Just Ban Slates Already
Since this seems like the sort of post that might get a bit of attention, I figure I should toss a link to my Kickstarter at the top, and politely ask you to at least click through and look at it to see if it’s something you’re interested in backing.
I’ve mostly stayed out of Hugos stuff for the last couple weeks, having a book to promote and all. And because it didn’t seem necessary. The situation was straightforward and as expected last year – one more year of Puppies and then normal business would be restored. Except that over the last couple of weeks several analyses have thrown some cold water on the hope that the E Pluribus Hugo nomination reform expected to pass at MidAmericon II this year will be quite the fix that many of us hoped for, with reports suggesting that it will at best allow the overwhelming majority of fans to have 1-2 slots per category that are not dictated by a tiny minority of racist dunderheads. A considerable number of new proposals to deal with this have thus been circulated, most of them preposterously baroque, clearly ineffectual, or both. This is strange, as the problem is not actually particularly hard to solve if you want to. Just ban slates.
After all, the Hugo Ballot is fifteen categories long. Each category has five nominating slots (possibly four after this year). That’s seventy-five slots on a ballot, all of which can be filled with any novel, short story, podcast, fan writer, or whatever that you want. The odds that two ballots are going to be identical through means other than active coordination are already vanishingly small. The odds that dozens or hundreds are is simply non-existent. If you want to get rid of the disruptive voting practices by which a vindictive psychopath is ruining the Hugo Awards, just get rid of them directly. I mean, the Hugo FAQ already pretty much declares them against the rules by saying “don’t nominate or vote for something you have not read or seen, and don’t vote based on reputation — the Hugos are meant to honor your choices and judgments.” It’s just that there’s not a single mechanism to actually enforce that.
There are, of course, other proposals out there – Kevin Standlee has put three up on File 770. But these all involve significant revamping of the system, introducing things like a third stage of voting (with seemingly no thought as to how this would fit into the timetable) or arbitrarily allowing categories to be extended. These might work. They might also be gamed, however, much like E Pluribus Hugo looks to be gameable. What isn’t gameable – what is indeed inherently ungameable – is simply banning organized campaigns to do anything other than have fans nominate works they read and enjoyed. (And notably, if in fact there have been seekrit leftist attempts to manipulate the Hugos for years, an allegation that literally not a shred of evidence has ever been presented for, this would have the effect of shutting them down too.)
Yes, you’d need a fine-tuned rule if it’s actually going to stand up to the continual and long-term efforts of fandom terrorists. Actually, to do it in a remotely robust way you’d need to just allow Hugo administrators to make judgment calls so that clever dodges like “OK now our slate only has three things per category and everyone should write in a fourth so no two ballots will be exactly alike” can still be prevented. Yes, that involves giving Hugo administrators new powers to make good faith judgment calls that a given pattern of voting is because of organized collusion. And this can in theory be abused.
It can also, however, be kept in reasonable check. A simple requirement that any invalidated ballots be publicly accounted for (“413 ballots were invalidated because they were exact or near-exact matches for a publicly posted slate; another 152 were invalidated because they had 95% overlap with each other, suggesting a privately coordinated campaign.” etc) would go a long way towards preventing abuse. I recognize that there’s an element of scariness in creating new powers for Hugo administrators, but these are all, in the end, theoretical concerns.
What isn’t a theoretical concern is the fact that a neo-nazi is stuffing the ballot with hate speech and child porn. He is going to continue to do so year after year, because his self-description of himself as a rabid dog is basically accurate. Bluntly, as it stands the Hugo Awards are worthless. Their basic function – reflecting the taste of science fiction fandom as to the best works of the year – is not being performed. Even in the categories where one or two legitimate nominees get through, they are in effect now rubber stamped, as opposed to actually pitted against meaningful competition for the award.
Speaking as one of the thousands of people who rushed to help put out the fire last year, this isn’t sustainable. We rallied to defend the Hugos because they have a long history of being a good award. But anyone who thinks thousands of people are going to spend $50 year after year to fight to a draw is delusional. The Hugos are nice, but they aren’t that nice. Nobody needs the Hugos to find a good book to read. Nobody needs the Hugos to enjoy science fiction. At the end of the day, it’s the World Science Fiction Society’s job to make the Hugos useful to us, the actual readers of science fiction. They have failed at that for two years now. And they appear set to do so for a third year because the proposals trumpeted as sensible compromises last year turn out to not actually come anywhere close to fixing the problem. At some point, we’re just going to move on and leave the Hugos to their own incompetent devices, and I doubt that point is very far in the future. There’s not a window for years of experimentation here. There’s a clearly defined problem, and everyone knows what it is.
And to be clear, the problem here isn’t Vox Day. Yes, he’s a dumpster fire that walks like a man, but let’s not pretend he’s some singular phenomenon that cannot be repeated. A functioning institution is capable of resisting an entryist takeover of the sort he’s launched. The World Science Fiction Society has thus far been pathetically incapable of that. Vox Day is not some terrifying genius scripting the arc of history from his dark tower. He’s a thin-skinned bully with an anal fixation. Him successfully fucking with the Hugo Awards for two years straight isn’t some massive threat to science fiction or to the future. It’s just a damning indictment of the incompetent governance that allows it to happen, and indeed, through their boasts about the record numbers of participants, seems to rather enjoy the attention. (Or perhaps they just enjoy the money.)
There’s two choices here. Pass voting reform this year and in 2016 that restores the awards to one in which the machinations of 10% of voters can no longer overwhelm the legitimate preferences of 90% and hope that the damage done by these three years is survivable. Or give up on the idea that the Hugo Awards are a valuable institution. Those are the two outcomes here.. Engineer a system robust enough to repel an explicit attempt to destroy the awards or get destroyed. And if that happens, it’s not going to be remembered as Vox Day’s accomplishment. It’s going to be remembered as the World Science Fiction Society’s gross incompetence.
The problem is slates. They are entirely detectable, and can be effectively banned. Stop faffing about with elaborate theoretical solutions or extensive redesigns of the Hugos and just fix the fucking problem already. Because this is just embarrassing.
May 20, 2016 @ 9:09 am
Hey Phil, there is more about Vox Day on the Guardian today. I think u might find it funny though because its about chuck tingle and how how Vox’s silly behaviour may be backfireing!
May 20, 2016 @ 9:59 am
Fandom is perhaps a little too used to being nice, cautious, fair-minded, and not wanting to exclude anybody. In the face of open warfare, this good-natured attitude becomes a terrific liability – this may sound like a weird comparison, but it’s not completely unlike the way harassers know about and take advantage of the way women are trained to be polite. It’s only natural that fans are hesitant about voting stuff that can be tricky to understand, but I can’t help but feel that after two years it’s become timidity instead of caution. At the very least, VD and anything he publishes should be banned from the ballot – but I prefer your option of outright killing slate ballots, which surely could be done mostly by computer. (I wonder if it would also help to publish – anonymised, of course – all the ballots received once the award is out, to allay fears that the admins have incorrectly identified slate ballots.)
May 20, 2016 @ 11:52 am
Why anonymize it? Surely the threat of being publicly shamed would make for an effective deterrent. Or, better yet, if one is identified as a “slater,” one is banned from further Hugo activity.
May 20, 2016 @ 12:36 pm
Oh, I meant publish all of the ballots, so interested parties could see for themselves that the organisers had done the right thing. (I can see how this might have a chilling effect on voting, however, even anonymised.)
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May 22, 2016 @ 2:34 pm
Yup it’s all a bit illy in a way the door effectively being left open for folk such as VD to easily take over the Hugos – and I agree with you Kate about the “good-natured attitude” which creates the open door policy for this kind of nonsense. No slates would be a good idea.
May 22, 2016 @ 5:28 pm
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