A Worldcon fuss I wasn’t aware of

I am still supposed to be writing the next Debarkle chapter but in the process I have got lost down a rabbit hole of reading 1970’s fanzines. So today’s post sort of feels like a standard post I’ve written here before (I read something at File 770 and then add my own 2-cents) but this time we are all wearing flared trousers and garish shirts. The thing is, if I had known about this one I’d have worked it into Part 1 of Debarkle somewhere because it feels like it touches on lots of points.

The starting point was File 770 issue number 5 (June 1978) and a column by Dan Goodman about Harlan Ellison and his issues with being Guest of Honour at Iguancon.

“Could he have known?
A Statement of Ethical Position by the Worldcon Guest of Honor has been widely published. In it, Harlan Ellison says (among other things) that when he accepted as Iguanacon’s Guest of ‘Honor.” he had no foreknowledge that Arizona’s non-ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment would become an issue. Perhaps He didn’t foresee. it. But he could have……All he needed to do was to read and think.”


The column goes on to explain itself but assumes people are familiar with the background — which decades later and half a world away, I wasn’t. In fact, the background exposed a massive hole in my general knowledge of US politics because I was wholly unfamiliar with the Equal Rights Amendment, never mind how the politics of ratifying it had its own Worldcon mini-drama. I’m sure American readers here know the story but for the rest of us here is Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_Rights_Amendment I feel like I should know all Harlan Ellison related stories but also that there may be far too many of them.

The Worldcon part was that Ellison was scheduled as the Guest of Honour at the con which was to be held in Arizona but then Arizona refused to ratify the amendment.

I can’t find the text of Ellison’s statement online anywhere, although I believe it was published in multiple places including Locus #207. The fanzine Karass #36 had a longish piece with quotes from Ellison:

‘Iguanacon: The 1978 Worldcon to be held in Phoenix now seems to be in for its share of problems. Professional GoH Harlan Ellison has announced that he will use his position as the GoH to support the ERA (Equal Rights_Amendment). Since “Arizona has not ratified the ERA”; he will use his position to make the convention “a platform for heightening the awareness of fans and Arizona as a whole…I will do this because I feel I must, but in a way that will minimize any crippling of the convention.” However, he also says “I suggest fans coming to the convention, figure out ways to withhold money from the state as much as possible. The Convention Committee should assemble a list of acceptable campsites for those fans who prefer to stay elsewhere than in the convention hotel. I will be one of those people; You are invited to stop by my tent, wherever it might be. But more: bring your own food. Set up feeding arrangements with local fans. Don’t shop in the stores. Spend your money with the out-of-state dealers in the huckster rooms but stay away from the tourist facilities.”

https://fanac.org/fanzines/Karass/Karass36-001.html (text retrieved using OCR with some clean-up)

Anyway, I don’t know if Ellison did stay in a tent and I also apologise to any blogs that I read who have probably discussed this incident in-depth at times when I probably should have read about it earlier!

This has been an episode of Camestros learns things he should already know by reading stuff.

ETA: Thanks to Mike Glyer who provided a link to Ellison’s statement https://fanac.org/conpubs/Worldcon/IguanaCon%20II/Iggy%20PR%203.pdf#view=Fit

The statement itself is a bit of a mixed bag, Harlan’s plan is not well thought through. However, I do quite like the grandiose ending even it is a bit mean to sitcoms:

“Can we continue to deal with sf as merely escapist fiction, pointless, mindless entertainment, no nobler than trash novels or tv sitcoms, when we howl in outrage at reviewers and critics who accuse the genre of being no more than that? Can we permit the gap between what we say we are, and what we really are, to exist? Or is this, perhaps, a moment when we can make a brave statement with our fiction, our literary love, our bodies, and our annual World gathering? Arizona, the WorldCon and I offer you this opportunity”

Harlan Ellison

On the GRRM post

A short recap: the 2020 Hugo Award ceremony went badly in multiple ways and central to the ways it went badly was George R.R. Martin. Natalie Luhrs wrote an impassioned post about everything that went wrong (which is here “George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog Edition)” https://www.pretty-terrible.com/george-r-r-martin-2020-hugo-awards/ ). As is the way with things fannish, her post was nominated for a 2021 Hugo Award. However, some people have looked at the title and some aspects of the rhetoric and stated that it is a violation of the convention’s code of conduct and from there, an argument has ensued.

Currently, there’s a long argument going on at File 770 on the issue http://file770.com/discon-iii-declines-to-comment-on-code-of-conduct-issue-about-hugo-finalist/ but it really isn’t a GOOD argument. By that I mean, the discussion is getting so mired in questions of bad faith that it really isn’t helping whether:

  • a. is there really an issue
  • b. if there is an issue what is the way forward

I’ve ditched several replies to comments there because my comment really wouldn’t help. However, if I see a knotted pile of string, I can’t help trying to untie it.

Take a few steps backward. Motive is important when considering ethics and ethics is important for considering how people should conduct themselves. However, we don’t have windows into people’s souls and motive is easily disputed. It would certainly be easier if we could simply sort actions into good-faith actions, bad-faith actions, jokes etc but we can’t do it consistently. When it comes to semi-formal questions of behaviour (such as a company policy or a convention code of conduct) the question of motive and intent needs to be more limited compared with outward behaviour and observable impact.

So a few things:

  • I don’t think the question of why voters voted for Luhrs’s essay is relevant. On the face of it, the essay is a cogent piece of fannish writing of obvious relevance and well within the space of things that get nominated for a Hugo. It’s a dead-end aspect of the discussion.
  • Is George RR Martin harmed by either the essay or the title? Not in a material way, although credibly it may well make him feel unwelcome at Worldcon (a community he has been actively involved in for decades). However, he’s is also wealthy and well supported and this essay is unlikely to make any change to that. Neither is he living in fear of Natalie Luhrs. She is not literally going to shoot Martin or Silverberg into the sun and doesn’t have the means to do so. However, I think this is another dead-end. It really doesn’t help with the issue.
  • Should Natalie Luhrs have used that title or indeed made said comment about shooting people into sun? It was fine, not my style but people can let off steam on their own blog. It was well within the limits of acceptable online behaviour (particularly in the circumstances). People are free to differ on this point but it is also another dead-end discussion.

So what does matter? Rules need to be clear and enforceable. They need to admit some degree of nuance and context but they simply can’t be as flexible as the kind of more dynamic moral judgements we make personally. They also need to fail-safe and err on the side of caution. It is an issue that I discussed earlier in the year in this post: https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/02/19/todays-infographic-moderating-comments/

And here we need to get into fine distinctions:

  • Natalie Luhrs should not (in my opinion) feel under any compulsion to edit the title or content of her post.
  • Discon have a real issue with using that title in anything put out by Discon or under their banner.

There is a fine distinction here between what Luhrs is saying with that title and Discon repeating it. Why? Because

  1. Discon is bound by its own rules of conduct whereas Luhrs’s blog isn’t.
  2. Titles of Hugo finalist works absolutely can contribute to a hostile environment.
  3. While, sure, GRRM is a massive big-name author, there’s not a sensible way of demarcating between people with sufficient social power to not be bothered and people who aren’t. I’ll come back to that.
  4. If it is assumed that GRRM won’t actually be harmed by Discon repeating the title because of his various kinds of social and cultural power THEN that indicates a PROBLEM rather than it indicating that there isn’t a problem. If it is only fine because of GRRM’s privilege then it is not fine *in general*.

Put another way. There’s a whole heap of circumstances here (Martin’s own behaviour, the relative power dynamic between Martin and Luhrs etc) that mean, practically Discon really aren’t doing anything that terrible to George R.R. Martin but that is still a poor reason for Discon to do it. It’s an excellent argument for why I’ve got zero issues with Luhrs’s original essay but Discon isn’t Luhrs and Discon is speaking not just to Martin but to people in general.

In general, I would not want future Worldcons to republish titles (or include in the Hugo packet) works that contain elements that can reasonably be taken as personal attacks on people within the broader community AND by “reasonably be taken as personal attacks” should err on the side of caution (e.g. telling somebody to fuck off, is probably harmless but falls on the bad side of the line – it is the kind of false-positive we should accept as beyond the arbitrary point). The question then becomes whether there is a reasonable way to carve out an exception for really rich and famous people? I don’t see how in a way that ensures people who are less rich or famous (or are rich and famous but marginalised in other ways) aren’t impacted.

