George R R Martin, a previous Hugo Award winner, has spoken out against this “nasty, nasty fight”. Photo: Getty
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How the Hugo Awards got very own GamerGate

The Hugo Awards, the influential prize for science fiction and fantasy writing, have been hijacked by a group resistant to the way the shortlists are becoming more progressive and diverse.

If you care about the Hugo Awards, I’d be willing to bet that you already have pretty strong opinions about this year’s nominees. The Hugos, arguably the most prestigious science fiction and fantasy (SFF) awards in the Anglophone world, have been around for more than 60 years. They’re presented at the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, which was held in London last year and will be in Spokane, Washington this summer. Even if you don’t read science fiction or fantasy regularly, you’ll know plenty of past winners: Ursula K Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, J K Rowling, George R R Martin, and many others (plus, amongst dozens of wins for Doctor Who over the years, my favourite pair of episodes in the history of time and space). The Hugos are influential and respected – and this year, they’ve been hijacked.

Unlike other major SFF prizes – or, for that matter, most major awards I can think of in other literary genres – Hugo nominees and winners aren’t chosen by a panel of judges or peers. They are a populist prize – a fan prize – or, at least, they are on paper. Members of the broader fandom nominate the writing they deem strongest each year, and then they rank the finalists to pick winners in a variety of categories. It’s not completely open, though – you have to pay to participate. Voting membership is $40, though many participants are Worldcon attendees, who pay about $200. The people who pick Hugo winners love the genre enough to shell out money for that privilege. But not everyone loves what the genre – in their estimation, anyway – has become. And if I were to say that these same people are likely the guys who think it really is about ethics in games journalism, you’d have a pretty good sense of where this is headed.

In a genre that’s explored complex issues of race, gender, and sexuality plenty over the years, recent SFF award winners have largely come from one particular combo of race, gender, and sexuality (white, male, and straight, in case there was even a scrap of doubt there). SFF is far from alone here: across entertainment and the arts, a long-overdue conversation about the utter lack of diversity on our pages and screens is growing louder every day. But last year’s Hugos were actually a victory for women and people of colour: they marked a tilt in the sorts of stories that were being written and celebrated. Kameron Hurley, who won two awards last year, wrote that the Hugos, “historically rewarded popular work, set in the kinds of old, colonial, dudes-rule-everything universes that my work explicitly challenges”. She never expected to win the genre’s most coveted award, but the genre is broadly changing: “Like our wider culture, science-fiction and fantasy fandom grew and shifted; and with it, our vision of the future changed, too.”

Three guesses to figure out who really hated all this progressive growth! The hijacking of the Hugos was thankfully not another opportunity to tack “gate” at the end of a random word, because these guys picked their out their own name in advance: the Sad Puppies. The group, led first by writer Larry Correia and now by Brad Torgersen, are a charming group of people who’ve spent the past three years building up support to game the Hugo nominations. The Hugos, Torgersen writes (confusingly), have become too “literary” in recent years, and, of course, too “ideological”:

Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.

The Hugos, they argue, are the voice of the people, and should reflect what people are enjoying, not some politically-correct pill they’ve swallowed. Mostly, they just wanted to get their friends on the ballot. They played up outsider status, urging supporters to reach out to like-minded people who might have felt disenfranchised by these “literary” and “ideological” swings. “Encourage people who are SF/F consumers (but not ‘fandom’ according to Worldcon) to participate in the nomination and selection of works,” Torgersen wrote. “To include gamer fans, tie-in fans, movie and comic fans, and everyone else who might want to have a say in deciding who gets selected for ‘science fiction’s most prestigious award’.”

Everyone else who might want to have a say turned explicitly political when the campaign hit the conservative blogs (notably Breitbart, with an awesome shout-out to the NS, which they say “sometimes reads like an extension of Tumblr” – thank you for a great compliment!!). It is worth mentioning that this came on the heels of last year’s Hugo controversy, when Jonathan Ross was invited and then swiftly uninvited as host when people preemptively decided he’d be offensive. This particular Tumblr made an eloquent case for why the reaction was a mistake.

After three years of growing momentum, the Sad Puppies’ campaign worked: they achieved a broad sweep of the ballot. Their nominees include the same (crazily homophobic) guy for three of the five slots in the novella category, and books published by a man (who actually self-identifies as an “anti-equalitarian”) who was expelled from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for explicitly racist and sexist attacks. One book is actually published by something (unironically?) called the “Patriarchy Press”. The Sad Puppy “slate” is a collection of winners, which I mean both sarcastically and literally, because their campaign has completely flooded the ballot.

The backlash to this backlash has been understandably swift and loud. Eligible Hugo voters are spreading the words “no award” across the web: if there isn’t a fair and decent choice in a given category, simply abstain. George R R Martin fought the good fight and waded into the fray multiple times, knowing full well the response he’d get. “This a nasty, nasty fight,” he wrote early on, “and anyone who speaks up, on either side of this, risks being savaged. It is no fun being savaged. It raises one’s blood pressure, and brings out the urge to savage back.”

If you think that all of this has deafening echoes of last year’s cultural nadir, GamerGate, you’re not alone. The very short version for anyone blessed enough to have missed GamerGate completely is boys don’t like girls anywhere near their video games (never mind that a huge proportion of gamers are female) and the very suggestion that the gaming industry has an issue with the way it depicts women and other minorities is grounds for rape and death threats. The same clash has been bleeding out of the comics world and into the mainstream in recent months, and now it’s the same story in SFF. “I just want to read something fun,” the Sad Puppies protest. “It’s just a game – why are you trying to make it about politics?” I saw a man complain recently that gender- and race-bending his childhood comics heroes simply wasn’t fair. “You can have your own toys,” this grown person said. “Why do you have to play with ours?”

One of the most curious things about this year’s Hugos controversy is the very idea of the award is predicated on the democratisation of critical voices. It’s arguable whether that was ever true in practice, but it’s fascinating in theory, especially from the perspective of a fan community, an often wildly-disparate collective of ideas. Imagine if the Booker prize was determined by a large pool of people with strong opinions and a few dollars to spare. For that matter, imagine the Oscars by popular vote. Whether it’s easy to rig the game or not – and many people who’ve been deep in SFF fandom for a long time confirm that it always has been – there’s something beautifully egalitarian at the heart of this prize, and that spirit has been abused.

There are a lot of factors at play in this particular moment of cultural anxiety, but one of the biggest is the question of who deserves to speak – and who deserves to be heard. We desperately need a shift in the demographics of creators and their characters – our fictional escapes need to catch up with reality. In broader conversations about diverse voices, you can hear the worries of the groups that have always been the loudest, the ones who’ve been privileged without question: “Who will listen to me if you get to talk, too?” I don’t think a desire to level the playing field needs to come at the expense of good storytelling. But if anyone thinks for a second that anything called the “Patriarchy Press” is just here for the storytelling, that’s a genuine fantasy.

Editor’s note, 17 April 12.11pm: This article originally stated that “the Sad Puppies” was an offshoot of another group. This has now been corrected.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage