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China's First Hugo Award Is a Win for Diversity in Science Fiction

By protesting diversity, conservative science fiction activists helped hand the most diverse—and worthy—selection a Hugo.
August 24, 2015, 7:09pm
Three Body Problem book cover. Image: Tor.

The maddening 2015 Hugo award season has finally drawn to a close. The run up to science fiction's answer to the Oscars began amidst a flurry of conservative activism, pointed backlash, and implied and outright racism, but it ended with a fascinating result: the award for best science fiction novel went to The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. That made it the first Chinese-language book to claim the title of SF's most prestigious trophy.

The background: a coalition of older white conservative men, feeling that the genre as whole was growing too politically correct, devoid of old school action and therefore dull, organized a campaign to load the ballot with books they felt could serve as correctives—mostly action-based fantasy and sci-fi from white authors. One faction, the ostensibly less radical, called themselves the Sad Puppies, while the other, more outright anti-gay and racist, called themselves the Rapid Puppies. Together, they succeeded in stuffing the ballots with their favored candidates, two of whom, Marko Kloos and Annie Bellet, withdrew, saying they'd rather not be nominated than win the distinction at the Puppies' behest.

Fast forward to this weekend at the Hugos. For each of the categories that the Puppies managed to game entirely—anyone that is a dues-paying member of the World Science Fiction Society can nominate works and cast a ballot—Hugo voters chose "No Award," depriving the conservative sci-fi aficionados of their victory. For categories with a mix of Puppy and non-Puppy choices, the Puppies lost out again, as they did to the fascinating The Three-Body Problem. The novel, set to the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, sees the military clandestinely sending signals to space, beckoning a race of advanced but dying aliens, which then threaten to conquer the planet.

Liu Cixin's book, which actually gained entry only when Kloos declined his slot, is a widely popular bestseller in China (it's the first installment of a trilogy, published in 2008, but just translated in 2014), and has been critically acclaimed here in the US. Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the most successful contemporary SF writers going, has given the book high praise.

Science fiction is having its own version of the three-body problem

So, in effect, the Puppies' anti-diversity campaigning has ended with one of the most diverse outcomes possible—thrusting the limelight on an author (and an entire region) that's long overdue the recognition. Ken Liu, who translated Problem, translates a lot of contemporary Chinese speculative fiction, much of it very, very good—we were fortunate to publish Xia Jia's "Valentine's Day," a Black Mirror-esque piece about social networking in China, here on Terraform.

As a speculative fiction editor myself, I just don't get the complaint that diversity is dulling down the genre—if anything, it's saving sci-fi from the run-of-the-mill space opera pulp fiction that's been reappearing in different iterations since the 60s.

Science fiction is having its own version of the three-body problem—between its modern experimentalists, who have always sought to push the genre's boundaries; its institutional gatekeepers, places like the Hugos and the World Science Fiction Society, who get to decide what sci-fi actually 'is'; and its retrograde activists, who would happily rewrite Heinlein's Starship Troopers until the end of time. Today, the genre is defined by the tug of these forces; 2015 was the year they all collided.

If anything, the Puppies and their defeat is a sign of the times; a Wired story on the controversial Hugo ceremonies includes a scene in which an SF editor offers free books to any teenagers in attendance—there aren't any—and then gets "swarmed" when they're offered to parents of teenagers. Sci-fi's erstwhile stalwart fanboys and girls are aging out, in other words, while the next generation is busy crossing genres, and seeing sci-fi's influence in cinema, literature, everywhere, and perhaps growing less interested in genre-bound award series. Naturally, it's members of the older contingent that are reacting most negatively to the changing paradigm; the Puppies, like, say, GamerGate, can be seen as the paroxysm of a newly minted minority amidst a fast-diversifying audience.

But whether the bitter puppies like it or not, science fiction is mutating and marching on. A truly international book has won top honors. More LGBT and minority authors are loudly joining the chorus of voices in a genre long dominated by white dudes. The resultant fiction may help us better understand the wide swath of knotty issues facing the globe, but it shouldn't dull our good times. After all, "Three Body Problem" is, by all counts, an exciting, fast-paced alien invasion story—precisely the sort of yarn even the Sad Puppies say they want to see more of.