So should Discon censor the title? Sure, why not? It’s not the end of the world if they did and (again) there’s a distinction between Luhrs saying something and Discon officially repeating it (even within inverted commas). Should they put it in the Hugo packet? Probably not, for similar reasons. Neither of those steps will impact how people will evaluate it.

But this would be Discon conceding to the feelings of a powerful rich guy! Maybe, but what it definitely would be is a Worldcon saying that codes of conduct apply FOR EVERYBODY to the titles of Hugo finalists and the contents of the Hugo packet. That is a net positive. It really is and will benefit less powerful people than George R.R.Martin.

And apologies, comments are off because I’m too busy today to moderate them and I don’t want to untangle disputes 🙂

[ETA: I made some amendments. I was too flippant about GRRM not being harmed by essay. I can well imagine he does find it hurtful and I don’t want that to be a distraction from the broader point, which was that EVEN IF he’s fine, there’s still a kind of problem.]

Average Hugo Age

I can’t recall if I’ve posted this before but I needed the table, so here it is.

This is the average age (based on available data) of Hugo finalists and winners in the main story categories (novel, novella, novelette, short)

YearfinalistwinnerGrand Total
Grand Total44.345.544.5

I thought winners might on average be older, but the difference is tiny. The standard deviation is about 10, so don’t despair if you aren’t in your 40s.

Also, yes, I think Sad Puppies 3 pushed the age of finalists a bit higher than usual.

Looks like the Scrappy Doo era chapters will write themselves

File 770 recently linked to the court documents in the long running legal dispute between Jon Del Arroz and Worldcon 76 http://file770.com/worldcon-76-filings-for-summary-judgment-in-del-arroz-defamation-suit-now-online which neatly has the history of JDA’s relationship with Worldcon and the SFWA written up in one place.

Meanwhile, you will all be shocked to learn that Brian “Dragon Award” Niemeier’s 2016 “shadowban” by Twitter was…a piece of marketing.

“One answer our guys have come up with is eDrama marketing. The basic idea is to pick out a representative of the establishment and find a way to sell yourself as the plucky little guy crusading against the man. People – especially Americans – love an underdog, so playing the put-upon victim of megacorp ticket-takers is an effective way to drum up sympathy. No doubt about it, eDrama can make for rapid gains. I’ve used that approach myself. If the popularity of professional wrestling has taught us anything, it’s that kayfabe works. People love to root for the face against the heel. The ringleaders of certain dissident art scenes have ridden outrage marketing to modest e-celebrity and small fortunes.”


Niemeier’s Twitter technical problems garnered him a write up in alt-right news/propaganda source Brietbart https://www.breitbart.com/tech/2016/08/02/reports-hugo-nominated-author-shadowbanned-twitter/

Anyway, as Brian notes:

“Either way, following the eDrama road past the initial breakout phase sets an egg timer on your career. The countdown to irrelevance has begun.”

Debarkle Chapter 4: An Inadequate History of Fandom & Worldcon 1939 – 2000

‘FOLLOWERS and glorifiers of the fantastical like to think that they are different, that they represent something new on the face of the earth; mutants born with an intelligence and a sense of farseeing appreciation just a bit higher than the norm. They like to believe that their counterpart has never before existed, that they have no predecessors. “No one,” they say, “has ever seen our visions, dreamed our dreams. Never before has man’s brain reached out so far into the limitless stretches of the cosmos about him.”‘

The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, Sam Moskowitz 1954 https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/1330615

By the 1950s Science Fiction Fandom was so well established as concept that notable fan, writer and critic Sam Moskowitz felt that he could write a history of (mainly) US fandom[1]. As the opening paragraph (above) suggests, Moskowitz was observing many of the same features often attributed to science fiction fandom and fans. Moskowitz also noted that a common fallacy was to think of science fiction and fandom as being particularly American (or American-British) whereas it was a worldwide phenomenon even if fan groups in other nations were necessarily closely connected. Nor was fandom simply people sharing reviews of favourite stories. Of the international fannish groups that Moskowitz identified, he included the pre-war German group Verein für Raumschiffahrt (which Moskowitz calls the German Rocket Group)[2] whose practical interest in rocketry “presaged the German “buzz-bombs’ of the Second World War” (the group had come together as advisors for Fritz Lang’s film Frau im Mond, and did later include a young Werner von Braun). Willy Ley, a member of the group who fled Germany because of the rise of the Nazis and who was also notable figure in US fandom and a science fiction writer.

Continue reading “Debarkle Chapter 4: An Inadequate History of Fandom & Worldcon 1939 – 2000”

Debarkle: Draft outline

Coming this month (and probably for most of the year) is “Debarkle”, a history of the Puppy Kerfuffle of 2015, the events that preceded it, the political context and how it presaged events in US politics that followed it.

What follows is the draft section and chapter order. Naturally, what will actually happen is something different from this but this is the outline I’m working to.

Roughly it is in chronological order but with various chapters flashing forward or flashing backwards to keep themes together. External politics events are also a key part of this story, some of which will get their own chapters but in other cases they will be referenced in more fannish chapters to give context and establish time periods. Sadly, a lot of those external political events are violent ones but they are ones relevant to the times and also the discussions and the political atmosphere.

There are some special recurring chapters:

  • Dramatis Personae: these chapters look at backstories to some recurring names or groups in the story. I’ve tried to keep these to a minimum but if I find that I’m writing longer paragraphs about the background to given person, I may split that off into an extra one of these. Generally, they’ll cover the ‘story so far’ up to that point. So, John Scalzi and Vox Day (and maybe the Nielsen Hayden’s) get early chapters before the opening act of this http://nielsenhayden.com/electrolite/archives/006122.html. So these chapters don’t all end up in section 1, many people will appear in the main narrative before they get one of these chapters but with a briefer introduction.
  • Meanwhile: these chapters cover things away from the main Puppy story but which, again, would otherwise become long intruding paragraphs of context. An obvious example is RaceFail 2009, which involved no puppies but did involve notable people in fandom. Likewise, a discussion of the 2015 Hugo awards can’t avoid discussion of RequiresHate and the Mixon report. You can skip these if you want to stick to the main plot. Part 6, covering 2020, is all Meanwhile.
  • Some book reviews: With the Hugosauriad I was pleased with how the two chapters looking at If You Were a Dinosaur My Love and the right-wing reaction to it worked out. The Debarkle is about many things but one of those things is stories. Currently these reviews will include Monster Hunter International, Redshirts, Ancillary Justice and the Broken Earth Trilogy, as well as some selected shorter fiction.

Speaking of the Hugosauriad, because that project contains chapters on Rachel Swirsky’s story and on Chuck Tingle, neither will get their own chapter in Debarkle. Obviously, both will get discussed but the longer coverage is in the Hugosauriad.

Currently, the plan is 6 sections.

  1. Beginnings 1880 to 2010. All the background and setting the scene.
  2. 2011 to 2014. This covers the SFWA conflicts and the first two Sad Puppy campaigns but also looks at Gamergate.
  3. 2015. This section is the most chronological and most chapters cover events in a given month up to the smoky skies of Sasquan. “Phew!” we all say in August, “Looks like we defeated fascism for good this time!” and Donald Trump enters stage right.
  4. 2016-2017. Two parallel stories – the political story with the alt-right and Donald Trump and also the story of how the Puppy campaigns fizzled out. SP4, the non-event of SP5, the Dragon Awards and how Larry finally gets his participation prize.
  5. 2018-2019. Follows the political story with some delves back into fandom. Specifically this is the politics of Sad and Rabid versions of the right in the age of Trump. The crappiest gate aka ‘Comicsgate’ will get a look in, as will the 2019 Nebulas, as ‘compare and contrast’ with the Puppy campaigns.
  6. Meanwhile 2020: Aside from an initial dive into the RWA’s meltdown, this section looks at the hell year in terms of the perspectives of the Puppy Protagonists. Dominating it are three major elements of the year, Qanon (particularly with Vox Day), Covid (Sarah Hoyt) and ‘Stop the Steal’ (Larry Correia but also Day and Hoyt).

Section 3 (i.e. the actual plot) is likely to blow-out. Three sections of aftermath may look like a lot but as the main thesis of the project is that the themes and cognitive style of the “crazy” behaviour of the US right in 2020 were already overt and apparent in 2015, just at a different scale and context. Note, the thesis isn’t that the Puppies caused later events (they are all minor bit players in bigger story, if that) but rather that the same underlying cultures and attitudes on the right that erupted as the Puppies in fandom, later erupted at a bigger scale (and at greater human cost) in US politics. Sections won’t be of equal length.

As always, suggestions, comments etc are welcome but it will also end up being whatever gets written at the time!

  • Intro: Jan 6 2021
  • Part 1: Beginnings 1880 to 2010
    A short history of the Hugo Awards 1953 to 2000
    Dramatis Personae 1: John Scalzi
    Dramatis Personae 2: Theodore Beale
    Tor, Baen and Amazon 1990 -2011
    Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America 1965 to 2010
    March 1, 2005: Electrolyte
    Dramatis Personae 3: Larry Correia
    2007: Monster Hunter International
    Meanwhile: Barack Obama
    Meanwhile: Racefail 2009
    2010 Hugos and the SFWA
  • Part 2: 2011 to 2014
    2011: Larry Goes to Worldcon
    2012-13: The Day-Scalzi Feud
    Meanwhile: Mitt Romney
    2013 “How to get Correia nominated for a Hugo”
    2013: Redshirts
    Dramatis Personae 4: N.K.Jemisin
    2013: Trouble at the SFWA
    Dramatis Personae 5: Sarah Hoyt and the Mad Geniuses
    Opera Vita Aeterna
    2014: Sad Puppies 2
    2014: Ancillary Justice
    2014: Vox Gets the Boot
    Dramatis Personae 6: John C wright and the Evil League of Evil
    Dramatis Personae 7: George R R Martin
    2014: The Hugos go to London
    Meanwhile: Requires Hate
    Meanwhile: GamerGate
    Dramatis Personae 8: Brad Torgersen
  • Part 3: 2015
    January: Announcing SAD PUPPIES 3!
    February: Rabid Puppies 2015
    March: Warnings
    April Part 1: TSHTF
    April Part 2: Hugos Hit the News
    Dramatis Personae 9: Mike Glyer and File 770
    May: Planning Ahead
    E Pluribus Hugo
    June Part 1: The Tor Boycott
    June Part 2: The Human Toll
    July: Crescendo
    August: Sasquan
    September-December: Taking Stock
    Meanwhile: Donald Trump
  • Part 4: Fall of the Puppies 2016-2017
    The Broken Earth Trilogy
    Quarter 1 2016 Part 1: Sad Puppies 4
    Quarter 1 2016 Part 2: Rabid Puppies
    Meanwhile: The Rise of the Alt Right
    Dramatis Personae 10: Jon Del Arroz
    Enter the Dragon
    Quarter 2: Reactions
    Meanwhile: GOP goes Trump
    August: Midamericon
    September: Dragon Awards 2016
    Meanwhile: Me Too
    Meanwhile: President Donald Trump
    The Sad Demise of SP5
    Rabid Puppies 2017
    Worldcon 75 – Finland
  • Part 5: The Trump Years 2018-2019
    Meanwhile: Qanon
    Changing fortunes at the Dragon Awards
    Meanwhile: Black Lives Matter
    Gender at the Hugo Awards
    Meanwhile: 20booksto50 and the Nebulas
    Dramatis Personae: Mixed Fortunes
    The Hugos and the Campbell Legacy
  • Part 6: Meanwhile 2020
    Trouble in Romance
    Covid 19
    Black Lives Matter
    US Presidential Election
    “Stop the Steal”
  • Conclusion: Reality and the Imagination

Bonus! Here is a Rabid version of the cover art.

Starting February: Debarkle

I’ve been mulling over for some time (years tbh) writing a history of the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy attempt to hijack the Hugo Awards. A few things have put me off doing so. Two of the obstacles is any account needs at least some treatment of RaceFail and of the Requires Hate story and they are rabbit holes of controversy (but there are ways through that I think). However, one issue is an end point. In terms of Larry Correia’s frustration at not getting an award, the 2016 Dragon Award ceremony, which also saw Vox Day’s Castalia House getting its participation trophies, is an obvious place to stop. You can finish a story there and say “and the puppies went away and had their own awards”. It is unsatisfying and misleading though.

