaction on my way out of a crowded party, though even without that I can safely say that she is one.

And that, brief though our meeting was, I’m glad I met her.

Sad Puppies Review Books: Yertle the Turtle


Reviewed by John Z. Upjohn, USMC (Aspired)

This book is the all-too-plausible story of one evil turtle and his tyrannical desire to enslave all other turtles to his bidding.

If when you read this book it seems to echo eerily close to something you have heard before, that is probably not a coincidence. This is no mere children’s story like the ones you’d find in Aesop’s fables. This is a story with an important moral lesson to teach us and it relates to real life.

The villain of the piece is a turtle named Mack who is so dissatisfied with his place in the world that rather than climbing the ladder and making something of himself, he instead blames society for such petty things as the pain in his back and his lack of food. Not content to merely complain, he uses his extraordinary power and privilege to impose his will upon all other turtles. Lacking the gumption and will to raise himself up, he instead only tears down, and will not be satisfied until all other turtles have been brought down to his level.

Set against Mack is the tragic hero of the piece, a Randian super-turtle named Yertle who, though born to lowly circumstances on top of a rock only a little bit higher than the station of any other turtle in the pond, raises himself up to be the self-made king of everything up to forty miles away. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, in the process he raises every other turtle in the pond up with him.

Even Mack—the greedy, grasping, ungrateful, Mack—is elevated to the very same position Yertle was when the story began, sitting atop the very same rock. If he really wanted to be where Yertle is, there was absolutely nothing stopping him from doing as Yertle did. He was given the exact same opportunity Yertle had. Yertle’s very success proves the existence of upward mobility in the pond. Every single one of the turtles under Yertle only has to look up to find something to aspire to.

But when Mack’s  incessant complaints and whiny demands do not give Mack any greater reward than he has earned, he brings the whole thing crashing down in the most vulgar way imaginable: he burps.

In this one burp, he becomes worse than the Soviets who condemned the Kulaks during holodomor, worse than the people on the street who mouthed the Nazi lies about Jews during WWII.  Why worse?  Because those people lived in fear of their lives.  They had to say what they did because they feared being next on the kill list.

But Mack? Mack drags everyone down into the mud and dashes every turtle’s dream of attaining a higher place in society of his own free will. Does he care about the wishes of the turtles above him? No, he does not. Mack imposes his will upon all. In his pond, all turtles are slaves shackled to the ground, doomed to swim about the pond without the benefit of direction or purpose.

And in the end, the turtle who had the vision to build a society where any turtle could climb so high as to see forty miles in every direction, where any turtle could through nothing save their own hard work and determination could become king of a house and a cow and a mule, he is down with the rest, only able to see mud.

The burping vulgarians of the world cannot tolerate men or turtles of Yertle’s grand vision, and so cannot rest until they are destroyed. Saul Alinsky would be proud.

Two stars.

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Nineteen Puppy Four

Well, so much for the notion that this year’s litter of Sad Puppies were kinder, gentler, or even more moderate than last year’s. Over the past weekend, when the initial reactions to their new list were still more initial, Sarah Hoyt posted a response that was… well, we’ll say “typically hyperbolic”, but also quite telling.

A lot of it follows the “BUT MOM, I’m NOT Touching Him!” school of legalism that sprouts up whenever reactionaries try to argue with or by what they think is progressive logic, but as she goes on, she eventually compares Puppy critics to such nuanced things as German citizens whipped into a frenzy of anti-Semitism by the Nazi party, only “worse” because those who disagree with the Pups are doing it of our own free will. In the same piece, she refers to those who dissent from her party line as being slaves bound in chains.

If you ask the Sad Puppies what their goals are, you’ll get any of a dozen different answers, depending not just upon whom you ask but when you ask them it. The answer changes as needed to suit the needs of an evolving narrative… but you don’t dare acknowledge that it changed. Oceania is at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

If you want to know what their goal actually is, though, you need only look at how they comport themselves when they’re not trying to earnestly convince you of their goals. Here we see Sarah Hoyt telling us that disagreement with the Puppy platform is the worst crime she can imagine, and equating the freedom to dissent with slavery.

Of course, that part of the Puppies’ egos that will not allow them to think of themselves as bad people also will not allow them to admit that they want to quash dissent, that their dream is a world that is marching, if not in perfect lockstep, then almost entirely in the same direction. Sarah Hoyt does not equate freedom with slavery because of some conscious Orwellian master plan to redefine the world, but because it’s the only way she can make sense of things, the only way she can square up the facts on the ground in a way that leaves her on the side of angels fighting the good fight.

The Puppies have a certain vision for how the world should look, a certain order to things that they think is natural and inherent and default and  good. When the world fails to conform to this vision, there are two basic possibilities, and one of them is too horrible to be contemplated: either the vision is wrong, or the world is.

If the vision is wrong, then that’s the end. Game over, time to get a new vision.

If the world is wrong, though, then the game not only keeps going, it gets more exciting.

Because now there’s an enemy to be fought. Now there’s a problem to be fixed. Now there’s a desperate struggle where they get to be the plucky underdogs doing the Lord’s work against a rising tide of darkness.

But however they rationalize it, their “enemy” is dissent and their only victory condition—the thing that will signal they have won and can stop fighting—is a world free from it.

Consider: 100% of the evidence they have of a clique (aside from themselves) trying to control the science fiction and fantasy publishing and reading world consists of people making decisions they don’t approve of. People who write or read books and stories that vary from their tastes past a certain threshold are evidence of corruption, because why in a free society would people bother with such things? People who praise those books are further evidence, because how could anyone sincerely praise something of which they don’t see the appeal?

If any of those books or stories win awards or are even nominated… well, then, the fix was in, wasn’t it? How else do you explain it?

Last year, Brad Torgersen said that he’d be happy no matter what the outcome at WorldCon was, so long as the Puppy campaign succeeded in mobilizing more people to participate. Well, as I previously observed, that happened, and he didn’t seem happy about it. Even though the number of people who voted “No Award” in various category varied by a margin of nearly a thousand votes, the only explanation the Puppies have for the stinging rebuke that fandom issued their movement and their tactics is that it wasn’t the result of free people individually acting their consciences, but rather that the innumerable enemies of freedom had compelled these thousands of people to do so.

This subtext became text at several points during last year, particularly whenever one of their hand-picked nominees objected to being included in their slate. Every time one of their picks dissented from their party line, their response amounted to, “You see? You see how the enemies of freedom force these people to loudly denounce us? Don’t worry, my friend! We will liberate you!”

At one point, we were treated to the pathetic spectacle of Brad Torgersen trying to explain how a particular nominee had felt so frightened of the backlash while she was in the same comment thread telling him and everyone else otherwise.

So it’s not that the Sad Puppies have a conscious platform of opposing dissent. It is simply that they believe certain things are so inarguably, objectively true that dissent is literally unthinkable to them. If they see dissent, they will try their level best to “liberate” the dissenter from whatever chains are compelling the dissent… and those who will not be liberated, must be destroyed. All disagreement with the fundamental tenets of Puppydom must come from a puppet or a puppetmaster, after all, and if when they go to cut your strings they discover you have none… well, then you’re obviously a puppetmaster, aren’t you?

My recommendation that the best thing to do about their list this year is ignore it still stands. One commenter elseweb suggested that this recommendation amounts to doing nothing about the Puppies, but not so. As Hoyt’s response shows, the greatest threat to the Puppies is dissent, is free people acting individually as according to the dictates of their tastes and consciences.

To prevent the Puppies from running roughshod over the process and driving all dissent from the larger fandom, it’s not necessary—or desirable—for you to stoop to engaging with them. It’s only necessary that you continue to participate in the larger conversation and in the process of nominating for and voting on awards, in reading and writing and talking about science fiction and fantasy, in exercising critical thought about what you read and what you write, and basically just actively be your own inimitable self.

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I don’t know how I’m going to keep satirizing the Sad Puppies at this rate…

Okay. This is not going to be my usual well-constructed Reasoned Discourse thing, only because I am laughing too hard, and I think that we could all share in the laugh.

So, a thing did happen at the traditional Loser Party after the Hugo Awards. That thing was George R.R. Martin, the man who sits upon the Iron Throne of the whole tongue-in-cheek affair that is the Hugo Awards Loser Party, showed up with a sack full of literal, actual vintage car hood ornaments and started handing them out like they were trophies.

Get it? Because award night trophies look like hood ornaments?

He handed them out to whoever it pleased him to, which I guess included the people he felt had been most hurt by the Sad Puppy shenanigans and the people whose tact and grace had impressed him: the people bumped off the ballot, the people who dropped off the ballot after having been bumped on, the even-handed blogger Eric Flint, people like that.

Obviously, this private individual carrying out a touching but still tongue-in-cheek private joke chose to honor people of his own choice.

So naturally, the Sad Puppies and even more so their allies in Gamergates went wild, screaming all over Twitter and their sub-reddits and the rest of the internet that THE FIX WAS IN ALL ALONG, that THE VOTING DIDN’T MATTER, that THE NO AWARDS WERE JUST A SHAM, because here was George R. R. Martin, handing out trophies at a private party and these were clearly the ~*real*~ awards, arranged by the Social Justice Hivemind…

I remind you: sack full of hood ornaments.

Not a figure of speech. Not hyperbole or a metaphor.

Actual hood ornaments.

This is old news at this point, though they’re still talking about it.

Today I discovered something new.

Okay, honored guest and Hugo host David Gerrold made a joke some time ago about this year they’ll have to hand out asterisks with the trophies. So at the pre-party, they had these commemorative coasters, with an asterisk and the Hugo logos printed on, which they gave out to the nominees. It was a gift, not an award. Its meaning was a joke. Some people thought it was a tasteless joke. I think it was a little off-tone and ill-considered, a rare misstep from David Gerrold, but it was not part of the award ceremony. Nobody got an asterisk next to their name on the ballot or in the results.

Nevertheless, there’s been some conspiracy-mongering around it, of a similar type to that which surrounded what I’m sure somebody will start calling #HoodOrnamentGate any minute now… well, I say “of a similar type”, but I’ve just learned it’s the exact same thing.


There are people out there saying that because the Hugo logo appears on it and it was given to nominees, it constitutes a Hugo Award, one that was issued in defiance of the WorldCon by-laws governing such things. I wonder if there were also gift bags that have the Hugo logo on them? I’m quite sure there were programs and other sundry items bearing the WorldCon and Hugo logos on them. I’m also quite sure that alone does not make something a Hugo Award.

So far, it seems to be mainly one person pushing the theory, and the comments on the page are both few and not exactly clamoring to uphold his nonsense.

But we can always rely on the good folks at Gamergate to roll up their sleeves and do what no one else will do… which is take the thinnest, most obviously wrong and easily disproved ~*theory*~ on the internet and immediately start touting it as “evidence” of something. Collusion, probably. Notably while the blog post asks the (extremely leading, and also easily answered “no”) question of “Did Worldcon defraud its members?”, Gamergate’s link to it trumpets, “Hugo Awards Under Fire for Disenfranchising Voters” as if this were a factual description of one person, on the internet, asking questions based on false premises.

I’d ask how they square this with their insistence on the highest standards of journalistic ethics, but I’ve asked Gamergate about its lack of ethics before, so I already know what the answer is: they’re not journalists, so it doesn’t count.

This is the one respect and one respect in which Gamergate is superior to the Sad Puppies. The Sad Puppies are complete and utter hypocrites. Gamergate slightly less so, in that they are honest about their hypocrisy. They fully admit that their goal is to foist what they call ethics on everyone else, not themselves.

In short, they come by their dishonesty honestly.

Thieves, Liars, and Why We Care

So, one of the Sad Puppy Hugo picks—and thus one of the people shut out of the awards this year—is Toni Weisskopf, an editor at Baen Books. The Sad Puppies, in their post-mortem attempts to twist the rebuke fandom gave them into “Evil SJWs Doing Evil Things”, have turned this woman into a political soccer ball, kicking her down the field and then demanding we either kick her back or let them score a point.

I think most people are quite sensibly refusing to play soccer with these creeps.

Myself, I have no opinion on whether or not Toni deserves a Hugo award in the greater sphere of things, though I will say that some commentators at File 770 give a pretty solid defense of their decision to vote No Award over her on the merits, given that she was nominated as best long form editor but it wasn’t clear what her actual contributions in the field were this year, and she declined to list any. Some of them point out that they personally didn’t vote No Award over Sheila Gilbert, a Puppy Pick in the short form editor category who provided clearer examples of her handiwork.

But of course, nobody acknowledges this, because this destroys the Puppy narrative. The Sad Puppy spin on this situation requires us to believe that nobody voted for any of their picks except for them (which makes their numbers look a lot bigger), that all the “SJWs” voted in lockstep, voting down the Puppy picks out of “spite”, that every vote for No Award is by someone who didn’t read or look at the nominations.

None of that is terribly surprising.

What is a little surprising is the next wrinkle.

A man named David Lang in the comments section I mentioned above had this to say:

“So why is Toni Weisskopf who head Baen so undeserving to win the best editor award?

She’s been part of Fandom, attending Cons since she was very young. She’s no outsider any way you look at it.”

I thought this was a little odd when I read it, like someone had got his propaganda twisted around in his head and mixed up a couple of Sad Puppy talking points. Surely, even if they believe that the Hugos tend to reward insiders, they wouldn’t expect it to be so naked? Then I saw a quote from a post on the blog of Larry Correia, the founder of the Sad Puppy campaign:

“Toni Weisskopf has been part of organized Fandom (capital F) since she was a little kid, so all that bloviating about how Fandom is precious, and sacred, and your special home since the ‘70s which you need to keep as a safe space free of barbarians, blah, blah, blah, yeah, that applies to Toni just as much as it does to you CHORFs.  You know how you guys paid back her lifetime of involvement in Fandom?

By giving 2,496 votes to No Award.”

This… this is what they’re actually going with.

The Sad Puppy narrative is that Toni Weisskopf was owed a Hugo for being a good member of fandom for decades. They nominated her in the category of best long form editor in particular only because that’s what she does, but the “CHORFs” or “SMOFs” or “SJWs” really owed her a Hugo because she’d put in her dues. The Puppies viewed it her nomination as putting her up for a lifetime achievement award for a member of a community.

Now, they all along have been claiming that this is basically what the Hugos have been reduced to. This is the narrative they’ve constructed to explain the discrepancy between their personal tastes—the tastes of those in the niches they cater to—and the work rewarded by the larger fandom community that WorldCon represents.

“They’re just giving awards to their friends,” they say. “They’re just giving awards to the people who voice the correct opinions. They’re just giving awards to people who go with the program. They just give awards to people who tick the right demographic checkboxes”

So they found a woman who was part of the community, and they kicked her down the field. They themselves obviously didn’t think her editing in 2014 was particularly notable as when they talk about why she deserved a Hugo, all they can mention is her years of “service” to fandom.

And you know what? If she had won while the other Puppy-packed categories were torpedoed, they would be crowing right now that they were right. Larry Correia says in that blog post, “I wanted the mask to come off and for the world to see how the sausage was really made, but even I was a little surprised by just how vile you are.”

Meaning he was expecting Toni Weisskopf to win an editing award for being a member of a community rather than merit, and that didn’t happen.

And he’s disgusted?

No, he’s disappointed.

But rather than admitting that the data has verified his hypothesis is false, he’s just adjusted his hypothesis. He and his flunkies are calling his imagined enemies hypocrites for not giving an award to someone he thinks should “deserve it” by what he thinks is their reasoning.

I love this, by the way. I love this trope. You see it so often whenever a horde of outraged reactionaries doesn’t get their way. They’ll start calling everybody else hypocrites, and it will be for one of two reasons. If they lack imagination, they’ll call the other side “hypocrites” for violating beliefs that only they themselves hold. If they have more imagination than discernment, though, they’ll accuse the other side of being hypocrites for violating the beliefs that they, in their feverish fantasies, have projected upon that side.

“You’re such a lousy thief, you’d probably steal my wallet if I gave you half a chance,” the Sad Puppy says.

“I’m not a thief, and I don’t want your wallet,” says everyone else.

“Hypocrites,” the Sad Puppy says. “To call yourself a thief and not steal a wallet! That makes you thieves and liars!”

And the sad thing is that in all of this moral and philosophical contortionism, Larry has revealed that he and Brad are still stuck on the idea that put them down this path: that it’s possible to be owed an award. Not deserve an award in the sense of being award-worthy, but be owed an award in the sense that it belongs to you by default and showing up is just a formality.

When this honor was denied to them and/or their favorites, they didn’t give up on the idea of the world owing people awards, they only gave up on the idea that it could be due to merit. And if they could just figure out what the magic formula is, they could expose that formula to the world and bring the whole system down to replace it with one where merit is the magic formula, meaning—in their heads—that the awards belong to them/their favorites by default.

On the subject of magic formulas, the Puppies also use the presence of Toni Weisskopf and Sheila Gilbert among others on their slate as a sort of protective charm. “You can’t say that we’re sexist,” they say. “You can’t say that we’re trying to oppose diversity. You can’t say these things. We have protection.”

They think of their opponents as people who are interested in quotas, so they do their best to fill them, and then call their opponents hypocrites (see above!) for not respecting the quota.

I’ll call the Puppies sexist for this reason alone: the frequency with which they use women as props.

They’re using Toni Weisskopf as a ball, kicking her themselves and setting her up to be kicked back.

Brad Torgersen used his wife as a shield when he was accused of racism, in a very public and very obvious way. Notably, when people pointed this out, he chose not to defend himself against the charge. Instead, he pretended he had been accused of something far worse (having married her as a sham, only to use her as a shield) and loudly decried that this idea was ludicrous. Yes, it is, Brad. Which is why nobody said it. The fact that you jumped from what people actually said—what actually happened—to defend yourself against a ridiculous but imaginary charge suggests that you know what you did, and you yourself find it indefensible.

Over on his blog, John C. Wright is managing to simultaneously hide behind his wife and threaten to beat other men’s brains in with her.

And there’s something very obviously deliberate in the choice of next year’s lead Sad Puppy, Kate Paulk. Ever since the choice was announced, they’ve been saying things like, “Let’s see anyone call us sexist now.” and “If they try to fight back next year, they’ll be violating their own principles!”

(“You probably want to steal my wallet right now!”)

There’s a scene near the end of the series Angel, when the title character is having a climactic battle with the season’s Proxy Big Bad, Marcus Hamilton (played, fittingly enough, by Gamergate celebrity darling Adam Baldwin).

Hamilton says, “Why do you keep fighting?” He points out that Angel has signed away his happy ending, the reward for which he has theoretically been fighting all these years. He points out, “There’s nothing in it for you anymore!”

Angel replies, “People like you, who don’t care about anyone or anything, will never understand the people who do.”

And Hamilton comes back, “Yeah… but we won’t care!”

The Sad Puppies, at the coaching of their antispiritual leader Vox Day, have actually made, “We don’t care.” into a sort of motto. They’re never going to understand the principles of the people they’ve decided to try to drive out of fandom because they don’t care enough to try. Any attempt to explain, any prelude to a meeting of minds, is met with a practiced, “We don’t care.”

I think this is part of why the Puppies have been characterizing the five unawarded Hugos the way they have been, using imagery like “scorched earth” and “nuked” and “they burned the village to save them.” To them, it’s all about the trophies and it’s only about the trophies. It’s only bigger than that insofar as they want to be the ones who hand them out, missing the point that there isn’t any one individual who has that power and that the trophies would lose their meaning if there was.

They’ll never understand why we fight.

And they won’t care.


Hugo Awards Upset: Fans Say No To Sad Puppies

Two years ago, Larry Correia started the Sad Puppies campaign with one goal and one goal only: to get himself the award he thought he deserved. He hadn’t exactly been snubbed by the science fiction community, but he never quite got that “it’s an honor just to be nominated” is more than just a platitude.

