Science fiction often achieves the remarkable feat of being futuristic and reactionary at the same time. The history of the genre is replete with writers who have given us glittering visions of radically different tomorrows, of robots and androids, aliens and galactic empires. Yet the people who are most closely engaged in the creation of science fiction remain mired in the mundane political realities of the existing world.
The science-fiction community is being torn asunder by a cultural war over diversity ignited by the Hugo Awards, the long-running and prestigious fan-selected awards given out every year at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). Reflecting the demographics of the larger field, the Hugo Awards have overwhelmingly gone to white men. There was a period in the mid-'90s when female nominations for fiction briefly surged, but that wave quickly receded before rising again in recent years. That trend has upset right-wing fans who say they've been marginalized by affirmative action gone mad -- and who organized a successful nomination campaign to undo these gains in diversity, stacking this year's Hugo ballot largely with white men once again.
"When I heard about this, I was sick at the thought of what they'd done and at all the damage they'd caused," sci-fi author and Hugo winner Connie Willis wrote on her blog. Willis turned down an invitation to present at this year's ceremony, in late August, in protest against what she sees as a subversion of the awards. Two writers withdrew their nominations because they felt the controversy had turned the awards into a contest about something other than literary merit. And George R.R. Martin, author of "A Game of Thrones," responded to the fans' demographic anxiety by writing on his blog, "We're SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FANS, we love to read about aliens and vampires and elves. Are we really going to freak about Asians and Native Americans?"
To outsiders, the struggle over the Hugos can be confusing. It involves the arcane details of a complex nomination procedure and factions named Sad Puppies 3 and Rabid Puppies. But the ruckus makes a lot more sense in the context of science fiction's historical lack of diversity, and there's perhaps no better illustration of that problem than the career of Samuel R. Delany.
In early 1967, Delany sent a manuscript of his novel "Nova" to Analog, the leading magazine in the genre, to see if they were interested in serializing the work. Although only 25 years old, Delany was considered a prodigy, having already published eight novels, two of which had won the Nebula Award given by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Delany was also a black man in an overwhelmingly white literary community. Other science-fiction writers, notably Robert Heinlein and Mack Reynolds, had tried to imagine a multiracial future, but Delany brought an unusual level of real world experience to the idea of a diverse tomorrow (and not just because of his skin color: Delany was gay and married to the lesbian poet Marilyn Hacker).
John W. Campbell, Analog's editor, claimed that he enjoyed shaking up his audience with outrageous ideas, but "Nova" proved too much for him. According to Delany, Campbell called the author's agent and said that while he liked the novel, "he didn't feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character." Campbell's contention that fans weren't ready for a book like "Nova" was belied by the fact that it was shortlisted for a Hugo in 1969.
Campbell used his audience as a cover for his own racism. He had published editorials arguing that slavery was a perfectly sensible system for pre-industrial societies, championing the racial theory that whites have a fundamentally higher level of intelligence than blacks and asserting, "One of the major reasons the Negro people are having so much trouble gaining acceptance is, simply, that the Negroes are not doing an adequate job of disciplining their own people, themselves." Campbell was no fringe kook. He was the most influential science-fiction editor of the last century, whose vision of rule-based, scientifically informed fiction shaped the careers of such canonical writers as Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon and Frank Herbert.
Amid the strife of the 1960s, which polarized science fiction no less than the rest of culture, it was easy to cast Campbell and Delany as diametric opposites: Campbell as the old reactionary apostle of heroic, manly tales of space cowboys, and Delany as the young subversive practitioner of cutting-edge speculative fiction that challenged certitudes about identity. Yet that contrast can be overdrawn. In his earliest and best years as an editor, Campbell was an innovator who published work that brought panache and literary technique to the genre and often displayed emotions more complex than the desire for conquest. And while Delany was a stylistic experimenter, he grew up loving such Campbell mainstays as Heinlein and Sturgeon and wrote works that were very much in dialogue with their fiction.
Even Delany downplayed the divide.
"Today if something like that happened, I would probably give the information to those people who feel it their job to make such things as widely known as possible," he wrote in 1998. "At the time, however, I swallowed it -- a mark of both how the times, and I, have changed."