The appeal with finishing the story there is the main action of the Puppy Debarkle ends there with things petering out with the collapse of Sad Puppies 5 and the process reforms blunting the impact of Rabid Puppies 3 the following year. However, the point of writing about the Debarkle is the wider context. Fandom has had its fair share of squabbles, kerfuffles and scandals but what makes the Debarkle interesting in particular is the connection with wider events. The Sad Puppies presented their unexpected fannish-insurrection as primarily a question of aesthetics, as Larry Correia stated in his first attempt to hijack the Hugo Awards, this was an attempt to frustrate the “literati”. Contrariwise, the opposition to the Puppies contended that they were a politically reactionary movement.

It is this second issue that frames any discussion. It’s not a difficult proposition to demonstrate, that the Puppies were a politically reactionary movement motivated by a dislike of the left in general and the advocacy for women and people of colour and LGBQTI people more specifically. By late 2016 the Puppies of all stripes were barely pretending otherwise and, of course, Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies never pretended otherwise. But a more open question is whether the process of the Debarkle radicalised the Puppies or whether a growing social rift in America (and beyond) was radicalising them regardless?

I don’t know the answer to that question but it is the kind of question I could get a better answer to if I attempt this. Of course, placing the Puppies in the context of the politics also gives a point in time to look back from and say “how did we get here?” That point looks very much like January 6 2021.

Take, for example, this artefact of current right wing discourse in the wake of the attempted putsch in America’s capitol:

“Apparently Sarah Hoyt is the only non-cuck at Instapundit.”


Or, looking in a different direction, imagine being a future historian and trying to explain all the context to this tweet:

Neither GamerGate nor the Debarkle by themselves explain events and both were shaped by social forces that were hard to see. Yet, rather like the tracks made by invisible particles in a bubble chamber, the revealed shifts in attitudes and changing political coalitions that were also leading up to changes on a bigger scale. Within a short time, political upsets in the US and UK (Trump becoming the Republican Party POTUS nominee and the Brexit referendum) saw right-wing, populist, anti-rational positions taking hold of national policy. Where they motivated by the same thing as the Puppy movements? We can debate that but the Puppies generally thought so (Brexit more than Trump oddly).

Five years after peak-Puppy, in the hell year that was 2020 notable figures in the Debarkle were pushing firstly covid-19 conspiracies, followed by attempts to mobilise anti-lockdown protests, followed by anti-mask wearing propaganda, followed by anti-vaccine propaganda. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election defeat, chief Sad Puppy Larry Correia was a notable booster of “steal” conspiracy theories and his posts on the topic were widely shared in conservative circles. Meanwhile, since late 2017, Vox Day was an early adopter and promoter of “QANON” the free-floating anti-rational meta-conspiracy theory and also an early advocate in 2020 of the need for Trump to seize power by force to ensure a second term.

The Debarkle (in particular peak Debarkle in 2015) presaged events in a microcosm but also later events clarify questions. At the time, it was an open question as to how politically extreme many of the Sad Puppy leaders where, there even people who attempted apparently good-faith arguments that Vox Day somehow wasn’t that extreme. Supporters of the Sad Puppies would often point to Sarah Hoyt (a woman and an immigrant to the US from a non-anglophone country) as clear evidence that the Sad Puppies were neither sexist or racist. I believe that even at the time the evidence demonstrated that their argument was flawed but with 2020 hindsight, the manner in which Hoyt refers to the VP-elect of the USA Kamala Harris is a much simpler refutation of the idea that she somehow is immune to sexism and racism.

Nor would it be sensible to write about the 2015 side-plot of the infamous Tor Boycott without pointing to Mad Genius blogger and one-time Castalia House author Peter Grant stating in the wake of yesterday’s attempt to overthrow the US constitution that: “If I were in D.C. today, I’d be in the Capitol along with the protesters.” If you’ve overtly placed yourself to the right of the leaders of the Republican Party (and for that matter the very right wing current Vice President of the US) and are contemplating civil war because you’ve fully bought into a stab-in-the-back mythology of stolen victory…well…”“extreme right wing to neo-nazi, respectively” was always a very apt description. How much time did we spend dissecting the various political positions that notable Puppies might have in an attempt to tease out the nuance of their politics? It’s a lot easier to sum up as “I’m not sure what they thought in 2015 but within five years they’ll be demanding the violent overthrow of the government in a far-right putsch.”

I’ll post more about the structure and the schedule of Debarkle as a blog series. Obviously, and as always, comments and corrections will be more than welcome, indeed expected — particularly as most of you were there at the time and many of you were actively involved in countering the Puppies for years before I stuck my oar in.

Review: Spiritfarer (Nintendo Switch)

I am attempting to put some thought into the 2021 Hugo Award Video Game category. In earlier posts, I’ve tried to identify possible contenders and one reason for doing that is to help me make choices. There are a lot of games out there and the cost and time investment for games can be significant (and not always proportional). So I have used some of the data to pick out games I haven’t played that

  • are technically eligible
  • available on a platform I have access to (basically Mac, iOS or Switch)
  • aren’t wholly unsuited to me (i.e. require more coordination than I’m physically capable of)
  • look like they might be interesting/notable from the perspective of science fiction & fantasy as a broad genre

That last one is tricky. There’s no shortage of SFF themes in video games — it’s almost a default. However, the Hugo Award isn’t an award for ‘random book with rockets in it’. There is an expectation of some degree of advancing the genre in some way. At the same time, the award in other category isn’t used as an award to reward just the most innovative or the most boundary pushing work in that category. Novelty is just one of numerous dimensions against which we should judge works but it is a relevant one.

I’d like to see the winner of this category be a game that has some popular and critical acclaim but also be something notably a bit different. If the category is to work, then “Hugo winning game” should be a notable fact about a game.

As I have said before, I suspect the game Hades is the likely front runner, even though it has some eligibility issues. I have played it but I’ll save a review for later in the year (assuming it is a finalist).

However, the game I will nominate in this category isn’t Hades but a game set in a quite different afterlife: Spiritfarer. The two games couldn’t be more different and yet both borrow Charon the Ferryman and Hades as characters from Greek mythology and both use (different) genres of game play to lead you to interact with a series of characters from whom you learn about their lives (and deaths) and your own characters back story. Spiritfarer has fewer murderous, laser firing crystal things though.

The genre of gameplay is resource management and exploration. You have a ship with a small number of passengers and you sail between islands collecting resources and improving your ship. It’s all presented as 2D animation largely moving horizontally.

However, the world and characters are notably unusual. You play Stella, who (along with her cat Daffodil) has been recruited to take over from Charon as the person who ferries souls to their final afterlife. The world you sail around is a kind of staging place where people are still holding on to their material lives and issues or just generally getting on with stuff (including some industrial dispute in which you intervene).

Your broader task is to find particular souls (many of whom you know from your previous life) who come to live on your increasingly chaotic ship. You build them cabins (stacked up so your ship looks like Howl’s Moving Castle) and cook them food and run errands for them. You also listen and help each one work through things. Eventually, you take them when they are ready to the Everdoor where they transcend into constellations.

That may sound very maudlin and there is a lot of sadness within the game but it is more wistful then depressing. Having said that, there are certainly some departures that hit harder than others (which I won’t spell out because spoilers). There are also some guests on-board your ship who are just absolute pains but that also adds to the general atmosphere.

For a game with wistful themes and music that feels like the opening music to a Studio Ghibli film, you stay extraordinarily busy. There are plants to water and a variety of meals to cook for guests with distinct food preferences (is my favourite character the one who just likes everything I cook? Yes) and flying jellyfish to catch and lightning to bottle. There is also a lot of jumping around and flying about (on zip lines) as if you are playing a platform game but I really like how very little of this is punishing. There are few penalties and few things you have to do by a particular time (except for one character nearer the end).

I think the character work here is extraordinary. The game uses the physical exploration of the islands as a practical metaphor for exploring people’s lives. The quests they send you on you have to engage with literally to humour some of them (annoyingly so at times e.g. the character who you know doesn’t eat seafood demanding that you make them lobster rolls for dinner). Yet that is part and parcel of the theme of these people finding what they need to let go of, like restless spirits in a ghost story. The faults, demands and in some cases, unlikeability of the characters all adds to the impact of their final times.

