The annual World Science Fiction Convention is happening now in Spokane, Wash., packed with the usual discussion panels, author readings and autograph sessions. In most ways, it's like any other WorldCon — five days of mingling between fans and creators of genre-related media from novels to paintings to music to podcasts. WorldCon has been held nearly every year since 1939 (World War II necessitated a break), rotating through different cities around the globe. Like any fan-driven convention, it's meant as a getaway, a chance for participants to hobnob with likeminded people in a friendly environment.
But this year is unusual. This is the year the politics got ugly at WorldCon. And no matter what happens this weekend, it's likely to leave a lot of people frustrated and unsatisfied, whether they're at the convention or not. This is the year the Puppies took over.
The Sad Puppies saga may not make sense to people who don't spend a lot of time on the Internet, tracking the ideological fights that go on at the heart of every fandom. In any field of interest that drives desperate devotion — academia, sports, modern-day medieval costuming — people online stake out what they love about their favorite hobbies, then get frothingly angry at other people who like the same thing, but in a different way, or for a different reason. The Puppies are one such group: A small Gamergate-aligned coalition who feel the Hugos, the annual science-fiction and fantasy awards voted on by people with WorldCon memberships, are becoming too liberal, leftist and inclusive. The coalition argues that conservative, straight, white (and mostly male) writers are being shut out by "affirmative action" voting. So for three years running, they've mounted a campaign to take over the Hugos and fill the ballot with their preferred brand of nominees. This is the year they succeeded.
To most of the world, none of this matters. The Hugos are billed as the most prestigious awards in SF/F fandom, the awards that come from the fans themselves. But they've always had a small voting base, which is how the Puppy coalition was able to game them. If no podcast, fan artist, or short story is named 2015's best, most people won't notice.
But it matters to the fans, because con-going fandom is an insular, protective world. (The habit of calling non-fans "mundanes" goes back many decades, and carries the same sort of pitying dismissal as the word "Muggles" in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels.) And many con-goers feel like outsiders have invaded their refuge to push a narrow political agenda.
And it matters to the nominees, including some deserving creators who stand to have any victory tainted by the furious rift going on in SF fandom right now. (A couple of nominees have withdrawn from the competition rather than face that prospect.) It matters to the WorldCon organizers, who have to figure out whether and how to change the voting system. It matters to everyone who follows the field, and wonders how this will affect controversy-shy editors and publishers looking for the next hit book or story, not the next online grudge match.
What's going on with WorldCon is nothing new; the Hugos are just the latest battleground in the increasingly polarized, extremist world of Internet disputes. But it feels particularly ugly given that the fight has spread into a field that both sides say should be driven by fun, escapism and hope for the future, not mired in present politics. No matter how tonight comes out, it's likely to leave everyone involved as sad puppies.