Sad Puppies 3
We all have mental models of other people in our heads which help us navigate social relationships. These are not always reliable, and our heuristic judgments about superficial characteristics may be unfair; like my mental rule to cross the street to avoid getting close to younger males when walking in late 1970s Manhattan, such rules may reduce loss and assist in survival while harming some of those judged unfairly.
The Sad Puppies campaign to open up the Hugo nominations to a more diverse group of writers and artists than seen recently has been tarred and accused of racism, sexism, and homophobia by careless yellow journalists acting on behalf of their friends and associates. From my direct interaction with many of the people so accused, I can say the accused are no more bigoted than any of us with our subconscious associations and heuristics, and less than many of the accusers, who seem to believe superficial characteristics automatically make their carriers likely thought criminals.
I can only testify to what I myself have seen directly. This is my testimony.
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up North of the River in a middle-class suburban area where “diversity” consisted of a small number of Catholics amidst a sea of white Protestants. Jesse James’ family farm was nearby, and the town of Liberty, where Mormons were jailed prior to being driven out. Independence was just across the Missouri River, and was considered the location of Paradise by many Mormons; the schism from the LDS group that left for Utah still has their big headquarters there, and Harry Truman’s home is nearby. I’m pretty sure I saw him lurking near my school group once when we visited the Truman Presidential Library.
My father was a troubled man who was born in western Arkansas and grew up in Visalia, California, after his family left during the Okie migration. He was fractionally Cherokee and all poor, and the family is said to have lived in a tent under a live oak while his father was in prison and his mother turned tricks. His sister committed suicide after being raped, and he himself may have been assaulted, because he was sent to live with a succession of aunts in places like Monterey and Los Gatos. He escaped into the Army and served a short period at the end of WW2. He met my mother while he was posted at Ft. Riley in Kansas, where KC was the nearest big city.
They married and moved to Downey, near LA, where my father worked at an aircraft plant and my older brother played with balsa airplanes. My father had a tendency to drink away his paycheck and all was not well; my mother moved back to KC when my father was called to Korean service, and when he got out he joined her and began a TV repair business. I was born, and my father started to spend time with Pentecostalists. I can remember being taken to tent revival meetings when I was four, running up and down the aisles, and seeing my father guest preaching and laying on hands to heal. By the time I was five, he had gone whole hog into preaching, and my mother and his friends agreed he was going off the deep end, hearing voices and imagining himself the carrier of God’s message.
Paranoid schizophrenia was the diagnosis, and years of going in and out of VA mental hospitals, shock treatments, and early antipsychotic medications were even more disabling. It was a relief by then to have him gone from our lives, and my mother went back to work as a secretary for the railroad, where she stayed for thirty years.
She was forced to be thrifty, and she would take me shopping down in the racially-mixed Troost shopping district off the Paseo where the bargain stores clustered. I had started to read science fiction, beginning with Tom Swift, working through Andre Norton and the Heinlein juveniles, and devouring all the adult SF in the library. Troost had a used bookstore full of SF paperbacks from the 50s and 60s, and I bought and read hundreds of them. By the time I was ten I had read most of the classics, and while I may not have understood all the adult themes, I could recognize the elemental power of Bester’s The Stars My Destination and revere Heinlein for his avuncular presence and moral guidance; I sometimes think he is more responsible for my sense of right and wrong than any of my church or school training.
The furious consumption of books continued, and I was checking out ten or more a week and reading most of them, in SF and every subject, lashing them to the back of my bicycle on the way to a from the library. I noticed the section of telephone books in the reference section, and figured out how to look up some of my favorite authors; I called Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg when I was 11 on the pretext I was doing a paper, and Asimov especially was kind and encouraging.
When I was 12, I started what is now called middle school, then known as junior high school. Seventh grade was a rude shock and I didn’t like the crudeness or the level of teasing, not so much of me but of others around me. What had been a civilized society became a rough and tumble struggle for survival, so I came up with excuses for not going, so much so that I was considered a truant. My mother was told I had to either be put into a treatment plan or be committed to juvenile hall, the county jail for children.
So that’s how I ended up in a private psychiatric hospital, where the 16-year-old girl down the hall tried to slit her wrists while I was talking to her. Once I was being presented to a group of psychiatrists and students and the chief psychiatrist asked me what my dreams were about; I said something about interstellar empires, and he replied, “interstellar ejaculations, more likely!” The video cameras hiding behind mirrors while I’m being interviewed, the medical students, and the psychologist who wanted to have sex with me (remember, I’m 12!) — quite the early education.
