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March, 2015:

Odd Lots

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 4


To summarize this series so far:

1. There is a monoculture problem in the traditional science fiction and fantasy (SFF) print industry, and sales are shrinking. The number of publishers is stagnant or falling. Advances are dropping and contract terms have gotten insane. For contrast, the SFF media industry (typefied by its conventions like DragonCon and ComicCon) is exploding in popularity.

2. This monoculture problem has several components, but from a height, it’s a sort of “channel capture” effect: The SFF convention and awards infrastructure has embraced the notion that literary SFF–especially that focused on race/gender identity themes–is the “worthiest” sort of SFF and the sort that we all ought to read if we’re to be taken seriously as cultured beings.

3. People who used to read a great deal of SFF are rejecting this “message pie” fiction (by which I mean fiction that puts message and/or polemic first and story elements second) and are either re-reading older works, moving off to other genres, or out of recreational reading entirely.

4. Sarah Hoyt and several other writers have proposed a category called The Human Wave, which would stand in opposition to the current conventions of literary SFF, especially polemical literary SFF. The Human Wave emphasizes SFF as entertainment, celebration rather than denigration of the human spirit, plot, ideas, optimism, and sense of wonder. I endorse this without hesitation, and will have even more to say about it in future entries.

5. Basically, there are too few hands on the levers of power in the SFF universe. It’s time to start disconnecting those levers and dispersing that power. It’s time to inject some genuine diversity into SFF–not of authorship (we’re already there) but of theme and technique.

Part of that disconnection has been going on for some years: Independent and self-publishing, enabled by improving ebook technology and online stores like Kindle, are expanding their share of the SFF market. In defiance of conventional wisdom, many indie authors are making money, sometimes a lot of it. In fact, print publishers have begun seeing the indies as a sort of farm team, from which they call up the most popular players and offer them print contracts. About month ago, SFWA announced some rule changes allowing indie authors to become full members if they can prove that they’ve sold a certain amount of work for a certain amount of money.

So change is happening, and indie publishing is behind most of the change we’ve seen so far.

Which brings us at last to the matter of Sad Puppies. It’s an ancient question: whether to operate outside the current culture, or from the inside. Reforming anything from the inside is tough, because the Insider Alphas tend to arrange things so that change is difficult, as well as the tendency for reformers to simply be absorbed unless they arrive in overwhelming numbers.

Back in January 2013, Monster Hunter International author Larry Correia, in the context of a tongue-in-cheek rant about how he and other pulp-ish authors never get noticed by critics or awards committees, said this:

For as little as $60 you can become a voting member of WorldCon and nominate something awesome and filled with dragons, explosions, guns, heroism, actual good and evil, and a plot where stuff actually happens. And unlike Sarah McLachlan’s sad puppy commercial, your donation also gets you a whole big ton of free eBooks and all of the nominated works, worth more than the cost of joining.

For the next couple of months, Larry recommended a lot of works he felt should be considered for the Hugos, not excluding his own. He caught some predictable shit for that. It’s unclear how much the informal campaign changed the winners at LoneStarCon 3, but Larry got some people on the ballot who’d never been there before (like the formidable Toni Weisskkopf) and raised awareness of a lot of very good stories that would not otherwise have been on anybody’s radar. Every one of these stories that I hunted down would qualify as Human Wave SFF.

What Larry did is neither unique nor new. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s I remember Mike Resnick sending MM paperbacks of his books to literally every name in the SFWA directory. He wasn’t constantly chanting, “Vote for my books!” but he made damned sure that anybody who was in a position to vote for him had one. I had no trouble with that, and although I never voted for him, I did read his books.

Fast forward a year. The Sad Puppies concept grew legs, got a first-shot logo (Pugs! Why does it always have to be pugs!) and became a serious and semi-organized thing rather than a wisecrack in somebody’s rant. According to Mike Glyer, Sad Puppies 2 placed seven of its twelve recommendations on the final Hugo ballot. To me, that’s not mere success…that’s beyond astonishing.

And another year, bringing us to the current day. Sad Puppies 3 now has a logo you can put on a patch (see above) created by Lee W. “Artraccoon” Madison. The slate is much larger, and its coordinator is now Brad R. Torgersen. Alas, I stumbled on all this right about the deadline for memberships qualified to nominate for the 2015 Hugos at Sasquan in Spokane, so don’t run off to try and get in on it. (I’m generally too late or too early for things, so I’m doubly not a wizard.) However, if before January 31 you were a member of LonCon 3 (last year) Sasquan (this year) or MidAmericon II (next year) you can recommend. Recommendations themselves are open until March 10.

This is a classic example of reform attempted from the inside. For all the foaming-at-the-mouth accusations of logrolling and ballot box stuffing, nothing about the Sad Puppies campaign violates the rules. What Larry and Brad are doing is in fact keeping a shrinking Worldcon alive by bringing in both money and new blood. An award with the prestige of the Hugos should not be decided by a few hundred people, but by tens of thousands of people. Otherwise it reflects neither quality nor popularity, but is rather a straw poll by an in-crowd heavily influenced by a handful of Insider Alphas.

