Sometimes the niche firestorms can say more about the larger culture than they know.
There's one such conflagration burning out of control right now — burning higher each day — in the cloistered world of science-fiction writing, where the 62-year-old Hugo Awards, the genre's most prestigious trophies, are having a bipolar seizure. The awards are nominated and voted on each year by the several thousand attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, an event that itself goes back to the late 1930s. Categories include best novel, short story, graphic story, and so forth. Winners have included such titans as Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Neil Gaiman.
But there has been trouble brewing among a discontented group of writers and fans who call themselves the Sad Puppies and who feel that the Hugos are controlled by a leftist elite. Led by sci-fi authors Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia — with a more extremist group called Rabid Puppies led by Theodore Beale, a.k.a. "Vox Day" — the upstarts have proclaimed that the Hugos routinely celebrate work that is, according to Torgersen's blog, "niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun."
And the Puppies have done something about it. For the 2015 Hugos, they drew up lists of their preferred nominees — separate lists for the Sad and Rabid groups — and organized bloc voting. Their choices dominate the categories, and while some Puppy favorites don't have much of a political or cultural agenda, others do. John C. Wright, a writer who has posted online rants calling homosexuality "a malfunction of love" and comparing it to bestiality and child abuse, is a Puppy-backed author now nominated for three Hugo awards.
Predictably, the sci-fi community has exploded with partisan rage. Non-Puppy authors have refused their nominations. Hasty plans to revise voting rules are underway. There's a countervailing push to punish the Puppies by getting opponents to vote "No Award" in every field. Vitriol is high on both sides; name-calling is fierce. It's ugly.
Some high-profile names are taking a stand. George R.R. Martin, the author and creator of the "Game of Thrones" pop juggernaut, weighed in with a lengthy series of blog posts last week dissecting where he thinks the Sad Puppies have gone wrong. Correia has responded at length to Martin; Martin has responded at length to the response. These guys do like to write.
Some commentators have linked the Sad Puppy fiasco to the ongoing Gamergate controversy, a movement that ostensibly is concerned with corruption in videogame journalism but that seems more obsessed with online screaming at women gamers and other assorted "SJWs." (The acronym stands for "Social Justice Warriors" a negative applied to anyone lobbying for greater inclusiveness in gaming — or at least the right to be a female gamer without being threatened with rape or murder.)
The only connection I see between the Sad Puppies and Gamergate is how quickly these conversations devolve into displays of online hate. I'd say the Gamergate thugs have the edge on the Sad Puppies — maybe not the Rabid Puppies — in comment-field nastiness, but those defending the "elitist" status quo can be just as vicious, if not quite as foul-mouthed, as their opposite numbers. Godwin's Law of Internet trash talk — "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1" — has never seemed more relevant.
The whole thing is a distorted but uncannily faithful mirror of the way too many people behave in our new electronic unreality. Anonymity has loosed the beast in all of us, and so much of it comes from long-nursed grudges that we think can be avenged if we only shout loudly enough.
What's at the bottom of the Sad Puppy complaint? Exclusion, it turns out. Responding to Martin's comments, Correia blogged of his own memories of being a youthful sci-fi outcast at the Worldcon party: "The cool kids told their cool stories to the other cool kids, and lorded it over those who weren't part of the In Joke. Honestly, it reminded me of high school, and I was the poor fat kid who had inadvertently pissed off the mean girls." To which Martin responded, "Surely you have been around fandom long enough to realize that there are no cool kids. We're all the fat kids, the nerds, the computer geeks, the guys who always had their nose in a book, who loved comics and played chess and couldn't get a date for a prom."
This isn't really about right versus left, in other words, but feeling like you belong. And while there's a productive conversation to be had when the volume is kept low, the voices on the sidelines, anonymous and otherwise, just pour gasoline on the flames.
More and more, I'm convinced that the Internet is toxic.
The only thing to do, I think — and I'm talking about more than just the Sad Puppies and Gamergate — is to marginalize the crazies on both sides. Which means, in practice, marginalizing the crazies on your side. We have to start making a stand for a big, sane middle and allowing everyone on the spectrum of that middle to express emotions without going on the attack. Anyone who calls names, responds from anger, hate, or fear — block them. Ignore them. Do not feed the trolls.
I realize this is idealism rather than reality, but if not for ideals, how would we change reality? And, yes, I'm proposing that we exclude the excluders — but that seems to me a functional paradox, like saying that the only thing a person shouldn't tolerate is intolerance. The trick is to exclude not by matching the venom the mob spews with our own, but with the unanswerable finality of silence. Maybe then we can bring our online science-fiction selves into accord with our real-world ethics.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.