Hugo is a name with a rather bad press in English popular culture. Sir Hugo Baskerville set his dogs on a damsel who refused to submit to him. Sir Hugo Drax deceived the Queen (God bless her!) by pretending to be a gentleman while actually cheating at cards. Oh, and he planned to vapourise London with a thermonuclear bomb in a joint Nazi-Communist plot, Nazis and Communists being all part of the same vast conspiracy. (But that wouldn’t have mattered, since London was full of nasty working-class people with bad manners and Labour membership cards, except that the bomb’s ground zero was near Buck House.)
Less familiar is another person deserving a bad press for English popular culture, the staggeringly incompetent writer and tasteless editor Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories and coiner of the word scientifiction, which nobody has used since Gernsback died. To honour amazingly bad writing and editorial ineptitude, the Science Fiction Writers of America (which at the time amounted to about a dozen people) established a writing award called the Hugo, showing what their agenda really was. Basically they were giving awards to each other, legitimated by orchestrated write-in campaigns to magazines whose editors they were friends with. So, pretty much like the Nobel Prize for Literature, except with slightly less ruling-class control.
After about fifteen years the people excluded from the Hugo because they didn’t go to the right parties got fed up and set up their own award — the Nebula — which for a while was more prestigious than the Hugo simply because the Hugo had been controlled by the same gang of oldsters for such a long time that it had grown stale and bitter-flavoured, and because the people excluded tended to be excluded because they were smart and original (or had the wrong kind of genitals, or put them in the wrong places). As a free-marketeer would expect, competition led to a massive improvement in quality (this is a joke, alas) until the cyberpunks came along and stuck their stuff on line, or in technogeek magazines like Wired, in the 1980s.
And there the matter more or less rests, although the Hugo managed to reclaim a little of its prestige by being given to William Gibson once. Until last year, when a couple of writers (one named Wright, one going under the psuedonym of Vox Day) who felt they were not being invited to the right parties decided to organise an orchestrated online campaign to promote the kind of science fiction that they liked by awarding it all the Hugos, which these days amount to a truckload of crappy gilded dildoes because science fiction, or perhaps one should more honestly call it psuedo-science-fiction, makes a lot of money these days by providing numbskulls with loud explosions and implausibly computer-generated tits falling out of brass bras. What’s not to like?
The weird thing is that these writers felt, and feel, that the problem with science fiction is that there’s not enough loud explosions, and not enough of those tits. Instead, in between the loud explosions and the whooshing sound of rockets taking off, there’s a lot of blah, blah, blah about social issues and people talking to each other — some of those people are even women, and their breasts are not only not on show, but sometimes they aren’t even mentioned. This is unacceptable. We need to get back to the glorious days when science fiction was real! We need to get back to the writing of Robert A Heinlein!
In part, what this shows us is that these writers have not actually read Robert A Heinlein at all. Heinlein’s writing is extraordinarily eclectic, politically speaking — at least in his best and brightest period. An extraordinary amount of it pokes fun at self-centred nitwits who can’t get laid sitting in basements scratching their spots and bombarding the world with idiotic manifestoes which no sane person takes seriously, proposing that they ought to be in charge of everything. “The Roads Must Roll” is, in part, a satire against fandom (Technocracy, the dumb ideology specifically skewered in it, was big in fandom) and particularly against people thinking that because they know a lot they ought to be in charge. “Waldo” condemns people separating themselves from society — Waldo himself actually is a genius, but he has to learn to come out of his basement (actually his attic, since it’s a satellite) and interact with people. “Magic, Inc.” condemns people who work together to suppress the activities of others, telling themselves that they have a right to do so because they are cleverer.
