Today the winners of the 2015 Hugo awards will be announced, and whatever happens, the outcome will be controversial because of the nominations. This year's Hugo award nominations have been dominated by a few writers who received the backing of a Gamer Gate affiliated internet group known as the Sad Puppies. The Puppies believe that sci-fi awards have become dominated by a liberal elite who are more interested in rewarding women and writers of colour than good science fiction. The Puppies slate is filled with politically Conservative authors, such as John C. Wright - I have written about this before.
The Sad Puppies want to go back to a fictional past when science fiction novels were about explosions, goodies and baddies, battles and adventure, and not tackling weighty issues from our world such as gender and inequality. Science fiction has always explored issues from both a liberal and conservative viewpoint. I believe that this exploration of issues is fundamental to writing great science fiction. I want an inclusive sci-fi which comments on our world and uses political and social issues to enhance the stories being told. A regression to "white dudes in space" will damage the quality of the science fiction writing produced in the future.
To support this argument, I will start by going back to the early days of my love of sci-fi novels. The X-Wing novels by Michael A. Stackpole were my gateway to reading sci-fi. I loved the Star Wars movies and toys, and wanted more from that universe. A series of novels about daring X-Wing pilots fighting the remnants of the Empire was the perfect fix for my hungry Star Wars habit. The X-Wing novels are great space adventures, heroic rebels, evil Imperial agents and lots of excitement. I owe my love of reading and writing sci-fi to these novels.
After reading five X-Wing novels, I started reading other works of science fiction. Dune, Foundation and Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep were early favourites. My tastes changed as I went through my teenaged years and discovered other writers. When I went to university, my horizons were broadened and I became more aware of society, politics and history, as well as my own privilege and the importance of diversity. My tastes changed as well to suit this new understanding of the world. When I discovered Iain M. Banks, he quickly became my favourite writer, and this led on to many other social sci-fi novels, such as Ray Bradbury or J.G. Ballard, and eventually to reading Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, the winner of the Hugo award for best novel in 2014.
These books have more nuanced characters, more complex stories and tackle issues from our world. They take the medium of science fiction beyond space adventure to create stories with emotional resonance and insight into the human condition. At the same time as my taste evolved towards more sophisticated novels, I also expanded from only reading novels written by people like me - straight, middle-class, white, western - to reading books by a wider range of authors. I fully admit that I have a long way to go in this regard; I still mainly read books written by white men, but I am making an effort to read sci-fi written by people of different backgrounds whose experience of the world is different to mine.
I feel this is a natural element of becoming an adult, in much the way that my taste in food has developed. When I was young, I only ate bland British food, but now I love Indian, Chinese, Thai and Mexican food. Over time, our tastes and interests become broader and more sophisticated. The Sad Puppies feel that rewarding more sophisticated and diverse writing is just pandering to political correctness and ignoring books that are entertaining in favour of books which tackle issues. However, they only evaluate a book against one criteria, its entertainment factor, rather than looking at a range of reasons why a book might be worth reading.
Why do I consider it natural for our tastes to develop this way? Let's go back to the start to look at this. The X-Wing novels were entertaining to read but the plot mainly revolved around white men having space adventures, like the Star Wars films themselves. We know that real life stories are a lot more complex than this. Any story taken from our own lives has a diverse range of different people in it. We see diversity around us every day - the majority of people I interact with are not straight, white, middle-class, cis-gendered men from the midlands - so when diversity is not represented in the stories we read, they become implausible. Surely the future will be more diverse than the present, and the events of the future are likely to be as complex and nuanced as those of the present.
Take a moment to look at any real life conflict and you will see that there are two sides, two competing arguments - that is unless you approach the world in a very reductive way. The diversity in our world means that real life stories are much more complex than the plot of an X-Wing novel, and the people who populate our world are more nuanced than the characters of the X-Wing novels. The conflict in the X-Wing novels, and Star Wars in general, does not make much sense under scrutiny. One of the reasons why episodes 1-3 are so bad is that they try to explain the politics of the conflict, which is too simple to make sense. Star Wars is a struggle of absolute good against absolute evil, but no real life struggle is that simple.
This is not a criticism of the X-Wing novels being aimed at younger readers. There are plenty of YA novels with a diverse range of nuanced characters and complex conflicts that make sense when examined. The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig is a good example of this, but there are many others. Aiming your novel at a younger audience does not necessarily mean dumbing it down and is not an excuse for having characters and conflicts which do not make sense in a real world context.
The stories that sci-fi writers tells have to be believable and our reference frame for what is believable is our understanding of our world. Science fiction can have imaginative aliens, theoretical technology, bizarre worlds, strange cultures and anything else that a sci-fi writer can imagine but the characters, their relationships and conflicts must make sense to the reader based on their experience of our world. This means being complex and diverse, as our world is.
Conflicts, cultures, societies and relationships will be different in the future from how they are now, but they will evolve out of the present. The conflicts and characters of a sci-fi story should make sense when translated into our world or else they are too simple. For example, Iain M Banks's novel Consider Phlebas is about a struggle for influence and the clash of ideology between two great military powers, very similar to the cold war from our history. Ancillary Justice is about imperialism and would make as much sense in the context of 17th century European expansion. The characters in these stories and their relationships are similar to what the reader is likely to experience from their own lives. Ancillary Justice maybe about the relationship between an AI governing a spaceship and a lieutenant on that ship, but it is a relationship based around love and respect and is nuanced enough to be believable as a relationship. Conflicts and relationships should be informed by our world to make sense to the reader.
A sci-fi writer's work is based on his or her experience of our world and thus the writing is influenced by his or her privileges and the society she lives in. Authors need to be aware of this when crafting their stories. This is especially true when handling issues of diversity. I have said that sci-fi stories do not make sense without diversity, but when writing about diversity the author's privileges need to be taken into account. This is why I like sci-fi that explores issues, conflicts and relationships in our world through a sci-fi prism because they are informed by our world and thus their fictional world is believable. I also like sci-fi stories when the authors are aware of their own privileges and try to comment on them, or least prevent them from clouding the story.
Doing all this requires a certain amount of complex narrative, nuanced characterisation, detailed world building and issue exploration which you do not get in the white dudes in space, goodies and baddies, novels on the Sad Puppies slate. Depth, complexity and a well-informed comment on the real world are essential to good sci-fi writing, which why novels with these characteristics win awards and shallower novels do not. It is not a conspiracy by liberals, women and people of colour to suppress white men, it is the difference between good and bad writing.
I love books like the X-wing novels as they made me love the adventure side of sci-fi and they led me on to more sophisticated and diverse works. I do believe this is an essential process in order to avoid shallow stories, the author's own privileges and a lack of diversity which make stories unbelievable to the reader. If the Puppies want to go back to this kind of writing then sci-fi will become stale, uniform and filled with authors’ unexamined privileges.