Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

Sci-Fi’s Sad Puppies

A literary revolt against political correctness

It turns out that pop culture doesn’t inexorably drift toward political correctness. The forces of “social justice” are not invincible, and conservative artists do have cultural power. Just ask the very angry, very frustrated members of the science-fiction Left.

Conservatives are by now familiar with the depressing pop-culture script. Angry at perceived injustice or exclusion and eager to spread their particular brand of “social justice,” the Left targets for transformation an artistic medium that was previously not overtly or intentionally politicized. Within a few short years, the quality of art — or its popularity — becomes far less relevant than either its message or the identity of the artist. As part of this process, prestigious awards are no longer a means of rewarding the best work but rather a means of rewarding the best work from the list of acceptable choices.

There are few better recent examples of this phenomenon than the film industry and the Oscars. The movies Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper both faced successful campaigns to deny them best-picture awards not because of any artistic deficiencies but because critics hated the messages. And who can forget the recent outrage over the fact that all 20 Oscar acting nominations went to white actors? While Oscar nominations are always debatable, a person’s pigmentation does not render his acting better or worse.

Through it all, conservatives have largely been bystanders. While there are certainly conservatives who thrive in film, in television, and in literature — and produce marvelous works of art in the process — they have been unable or unwilling to mount a systematic counterattack to the leftist politicization of entire industries.

Until now, that is — until the so-called social-justice warriors attempted to co-opt the world of science fiction. Science-fiction literature has long been home to the wildest kinds of ideological, social, and religious imaginings. With no requirement to reflect the world we live in (indeed, the writers’ mandate is often to create entirely new worlds and new social mores), science-fiction and fantasy writers can and do conjure up everything from Star Trek’s and Star Wars’ utopian versions of an intergalactic U.N. (the United Federation of Planets and the Galactic Republic, respectively), to Robert A. Heinlein’s classic imagining — in Starship Troopers — of a future where soldiers rule, to George R. R. Martin’s unrelentingly grim Song of Ice and Fire series, in which great houses vie for a throne in a world where morality gets you killed. And those works represent the mainstream. At the edges, science fiction is wilder still.

In other words, creativity rules. Or it did. In recent years, the social-justice Left has increasingly attacked science fiction as a “white nerds’ club” and has sought to elevate writers with more politically correct messages — and identities. There is, of course, nothing wrong with trying to introduce audiences to new voices. Nor is there anything wrong with attempting to use new voices to expand the audience. But the social-justice Left is never content with the marketplace — with competing on equal terms for market share. It instead has to exclude in the name of fighting exclusion, silence dissent in the name of dialogue, and demonstrate intolerance in the name of tolerance.

And so it was in science fiction, as leftist writers commandeered the awards process to turn the Hugo Awards — among science fiction’s most prestigious — into an exercise in ideological back-patting, honoring the “best” that political correctness had to offer. Members of the World Science Fiction Convention, better known as “Worldcon,” vote on the Hugo Awards, and leftist writers began not just lobbying voters to elect their own favorites but also campaigning against notable conservatives — including Larry Correia, author of the popular Monster Hunter series — mainly because of their perceived ideologies.

It turns out, however, that conservative nerds have spine. Rather than watch, helplessly, yet another arbiter of pop culture transform itself into a leftist playpen, Correia struck back with his own movement. He called it “Sad Puppies.” Why? Because, in Correia’s words, “boring message fiction is a leading cause of Puppy Related Sadness.” (Never let it be said that conservatives can’t fight the culture wars with humor and verve.)

Assisted by a few allies, Correia proposed his own slate of Hugo candidates. In 2014, a number of them actually received nominations. The leftist response was predictable and familiar. Correia described the backlash:

Many of you have never heard of me before, but the internet was quick to explain to you what a horrible person I am. There have been allegations of fraud, vote buying, log rolling, and making up fake accounts. The character assassination has started as well, and my detractors posted and tweeted and told anyone who would listen about how I was a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, a rape apologist, an angry white man, a religious fanatic, and how I wanted to drag homosexuals to death behind my pickup truck.

In other words, the quality of the Sad Puppies slate was less important than its identity. Too white. Too male. Too conservative.

Correia and his allies were undeterred. In 2015 their Sad Puppies slate dominated the nominations, sending the social-justice Left — facing a setback after so many years of cultural success — into almost comical hysterics. Once again, the quality of the nominees was far less important than their racial and gender identity. And this time, the hysterics spilled over into publications not known for following the ins and outs of science-fiction literature.

A writer at The New Republic declared, “Science fiction’s white boys’ club strikes back.” (Correia, by the way, is Hispanic.) Entertainment Weekly ran a story with the same theme, until reality intruded. It was soon forced to append the following correction:

After misinterpreting reports in other news publications, EW published an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the Sad Puppies voting slate, which does, in fact, include many women and writers of color. As Sad Puppies’ Brad Torgerson explained to EW, the slate includes both women and non-caucasian writers, including Rajnar Vajra, Larry Correia, Annie Bellet, Kary English, Toni Weisskopf, Ann Sowards, Megan Gray, Sheila Gilbert, Jennifer Brozek, Cedar Sanderson, and Amanda Green.

With one magnificent correction, EW demonstrated not only its own bias and lack of journalistic competence but also the many ways in which conservative artists defy the Left’s stereotypes. They are not, it turns out, merely a white nerds’ club.

To applaud the Sad Puppies is not to endorse all their work or to endorse each author’s worldview. As with any collection of human beings, some of the Sad Puppies are admirable, and I’m sure that some are not. No one has offered a definitive critique or evaluation of their work in the aggregate — Hugo voters consider a work only in relation to the other works in its category. Indeed, to endorse the Sad Puppies merely because of their presumed ideologies is to commit the same error as the Left, to presume that message and identity substitute for quality.

It is, however, worth applauding their resistance to the notion that all artistic creation must be political, that the color of one’s skin trumps the content of one’s work, and that art always and everywhere must conform to the Left’s intellectual fashion of the moment. The Sad Puppies’ victory does not represent a permanent or even necessarily an enduring triumph. Science-fiction literature is still a work in progress. But at least now the story arc has changed, and readers can’t know how the tale will end.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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