Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The House of Many Rooms

by J. D. Popham

Interesting days for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Seems my return to the genre community could have been timed better. Ah, well. As Ursula LeGuin once observed, you can go home again as long as you accept that home is a place you've never been before.

As I mentioned last week I'll be reviewing all of the Hugo Award nominees for best novel. I 'm finishing up my review of Anne Leckie's Ancillary Sword and should post that later this week.  My review of Jim Butcher's Skin Game was already posted prior to its being nominated.

Marko Kloos has become, alas, a casualty of the culture wars presently raging in Worldcon. He withdrew his Lines of Departure from the Hugo Awards final ballot in order to remove his name and his work from the current Hugo Awards controversy.

With Kloos' withdrawal, Jim Liu's translation of Liu Cixin's well regarded The Three Body Problem has been elevated to the final Hugo Awards ballot. I plan on going forward with the review of Kloos' Lines of Departure nonetheless. I will simply add The Three Body Problem to my pre-Hugos review slate.  That should be and happy addition to my workload, given the reputation of Liu Cixin's entry.

I regard the withdrawal Kloos' Lines of Departure as a profound pity. Both the book and its author seemed well regarded across the community leading up to the announcement of the final ballot. Indeed, John Scalzi, hardly a member of the puppies fan club, has championed Kloos' awesomeness  and endorsed Lines of Departure to the Scalzi readership. It's a sad state of affairs when an author with broad appeal is pressured from award contention because a someone with reprehensible views likes their work. One would have thought a book that could appeal to both John Scalzi and Vox Day is precisely the sort of book that should be a contender for the Hugo.

Alas, the quality of one's stories seems to have become a secondary consideration when Hugo Award worthiness is measured.

Of course, it is an ill wind that blows no one good. If nothing else, the sturm und drang surrounding the Hugos appears to have re-energized the larger science fiction community's engagement with the Hugo voting process. George R. R. Martin commented in his blog post What Now? that a air of complacency has surrounded the nomination process in recent years, with many Worldcon members abdicating the nomination process to a small group of Worldcon insiders. As I pointed out in 2,122, for every voter who submitted a nominating ballot this year, at least seven of the ~16,000+ eligible voters did not.  I'd expect to see next year's nominations get a lot of love from the science fiction community. With more fans voting, the 2016 nominations should represent a much broader cross-section of (lower-case) fandom's population.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Hugo Awards' current open nomination process will survive beyond 2016. George R. R. Martin wrote in the same blog post that Worldcon members currently in control are crafting changes to the voting rules. The proposed changes are intended to preclude interlopers from nominating 'undeserving' authors and their works for Hugo Awards in the future. By definition, such rule changes would have to limit the democratic nature of the nominating process; shifting influence from the general public (who can buy a supporting Worldcon membership for $40) to insiders who can be, it is supposed, counted on to nominate works that reflect the will of Worldcon's current movers and shakers.

Those speaking for Worldcon have gone out of their way in the last month to emphasize that the Hugo Awards are bestowed by Worldcon, and not by the science fiction and fantasy reading public. This suggests that Mr. Martin is correct and that plans are motion to take at least the the Hugo Award nominations out of the hands of said reading public. This could be done in a number of ways. For example, Worldcon's insiders could vote to limit the pool of eligible Hugo Award nominators to those Worldcon members who regularly attend the event. They could weight the nominations of attending members more heavily in order to reduce the influence of nominations from supporting members. They could appoint a panel of judges empowered to select a final ballot of deserving nominees based on works submitted by Worldcon's rank and file members, thus taking the final ballot out of the hands of the rank and file. And so on.

In order to protect the Hugo Awards from being rigged, it appears Worldcon's deciders are poised to rig the Hugo Awards, an irony not lost on Mr. Martin:
"[The Sad Puppies] started this whole thing by saying the Hugo Awards were rigged to exclude them.... So what is happening now? The people on MY SIDE, the trufans and SMOFs and good guys, are having an endless circle jerk trying to come up with a foolproof way to RIG THE HUGOS AND EXCLUDE THEM. God DAMN, people. You are proving them right. "

While Worldcon owns and bestows the Hugo Awards, they have commonly been promoted as an expression of the reading public's will, as the most democratic of literary awards. At the end of the day Worldcon has been defined by its membership, i.e., any and all of the reading public who wished to participate and paid for a membership. It has been, at least nominally, a community of equals whose sole common denominator was a love of the genre.

