The Puppies come so close to getting it, so often.

While reading the linked articles on Mike Glyer’s daily round-up of Puppy and Puppy-adjacent posts, I stumbled across a post by Dave Freer from February called “To Serve One Master — The Reader“.

The major thrust of the blog post is the idea that however an author intends a work to be received is secondary to how readers receive it, which… okay. This is something that it’s taken me a long time to accept as an author, but I have to say that I am in general agreement with it.

The thing is, it’s weird to see a self-professed Puppy saying this. After all, these are the same people who, whenever someone starts talking about the racist or sexist content of a work, respond with “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE AUTHOR MEANT! YOU CAN’T KNOW WHAT’S IN THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS! YOU’RE JUST READING INTO THINGS!”

Of course, predictably, to the author of this blog post, “the reader” (also referred to as “the customer”) is a monolithic if not singular entity. “The reader” has a single set of tastes, which all authors are obliged to satisfy.

According to Dave Freer, its the people who remember what one commenter calls the “SHAZAAM!” factor of Star Trek who are Star Trek’s customers, not the people who appreciate the utopian social messages and the hope for the future, or the clever dialogue and rich characterization and interpersonal relationships, or any other aspect of the show.

According to Dave Freer, when people go to a movie that features a rich fictional culture and also laser battles, it’s the people who remember the laser battles (and only those people) that are the customers who deserve to be catered to.

Freer uses the piece to berate authors who don’t write for “the reader”/”the customer”, explicitly meaning consumers who want the sorts of things Dave Freer thinks consumers should want.

He advises writers:

Of course you can just hope they like your stuff. Or you can try and write what they want. Maybe slant it a bit in the direction that you want to communicate about. Of course if that slant fails to gain traction and overwhelms what they did want… you’ve lost. And, if they’re not a captive audience, they’ll find something they do like. … It’s really important to find out what customers want, and give it to them.

So a writer’s job is to figure out exactly what readers want to read and then give it to them? Yet when readers say they want more diverse books, or they want to read books with characters they can identify with, or they want to read books that don’t use real-life sources of trauma as set decoration, that’s “political correctness run wild” or “SJW thought police” or whatever buzzwords the Sad Puppies and their ilk want to string together today.

Why? Because the people who want to read those things aren’t readers. Only the people whose tastes and preferences are Dave Freer-approved are readers. To the Sad Puppies, an author’s job is to please the Dave Freers and William Lehmans of the world, not the K. Tempest Bradfords and David Gerrolds.

It’s really striking how often the Sad Puppies claim that “the other side” is all about dictating who is and isn’t “True Fans”, given how much of their rhetoric revolves around this kind of thing. It’s also striking how much this ideology overlaps with Gamergate.

Freer repeats a common Sad Puppy talking point, that SF/F is in some kind of death spiral because so many authors refuse to cater to “the reader”. This notion—insofar as it is based on anything—is based on the fact that in a diverse field where authors are free to write whatever they want that appeals to any audience (not just Dave Freer’s idealized concept of “the reader”), a market that would otherwise belong wholly to the lowest common denominators is instead spread out among more works.

The Puppies see this as a terrifying prospect, the end of the genre as we know it. Puppy standard-bearer Brad Torgersen, in his now-infamous “Nutty Nuggets” post (which might as well be subtitled “WHY CAN’T I JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVER?”), lamented a future where SF/F is everywhere: SF/F romances, SF/F mysteries, et cetera.

I don’t know what the problem with that is.

Science fiction everywhere?

I call that winning.

It might be—I’m not in a position to know, but it might be—that the “fracturing” of the field in terms of more diverse voices writing for more diverse audiences is making it harder for the big publishing houses to churn out big blockbusters. I don’t know. But as an independent author, I don’t see much percentage in measuring the health of the genre by the performance of the biggest players only. I’d rather measure the field’s growth in terms of how many people are reading and writing science fiction vs. how many copies the most popular books sell.

Of Dinosaurs, Legos, and Impossible Hypotheticals

A Super Serious Meditation on the Nature of Speculative Fiction

One of the squawking points that the Puppy campaigners keep returning to in their quest to prove the existence of a shadowy Social Justice Warrior cabal that at some point took over and subverted the Hugo awards (thus necessitating that they ride in as liberators) is the 2014 nomination of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love“, a quirky yet haunting and deeply emotive short story by Rachel Swirsky.

The Puppies, who only understand that tastes are subjective when it’s convenient for them, take it for granted that this story is so awful the only possible reason it could have been nominated was that the SJW clique was rewarding it for pushing the “proper” message.

I’ve never yet had a Puppy who was able to explain, when asked, exactly what the message was. Dinosaurs are more awesome and less frail than humans? Five men should not gang up on one person and savagely beat them with pool cues for being different? What’s the controversial hidden meaning of this story, exactly?

It’s worth noting that the Hugo voting community was and remains pretty sharply divided about this, and it did not win. So one must wonder what all the fuss is about, even if the story does not seem Hugo-worthy. Of course, some people might say that if it’s an honor just to be nominated, then it’s worth asking if the honor was earned… but the Puppies’ individual grievances suggest that they don’t see nomination as an honor. Both Torgersen and Correia’s Campbell nominations have been treated essentially as pledges that were not fulfilled, for instance, and Torgersen acts as though Mike Resnick’s nomination was an unforgivable snub.

But I don’t wish to focus too much on the Puppies’ problems with this story, because there are complaints against it that go beyond their borders. As I said, the community has been divided about its merits, if not as a work in general than as a speculative fiction story in particular. The common criticism amounts to the idea that it is neither a story nor SF/F.

My John Z. Upjohn’s review of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie actually plays on the logic of this: that since the whole story is inflected in the conditional case, nothing really happens within it. The narrator is not telling us what happened when the person referred to in the title was a dinosaur, but merely relating what might have happened if they were a dinosaur. So while the story is full of science fiction-y concepts (though it explicitly paints them as magical and thus fantasy, but more on that later), it’s not actually a specfic story—the reasoning goes—because none of that stuff actually happens.

As it happens, I can’t agree with this logic. I just can’t. “A text in which the narrator explains what would happen if something impossible according to our current understanding of the world happened” is a pretty decent definition of a speculative story to me. In fact, I’m not sure how it could be improved upon. If Rachel Swirsky had written an alternate version of the story that simply straight-out related the events being described as hypothetical in the extant version, they would be no less hypothetical and no more real, would they?

Speculative fiction consists of speculation; that is tautology. It answers the question “What might happen if this other, currently impossible thing happened?”

Swirsky’s story does a number of things worthy of discussion. Making the question explicit, making the speculative nature of speculative fiction part of the text rather than the subtext is simply one of them. If there’s any doubt that this skillful play on convention is not deliberate and informed, it should be laid to rest by the line which follows another impossible hypothetical introduced into the text, the line that reads:

all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.

In this line, Swirsky is commenting on the porousness of the boundaries we try to draw when it comes to speculative fiction. This is science fiction, that is fantasy; this has lasers and star ships, that has swords and sorcery. But even without getting into Arthur C. Clarke’s apt but perhaps overworked adage about sufficiently advanced science… the divide really isn’t as clear as all that.

So much science fiction never bothers to address the why or how of its hypotheticals, because the question the author wants to address isn’t (for instance) “How can we make autonomous intelligent beings to serve us?” but “What happens when we do?” Isaac Asimov’s “positronic brains” weren’t a prediction; he grabbed the most scienterrific buzzword available to him at the time and used it to explain the leap necessary to answer the question of “If We Were Robot-Makers, My Fellow Humans”.

So much of the annals of science fiction require us to imagine not just a new technological breakthrough but a specific breakthrough in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, some principle hidden to actual real-world modern humans, which when mastered allows us to do things that seem like magic.

Similarly, there are certainly stories with fantasy trappings that dress them up with what Swirsky refers to as the “trappings” of science fiction: magic may be explained away by the wise as simply “subconscious psionic talents focused through the use of repetitive motions and chants”. Actually, I haven’t read all that much that takes that particular route, but it apparently is or was once a common enough meme that I’ve encountered readers who just assume that all well-written magic must be this, and are shocked at the idea that it might not be the author’s intent.

The point I am making here is that you can interpret nearly all of science fiction as fantasy and nearly all of fantasy as science fiction, which might be why we get so hung up on the “trappings”, on the limbs and outer flourishes. This story is science fiction because it has atomic blaster rays, or cyberspace, or nanites, according to your epoch. That story is fantasy because it has elves and dwarves and dragons. Sometimes we focus on the feel when drawing the dividing line. Even a grim and gritty science fiction story is not grim and gritty in quite the same way as a grim and gritty fantasy story, though exploring why would probably take a whole separate blog post.

This porous divide is not the major theme or focus of Rachel Swirsky’s work, and I’m not suggesting that it is only in her acknowledgment of it that the work achieves relevance or eligibility as a speculative fiction story. If talking about the nature of science fiction and fantasy made a work science fiction or fantasy, this blog post would count as speculative fiction. My point here is that there is a lot more going on in this brief piece than a “mere” chasing down of impossible hypotheticals.

But that “mere” is used advisedly, because that’s “merely” what science fiction and fantasy are.

There’s another work nominated this year that has stirred similar questions in a more limited way, perhaps more limited because the Dramatic Presentation categories are seen as less serious and crucial in a literary award than the literary categories, and perhaps because as a Sad Puppy pick it is taken less seriously to begin with.

The work in question is The Lego Movie, which contains a couple of scenes near the end that make explicit the implicit framing device for a movie about Lego characters in a world made out of Lego blocks: it’s all a child, playing with toys. It is this moment, in my opinion, that elevates The Lego Movie from merely being charming and fun to actually pretty sublimely brilliant. It explained so many of the odd quirks of characterization and storytelling earlier in the film.

