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Final thoughts on the 2015 Hugos: What was THAT all about?

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Hugo voting is done. A record number of votes were cast. I wrote a few roundups of my thoughts on various nominees. And I have one remaining question:

What was THAT all about?

You know what I mean. That sad and rabid “puppies” thing with the Hugo slates. And I don’t mean the “what” of what they did — that’s obvious. They noticed a loophole in the Hugo nominating process which allowed a relatively small number of people voting in tandem to basically lock up the ballot. So they did that, locked up the ballot with their own choices.

BUT WHY?

I know what Brad Torgersen claimed was the why, in his essay I like to call the “Nutty Nuggets Manifesto.” He wanted to force fandom to read, and award, a certain kind of old-time science fiction (good enough for grandpa, good enough for me), made up of adventure and manly men and spaceships and optimism and absolutely no tedious messages whatsoever.

Well, okay — in his universe he wasn’t forcing anyone to do anything. Instead, over there in Nutty Nuggets country, everyone was already consuming Nutty Nuggets, and it was their absolute most favoritest thing and they never wanted to consume anything else ever. Morning, noon and night, Nutty Nuggets, Nutty Nuggets, Nutty Nuggets. Mmmm, so delicious. So universally beloved and all-purpose that nobody would ever want to eat anything else! So sublime that nothing could possibly be any better! And because nothing could possibly be any better than Nutty Nuggets, logically, Nutty Nuggets should always take home all the awards!

But! In the land of Nuggetville, there were also Secret Jentacular Witches (known as SJWs) who cast a dark spell to make sure that Nutty Nuggets never won the prize. Instead, they awarded Hugos to a very different kind of fiction. This fiction was not tasty like Nutty Nuggets. It was more like Fiber Kale Wheatgrass Vitamins Mueslix. Nobody consumed this fiction because they enjoyed it. How could they, when it wasn’t Nutty Nuggets? Even the witches didn’t like it. They just arranged to give it prizes because they have a mean sense of humor. So every year the witches were up there cackling in their mountain lair, while poor old honest Nutty McNuggets (producer of Nutty Nuggets fiction) never took home a shiny rocketship of his very own.

Anyway, with the manifesto in mind, near the start of this ordeal, I re-read Have Space Suit — Will Travel by Robert Heinlein (a juvenile from 1958) just to recalibrate my fun-messageless-SF-o-meter. It was the first SF I ever read as a kid, and it hooked me precisely because it was so much fun.

I still found it a quick, enjoyable read. I think if you wrote a book like that today, it would easily find an audience, maybe even a Hugo-awarding audience. It’s so retro, though, it would have to self-consciously embrace that as an aesthetic — from this vantage point, moonbases and malt shops both seem equally, if charmingly, dated. In fact, if you wrote a book like that today, it would probably be John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which seems to violate one of the founding principles of the Nuggetverse, which is that John Scalzi is literally the devil.

So, with my fun-o-meter correctly adjusted, I waded into the Hugo packet.

I found some good fiction.

None of it was on the “puppy” slates.

Not all the slated nominees were terrible. I’ll concede that much. But most of them were pretty meh. The best of the slated fiction was “decent but not really Hugo-worthy,” going down through okay, to meh, to not very engaging. The worst nominees, however, were abominations from blasphemous realms beyond light and sanity, daemonic phantasms that inspired a nameless gibbering emotion churned out of fear, despair, and loathing.

They were not good, is what I’m trying to say.

They were also not fun.

If you take Mr. McNuggets at his word, ALL the slated fiction ought to be fun. A rip-roaring good time. And none of it was, except possibly the Jim Butcher novel.

So what makes fiction “fun”? Allow me to give a list, based on my own extremely accurate and objective fun-o-meter:

1. Prose that is easy to read.

Please note that, in general, I don’t mean un-literary. It’s extremely rare for literary prose, especially SF literary prose, to be so dense and experimental and strange that the prose itself is actually hard to read for that reason. Usually when prose is hard to read, it’s because it isn’t very good in a craft sense.

Think Twilight, not Ulysses.

Writing prose that is easy for the reader is actually a lot of work for the writer and editor. Transparent prose is like a figure skating routine at the Olympics — part of the trick is making it look effortless. But of course, it isn’t. Bad, lazy, poorly-crafted, poorly edited prose has all sorts of pitfalls, moments when the reader has to stop and think “wait, what?” and try to figure out what the writer meant to be saying.

Every time I stop and think “wait, what?” is a point where I’m flung out of the narrative, and unless there’s a good answer — when the “what” is a joke, for example — there’s a good chance I won’t get back in.

Basically, a fun story is so easy to read that I barely notice I’m reading at all. Every bit of work that wasn’t done by the writer or the editor — well, I, the reader have to do it. And when I start to perceive reading as a chore, I stop reading unless I have an ulterior motive. So I’ll slog through typos and excessive verbiage and clunky sentences and drifting points of view and odd word choices and lack of attention to details of time and space if I’m giving a critique, or if I’m giving an editing pass to my own precious words. (Or, this year, if I’m contemplating Hugo awards.)

