Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Gradually Then Suddenly: the 2023 Worldcon, Self-Censorship, and the Growing Threat of Authoritarianism

Welp, it took less than a decade for someone to find a way to one-up (or, more accurately, one-down) the Sad Puppies fiasco at the Hugos.

Their “hold my beer” stunt happened last October, at the 81st Worldcon in Chengdu, China. A lot of science fiction authors had protested awarding the bid to Chengdu because of China’s record of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims (and, it should be noted, against Christians and other religious minorities as well) under the cynical pretense of “anti-terrorism,” and indeed there were some irregularities about the bid that, in retrospect, should perhaps have been red flags, but a lot of fans also sincerely hoped that engaging with the People’s Republic of China through a shared literary tradition might lead to greater openness and freedom of expression — particularly in a time of increasing international tension and trade instability.

By and large, the reviews of the event were favorable — though a few eyebrows were raised by the announcement that over $1 billion in deals with “companies that produce films, parks, and immersive sci-fi experiences” were signed during the con’s “industrial development summit,” leading to some mild sniffing about the hyper-commercialization of SF/F. Despite that, overall it seemed like the event was a success.

Then, late last month, the concom finally released the full list of nominees, and everything hit the fan.

The list showed that at least four authors had been disqualified for reasons that the awards administrator steadfastly — and increasingly arrogantly — refused to elaborate. Two of the authors were native-born U.S. citizens, while the other two were Chinese emigrants (to the U.S. and Canada, respectively), leading to speculation that perhaps the disqualifications were the result of censorship by Chinese government officials or powerful business interests.*

Oops, nope.

As documented in The 2023 Hugo Awards: A Report on Censorship and Exclusion by Chris M. Barkley and Jason Sanford, it turns out it was members of the awards committee itself — U.S. and Canadian members, no less — who did the censoring. And thanks to a trove of documents provided to Barkley and Sanford by committee member-turned-whistleblower Diane Lacey, we also know that the committee created dossiers of the nominees to identify those who might have said or written things that “the People’s Republic of China’s government officials and censors may consider to be politically offensive or subversive,” in Barkley’s words.

To be clear, there is no evidence that the awards committee was explicitly or implicitly instructed by the PRC government or anyone else to do what it did. Whether the awards administrator received or solicited advice in that regard, and from whom, remains pure speculation. What is certain, however, is that Barkley’s and Sanford’s bombshell report has been widely reported in mainstream media, causing a lot of horrified outrage within the global SF/F community, likely causing acute embarrassment for the image-conscious PRC government, and potentially causing blowback for Chinese science fiction authors at home and abroad down the road.

So yeah, bang-up job everyone. As John Scalzi summed it up, “A fraud was perpetrated by the Hugo administrators: on the Hugo Award voters, on the Chengdu Worldcon membership, and on the science fiction and fantasy community at large.

Scalzi, and many other SF/F veterans, are hopeful and determined that the community will learn from this and do better. And there’s every expectation that safeguards will be put in place to improve the integrity of the Hugo nomination process. Between Sad Puppies and whatever this is going to end up being called (Chengdugate?), no one — probably least of all the World Science Fiction Society, which owns the trademark — believes the credibility of the Hugos can survive this kind of dumbfuckery a third time.

However, that’s not what’s bugging me.

Science fiction as a literary form is built on the foundations of the Scientific Revolution — the transformation in how Western society came to view nature, and humankind’s relationship with it, through the development of our current understandings of mathematics, physics, chemistry, cosmology, and biology during the 16th and 17th centuries. The changes wrought by those discoveries led, directly and indirectly, to subsequent transformations in philosophy, law, and forms of governance that we call the Age of Enlightenment. Because of that heritage, a lot of people (myself included) believe that science fiction is as much an exploration of the boundaries of the rights, agency, and dignity of life as it is an exploration of the frontiers of the known and the knowable.

Authoritarianism is a rejection of those values. It is an absolute denial of the freedom of inquiry, the fundamental human impulse behind the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment — and, not incidentally, science fiction.

Much of modern history has been defined by periodic struggles between democracy and authoritarianism. And unfortunately the world appears to be entering another one of those periods right now. In the United States, the rise of a pro-authoritarian movement from within is now a very real, and very imminent, threat.

“It happened gradually.” That chilling sentence from Diane Lacey’s apology letter, describing the creeping nature of compromise that gradually nudged the 2023 Hugos committee ever further down the slippery slope of collusion, is an apt description of the peril of this historical moment. Consider the many things we have normalized in the past eight years.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway had this to say about gradualism:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

As the literature of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, science fiction has always served the role of cultural bellwether. Just as the Sad Puppies was a preview of today’s broader “war on woke,” what does the self-censorship and capitulation of the 2023 Hugo Awards committee portend? Watch what happens next within the science fiction community; as always, it will be a preview of humanity’s future.

* The full list also showed that a group of Chinese authors had also been disqualified; according to Lacey, it was because they were apparently part of a slate of authors promoted by a Chinese science fiction magazine, and slates are a definite no-no. (go back)

Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything


  1. FourteenthLetter says:

    You’re so close to getting it.

    Sad Puppies was the previous example of a full-of-themselves clique inside management kicking out writers for political reasons. But when it happened then, you cheered. Never thinking that somebody you like might be victimized someday.

    This is the future you chose.

    • sottovoce says:

      I was thinking about how to respond to your comment, but then I realized it provides such a clear and succinct example of the problem I’m warning about, there’s really no more effective argument I can make than letting it stand on its own for all to see (I did fix that one typo, though).

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