It is deeply disappointing to learn that some of that membership now wish to be more equal than others.

As I've written elsewhere, science fiction and fantasy have long been a big house with open doors, and lots of rooms in which to dream. Squids from space, Bug Eyes Monsters and granite-jawed starship captains legitimately share the table with Breq, Pyanfar Chanur and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.  This is not a weakness of the genre. It is the genre's strength, this cross-pollination of the ridiculous and profound, the vulgar and the high-minded.

Those who value that house and the stories told therein should be exceedingly slow to judge who does and does not deserve a place at that eclectic table. We are an unlikely-to-the-point-of-absurdity community of wild and obstreperous minds, opinions and dreams. Our stories are born in the midst of tumult. Ours is not a respectable house, and we are not possible otherwise.

Babies and bath water, my friends.


  1. I would be genuinely surprised if the business meeting at WSFS did anything but approve some variation on the 4/6 rule (4 nominations; 6 items show up on final ballot). Based on what I'm hearing from some insiders, that's the rule that makes the most sense to address slates without wrecking the award or its democratic process.

    But I suppose there's the possibility that the awards could become more exclusive than they already are (and, frankly, they never *were* anything but a popular club award). If that happens, the award dies (or just becomes irrelevant, which amounts to the same thing). But if they can't address slate-based voting, then it follows the same route. Nothing good can come from mobilized sub-fandoms using slates as a weapon against other sub-fandoms...

    1. By shining a light on this matter, I hope to help keep you from being surprised.

      I disagree profoundly with your assertion that the Hugos were never more than a popular club award. Perhaps they are that to you, but to long time science fiction and fantasy fans like myself, they mean a good deal more.

      The best defense against slate based voting is to increase the number of voters to order dilute the impact of small groups of coordinated voters, not to hijack the process..

    2. But the whole point of slate voting is that it empowers a small minority to defeat a much larger, but disorganized, minority.

      That gives a huge advantage to the people running slates, because they can cancel out 20 new voters with a single new slate voter. For that reason, it's very unlikely that "recruit new voters" is a viable solution.

      Lots of very smart nerds have been working on the problem of creating better voting systems for decades. Voting methodology is much more advanced than the crude first-past-the-post system the Hugos have been using for decades.

      Why are SF fans, of all people, afraid of embracing more sophisticated voting techniques? We're like an accountant insisting on using a slide rule instead of a Mac.

    3. Barry -

      The proposed counting rules (see your link to #458 below), as written, do nothing to reduce the power of slate voting. In fact it actually reduces the influence of individual voters and makes slate voting more powerful.

      Whether doing accounting with a Mac or a slide-rule, the numbers still have to add up.

    4. I have to admit, I don't see that. Could you explain how they'd make slate voting more powerful?

    5. " The final Hugo Award ballot shall be determined by a number of “rounds” of elimination. In each round, the two works getting the least total number of votes will be compared. The work which appears on the fewest number of nominations ballots shall be eliminated."

      As written, means that, for the purpose of nomination, the total number of votes doesn't matter at all - only the total number of ballots on which a work appears. Total votes seems only to dictate the order in which works' ballots tallies are compared. A work with 110 total votes that appears on 190 ballots can be eliminated by a work with only 40 total votes that appears on 200 ballots.

  2. I think it's unfair to claim that people are doing horrible things based on hearsay. I told GRRM in his thread that he was mistaken, and I think you're mistaken to take GRRM's word for what people other than GRRM are allegedly planning.

    As far as I can tell - and I've been following this pretty closely - the changes that people are discussing aren't what you're speculating. See this thread, for instance, where a lot of fairly credible people, many of whom are involved with Worldcon, are discussing a formal proposal to modify the Hugo nomination voting rules (see especially comment #458).

    Nothing they're suggesting comes close to anything you've described. They don't propose that only attending members can nominate; they don't propose that attending members should have any special Hugo-voting powers; they don't propose a jury to vet the nominated works.

    What they're proposing is to replace the first-past-the-post voting system currently used for the nominations, with a voting system that is mathematically designed to represent the views of as broad an array of Hugo nomination ballots as possible. This will dilute the power of slates (ANY slates, without regard for what works are nominated on the slates - math is not partisan) and allow a broader number of Hugo voters to affect the nominations (again, without any partisan bias - it's pure math).

