Worldbuilding is an important part of all fiction, the creation of imagined reality within which characters can interact and a plot unfold. While worldbuilding has a role in all genres, it is of particular importance within science fiction and fantasy where the departure from genuine reality is expected to be more profound and overt. If you read this far into the Debarkle (and haven’t simply skipped ahead to the final chapter) I can assume you are conversant with the idea of imagined realities but I want to describe an imagined reality now not to provide a setting for a piece of narrative fiction but to help describe some real-world events. We will call this imagined reality the Unnatural Alliance.
The unnatural alliance
Imagine a world just like our world, with all the same nations and kinds of people. Superficially it is hard to spot the difference between our reality and the imagined one and indeed, many people in our reality think they are living in this imagined one.
In this imagined reality, the world is run by an unnatural alliance. The first part of the alliance we will simply call The Left. These people look and sound just like the left of our reality but instead of a disorganised and contentious spectrum of belief, the majority of The Left is only marginally different from Josef Stalin and the arguments and differences and rivalries are simply deceit designed to confuse observers.
The second part is the Ageing Establishment. This is nearly everybody in entrenched positions of power, authority or expertise, from senior politicians to college professors and scientific bodies.
The third and final part is Corrupted Corporations. This is not what the libertarians and conservatives would believe is capitalism but a strange (and incoherent) version that has become corrupted. That corruption means that while nominally capitalist and supposedly driven by profits, these corporations actually act in ways that will cost them profits. Almost any large commercial body can be somehow involved (e.g. pharmaceutical companies) but most of all the large software companies and the major media organisations are the most implicated.
Together, all three groups act in concert, with one determining the behaviour of the other. The Ageing Establishment directs the actions of The Left, The Left direct the actions of the Corrupted Corporations, and the Corrupted Corporations control The Ageing Establishment or perhaps the reverse of that. The neo-reactionaries call this The Cathedral, the overt anti-semites call it a Jewish conspiracy, while others blame it on “Cultural Marxism” or “political correctness”.
The idea that these groups that in our actual reality have competing interests or are actually ideologically opposed are all working together in this imagined reality provides a comforting explanation for an uncomfortable fact. Actual reality (physical reality but also the social reality of cultural change) keeps misbehaving and not conforming to ideological expectations. Whether this is climate change or the apparent rapid switch in popular opinion to favour marriage equality, the world that asserts itself over our imagined frameworks of it, keeps behaving in ways that run counter to the expectations of right-libertarians, social-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, right-nationalists, neo-fascists and white supremacists.
Not everybody who subscribed to this imagined reality sees it all in one piece but those who do need more conceptual glue to hold the whole thing together. They offer different underlying explanations for the corrupting influence, demonic influence for the Trad Catholics, Zionist-conspiracy for the neo-Nazis, cultural Marxism, closet communism, or a Babylonian death cult for the Qanon true believers — or reveals within reveals, that the satanism is a cover for communism or the communism is a cover for satanism for those further down the rabbit hole.
The winner of the inaugural Dragon Award for Best Horror novel, Brian Niemeier claims in the marketing blurb for his book on modern popular culture that:
“You know that the big movie studios, comic book companies, and video game publishers push an agenda. What you don’t know is that the corporations in control of your entertainment aren’t grifters or ideologues. They’re evangelists of a fanatical anti-religion.Marketing blurb for Don’t Give Money to People Who Hate You by Brian Niemeier
Movie producers don’t ruin beloved film franchises for profit. Comic book writers don’t warp iconic superheroes into self-parodies to sway voters. They hate their audiences with zealous fervor. They want you demoralized, they want your kids propagandized, and they want you to pay for the privilege.”
Niemeier’s argument may seem particularly out there, based as it is on a view that sees feminism as witchcraft but the idea that there is a corrupting influence bent on destroying things you love is widespread. Brad R. Torgersen didn’t blame the decline of his “nutty-nugget” view of science-fiction on demonic feminist witchcraft but the difference in Torgersen’s view and Niemeier’s is in their imagined causes of the corruption. Arguably, Niemeier’s demon-fuelled perspective is more rational than Torgersen’s in so far as Niemeier offers an explanation for the apparent contradictions.
How it all works
The Puppy campaigns provided a microcosm of the view that sees the world as the conspiracy of an unnatural alliance. It had three elements supposedly seeking to destroy science fiction:
- The establishment old guard of science fiction, the SMOFs, the supposedly ageing fans of Worldcons, the literati and the “snobby critics”.
