I have to be honest, my first reaction to this year's Hugo ballot (and even before that, to the rumors of what was going to be on it), was to sigh at the thought of going through this whole thing all over again. I'm tempted to just link you to last year's reaction post, because pretty much everything it says is still applicable this year, though with the notable difference that there's a lot less urgency to the process this time around. Last year, I was pretty sure that the puppies were going to be trounced in the voting phase, because I've been following the Hugo awards for a while and I know how they function, and how they tend to punish astroturf nominees. This year, I'm absolutely certain of it. Come August 21st, at least four of the categories on this year's ballot will have been won by No Award. We all know it. Probably the puppies know it too, and the fact that they're willing to go to these lengths regardless, just to trample on other people's fun, tells us everything we needed to know about the kind of people they are, and thus of the value of engaging with them.Some people must really enjoy losing to No Award.— Abigail Nussbaum (@NussbaumAbigail) April 26, 2016
But having taken a closer look at this year's ballot, I'm starting to wonder if there isn't reason for cautious optimism. Yes, it's a terrible ballot, with multiple categories that are write-offs or all-buts, and lots of good people who deserved to be on it for tremendous work who have now lost their chance. But it's significantly less terrible than last year's. Even in the categories where all the nominees were slated by the Rabid Puppies (Best Short Story, Best Related Work, Best Graphic Story, Best Professional Artist, Best Fanzine, and Best Fancast), the nominees are not as obviously ridiculous as they were last year (with the obvious exception of Best Related Work and Best Short Story). In most of the categories dominated by puppy choices, we still have an actual choice between nominees, not just a winner by default because everyone else on the ballot is terrible. Most importantly, this year's Best Novel ballot is one that we can look at without cringing, with only one blatant puppy nominee. It may sound like I'm lowering the bar, but to me this is all a sign that things are settling down, and that in the future--and especially if the anti-slating measures adopted in last year's business meeting are ratified--we'll start seeing this award return to normal.
Of course, I'm leaving out one important point, which might cast a pall on this year's more acceptable raft of nominees--the fact that most of them were puppy choices. In some cases, these were nominees that probably would have made it onto the ballot without the help of Vox Day and his ilk--things like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves in Best Novel, The Sandman: Overture in Best Graphic Story, and Strange Horizons in Best Semiprozine. In other cases, the line is more fuzzy. Daniel Polansky's The Builders, for example, was a plausible nominee in Best Novella, coming from the strong, well-publicized Tor Novellas line and garnering a great deal of praise, but did the puppies' influence help to push it past equally plausible nominees like Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall and Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps? We won't know for certain until the nominating stats are released after the Hugo ceremony (and perhaps not even then), and in the meantime this year's ballot is a lot less clear-cut than last year's.
To the puppies, this no doubt looks like a winning gambit. To those of us who are adults, it's just more silliness. We are neither as stupid nor as rigid as they keep insisting that we are, and are perfectly capable of parsing these nuances. And if this year's Best Novella shortlist is a lot less exciting than the one I had hoped for--and which I think had a good chance of coming about--well, that's how I feel about the Hugo most years. I keep repeating this, but it really needs to be said again and again: despite the puppies' ridiculous claims, the Hugo is not, and has never been, an elite or rarefied award. If the puppies' main accomplishment this year is to have pushed middling but not-awful work onto the ballot over better, more deserving nominees, well, then they're no different from the majority of Hugo voters.
And that, I think, is the real reason why this ballot should give us hope for the future of the award. In order to maintain their grip this year, the puppies' best tactic was to veer into the mainstream, and nominate work that closely resembles the kind of work that gets nominated for the Hugo anyway. In the categories where they didn't do this, they're going to get trounced by No Award again. In the categories where they did, if their nominees win, they will probably claim victory. But hell, they were going to do that no matter what the outcome, and the rest of us are too smart to take that sort of thing seriously. Whether or not they're willing to admit it, the puppies have realized that the only way to win this game is to play it, the same way the rest of us do.
None of which provides us with a handy guide about what to do. Some people are going to be hard-liners and exclude from their ballots anyone who was on the puppy ballot (and did not ask to be removed). I'm not saying that's wrong, but at the moment that's not how I'm inclined to vote in categories such as Best Novella, where as I said the nominees seem quite plausible, and probably a lot like what the ballot would have looked like without the puppies' influence. (In other categories, like Best Related Work, I'll probably be filling in my ballot with No Award at the top the day voting opens). That said, I may end up placing No Award quite high in that category, because most of the nominees I haven't read don't look like the kind of stuff I'd enjoy. We're going to have to do some more nuanced work this year deciding how to respond to this ballot, and I look forward to that conversation. But in the end, I continue to have faith in this award and its voters. It's not always an award that throws up good winners, but it always remains true to itself.
And with that, it's time to look forward. Tomorrow the Clarke award nominees will be announced, and I for one am really looking forward to that shortlist. It's good to remember that the Hugo is far from the only game in town, and that there are plenty of other venues willing to recognize and reward excellence in this field.