The Baen fallacy

Eric Flint is one of Baen’s old guard of authors, somebody who has been writing and editing for Baen since at least the nineties. He’s also one of the more insightful of Baen’s stable of authors, being an old lefty rather than a rightwinger, though it’s only noticeable in his fiction because his gun toting heroes defending the American way of life are unionised. Whereas a Larry Correia or Brad Torgersen show little evidence of thinking things through, acting purely on rightwing reflexes, blaming everybody else for their failures to get Hugo nominations, seeing conspiracies in the everyday actions of fandom, Flint thinks much more nuanced and sophisticated about why the Hugo Awards have failed to reward much of the sort of science fiction Baen publishes. Unlike them, he isn’t so much looking for excuses as for looking for explanations. He’s still wrong though, but he’s interestingly wrong and he provides as clear headed a defence of what I like to call the Baen fallacy as is possible:

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status. And what withers away, at least to some degree, is a good sense of what skills are involved in forging a story in the first place.

To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.

Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.

Before I explain why Flint is largely wrong about the Hugos, I do want to acknowledge that he gets two things right, in that I mostly agree with him that a) the SFF field has become too big for any one award to keep its finger on the pulse off and b) that the way the awards are structured exacerbates this, with various categories that perhaps made more sense historically than they do now. But he goes further than that.

His idea is that the Hugo Awards have lost their relevance not just for the above two reasons, but also because the Hugo voters have become elitist and out of touch with popular tastes in science fiction, something the Puppies have also alleged, but which Flint is smart enough to know isn’t through conspiracy, but rather for perfectly natural reasons. The problem remains that this just isn’t true and doesn’t explain anything that couldn’t have been explained by his first two arguments.

If anything, the Hugo Award over the past three decades has always trended towards rewarding middlebrow books or stories; just look at that list of Best Novel winners and nominees. You can say a lot about winners like Scalzi, Willis or Jo Walton, but not that they “elevate form over content”. Even last year’s winner, Ancillary Justice is a familiar sort of space opera only enlivened by its novel use of pronouns.

Neither does his implied comparison of Hugo voters to jaded art critics hold water. Even apart from the fact the Hugo voters renew themselves each years solely through Worldcon moving cities each year, the hardcore Hugo voters are largely ordinary fans, not professional critics and even if a large portion of those are professional SFF writers, as the Nebulas have shown, this is no guarantee for enlightened tastes. If there’s any conclusion you can make about Hugo voters, it’s that by and large they like familiar sorts of SFF, ambitious but safe, by authors they already know. Also that this tendency perhaps is worse at smaller Worldcons based in the American heartland. Case in point: Scalzi’s Redshirts won when the Worldcon was held in Texas.

But there’s more wrong with Flint’s argument than that neither the Hugo track record nor its voters fit his characterisation and this is the Baen Fallacy: that idea that critically acclaimed is always and forever in conflict with popular taste, as if Dhalgren never sold a million copies. It’s a core tenent of what you might call the Baen philosophy of publishing science fiction, which leads to the idea that sales figures are the only true measure of quality and that “story telling” always trumps any other consideration. There’s also this idea that there’s this silent majority of Baen readers out there not bothering with the Hugos or much of SF fandom who are the true fans because they buy the books, and, in its pernicious form, that “elitist” fans and publishers keep them down, content to take their money but sneering at them all the time.

Course, it was Baen itself which said their readers liked their books to have the same sort of consistency and interchangeableness of Del Monte canned fruit, so who is sneering at who exactly? It fits in well with Torgersen’s idea that real fans like books that are the same as every other book they’ve read, just like their cereal. Again, it’s the supposed populist sneering at his own readers tastes and they lapping it up. But the Hugo voters are elitists?

What seems to have started as a commercial strategy by the late Jim Baen to distinguish his new publishing venture from other science fiction publishers has metastasised into a massive inferiority and persecution complex. Baen himself, conservative as he was in his politics, has never let those stand in the way of publishing both good and commercially viable science fiction and fantasy, was never under any illusion about the qualities of his bread and butter authors like Flint, Ringo or Weber. He aimed his advertising at those who just wanted a good yarn and damn the writing qualities, but his followers seem to have mistaken this advertising for reality and worse, seem to believe everybody thinks this way or lies.

But if we come back to Dhalgren, the most difficult book by one of the most literary minded writers of science fiction, who’d go on to write a series of postmodern fantasies and yet this was a million seller. In the Baen worldview, this was only possible because everybody bought it to look cool or hip or intelligent and not because they genuinely liked it. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Rather, Dhalgren is the poster child for the idea that critically acclaimed, difficult books can be bestsellers and often are. Sometimes the Hugos even recognise them.

No Award All the Things

Hugo Awards voting is open. Last year I was late with reading and voting because I’d only decided a couple of months before the con to actually get involved. This year it’s slightly easier as I prepared better, but mostly because the Puppies made it pointless to do anything but vote No Award in the following categories, either completely Puppy swept or with a majority of Puppy candidates:

  • Best Novella
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Short Story
  • Best Related Work
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Long Form
  • Best Professional Artist
  • Best Fanzine
  • Best Fancast
  • Best Fan Writer
  • John W. Campbell Award (not a Hugo)

No Award All the Things!

Sorry Thomas Olde Heuvelt, you may actually get your Hugo this year, but since you’re the only candidate there on merit I felt uneasy voting for you by default. Better luck next year.

The Fall of Chronopolis — Barrington J. Bayley

Cover of The Fall of Chronopolis

The Fall of Chronopolis
Barrington J. Bayley
175 pages
published in 1974

I’ve always been a sucker for time war novels, starting with Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Keith Laumer’s Imperium series. I like the grand scale on which these stories play out, the whole idea of the impermanence of time itself, something that undercuts our most basic of securities, the idea that the past we remember is the way that past has always been, making literal the idea Orwell put forth in 1984: he who controls the past, controls the future. Which explains why The Fall of Chronopolis was one of the first bought at Eastercon novels I finished, even before the convention itself was over, finishing it at the Dead Dog party on Monday.

In the The Fall of Chronopolis the time war rages between the Chronotic Empire, which has steadily increased its dominion over the centuries until it rule a thousand years of human history and its far future enemy, the Hegemony, existing futurewards beyond the Age of Desolation after the fall of the Chronotic Empire. For the most part this time war has been limited, consisting of limited raids on each other’s history, but the Chronotic Empire is raising a grand fleet of timeships to invade the Hegemony directly, while the latter had developed a time distorter which can warp history directly. But this is only the surface story; there’s a lot more going on

Read more

“strange and seductive stories”

Sofia Samatar reviews Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” and her other stories in the LA Review of Books:

The trope of the woman with the ribbon around her neck is an urban legend familiar to many American kids, exchanged at slumber parties or summer camps in the spooky glow of a flashlight. “The Husband Stitch” is full of tales from this genre, pressing lightly through the dominant narrative. There’s the one about the couple in a parked car who listen to a radio broadcast about a hook-handed escaped killer, only to hear the scrape of his hook on the door. There’s the one about the girl who takes a dare to spend the night on a grave, plunges a knife into it to prove she was there, and then, having pinned her own skirt to the ground, dies of fright. Freud’s definition of the uncanny — something familiar that ought to have remained hidden, but has come to light — helps explain the urban legend’s relationship to “The Husband Stitch.” While the narrator tells of sexual awakening, marriage, and adulthood, the ribbon around her neck (which she will neither remove nor explain) recalls the terrible buried knowingness of childhood. Campfire chillers draw their energy from the fact that everyone knows the ending will be horrible, and the teller knows exactly how. In choosing this form for “The Husband Stitch,” Machado represents heterosexual marriage as a horror story whose ending we all pretend we don’t know.

I found “The Husband Stitch” good enough to nominate it for the Hugo, but I hadn’t noticed how much Machado used actually existing urban legends in her story. The urban legend genre is a lot less known on this side of the pond and I hadn’t encountered the examples she apparantly gave in her story. Interesting.

Sofia Samatar is a thoughful, thought provoking reviewer and Carmen Maria Machado’s work is strong enough to reward such reviewing.

(One of the side effects of the whole Sad Puppies mess is that it swallows up a lot of fandom attention that should be spent on making our fandom and science fiction more diverse and open, leaves less room for new initiatives to get attention. Therefore I’ve decided to write one positive post showcasing some book, project or thing that makes science fiction more diverse.)

Puppies think all children should get prizes

So there was a bit of Puppy mocking doing the rounds on Twitter over the weekend, started by Catherynne Valente (as far as I know) after finding herself dragged deeper in the Puppy mire after being described as the “queen bee” of Social Justice Warriors by Turgidsen; because we’re all still in high school apparantly. What she and others took aim at was perhaps the most sensitive spot of the Puppy movement: their belief that just by showing up they deserved Hugo Awards. Hence the talking about Hugos not won, or nominations not gotten, as Wesley Chu below.

