To follow up yesterday's post on this subject, I've now read the remaining two items on the list of nominees for "Best Related Work". Once again, the nominated works are:
1. Lou Antonelli, Letters from Gardner.
2. Ken Burnside, "The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF".
3. Ted Roberts, "Why Science is Never Settled".
4. Michael Z. Williamson, Wisdom from My Internet.
5. John C. Wright, Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth.
In yesterday's post I gave my reasons why I could not support the items by Antonelli, Roberts, and Wright. What about Williamson and Burnside?
The short book by Williamson is actually a compilation of jokes and snarky comments. It's edgy, has plenty to offend almost anyone, and will certainly piss off some readers. For all that, it's funny. A lot of the humour passed me by (much of it is based on details of American politics that I know little about), but there's a great deal of wordplay that made me laugh. Williamson's politics may not be mine - he seems to be some sort of political Libertarian, although he makes fun of almost everyone - but he's got a quick wit and a love of language. Good for him. The trouble is that the book is not even remotely related to science fiction or fantasy except in the most basic sense that it's by someone who is also a science fiction writer.
Burnside's article amounts to a short exposition of the problems of interplanetary propulsion systems and course trajectories, with advice on what might be plausible scenarios for a future in which travel takes place fairly freely within our solar system, complete with battles in space. It is framed as advice to writers of military sf, and it seems like it could help anyone who wants to write in that area with a high level of verisimilitude.
For my money, Burnside is the most deserving winner among the five authors who have been nominated. Unless you are planning to vote for No Award or not to vote in this category, you might find reason to vote for "The Hot Equations". I'm considering doing so. There is still, however, a question as to whether this short, specialised piece has the kind of gravitas that justifies winning an award at this level, bearing in mind the sorts of works that have won in past years. Still, it is relevant and nicely done.
Stepping back for a minute, two of the five works on the list of nominations seem to me quite clearly off-topic: those by Roberts and Williamson. Antonelli's book (what I read of it) did not seem overly impressive to me, though it has its value. Wright is perhaps the most impressive of the five authors, but his book is self-indulgent and deeply flawed. All in all, it's an odd assortment.
There have been some strange nominations in this category in the past, so it might be said that the Roberts and Williamson pieces are not that bizarre as nominees. Perhaps so, but the award has usually been won by works that are very clearly on-topic - check out Wikipedia's list of nominated works and winners.
Once we include on the list of nominees an article about the history and nature of science - with no particular connection made to fantasy and SF - and a book of jokes and snarky comments by someone who happens to be a science fiction writer, where does it end? It hasn't escaped me that both of my own books that were published last year would have had as much claim (or a better claim) than these works. So would, taken as a whole, last year's issues of The Journal of Evolution and Technology.
I'm not complaining, because I still don't think that Humanity Enhanced or Intelligence Unbound or JET should have been eligible, and I wouldn't have dreamt of suggesting anyone nominate them. (Conversely, my book under contract with Springer for publication a couple of years down the track will certainly be eligible.) But if the items by Roberts and Williamson are considered legitimate, it seems that in future all sorts of works might have a claim for consideration.
Once we get to that point, why not nominate, say, Nick Bostrom's recent book on superintelligence?
At the same time, there are plenty of other obvious contenders that might have been on the list, such as the second volume of William Patterson's huge biography of Heinlein and/or Brian Atteberry's new book about the fantasy genre. It is unfortunate that books such as these have been pushed out by dubiously relevant (and sometimes very flawed) contenders.
Of course, this raises large issues about politicisation of awards, especially when you have a group of people putting together a specific slate that they asked their fans to nominate on essentially political grounds. I've been very measured in what I've said about the people associated with the "Sad Puppies" campaign, partly because no great purpose is served by having yet another person (i.e. me) piling on in criticising them, and partly because I actually think some of the criticism they've received has been unfair, hyperbolic, abusive, and generally excessive. That makes me feel disinclined to add to all the flak (and to wonder whether I might cop some myself, from both sides, if I so much as tried to say something that attempted to be fair and measured).
But I can't be entirely silent after reading the five works nominated in this list - which correspond exactly with what was on the Sad Puppies official slate.
So... even if there is a legitimate grain of truth somewhere amongst what the folks in the Sad Puppies campaign have been complaining about, and fully acknowledging Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen as being well-meaning, decent people, etc. (not the monsters they are claimed to be by some), this campaign has been dreadfully wrongheaded. Worse, it has led to some perverse outcomes. If the idea was to go outside the box and identify outstanding work that might normally have been overlooked in favour of a group of well-networked "usual suspects", it does not appear to have turned out that way. And surely even people like Correia and Torgersen must (privately?) be horrified that Patterson's book is not shortlisted, whereas volume 1 was shortlisted in 2011, even though it didn't win.
I won't be trying to punish works or authors merely for being on the Sad Puppies slate. But I hope that this campaign will not be repeated in 2016 - at least not in anything remotely like the form we have seen this year.