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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era