Last year, Larry—having realized that not only wasn’t going to work but didn’t play very well outside his most ardent fan base—decided he really didn’t want a silly award anyway and instead ran the Puppy campaign again with a slightly different goal: to poke a stick in the eye of the people he thought were responsible for denying him awards.

This year, he handed off the torch to Brad Torgersen, who tried to powerwash the evidence that the Sad Puppies was nothing more than a tantrum and gild it with a coat of noble paint. The Sad Puppies exist, he says, to bring freedom to science fiction fandom. They have always existed for this reason. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. We love Big Brad.

The Sad Puppies have come to free us from the people who tell us what we’re allowed to write, what books we’re allowed to like. The Sad Puppies have come to liberate the Hugo awards from the tiny clique of people who have organized in order to control it.

Freedom to write whatever we want, though, comes with a responsibility. It means we must not pander. Pandering is defined as writing anything other than what Brad Torgersen thinks is exciting. It means we must not give in to thought police. Giving in to thought police is when we put characters or themes in a story that Brad Torgersen does not see the point of. We can like whatever books we like, so long as they are good books.

If we like books that Brad Torgersen does not think are good, then we are either Commissars pushing an agenda by telling people what books to like, or frightened and cowed proles who need Brad Torgersen to free us from the Commissars.

And so, in order to liberate the Hugo awards from the small but powerful clique that seeks to control the nomination process, Brad Torgersen assembled a slate of nominees chosen in a transparent, democratic process where he picked the nominees himself, but each and every person involved could see that he was the one who picked them.

In order to make sure he sent a message to those people who would try to misuse the Hugos to advance their careers and prop up their cronies, he enlisted the help of internet rabble rouser Vox Day in getting his hand-picked slate onto the ballot, along with Vox, works published by Vox’s publishing house, and works by Vox’s protege writer.

Through the midst of all this high-minded liberating that was going on, Brad Torgersen said that his real goal was to shake things up and get more people involved in the Hugo voting process so it wasn’t just the same old people making the pick every year. He said that whether his picks won or lost, no result would please him more than to see more people voting.

Well, right away, it seemed like Mr. Torgersen was getting his wish. WorldCon voting memberships started selling like hotcakes. Torgersen et al had a lot of bold predictions about what this meant. Clearly, since the previous situation was that a tiny, insular clique that was out of touch with real people in the real world was manipulating things, the hundreds and then thousands of new people who were putting money on the line to participate must have been The People, Rising Up As One to re-take their award from the tiny, tiny clique that had subverted them.

But, Torgersen said, he would be happy no matter who won.

WorldCon took place this past weekend. The Hugo Awards were presented Saturday night. The truth is now known.

The truth is, Brad Torgersen got his wish in one regard only: there was a record-breaking level of both WorldCon attendance and Hugo voting.

Is he happy?

He told us he’d be happy if this happened.

I’m having a hard time telling from here, but I don’t think he’s happy.

Approximately 3,500 people voted for “No Award” over almost any of the works or individuals that the Sad Puppies rammed through the Hugo nomination process. This was not only a victory for No Award, but a landslide. While some Puppies have tried to spin this by saying that their “enemies” the “Social Justice Warriors” were “voting in lockstep” while they, free men and tokens of good conscience, were voting their individual will, the truth is that No Award didn’t just get more votes than any other option, it got more votes than all the other options.

The idea that those voters were marching in lockstep is also hard to credit. I’ve seen Puppy supporters saying, in so many words, “What else do you call multiple people voting for the same choice?” I’m not sure they understand how voting works, to be honest.

There’s a difference between bloc voting and a landslide, and this was a landslide. At the point where there are enough people for one choice in a field of six to capture a true majority, no trickery or politicking or procedural shenanigans or even much in the way of coordination is even needed. There’s a clear winner. There’s a clear favorite. At that point, it would take considerable cheating for the frontrunner to not win.

Now, the No Award option exists in part because the nomination process is not perfect and in part because the idea of the award is not just to recognize the best work in a year but the best work that is deemed by the Hugo voters as Hugo worthy. It gets invoked on at least some ballots in every category every year, as the instant run-off system the Hugos has used allows people to rank their choices in order. If you rank two out of the available five selections in places 1 and 2 and then put No Award in rank 3, you are signaling that the choices below that (or that you don’t rank at all), you’re effectively signaling that you found the first two works award-worthy and the other three not so.

What makes an individual work “award worthy”, of course, is highly subjective, which is why every member of WorldCon has the privilege to decide for themselves.

And last night, some three thousand people—the vast majority of members who cast votes—decided that none of the works that the Puppies had picked were award worthy, save Guardians of the Galaxy.

Now, for eight months, we have heard the Puppies shout about how there’s no rule against doing what they did, about how you can’t simultaneously say something is wrong while allowing it under the rules. Interestingly, this strikingly stark streak of legalism appears to have disappeared completely from the Puppy camps. They have, in the past 36 hours or so, managed to discover how something can be done within the rules and still be called unethical, unfair, and wrong.

“They didn’t even read the books!” they yell, never mind that some people made it their very public business to read everything before voting (there are reviews of the Puppy picks all over the web because of this) and never mind that there’s no rule that says they have to and never mind that objecting to their odious tactics and the numerous falsehoods and slanders they have used to excuse said tactics is a perfectly good reason to vote to throw a penalty flag.

Some people were assuredly voting No Award on principle (an idea which confuses the Sad Puppies, who are as sure of their moral superiority as they are their literary superiority), but some were voting on merit. All of them were voting as individuals acting their own conscience, which means they don’t have to answer for their votes to anyone.

Strangely, the Puppies—who speak of “commissars” they think want to control the vote—think they now have the right to call people to account for how they voted.

Strangely, the Puppies—who spoke of wanting to throw open the gates of participation, shake up a moribund sci-fi fandom, and get more people involved in voting for the Hugos—now see something sinister in the fact that more people came out to vote for this year’s Hugos than ever before.

All along, Brad Torgersen, Larry Correia, John C. Wright, and Vox Day have been talking about a “tiny clique” of people, a very small and very non-representative minority of the science fiction fandom, who have taken control of the Hugos through secret means, through coordinated bloc voting behind the scenes.

The fact that their campaign to stack the ballot succeeded so wildly with only a few hundred participants behind it strongly suggested that they were completely in error about this. The data from the nomination round shows us there was never any actual opposition for them to overcome.

Yet now they want us to believe that a “tiny minority clique” that couldn’t muster enough nominating votes to get anything on the ballot against the united camps of a couple hundred Puppies somehow managed to get 3,500 to turn out to vote in lockstep in the final ballot?

“Well, how else do you explain such an unprecedented outcome?”

The Sad Puppies created an unprecedented situation, and they have thus received an unprecedented rebuke.

From the beginning, Brad Torgersen’s premise has been that the Hugos have been awarding the wrong books for the wrong reasons.

“Such projection!” the Puppies howl. “That kind of mindset is what we’re fighting against!”

No, no. That’s been your cover story. There are no actual examples of books that won because some hobgoblin lurking in the cupboards at Tor whispered “make it so“. There is no actual evidence that people have been voting for anything other than what they thought was best.

There are only books that Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen don’t personally see the point of, thus, whose success must be illegitimate.

And, you know, it’s fine for someone to think that. It is. Tastes differ. Opinions differ. It happens.

What’s not fine is to take your own personal tastes, use the difference between them and other people’s as “evidence” that someone is lying or cheating, and try to force them on everyone else. This is what the Puppies have done. This is what they promise: as long as the phenomenon of people liking different things than they do continues, they will continue to fling accusations of corruption and steamroll over any attempts to recognize said works.

Puppies, months ago, someone gave you very good advice. David Gerrold, a remarkably even-tempered man whose insistence that the ceremony be held with the same grace no matter what any individual presenter thought of the choice was twisted by the Puppies into some kind of weird veiled threat, told you that no one likes the guy who comes to a party and does something nasty in the punchbowl. It’s not political. It’s not even really personal.

You just can’t behave atrociously and expect there to be no consequences.

Most adults know this.

I don’t know—and would not fathom to guess—to what extent Brad Torgersen believes the lines of bull that he’s been selling his followers for the past eight months, but at least one part of his narrative should be clearly exploded. If there is an “SJW infestation” in science fiction fandom, it is not a tiny minority that tenuously holds to power by operating in the shadows, and shining a light on the “rot” will not rally the people, “the real fans of real science fiction” against them.

There has been more light shining on the Hugos this year than any year before. Brad Torgersen has had more eyes on his blog, I’m sure, than ever before. Every time he got media exposure and someone new showed up at his blog or in the comments of the blogs of one of his cohorts, he would crow about how even the negative exposure just swelled his ranks.

Now he knows: for every one or two people who were swayed by his words, there were scores of people who looked at what he was selling and not only didn’t buy it, but felt compelled to put their money down for a membership just to stop him.

I said on Twitter that I doubt very much all 3,500 No Award voters were liberals. I believe this to be true.

I don’t think a single end of any political or philosophical spectrum has a monopoly on not liking bullies coming in and telling people what to do. I don’t think conservatives have more patience than liberals with people who come in and say that they don’t like the way a game is going so they’re going to keep turning over the gameboard until we let them win.

While the Puppies’ rhetoric might attract more conservative sympathy on the surface and while it certainly has a tendency to repel liberals—both by design—I don’t think the ability to see through the rhetoric is the exclusive province of the liberal.

Strangely, the Puppies seem hellbent on painting everybody who voted down their agenda as members of that tiny, insular, ultra liberal clique they claim to be here to save everyone else from. They would rather believe that their designated enemies are innumerable than face the fact that the people have spoken against them.

Many have predicted that next year’s Hugos will be even uglier. I’m not making a definitive prediction, but somehow, I don’t think so.

I do think that we might see a bit more politicking and coordination during the nomination process, as people will understandably feel that the only way to have their voice heard post-Puppy is to join a bloc. In this respect, the Puppies have created the monster they claim to have come here to eradicate. Pending rule changes for the year after that will dilute the impact of bloc voting, if they are ratified at the next WorldCon.

But we have seen that the Puppies were not only wrong, they were exactly wrong. Their great big power play has revealed themselves to be the insular clique: small, out of touch with both broader science fiction fandom and reality more generally, yet feeling entitled to complete control of the playing field.

We know that the vast majority people see right through their nonsense, and are willing to stand up and counted to say, “No more, enough.” And while this has been a bad year for the award ceremony, I think history will remember it as a good year for WorldCon, because it did get more people involved, it did sell more WorldCon memberships, and it did spread awareness of how the Hugos are awarded and it did raise interest in the process.

If the Puppies, in their desperation for something they can claim as a victory, can’t find any solace in that, then I don’t know where they’re going to get it.



I Can Fix The Crimson

So, the retro-wonderland video game Terraria received a massive content update at the end of June. I didn’t get around to checking it out until like last week, but I spent enough time playing it over the weekend to get full-blown Tetris Syndrome over it, with neat rows of terrain blocks artfully arranging themselves behind my eyes.

Sometimes described as being a side-scrolling Minecraft clone, Terraria sometimes feels like a video game designed with someone exactly like me in mind. Dynamic lighting and particle effects aside, it looks a lot like the video games I grew up with. It’s what I consider to be a true sandbox game, which means it’s not just an open world for exploration with limited sign posting and required goals, but it’s meant to be reshaped and built in.

In fact, it’s darn near what I imagined the future of video games would look like, back in the early 90s: looking about the same but shinier and you would be able to do so much more stuff.

A little background: Terraria starts by dropping you into an idyllic pseudo-16 bit paradise, where a cartoony Final Fantasy-ish looking character stands in a forest meadow surrounded by trees and bunnies. It’s less muddy (and far prettier) than the more famous Minecraft, but the basic idea is the same: day is relatively safe, the night is dark and full of terrors. You spend the daylight hours gathering materials and exploring, then dig in for the night with a simple shelter. As you gain more materials and gameplay familiarity (there’s no in-game experience or skill system), your simple shelter might become an elaborate castle, secret underground base, mansion, or town, and your tools for dealing with the horrors of night or the monsters lurking underground become more powerful and sophisticated.

The game does not have a linear progression, but nevertheless, it does progress. The quest for more and better stuff takes you into more dangerous environments with new threats. Random events can make the monsters more numerous and/or more monstrous. Horrible-looking screen-hogging bosses lurk in the background, appearing when the player accidentally disturbs them, deliberately summons them, or in some cases just grows too powerful. Defeating these leviathans results in fundamental shifts in gameplay, by giving you access to new materials and in some cases new areas to explore, but also unleashing more horrors and wonders into the world.

The most recent content updates to Terraria are much less geared towards me in particular as a consumer, as they are largely concerned with extending out the “end game” with more challenging content.

See, the game is “over” in the sense of there being nothing new under the sun when you had beaten the last boss, achieved the best armor, and built a town or mansion big enough to house all the friendly Non-Player Characters. That’s the point where people who play a game to completion tend to feel like there’s nothing more to do, whereas it’s the point where I feel like I’ve collected all the toys and it’s time to start playing for real. The new updates do add more toys, but they’re mostly focused on creating the equivalent of new challenge stages for people who have beaten everything else: new events to live through, new invasions to fight off, new bosses to summon and beat.

