Sad puppies at the dog show

I’m not sure why I’m writing about this, since I don’t have a dog (hah) in this fight. But writing every day is important practice, and this happens to be what I’m thinking about right now.

I am a sci-fi fan. I think? I’m not sure what the official qualifiers are.

On the one hand: I started reading Asimov and Heinlein as a kid, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Heinlein in particular was enormously influential on me. Hell, I wound up giving one of my kids “Heinlein” as a middle name. On the rare occasion when I pick up a book for purely recreational reading, I don’t think “hmmm, what genre do I want to read?”. It’s pretty much a given that it’s going to be either sci-fi or Pratchett. And I’m running out of Pratchett.

On the other hand, I’ve only ever attended one sci-fi convention, the Heinlein Centennial (sense a theme?) in 2007. And in general I don’t really seek out other sci-fi readers, although I’m happy to geek out with them when I meet them at programming conventions.

I don’t know a lot about sci-fi awards. I suppose at times I’ve picked up a book at the bookstore and noticed a “Winner of…” sticker and thought “oh, that’s nice”. I know there are Hugos and Nebulas and… other ones I’d probably recognize if I saw them. Most of my awareness of sci-fi awards comes from the fact that I sometimes read author blogs, and authors naturally discuss awards.

Recently some authors got upset about the direction one particular award has been going. Apparently, they think that it’s rigged so that more literary sci-fi with social justice themes always wins. As I understand it they want more recognition for “cracking yarns” about chisel-chinned men blasting aliens and rescuing the space princess. Or something.

So, I suppose I’m just a “casual” fan, but here are some of the elements I’ve always liked in sci-fi:

  • An engaging story
  • Compelling characters
  • Mind-expanding big ideas, well-explored
  • Using a future setting to question social norms

Heinlein did a great job at this. Well, to be fair, he wasn’t the biggest of big-idea authors. But where he had them, he explored them well.

And boy howdy, did he question the conventions of his time. Ultracompetent women who were as likely to rescue a man as to be rescues. Non-white protagonists. Line marriages and other forms of nonmonagamy. At least one transgender protagonist. And in his later work, explicit acceptance of homosexuality.

When it comes to seriously “big ideas”, I think of people like Vernor Vinge. The whole “zones of thought” concept. A fully-realized society of dog-like creatures who function as “pack minds” of 3-5 members. I mean, whoah. Mind-blowing stuff.

Recently I picked up Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie because a bunch of people were talking about. And wow. This book nailed all of my sweet spots for great sci-fi. It was very much like reading a Vinge book for the first time: a massive, painstakingly realized universe with wholly novel rules and social norms. Big ideas that literally expanded my mind—I remember watching my own brain as it struggled to assign gender to characters in order to visualize scenes, and thinking “wow, hello, suddenly obvious unconscious presumptions”. A protagonist who was sympathetic despite being far removed from a typical human. And, yes, a rollicking good story that compelled me to buy the 2nd book in the series as soon as I’d finished the first.

Now as I understand it, this is one of the books that the “sad puppies” are angry about. And I have to wonder: if Ancillary Justice doesn’t qualify as the pinnacle of what good sci-fi should be, what the hell does? Stories like this deserve to dominate award slates, in the same way that (I assume) some of those classic Vinge tales dominated in the years they came out.

But I’ve realized something. I’ve seen this dynamic elsewhere.

I’m not really a “dog person”. I like dogs, but I don’t feel a need to own one myself. My wife has a dog, and I think that’s fine.

I know lots of people who love dogs. People who spend lots of time with their dogs, who talk about them all the time. People who think of them as their “children”. Even people whose careers center around dogs.

And yet, there’s a funny thing: I’ve never noticed any of my dog-loving friends being that interested in dog shows.

Why not? Well, I have a guess. It’s because dogs shows aren’t really about the creatures my friends adore. Dog shows are about genetically-manipulated freaks. Animals that have been condemned to neuroses, sickliness, and early death because of a single-minded focus on maximizing compliance with an arbitrarily chosen list of physical attributes:

In looking at what they characterize as “good sci-fi”, this seems to be what the Sad Puppies want the Hugos to be: a dog show. They took an Honor Harrington story, measured its muzzle and haunches, and stamped those measurements as the ideal stats for all good sci-fi to follow.

(Note: I mean no disrespect for Honor Harrington stories. They are fun reads. But there are plenty of them already; I’d hate to see a genre that consisted of nothing but.)

Let’s be honest: If Brad Torgeson &co. “win”, it will have no effect on me. Like I said, I’m only dimly aware of awards, and of sci-fi “fandom” as a distinct entity. Great authors like Leckie will keep writing, and fans like me will keep buying based on reviews and on the recommendations of friends. So I don’t really care that much one way or another about how this plays out.

I just feel like commenting that if the “sad puppies” really want sci-fi fandom to be a dog show, that seems kind of sad for them. And in the long term, counterproductive for them as authors.  It can be frustrating to be a moderate-sized fish in a big pond. But that doesn’t mean draining the pond is the best response.

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  1. have you read The Company series by Kage Baker? i got hooked on her books years ago, recommended by other scifi/fant. writers. she was my age, but sadly dead, so i ran out of books, but i really loved the concept, characters, and continuity through space/time. i tried to include a link, but every time i leave WP i lose my comment.

    1. I will look it up!

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