[This episode starts with an attempt to summarise events leading up to 2014 & 2015 Sad Puppy campaigns. I’m not entirely happy with it and criticism and changes would be very welcome. It’s also long, so it starts after the fold. Also content warning for homophobic rhetoric. Links are currently live links rather than archive links and may take you to sites you’d rather not visit.]
Science fiction fandom is above all an activity of human interaction and where people gather (whether in person or around an idea) there will be factions and conflict. Fandom has never lacked a capacity for feuds, rivalries, scandals and verbal wars.The twenty-first century has been no different, even if the venues for such conflict have advanced technologically.
2000-2019 had multiple disputes among fans and writers. For example RaceFail ’09 was a sprawling argument about racism within writing and within fandom that took in issues around cultural appropriation, the power dynamic between fans, aspiring writers and established writers, as well the nature of how to conduct such discussions.
However, a varied set of conflicts that reflected some of the political division within the USA would eventually coalesce into a battle over the Hugo Awards itself. Collectively known as the Puppy Kerfuffle (sometimes Puppygate and my personal preference is the Puppy Debarkle), the more immediate causes of the conflict were numerous.
One root was a dissatisfaction with the Hugo Award among authors associated with the publisher Baen. A 2006 campaign (for the 2007 Hugos) to organise a ‘Baen Sweep’ http://www.di2.nu/files/Baensweep.html failed to get the influential editor Jim Baen a posthumous Hugo for Best Editor Long Form. Instead, Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor books won.
A different root to the conflict was a 2005 blog post by Patrick Nielsen Hayden criticising a member of the Nebula Awards jury. The member was an aspiring science-fiction author and far-right columnist known as Vox Day a nom-de-plume for Theodore Beale, the son of a wealthy US tax-protestor. The acrimonious discussion included John Scalzi, a journalist turned sci-fi writer and fan-writer with his own popular blog.
The conflict between Vox Day and John Scalzi continues into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SWFA), the professional body for science fiction writers. in 2010 John Scalzi was elected president of the SWFA. In 2011 Baen promoted a list of eligible works for the Hugo Awards, in the comments one of the their new writers, Larry Correia suggested himself for the Campbell Award — the award for new writers that while not technically a Hugo is awarded at the same time and follows the same process. Correia is successful in becoming a finalists, attends Worldcon and apparently has a happy experience but does not win.
The stage is set for 2013.
An apparently now embittered Larry Correia begins his own Hugo campaign that reflects the 2006 ‘Baen Sweep’. Entitled “How to get Correia nominated for a Hugo” a later humours post about preventing puppies being sad, led to the campaign eventually being called “Sad Puppies”.
Meanwhile, in the SWFA, Vox Day runs for president to replace the out-going John Scalzi but loses substantially to Stephen Gould. In the same election Rachel Swirsky is elected vice-president. At the end of his term as SWFA president, John Scalzi announces an inquiry into sexism in the SWFA’s own bulletin. The inquiry leads to the resignation of the editor.
At the Australian Continuum Con in Melbourne, Guest of Honour N.K.Jemisin gives a speech sharply critical of Vox Day without naming him. Her speech draws the ire of Vox Day who uses not only his blog but an SWFA Twitter account to defame her. Vox Day’s vitriolic response leads to moves to have him expelled from the SWFA.
Correia’s Hugo campaign was not a great success in 2013 but demonstrates that he has enough votes to have some influence over what gets nominated.
By 2014 all of these issues are in full play. Larry Correia makes another bid for the Hugos for 2014 with a second Sad Puppies campaign. Meanwhile, the SWFA has two controversies in play: lingering ill-will over the bulletin and the attempt to expel Vox Day. Many right-leaning science fiction fans see all three of these things as a whole and regard Vox Day’s expulsion as political persecution.
The Hugo Awards have no formal connection to SFWA but inevitably conflict in SWFA had an impact on Worldcon’s membership also. Beyond the world of books, video-games were also having their own right-wing fuelled consumer controversy known as GamerGate — a movement that Larry Correia was a supporter of.