Aesthetically, the game uses simple designs to create a feeling of participating in beautiful 2D animated film. There are some lovely visual aspects including a crystal plagued sea dragon and ghostly bugs that dance around your ship but which are only visible when the weird mushroom child character’s pet bug is with you (oh, and you also grew the mushroom kid in your garden after fishing a seed out of the sea because…I don’t know, it made sense at the time).

You also get to pet your cat and hug (except one) your guests.

I played the game on a Nintendo Switch Lite and generally there were few aspects that taxed my slightly limited hand-eye coordination and slower-than-average reaction time. Unfortunately, some of the in game text (especially numbers on recipes and coordinates on the map) where too small to see easily on the screen (at least for my eyes). I don’t think I’ve got sufficient background to do a thorough overview of accessibility issues in video game reviews but I’m also confident that if I’m bumping up against issues then plenty of other people will be, including in places where I didn’t encounter a problem.

Emotionally, I think the game might not be a good choice for some people in some circumstances. Death and emotional burdens are integral to the plot and while the game is genuinely fun, it also plays with the idea of emotional labour and there are times when I needed to take a break because I felt the sense of loss a bit too keenly. I know that many indie and experimental games have explored deeper issues about emotional well being and mental health but Spritifarer manages to pull some deep themes into game is also one where you get to build a wacky house boat and have adventures exploring mines.

I think it deserves a rocket.

Thirteen Notable Video Games of 2020 (maybe?)

The other week I linked to a few “best of…” lists for 2020. On Twitter, Hampus also suggested another round-up source here https://www.cbr.com/best-video-games-2020/ I’ve since collated those lists along with the video games already listed on the Hugo Sheet of Doom. I’ll confess that I have taken a scattershot approach to deciding whether games are SFF or not. It isn’t always easy! Does a historical game count as alternate-history if you can reshape events (eg Crusader Kings III)? Is Call of Duty SFF because there is a zombie option? I don’t know! In the end I didn’t include Call of Duty but did include “Yakuza: Like a Dragon” because the second sounded more wacky. I didn’t delve into eligibility much in terms of when the game was released unless I already knew it wasn’t eligible (e.g. Among Us) and there are games here with eligibility questions (Hades) and also there are remakes which may be technically eligible but which don’t have new stories.

Finally, I ordered the games by how many lists they were on. Here all the games that were on at least three lists.

TitleLB Hugo SheetPolygon top 50Esquire top 11Vulture 10 BestTime 10 BestCBR 10 BestCount
Animal Crossing: New HorizonsYYYYYY6
Final Fantasy VII RemakeYYYY4
The Last of Us Part 2YYYY4
DOOM EternalYYY3
Fall GuysYYY3
Ghost of TsushimaYYY3
Ori and the Will of the WispsYYY3
Spider-Man: Miles MoralesYYY3
Star Wars: SquadronsYYY3
Yakuza: Like a DragonYYY3

I’ve played only three of those but each one is in the top four. I haven’t finished playing Spiritfarer but I’ve played enough to write a review and I really like it.

Here are those same games again but with links to reviews.

Some Hugo Video Game Contenders

In what has become a seasonal tradition the ever useful Lady Business Hugo Sheet of Doom is up and running for 2021 nominations


For anybody interested there are already 40 crowd-sourced suggestions for Best Video Game. I have played two of them: Animal Crossing: New Horizon and (currently playing badly even for a game were you are supposed to keep dying) Hades. If I count games I’ve played earlier versions of or games in the same series then I count nine.

This is as likely a sample of the range of things people might nominate as we might find. There are some big name game companies (Nintendo, Ubisoft), some unconventional choices (a Google doodle Halloween game https://www.google.com/doodles/halloween-2020 ) and some more independent games. Scanning over it, feels like a clash between Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form (full of big corporate properties) and Best Short Story (interesting things from creative people with a specific vision).

Even with the vast field boiled down to 40 (currently) crowd sourced suggestions, I’m still not sure how to engage with this.