Eventually I agreed to go back to school, turning down a residential scholarship from Pembroke Country Day (the only rich private school I had ever heard of) to return to my old school and survive it all. Because I had missed so much time, the English teacher decided she would make a point of failing me, so I had to go to remedial summer school that year, when in previous years I had gone to enrichment summer school with the best and brightest. The kids who had flunked out were kind to me if a bit rough, an experience which maybe our SJW friends have never had — the loyalty and kindness of the lower class “failures” more reliable, and maybe more honest, than the behavior of cliques of the cool kids.
I started to play the game of points, earning higher and higher grades and keeping track of what was expected of me rather than exploring what I wanted to explore. In high school, I had a crush on a boy with a moustache who was going to MIT, so I turned down Caltech and went there, too. At MIT, I continued reading SF and had more trouble keeping up with boring classes, which I would just stop attending, but still managed to pass most by exam or last-minute work. I stayed away from the Science Fiction Society, not wanting to be absorbed when I was barely able to keep up anyway.
This set a pattern; when I started to work at BBN on supercomputers for AI research, I was warned to stay off Usenet and avoid getting embroiled in the endless flamewars. I now know that those people were the same ones now arguing over degrees of oppression and combing through everything they read for items to be offended by. I wanted to accomplish real things, not argue over correctness. My work was indirectly funded by DARPA, and I can recall being in a grad school class at Northeastern where the prof suggested he would be disappointed if any of his students ever did research for the DoD, for war machines — he considered it unethical. I spoke up to ask what would happen if all ethical students refused to do defense research while Congress continued to fund it, a la Star Wars missile defense — wouldn’t that result in less-capable researchers and engineers doing the work, without ethics or moral sense, building our defense systems? He did not have a satisfactory answer.
I had several other careers before retiring: software engineer doing systems to automatically fix Y2K COBOL code, subdivision developer, portfolio manager. I read SF in my free time, but never got involved with “fandom” until I went to the Worldcon in San Jose in 2002, which was just a short drive from my house in Sunnyvale. I went two different days, I think, and saw things like the huge line to have books signed by George R R Martin, China Miéville eating lunch by the fountain, and some good sessions with my favorite authors, like Lois Bujold. No one spoke to me and I didn’t interact much, but it was interesting, and I was reminded of our square dance convention, with its aging dancers and lack of younger people — most of the people under 40 seemed to be children with their parents. I don’t recall being asked to vote for the Hugos but then I may have registered late.
Last year when I set out to write some SF myself, I looked around online to see who was there, and ran into the Sad Puppies, who I generally like. I was made uncomfortable by the dogma and judgmental bombast of people like David Gerrold, and more comfortable with the individualists and ex-military sorts who have been left out of recent fandom as it has pursued social progressivism over story. I knew I had been entertained by Scalzi’s Redshirts but was amazed when it won the Hugo for best novel, and I bought and read Ancillary Justice just to see if it was truly one of the best — and it wasn’t. The almost-fatal flaw of a slow and unrevealing first few chapters was bad enough, but even when the plot began to move, there was little to distinguish it from hundreds of similar stories; it felt like a me-too, B-grade novel, and confirmed for me that promotion by political activists and academics was what was getting rewarded now.
I also interacted with dozens of agents and publishing types, and noticed that most are young and come out of academic progressive backgrounds; they want to change the backward population of readers by promoting stories that will uplift the reading population to hold the correct attitudes. This is part of their identity and motivation — they see themselves as specially gifted with the True Knowledge, and their role in proselytizing for new gender theory, third-wave feminism, and other cultlike replacements for Puritan religion is the psychic reward compensating for the low salaries and limited advancement in the field. The insider writers that have gained from this adopted the protective coloration of progressive social warriors, and continue to benefit from legacy publishing favor and mainstream PR despite declining sales; anything in SF which is promoted by the New York literary establishment, NPR, and mainstream media is now litmus-tested for correctness, but often inferior for enjoyable and inspiring reading.
So I think the vast majority of readers have never been involved with fandom, a tiny sect which is less and less related to mainstream SF and especially the new formats of movies and video games. The in-group claims to be upholding literary standards, but what they are upholding is in-group privilege and comfortable orthodoxy. Writers that work to gain their favor and bow to their political concerns will get awards, others won’t.
What will happen now? I will read the nominees and vote up the best regardless of politics or faction. And if the results are high-quality winners, the Hugos will begin to return to greater participation and greater value as a signal of good reading. If the Worldcon people succeed in closing the awards to outsiders — as many of them seem to be plotting to do — then the Hugos will become the awards of a small clique, and some other more representative organization should start something new.