Larry Correia and Vox Day’s Sad Puppies 2 campaigns gained them some finalists spots but were trounced in the final voting. Correia’s writing friend and ally, Brad Torgersen blamed the results on “affirmative action”. Eight of the thirteen categories that had gone to a sole person had been won by women but Torgersen had a very broad sense of what he meant by “affirmative action” (see chapter 31). The claim that deserving authors were not being sufficiently recognised by the Hugo Awards had a related claim that UNdeserving authors were being disproportionately recognised by the Hugo Awards because of “politics”.
The 2014 Hugo Award winners would provide the supporters of the Sad Puppy campaigns with some examples.
In the Best Related Work category, Kameron Hurley’s essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative” had received some push back in the comments at Larry Correia’s blog (and elsewhere) for its claim that women had historically always been involved in combat. However, as much as that essay was disliked by some Sad Puppy supporters, the thrust of their argument was that science fiction stories were being negatively impacted by left-wing politics.
Three stories in particular came under increased scrutiny by Sad Puppy supporters:
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (winner of the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel)
- The Water that falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu (winner of the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story)
- If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky (finalist for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short and winner of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story)
Of the three, the greatest ire was directed at Swirsky’s story. The story was negatively critiqued by Dave Freer, Sarah Hoyt, Kate Paulk, Vox Day and John C Wright as variously not being science fiction and employing negative stereotypes of southern Americans or working-class people. This latter claim was not supported by the actual text of the story. I discussed the critiques of the story in relation to the Sad Puppy campaigns in a previous project about dinosaur fiction in the Hugo Awards, so I won’t repeat that analysis in full here. However, it is worth noting that some of the ire targetted at the story may have been due to Swirsky being Vice President of the SFWA from 2012 to 2014, a period that took in most of the recent controversies at the SFWA including the expulsion of Vox day as a member.
For our purposes the key objections from right wing critics of If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love were:
- It wasn’t science-fiction — this is really the only objection in common with non-partisan critics of the story (I disagree but there is at least a reasonable critique there).
- It was gay dinosaur porn — this is simply false. There is no sexual element (other than a romantic relationship) and the protagonist are of opposite genders. There is a homophobic slur used against one character.
- It is an attack on working-class people — this is a huge stretch. A character is attacked in a bar and left in a coma as a consequence. The attackers use ethnic and homophobic slurs. No other details about the attackers are given other than that they were ‘gin soaked’.
- The story absurdly portrays working-class people drinking gin — this is an absurd claim. The only detail about the attackers is that they were ‘gin soaked’. That this detail might contradict the absurd assumption that the attackers are working class was then used to claim that the story was inconsistent.
- It is an attack on people from Southern US states — like the working class claim but with even less supporting evidence in the actual text.
- The story is attempting to make it appear that hate crimes motivated by racism or homophobia are common.
- The story won a Hugo award — it was a Hugo Award finalist but didn’t win although it did win a Nebula Award. Confusion on this distinction was common.
The short, sparse, lyrical story that is If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love worked its way into the psyche of the set of people supporting the Sad Puppy campaign. In January 2015, Sarah Hoyt described her feelings about the story as bothering her “like an aching tooth to which the tongue keeps returning”. The power of the story to discombobulate its right-wing critics was itself proof-positive of its inherent notability.
The actual winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Story also had a theme of marriage but (unlike some of the weird claims about If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love) did actually feature a gay couple but also wasn’t in any way pornographic, although it is clear (and why shouldn’t it be?) that the couple has a physical relationship.
John Chu’s The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere follows Matt/何德培 a Chinese-American man dealing with the question of how to come out to his family and introduce his partner Gus to them at Christmas. There is an added incentive for Gus in that it has recently become much harder for everybody in the world to lie because of the titular water that falls on people from nowhere.
“The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did. Everyone with any sense of lab safety anyway. Never assume any liquid is just water. When you say “I always document my experiments as I go along,” enough water falls to test, but not so much that you have to mop up the lab. Which lie doesn’t matter. The liquid tests as distilled water every time.https://www.tor.com/2013/02/20/the-water-that-falls-on-you-from-nowhere/
Uttering “this sentence is false” or some other paradox leaves you with such a sense of angst, so filled with the sense of an impending doom, that most people don’t last five seconds before blurting something unequivocal. So, of course, holding out for as long as possible has become the latest craze among drunk frat boys and hard men who insist on root canals without an anesthetic. Psychologists are finding the longer you wait, the more unequivocal you need to be to ever find solace.”
