Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

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WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

The Red Panda Faction

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It looks like there’s a new player in the 2018 Dragon Awards. A leftist group calling themselves the Red Panda Faction posted recommendations for voting during the last few hours before it closed. Here’s the description of their mission: “We are leftist fans of SF/fantasy/horror lit & film, gamers, & comic book nerds…who discuss & promote leftist, LGBTQ+, and feminist cultural works in SF/fantasy/horror.”

The Dragon Awards guidelines don’t discourage slates or campaigning, but it’s a little unusual for SFF justice warrior groups to clearly state their mission in political terms this way. Apparently there was a Facebook page, too, but when I tried to find it, it seemed to be down. Here’s the slate the Pandas posted:

Best Science Fiction Novel

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Death’s End by Liu Cixin

Best Fantasy Novel

Blood of the Earth by Faith Hunter

Best Military Scifi/Fantasy novel

Allies & Enemies: Exiles by Amy J. Murphy

Best YA/Middle Grade Novel

A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

Best Alternate History Novel

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Best Apocalyptic Novel

American War by Omar El Akkad

Best Horror Novel

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Best Comic Book

Monstress by Marjorie Liu

Best Graphic Novel

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Best SF/Fantasy TV Series

Stranger Things, Netflix

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie

Arrival by Denis Villeneuve

Best PC/Console game

Mass Effect: Andromeda by Bioware

Best SF/Fantasy Mobile Game

Monument Valley 2 by ustwo games

Best SF/Fantasy Board Game

Terraforming Mars by Stronghold Games

Best SF/Fantasy Miniatures/Collectible Card/RPG

Pulp Cthulhu by Chaosium

Still More Thoughts on Diversity and the Awards Cycle

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One interesting thing that caught my attention in the discussion on diversity in the current Hugo finalist list is that supporters of the Hugo system don’t seem to think (or don’t want to admit) there’s a diversity program going on in the awards system. If this is true, then the swing from ~90% white men as Hugo finalist in the early oughties to ~90% women and minorities in the late teens is an entirely natural trend, based on increasing diversity in the SFF community and increasing appreciation for minority writers. This is paralleled by language about the recent activism of the Sad/Rabid Puppies, where the Puppy votes are negatively called “slate” votes in the analyses, while non-Puppy votes are called “organic,” as if they result from a natural, unbiased process.

At the same time, the increasing diversity of the awards is celebrated in the press, for example The Guardian here and here with articles that frame this as a victory. This framing (and other celebratory language) suggests there has really been some kind of battle going on to increase the representation of diverse authors on the awards ballots at the expense of white men. So, everybody might as well admit that.

My position in the last couple of post has been that, in the drive to increase the diversity of race and gender on the ballot, voters have advanced a particular intellectual agenda that reduces real diversity in the awards. For example, a brief look at recent winners shows what repeat WorldCon voters prefer is fantasy or science fantasy stories with high emotional content and current progressive themes. This agenda tends to exclude male writers of “traditional” SF, as everyone has noticed. Tellingly, it also tends to exclude groups like the US counted Native American and Latino minorities because these authors tend to prefer writing according to their own cultural worldview instead of to power broker agendas. This refusal to accept cultural worldviews is the big failing of standard diversity programs. Companies like Facebook, for example, want to hire diverse employees for the sake of compliance, but then they fail at inclusion, rejecting the actual results of their diversity campaign.

Admittedly the Sad/Rabid Puppies mounted a radical challenge to the Hugo’s in recent years, but WorldCon’s response has been to double down on their apparent agenda. There might be a lot of diverse names on the ballot this year, but what is WorldCon doing about real cultural inclusion?

More thoughts on whether the Hugo actually represents SFF fandom

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My recent blog about whether the Hugo actually represents SFF fandom generated a lot of traffic. Since everyone may not have read through the comments, I thought it worth summarizing some of the issues here. I’m sure participants in the discussion might like to see other issues addressed, as well, but this is what stood out for me.

  • A challenge to the idea that the Hugo is just a “popularity contest” and a proposal that the WorldCon voters instead try to pick the “best” work of the year in each category when they nominate or vote.
  • A question of whether the ballot should be expected to represent SFF readership demographics, or whether other factors like social/political trends have a more important effect on what’s nominated and what wins.
  • A suggestion that the likelihood for a particular work to win depends on the “intensity of support” for it.
  • A question of whether WorldCon should try to represent the whole world, or if we should admit it’s really just representing English-speaking fans.
  • A suggestion that a group of overlapping, active “voting” fans might control all the major US-based SFF awards.

These are all interesting comments that I think reveal how the Hugo Award is viewed and what members of the SFF community expect it to do. However, these issues generate other questions. If fans try to pick the “best work” for the Hugos instead of what they enjoy reading, what criteria do they use? Well written? Literary? Science based? Representing popular social/political trends?

If the award tends to follow popular social/political trends, does it mainly reward people who best represent these topics? For example, if (fill in the blank) is a current social issue, will the awards system reward (fill in the blank) authors and representations of (fill in the blank) on the ballot? Does this mean anybody else who is not (fill in the blank) is completely out of the running?

What lends to “intensity of support”? Is this a work that speaks to a lot of voting fans? Something that they feel is important for the SFF community to reward? Something novel and different? Something that indulges emotion?

The question of whether WorldCon ought to say it represents the whole world is an issue that recurs. It was probably an unfortunate conceit that led the founders to call it that back in the day. Likely in 1953 they had ambition to represent the world, but the various sub-genres have greatly multiplied since then, as has the diversity of writers/fans. People in China and Spain read science fiction. That makes it really hard to be inclusive. Plus, who’s going to handle the translations?

I was accused of singling out the Hugo’s for criticism, but I think I’ve covered literary awards in general in this series. They have their good points as well as their faults. I’ll try to look more closely at some others in the near future.

Thanks to all for the discussion on the issues.

Does the Hugo really represent fandom?

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I’ve already commented on the extreme diversity that appeared on the Nebula ballot this year. There’s also quite a bit in the Hugo ballot if you’re looking for the usual author characteristics. For example, the Hugo Best Novel category includes two trans authors, a black author, two Asian authors, two LGB authors and two disabled authors. There are no white men there. This outcome is considered progressive, but somehow I suspect there are some very popular white male writers out there. Note that the two white men who appear on the ballot as a whole are due to Vox Day’s activism. Stix Hiscock I’m not going to mention.

Here’s the Hugo ballot again:
Best Novel
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Books / Titan Books)
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager US)
Death’s End by Cixin Liu (Tor Books / Head of Zeus)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris Books)
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Tor Books)

Best Novella
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)
This Census-Taker by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

Best Novelette
“Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex” by Stix Hiscock (self-published)
“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan (Tor.com, July 2016)
“The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing, May 2016)
“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)
“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

Best Short Story
“The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
“That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)
“An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)

So, what are the chances that SFF fandom as a whole would elect this ballot? Remember that taste is never random, but with equal participation I’d expect the SFF readership demographics should roughly match the ballot for a popular award. Assuming that everyone participates, of course.

Well, it’s hard to say what the current demographics are. I’m having trouble finding any studies to consult on the matter. When I checked, the latest demographic study on SFF readership I found took place in 1977. This should be a great opportunity for research. Doesn’t the industry conduct surveys to keep track of fan demographics at all?

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