Ever since science fiction coalesced as a distinctive fan community in the late 1920s, it has been a white boys' club. For many decades, the most successful female writers had to cloak their identity with initials, ambiguous names or pseudonyms. Even the women writers who didn't disguise themselves as men adopted a male point of view in order to get their fiction published. "Writing was something that men set the rules for, and I had never questioned that," Ursula K. Le Guin noted in a Paris Review interview. "The women who questioned those rules were too revolutionary for me even to know about them. So I fit myself into the man's world of writing and wrote like a man, presenting only the male point of view. My early books are all set in a man's world."
The history of the Hugo Awards, created in 1953 and named after editor Hugo Gernsback, is telling. In 1968, Anne McCaffrey became the first woman to win a Hugo for fiction. Between 1959 and 2014, the fiction nominations went to women 22 percent of the time. In recent years, the percentage of female fiction nominees shot up, reaching roughly parity levels between 2011 and 2013.
But the very recent upswing in female fiction nominees is tenuous and now has been reversed because of the backlash from conservative fans. This year, men make up more than 80 percent of fiction nominees. That's the direct result of a conservative coalition that came together in 2013 under the satirical rubric Sad Puppies, and which now consists of two overlapping factions, the Sad Puppies 3 and the Rabid Puppies. The leaders of the former present themselves as reasonable conservatives redressing an unfair liberal bias. The leader of the latter, Theodore Beale, makes no pretense to moderation. He has written that women should be deprived of the vote and refers to African Americans as "half-savages."
The two factions constructed overlapping slates for their followers to nominate Hugo finalists. This sort of coordinated politicking has never been done before, although it technically does not violate any rules. And it worked: 71 percent of the original 2015 Hugo ballot consisted of nominees promoted by one or both camps. Martin, himself a multiple Hugo winner, wrote that those behind slate voting have "broken the Hugo Awards, and I am not sure they can ever be repaired."
The conservative backlash isn't entirely about attempts to diversify science fiction; it's also motivated by nostalgia for an imaginary past. The Puppies factions argue that science fiction used to be a fun, apolitical genre but has now become too socially conscious and pretentious, due to a sinister leftist conspiracy.
"In the last decade," Sad Puppies' Brad Torgersen argued in a blog post, "we've seen Hugo voting skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works." Fans, he added, are using the Hugos "as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters."
Torgersen is conflating literary ambition with leftism and demographic diversity; ideology and entertainment are not at odds in science fiction. Most major science-fiction writers have had strong political convictions that have been reflected in their work. A genre that includes the socialist H.G. Wells, the libertarian Heinlein, the Catholic conservative Gene Wolfe, the anarchist Le Guin, the feminist Margaret Atwood and the Marxist China Mieville can hardly be thought of as essentially nonpolitical entertainment.
Nor is it the case that literary ambition is the province only of the left. Much of the best literary science fiction has been written by writers whose politics are right wing. Robert Silverberg, for instance, is a conservative, but his best novel, "Dying Inside," is a story of a telepath, rich with allusions to Kafka and Saul Bellow -- writers Silverberg was emulating. The faux populism of the Puppy brigade is actually insulting to the right, since it assumes that conservatives can't be interested in high culture.
If leftism shouldn't be conflated with literary ambition, neither should it be confused with demographic diversity. Torgersen assumes that stories exploring gender and race will automatically be boring left-wing propaganda. This flies in the face of history. For decades, science-fiction writers of both the left and the right, both popular entertainers and those writing more ambitious works, have made a point of trying to be inclusive. Heinlein started featuring nonwhite characters in his books from the very beginning of his career. His "Starship Troopers" (1959) can be read as a right-wing paean to military virtue; the main character is a Filipino.
Samuel R. Delany describes himself as a "boring old Marxist" but loves the right-wing fiction of Heinlein. "Well, Marx's favorite novelist was Balzac -- an avowed Royalist," Delany once explained. "And Heinlein is one of mine." The largeness of soul and curiosity about differing ideas that Delany brought to his appreciation of Heinlein is sadly missing from all the resentment and angst of the Sad and Rabid Puppies.