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Two science-fiction authors say they're being used as proxies in a fandom culture war

Last week, the Atlanta-based convention Dragon Con released its ballot of nominees for its second-ever Dragon Awards, a wide-ranging list of novels, comics, and games designed to be “a true reflection” of fan-favorite stories published in the last year. Now, two nominees, Alison Littlewood and John Scalzi, have said they’re withdrawing their names for consideration, over concerns that they’re being used as puppets in a larger fandom culture war.

This year’s nominees have been widely split between enormously popular authors such as N.K. Jemisin, James S.A. Corey, Scalzi, and some lesser-known authors propelled onto the ballot by blocs of voters looking to score victories for their “side” in the culture wars.

Unlike the Hugos and Nebulas, the other major speculative fiction awards, the Dragon Awards are open to popular vote. Anyone on the internet can provide a nomination and then vote for finalists. That’s led to concerns that the results will be gamed by the political factions within science fiction and fantasy fandom, because it’s happened before. Scalzi has been pointedly outspoken about progressive issues in science fiction fandom and writing, and has been frequently been attacked and trolled by conservative and alt-right members of the community over his views. One particular faction of these fans calls itself Rabid Puppies, and has worked to game another award, the Hugo Award, by stacking the nominees with their own set of works.

When Dragon Con announced this year’s nominee ballot last week, Littlewood found that she’d earned a nomination for her horror novel The Hidden People. However, she wrote to the organizers and asked to be withdrawn after she learned that it was “selected by a voting bloc who are attempting, for reasons of their own, to influence the awards outcome.” A couple of days later, Scalzi, who earned a nomination for his space opera novel The Collapsing Empire, also announced his intention to withdraw his nomination. “Some other finalists are trying to use the book and me as a prop,” he wrote, “to advance a manufactured ‘us vs. them’ vote-pumping narrative based on ideology or whatever.

Littlewood says she was informed that she wouldn’t be allowed to withdraw her nomination. Pat Henry, the convention’s president and founder, wrote to her and said he was refusing to remove her name from the ballot, and that while the convention was aware outside groups were manipulating the results, “we believe that as we add voters, they will become irrelevant in the our awards.”

When asked about their refusal to remove authors, Henry explained in a statement to The Verge that one of the goals was to provide a long list of recently released reading materials for fans, and that “when an author — any author — asks to withdraw from the ballot, then the reading list becomes less. It’s less broad, less balanced, and less about the fans.” In 2016, Scalzi was nominated for his novel The End of All Things, and announced he would withdraw his nomination last year, and his wish to be removed wasn’t honored. Henry also says Dragon Con won’t release the raw voting figures for this year’s convention, in an effort to prevent vote-packing.

While this tactic does result in a long list of books and games to read for fans and attendees, it potentially puts a number of authors into an untenable position of being associated with a group they vehemently disagree with, or becoming proxies for voters to vote against. Because the award’s organizers aren’t permitting nominees to remove themselves, authors have no recourse or agency in the situation.

In an email to The Verge, Littlewood explained that she was never contacted by Rabid Puppy founder Theodore Beale (who goes by the name Vox Day online), who put her on his slate. She didn’t know she’d been nominated until after the fact. “I had heard [about] the controversy around the Hugos and the Rabid Puppies,” she explained. “I have no wish to benefit from any interference in the awards and do not wish to be associated with the Puppies, so I wrote to the organizers with a polite request to withdraw.” While she doesn’t have access to the numbers that put her on the ballot, she “certainly gained the impression that undue influence was at play.”

Image: Jo Fletcher Books

It’s unusual for speculative fiction nominees to not be informed about their pending nomination, which makes this situation even more awkward. Other genre awards, such as the Hugo and Nebulas, notify authors in advance before nominations are published, to give them the opportunity to bow out for a range of reasons. Some might not feel a given story deserves to be nominated, like when Ted Chiang withdrew his story Liking What You See: A Documentary from the Hugos in 2003. Others might not want to be associated with a political faction, such as Marko Kloos, who learned his novel was put on the Hugo ballot by a Rabid Puppy slate. A Dragon Con spokesperson explained that voting began with the release of the nominations, which means that the authors didn’t have an opportunity to try and exit before the ballot was finalized.

While Dragon Con claims to have taken steps to contend with ballot-stuffing, not allowing creators to remove themselves from consideration seems like a counterintuitive step. While the convention organizers say that they’re trying to avoid the drama, this seems like a step designed to protect the reputation of the fledgling awards, rather than that of the authors it claims are the genre’s favorites.

All of this speaks to a larger issue, which the Hugos, Nebulas, Dragons, and many other awards seem to be facing: rather than celebrations of the best the genre has to offer, they’re pushed into becoming battlegrounds for hostile factions that wish to plant a flag on a particular bit of popular culture. Fans have already begun working on ways to change how voting works for The Hugo Awards to avoid these issues. If the organizers behind the Dragon Awards truly want their award to reflect the genre’s fans, they will need to take some of the authors’ concerns into consideration.

Meanwhile, voting for the awards has opened, and the winners will be announced at Dragon Con on September 3rd.

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