Into this volatile weather system stepped “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love”.
Back to dinosaur weddings
When first published the story had many positive reviews. Of course with many short stories there can be a positive review bias as stories reader’s enjoy are more likely to gain attention and be reviewed. The review site/zine Tangent that reviews whole editions of SF magazines gave the story a very positive review: https://www.tangentonline.com/e-market-monthly-reviewsmenu-265/apex-magazine/2081-apex-magazine-46-march-2013
More negative reviews of the story began appearing once it was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2014. Even so, primary criticism the story attracted was that it was not sufficient science-fictional. Diving deeper into more extreme criticism, an early comment at the blog of author John C Wright illustrates how the Puppy-faction would come to see the story.
The comment in question was from somebody going by the name “Fail Burton” who would under that name and “James May” would become notorious during the Puppy Kerfuffle for leaving long, often abstruse comments about lesbian feminist conspiracies.
“Best Short Story is gay dinosaur porn by an author endemically hostile towards straight white men.”Fail Burton at JCW: http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/05/nebula-awards-2014/
Why am I even bothering with a comment that is so woefully inaccurate from a pseudonymous troll? It is fascinating for exactly those reasons. This absurd comment would help frame a collective perception about that story that existed independently of any facts about the story itself and which would eventually float free, living an independent existence as a truism about the Hugo Awards. The Hugos had become a place were stories about gay sex with dinosaurs were rewarded to the detriment of ‘proper’ science fiction. This factoid would shape later events in even stranger ways much to the wonderment of buckaroos…
The further to the right the commentator, the stronger the dislike of the story was. An embittered Vox Day, expelled from the SFWA in 2013, when looking at the 2014 short story finalists asserted that the story was:
“Not just bad, but laughably, risibly, embarrassingly terrible. When the history of Pink SF/F is written, this Nebula Award winner should stand as Exhibit A. The fact that it was written and published is indicative of a problem in science fiction and fantasy. The fact that it won an award, any award, is a veritable indictment.”https://voxday.blogspot.com/2014/07/hugo-recommendations-best-short-story.html
“Pink SF” being Vox Day’s term for overly feminine science-fiction. Vox Day had by now established his own publishing house “Castalia House” and on it’s blog one of his supporters used “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” to exemplify Vox’s distinction between “pink” and “blue” science fiction and enumerate the flaws in the story. http://www.castaliahouse.com/pink-and-blue-sf-an-applied-breakdown/
Late in 2015, one of the prominent spokespeople for the Sad Puppy campaign and leader of the ill-fated Sad Puppy 4 campaign, Kate Paulk, identified “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” as ‘turgid message fiction’ and the primary example of what was wrong with science-fiction & fantasy from the Puppy campaign’s perspective. Earlier in 2015 when promoting the aesthetics of the Sad Puppies for Sad Puppies 4 her views on the story where more complex but still critical:
“Puppy supporters are more interested in plot and character than in style and prose. We’re more concerned that a story be satisfying in some way than that it meet our ideological biases (everyone has those – it’s one of those things that goes with being human). And so it goes.Kate Paulk https://madgeniusclub.com/2015/10/01/finding-the-there/
To take an example, If You Were a Dinosaur is – to most Puppy supporters – not genre fiction. It’s a badly disguised revenge fantasy with a kludgy framing device that doesn’t pull off the “story within a story” thing (mostly because there’s no plot of any sort on either side of the frame). Now sure, in piece that short you can make something that’s totally idea work, but there’s no idea behind this either. You could substitute anything including a kickass warrior-type human into the “dinosaur” slot, and have essentially the same piece.
Most of those who’ve praised it have praised the prose and the style – and since the piece is deliberately written in a prose-poem style, that’s valid praise. It doesn’t make the piece SF or fantasy though. Nor does it mean there’s any kind of “there” underneath the quasi-poetic style (there isn’t, unless you count a kind of ersatz “rough drunks are evil and will spew out any kind of insult even ones that make no sense”).”
It is odd that at this point she could see the merit in the prose style while disliking the piece and just over a month later see the story as ‘turgid’. Back in 2014 when looking over the Nebula winners Paulk summarise the story as:
“And the shortest one was more like the output from someone on serious mind altering pharmaceuticals. I swear the only reason that one counted was instead of fantasizing the injured loved one had been a kick-ass warrior or something the dopey narrator fantasized him as a micro-T-rex. “Kate Paulk https://madgeniusclub.com/2014/05/22/nebulous-honors/
What becomes apparent reading criticism of the story from the Sad Puppies was that the story’s capacity to get under a person’s skin and unsettle was manifest even among people attempting to trash it. There were attempts to simply dismiss it out of hand, attempts to misrepresent it based mainly on the title as dinosaur-porn, attempts to declare it message fiction and attempts to engage and acknowledge that it had some strong qualities in the writing but that it was not appropriately science-fiction. This last point was where the Sad Puppies came closer to less partisan criticism of the story.
What was clear to the multifold Puppies who referenced the story was that there was something very wrong with it but they were (at least initially) unclear what it was. Stuck for ideas and apparently lacking the ability to critique their own feelings about the story, the Puppies eventually began to simply invent what the problem was. The issue, which seemed to bubble out of nowhere, was the story was bigoted and specifically bigoted to white working class men and, taking the extrapolation further, bigoted to white working class men from the Southern United States. This framing of the story as anti-men goes back to the “Fail Burton” comment I cited at the start but where and when it jumped from a drive-by comment-section view to received wisdom is unclear.
For example, Sad Puppy supporter Dave Freer referred more than once to the story being anti-working class:
“Hmm. You know, in certain cases maybe there is something in all this. Do you think ‘If you were a dinosaur, my love’ might actually have had that… je ne sais quoi, if the author actually had found a large flesh-eating reptile – a crocodile, seeing as other dinosaurs are so stony hearted – to have a physical relationship with? And it’d make a nice handbag after those nasty, low, working-class men shot it.”Dave Freer https://madgeniusclub.com/2016/01/25/the-bold-new-and-unique-just-like-everyone-else/amp/
“Mark may well have resonated perfectly to ‘If you were a dinosaur my love’ despite the fact that it’s a rabid attack on working-class men. That’s his subjective choice.”Dave Freer https://madgeniusclub.com/2015/06/08/communication-subjectivity/
Sarah Hoyt, who regarded herself as a key figure in the Sad Puppy movement was also deeply discombobulated by the story. She had the presence of mind to realise that something in the story was impacting her emotionally but struggled to say what:
“If You Were A Dinosaur my Love’s win bothered me at a level I can’t begin to explain, and it still bothers me, like an aching tooth to which the tongue keeps returning. It’s not just that could have been written by me at 12 and would have got, from my middle school teacher, exactly the sort of praise it got from science fiction professionals.”Sarah Hoyt Hoyt https://accordingtohoyt.com/2015/01/31/if-you-were-a-grown-up-my-love/
It’s the ideas packed into the story that are truly disturbing.
A story that reveals a total lack of knowledge of an entire class of people (manual laborers) and instead others them as sort of scary all purpose evil that will beat to death anyone who doesn’t look/act like them won an award voted on by – supposedly – adult professionals. Not only that, but adult professionals who keep claiming their tolerance and love of the “other.” What’s more, adult professionals who would almost certainly embrace “Marxism” as a good or at least correct idea. When did Marxists start loathing and fearing the working class? And admitting it?””