I mean, it changed the movie’s version of Batman from “weirdly out of character, but okay, it’s funny” to “…that’s freaking brilliant” because it wasn’t Batman as adult comic book fans understand him but Batman seen through the eyes of a child, with way more focus on the cool factor of everything and of course he has the coolest girlfriend and of course even the grimdark angst seems kind of fun…

But that’s just one representative example. Taken as a whole, the movie reminded me of the way my brothers and I used to play with our toys, not playing with this set of characters or that but throwing them all together in an expansive world, some with the figures “playing themselves” and others being creatively repurposed.

We had one figure of a female character with green hair in a red body suit. I believe it was a Robotech character, but she often stood in for Samus Aran because we didn’t have a Samus action figure available to us, but if you unlocked the armor-less playthrough and had the Varia, Samus had green hair and a red body suit. These are the kinds of creative compromises a child’s imagination makes on the fly, and The Lego Movie nailed that.

Here’s the rub, though: a movie that is about imagination and how children play with toys isn’t speculative fiction in any meaningful sense, is it? The story that the little boy is creating for himself is both science fiction and fantasy, but the story about the little boy creating that story through play is rooted firmly in the real world, right? Anybody could do that.

Except during those scenes in the “real world”, the main character maintains his consciousness and a small amount of ability to move independently of the child. There’s no narrator relating this to us. The child is not aware it’s happening. The Lego Movie thus is a fantasy movie, because it contains this element of the unvarnished fantastical.

But look at what a whiplash, razor-thin calculation this is: if we had a cut of the movie that removed the main character’s internal monologue from the scenes taking place in the basement and replaced the character’s independent movement with being accidentally swept to the floor or something similar, the movie wouldn’t be fantasy anymore, yet if we removed those scenes entirely, it would be fantasy again?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

It’s far less ridiculous to simply declare that The Lego Movie is a fantasy movie than it is to say that it all hinges on the explicitness or lack thereof of a framing device.

To use some other examples:

The Wizard of Oz is a fantasy movie because the story we’re told from the moment that Dorothy is knocked out until the moment she regains consciousness is a fantasy movie; nobody went to the theater to see the amazing adventures of a young woman’s misfiring neurons, but her magical adventures in a land of wonder.

Big Fish is a fantasy movie because it contains a fantasy story; that this fantasy story is intertwined with a family drama makes it no less fantastical. The family drama keeps us grounded and invested, but no one went into that movie thinking, “Gee, I really hope that Billy Crudup reconciles with Albert Finney before he dies.” People might have thought that—or felt it, rather than explicitly having those words pass through their heads—while sitting there watching it, but that’s not why they showed up for it.

How about Edward Scissorhands? If you casually think about that movie, you might not even realize it has an explicit framing device. But the movie is explicitly a story we are being told, which means that any or all of the more impossible, unlikely, and phantasmagorical elements of the story might be imagined or exaggerated or just plain fabricated. The whole thing could be another “Big Fish” story.

Then there’s The Princess Bride. The heartwarming story of Columbo bonding with Wonder Years over a beloved classic story is important, sure. It adds an inflection to the other story, the story that he tells.

But when you get right down to it, what’s the difference between a fantasy story the movie tells to you directly and one the movie tells by means of addressing it to a character within the movie? Not much, by my reckoning. I’m not saying it’s not an important creative decision. The Princess Bride, The Lego Movie, and Big Fish would all be very different movies without their explicit frames. It’s hard to imagine them not being worse movies.

But every movie—every story—has at least an implicit frame. Even if a text is written in third person omniscient style with the least discursive and obtrusive voice possible, we are still being told this happened and that happened and he thought this and she said that and they did this thing. Convention dictates that an invisible narrator presented without appreciable personality or agenda should be fairly reliable, but what does “reliable” mean when we’re told the story of a thing that never happened and never could?

The lover of the narrator in Rachel Swirsky’s story never was a dinosaur, yes! And Han Solo never flew the Millennium Falcon. Captain Janeway never tricked the Borg Queen and returned to the Alpha Quadrant. Link never reunited the Triforce. These things are all both fictional and also impossible.

If you subscribe to the more SFnal-friendly versions of the multiverse theory (or to borrow the trappings of the other genre, the “all stories are true” theory of The Sandman), then of course these things did happen, somewhere, somewhen, somehow.

There is a world where Han Solo exists. In fact, there are infinite numbers of worlds in which he existed, which means that not only are there worlds in which he didn’t shoot first, there are worlds in which a trusting and slow Han Solo was shot dead by a cagey Greedo, and there are worlds in which Han Solo never owed money to Jabba because he was a vapor farmer instead of a spice smuggler.

So even allowing that there is a “real” world of Star Wars somewhere out there doesn’t let us say with any certainty or authority that any cut of a Star Wars movie or any particular of its expanded universe is “what really happened”.

