One thing that’s become apparent during this third go-around of SAD PUPPIES, are the many and divided opinions on why the Hugo awards are broken. Much of this conversation is simply a continuation of the debate held during (and in the wake of) Loncon 3. Depending on who you ask, the Hugos are broken because they are either too insular (this is part of the SAD PUPPIES theory) or too easily manipulated by outside voting blocs (the “fandom purist” theory) or because “fandom” itself is still too white, too straight, and too cisnormative (Call this the “Grievance Studies theory”) or even that the Hugos spend too much time dwelling on popular works, at the expense of real literature (the “pinky-in-the-air snob theory”) or that “fandom” simply falls into predictable ruts, and is easily swayed by sparkly bellwethers, such as the Nebulas.
I want to introduce another theory. One that others have spoken of before. I call it the “Unreliable packaging” theory. And it’s afflicting not just the Hugos, but the SF/F literary field as a whole. As witnessed by (yet another spate of) declining SF/F sales at the bookstores.
Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.
Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else. Still cereal, sure. But not Nutty Nuggets. Not wanting to waste money, you eat the different cereal anyway. You find the experience is not what you remembered it should be, when you ate actual Nutty Nuggets. You walk away from the experience somewhat disappointed. What the hell happened to Nutty Nuggets? Did the factory change the formula or the manufacturing process? Maybe you just got a bad box.
So you go back to the store again, to buy another box of good old delicious and reliable Nutty Nuggets!
Again, you discover (upon returning home) that the contents of your Nutty Nuggets box are not Nutty Nuggets. The contents are something different. Maybe similar to Nutty Nuggets, but not Nutty Nuggets. Nor are the contents like they were, with the prior box. You dutifully chomp them down, but even adding a spoonful of sugar doesn’t make the experience better. In fact, this time, the taste is that much worse.
Two bad boxes in a row? Must have been a bad shipment!
Return to the store. Buy another box. Bam. It’s not Nutty Nuggets.
This time, you add bananas, sugar, and berries. This only makes up for the deficit a little bit.
Return to the store again for yet another box. Yup. It says NUTTY NUGGETS proudly on the packaging. You are sure in your heart that you love and adore Nutty Nuggets! And yet, the magic is gone. This is not the cereal you first fell in love with. The box may say NUTTY NUGGETS but you won’t be fooled any longer. Nutty Nuggets are dead. Or at least they are no longer of any interest to you.
So, you reluctantly turn to another brand. Maybe Freaky Flakes or Crunchy Bits? You give up on Nutty Nuggets, and you let some other cereal woo your taste buds. A cereal that is reliably what it claims to be on the outside of the box.
That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure.
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.
Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
Do you see what I am trying to say here?
Our once reliable packaging has too often defrauded our readership. It’s as true with the Hugos as it is with the larger genre as a whole. Our readers wanted Nutty Nuggets because (for decades) Nutty Nuggets is what we gave them. Maybe some differences here and there, but nothing so outrageously different as to make our readers look at the cover and say, “What the hell is this crap??”
Note that this is not nearly as much of a problem for movies and television. You can still (mostly) rely on movies and television to give you what you want. Video games as well. The packaging matches the experience, and the experience matches the packaging. The studios (motion picture as well as game development) understand that an unhappy audience is an audience which spends its money elsewhere. And so the studios don’t usually devote a lot of time to re-inventing the contents of the package simply for the sake of novelty, or to score a political point, or to push some agenda. Films and television which attempt this — a kind of subversive switcheroo — are liable to crash and burn at the box office, as often as not.
When people want and expect Nutty Nuggets, and you fail to deliver . . .
No Buck Rogers, no bucks . . . .
Yet SF/F literature seems almost permanently stuck on the subversive switcheroo. If we’re going to do a Tolkien-type fantasy, this time we’ll make the Orcs the heroes, and Gondor will be the bad guys. Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.
Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?
We’ve been burning our audience (more and more) since the late 1990s. Too many people kept getting box after box of Nutty Nuggets, and walking away disappointed. Because the Nutty Nuggets they grew to love in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, were not the same Nutty Nuggets being proffered in the 2000s, and beyond.
This is not an irreversible trend. But we’re pretty deep into the unraveling, and there may not be enough cohesive force to keep SF/F tied together as a whole. The field may simply blow apart entirely, like a supernova. The different pieces spinning off into the universe, leaving a dead neutron core (or even a singularity) in its place. No more identifiable SCIENCE FICTION. Just SF-flavored war fiction, or SF-romance, or SF-mysteries, or Fantasy-flavored cop dramas, etc. The center (as the saying goes) may not hold.