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.

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist