Hugo Wars

starcraft_btlIt’s awards season again, and in the world of science fiction, we’re having the annual dust-up over the Hugo Award nominations.

So, why are we fighting about it?

Writers, as a tribe, are a needy bunch, and I think our most powerful need is to be Taken Seriously.



When I hear people talk about their motivation for writing, very few say they write simply for the joy of it, though that’s an important factor. They may not say so directly, but the conversation usually dances around the sense that somebody else has to read the writing and say, “(insert favorite expletive), that’s good!” Or words to that effect, and the more somebodies, the better. A few ways we measure this include:

Publication (by someone who isn’t a blood relative and/or you didn’t pay off). Self-publishing is losing some of its traditional stigma, but truth be told, it still feels like the Minor Leagues, no matter how many copies you sell via Amazon CreateSpace.

Sales (yes, many readers and much income are powerful evidence you’re not a literary poseur).

Direct feedback (“Your book changed my life—my friends think it can actually cure cancer!”)

Positive reviews (either in quantity or by individuals/institutions with “stature.”)

Social media followers/friends/links/chatter (“5000 Facebook Likes—baby got platform!”)


Whatever you think of them, and however little attention you might pay to them, awards make a collective statement about “what right looks like” from the community presenting the award. They typically come in two flavors: insider awards (like the Oscars) and fan awards (like the People’s Choice Awards). In the world of science fiction, the two most visible awards are the Nebula (insider), and the Hugo (fan…maybe, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Awards can also provide a handy shortlist of what might be worth the casual reader’s limited time—and the sorts of stories that deserve wider publication. There’s power and money at stake here, and that means war—In this case, it’s “Social Justice Warriors” versus “Sad Puppies,” or, to use Django Wexler’s more compact and less-provocative labels, Green versus Purple.

kermit_cheIt’s Not Easy Being Green

Greens think the Hugos should be a showcase for the best and most important stories and writers, as perceived by Green publishers, writers, and fans. These stories are identified by qualities like innovative literary style and content with strong social focus (race, gender, politics, social justice). Authorship and/or diverse perspectives from cultural minorities, the Global South, Feminism, and the LGBTQ community, in the Green view, have been stifled in the past and should be prominent on the nominee slate.

Greens see Purple perspectives and authors, in general, as reflective of backward thinking, suspect at best, and likely offensive or irrelevant. They feel the Purples are a regressive element holding science fiction back from its proper role as an incubator for revolutionary ideas and social evolution. Purples, in their view, are a significant part of what keeps the genre from being Taken Seriously.

ppeOne-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eaters

Purples think the Hugos, since they are a fan award, should be a showcase for the best stories and writers as perceived by the entire fan community, measured by things like sales and general fan enthusiasm. Purples typically consider social issues, avant-garde literary styles, and the cultural origin, gender identification, political leaning, or sexuality of the author less relevant than the reader’s enjoyment of the story. They prefer stories oriented toward action and adventure, and they don’t find much of that in the Green world.

Purples think Green dominance is eroding science fiction fandom and repelling new fans. They believe the Hugo system slights Purple authors and stories and has been manipulated by Green insiders to keep the slate of nominees as Green as possible. They point to past Hugo winners  nominees** like Rachel Swirsky’s short story, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” as evidence that Green pretensions to literary merit can’t be Taken Seriously.

Rebel scum, I detected your foul stench when I was brought on board

So, for three years now, the Purples have undertaken a campaign to motivate more Purple fans to nominate and vote for Purple authors and stories so they’ll at least be considered for the awards, and they’ve had some success in doing that. The Greens, on the other hand, see the Purple campaign as a blatant ploy to stuff the ballot box full of Purple votes and politicize the Hugos.

Neither side has been particularly gracious in their argument. They hurl invectives back and forth on Twitter like so many javelins and demonize their respective leaders. The Purples strut their success at sweeping Purple candidates onto the Hugo ballot and ridicule Green outrage. Nanny-nanny-boo-boo. Greens publish detailed instructions on how to leverage the Hugo ballot’s “No Award” option to forestall any Purple wins, and brainstorm ways to change the nomination rules for next year. “Who’s politicizing the awards now?” holler the Purples.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

mars_alienWhere do I stand? Not in a very satisfying place. I’ve got friends on both sides and have found stories I love that range from Lime Green to Midnight Purple. I liked Rachel Swirsky’s dinosaur story, and I liked Brad Torgerson’s The Chaplain’s War. So sue me.

Playing out our social controversies on alien or future worlds has been a staple of science fiction from the beginning, as has spaceship-and-raygun adventure. The personal politics of talented, eminently readable authors has run the gamut from hard left to hard right and everything in-between, plus a couple of variants that are harder to pigeonhole.

This fight isn’t helping anybody. For example, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, an acquaintance and fellow Kansan, is up for an editing award and is already getting signals that his nomination was somehow tainted. He’s an incredibly hardworking, honest, talented guy who doesn’t deserve anything but congratulations and recognition for his contributions to the science fiction genre and fandom. Instead, he’s catching shrapnel from somebody else’s culture war because he’s refused to pick a side.

Insofar as the Green side is in fact striving for relevance and literary excellence, I support them, and insofar as the Purple side is in fact fighting for evenhandedness and transparency in our award processes (and more fun in our fiction), I support them. I’d like both sides to let us read all the stories and permit us the dignity of judging them worthy, or not, on their own merits. What I don’t want is people treating anybody’s reading preferences or political leaning as some sort of publishability test or fan-cred shibboleth. Ensure all the fans who care to vote, whatever their taste in books or campaign buttons, can do so in a manner that assures them their voice has been heard.

Then let the chips fall where they may, with no whining about the outcome from anybody.

**Correction (14 Apr 2015): Ms. Swirsky’s story was a short story nominee but not the winner in 2014. It did win the Nebula award that year. The Hugo went to John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.”

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