The Hugo finalists: John Scalzi on why the sad puppies can't take credit for Neil Gaiman's success

Critic at Large

The list of 2016 Hugo Award finalists is out and once again slate makers have tried to stuff the ballot box. But how much credit should they get for nominating already-celebrated work?

Along with the Nebula Awards, the Hugo Awards are generally considered the preeminent awards in science fiction and fantasy. Their winners include luminaries such as Robert Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin and Connie Willis. This year’s finalists for the Hugo Award have been announced, with works by Jim Butcher, N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Naomi Novik and Neal Stephenson in the running for the best novel category. Other well-known authors -- Lois McMaster Bujold, Neil Gaiman, Brandon Sanderson and Stephen King among them -- show up in other categories, and, utterly unsurprisingly, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a finalist as well.

The Hugo Awards are also surprisingly easy to game in the nomination stage. Nominating for the Hugos is open to anyone who purchases a membership to the World Science Fiction Convention (“Worldcon”), this year taking place in Kansas City, Mo. In the last couple of years a pair of overlapping groups calling themselves the “Sad Puppies” and the “Rabid Puppies,” comprised of politically right wing writers and fans — think the tea party or Donald Trump supporters of science fiction — have posted slates of people and works they wanted to see listed as finalists.

These slates were made ostensibly to counter what the Puppies contended was a leftward trend in the Hugo nomination process — and to annoy those they saw as their political opponents in the science fiction and fantasy field. This culminated in a successful effort last year that saw the suggested slates dominating or filling up several categories entirely.

The glee of the Puppies didn’t last though the 2015 Hugo Award ceremony, however. A finalist slate didn’t guarantee a win. Over the course of the evening, all the Puppy finalists save one ended below “no award,” meaning the voters preferred not to give the award at all than to give it to a finalist on a slate.

The one finalist the Puppies slated that actually finished above “no award” and even won its category? “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the smash-hit Marvel film that grossed more than $770 million worldwide and was so popular, and so obviously disconnected from the Puppy slates, that few of the Hugo voters held its presence on the slates against it.

This is a fact the Puppy groups have taken to heart. This year, once again, the two Puppy groups announced slates (or in the case of the “Sad” variant, a “recommendation list”) of people and works they wanted to see on the finalist ballot. Once again, many of their choices made the cut. But where last year’s slates were filled with nominees primarily of interest to the Puppies themselves, this year’s Puppy slates included works and authors already popular with science fiction fans and tastemakers, and (as a subset of both of these) Hugo voters.

Works the Puppy slates included that made the Hugo finalist list include the novel “Seveneves,” written by Neal Stephenson, a past Hugo best novel winner and multiple nominee; the graphic novel “The Sandman: Overture,” by Neil Gaiman, also a multiple Hugo winner; the novella “Penric’s Demon,” by Lois McMaster Bujold, who has won four best novel Hugos; and the film “The Martian,” a best picture Oscar nominee (and controversial best comedy Golden Globe winner).

The Puppies will no doubt be happy to take credit for the appearance of these works and others on the finalist list. But, as with “Guardians of the Galaxy” last year, their endorsement probably doesn’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. “Seveneves,” one of the most talked-about science fiction books of 2015, was already a heavy favorite for an appearance on the finalist list for best novel. Likewise, Gaiman’s long-awaited return to the beloved Sandman universe means his finalist listing in best graphic novel was the closest thing to a shoo-in that the Hugos have. If “The Martian” hadn’t been a finalist in its category (best dramatic presentation, long form), people would have been stunned.

In these cases as in several others, the Puppies are running in front of an existing parade and claiming to lead it. Few who know the field or the Hugos would give the slates credit for highlighting works and authors already well-appreciated in the genre, many of which have appeared this year as finalists for other awards or on bestseller lists.

Last year a number of finalists who made the final Hugo ballot dropped out of the running to avoid association with the slates. This year’s unwilling and unwitting draftees should probably feel more exasperation than anything else. No one this year should feel obliged to quit the field simply because some group will take credit for their presence. Hugo voters are smart enough, and trust their own tastes enough, to know the truth.

This year’s Hugos had the largest number of nominators in the history of the award, over 4,000, which was enough to blunt the slating tactic in most of the literary and screen categories (which received the highest number of people nominating, and where the slate makers most heavily relied on already-popular works). In the fan and related categories, where there were fewer nominators, the slates once again dominated.

If history repeats, these categories will find some or all of their slate-approved finalists ending up below “no award.” Hugo voters, of which there are typically more than nominators, traditionally take a dim view of ballot manipulation. Hugo votes are meant to reflect personal tastes, not slates designed to send a message of one sort or another.

This is also the last year that the tactic of slating is likely to work. At last year’s Worldcon in Spokane, Wash., the World Science Fiction Society, which administers the Hugos, approved a new nominating procedure (called “E Pluribus Hugo”) specifically to deal with groups acting in concert to get work on the ballot. If the procedure is again approved at this year’s Worldcon in Kansas City (proposed rules must be approved twice), it will be in force for the 2017 nomination season.

Then the Hugo finalist lists will entirely and again reflect what they are meant to: not marching orders, but the works and their creators that science fiction and fantasy fans themselves have enjoyed most in the last year.

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John Scalzi, one of 10 Los Angeles Times Critics at Large, is a three-time Hugo winner, most recently in 2013 for his novel "Redshirts." He recused himself from award consideration this year. Nevertheless, two finalist works this year refer to him by name (and not positively). He finds this amusing.

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