- The corrupted publishing companies, the commercial giants personified by Tor/Macmillan.
- The left, the feminists, the RaceFailers, the politically correct, the SJWs, the supposed cancel culture mob.
All three, we were told, were working in concert to co-opt the Hugos Awards, to take over the SFWA, to undermine the commercial popularity of science-fiction. That a commercial operation with tight margins like Macmillan would be intentionally letting its employees undermine sales of books made no sense, was an issue that was skipped over for the most part by the Sad Puppies.
Likewise, that Brad Torgersen had been the beneficiary of support and encouragement from such established institutions of science fiction as the Writers of the Future Award, Analog Magazine and multiple Hugo finalist Mike Resnick was another inconvenient fact that could be ignored along with the role Jerry Pournelle played as an inspiration to both Sarah Hoyt and Vox Day.
Also, that the years up to 2014/15 and beyond had been a period of very vocal conflict between the social and commercial establishments of science fiction on the one hand and the voices of people who had been systematically marginalised in fandom (or their historical contributions erased or both) including women in general but also people of colour, disabled people, people from non-English speaking countries, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people, actually demonstrated that the left was very far from controlling everything.
No, it doesn’t all make sense
It is, of course, an absurdity but once accepted the absurdity of the unnatural alliance is its own proof. Why else would big pharma and public health authorities be conspiring together to bring Venezuelan-like communism to god-fearing America if it wasn’t for…well, whatever the conspiracy theory of the day is. Once somebody has accepted that this imagined reality applies in one domain (whether it be video games, science fiction, climate science or vaccines) it is not just easy but necessary to see it everywhere.
Maintaining that belief still takes effort because the unnatural alliance like any conspiracy theory offers only a superficial level of explanatory power. Because it cannot be falsified by any actual facts (any contrary information is either ignored or absorbed) any and all smaller theories about events can be equally true and can even coexist.
During and in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol Riot of January 6, 2021, right-wing spaces contained two competing narratives. Firstly that the protestors invading the building were true patriots rightly attempting to prevent a procedural coup against the United States. Second that the protests were a false flag being run by the Deep State to discredit the Stop the Steal movement. These radically different perspectives did not lead to two competing camps but rather existed together and shifted in emphasis.
In the months that followed, a third perspective arose: the riot at the Capitol was nothing more than a minor protest that had no specific objective other than for people to express discontent or, perhaps, better electoral procedures. Of course, it is entirely possible that many people caught up in the crowd that day had complex motives or lacked any true objective but this idea of the protests as being nothing more than just protests sits right alongside the belief that the election was truly stolen. It is also an idea that sits right alongside the rhetoric of “the soapbox, the jury box, the ballot box, and the cartridge box”. To believe that and to believe that Silicon Valley and the mainstream media is silencing conservatives, that courts are unfairly skewed against the right and that the elections are stolen, implies by its own logic that civil insurrection is justified. The mantra of the four boxes was far more widespread and among less radicalised people than just those who not only felt motivated to attend the rally at Washington DC that day but also to march on and enter the Capitol. There’s a paradox in these narratives because if it were actually true that a murderous authoritarian regime was mounting a coup then there would be a compelling ethical reason to physically prevent it if you could.
This brings me to a point that has come up time and again in the discussion of not just the Puppies but to this flavour of the modern right in general.
Is it sincerity, cynicism or grift?
Or can it be all three at the same time? I don’t know. I can’t tell if Vox Day, for example, ever truly believed in Qanon or whether he recognised it as a “morale-boosting LARP” from the start. I don’t know which of the many contradictory stories Larry Corriea or Brad Torgersen have given for their motives for the Sad Puppy campaigns is actually the one they believe. The simplest explanation is that they believe all of them.
Back in 2015, I attempted to rationalise the Sad Puppy viewpoint of the Hugo Awards with a less ideological lens:
1. They see writing primarily as a business. e.g. Brad Torgersen: “And since I am an entrepreneur — all commercial writers are, when you get right down to it”
2. They see mutual aid between fellow authors as an important service
3. They regard awards in themselves as subjective and of no intrinsic value but…
4. Also see them as mean of promotion of businesses and…
5. As a mark of inclusionhttps://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/the-unified-puppy-theory/
This “Unified Puppy Theory”, saw the Sad Puppies perspective as a commercial one that could only see the Hugo Awards in commercial terms. The ideological dimension married with this as a way of rationalising why the Hugo Awards did not actually operate in this way. In the terms I’ve used in this essay, the Hugo Awards themselves were a corrupted corporation — a commercial venture that should be helping authors like the members of the Mad Genius Club promote their books but which was failing to do so because of the corrupting influence of the left.