I’m not saying that’s not fun, but it’s not what I’m there for.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the times in my life I’ve been most into Terraria have been the times that I have felt the most powerless, the times that I have had the most emotional turmoil. Real life is complicated and messy. Terraria is neat and orderly. While people in real life cling to aphorisms about how the creator of the universe never gives you a challenge that you can’t stand up to, this is literally true about Terraria‘s dynamically generated world: it is a world full of problems, yes, but they’re all problems that are not only ultimately solvable, they are engineered to have solutions that are within your grasp.

Sometimes I see the meme circulating within Gamergate that anybody who takes on “gamers” is a fool because gamers are winners, because they have more experience with persevering over defeat and fighting losing battles than anyone else. There are many things wrong with this mindset, not the least of which is the idea that Gamergate represents the whole set of “gamers” and people who disagree with them (or haven’t heard of them, or don’t care) haven’t shared in those same experiences.

But the idea is also foolish because the challenges that Gamergate is used to overcoming are overwhelmingly stacked in their favor. Even the games that are designed to be devilishly difficult, to appeal to people who want a challenge, are generally designed to be just challenging enough to sink emotional hooks in the player and compel them to keep trying. When a game’s story tells you that you are struggling against impossible odds, that’s the story. The game is there for you to beat it. The obstacles within it are there for you to overcome.

And with very few exceptions in the modern era, death and failure are a temporary state that are effectively retconned away as soon as they happen. Even in games with no finite lives/continues or “permadeath”… you the player can still start your game again, even if your actions resulted in the death of the character you were controlling.

That’s not how it works in real life. Even if Gamergate is not exactly a life-and-death struggle, it is still possible to fail so badly at a thing that it impacts your chance of future success. The saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression” applies here. The gator-based assumption that everything they do—every attempt at something like re-branding themselves—should be and must be judged in a vacuum, it reflects this disconnect.

The faith they have that their time spent gaming will translate to real life has given them the expectation that trying again means their previous failures need not be addressed. It’s a fresh try.

I think older gamers, those of us who played games during the awkward transition between the quarter-eating devil machines of the arcade era and the development of the home market, might have a more realistic perspective. Certainly those of us who played adventure games that could be rendered unpredictably unwinnable by a single wrong move in the opening scenes have a pretty solid understanding that a thing can be so small and so random and yet still screw something big and important up so badly that it can’t be fixed again.

My older brother had a boxed set of The Ultima Trilogy, the original Ultima and its first two sequels. The second game was the one most interesting to us, as we’d already played the NES port of Ultima III and Ultima II, with its greater focus on time-and-interplanetary travel and conceit of exploring the real world was just… well. It was amazing. Or it looked amazing.

But the second game, unlike the other two, would only save one character per disk. And it included no mechanic for deleting your character and starting over. I mean, nowadays I know that anyone with a sufficient knowledge of DOS could delete the save file and/or copy the disk used for saving, but these things were not intuitive to us at the age of ~8.

So what happened was my brother started playing a game, and he saved it at a point where he was low on food (running out being a loss condition) and in no position to get any more. And that was it. We could run Ultima II. We could walk around a little bit before starving to death. That was the whole game as we experienced it.

Playing Ultima II in DOS taught me that you can screw a thing up so badly it can’t be fixed and all you can do is wander around watching the inevitable slowly fail, a lesson that Gamergate doesn’t seem to have ever learned.

But Terraria.

Terraria is not a coin-op game ported directly to consoles. It’s not a text adventure. It’s not a game designed for a narrow niche of expert hobbyists who can be expected to do their own file management. It’s a modern game, designed for modern sensibilities, and all the problems it gives you are ultimately solvable. When the orderly world it presents is infected with chaos, you are given the tools to beat back the rising tide. You can fight off the monster hordes. You can purge the world of the eldritch infection that threatens to swallow it whole. You can put the sealed evil back in the can. And while you’re doing this, you can re-arrange the world to your liking.

My current self-directed goal in the game is to rid my generated world of crimson, a body horror-esque element represented by a biome made of bloody tumors. It has a chance of being present in your world at generation, and it spreads… slowly at first, then at the main turning point in the game’s progression, it makes a huge leap across a large swath of the map and then spreads much faster. The spread of the crimson (or the corruption, the cosmic horror equivalent that will be present instead if the crimson isn’t) makes the game much harder, and its progress seems inexorable, especially when you realize that not only can it spread directly but it will pop up in random, out-of-the-way places in response to certain actions.

But the thing is, the world of Terraria is finite, contained within boundaries that a human mind can easily conceive of and explore. Anywhere the crimson can pop up, you can get to. And you have tools to fight it. You can root it out. You can purify it. You can blow it up. You can blast a trench to hell in order to cut off its spread. You can spray a cleansing solution in a circle around you and clear whole screens at a time. You can watch the map of the world as you’ve explored it for places turning red that were previously green or gray. You can hunt it down.

You can fix it.

It’s not easy in the sense of being something you can push a button and fix it. The quickest, surest solutions are probably also the most tedious in practical terms. The in-game reward? Doesn’t actually exist. But it’s a goal, and it can be reached. It’s a problem, and it has a solution.

Last night, in the midst of an emotional conversation with my boyfriend Jack, I explained my current mania for Terraria with five words: “I can fix the crimson.”

Ultimately, of course, success in a video game means as little as failure does. I can wipe the crimson off the face of *this* map, but not only are no lives actually saved or changed or touched in any way by this feat, but it still exists in thousands and thousands of other Terraria maps extant in the world. And as soon as I start another game or take my character to another map, it’ll start up again. I know this.

But while video game problems and their solutions are completely immaterial in the strictest sense of the world, there’s still something compelling about them. In real life, the world around us is unfathomably vast, unknowably opaque, and unspeakably complex. You cannot solve the world. You cannot beat the world.

But just load up a copy of an old Mario game and you can beat eight worlds in a leisurely afternoon.

The Goblin Emperor: Yes, it’s fantasy, and yes it’s a novel.

So, back on June 19th I purchased an ebook of the Hugo-nominated work The Goblin Emperor (by Katherine Addison), but it being a sort of hectic and tumultuous time in my life I didn’t immediately read it and then even forgot that I had bought it. Last week, I got my first library card as a Maryland resident in order to take advantage of their ebook lending library for distracting me during a flight back to Nebraska for multiple family events.

The e-library is great, but even more so than the physical library it’s kind of a “take what you can get” situation if you need something to read and can’t wait, as they only have licenses for so many copies of each book. This is how I ended up checking out World War Z, a book that I’d always been slightly interested in reading but had never actually picked up.

