If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please do yourself a favour and click away now. Go take a walk, play with your child, learn to whittle, take up falconry, or really anything but going down this rabbit hole.
If you are a glutton for punishment, then a really long and detailed and excellent explanation is here; a really really really long discussion that contains, eventually, links to most of the other discussions is here.
Brief summary: a lot of the works shortlisted for Hugo awards this year owe their nominations to a couple of slate campaigns organised, depending on who’s talking and which side of their mouth they’re speaking out of at the moment, either to promote works that are usually (and, according to the organisers, unfairly) overlooked in awards-giving, or else just to wish a hearty fuck you to anyone who dares to have tastes in literature that go beyond Manifest Destiny With Rocket Ships. Apparently personal political commitments come into this somehow somewhere, too, but honestly at that point the whole thing starts to get a bit incoherent–and I write about the transmission of ideology in literature. For reasons which I detail below, I am disinclined to care about the political argument, but I have a few things to say about the aesthetic/genre-based arguments put forth by the Puppies campaigns, and how that will influence my own voting.
Just like a lot of the Sad Puppies crowd seems to have done, I grew up on classic SF. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Niven… I loved it. It shaped my view of the world, it shaped my personality, it shaped a lot of the interests that followed me into adulthood. I don’t talk about it much at all here, not just because I suck at blogging, but also because I’ve chosen, for a number of reasons mostly connected to not wanting to ruin every single source of joy in my life by turning it into work, not to work on it professionally (minus a project I keep fantasising about, which is to get a bunch of theologians to write essays on their guilty pleasures and how they shape their working lives, but strangely very few other people seem inclined to ruin their own lives with that much introspection, either); I’m not particularly active in fandom communities because I do about as much travel and meeting-room stuff as I can stand at work. But I was a SF reader long before I picked up a professional interest in fantasy.
And I didn’t grow up and change and fall out of love with it, not because of politics and not for any other reason. Even in the face of intercontinental house moves, I’ve tracked down and held on to hardcovers and library bindings of certain works that can’t survive multiple re-readings in paperback. I’m still planning a cross stitch sampler based on sayings from the notebooks of Lazarus Long, just as soon as I get over my life-long loathing of cross stitch. When I felt compelled to participate in my University’s poetry reading event last year even though I’ve come to detest most WWI-era poetry, I picked “There Will Come Soft Rains” and opened my spot on the programme with a talk on The Martian Chronicles. I in no way disdain the body of work that the Puppies are hearkening back to.
But if in 2015 the best thing you can say to me about a new work is that it is just like the stuff I grew up reading, most of which was old even at the point I was reading it, then, I’m sorry, but that’s not making a case for my increasingly limited time and attention.
I’m not ignorant of the charm of repetition with variation; a frankly embarrassing percentage of my recreational reading time is spent on fanfic. This percentage skyrockets when I am actively writing something of my own; the more new ideas I am squeezing out of my skull, the fewer truly new ideas I can seem to digest from other sources. And I can’t just keep re-reading; I’ve got one of those cursed not-quite-photographic-enough-to-be-useful memories and if I need to slip into a book to distract myself and let my thoughts find order without me hovering over them it probably needs to have a plot I can’t recite from memory. So there is a niche in my readerly life for “a book that’s almost like your other favourite book except one or two key details have changed and then there’s a bit of a domino effect on the plot” or “the continuing adventures of characters that you’re pretty sure you already know, even though we’ve given them different names.” For me, that niche is not really big enough to spend money on, or to engage in any serious planned acquisition like putting myself on a waiting list at a library; others may feel differently, but if I want to be a lazy reader then I am going to be lazy about it from beginning to end.
But if I’m going to clear the time and mental space to invest seriously in someone else’s world, then my bar is a lot higher. I don’t want something that resembles other things I’ve read and liked. I want something that works like those other books; I want something that makes me feel like they made me feel. I want to have at least a chance of that feeling of being sucked in to something completely different; I want the challenge and the fun of figuring out what the new rules are. Even failing that, I want to get invested in the characters, in the plot, I want to be surprised and maybe just a little bit uncertain about how things are going to work out. I want something different. And well-crafted. And clever. And those are the works that I also want to see win awards.
And, yes, some of the interest I find in books and stories that I think should be winning awards comes from playing with genre conventions. In fact, some of my favourite works are the ones that don’t fit comfortably into any predetermined category–not the very self-conscious genre-blending of Temeraire (Master and Commander! With dragons! …not that there’s anything wrong with that), but the flawless deadpan of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or the deep abiding weirdness of most of Miéville, or Jo Walton’s more recent work. And, yes, a lot of this writing starts to look a bit more like “literature”, and I’m really quite OK with that. I actually loved “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love”, which seems to be getting brought up an awful lot as an example of the genre having come unmoored. I’ll note that from the other side there’s a lot of supposedly good and proper elitist literature that’s starting to look an awful lot like various pockets of the SFF world, and I’m inclined to see that sort of cross-fertilisation as evidence that the genre as a whole is healthy and has grown to the point that it is exerting an influence beyond its own corner of the bookstore, and therefore I’m in no danger of running out of interesting things to read.
So. I have read works by some of the authors on the Puppies slates this year. Of those I have read, Jim Butcher is, on the tin, exactly the sort of thing I ought to like, and his first few books were interesting; he certainly deserves some credit for the way he developed the urban fantasy genre. But the character and plot of the Dresden Files are probably better suited to a TV series; I personally find neither Dresden nor the world he continues to stumble aimlessly through interesting enough to care about for fifteen books and counting. Kevin J. Anderson’s work on the Dune estate reminds me very much of Torchwood, at least insofar as its ability to take a world that I used to be extremely invested in and transform it into something I wish would just hurry up and die. John C. Wright’s prose is clunky enough that I’d stop reading after two paragraphs even if I had insomnia and an urgent deadline to avoid, and he were publishing on fanfiction.net and renamed all his main characters “Hermione Granger”.
At this point, then, I am quite happy to actively avoid reading anything by any writer who is nominated thanks to one of the Puppies slates. Being nominated under such circumstances tells me that the work appeals strongly to people who consider their extremely narrow aesthetic tastes to be a mark of pride. Accepting a nomination from a slate campaign that has been so very nakedly and nonsensically politically motivated tells me that, at best, the writer in question doesn’t believe their work can stand on its own under any other circumstances. And that is crap that I do not have time for, and refuse to make time for.