The how and the why of this magical phenomenon is never explained which gives the story a sense of a vignette about people coping with life within the events of some much bigger story. The backstory and eventual resolution (if there ever would be one) to the aquatic lie-detector test is left for the reader to imagine. It’s a clever trick, giving a further contrast between the very personal aspects of the plot and the unresolved sense of some much bigger, world-spanning event.
The first part of the story introduces us to Matt and his partner Gus and Matt’s dilemma about how to introduce Gus properly to his family. The role of the fantastical water helps cement the fundamental truth of their relationship both to exemplify how the water functions and also to show us the core “what if…” question at the heart of the story and which is often integral to the classic science fiction short. The “what if…” isn’t the plot device of the water but rather, what if we could actually know without all the surrounding self-guessing and doubt, whether we truly are loved and whether we truly love. Rather than introduce creepy mind-reading powers, Chu uses the mysterious water as a kind of universal critical friend that provides a hard intervention when we go into a spiral of self-doubt.
Having set up the situation (gay man off to a family gathering to both come out and introduce his very traditional family to the man he is going to marry), Chu uses the reader’s expectations against us. We expect an inter-generational and a cross-cultural conflict when Matt tells his parents but instead, the emotional dynamic is not that at all. Matt finds that the primary obstacle he has to face is his sister.
Sibling expectations, protectiveness of parents and the unresolvable list of grievances that siblings maintain about each other are the actual obstacle that Matt must face as he navigates his sister’s disapproval. His sister’s objection is a kind of homophobia by proxy — she expects her parents to be upset (because they are old-fashioned) and hence is angry at Matt for bringing Gus to the family gathering. It is a clever complication because at the heart of his sister’s issues is her own internal model of their parent’s beliefs and emotions — the kind of self-deceiving models that the lie-punishing water can cut through but only if people engage with each other directly.
“She slaps me again. My cheek hadn’t stopped stinging from last time.ibid
“Do you love Mom and Dad? Dump that slab of beef. Find a Chinese woman to marry. Put your penis in her vagina and make Mom and Dad a grandson. Make them happy.”
She turns to leave but not two steps stomp by before she whips around. Coming out to Mom and Dad, she hasn’t ordered me not to do it yet.
“And you’re not coming out to Mom and Dad.” With that command, she leaves.
No water. She must mean it. She’ll never leave me alone with Mom or Dad.”
I shan’t reveal the end, the story is freely available and it is well worth reading. It is heartwarming, positive while still being honest about human failings.
So not surprising then that Vox Day hated it.
In the run-up to the final voting in the 2014 Hugo Awards, Vox Day posted mini-reviews of each of the short story finalists before concluding that the only correct way to vote was to just vote for ‘no award’. On the topic of John Chu’s story, Day said:
“Homosexual angst story about a Chinese man afraid to come out about his white boyfriend to his family, written by a homosexual Chinese man. It would appear someone took the advice to “write what you know” a little too literally. The writing isn’t bad and it would be the best story of the lot (which isn’t saying anything at all) if it had anything to do with science fiction or fantasy. Which it doesn’t.”https://web.archive.org/web/20140720053601/http://voxday.blogspot.com/2014/07/hugo-recommendations-best-short-story.html
Day didn’t attempt to explain how psychic lie-detecting rain fall is NOT fantastical though.
While Day’s reaction to the story was contemporaneous with its Hugo success, others cited it as an indictment of the Hugo Awards only in 2015 when the next Sad Puppy campaign was in full swing.
Brad Torgersen characterised the story as a kind of trolling, an attempt to stick it to people who want science fiction or fantasy in their science fiction and fantasy:
“One might also conclude that “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” was a very up-front “stick it” story, in the same manner. Knowing TOR.COM, they hang their social justice cred on a shingle at the door. Because somebody has to rescue the genre from all the dirty nasty straight white capitalist cisnormative men! Frankly, that story belonged in an issue of The Sun. In fact, I don’t know why the author didn’t send it to The Sun. It would have been an instant pick-up for them, and would have been in the running for bigger mainstream literary prizes as a result.”https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/nail-house/#comment-8030
A story featuring not just a gay character but a gay character in a loving relationship dealing with an emotional issue directly related to them being gay? From Torgersen’s perspective, it was a kind of provocation.