All that we have in any SF/F story is the story, not the story of what really happened, just the story, or maybe more accurately, a story.

If we can imagine that any SF/F story we tell each other might be happening somewhere, we can imagine the same is true that any such story told within any story we’re telling each other.

The Great Speculative Fiction Multiverse not only demands we imagine that there actually a world where a little boy played out his frustration with his too restrictive dad using the world’s most amazing Lego set, it demands we imagine a world where conscious and autonomous Lego figures lived out that story. This demand does not change when we tell these two stories in proximity to each other, does it?

The distinction between “speculative fiction” and “not speculative fiction” is important, sure, but at the end of the day I’d say that the nature of the boundary is more something interesting to explore than necessary to pin down.

And I don’t need to know exactly where the dividing line between “fantasy” and “non-fantasy” lies to know that a story in which the narrator explains what might happen if a human being could magically transform into a human-sized T-rex is a fantasy story.

My mother read to me

“Why do you write?” is a question that most authors who find themselves famous enough will eventually face in an interview. I don’t anticipate that happening, but as luck would have it, it’s Mother’s Day, and that means I can give my answer anyway.

Most authors whose answer to this question get quoted enough for you to have read them have something clever to say. Isaac Asimov, for instance, said he wrote for the same reason he breathed: because if he stopped, he would die. This was not only pithy, but also had the virtue of being true in the inverse case, so far as anyone has noticed.

I don’t have a clever answer.

If you were to ask me why I write, I would ask you to clarify what you meant by “why”. It’s a slippery word, and I don’t trust it. We squeeze out of these three letters and one syllable more uses than a Hobbit can cram into “Good morning.” Do you mean for what purpose do I write? Or do you mean what is my motivation for writing? Or do you mean what is the reason that I write the things that I do and not other things? Or do you mean what proximate cause impels me to write in the moment?

In the very unlikely event that you were still interested in my answer, and the further unlikely event that you clarified that what you meant was the ultimate root cause of my condition of being a writer, I would tell you this:

My mother read to me.

When I was very young, she read to me and my siblings The Chronicles of Narnia (in the proper narrative order, thank you very much), and The Hobbit, and the Wrinkle in Time series, and other things, including the works of Mark Twain.

I was very young when all this started, young enough that I was not aware I had an age. I said “siblings” up there mostly out of force of habit as I’ve had decades to get used to being one out of four. It was just my older brother and myself at the beginning. As the younger one, I had the privilege of going along for the ride. There were frequent stops to define words and explain things that were unfamiliar to us.

I’m grateful for this experience for many reasons. It meant that I could greet a large number of the books I encountered throughout my schooling as old friends. Having heard A Wind in the Door meant that when I was diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder before I was midway through elementary school, I had a frame of reference for what would otherwise have been incomprehensible and thus terrifying. It means I get an additional layer of nostalgia when I put on an audiobook of one of my childhood favorites.

And I am dead certain that it is the ultimate reason I am a writer today.

Oh, there were steps along the way. I doubt I would have become a writer if I hadn’t gotten into D&D and other roleplaying games, which I wouldn’t have gotten into without comic books. My interest in writing also spun out of my interest in computer game development, which came out of video games. There was a certain amount of tagging along after my older brother in those things, naturally.

I think he probably retained more of those early story  times than I did, having been older at the time, but I daresay they were more of a foundational experience for me, having been younger at the time. Because of my mother, I grew up speaking fantasy as a first tongue. I walked in what ifs almost from my first steps. My world has been a multiverse for as long as I have known it.

Today, I thank my mother not just for giving me life, but giving me lives, and a shining multitude of worlds to spin them in. It is because of you, Mom, that I look deeper, go further, and ask what if?

Happy Mother’s Day.


Mythic Delirium Press Presents CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 5 – And You Can Help

Mythic Delirium Press is doing a Kickstarter to fund the next edition of their amazing genre-blending Clockwork Phoenix anthology series. You can help them to produce it and pay their contributors while reserving your copy and/or buying another Mythic Delirium title.

Perks at the higher levels include signed, limited edition chapbooks by a number of authors, including the wicked and wise Catherynne M. Valente, writer of most of my favorite words in most of my favorite orders. Her books that I’ve mentioned include Palimpsest, Deathless, and The Orphan’s Tales Book 1 and Book 2. She has also contributed a poem to Angels of the Meanwhile, being a friend and something of a mentor and inspiration to Lizbet, as Lizbet has been to me.

Whether you’re a fan of Cat in particular or just awesome fiction, and whether you’re interested in scoring some great ebooks on the cheap or picking up a rare keepsake of a favored author, this project is well worth your support. The chapbook perks don’t come cheap, but they include the previous perk levels plus the tangible, readable collector’s item.

