This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Kansas City, Mo. • A wormhole seems to have opened in the world of science-fiction and fantasy literature, a rift through which the divisive culture wars of the 2016 political season have invaded. Though the battle's most recent front line was in a far-away galaxy MidAmeriCon II, hosted in August in Kansas City it's close to home for the Beehive State's many genre authors and for the Utah writer who founded The Sad Puppies, a controversial group that's tried to rally politically conservative fans to make sci-fi and fantasy in the words of today's political rhetoric great again.
It's strange to see this split in such an enthusiastic fandom, whose devotion was on full display at the most recent WorldCon.
Unlike at a comic convention, this WorldCon (dubbed MidAmeriCon II in reference to its second run in Kansas City) saw little cosplay just fanny packs, fedoras and clever T-shirts. The other common factors among attendees are a palpable sense of wonder, an appreciation for the craft and a love of a community built around the creative powers of the imagination.
Old hands of the sci-fi biz share tips on writing, pitching and publishing. Other panels feature scientists giving updates on the latest in real-world technology like robotics and artificial intelligence, while bona fide astronauts host Q&A sessions.
Yet amid this happy community, a debate rages over political correctness versus inclusivity.
The convention hosts the Hugo Awards, which began in 1953 and is the longest-running awards program for sci-fi and fantasy authors in the world but has been marked in recent years by the phenomenon of puppy politics.
As opposed to awards decided by jury panels, the Hugos are based on votes from fans who pay a $40 membership fee, leading groups known as the Sad Puppies and the more virulent Rabid Puppies to try to influence the results by pushing slates of approved nominees to their followers.
The Hugo organizing committee, which establishes rules for the awards process, has deemed this to be unfair electioneering. It's begun revamping its rules, and in 2015 gave no awards in five categories thought to be manipulated by activists. The puppies have responded by throwing an additional wrench in the works adding authors with liberal political views to their slates, people who have in the past protested puppy attention by removing themselves from consideration.
No snobs • Utah author and Sad Puppies founding father Larry Correia says he started the movement to counter the "snobbish" literary elite of the publishing industry.
"They've been doing slates for years," says Correia, a former farm boy, gun-store owner and accountant. "They just didn't do it in public."
The Sad Puppy moniker resulted from a 2013 blog post in which Correia compared himself to the sad puppies in melodramatic ASPCA commercials. In his comparison, it was pulp writers such as him who needed help to win a Hugo away from the "hoity-toity literati snobs" who preferred "ham-fisted message fiction."
Correia says the puppy position wasn't to promote right-wing fiction but to recognize good storytelling, regardless of politics.
The Rabid Puppies sprang out of the group and began more aggressively challenging critics and the "social justice warriors" or SJWs of the industry.
Leader Theodore Beale is a writer, publisher and American expatriate living in Italy, going by the pseudonym Vox Day. Day hasn't helped tone down the rhetoric of his followers; he once labeled a black female sci-fi author as a "half-savage."
Correia distances himself from the controversial views of the Rabid Puppies, but he doesn't blame them for their anger. Hugo organizers are myopic in their view of diversity, he says.
"They only care about skin-deep diversity," he says, adding that in 2015, the Hugos' "diverse" winners were "14 white liberals and one Asian liberal."
Seeing the candidates from the Sad Puppy slate receive awards shaped like asterisks was another slap in the face. "It was their way of saying this is our clubhouse and you guys are not welcome," he says.
Correia who now writes full time and is set to release the sixth installment of his Monster Hunters International Series said he's put puppy agitating in the past and decided not to visit MidAmeriCon this year.
Other Utah genre writers are split on the puppies' crusade.
Eric James Stone, a Utah-based sci-fi author whose novelette "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" won a Nebula Award in 2011 and was nominated for a Hugo, says he has experienced bias because of politics, most notably after he voiced opposition to same-sex marriage during the Proposition 8 debate in California in 2008.
"The fact that I was vocal against same-sex marriage led to people critiquing the story not because of the story itself but because of me as the author," says Stone, who's since changed his position on the matter.
But while sympathetic to the original intentions of the Sad Puppies, he says he felt their ballot-stacking was the wrong approach and now they suffer because people conflate them with the "toxic" Donald Trump-style politics of the Rabid Puppies and Day.
Unwarranted anxiety • J.R. Johansson, a Utah-based author of young-adult horrors/thrillers, says the puppies' anxiety over a perceived PC conspiracy is unwarranted.
"The world is shifting to be more inclusive, more diverse and to include a wider point of view," Johansson says. "And I don't know that manipulating the ballot is a way to address that issue."
If conservative authors now feel stigmatized, she says, it's not because of a liberal witch hunt but because of the antics of the puppies themselves. "They've landed themselves in this position."
Greg Bear, a Washington state author, has been a giant in the sci-fi genre for decades, having written dozens of titles since the late 1970s. He says the sci-fi genre has long had conservative authors, such as Robert Heinlein, John Campbell and Jerry Pournelle, who were well-respected and not pilloried simply because of their beliefs. Unlike the puppies, these authors tended to embrace how the genre allowed them to sympathetically write about other cultures as a way of understanding humanity, he says.
"That has always been the history of science fiction and what seems to be happening now is a complete distortion of the science fiction I was raised on," Bear says.
Bear scoffs at how puppy supporters have been critical, for example, of the rise of Chinese sci-fi authors (Hao Jingfang, for example, who won a 2016 Hugo for her novelette "Folding Beijing").
"The question I have for the silly puppies is," he says, "why would you try to eliminate 2 billion people from your readership? What are you going to do? Sit around in some corner of the rocky part of the world just staring at each other? Bunkered science fiction is just very boring to read."
The Hugo Awards has now adopted a complicated algorithm that will go into effect in 2017 to lessen the influence of slate voting.
Day says via email that his group is untroubled by the rule change. "We will adjust our tactics to fit the new rules we've forced them to adopt," he wrote.
This year, the Sad Puppies softened their stance and instead of pushing a strict voting slate offered a recommended reading list to their followers to consider a variety of authors.
And those at the conference seemed to have little trouble ignoring what puppy politicking there was like the presence of nominated works from Day's publishing house with titles like "Safe Space as Rape Room" and "SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police."
This year, no award was given in two Hugo categories, down from five in 2015.
While the November elections have yet to elect a winner of the nation's culture wars, at the Hugos, at least, it seemed the election of the imaginative was a win for the champions of diversity. N.K. Jemisin, the same black female author labeled a "half-savage" by Day, took home the coveted Best Novel award for "The Fifth Season."
Jemisin, in an acceptance statement, repudiated those who would try to "game" the system. And she argued that good storytelling and not politics is what the Hugos are all about, that "what makes a story good is skill and audacity and the ability to consider the future clearly rather than through the foggy lenses of nostalgia and privilege."
For the crowd, it seemed a clarion call and brought thunderous applause.
Time will tell if this award was a foreshadowing of the not-too-distant future or simply a glimpse of an alternate reality.