At least John C Wright had never attempted to deny that he had strong objections to gay people.
“I was not able to make it past this paragraph. Same semi-magical realism neither realistic nor magical, same half-grim half-playful tone of voice as the other two stories, the same lack of any science fictional element, no speculation, and a gratuitous sexual abnormality tossed in apparently as an easy way to score social justice warrior checkbox-marked points, got it. Pretentious crap.http://www.scifiwright.com/2015/04/in-which-a-morlock-chides-me/
These stories and those like them are not only not science fiction, they are the direct opposite in theme, in character, in tone, and in idea as to what science fiction stories are.
These stories do not add wonder. They drain it.
All the short stories I read last year were crap.”
Chu’s story could be called ‘magical realism’ but then the term is very broad. The titular water that falls from nowhere is not a metaphor or an intrusion of folklore or pre-modern ways of experiencing the world. Instead, Chu introduces the water as a very real physical phenomenon that people are learning to live with. Where many (small c) conservative readers struggled was that fantastical element introduces the story but is not resolved within the story. By the end we know little more about the water than we did at the beginning, the cause of the water is not discovered, a solution to lie-induced rain is not found nor do people find a new way of living with it. Instead, the arc of the story is Matt’s relationships (with Gus, his sister, and his parents).
Chu presents us with a story in which characters live their lives within (and interacting with) a fantastical element. This, we are told, is not science fiction or fantasy and is in some way a daring challenge to the genre even though that description could just as well apply to say, Ray Bradbury’s Rocketman from the 1950s. Presenting, ordinary people engaging with their lives amid the fantastical is just one of the many modes of the genre and indeed, a venerable mode for the genre.
The criticism of both If You Were a Dinosaur… and The Water That… revealed an underlying desire by some notable people associated with the Sad Puppy campaign for strict boundaries and rules for genre work. This need for strict genre conventions would manifest at the Mad Genius Club website (see chapter 24) quite separate from politics, as stern advice for aspiring writers. The theory being that readers have deep genre expectations and that violating those expectations will upset readers.
In 2014, Mad Genius Club blogger Kate Paulk would apply that style of reasoning to the eventual winner of both the Nebula and Hugo awards for Best Novel, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
“I started reading the novel winner. Went “wait, what?” This kind of cutesy games with pronouns was being done back in the sixties and they’re still calling it ground-breaking? No, it’s not. It’s confusing to readers who want to be able to tell who is whom (and in extreme cases, what). In addition to that, it’s clunky, sends confusing as hell signals (snow plus tavern then suddenly science fictiony trappings then we’re back to all the fantasy ‘medieval tavern’ signals. Screw that).”https://madgeniusclub.com/2014/05/22/nebulous-honors/
Short stories may be at the heart of the Hugo Awards but the big headlines are with the novel and Ancillary Justice was a very talked-about book in 2013 and 2014. Part of that was the way Breq, the protagonist of the novel dealt with grammatical gender, to the extent that the novel caught the attention of the famous linguistics blog Language Log:
“This novel’s take on sex and gender is mostly traditional. There’s the familiar sexual near-binarity (female XX versus male XY), and the well-attested distinction between languages with various degrees of morpho-syntactic gender marking versus languages that don’t mark gender at all. And there’s the familiar biological and cultural variation in the nature and extent of gender signaling in appearance and behavior, amplified by the assumption of thousands of years of history on multiple distant planets.https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=11589
What’s different — and confusing at first — is that the unmarked gender in the narrator’s native language is translated into English with she/her/hers, yielding phrases like “She was probably male”.”
Ancillary Justice is a novel that follows two tracks, a forward-facing plot that follows Breq on their course for revenge and a retrospective track that explains the series of events that set Breq on that course.
We learn that Breq is not who they appear to be. Once they had been the central AI computer of a military spaceship belonging to Radch empire. The empire is a ruthless, hegemonic culture that imposes its will on multiple planets and is ruled by a self-cloning near-immortal emperor. An added brutal twist of the empire is that it draws military levies from conquered nations in the form of people that become dead proxies controlled by ship AI’s.
