I don't usually tell why I didn't vote for a particular story on the Hugo Awards ballot, but this time, I will. The reason: the novelette "Opera Vita Aeterna" became the catalyst for the Rabid and Sad Puppies controversy at the Hugo Awards of 2015.
There are already many articles online about the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, so I won't repeat the news of the 2015 Hugo Awards controversy. Many of these articles give the impression that the Puppies only recently succeeded in getting their nominees on the ballot, but they had already scored a smaller victory a year earlier. "Opera Vita Aeterna", written by Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, got onto the 2014 ballot. It was the first time that most science fiction fans had heard of Vox Day. They soon discovered his racist, misogynist and homophobic rants against liberals, minorities, immigrants, women, feminists, Moslems, Jews, and LGBT persons.
The victory was short-lived, though. "Opera Vita Aeterna" did not win the Hugo. This loss seems to have whipped Vox Day, his Rabid Puppies, and the allied Sad Puppies into action. The Puppies had existed before 2014, but it wasn't until "Opera Vita Aeterna" lost after coming so close to winning a Hugo that Puppy outrage coalesced into the successful bloc nominations of 2015.
The leaders of both Puppy campaigns complain (ostensibly, at first) that science fiction fans and writers vote for stories based on the political ideas of their authors, not on the merits of the stories themselves. The Puppies view the science fiction community as dominated by the Left: liberals, leftists, feminists, atheists, ethnic minorities, immigrants, non-white people, and LGBT people. They also think the Left is preventing stories by conservative, white men from winning science fiction awards.
Readers should vote for the stories themselves, not their authors' political opinions, argued the Puppies. This is a noble sentiment; who can disagree when the purpose of literary awards is to recognize the quality of work, not the personal opinions of the authors?
However, the Puppies' grievances were flawed. George R.R. Martin, in his blog post, "Where's the Beef?", shows that stories by conservative, white men actually do get nominated or win the Hugo Awards much more frequently than the Puppies allege, including in recent years. White males, including conservative ones, are certainly not endangered in the science fiction community.
Certainly, stories by more diverse writers have won awards in recent years, but white males still continue to dominate the genre. Nonetheless, the Puppies feel threatened, which happens easily to them. It's my experience with Puppy types that they view just two Alien Others as a massive, hostile invasion (The optimum level of Alien Others is one, who serves as a token that the Puppies can use to claim that they are not really racist or sexist or homophobic.).
It also became apparent later that the Puppies' noble philosophy of literary quality was but a smokescreen for their true intentions. After the 2015 ballot was announced, they soon abandoned their pleas to judge stories on their own merits. Now they said that they were fighting for "ideological diversity" (in Brad Torgersen's words in his blog post "Flaming Rage Nozzles of Tolerance"). In other words, they finally admitted that they thought that the author's ideology mattered more than the story.
That is the 2015 controversy. In 2014, "Opera Vita Aeterna" caused some angst among the science fiction fans and writers who care about the Hugo Awards. How could a story written by such an odious person come so close to winning our genre's most prestigious award (Well, I personally think that the Nebulas are our most prestigious award, but mine's is a minority opinion)? Some people declared that they would not read his novelette, assuming that it would be filled with his offensive opinions. Of course, Vox Day wore these criticisms like a badge of honour and frequently blogged that the Left was bullying him.
But I gave Vox Day what he said he wanted. I read all the stories in the novelette category before voting. I judged all the novelettes on their own merits, not by their authors.
Alas, it backfired for Vox Day. I found his story to be worst in the lot.
What "Opera Vita Aeterna" Isn't and Is
First, let's deal with the elephant in the room. Is "Opera Vita Aeterna" racist, misogynist, homophobic, or fascist? Despite its author's reputation, "Opera Vita Aeterna" is not a rant against liberals, minorities, immigrants, women, feminists, Moslems, Jews, LGBT, or any of Vox Day's targets. I know that some people say that no story is completely free of influence of its author, and I agree to an extent. But I also think that the amount of an author's personal opinions in a story can vary considerably from author to author and from story to story by the same author.
Unlike his blog, Vox Day's "Opera Vita Aeterna" is free of his controversial ideas. The story takes place in a fantasy world based on medieval Europe (How original. Yes, that was sarcasm). An elf named Bessarias of Elebrion shows up at a monastery of the human monks of the Ordo Sancti Dioscuri, a thinly-veiled Roman Catholic order. The human monks have little reason to like Bessarias, who describes himself as the most powerful sorcerer in the area. Indeed, humans and elves disdain and dislike each other over cultural and religious differences. Nonetheless, the monks give him food and lodging as they would with any other traveller in the harsh winter.
Bessarias, originally only a temporary guest waiting for the weather to get better, extends his stay repeatedly. He eventually becomes a permanent resident of the monastery. Although he does not convert to the human religion, he spends his time copying and illuminating religious manuscripts for the monastery's archives. He also befriends Father Waleran, the Abbott of the Order. Occasionally, Bessarias and Waleran discuss theology over a glass of wine.
Vox Day's interest in theology, especially the Roman Catholic type, is obvious in this story. The author's own personal ideas and interests do influence the story but not in the way that many people had thought.
But What About the Story?
I like religious-themed science fiction and fantasy stories. My own stories revolve around Roman Catholic, Christian, Shinto, and Buddhist themes. But I didn't enjoy "Opera Vita Aeterna".
