Brad R. Torgersen

Fear and loathing at the Awards Table 3

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It’s been two years since I was the triple nominee for the Hugo, the Campbell, and the Nebula awards. At the time, I thought it rather unusual that a relative newcomer should find himself on the short list for all three awards simultaneously. Something in which I took a measure of pride. Because I never set out to be an “award worthy” author as much as I set out to be the kind of author who could entertain. My authorial philosophy is pretty simple: give the reader a good time, not a hard time. So when my name popped up for the Nebulas, I was pleasantly shocked. When it popped up again for the Hugo and the Campbell, I was doubly shocked. I never styled myself as a prestige man. I just wanted to tell stories that people would find worthwhile, enjoyable, and (dare I say it?) uplifting.

Come April 2014, and I discover I am back on the Hugo short list again. This time with two pieces of short fiction which previously appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine:

Best Novelette — “The Exchange Officers” — Analog, Jan/Feb 2013
Best Novella — “The Chaplain’s Legacy” — Analog, Jul/Aug 2013

There’s a bit of exciting additional news I can share about “The Chaplain’s Legacy” in a later installment of this blog series, but I wanted to point out here (as I have on Facebook) that I think a big reason why these two stories made the Hugo ballot is because they were both included in my short fiction “best of” album titled Lights in the Deep. I was initially going to self-publish the collection (before it even had a name) but when Kevin J. Anderson and WordFire Press approached me, their contract and marketing and distribution were simply too good to pass up. And I am glad to be working with WordFire, not just for Lights, but also for a new collection coming out later this year, to be called Racers of the Night. What it would have taken a traditional small press at least 12 to 24 months to accomplish, WordFire did for me in a matter of weeks over a single summer. Thus I was able to get the book into the hands of readers months in advance of the 2014 awards season. Thus when the nomination period came around, a great many people had already read my work in both Analog and also Lights in the Deep.

But there is (obviously, to those paying attention to the Hugos this year) another reason I made the Hugo short list, and I want to write a few thoughts about that, and also about some of the controversy that has arisen as a result.

See, my friend Larry Correia put my stories on one of his blog posts where he listed his own voting preferences for the Hugo. Several of us who know Larry had our books and stories on that list, all of us accomplished authors to one degree or another. And since Larry has a substantial internet footprint, and an extremely loyal and energetic fan base, some of those fans (and I have to say, a goodly number of them had bought Lights in the Deep due to a generous book launch push Larry had given Lights in late 2013) mobilized to support Larry’s slate — because that’s just how the Monster Hunter Nation rolls.

After the 2014 Hugo award nominee short list was releast by Loncon 3 (the World Science Fiction Convention, or “Worldcon”) there was a substantial amount of consternation — social media hue and cry, one might call it.

As has often been the case when I observe these kinds of things, I remain puzzled that the group which dubs itself “fandom” (in the parlance of the original Worldcons of yore) and which is always self-analyzing so as to determine how it can bring in more young fans, more diverse fans, and more energetic fans, could react so poorly to Larry Correia bringing Monster Hunter Nation to the Hugo nominations — as if the state of New York were aghast that the state of Texas showed up for a national party caucus during the run-up to a major election.

Isn’t bringing new people into old-school fandom part of the point of Worldcon?

But it wasn’t just Monster Hunter Nation that had certain people in fandom riled up. Wheel of Time fans managed to get the entire series (Jordan/Sanderson) on the ballot too — for Best Novel Hugo. Which is not precisely against the rules of the nomination process, but Wheel of Time is a massive series that is almost 30 years old. Seeing it in the Best Novel category alongside the other books for 2014 is highly unusual to say the least. So unusual, in fact, that some people in fandom have chosen to get upset about it; to the same degree those individuals in fandom are upset about Monster Hunter Nation getting the third installment in Larry Correia’s Hard Magic series onto the ballot, with Warbound: Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles.

My response to the plaintiffs is: why not?

To paraphrase something Brandon Sanderson eloquently said on his blog, it’s head-scratching to see a group invite people in to join said group, then the group reacts badly to the new people.

In the case of Monster Hunter Nation, I think it’s safe to say the bulk of the unhapiness (from some individuals in fandom) is political in nature. In the case of Wheel of Time fans, the unhapiness (from some individuals in fandom) has been literary in nature. Ergo, works that are considered “too commercial” tend to get looked down upon by parts of fandom that have a particularly academic and literary taste.