The story untangles both the brutality and the richness of Radch culture in a way that borrows from classic space opera but which also has its own introspective approach to plot. However, fundamentally this is a story with space wars, evil empires, AIs and a central character on a quest for righteous revenge. Intrinsically, there should have been little for the more conservative voices in science fiction to object to.
Indeed, Elitist Book Reviews, the book blog review site that Larry Correia had nominated multiple times for a Hugo Award, gave Ancillary Justice a largely positive review.
“The prose is clean with the feel of Le Guin or other writers of that era, without being overbearing. The writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but I still found myself stepping back to study what Leckie was doing because it seemed so effortless yet evocative.”https://elitistbookreviews.com/2014/02/28/ancillary-justice/
However, gender and pronouns were genuinely an issue that people talked about with the book and that was seen as ‘politics’ by people like John C Wright:
“The book in question in this case, ANCILLARY JUSTICE, has been described the same way by both advocates and detractors. It is bit of insane feminist trash with a lame space opera plot tacked awkwardly to it. Space Opera is a particularly attractive genre to me, and I have read everything from GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith to PLAYER OF GAMES by Iain M. Banks, and, unfortunately, have tried my hand at it myself, which means my toleration for untalented attempts or highjackings in my favorite genre is limited.”John C Wright in a 2014 comment at http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/11/what-went-wrong-with-sff/
Later in 2014, Wright would call the book “a story about pronouns and modern feminist piety, utterly unimaginative and bland”. Wright had certainly formed strong views about the novel, so it is a little surprising that Wright would mention in 2015 that he had not ever read the book. That people had mentioned feminism and pronouns in reviews was sufficient for Wright to evaluate the book as preachy feminism. It is true that the character Breq uses pronouns unconventionally but the way they are used in the book is far from a ‘politically correct’ usage. Instead, the character repeatedly appears to misgender people. While it is true that this raises questions about how language and gender interact (as discussed in the Language Log article) the story does not draw any overt conclusions.
No work is perfect nor universally acclaimed. There was certainly scope for considering how much fantastical or speculative elements should be in a story for it to count as science fiction or fantasy. Some of those lines might well exclude If You Were a Dinosaur… or The Water That Falls… but neither story was unprecedented in their low-key use of fantastical elements. Ancillary Justice also is not beyond criticism, although it was unimpeachable science fiction in terms of common conventions. The notable thing about many of the objections to these works from the coalition of right-wing voices that had gathered in support of Sad Puppies 2 was their thinness and that they were often objectively false.
However, a narrative had been established and a coalition had formed. All the movement needed now was a name and that was at hand.
Next Time: Brad, John and the Evil League of Evil
-  i.e. not counting dramatic presentation categories or semiprozine. Counting the Astounding/Campbell also then the figure would be 9 out of 14 http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/2014-hugo-awards/
-  https://aidanmoher.com/blog/featured-article/2013/05/we-have-always-fought-challenging-the-women-cattle-and-slaves-narrative-by-kameron-hurley/
-  mainly by the anti-feminist commenter known as FailBurton/James May eg “Essentially 3 Hugos were won for a single blog post by Kameron Hurley asserting white males have erased women warriors from history. In order to illustrate her point, she used paintings rather than images from the 165-year history of photography. That is the Orwellian nuttery of the PC in a nutshell: awards for a defamatory sexist post based on myths.” https://monsterhunternation.com/2014/08/19/no-tor-com-gencon-isnt-racist-a-fisking/#comment-45501
-  https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/08/20/hugosauriad-4-5-extinction-event-1-queen-of-the-tyrant-lizard-by-john-c-wright/
-  https://www.sfwa.org/about/current-officers/prior-sfwa-board-officers/
-  https://accordingtohoyt.com/2015/01/31/if-you-were-a-grown-up-my-love/
-  that specific phrase “stick it to people who want science fiction or fantasy in their science fiction and fantasy” was used not by Torgersen by a Sad Puppy supporter at his blog, referring to If You Were a Dinosaur… https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/nail-house/#comment-8027
-  http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/11/what-went-wrong-with-sff/ he would say similar things about Mary Robinette Kowal’s novelette Lady Astronaut of Mars but mistakenly claimed it won Best Short Story
-  A reviewer had favourably compared Wright’s Golden Age books to Ancillary Justice. Wright commented “I have not had the pleasure of reading ANCILLARY JUSTICE” http://www.scifiwright.com/2015/06/reviewer-praise-for-the-golden-age/