More broadly, the world of self-publishing that arose with online bookshops and ebook readers, created a commercial opportunity for people to create a secondary income from selling books — or at least believe that there was such an opportunity. The tantalising idea that self-publishing might not just provide extra income but maybe even a livelihood was amplified by the fantasy that a break-out success might lead to significant wealth. There are far worse improbable get-rich-quick schemes than writing books and although the field is replete with scams and predatory companies, it remains a less exploitative option than multi-level marketing schemes (admittedly a low bar).
In the politically non-partisan 20booksto50K group, this idea of the promise of moderate success (a stable small income that would be enough to live on if you had a low cost of living) carries with it elements of America’s long tradition of self-help. Work hard and apply the right discipline, tactics and strategy and you can make money. In the more politically partisan Mad Genius Club, the promise of independent publishing would also be seen as a way of side-stepping the dead hand of moribund big publishing and connecting directly with a vast readership eager to read books free of “political correctness”.
It isn’t hard to see that for many, even writers like Sarah Hoyt and Dave Freer who had at least some success as mid-list traditional published writers, independent publishing in a crowded field where consumers have a vast range of choices for their leisure time beyond reading, was not going to lead to great success. In the end, capitalism sucks for most and rewards a few because it is a money funnel but if you believe capitalism is a moral algorithm that rewards hard work, grit and determination without regard to social standing there is a cruel lesson to be learned. Or not learned…but avoided and rationalised away.
John C. Wright, Vox Day, Sarah Hoyt and Larry Correia have each described themselves at some point as having been libertarians. Both Day and Wright have since changed how they describe themselves but I think it is reasonable to say that whatever their wider ideological stances were both they and Brad Torgersen believed that America should be a place where working hard to profit yourself is a moral virtue and one that a functioning society should reward based on your innate talents. Wright might see the hand of God in that and Day might believe those innate talents are genetically determined and lacking in women but the basic tenet is there. It’s not an ideal I share but neither is it a particularly radical idea.
That the world has not well rewarded the hard work of Wright, Hoyt, or Freer adds an implication to this perspective that something must be amiss with the world. That the world has not recognised and celebrated the innate talent (as they see it) of Vox Day and Larry Correia is another point against the world working as it should.
The world, according to Vox Day, is fallen and Satan is the (lowercase) god of the world. In a world of lies, lies in the service of a higher truth are not lies. Day’s mental model of reality is not one shared by Larry Correia but it provides a readily understandable answer to the question of sincerity, cynicism or grift. In a broken, corrupted world there isn’t a distinction, they are morally the same if (as Day believes) he is in a system controlled by a “Luciferian cult”. The rest of the Evil League of Evil have less melodramatic beliefs about reality but the ethical logic remains the same. Truth has become unmoored and the world is not as it should be.
This project followed the origins of fandom to the social, economic and technological change of the early 21st century to chart the dynamics of a small culture war that mirrored a larger conflict in American and world culture. Culture wars do not end in clear victories or even definitive ends. The toxic connections between fringe sections of the internet such as 8Kun and the radicalising algorithms of social media giants such as Facebook still exist. The tide of political rhetoric against immigration is still strong and strongest in those nations that oppose action on climate change as if anticipating the inevitable future movements of peoples that a warmer world will produce. The tactics used to demonise gay people have shifted to transgender people and new waves of racist nationalist movements still push back against the human rights of the majority of human beings.
What remains true is that people can act together to support the rights and voices of everybody in their community. Doing so can be contentious and supporting the right of people to be heard may even be portrayed as an attack on “free speech”. Mutual trust and investment in the well being of others is not persecution nor is it socialism or communism or political correctness but just the recognition of everybody’s humanity. If there can’t be consensus on the recognition of the humanity of each of us in a community then there can’t really be a community. It is not just a fair demand to make of people but a necessary one.
Next and Final Time: Afterword…Dramatis Personae
-  I don’t see ethical value in hard work. I place moral value in laziness. There are two reasons for working hard 1. when you have to accomplish other goals and 2. when it is fun in itself such as adding a gratuitous footnote at the end of a year long project.