“I was talking to my friend Bill Reader about “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” and I told him my moral certainty that the story started as a gay short story (I have a vague idea that I might have published with Abyss and Apex [I’m reliably informed that I maligned Abyss and Apex, and the silly dino story came out in Apex. OTOH I still don’t remember if I was published in Abyss and Apex], maybe, unless they were the ones who sent me a rejection saying I clearly had never been in another country and was “a narrow minded pain” — I can’t remember. After 120 short story publications, they all run together. However I do know that my stories with gay protagonists, like Songs or Never Look Back got a lot of pushback and editors saying “if you just change it to” before someone published them as is. No, I don’t know why. There’s nothing shocking in these stories. But progressives imagine the rest of the country are homophobic troglodytes. It’s important for their self image. Which is part of the point I’m trying to make.) “Not because it makes more sense that way,” I told him. “But because liberals are convinced any gay man entering a rural bar will get beaten to death, even though the instances of exactly this occurrence are… let me see… I’m thinking… exactly zero percent a year.” And he said “No, I know what you mean. It makes liberal-sense. I’ve started calling this “para-logic.” I.e. the sense that they live in a parallel world, and if you buy the premises of that world, instead of your lying eyes, and believe that the rest of the country are frozen somewhere between the middle ages and the imaginary 1950s filled with Stepford Wives, then their stories and actions make perfect sense.”Sarah Hoyt: https://accordingtohoyt.com/2015/02/09/when-duck-noises-fail-me/
It is odd to be thinking of 2015 as a long-ago more naive time but I think that paragraph from Hoyt, rambling though it is, touches on how very broken thinking was on the right and presages wider events in US (and world) politics. Hoyt is a long way from the stereotype of the narrow-minded conservative. An immigrant from southern-Europe with ostensibly libertarian rather than nationalist politics, she quite rightly points to the examples of her using gay characters as central protagonists in her writing. And yet. For her, a writer of speculative fiction, that thing that breaks her suspension of disbelief in a story with a singing T-Rex, a dino-wedding and a woman bursting into flowers, is the idea that gay people genuinely do face extreme violence even though this is an easily corroborated fact. The ‘message’ that makes “If You Were a Dinosaur…” supposedly ‘message fiction is this terrible fact about our world: some people are at greater risk of severe violence than others. The denial of this tragic reality is sublimated into counter-factual claims about the story (‘working-class’, ‘southern’).
That the story says nothing about the social class of the men who attack the palaeontologist, nor gives any hints at all as to the location was initially ignored by Sad Puppy supporters. Later, those inconsistencies between the claim that the assailants were working class southerners and the actual text became the basis of a claim that these were examples of poor research on Swirsky’s part. The term ‘gin soaked’ used in the story was cited as showing that Swirsky didn’t realise that Southern working class men didn’t drink much gin in a bizarre application of logic where the unsubstantiated conclusion is used to refute the actual evidence of the text.
John Charles Justin Wright Esq.
During 2015 and beyond, the division between what became known as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies became clearer with various figures aligning themselves with the differing ideologies and agendas of the two allied camps. Ploughing his own furrow was John C Wright. Of all the authors prominent among the Puppies, Wright was the one who had some serious claim to have once been on the track to potential Hugo Award fame. Early in his career his novels had been received with some critical acclaim and he is a writer with distinct literary aspirations. However, by 2014 his career was in the doldrums and he was hoping that Vox Day’s new publishing company might revive his fortunes (spoiler: it didn’t).
Wright had converted from atheism to a species of trad-catholicism and had highly outspoken views against homosexuality and the left. Unlike Hoyt, Wright is unabashed in his rhetoric against homosexuality, infamous railing against two female characters holding hands in the last frame of a cartoon series. While his politics and bank account placed Wright closer to Vox Day, his interest in fandom, Worldcon and publishing were closer to those of the Sad Puppies. In other ways he was positioned mainly as his own idiosyncratic voice and self-appointed arbiter of literary standards.