But isn’t this the point of being fans? Shouldn’t anything that calls itself WORLDCON actually represent a widely diverse number of fans from many different echelons of the disparate world of genre enthusiasm?

“But, campaigning for awards and stuffing the ballot box is uncouth!”
I understand that for many fans steeped in the history of Worldcon, there is a somewhat old-school and gentlemanly attitude that campaigning for an award is uncouth. Crass. Simply not done. And in those instances where it was very plainly done in the daylight, there has generally been some harsh regard. But honestly, in the era of the internet, this philosophy is pretty much dead in the water. Because almost all authors have web footprints of varying sizes and instant interactivity with their readers, and the minute you even peep about consideration (you, your work, for the ballots) it’s basically a clarion call to your readers to go support you — whether you’re deliberately making the announcement with an intent to motivate your readers, or being discreet and simply mentioning the works you’ve published in the past calendar year, without actually doing a call to action. Plus, authors are clever. A call to action need not be worded baldly. There are 101 ways to deftly and subtly put up neon signs of varying design, encouraging readers and web followers to put you down for the ballots and the awards. Especially when so many of the ballots and awards are voted via web form. It’s easier than ever for an enthusiastic fan or reader or supporter to click, jump, vote, and submit. So, I think it can be reasonably said: nothing any of this year’s short-listed nominees did to announce themselves, can be deemed uncouth or against the spirit of the Hugos. Past winners (up to and including Best Novel) have happily flexed their web footprints in order to be nominated and win. I don’t think we can honestly ding anyone on this year’s ballot for doing the same thing.

“But, Wheel of Time is not even a book!”
True, it’s not a single book. And there is a strong argument for perhaps changing the rules of the award, for future Worldcons, so that a Best Series Hugo might be given. But since the present rules permit Wheel of Time fans to nominate what they love, the series is on the ballot through no fault of its own. It will now compete against the other works just like any other nominee. Perhaps it’s a little disheartening to see a series with such a substantial fan base go up against single books from authors who don’t have as much traction in the marketplace — from a glance, Wheel of Time seems likely to bury its competition. But again, I ask, why not? There’s nothing in the Hugo nomination process that says anything about taste, nor about sales numbers, being a disqualifier. If enough Worldcon members want Wheel of Time (or any other thing) on the ballot, then by golly that thing is going to be on the ballot. That’s not Brandon Sanderson’s fault, nor should Wheel of Time fans be talked down to because somehow their taste isn’t as relevant to the health and recognition of worthy works in the field as, say, fans of John Scalzi’s Red Shirts. Which did walk away with the Best Novel Hugo last year, and largely because of the fact that Scalzi’s fans simply chose to participate in the nomination and voting process.

“But, Monster Hunter Nation and Wheel of Time fans are not our kind of fans!”
Okay, here is where I put my grumpy face on and glower a little bit. Because this is something I’ve talked about before. This is also something Kristine Kathryn Rusch has talked about before, too. You can’t have a healthy fandom unless you run a big tent. And by big tent, I mean a fandom that doesn’t impose litmus tests. Fandom (that very-small piece of the consumer pie that keeps Worldcon alive) represents an increasingly monocultural segment of the overall fan market. The so-called TruFans work to marginalize and exclude the NeoFans. “Show us your cred!” the guards cry at the entry points to the science fiction “ghetto” that fandom jealously occupies — though Larry Niven once famously argued it’s not a ghetto, it’s actually a country club. Those with insufficient or bad cred (“You only like movies and games!” or “Your politics make you stinky!” or “Your favorite author is too commercial!”) are discouraged in both obvious and subtle ways. Go back to what Brandon Sanderson said: if you invite people in, it’s rather strange of you to then try to kick them back out simply because they’re not matching your taste and preferences 1-for-1. So while I am somewhat sympathetic to the notion of, “Well we liked science fiction before science fiction was popular,” I also think this is the slogan of a dying culture. And that makes me sad. Because as someone who came of age reading Larry Niven’s wonderful anecdotes about Worldcon, the picture he painted was not that of a dying culture. Worldcon fandom can’t be healthy if it imposes hard filters and actively shews away “interlopers” who haven’t been properly anointed or baptized into the field, per traditions of old.

“But one of Larry Correia’s friends, that Vox Day guy, is a (insert nasty words here)!!”
Perhaps Larry and Monster Hunter Nation wouldn’t be getting such a ration of grief if the authorial persona known as Vox Day had not had a story on Larry’s slate? But then, Larry didn’t put Vox on the Hugo ballot all by himself. Vox has a blog too. And it gets a ton of traffic. Vox ran his own slate. And the Vox fans came to the Hugos along with Monster Hunter Nation and Wheel of Time fans. Look, for the sake of the Vox Day critics, I get it. Vox (the persona) throws verbal bombs. He is challenging, opinionated, controversial, and makes no apologies. Even to the point of saying things and making statements that occasionally cause me to step back and say, “Whoa, man, that’s probably not called for!” But again, my refrain: why not? If fandom evicted every author or editor who ever shot his or her mouth off about politics or religion or some other thing, we’d be showing many dozens of authors — and more than a few editors — the door. In fact, some of the recent authorial and editorial winners have been very outspoken about their beliefs, up to and including being rude and insulting to those who don’t share the same beliefs, and I am not sure you can pull the ladder up on Vox without admitting (as a fandom culture) that it’s okay to be boorish, crass, insulting, or worse, just as long as said author or said editor is boorish and rude in the correct way. Think Vox is a hideous character? Fine. I get that too. As personas go, Vox Day is a significantly spicy jalapeno! Even I can’t always go where he goes, despite having a degree of ideological overlap on the Venn diagram. I do not agree with Vox on every single thing, nor does Larry Correia for that matter. But if science fiction is truly supposed to be the liberal literary art that it claims to be, then I challenge anyone upset at seeing Vox on the ballot to pry his novelette “Opera Vita Aeterna” away from the ill will Vox the persona has generated, and consider the story on its own merits. As all our parents once told us: how do you know you won’t like it if you don’t try it? Or as one plaintiff lamented, what if Vox’s work actually merits inclusion despite how much we don’t like him as a web personality?

If science fiction truly loves the different, the strange, the alien, or the disturbing, as it always claims to love these things . . . well, here’s science fiction’s big chance to put its money where its mouth is: Vox Day, literary rogue. I, for one, look forward to reading his novelette. To paraphrase a Commander Riker line from Star Trek: The Next Generation, nobody ever said this field was safe. In fact, Harlan Ellison once famously branded the genre as the so-called dangerous genre. Is Worldcon fandom ready to get dangerous, or does worldcon fandom want to be safe?

We’ll see.

Because, really, that’s what the fiction Hugos are supposed to be about: the prose on the page. Technically, when a guy like me gets nominated for “The Chaplain’s Legacy” it’s not me that’s getting nominated, it’s the story. But we all know the nominations aren’t that simple. Many voters don’t even read widely. When nomination time comes around and they are presented with the giant cereal aisle of choices offered at the science fiction grocery store, they will often (through no fault of their own) default to brand names they know and/or like. Thus some familiar name brand patterns tend to set in (and this is true for the Nebula awards too) and that’s perhaps inevitable, without being ideal. But again, according to the labels put on those categories, the author name attached to the story or the book is more or less irrelevant. We’re not giving out Best Novella Writer Hugo or Best Novel Writer Hugo, we’re giving out Best Novella Hugo and Best Novel Hugo. The name attached to the work is somewhat independent of the work proper. And this should be true across the board. And when people exclaim that someone ought to not be on the ballot for purely political or social squabbling reasons, they’re basically admitting that the categories are misleading. Votes are cast for people, not fiction.

Frankly, I think the best way to rectify the situation is not to impose any kind of taste or political test, but to merely read what’s been placed on the ballot, and vote according to enjoyment. No single story or book will please all readers, and it has ever been thus. But if you’re casting your votes because you truly did read what was offered, and you let these works of fiction rest on your literary palate, then I think you’re doing the Hugo process more dignity than if you simply rush down the ballot ranking solely because of the names attached to the products. Him, him, not him, her, not her, not her, not her, him, definitely him, her, not her. Maybe that’s as valid a manner of voting as any other, but it kind of cheats the Hugos out of a degree of their validity.

Which gets me to a point I want to make, about some of these awards overall, but I think I will wait to make it for the next installment in this series.

Thanks to everybody who read my stories over the last few months, and who nominated those stories for the 2014 Hugo!

Click here for the first installment in this series.

Click here for the second installment in this series.

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