Because for a bunch of tough, rootin-tootin cynical internet hard men (and women) wise in the ways of the world, these people sure are behaving like the middle school teachers of many a rightwing anecdote and expecting every child to get a prize. It’s visible as far back as Larry Correia’s original report on the 2011 Worldcon. Both Larry and Brad are incredibly quick to start wallowing in victimhood when they don’t get what they think they’re entitled to, although they’re — as they never tire of pointing out — succesful, bestselling writers and don’t need the Hugos or Campbell Awards.

Now consider. Campbell eligibility last two years after your first publication, which means that with a slot of five nominees each year you have ten shots at being nominated, in a field that sees many dozens of new writers each year, especially in the last decade. For any Hugo category too there are only five spots, again in a field that sees countless metric tons of short fiction each year and upwards of 1,000 new novels published. The odds that you as a writer are good enough, visible enough to be nominated are small and not being nominated is not a slur against you: plenty of better writers weren’t. Being nominated puts you already in an elite position compared to almost all your peers that year: why gripe that you didn’t win?

It’s just being a sore loser and having to invent conspiracy theories as to why you didn’t win because you cannot imagine not winning, only makes that impression worse. Not all children can get prizes.

Make my funk the steamfunk

Steamfunk is, as author/publisher Milton Davis says here, “steampunk from an African, or African-American perspective”. It’s one response to some of the wasted potential of the steampunk genre, which so often doesn’t escape its neovictorian roots, remains mired in the unconscious attitudes that shaped the real 19th century. As P. Djeli Clark puts it, steamfunk attempts to correct that:

One of the ways speculative fiction can work against racism and decolonization is to re-imagine our past, altering the power dynamics that we are accustomed to in order to illuminate hidden histories and silenced voices.

The Steampunk genre, with its retro-futuristic focus, seems especially suited for this. Set in an era of gender inequity, colonialism, slavery and other defining elements of the Victorian Age, one would expect Steampunk to be a fertile ground for such explorations. Only for a long time, it hasn’t been. Mainstream Steampunk seemed content in dressing up in bustles and colonial pith hats and even Confederate gear, without nary a thought about the larger issues of the time. What did it mean to be Native American in a 19th century Steampunk America? What was it like to be woman of color, or poor, or LGBQT, or ALL of those at once, in the Old Weird West? What was it like to live in a China beset by steam-powered English and French opium dealers? How would a Sepoy Mutiny shake up the oppressive Raj in a Steampunk British Empire?

That sounds both like a worthy goal as well as a recipe for more interesting stories than you might get with standard steampunk; truly they had me at steamfunk. So once I stumbled across this nascent genre, the first thing I did was buy Milton Davis’ novel From Here to Timbuktu:

The year is 1870. As the young country of Freedonia prepares to celebrate fifty years of existence, a young bounty hunter by the name of Zeke Culpepper is hired by a wealthy businessman to find a valuable book. In the kingdom of Mali on the continent of Africa, veteran warrior Famara Keita has been assigned to find that same book and bring it back to its rightful owner. And in the newly formed nation of Germany, an ambitious Prussian officer seeks the book as well for its secrets that could make Germany the most powerful nation in the world. The result is an action adventure like no other!

Doesn’t that sounds like a book you want to read?

(One of the side effects of the whole Sad Puppies mess is that it swallows up a lot of fandom attention that should be spent on making our fandom and science fiction more diverse and open, leaves less room for new initiatives to get attention. Therefore I’ve decided to write one positive post showcasing some book, project or thing that makes science fiction more diverse.)

Hugo voting strategies

In the light of what the Puppies did to the Hugos, and with the ballot now seemingly finalised, it’s time to look at how to vote, if you’re going to vote. If you’re upset and frustrated with what those Puppy assholes did to the Hugos, what are your possible strategies? As I see it, there are five possible responses