But I don’t do it for fun.

2. Prose that is strongly engaging.

In other words, prose that is easy to get interested in. While #1 is fairly objective (a typo is always a typo), #2 is very subjective. One person’s “couldn’t put it down” is another person’s “bounced off it with a dull, dry thud, as if I were reading a technical manual for a piece of equipment I don’t own.”

Thanks to all my slate reading — see, there’s a silver lining everywhere! — I know that a huge part of what makes prose engaging to me is plenty of vivid, distinctive, specific concrete details. When I don’t get that, the world of the story can seem fake and dull — I can’t muster any suspension of disbelief. It was exactly this quality that was missing from nearly all of the slated nominees, even the ones that didn’t fail #1.

3. A story I connect with.

As subjective as #2 is, #3 is even more subjective. What does it mean to “connect” with a story, anyway? You like the characters? You identify with the protagonist? You find the plot fascinating, exciting, mysterious, or otherwise engrossing? The theme or the conflict resonates? All that and more. This may be the area where personal taste is most strongly felt. You can talk about prose being crafted well, and you can talk about stories being written well, but if you just don’t care — pfft, that’s all there is to it.

In fact, this quality can work in reverse, where a strongly resonant story can overcome weaknesses in other areas. (See again: Twilight, although not for me.)

4. Actually being, you know, fun.

This is where “story I like” (1,2,3) diverges from “story I like that is fun.” I often like stories that aren’t fun. A fun story is a specific kind of enjoyable story. It has vigor and enthusiasm. It has a fast pace and lots of movement. A fun story is not static. You would never say, of a fun story, “well, it was okay, but nothing really happened.”

A fun story has a humor. A fun story has imagination, maybe even a sense of the ridiculous. A fun story goes to surprising places. A fun story has fun with its subject matter.

A fun story can have a message. Have Space Suit — Will Travel is pretty message-free. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett is totally message-ful. But they are both fun.

So, that’s a “fun” story.

What about a Hugo-worthy story?

That’s even harder to pin down in anything approaching an objective sense. First, for me to think something is Hugo-worthy, it has to nail 1 and 2. Those are my base criteria for “well-written,” and anything that doesn’t satisfy “well-written” isn’t getting a Hugo if I have anything to say about it. In general, I won’t favor something that fails #3, although if I can clearly see that it’s just hitting a personal quirk — such as my dislike of court intrigue fantasy which kept me from getting into The Goblin Emperor — I might evaluate it more favorably than #3 would suggest.

What I’m really looking for is the “wow” factor — a sense of my imagination being stretched in some way.

In the past, I trusted that when I read the work in a Hugo packet, I was reading stuff that had a “wow” factor for the people who nominated it. Sometimes I thought “a significant number of my fellow Worldcon members have a baffling lack of taste.” But until this year, I never thought, “a significant number of my fellow Worldcon members are jerks who didn’t even read this garbage before nominating it.”

The slates seem like a blatant attempt to force Worldcon members, out of a sense of duty or honor or tradition, to read a particular collection of work that was selected by a small cabal. If we take Mr. McNuggets at his word, this collection was curated in order to bring sexy, sorry, “sensawunda” back. We should have read the fiction in the packet with relief and joy, and greeted the “puppies” as liberators.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Even over in Nuggetville, the citizens didn’t seem all that excited about having the best, most Nuggety Hugo ballot in ages. Instead, they defended their actions in pushing through a slate; attacked the quality of nominees in past years and the integrity of past Hugo voters; said egregiously nasty things about Scalzi, File770 commenters, secret jentacular witches, and others; threatened to destroy the Hugos forever. What they didn’t do was talk about how great, how fun, how Nuggety the stories were.

Why, it would almost seem as if Mr. McNuggets cannot be taken at his word.

In the absence of “fun” as an obvious common thread among the slated nominees, I looked for other common threads. I found one strong recurring theme was cronyism, in that they nominated mostly people from their own crowd, their own fan group, their own website, even their own publishing house.

The other common thread was sexism. There was a surprising amount of that in this year’s slated nominees, especially the nonfiction. Most of the writers nominated were men, most of the protagonists were male, and one of the nonfiction nominees featured an anti-feminist essay roughly as long as the next George R.R. Martin novel. But it’s hard to know if the sexism was a motivating factor, or just a side effect of the cronyism.

So, I’ll ask again — what was THAT all about? What were you really trying to do, you who call yourselves puppies? And what do you think you have accomplished?

Are you pleased with yourselves? Do you have a sense of satisfaction in a job well done?

Are you happy? Or are you still sad and rabid?

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2 Comments

  1. The thing that gets me about the transparent prose problem is that it’s easy to fix. It’s super-easy, so easy any child who can read knows how to do it. Just read the bloody thing aloud. If it doesn’t sound right, fix it. If you tripped over it, fix it. Reading even your own work aloud can reliably trigger the “wait, what?” response. Reading aloud is “the work,” and if the text doesn’t help you read aloud, FIX IT.

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