On Genre Poetry

If you think about it, it’s kind of weird that speculative fiction even exists as a genre. In a way, all fiction is speculative. If we weren’t imagining a world that is other than the one we know in some fashion, it wouldn’t be fiction.

But it goes beyond that, because once upon a time, there wasn’t a special word for fiction that was fanciful, fiction that included monsters and magic or even mechanical marvels. Those were all just part and parcel of the storyteller’s palette. The people who spun myths into tales were both entertainers and historians. There was no sharp, bright line. It took a long time for the idea of telling stories grounded in mundane reality to catch on to the point that we need a special word for stories that deal with glittering fantasticality.

This is perhaps even more true when it comes to poetry. So many poets throughout even recent history have worked in mythic realms, trafficking in fantastic or spiritual symbolism, incorporating folklore and legend into their verses. Poetry often deals heavily in metaphor, of course, so the argument about whether a given poem is really a work of fantasy or merely using fantasy to make a point while not actually telling a story could go on forever in some cases, if anybody felt it was worth their time to make it.

So we might ask ourselves: is there any need to label speculative poetry, genre poetry, SF/F poetry, or whatever you might want to call it?

Despite the case I just laid out, I would say that yes, it is a useful distinction to make… just not an absolute one. People tend to want to read things that speak to their interests, after all. We like what we like. If what you like is robots and artificial intelligences or mermaids and dragons—or robot dragons and artificially intelligent mermaids—then it might well be that speculative poetry would be right up your alley, even if most of the poetry you’ve encountered has done nothing for you.

I wouldn’t know how big and rich the world of speculative poetry is if not for the friendship of Elizabeth R. McClellan, who introduced me to it first through her participation in its fandom and then, increasingly, through her own career as a poet. I spent years watching from the fringes, convinced that this was all that I could do, that I didn’t have the right skills or anything to say.

That changed when I wrote “Institutional Memory“, a poem that started out as a short story that just wouldn’t come together. The time scale I wanted to capture was too grand, the point of view too diffuse. I couldn’t make it work as a story, so basically on a lark I tried it as a poem.

It worked, and I caught the bug. I’ve written easily a dozen solid poems since then, and sold four of them so far. The first sale was “Institutional Memory”. It was bought by the magazine arm of the SFPA, the Speculative Fiction Poetry Association. The fee wasn’t large in any objective sense, but it paid most of a year’s dues to the SFPA, which struck me as a fitting way to spend it.

Now, the SFPA isn’t like the similarly named SFWA, the Science Fiction& Fantasy Writer’s Association. Note that it’s the Poetry Association, not the Poet’s Association. This is not an organization for professionals but one for appreciators. In practice I suspect that most people who join the organization are or hope to be poets, and I also suspect the benefits of joining such an organization are more immediately clear if you are or hope to be a poet, but you don’t have to prove your right to be there. I had my first pro sale when I joined the SFPA, but that is not a requirement. There is no requirement. Nothing is required, everything is permitted.

Earlier in the year, I announced plans to promote speculative poetry through a website called The Every World Poetry Digest. My goal would be twofold: to let readers know what’s out there to read, and help poets learn what’s out there for them to sell to. I had planned on launching the project in earnest in May. That has been pushed back until I’m done with Angels of the Meanwhile, an unplanned and unexpected labor of love on behalf of Elizabeth R. McClellan, though it’s still coming.

In the meantime, I’m still going to do two things to promote my chosen field of poetry.

The first is to highlight the fact that the SFPA exists, it has open membership, and for as little as $15 a year you can be a member, get a quarterly PDF zine with poems from both career writers and rank neophytes and a chance to nominate for and vote on the Rhysling Awards (the equivalent of the SFWA’s Nebulas). The SFPA can be found online at

The second is to mention that if you want to know some names you should be paying attention to in the genre poetry scene, you should seriously check out Angels of the MeanwhileThere are some serious big name, big time poets in there, along with some people I think will be well worth watching in the years to come. It’s by no means an exhaustive list; I’m not saying “Anyone who is anyone is in this collection.” But if you’re looking for a place to start, it should be a good one.

Actually, I’m going to do a third thing. I’m going to ask people to comment with the poem or two (or if you really can’t decide, three, but let’s keep things reasonable) that they would most recommend to others as a starting point if they’re interested in exploring the topic but not 100% sure where to look. It can be a classic work like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” or one of Poe’s grim fancies, or something that came out more recently, but ideally it should be something that folks can find and read online for free, because I’m going to take them and collect them into a Speculative Poetry primer post of sorts.

There is a surprising (and growing) wealth of genre poetry on the internet, but one thing I am absolutely convinced of is that there are far more people who would read it than who, at current time, do. What I want to do—with this post, and with the Every World Poetry Digest—is give the world a signpost for finding it.

A Problem of Scale

Eric Flint, author of the time displacement/alternate history 1632 series, has written a really interesting essay in support of his original comments on the Hugos and the Puppy mess. In his attempts to clarify a point that was apparently misunderstood in the original post, he has a lot to say about the actual size of the genre fiction audience.