    The Sad Puppies have complained that there, in effect, secret slates which unfairly bias the nominations against some authors. If that claim is true, then this proposal will enormously dilute the power of those secret slates. Isn't that good?

    1. Barry,

      I find GRRM to be a credible source in this matter and I don't believe it is 'unfair' to quote him. He is hardly a puppy sympathizer, is well placed to participate in these discussions and has not, to my knowledge, retracted his statement. The thread you cite is interesting, but does not put my concerns to rest.

      There are many unfair things going on in this year's Hugo season. It's unfair for members of our community to engage in the politics of guilt by association. It's unfair for good authors to be bullied and accused of being racist for not declining a 'tainted' nomination. It's unfair for members of our community to call for blocking awards to writers based not on their character or the quality of their prose, but because their prose was enjoyed and championed by the wrong people. It's unfair to tar people who object to such tactics with the anti-diversity brush.

      Yet, here we are.

      Given the scale of the unfairness going on these days, forgive me if I quote GRRM by way of cautioning against more of it.

    2. Looking closely at the rules proposed in #458, the proposed nomination counting does nothing to eliminate the power of voting blocks. In fact it makes those blocks more powerful. Either your math doesn't reflect the rules as written, or you need to check your math.

      Rule 3.7.4, assuming it is to be enforced, would allow ballots to be eliminated based on the mere suspicion that they are group ballots, or that the submitters have not read the works nominated. The broad and arbitrary nature of the definitions in 3.7.4 and the lack of clarity viz enforcement mechanisms would allow whoever oversees the nomination process wide latitude to manipulate the outcome of the Hugo Awards in favor of groups or authors of whom those in control of Worldcon approve.

      3.7.4 as written, if used to toss out nomination ballots, block nominations or disqualify nominated works, would leave Worldcon vulnerable to flocks of yearly law suits as affected parties sought redress for demonstrable financial injury.

    3. Again, how do the rules proposed make voting blocks more powerful? Specifically?

      None of the stuff you're worrying about can come from 3.7.4., because it includes no enforcement mechanism. Without an enforcement mechanism, none of the outcomes you're speculating about could happen.

      The person who proposed 3.7.4. said that the idea was to create social pressure against slates, and to take away the "slates are okay because they're not against the rules" argument.

      Perhaps we should tackle this problem first by taking away the argument that slate voting is within the rules.

      For instance: "3.7.4: Members should not vote for nominations by copying any slate of nominees suggested by others, but instead should make their own individual choices for what they believe are the best works."

      This would make it official that the membership opposes bloc voting. Anyone acting in good faith would honor this rule, and if a slate was proposed people could point to the WSFS Constitution to show that it is not allowed. There would be some social pressure on anyone who tried to encourage people to break this rule by promoting a slate.

      At no point did anyone formally propose any enforcement powers for this rule, even though they clearly knew it had no enforcement powers. The proposer of the rule later wrote: "Without enforcement, the purpose of such language would be to take away the argument that slates are within the rules."

      Other people then proposed that 3.7.4. be placed in the commentary instead of the rules.

      So no, there's no support for your claims there.

    4. "Again, how do the rules proposed make voting blocks more powerful? Specifically?"

      See my response to your comment above.

      "The person who proposed 3.7.4. said that the idea was to create social pressure against slates, and to take away the "slates are okay because they're not against the rules" argument."

      If it's not enforceable it's not a rule. You can't say that it's not allowed unless you've some means of preventing it from occurring or an avenue of redress when it does.

      Unless its explicitly stated that this rule won't be enforced there will be pressure for enforcement next time the rule is perceived as having been broken. The absence of a stated enforcement mechanism will give the nomination adjudicators license to enforce the rule as they see fit.

      If Worldcon enforces the rule, the result will be legal action due to vague wording and arbitrary enforcement. If you don't enforce the rule, those injured by slate voting can bring action saying you saying you let someone else who violated the rules displace them.

      If its not a binding rule, it should be stricken and moved into the commentary. At that point, anyone engaging in slate voting is acting within the rules, albeit in a manner that rule makers would prefer didn't happen.

      As a rule, 3.7.4 is a land mine waiting to be stepped on. As a comment, it's just a comment; fuel for internet pissing matches of which we have plenty as is.

      "So no, there's no support for your claims there."

      I believe I've just demonstrated that there is. ;)

  3. John, you say at the start of your piece that you have just returned to the genre community. This is probably explained elsewhere on your site, but what is the background to that?