When I opened my Kindle app to download the book, I was surprised to find The Goblin Emperor (I had forgotten about it, if you remember) already waiting for me, so I read it first. Having read these two books one right after another was important, for a reason I’ll get back to.

Anyway, in a year when many Hugo works were nominated whose merits are so dubious that even the people who nominated them aren’t discussing their merits, The Goblin Emperor is a novel whose merits have been rather sharply debated. It has been praised highly from a wide number of quarters, but there are some lines of criticism that have cropped up and been repeated even outside the quarters of the Puppy campaigns (though they are found most often and most vociferously within those quarters).

They are:

  • It’s not really fantasy, so much as an alternate history with non-human races because there’s no magic or other speculative element.
  • It’s not really a novel, because there is no plot/no conflict. This criticism is also phrased as “It’s more of a series of anecdotes than anything.”

The standard Puppy nonsense of “SJWS ARE SHOVING MESSAGES DOWN OUR THROATS AND VOTING FOR STORIES FOR AFFIRMATIVE ACTION REASONS” has certainly come up, too, of course, but it’s hardly worth engaging with them.

Now that I have read the book, I really have to wonder: did the people making those two criticisms of it do so? If they did, I don’t think they could have read it carefully. While the vision of elven and goblin societies in The Goblin Emperor are an example of intricate and engrossing worldbuilding, the magic-using classes of society appear to have been lifted straight out of classic D&D; e.g., there are clerics and there are wizards.

If you need someone to speak with the dead, you call a cleric, just like you would in a D&D game. The book makes it clear that this sort of thing is a bit passé in the modern world, but a major subplot (and the resolution of the main plot) revolves around the fact that it is a thing that clerics can do. And if people aren’t calling on clerics for miracles routinely, magic is still such an integral part of elven society that the emperor is expected to be accompanied by a wizard literally everywhere he goes.

And I mean literally everywhere. The emperor does not go to sleep without his bodyguards, one fighter and one blue-robed, magic-slinging wizard, there with him. The book understandably elides the toilet habits of the emperor, but the refrain about the emperor having no privacy and the bodyguards’ reaction to the few times he requests it makes it clear: they are there all the time.

Since the book opens with the titular character becoming emperor and he’s enthroned very early on and the book never strays from his point of view, this means that upwards of ninety percent of the book contains one of the few wizard characters who occupy the position of Wizard-Bodyguard, and these characters are referred to constantly. Now, they’re not casting magic constantly. They are there to protect the emperor’s life, which means they don’t use magic frivolously, for entertainment or convenience or comfort.

Two spells are cast by our blue-robed mazei (the elven term for mages, apparently) in the course of the book, but they’re both unambiguously magical and also things that would be associated with wizards in D&D: a sleep spell and a lightning bolt spell.

So that’s a lot of mention of wizards and very little wizardry, but it’s also unambiguously “real” magic, not “Well maybe it’s all hocus-pocus and the power of suggestion” magic. Also, in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the chief duty of a professional wizard is to not use magic, yet few people suggest it’s not really fantasy.

Because the book uses invented language to refer to concepts that hold important places in elven society, I can forgive people for not immediately catching on that the blue-wearing order of people who supply one half of the emperor’s traditional bodyguards are supposed to be actual-fantactual dyed-in-the-robe wizards the first few times that they’re mentioned, especially since the included glossary is 1) in the back and 2) oddly incomplete when it comes to the subject of the wizards and their order.

But by the time they’re mentioned to be casting “cantrips” and throwing lightning bolts around? Well, I can only really conclude that the aforementioned critics did not read the book that far. Both of those events are also moments of pivotal plot development/revelations, which might also do something to explain why so many of the same critics were not aware a plot was there.

The plot criticism… well, when I read those types of comments, including by people who were otherwise defending the book, I was prepared for a non-traditional plot structure, which I’m okay with. But actually, the book’s plot is rather conventionally structured. The conflict is not, as some have said, “Protagonist vs. Self” but rather “Protagonist vs. Villains”. The character does grow and change and come to the sort of epiphanies that some people believe marks a plot. From the first page, there is a mystery that is gradually unraveled over the course of the book.

Moreover, far from being a “series of anecdotes”, the book’s narrative flows unbroken from the moment we first meet Maia on the first page until the end. I’m not saying there aren’t any moments fast-forwarded over, but that they are fast-forwards and not jump cuts from an arbitrary stopping point to an arbitrary starting point. Every time the clock or calendar is advanced, it’s for a reason, taking us from one plot-relevant scene to another.

I suspect that other than “just not reading the book to begin with”, the reason I’ve seen more than one person saying the book is plotless is because they did not understand the plot, because while it was conventional in its structure, it was unconventional in its presentation. The title character, an outsider suddenly elevated to the role of emperor of the elven lands, has to rely on others to provide him with information, carry out investigations, et cetera. So while he drives the plot, he does so indirectly and then often learns the results of the things he sets in motion secondhand. The book is a political thriller in the purest possible meaning of the words, where the viewpoint character is not an intrepid reporter or secret service agent or military intelligence specialist but a politician, or at least a political leader.

Because of the conceits under which Addison was writing (that we don’t stray from the emperor’s point of view, that the emperor is trapped by his role and forced to rely on others, et cetera), the resolution of the actual main plot is largely anti-climactic and the book continues from there through a coda that allows our hero to have a more personal triumph that hints at the nature of his likely long and successful reign. Perhaps this decision contributed a bit to the feeling of “not a novel, just a series of events” that some people complained of, yet the plot was there. And while people have complained of the similar codae to the Lord of the Rings, I’ve never yet heard anyone claim that the decision to show what happens after the plot is resolved robs Lord of the Rings of its essential story-ness.

And that brings me back to World War Z.

Years back, people criticized Rachel Swirsky’s nomination for “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” in the category of Best SF/F Short Story under similar grounds: that it wasn’t a story as such, merely a vignette. It was likewise criticized as being not worthy of that Hugo category for not being a “real” fantasy story, a subject I’ve dealt with before. The fact that these two Hugo-nominated works were both criticized separately on the same grounds is something that has bugged me before, but then I read World War Z back-to-back with The Goblin Emperor, and now it more than bugs me.

Because you know what is literally “a collection of anecdotes”? World War Z. That’s the format that the book takes. And yet I doubt anyone who has read it would question that it tells a story or that it constitutes a novel and not, say, a collection of short stories.

You know what else is more of a collection of anecdotes than a self-contained novel? Any given book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Sure, we can understand that they’re all collectively telling one story, or something that will be seen to be a single story when it’s completed. We could say they have many plots instead of one plot, but even then we’re stuck with the fact that this plot over here might have begun in this book but doesn’t end until that plot, and so on.