First, the story lacks any tension or conflict. Bessarias, apparently a powerful sorcerer, never practices his magic and never threatens to do so, and therefore, doesn't conflict with the human monks, who abhor elvish sorcery. Why introduce two opposing forces when they simply agree to do nothing for the whole story?
The characters really don't have any conflict at all. They spend their time discussing wine and theology and manuscript illumination. Nobody strongly disagrees with anyone. Nobody threatens anyone. Nobody betrays anyone.
There is a demon named Mastema, who appears in the form of cute woodland creatures such as a fox, squirrel, or rabbit. Mastema goes to the gate of the monastery from time to time to ask Bessarias to return to the elf city. Bessarias says no, and Mastema leaves until the next time. That's all Mastema does. The demon is hardly demonic. A racoon overturning a garbage can would be more threatening.
The Greatest Sin of All
Secondly, the story's ending has no relationship to the rest of the story. After the characters have spent years of tasting wine, talking about theology, and illuminating manuscripts, the story ends in violence that isn't caused by any of the characters or by any of the plot events that preceded it. The ending is a deus ex machina that simply occurs to get rid of some characters and end the narrative. Actually, the ending doesn't really qualify as a deus ex machina because a deus ex machina is supposed to resolve a conflict, and no conflict had been brewing in this story.
(To say more about the ending would be a spoiler.).
An ending that simply happens, with no causal relationship to the preceding plot, is an error made by a beginning writer. I expected better from a Hugo-nominated story. The other stories didn't commit this sin of storytelling. So I voted for one of the other novelettes.
Left, Right, or Hybrid
If Vox Day or any Puppies are reading this blog post, they are probably searching for information about me, looking for evidence of leftist, liberal, politically-correct, social justice warrior mentality. For all their talk about judging stories by literary merit, the Puppies have never discussed the literary qualities of stories by liberal authors (or authors whom they have branded as liberals). Instead, they constantly criticize the authors for their political ideas.
I edited The Dragon and the Stars, the first anthology of science fiction and fantasy by overseas Chinese authors, and some of my stories have had Chinese characters. I have challenged white male authors who insist that they should continue labelling minorities with names such as "Negro", "Wog", "Chinaman", and "Indian" (for Native Americans) because such terms were "socially acceptable in the past," despite such terms never being socially acceptable for the people whom they described. I'm sure that the Puppies consider these acts to be politically-correct, anti-white liberalism.
I turned Jesus into a teenaged girl and sent her shopping for lingerie and clothes in my novel The Moon Under Her Feet. I'm sure that the Puppies will consider my novel to be an attack on Christianity. If they bother to read the novel, they would think otherwise, though.
Finally, I was an author guest (albeit a minor one) at Gaylacticon when it was held in Toronto. I also entered the masquerade contest as Dick Cheney on Brokeback Mountain (a story for another time). I'm sure that the Puppies will consider these antics to be social justice warmongering.
But, alas, the truth about me is much more complex. A few left-wing Canadian authors and editors have criticized me for attending the occasional Roman Catholic mass voluntarily because, in their opinion, any person of a Christian faith is an intolerant, backwards bigot. Fortunately, these haters are few, but they are vocal online.
My story "Cloned to Kill" received the Catholic Writers Guild's Seal of Approval, as did all the stories in the anthology Infinite Space, Infinite God II, thanks to our editor. The Catholic Writers Guild thinks that "Cloned to Kill" promotes Catholic ideas, and it does, on the nature of humanity and the meaning of baptism. However, left-wing authors and editors usually don't apply for the Catholic Writers Guild's Seal of Approval.
Then there's the medal of a Grand Associate of Brother Andre that I received from St. Joseph's Oratory, a large basilica in Montreal. It's not a Papal decoration, but it's not anything awarded at Wiscon either.
My interest in military history has also raised some eyebrows with some left-wing Canadian authors. I'm a vice-chair of the Library Committee of the Royal Canadian Military Institute. Interesting trivia: I was one of two persons who wore a dress uniform at the Hugo Awards night at Chicon in 2012. The other person was the future Sad Puppy Brad Torgersen, in his U.S. Army Reserve dress blue uniform. He might not remember me, but we chatted briefly about our respective uniforms in the hallway outside the SFWA Suite. I wore my St. John Ambulance mess dress uniform.
Finally, I'm a member of the Monarchist League of Canada. One science fiction writer, whose ideas tend towards Trotskyism, really dislikes my support of Queen Elizabeth II. Never mind that supporters of the monarchy come from all across the political spectrum; if you’re a Trotskyite, monarchism is fascism. Thankfully, Trotskyites are a dying breed of Communist.
To any Puppy who is preparing to declare my review of "Opera Vita Aeterna" to be a liberal rant against Vox Day and therefore invalid: muzzle it. I'm neither Left nor Right. I'm Hybrid. We exist too.
To Vox Day, if you are reading this: I really wanted to like "Opera Vita Aeterna" because of its monks and monastery and pseudo-Catholic setting. But ultimately, I thought it failed from a weak plot and an ending that isn't related to the preceding events. But I gave you what you said you wanted. It's not my fault that it backfired on you.
Your novelette's loss had nothing to do with you being a white, conservative male. The science fiction and fantasy community is a vast tent with many groups within it, and every group has made remarkable contributions to the literature. That includes conservative, white men. Conservative, white men have written some of the best science fiction and fantasy stories of all time.