Will it work? Depends on what you want from it. Seen as a publicity stunt (as many do) it’s already working, bigtime. Seen as genuine reform, well, I’m less sure, as much as I’d like to see that reform happen. Maybe it just needs a few more years to cook. Many things do. I certainly wish it all success. It’s already tipped my decision in favor of attending MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City in 2016.

However, if the goal is to popularize Human Wave SFF, there may be better ways. I’ll throw out some ideas when I continue this series. For the time being, I need to take a breather.

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 3

I was nostrils-deep writing Ten Gentle Opportunities and wasn’t paying attention when Sarah Hoyt quietly posted a bombshell: The Human Wave Manifesto. It was actually a manifesto in two parts, probably because I don’t think she intended it to be a manifesto at first. (Sabrina Chase had a part in it too.)

But boy, manifesto it is, bigtime.

I powerfully suggest that you read Sarah’s manifesto (perhaps twice) but I’ll summarize for those in a hurry:

The Human Wave is a resistance movement. It’s a reminder that SFF is about unlimited possibility; i.e., there are unexplored universes lying right outside our own navels. So first of all, it’s about throwing off a 30-year accumulation of Thou Shalt Nots and These Are Necessary Rules that the Insider Alphas of the SFF world have laid down. Back in the 60s we had whole posters printed with just two words: Question Authority. That’s what the Human Wave is about: questioning authority. The Insider Alphas are not authorities. They’re just writers and editors of a certain psychology that always makes a beeline for the levers of power. The Human Wave is under the floor right now, disconnecting all the levers. (If only we can keep them from hearing us giggle…)

Human Wave science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is fiction that deliberately subverts those supposed rules (fetishes, actually) and re-takes what was once commonplace in the SFF universe. The guiding principles of the Human Wave (as laid out by Sarah Hoyt) are in fact exhortations to freedom:

  1. Write fiction that entertains; nay, fiction that makes us gasp.
  2. Write fiction that celebrates rather than denigrates the human spirit.
  3. Write fiction in which characters are characters, fully realized individuals and not primarily defined as members of groups.
  4. Write fiction in which the message doesn’t overpower the rest of the story.
  5. Write fiction that isn’t eaten by Grey Goo; i.e., fuzzy characters wandering around landscapes of indeterminate importance doing nothing coherent, learning nothing, and ultimately having nothing to say.
  6. Write fiction that is upbeat; or if it must be downbeat, make sure it’s at least meaningful and that its insights are worth the downer.
  7. Write in a style that can be understood; i.e., don’t let style overwhelm or obscure substance.
  8. Write fiction that has internal logic and is faithful to that logic, especially your explorations of science and magic.
  9. Write fiction that isn’t boring, since ordinary life does not suffer a boredom shortage.
  10. Write what you write best and make no apologies; i.e., just shut up and write!

That’s the best synopsis I can provide. I’ve broadened the concept to include fantasy (the second “F” in SFF) but otherwise have tried to be faithful to Sarah’s intent. I will also add an eleventh commandment:

11. If you have that skill, write fiction that makes us laugh.

What I found heartening about the Human Wave is that it’s how I’ve always written, even if I take it farther than caution might suggest. I have a primal fear of not delivering enough value to my readers. That’s why I throw in dump trucks full of ideas, lots of explosions and gunfights, a little humor even in serious stories, and end with a mayhem-filled action climax. Yeah, I’m an old guy. I learned this stuff basically by reading the best of the pulps. There’s nothing shameful about the pulps, just as there was nothing shameful about 1958 De Sotos. Just as we can now make far better cars than 1958 De Sotos, we can write far better popular fiction than the Fifties pulps. We just have to ditch the shame.

I’ll also add this: Literature is good, and literary techniques can be dazzling in the right hands. I’ve read my share, and in fact have a degree in it, for what that’s worth. My two objections to literary SF are that not everyone has the skill to write it, and even when well-written, it doesn’t work as a steady diet. Let those who can write it, write it. Let’s just not insist it’s the whole picture, or even the worthiest part of the picture. Yes, literary is good. Choice is even better.

So. Where do we go from here? I’d certainly like to see a list of authors who embrace the Human Wave, as well as stories that embrace it, whether their authors ever heard of it or not. Such a list has not been attempted, to my knowledge. Although I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with it, I’ve already begun such a list. If you have authors or stories to nominate as part of the Human Wave, please send them along or share them in the comments.

Maybe it’s finally time to bring to life.

Now, although I consider this entry the heart of the matter, I’m not done yet. I’m a little nervous about the last topic in the title. Give me a few days to figure things out, and we’ll wrap this series up.