  1. Business as usual. Vote for the candidates you like, whether or not they’re on the ballot thanks to the Puppy slates.
    Noble, but a political act needs a political response. Whatever else happens, giving the Puppies a win is legitamising their slate building. Nor can you be confident that their nominations are uniformly so terribly you’ll No Award them naturally (though it is the way to bet). Remember: it doesn’t matter what your intentions are, the Puppies will take a win as their victory over all the evil unpeople ruining the Hugos until now.
  2. Bugger this for a game of soldiers. Don’t vote, go do something else. If the Puppies want the Hugos, they can have them.
    Tempting, especially if you were already half convinced the Hugos were no longer worth the renown they’re hold in. It’s no secret the Hugos have had problems staying relevant in an ever bigger science fiction landscape and it’s always an option if you don’t have the spoons to worry about this and think other awards do it better anyway. For me this is no option, but if we keep having a Puppy infestation and the WSFS is helpless to deal with it, this will become a possibility.
  3. No Award the feckers. Vote for the non-Puppy candidates, then vote No Award. Deidre Saoirse Moen has a nifty guide on how to do this.
    If you reject option one or two, this is the minimum you should do to combat the slate voting. Some people however think this isn’t going far enough.
  4. No Award all the things. Since the slate voting has polluted the Hugos to such a large extent, any winner, Puppy or not, has won unfairly. Therefore No Award everything and put it to rights in the retro Hugos (if possible).
    This is one option I first heard at Eastercon, just after the nominations were known, before the withdrawals and disqualifications. The problem with this is that this isn’t what the Retro Hugos –intended to award those worthy sf works published before the Hugos existed — are meant for and there’s no guarantee this will be possible. Therefore:
  5. A variant on the last one: No Award those categories with majority (3 or more) Puppy candidates, treat every other category as normal.
    The option I’ll be choosing. If I don’t vote for any Puppies, then some categories become a farce, like best novelette, which Thomas Olde Heuvelt then would win by default. Much as I’d root for his first Hugo win, it wouldn’t be a fair win, as his peers are not available to compare his story against.

So what would that last option mean for my Hugo ballot? That I would No Award the following categories, with either no, one or two non-Puppy candidates:

  • Best Novella
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Short Story
  • Best Related Work
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Long Form
  • Best Professional Artist
  • Best Fanzine
  • Best Fancast
  • Best Fan Writer
  • John W. Campbell Award (not a Hugo)

That’s thirteen categories which the Puppies ruined; imagine if all those were No Awarded, that sends a pretty clear message of rejection, grim as it is. It would still leave four categories worth voting in:

  • Best Novel
  • Best Graphic Story
  • Best Semiprozine
  • Best Fan Artist

One thing is certain: it makes my Hugo reading a lot easier…

Will 2015 see the end of the Hugo Voters Packet?

The Hugo Voter Packet is one of those ancient traditions surrounding the Hugo Awards that’s actually quite recent, instigated by John Scalzi a couple of years ago as a way to make it easier for voters to read as much of the shortlisted books and stories (etc) as possible. As a side effect, it also increased interest in Worldcon supporting memberships, as $40 could get you a shitload of books and the right to vote in the Hugo Awards. Last year was my first Worldcon and getting that packet was great, as it introduced me to a whole lot of authors I’d otherwise might’ve missed, like Max Gladstone, Sofia Samatar, Ramez Naan and others.

There was a bit of controversy over the Packet though, as Orbit, the publisher of three of the best novel nominees, decided not to include the books for reasons that basically boiled down to not wanting to give away several thousands copies of books. Speculation was that being an UK publisher, they of course sold fewer copies of any book in the first place than an equivalent American publisher and whereas for the latter a few thousand copies was doable, for Orbit it would mean giving away almost an entire print run…

This year we’re in a perfect storm. For the average non-Puppy voter, the Voter Packet is a lot less attractive with all that Puppy Poo on it, while publishers might be wary to put their books on it due to the rocketing number of supporting memberships bought since the shortlist announcement. Sasquan is on track to become one of the largest, perhaps the largest Worldcon ever and what’s more, most of the memberships are supporting, not attending.

So if voters are less eager for the Packet anyway and publishers less willing to include their books now the membership is getting bigger and bigger, does this mean 2015 will make the Packet obsolete?

Butcher fails where Bellet and Kloos succeeded

Jim Butcher is currently one of the most popular fantasy writers in the world, with several series being NYT bestsellers, as well as having a television series made out of one of them. Not quite George R. R. Martin level, but getting there. He’s nothing like Annie Bellet or Marko Kloos, two much more modestly successfull writers, except in one thing: all three got on the Hugo nominations list thanks to the efforts of the Sad Puppies.

Where they again differ is that Bellet and Kloos, after some soul searching, decided to withdraw their nominations. It’s hard to overstate how difficult that must’ve for them, seeing as how these nominations may be the only time they’ll actually get on the shortlist. Consider: in any given year there are only twenty places open for a professional writer, five each for Best nobel, novella, novelette or short story, while anywhere from 1000-1500 eligible novels are published each year and ghu knows how many eligible works in the other categories. You have to be an incredibly good or well known writer to have a shot at being nominated, let alone be nominated more than once. Yet they gave up these nominations because they knew they way they’d gotten them wasn’t fair.

Not so Butcher though, somebody who on his own merits could have a stab at the Hugos. He’s kept radio silence all this time and when asked point blank, this is what he said:

I’m not sure whether his stance is naive or calculating. His presence on the Puppies ballot from the start was clearly intended as a shield, a way to give some credence to the idea behind the slate(s), that popular works have no chance at the Hugos and really, we’re only suggesting those works we really really think are worthy of a Hugo. By neither withdrawing nor speaking out against the Puppies, Butcher gives tacit approval to their slate voting, validates their political beliefs because surely this means Jim Butcher himself thinks he can’t win a Hugo otherwise?

The same goes of course for all those other nominees used as shields: if you don’t withdraw, if you don’t speak out, I don’t care that you were put on the slate involuntarily or without your knowledge, you’ve given your retroactive consent. By your actions you help support this partisan political attack on the Hugos and I will judge you for it.

UPDATE: you know who does get it right? Black Gate.

Larry Correia: entitlement and ego

Maureen O’Danu explains something I’ve been arguing from the start: that the Puppies are driven by entitlement:

Larry Correia’s public attitude makes it pretty clear that he felt that he deserved to win and that the Hugo he was nominated for was stolen from him, rather than simply won by another contender. (Larry denies this verbally, but one of the first rules of psychology is that when there is a conflict between words and actions, believe the actions.) The subjective nature of literary awards makes this a not uncommon problem. In any award where winning is at least partially a matter of opinion instead of mathematics, the language of robbery holds sway. “He was robbed” “She stole that award” “How on earth did he take that away from her.” From ice dancing to dressage to debate to writing, any ranked creative competition is going to generate these sorts of claims.

Correia took this further, speculating on the basis of negative comments he had received from either fans or writers (he has never specified) that he was specifically denied his award because of his political views. He has said that he believes has been specifically denied because he owns a gun store, is Mormon, is conservative, or all or some combination of the above.

You could see that entitlement at work even in Larry’s 2011 Worldcon report which is slightly too full of not winning the Campbell award, when he was in a field with Lauren Beukes, Saladin Ahmed and Lev Grossman, among others, not the weakest of competitions. It’s almost as if he felt he’s owned the Campbell, which of course he does. It’s not enough to just be nominated and get on the shortlist, something most new writers never manage in their two year eligibility window, he of course deserved to win.

And you do wonder if it’s his background, conservative, gun shop owner, Mormon, with ties to the Bush-era US military that’s the problem here. Not in the way Larry thinks, with all the evil leftists sneering at these things, but that all these make him susceptible to his entitlement complex. What Larry can never get his head around was that most people, like me, had never heard of him until he started making an ass out of himself last year with the Sad Puppies. I had no clue about his politics, his background or his writing, just got to know him as an obnoxious loudmouth, a crybaby that wanted to ruin the Hugos because he felt underappreciated.

But it didn’t surprise me to learn that he was a wingnut, not even if he’d reined in the evil SJW rhetoric. This sort of entitlement, by people who already are successfull by any objective standard — how many people get to be a professional writer in their chosen genre after all and a bestselling at that — but who want everybody to acknowledge that they are the greatest, especially those they see as their enemies, is pretty much a rightwing disease. And Mormonism, with its history of persecution and theological sense of entitlement, is a religion that’s pretty good at creating this type of asshole (it’s perfectly possible to be a conservative Mormon without being an asshole, of course and millions of people manage to do so.)

American conservatism is stewed in entitlement and persecution complexes and Correia and Brad Torgersen show all the hallmarks of it. For those of us who have spent the last decade and a half looking at what we used to call warbloggers, their type is depressingly familiar. They always think they’re better than they are, they always think everybody is out to get them, that there are huge conspiracies solely there to stop them from getting their due and they’re always projecting their own actions on their opponents. It was Correia and co who introduced partisan politics in the Hugo nomination process, but they had to invent a SJW conspiracy to make themselves the good guys. Perhaps they need to do this because they just cannot help but see everything in the context of partisan politics and believe everybody else does so too.

The end result though is that Correia is a massive cock wrecking things because he feels people aren’t nice enough to him.