His criticism of “If You Were A Dinosaur My Love” varies wildly. In some cases he has chastised people for being too negative about it (but note his rejoinder about ‘gin soaked’)
“The author with admirable brevity of space establishes a gay and playful mood, using a stream of consciousness technique and adhere to a strict textual scheme (lifted from IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE) and then fishtailing into a surprise ending that is poignant and moving, all within less than 1000 words.More to the point, she did what she set out to do, and created the emotional effect she meant to create if a fashion I and other readers found memorable and moving. She hit the mark at which she aimed. Not every writer can say that.It is not a great story, not the best of the year. I do not like it because it places technique above story telling — indeed there is no story at all, no characterization, nothing outside the vignette. But that, again, is a matter of taste. Some people do not like Shakespeare sonnets.And her editor should have polished on or two roughs spots, which in a story so short are more obvious, have more ability to jar the reader out of suspension of disbelief. One rough spot was the one-line depiction of the bigoted Southern bigots as ‘gin-soaked’ — this was lazy writing, laughably inept. Gin in not what we drink in roughneck bars in the rural South”John C Wright http://www.scifiwright.com/2015/04/not-so-much-dino-hate-please/
Earlier he had been far more dismissive:
“I direct your attention to the stylistic (ahem) accomplishment of copying IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE, the deliberately childish tone, the blurred lack of detailed description for anything in the mention of the bar fight. The lack of style shows in the utterly generic insults used by the assailants: fag, towelhead, shemale, sissy, spic. If the nameless narrator’s bridegroom is an effete homosexual Arab transsexual from Spain or Mexico, the word choice here makes sense. Otherwise, they are selected without any ear for rhythm or assonance. They are, in fact, merely a grab-bag of the epithets which Leftists want to put into the mouths of civilized men, so that the Leftists can falsely accuse us of homophobia, Islamophobia, heteronormative sexism and racism.”John C Wright: http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/07/literary-envy-and-the-last-redoubt/
And yet at other times he managed to be both:
“Rachel Swirksy’s “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” not a bad vignette, but it was not a story, and certainly not a science fiction story, and most certainly not the best of the year. It used the story telling technique of IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE, and for its six hundred words or so of disconnected sentences without a single striking image or memorable turn of phrase — except those that stick in memory for their sheer badness and tone deafness, which makes me, as a writer, laugh, laugh, laugh — it maintains a half-playful half-grim tone that grinds to a surprise twist ending of empty despair. Judged as science fiction, it was crap.John C Wright: http://www.scifiwright.com/2015/04/in-which-a-morlock-chides-me/
That said, it was not poorly written. It would have been good appearing in some lady’s literary magazine or a school newspaper. It clearly did not deserve publication in a science fiction periodical, must less a nomination for best of the year. And we southern workingmen do not drink gin in bars. I used to tend bar in Maryland. I solemnly assure you, most solemnly, that none of the Good Ol’ Boys of my bar even knew what a ‘shemale’ is, much less use that as an epithet before beating a paleontologist into a coma with their pool cues. None would use the word ‘sissy.’”
Tyrant Lizards of the Purple Prose
In November of 2014 John C Wright decided that his best response to Swirsky’s story was to demonstrate how it should be done. That is, he would write a story with many of the same elements (a fiancée turned into a dinosaur by his bride to enact revenge against [southern] men who had attacked him because of his race). He published the story on his own blog (http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/11/the-queen-of-the-tyrant-lizards/ ) and the story was included in an anthology of his stories published by Vox Day’s Castalia House.
“Imagine a frozen moment. The glass of the chapel doors is breaking. Men in tall white hoods carrying shotguns, pistols, hunting rifles are firing. The guests are screaming, falling to the floor. And you, my love, have thrown your tall, strong body over mine, selflessly, lovingly, without a moment to think, without a moment to decide. I am feeling your body shuddering, not with passion as you embrace me, as I yield to your embrace, as we are falling; you shudder with the impact of bullets and buckshot throwing your blood, your living blood, your warmth, in sprays like Rorschach blots across the dark expanse of the expensive tuxedo I picked out, the dark expanse of your warm skin, and across the white satin of my wedding dress, the dress my many mothers sewed.”John C Wright http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/11/the-queen-of-the-tyrant-lizards/
The story is set in Alabama sometime during the multi-decade period when Bull Connor was the Commissioner for Public Safety. Wright underlines that the racist men who burst into the wedding shooting are Democrats. The story isn’t terrible but the contrast with Swirsky’s only highlights Wright’s lack of skill. Consider specifically Wright’s emphasis on the party-political allegiance. It is a common point used by many Republicans to attack modern Democrats with the fact that the pre-Civil Rights south was dominated politically by Democrats. Wright is keen to underline this as a riposte — the intent is to provide validation for readers of one political stripe while upsetting those of another. That it is unlikely to upset people of the actual left (aside from its rhetorical clumsiness) is one thing but more revealing is Wright’s attempt to reverse the emotional pain from Swirsky’s story. Yet, Swirsky’s story achieves much greater discombobulation with almost nothing. Wright can’t manage the same economy and even his more leaden attempt misses its target. I suspect Wright realises this and attempts to pile into the story all his other political fears and concerns from Islam to atheism and even: “ No one tips his hat to a lady. No one holds the door for me.”
The multiple correspondence between the narrators concerns and her tendency towards purple prose makes her indistinguishable from Wright himself. Perhaps the story might work better for somebody who has never read anything else he has written but for me there is no gap between the narrator as her own character and Wright himself. The effect is vertiginous, conjuring up an image of Wright as the bride in this mid-twentieth century Birmingham chapel.
Eventually, after much faffing about the nature of time, the time traveller bride/Wright turns her husband to be into a T-Rex using her powers:
“By magic I reach back through time. No, I cannot bring you back to life, not here, not now. I cannot step backward five minutes and rush you out the back door, because my own body, the chains of cause and effect I have already established, are in the way. If I had more time to prepare, perhaps I could have done something — but there is no time. That is the first thing to remember. At the zero point, there is no time. So all points in time are equidistant to me, the same way all the parts of my gold ring touch my finger equally. The life in your cells has already ebbed too far. Besides, if I were to reach back and force your cells to remember their old shape of some apeman who was your ancestor, the Klansmen in their hoods would just shoot you. But you have older and older ancestors, cousins from parallel branches. Some have more life in them then others, and they are easier to reach. There is a chain of ever small ratlike beings, none of which will do. Then, I see your ancestor from late Cretaceous. His skull is five feet long, and his bite is the most powerful of any creature that ever lived.”John C Wright http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/11/the-queen-of-the-tyrant-lizards/
Of course, unless Wright was marrying a chicken, the dying husband was unlikely to have an ancestor who was a dinosaur, let alone a T-Rex. Yes, a petty point but recall Wright himself had chastised Swirsky for not doing basic research and realising that the non-existent Southern gentlemen that don’t appear in her story don’t drink gin in bars.
Of course the bride dies and Wright ensures his story doesn’t end with the interracial marriage actually happening. With her death none of the preceding events happen as the bride’s timeline gets erased so the couple never meet, they never attempt to get married and she never turns him into a dinosaur and he never eats those racist Democrats. The story collapses into its own pointlessness.
Although multiple stories from Wright were nominated for the 2015 Hugo Awards by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, “Queen of the Tyrant Lizards” was not one of them, although two people had suggested it publicly to Brad Torgersen who compiled the 2015 slate (https://nwhyte.livejournal.com/2454977.html )
More tellingly, as a story it simply failed to generate interest or debate. Paradoxically the Sad Puppies would repeatedly confirm the power of Swirsky’s strange and unsettling story as they elevated its status to an emblem of what they saw wrong with science fiction in general. Wright’s own attempt to grapple with his feelings towards the story demonstrated the same incapacity for intra-personal reflection and criticism in writing and was left drifting into irrelevance.
Next time: After a brief stop in 2015 we zip ahead to 2016 and watch an attempt to embarrass the Hugo Award go magically and horribly wrong when Vox Day meets his match in the form of Chuck Tingle