Lately there’s been a lot of talk about a vocal group of scifi/fantasy authors and fans who have voted as a single bloc to drastically change the landscape for the prestigious Hugo award. This group has been calling themselves the “sad puppies” and they are being reviled by some.
At its heart the sad puppies movement seems to want a return to a more traditional celebration of sci/fantasy. As one of the chief architects of the sad puppies movement, Brad Torgersen, puts it like this:
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
He then implies that this is a kind of “defrauding” of readers who expect their knights heroic and their dragons evil. The vitriol between Torgersen’s supporters and opponents has been epic, to say the least. But I have trouble understanding both sides in this debate on a certain level, and I’m going to be an equal opportunity basher here.
First, to the sad puppies viewpoint. Torgersen’s protest that a fantasy story with dragons as the good guys would somehow disappoint readers of sci-fi fantasy makes absolutely no sense. That’s been the bedrock of sci-fi fantasy since the beginning, this notion that you see other viewpoints than just your own and learn to question the world around you. I would love to ask Torgersen, why does he think that aliens have been such a mainstay of sci-fi and fantasy for decades? Series like C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books (splendid books, by the way!) have been successful for decades because of their interesting ‘what-if’ angle on how another alien species might interact with us and how we might look through THEIR eyes. A book about knights and dragons told from a dragon’s point of view would be a celebration of that traditional sci-fi fantasy tradition, not an insult to it.
Sci-fi fantasy is more flexible than many other types of fiction and that’s one of its strengths. Sci-fi fantasy reinvents, it experiments, it constantly pushes to different horizons.
Seeing the noble knight kill the dragon a million times over isn’t fantasy – it’s unoriginal myth-telling. It’s reading the same time-honored story as hollowed tradition, not because you want to engage with your reader, but because you want to hammer home most essential truth and you’re willing to sacrifice everything else in the story to achieve that. If the sad puppies are going to argue that portraying knights as evil is anti sci-fi fantasy or portraying dragons as good is anti sci-fi fantasy, then I think they are being traditionalists in the most mindless sense of the world.
Can you imagine how silly their arguments would sound if Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had depicted a good dragon named Gandalf instead of a wizard?
Last point, and this is key: I think too many of Torgersen’s detractors fail to realize that the sad puppies movement has this aspect of being a legitimate reaction to something else destructive in sci-fi fantasy. When a sci-fi fantasy author is using the story/plot/chars of her or his book to push a very partisan worldview with a very partisan agenda, that’s not storytelling: it’s a manifesto. It doesn’t require a “sad puppy” to see that this too can be dangerous and destructive.
The perfect example of this is The Golden Compass. What began as a wonderful trilogy resulted in millions of readers feeling alienated by Philip Pullman’s insistence that his books be read specifically as an indictment against Christianity. Whether you like The Golden Compass or not, it’s impossible to deny the simple truth that Pullman wanted his readers to interpret his work a certain way, and only that way.
That type of arrogance borders on the monumentally stupid and shows a certain contempt for readers. I think the anti-sad puppies crowd needs to realize that if readers feel betrayed, if they feel that their beloved genre is being hijacked by specific agendas, then they are going to react accordingly.
If you set a world with a transgender character in an alien landscape, that transgender character should feel real. That alien landscape should be well thought out and real. The world and the characters should have a purpose, and if the entire point of the world is to show the oppression of transgender people and nothing else…well, then guess what you have? A two-dimensional story. A story every bit as two-dimensional as a story focused purely on oppression of a straight person would be, if it were only trying to send a political or social message and nothing else.
This is the bottom line – all stories should be told for the sake of themselves – not as a mouthpiece with only one interpretation or the author’s personal belief trumping reader interpretation throughout. At the same time, stories need to be diverse and they need to have diverse viewpoints. The sad puppies and the rest of the Hugo fandom universe are going to have find a happy balance where all of that is taken into account if they want to move forward – not just for the good of the Hugo, but for the good of the sci-fi fantasy community as a whole.