I feel like this is an important point that is often overlooked, not just in this brouhaha but in general. We aren’t really wired to grasp the size and shape of things as large as an industry, or a global community, or the internet, or even smaller communities within the internet.

This inability to grasp a gigantic scale is why people outside the industry like to ask authors they’ve never heard of but just been introduced to questions like, “What have you written that I’d have heard about?”

It’s why those of us who hang out on websites like Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit that act as a sort of mega-community have a tendency to imagine that the feeds we watch reflect the website as a whole, which is what leads to the assumption that anything we see all the time must be well-known in an objective sense, and any opinion that is shared by a majority of those around us must be widespread.

It’s also why, absent a little reflection, so many people conclude that any opinion with which they disagree that has any kind of penetration at all must be unfairly propped up somehow. Because it doesn’t reflect the composition of the community as a whole (as extrapolated by the view of our own virtual living rooms) but it keeps cropping up all the same.

I think that at a baseline, Sad Puppy founder Larry Correia started out working on the assumption that it should be impossible for an author to enjoy his level of success without being, objectively speaking, A Successful Author. And if someone is objectively A Successful Author, this should be recognized in objective fashion. Awards, plaudits, praise. If he’s not getting them, and/or he sees people who are not doing the things he’s doing (and thus, not legitimately Successful Authors) getting them, then he can conclude that something is wrong.

If you read the blogs of his self-professed allies like Brad Torgersen and Sarah Hoyt, you’ll come away with a very definite sense that they see themselves as playing to the real mass audience. Torgersen in particular has talked about his idea that the SF/F audience is shrinking because the mass audience is over here (where he is) and yet people are writing stuff over there (where he’s not).

Flint’s blog post, although it’s not specifically addressing those claims, serves as… well, I was going to say a great counter, but the thing is, Torgersen’s claim isn’t one that actually needs to be countered. It needs to be dismissed. It’s not just wrong in its conclusion, but mistaken in its premise.

I said in my previous post about the Puppies that I hope they wake up one day and realize that they’re writing to a niche. I don’t say this as a criticism, as I’m also a niche writer. I think it’s one of the smartest things you can do in this world.


An indie author I follow recently tweeted the realization that her furry space opera stories outsell the rest by three to one. If you’re viewing the marketplace as winner-take-all and you’re seeing supply and demand in the simplistic, one dimensional terms that many people view it and above all if you’re not contemplating how vast the SF/F marketplace is, you have to conclude one of two things from this: either she is lying or cheating somehow and her stories aren’t really that popular, or there’s three times as much demand for furry fiction as for conventional space opera.

If you reject the second one as not true, then you’re left with the first.

Neither possibility is actually true, of course. The real truth is that the marketplace is bigger and more complicated than either of those conclusions allow for. But if you’re dead set on thinking of it in small, one-dimensional terms, then the only possible conclusion is that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  This kind of small-time thinking is at the root of both the Puppies’ and the Gators’ discontent.

What’s really happening, of course, is that the furry stories are serving an under-served niche. In the mass market, every space opera story is competing with every space opera story… although the market is so big that in truth, every space opera story is competing for the right to compete with every space opera story, and we could really add a bunch for iterations of “competing for the right to compete” to that.

But if you tell a story that few people are telling, if you put something in your stories that’s hard to find elsewhere, if you address your story to a smaller audience, but one that has a hard time finding what they’re looking for elsewhere… why, you can clean up.

People who squabble over a piece of “the pie” in general terms aren’t likely to get anywhere, and if they do, it’ll be in part by accident. The mass market audience has room for a few big winners and a lot of runner-ups who don’t really go anywhere. But if you realize that “the pie” is actually a bunch of different pies, it’s just a matter of finding a pie you like that has gone overlooked in the general rush for the more obvious choices.

Hoyt, Torgersen, Correia, Michael Z. Williamson, all of those ilk… they aren’t writing for the mass audience. They’re writing towards particular audiences, seeking particular things. And they are doing—by all indications—pretty okay with it. Good for them.

The problem is, they don’t have any real idea how much pie there is in the world out there. They don’t understand that it’s possible (and inevitable) for authors to do the same thing they’ve done but in a different direction (writing from and towards a queer perspective, writing from and towards a feminist perspective, et cetera) because they don’t think of what they’ve done as anything other than “writing quality books that people will want to read”.

They don’t realize that it’s some people who see their books as quality and want to read them. They have no concept of how big and diverse a group people really is, or what an uphill battle it would be to compete for the attention of people generally.

And in fairness to them, nobody really does.

But some of us have at least recognized that we don’t know this.


Yesterday I started a new project.

I think it could probably be described as a “novelette”, as its final length is likely to be between 10,000 and 25,000 words. Though classifying stories by length is always a little bit weird to me, as a story can be that length and still have a short story’s structure.

This book is something I would broadly classify as epistolary. The story is told in a series of vignettes, all related in the form of a woman rating her romantic and sexual encounters. I’m aiming for a decent blend of biting humor and actual functional erotica. There will be a finite number of pieces that go into it, as the working title of the book is 50 Grades of Shay.

Because this is a finitely bounded project, I’m going to post periodic updates on this blog listing how far along I am in the initial phase, which is compiling the 50 entries. When I’m finished with that, I’ll still have editing to do, including arranging them into the best order, finding threads between them to strengthen, expanding what needs expanding and trimming what needs trimming.

Yesterday, the initial burst of inspiration brought me eight entries. Today I added three more, for a total of 11. So, update #1: 11 Grades of Shay out of 50.

So, Let’s Talk About The Hugos: A Puppy Primer

So, one of the things that’s motivated me to start a proper blog is that I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter, tackling some subjects that are much bigger than 140 characters. Because of this, some of what I’m saying here is going to be a rehash of stuff I’ve already said. But for people who don’t follow me on Twitter, or haven’t otherwise followed what’s going on enough to make sense of things, this post should stand as a primer on what we might (laughingly) call #puppygate.

If you want to know more about it, I recommend checking the tag on George R.R. Martin’s blog, where he has written about it with his customary brevity and the restrained, almost laconic turn of phrase he is so often known for (as the pot said to the kettle). There has been some interesting and insightful analysis of specific Puppy claims elseweb, but he tends to link to most of it.

The Basic Terms: Hugos, Worldcon, and Sad Puppies

The Hugos are an award regarded as one of the top two prizes in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Which of the big two is more prestigious depends on who you ask, and the general consensus (if such a creature is not itself a matter of speculation) has flip-flopped a few times. They are, nonetheless, credibly A Big Deal.

The Hugos are awarded by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon. Worldcon is a bit like the Olympics in that it is an international thing and people bid to host it. This is why you see references to “LonCon” and “Sasquan” and other conventions in this: these are the local cons that host Worldcon.

Being a convention, membership in Worldcon (and thus, participation in the Hugo voting process) is open to anyone who pays the price of admission. Like many long-running cons, Worldcon offers a lower priced supporting membership, mostly intended to allow people who know they can’t afford the room and travel and other expenses of going this year to still keep their stake in things. Supporting members have full voting rights.

While Worldcon is pretty firmly in the big deal category, the percentage of members who vote to nominate works for the Hugo or vote on the final ballot has historically been pretty low, which is part of how a relatively small group of people coming in from the outside were able to effect a pretty substantial swing in the nomination process this year. These people are the Sad Puppies.

(Well, that’s a simplification, as there are actually two very closely related groups, one piggybacking off the other, but for the purpose of this post, we’ll keep it simple.)

The Sad Puppies are a group ran this year by writer Brad Torgersen but first founded by writer Larry Correia, who came to the conclusion that the Hugos were unfairly stacked against him and others because of their perceived politics. The evidence of this primarily consists of the fact that sometimes a book is nominated, praised, or awarded that they don’t understand the appeal of, from which they intuit the existence of a shadowy cabal that props up unworthy books and keeps deserving ones down.

In short, the Puppies exist because a handful of people decided that the wrong people were winning recognition for the wrong reasons. This is important, insofar as they demand that people ignore their actual origin and focus on what they’ve been doing, which, they say, is to bring fresh voices to the table. You could say that’s what they’re doing, but if we ignore that they’re bringing in these fresh voices specifically in the hopes of crowding out the voices they disapprove of, then we’re missing an important point.

My Stake In This

…is basically nothing. I of course grew up seeing “Hugo award-winning” labels slapped on various things, and recognized that it was an achievement. I of course am excited when an author whose work I know or whom I consider a friend receives this or any other honor.

I didn’t grow up dreaming of winning a Hugo, though. At the point where I began my career by self-publishing stories on the internet, it was not clear that this counted as publication for purposes of Hugo eligibility, and there was little reason at the time to think it ever would be so counted. Times have changed, of course, and the award has changed with it, but the point is the same: if ever I dreamed of silver rockets, they were vehicles, not trophies.

Let me put it simply: I don’t care that much about the Hugos.

I wouldn’t like to guess how much I’d feel like I belonged at Worldcon, but I’m not terribly interested in spending the time or money necessary to settle the question. I have nothing against Worldcon. I have nothing for Worldcon.

As a self-published author who is more than a bit abrasive herself and incidentally terrible at networking, I don’t really stand to gain much professionally by poking at the Puppies. If anyone’s handing out or redeeming “PC Cred Points” (PCCP?), I somehow missed out on getting my swipe card for it.

I certainly don’t care about winning the approval of any of the people that the Puppies tend to identify as the all-powerful kingmakers and puppetmasters of the ruling clique. Part of the ideology that undergirds the Puppies’ approach to things is the idea that everybody a certain distance to the left of them is an “Social Justice Warrior” who is marching in lockstep with every other “SJW”, following the same agenda and answering to the same leaders. You couldn’t call me a fan of the Nielsen Haydens on any level and while I acknowledge they have some influence, I find the idea that they could command a unified army of “SJWs” laughable. I’ve admired some of John Scalzi’s blog posts, but I couldn’t say I’m that invested in him. I’m not a member of the SFWA or Worldcon, et cetera.

From the beginning, I’ve made my own path when it comes to writing and publishing, and I’m in no hurry to change that now. There’s no job offer waiting for me, no book deal, no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

I’m just one person, speaking her conscience.

So, Why Do I Care?

Simply put, when I see people making claims based on the most tenuous of intuitions and calling it hard evidence, that bothers me. When I see people trying to police what other people are allowed to write, read, and like while pretending that this is being done to them, that bothers me. I am disturbed at the idea that someone can take such exception to the fact that other people like other things for other reasons that they would reject that in favor of a conspiracy theory and then take drastic action to overturn the supposed cabal.

Basically, I don’t want to read and write in a world when a man who equates the existence of books he doesn’t approve of to false advertising is able to set himself up as some sort of tastemaker-in-chief because he throws a big enough tantrum whenever a book or author he disdains gets too popular for him to make sense of.

The original Sad Puppies initiative predates Gamergate by a couple years, but they’re both powered by the same sense of aggrieved entitlement cloaking itself in phony virtue. Some people, rather than acknowledging that an entire medium/genre will not always reflect their own personal tastes, decide that the relative success of anything they don’t like is a kind of cheat, and by golly, they’re going to do something about it!

So the stakes here are, we either label this nonsense as what it is and find a way to work around the tantrum-throwers, or we just sort of give up and give in. If we give in, then for the remainder of our days we all must tiptoe very carefully and very quietly around the known pet peeves of Messrs. Correia, Torgersen, Day, et al. We can write books from diverse perspectives only as long as we coddle them sufficiently, as long as we pander to their delicate sensibilities, and as long as we realize that only a certain amount of these things will be tolerated, as needed to provide them with a shield against charges of bigoted homogeneity.

…well, that actually makes the stakes sound a lot more dire than they really are.

Because “not giving in” isn’t actually that hard? As much as the Puppies and their good friends the Gators like to cast this as a war, using war imagery and honest-to-goodness wartime propaganda… it’s really not? There’s no win condition. There’s no lose condition. People being forcibly removed from the field is the rare exception rather than the order of the day.

This is not a great struggle. This is one small subset of a larger group of people, clamoring for attention and making things difficult for everyone else.

When I finish writing this post, I’m going to start writing material for a novella I meant to publish myself, then write a chapter of my serial story that I will also self-publish. The Puppies aren’t going to seize control of the means of production and distribution, so nothing they can do is going to affect this. As I write this, numerous authors they would identify as “SJWs” are working on their own projects, for publication through numerous channels.

The Puppies were able to turn the Hugo nomations in their favor because of the relatively low participation rate in the voting and because of the utter lack of any kind of organized slate or bloc voting or clique or cabal. When everybody else is voting based on their own taste and judgment, it’s easy for the guys who decided to band together to turn the tables on everyone.

But what they cannot do is turn back the tide of history, and what they cannot do is turn the world upside down. People have predicted the end of the Hugos. Others have predicted a renaissance of sorts for the venerable award, as it’s getting more attention (and participation!) than ever. Still others have predicted that they’ll continue on a slow downward spiral, as each year’s award becomes a mess of competing alliances and bloc voting, so the whole thing looms larger and larger as part of the landscape while being less exciting or relevant or joyous or meaningful.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Hugos. I hope it’s something good, in the way that I hope for good things for people generally. But they’re not my award. It’s not my con. A lot of pixels have been filled trying to suss out whether an award given by one organization and meant to represent the best of all science fiction and fantasy “belongs to Worldcon” or “belongs to everyone”, but this is a glass half-full, glass half-empty sort of thing. And by that I don’t really mean “it all depends on how you look at it” so much as “both answers are obviously correct, why are we wasting time talking about this?” I don’t care.

I have vague good wishes for the Hugos and everyone involved, including the Puppies whom I hope are able to accept one day that their tastes are not universal, that the commercial success they enjoy is a function of their ability to appeal to under-served niches by writing about things that they themselves are passionate about and not a reflection of some sort of universal appeal that is being stymied by the shadowy hand of the Social Justice Clique, and that I’m not trying to put them in their place by pointing out that their tastes aren’t universal and their appeal isn’t either because this is true of us all. This is how it works! This is especially how it works in the age of the internet and the long tail. If they can figure out that this is how it works, they’ll be happier and honestly more successful, because they’ll have a better idea of why what they’re doing works as well as it does.

And we’ll be happier, too, because once they figure that out, they won’t flip the table every time they notice people gathering to praise a book they don’t see the appeal of.