I’m not pointing this out to demand that people immediately start criticizing George R.R. Martin or Max Brooks on these same grounds; I’m just pointing out that by and large, people don’t. And while people have criticized Tolkien for some of the odder vignettes that were included in Lord of the Rings, no one to my knowledge have used it as an excuse to say, “Well, it’s not really a novel, is it?”

It might be that this is only the case because absent an honor being awarded for something that is specifically a novel (or in the case of “…Dinosaur…”, a short story) there’s no point in splitting such a hair, but I suspect that if any of these or several other works that take a vignette/mosaic/what-have-you approach to storytelling were nominated there wouldn’t be anyone trying to refute their eligibility based on trying to pin down an objective definition for a unit of storytelling.

Because this kind of scrutiny is so ridiculous and so pointless that it only crops up at a noticeable level when there’s another purpose being served, such as gatekeeping.

Katherine Addison is a woman who wrote a novel that made it onto the Hugo ballot on its own merits. Rachel Swirsky is a woman who wrote a story that had a radical pro-SJW message shoved down our throats. Nota bene: I still have yet to find anyone who can explain what message it shoved down my throat, but I have been assured that it’s totally there.

People question the legitimacy of these works not because they have any kind of deep and abiding respect for the sanctity of the terms “novel” and “short story”, but because they object to them. They object to their existence, to the fact that they have received positive notice. Puppies and others saying that “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” isn’t a story and The Goblin Emperor isn’t a novel is not that different from Gamergate saying that Gone Home isn’t a game. The point is to explain away its success as irrelevant while also trying t head off any further success.

I am not a Hugo voter, but if I were, I would totally be voting for The Goblin Emperor for best novel. It is not a perfect book. Despite having been pinned with a reputation for being a “Social Justice Affirmative Action Message Book” or whatever the puppies call it, it does suffer from some of the most common missteps in fantasy dealing with race. The decision to hide all information about pronunciation, translation, and pronoun casing in the back of the book also affects its readability, particularly in the electronic edition (where flipping from one point to another is trivial, but flipping ahead is a good way to irrevocably lose your place).

Yet for these faults, it’s a great book and it got there on its own merits. It could have been a bog standard “D&D World With The Serial Numbers Filed Off” but it’s so much more than that.

I understand the point of view of people who are voting No Award for the entire ballot on the principle that voting any other way legitimizes the Puppies’ tactics or on the principle, but I believe in the case of the Best Novel category, voting for a work that made it on despite their machinations rather than because of them would not carry such an unintended message.


Note: A previous version of this post reflected that The Goblin Emperor replaced a withdrawn work on the ballot. This was an error of my own memory that was caught by multiple commenters, and the post has been edited appropriately. Apologies for the mistake.

My Video Game Challenge

Writer, reviewer, and tech blogger K. Tempest Bradford made waves earlier this year when she announced a challenge she was undertaking for herself (and suggesting for others who felt like doing it): to only read stories by authors who are women, or people of color, or queer.

Now, a number of people have misinterpreted her criteria as being way more narrow than they are, thinking that she won’t read any stories by white people or straight people, but the criteria are “or”, not “and”. A number of other people have decried it as discrimination or a call to arms or misinterpreted it as a boycott.

The most concise defense of her decision I can offer is the fact that after she started doing it, she realized that whole issues of some magazines were out of bounds. This is the point: in the absence of a concerted effort to seek out voices that don’t belong to straight white men, you can wind up reading nothing but straight white men without realizing it.

“It’s fine to add more voices to your reading,” some might say, “but not to the point of excluding anyone else.”

“Okay,” I might reply. “How many stories by straight white men do I have to read to earn the right to read something else?”

Anyway, the actual challenge Tempest lays out isn’t for people to read the same books that she reads or to use the same criteria she has laid out, but to think about who they are reading and make deliberate choices. She suggests defining some criteria and sticking to it for a year.

I’m not doing that this year. Not with prose fiction, anyway.

But I did make a decision late last year, around the time of the winter Steam sale, that during the calendar year 2015, I would not buy any video games that do not allow you to play as a female character. I might have tweeted about it, I don’t recall. I didn’t make a whole lot of fanfare over it, though. It was largely a personal decision.

I’ve decided to publicize it, though, because the concept of “voting one’s wallet” means more when 1) more than one person is doing it and 2) there’s some means for the industry being targeted to know on what basis people are making their buying decisions.

So here it is: for at least the space of the calendar year 2015, I am not going to be buying any games that do not allow me to play as a female character, and I invite anyone who is interested in shaking up the status quo to do the same, and to make their decision known.

Now, there’s some room for interpretation in how the challenge plays out.

For instance, a game like Don’t Starve has a male default character and only allows you to play as other characters (female ones included) as you progressively unlock them. To me, this is acceptable. If it had an open-ended character creation system that arbitrarily restricted you to one gender before you “earned” the right to play as another, that would be kind of a slap in the face, but each of the characters in Don’t Starve is a unique individual, half of the available characters are female, and you can unlock the first female one pretty quickly.

That’s my call on a game like that. There are also games that have multiple protagonists that game play switches between. If a game like that has at least one female character, does it count? Well, that’s your call. What about games in long-running franchises that revolve around a single established character who happens to be male? Are they exempt? Also your call!

I certainly play games like that. I wouldn’t buy one this year, but I understand the temptation to give them a pass. The reason I’m not doing so is the fact that there are so many “legacy” franchises like that, and so few with iconic female characters. Also, so many long-running character-centric franchises have added female playable characters that there’s not really an excuse for the holdouts.

It’s also your call, on games that have multiple predefined characters to choose from, on whether any level of female representation is acceptable or if there needs to be something at least approaching parity. I bought the new Gauntlet game, even though male characters outnumber females by 3 to 2, and you have to pay extra for the second woman. That was my call. You can make your own.

On the subject of Gauntlet, where I am more likely to play as Questor the Elf than Thyra the Valkyrie just as a matter of playstyle, so I should make it clear: it’s not that I insist on only playing games as a female character. It’s that I insist on the option being included. I am very happy that each successive game in the Borderlands franchise has moved closer to parity between male and female characters, but I like to play through them with each character at least once. My current playthrough of the first game is with Mordecai.

I know that some people (e.g., gators) will say that I am trying to dictate how game developers make their games and thus something something underpants gnome logic something censorship something anti-art. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t owe anyone my time or money, and like anyone else, I have the freedom to let my preferences be known.

The status quo of the supposedly free marketplace of ideas already restricts artists to working within a narrow palette of ideas, which is: whatever seems profitable enough to be worth the effort and resources. I’m just letting any interested artists know where my money is, in case they want a piece of it. That is free speech and the free market in action.