Throughout this long recent discussion, I’ve had a passage from The Left Hand of Darkness rattling around in my head. It popped up because it strikes me that one of the fundamental cultural clashes that we’re dealing with is between the belief that the ends—getting the “right works” or the “right authors” their rockets*—justify the Sad Puppies’ means, and the weirder and more subtle belief that the “right result” of a Hugo vote is unknowable, and can only be achieved by using the right means to go about it.
The conversation in question occurs between Estraven and Ai up on the Ice. Estraven asks Ai why the Ekumen sent him to Gethen alone. Ai’s answer is even more interesting and relevant than I remembered.
It’s the Ekumen’s custom, and there are reasons for it. Though in fact I begin to wonder if I’ve ever understood the reasons. I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical. In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model… So I was sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know.
I was just going to bring this up in an ends-verses-means way, which is in fact important to what the Hugos are. But the passage also echoes what, precisely, is the difference between the rather chaotic means of choosing the Hugo that has evolved over time and the Sad Puppies’ slate-based, goal-oriented one.
When I sit alone with my Hugo nomination page and try to wrestle through the eligibility lists, thinking about the things I’ve enjoyed over the past year, I’m faced with the fact that my relationship with literature and media is both more and less than political. As a single person reacting to what the field has produced I must listen, as well as speak in the way that someone voting en bloc need not. And doing this thing alone, I can’t dictate what “should” win. I cannot change the Hugos. But I can be changed by them. The relationship is not political, not pragmatic, but mystical.
And that’s really the point of SF&F, at least as I love it: exploring worlds that weren’t in my head before I started reading. Encountering ideas I didn’t imagine, or expect, before opening the covers or watching the opening scene. Allowing myself to be changed by what I experienced. Discovering what I wanted by finding it. These are experiences and ways of learning that, in other contexts, are described as mystical. The term fits.
My Hugo nominations and votes are reactions to that broadening-out of my mental universe. As such, they’re intimately, intensely personal. And that’s part of the visceral reaction that some fans are having to the Sad Puppies’ slate: it looks like the institutionalization of a private, particular process in the service of an external goal. It comes across as a coarsening and a standardizing of something that should be fine-grained, unpredictable, and unique to each person participating. It seems like denial of variety and spontaneity, like choreographed sex.
And it ruins the nature of the Hugos as the strange, unpredictable product of all of these solitary musings. It removes the mystery, the quirkiness, the weirdness and the wonderfulness. Then it’s just an election, with partisans and campaigning and slogans and crap. Surely we have enough of those already.
Does this analogy cast fandom as the Ekumen, as a kind of body mystic? Maybe, but it’s an extremely easy mysticism to join in with. Pick up a wide variety of books and be open to what they say. Create your own personal and unique relationships with them. Reflect those relationships in your own distinctive ways on the Hugo ballot.
* Yes, I know that there is also the stated objective of widening the pool of Hugo voters. But that doesn’t require a slate to achieve.