So, broadly speaking, Heinlein disliked the kind of people who speak in his name today. What they really mean is that Heinlein was (using the term very broadly) a right-winger, but he was an intellectual, critical right-winger rather than a slavish follower of a specific ideology, and because he was surrounded by left-wing intellectuals and lived in a liberal society, he really had no choice but to acknowledge the existence of alternatives to his own viewpoint, and to argue against them. This is what these writers citing Heinlein as their mentor don’t want. So they are using Heinlein in much the same way that modern-day Republicans use Reagan. This is not surprising, because Wright and “Day” appear to hold political opinions consistent with the “Tea Party” wing of the Republicans, although also rather consistent with the Turner Diaries.
In 2014 their efforts to win themselves Hugo awards failed because they could not command enough support. 2015, however, provided a much better opportunity. For one thing, they decided not to try to win simply by write-in voting campaigns, but by trying to exclude those who were not themselves from the nominations, artfully supporting some people who were reactionary or corrupt enough to accept their endorsements. (Few people refused the nominations, showing the essential corruption at the heart of corporate science fiction today.) However, that wouldn’t have been enough; fortunately a small group of psychopathic online video-game players had banded together to denounce the women who will not sleep with them (or who stop sleeping with them once they discover better options than spotty pallid numbskulls), calling themselves Gamergate and quickly expanding their hatreds beyond mere misogyny into hatred of everything which has happened in the world since about 1950. (How modern of them!)
By calling on the assistance of this small collective, Wright and “Day” were able to expand their support-base well into two figures, and (incredibly) were thus able to dominate the Hugo nominations, revealing what a pathetically inbred gene-pool science fiction fandom represents. (Which is particularly significant since the people gaming the system tend to endorse Aryan Nation style politics, though without the muscle or the tattoos since they don’t like effort or pain.)
The result has been rather an embarrassment, because Wright got himself nominated in a number of categories. Since everybody knows that he was orchestrating the campaign, this is hugely foolish of him. (One of his fellow-orchestrators actually turned down a nomination, in an attempt to avoid being covered in ordure.) As a result, everybody knows that, with the exception of the novelist Ann Leckie, whose novel Ancillary Sword sailed through to nomination despite all opposition, this year’s Hugo awards are even more pathetic than usual and count for nothing. (Even Leckie is not running against any real opposition, as she would be if Gibson’s The Peripheral had not been kicked out of the running.)
En passant, it is striking that Leckie gets in. On one hand she is a woman, and there’s nothing that Wright and “Day” and “Gamergate” hate more than women, unless it’s blacks and gays and liberals. Furthermore, her primary conceit is to abolish gendered pronouns, though this does not appear to have any real social significance (at least in the first novel). On the other hand, her “Ancillary” novels concern the Radch, a brutal imperialist theocracy (the name echoes both “Reich” and “Raj”) controlled by a tiny genetically-engineered elite holding power by fraud and corruption — in other words, the book pretty much describes the situation that the people trying to take over the Hugo awards see as ideal. Leckie doesn’t actually seem to like the Radch much, but she’s sufficiently intrigued by working it out to be implicated in a quasi-fascist attitude.
In the end, of course, it is a tiny storm in a long-broken teacup. In the past it was possible to believe that science would Save The World, and also that science provided a position from which to critique the Horrors of Capitalism (or socialism or sexism or whatever bogeyman you set up in its place). This is no longer possible; science is simply one of the tools which the elite uses to sucker the boobs who vote for their puppet-shows, and hence organised science fiction is a toy telephone. Hence science fiction no longer has any claim to be a message-bearer for the wave of the future. Instead it is necessarily backward-looking, nostalgic for a future which was developed in the past, but which is never going to materialise — not the brave white male future of people like “Day” and Wright, nor the Trotskyite red revolutionary future of people like Banks and Robinson. The future does not belong to scientists, but to hunter-gatherers — or perhaps, nematode worms.
Still, it’s sad all the same. Science fiction may be a lost cause, but at least it’s a cause, a possible way of challenging the horrible brainless system which encysts us all for no good reason. It’s sad to see the system winning, the dreadful reactionary neoliberalism imposing its will and draining more happiness and thought out of the universe.