Tuesday, April 7, 2015

One Step Forward, Twenty Steps Back: The 2015 Hugo Ballot

A couple of years ago I relayed several reports that the World Science Fiction convention, where one might expect to find a degree of forward-looking progressivism, had become instead a bastion of white male conservatives, adherents of a vision of sci-fi one might call Rockets and Reactionaries. Last year, SF fans and authors had a welcome conversation about the prospects for women and minorities within the field, and that summer a first-time author’s novel about artificial intelligence and gender identity (among other things) won the Hugo, Nebula, and John Campbell Awards. 

This year, the political wheel has turned again, and in the reactionaries’ favor.
A group of conservative sci-fi and fantasy fans, calling themselves “The Sad Puppies” (a dreary in-joke), have for several years sought to pack the ballots for the fan-selected Hugo Award with works by fellow travelers. This spring they finally put together enough votes to achieve this goal. A quick look at the top of the 2015 Hugo ballot reveals that nearly all of the nominees in the five main print categories - novel, novella, novelette, short story, and related work - match the conservatives' slate (or one of those slates). One of the nominated titles comes from an obscure fanzine named for our old right-wing friend, Orson Scott Card. Another appeared in the conservative journal Sci Phi. Nine of the twenty-five nominees were published by an outfit called Castalia House. Charles Stross has tracked down the details on this press: founded by Theodore Beale, a game designer and author who writes under the modest sobriquet Vox Day, Castalia publishes mil-SF anthologies, Day’s own work, and a few non-fiction titles, including a Home-Schooling course in astrophysics.

It is fair to call Mssr. Beale, who more-or-less drafted the winning ballot in this year's Hugo-grabbing campaign, an ultraconservative. It is fairer to call him a white supremacist, a deep-dyed misogynist, a religious zealot, an isolationist, and a supporter of nationalist extremist parties like the True Finns. Beale’s fondness for this Finnish party may explain why he established Castalia in Finland. That he and his followers have incorporated their political alignment into their fan-dom is clear from the list of heroes Beale includes on the press’s front page: J.R.R. Tolkien (Catholic conservative), Gilbert K. Chesterton (Catholic reactionary), C.S. Lewis (patriarchal Christian reactionary), Robert Howard (racist scumbag), John W. Campbell (racist, overbearing, Scientology-supporting weirdo), and Herman Hesse. Actually, Hesse might seem a bizarre addition to the list, but I imagine his dystopian fiction The Glass Bead Game appeals to Mr. Beale’s quasi-medievalist mind, and his press takes its name from that novel's setting.

I mention all of this because I think outsiders and casual fans don’t often realize how politicized SF is and always has been. Modern fantasy was, until recently, a reactionary genre, and science fiction's “Golden-Age” authors were predominantly white male technocrats whose geekiness and cultural disaffection allowed them to ignore their other privileges. This only began to change in the late 1960s and ‘70s, concurrently with the civil rights movements, the return of American women to the workplace, and the migration of the counterculture into the mainstream. These social changes made it easier for female authors to enter the field, and let authors and fans discuss issues that made previous generations uncomfortable, like gender politics, sexuality, and alternative social and political systems.

The men (they are almost all men) threatened by female and minority authors, or by novels and stories that challenge social norms, usually also feel threatened by changes in the larger world. I suspect many believe that if they can "reclaim" their fan community and authorial genre for conservatives, they can use that beachhead to resist, or perhaps partially to reverse, the unpleasant changes occurring in the larger society. I suppose I should be heartened by their affirmation of my own belief that SF and fantasy stories can make an impact on mainstream thought and politics. Marxists, of course, have long understood that stories and other cultural institutions determine the desirability and limits of change within a society, and thus the extent to which people can redistribute power. Conservative authors like C.S. Lewis and Orson Scott Card learned this lesson some time ago, and they and their latter-day followers are playing the Gramscian culture game to win. Those who enjoy science fiction and fantasy stories, or whose loved ones enjoy them, ought to bear in mind that these have never been apolitical genres, and that today there are well-organized people who want them all to serve a retrograde political agenda.