Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

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.


  1. Rob Hickok says:

    I believe Heinlein said it, though I may be wrong; Science fiction is about taking a human problem or question and exploring it through a fantastic sort of situation, either fantasy in general or in the future particularly. Usually, it’s philosophical and the application of technology or extrapolated human achievement are pointed toward the exploration of, if not resolution of the challenge. That fundamental element of the genre has been replaced with “proof of” ideals or agendas and fails to meet the criteria for what (at least I consider) is Science Fiction. Just my 2 bits. RAH!

  2. Tony says:

    My wife works with a lot of small publishers and that is how her work is getting published. SFF is still around, only the larger houses are suffering because of the dreck they tend to put out.

    Small press doesn’t pay much, if at all, but it gives her credentials and she has made friends with established SFF authors. Her editing skills are valued and they help her with her own work.

    In fact, one of her novels was recently sold and it hopefully will be released at Mile High Con in October (Denver). Maybe we will see you there. 🙂

    1. Excellent! I intend to be at MileHigh this year after a 2-year absence for reasons I’ve mentioned several times. It’s a very good con as recent cons go, and I’ll look forwar to seeing the both of you there.

  3. TRX says:

    I just came across an article by Norman Spinrad called “The Future of SF”, written back in 1980 for Asimov’s SF Magazine.

    Spinrad made many of the same points about readers vs. the fans/conventioneers vs. the filmgoers being different markets, and how the majority of the “science fiction” And market were not traditional SF readers, or even readers at all.

    1. I’d like to see that item. Which issue was it in? I have a pile of old IASFMs here from that era (which is when I was publishing with them) and may have it on-hand.

  4. TRX says:

    I read it as a poorly-OCR’d text file and thought it was from Asimov’s. So off to Asimov’s web site, which has many of Spinrad’s columns, but there’s no list or search function. However, I did find a hit on “norman spinrad” + “the future of science fiction” at isfdb, listing the essay as part of “Nebula Winners Fourteen.”

    Looking through Spinrad’s “On Books” columns in Asimov’s, it looks like he made most of the points from the Nebula essay, just spread out over multiple issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *