The Claw!

You’ve all seen those claw machines, often in the entrance to supermarkets or in arcades in malls. They have a bin full of cheap stuffed animals, and maybe some really special prize, like an iPod or something embedded in the middle of them, and as a test of “Skill” you can steer the claw around over the bin and attempt to win something nifty. Although more often than not, you end up with nothing. The game is rigged, of course, but if your heart is set on winning the prize, you will pump WAY more cash into the machine than it would be worth to just go out and buy the damned thing.

Let me repeat, the game, is rigged. It’s rigged in ways you don’t even know about. If you search online you can even find manuals for the machine that explain how they can be set to vary the current for the electromagnet that makes the claw grip, so that even if you have a good hold on the prize, it will slip free before it gets to the drop off point.

Now some of them are set up differently, and maybe just for fun you can experiment with one to figure out just how rigged it is. And maybe answering your intellectual curiosity about what a rip-off it is could be considered a win, but if you go in determined to prove you can win that damned iPod and beat the machine, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So what’s this got to do with the Hugos? (Come on, you KNEW this was going to be a Hugo post, didn’t you?) It’s about the Puppies.

Sad Puppies was an exploration about how the game was rigged. If you follow the history with an open mind, you’ll know how at each stage whoever was running the SP took the suggestions from the TruFen as to what they had to do to be acceptable, and after doing exactly those things, the big prize somehow, just somehow, fell through the claw with extreme prejudice. When Larry saw that he had been celebrated at first as a new author, nominated for a Campbell and everything, and then got 86’ed as soon as his politics became known, he suspected there was a bias against conservative authors (at least the openly conservative ones). He was told “Oh, there’s no bias. Conservative authors are just fine, they just have to get on the ballot. As long as they’re good, that shouldn’t be a problem, because it’s all about the quality of the work.” Thus in SP2, Larry turned out his fanbase, offered up a small number of suggestions that he thought were particularly worthy, and as soon as some of them got on the ballot, boom, the fix was in. (Note, I’m not saying anyone CHEATED, per se. But clearly the voters voted on a basis of something other than the quality of the work, because they didn’t just lose, they were no-awarded.) In fact, Larry turned out his accounting skills and concluded there had been no monkeying with the votes. The bias was in the electorate. It was a perfect Xanatos Gambit. If all his suggested works lost, then he won because his point was proved. And if some of them won, well then good SF won, the Hugos were honest, and we could all get on with our lives secure in the notion that there are true and fair votes in the world. Naturally, we got the former. And with that, Larry retired from the game.

So the next test was to get a larger sample from a larger pool of suggestions to get a better idea of what was meant by good. That was SP3 and Brad’s much more comprehensive list of candidates selected not for specifically conservatism, but for quality based on a number of suggestions from various trusted sources (including some closed FB groups), and a huge “Get out the Vote” campaign (which I have been assured by Tor’s pet statistician wasn’t actually all that effective). The intent was merely to provide a broad number of choices in every category, not what eventually happened. The results of this got Fouled by the Rabid Puppies, but more about that later.  The fix there was much more obvious in the form of thousands of heretofore disinterested parties becoming voters (sometimes through monetary subsidy), specifically for the purpose of nixing every Sad Puppies candidate, and thereafter becoming disinterested once the mission was accomplished. Combined with social pressure to withdraw exerted on several authors, and the generally toxic atmosphere on social media, and yeah, the fix was in. Bias and politics were the words of the day. The result was the single most toxic example of a Hugo Awards presentation in history.

But an olive branch was offered. Some said that the true sin of SP3 was offering exactly five candidates in every category (Which wasn’t actually the case, but never mind that, it’s the seriousness of the charge, not the facts that matter) and that a recommendation list with more, or fewer candidates that people could pick and choose from would clearly not be an attempt to put up a slate. Of course, this could have also been suggested as an attempt to water down the puppy vote, but let’s not consider that either. So for SP4, Kate produced an open suggestion website. Anyone could make suggestions, even anti-puppies, and a few did. SP4’s results were even further fouled by the Rabid Puppies, but the actions against the list shows that the olive branch was a lie.

So at this point, it was pretty obvious to the founders of Sad Puppies that the game was rigged, and there was no point in putting any more quarters into it. Sad Puppies 5, now in Sarah Hoyt’s hands, was proposed to simply become a book recommendations site, and was deliberately delayed in order to miss the Hugo deadline. In fact, the only reason an announcement was made at all was because an overzealous acolyte of the Rabid Puppies side attempted to pull an Al Haig and hijack the campaign, claiming that Sarah was out sick, and that HE would step forward and lead the puppies unto victory. That needed to be slapped down quick, and it was. Much sulking has ensued since then, including coordinated blog posts from various minions slamming Sarah for not taking up the fight.

Now if the goal of the Sad Puppies were to probe how deep the fix was in in the Hugo electorate, the goal of the Rabid Puppies was to Win. The organizer has a bit of a beef with the SF community, to put it mildly, and taking one of their awards would be a coup. The first attempt was no real master stroke. Having seen how effective Larry’s fanbase had been in getting nominees on the ballot in SP2, the easiest, no effort way to get in was to hijack the list, add himself and a few of his house’s authors to the list at the top, knock off the bottom items to fill out a slate, and mobilize his fanbase as well. With so much commonality to the lists, it would be impossible to sort out whose supporters were whose. Which as a tactic to make his influence appear larger than it was, was successful. SP and RP got conflated and slammed in the social media, and the real media, by design. Some people still can’t tell them apart. But good Tactics sometimes make bad Strategy, and the backlash the organizer engendered resulted, as I said, in one of the most toxic Hugo ceremonies ever, as well as in rules changes designed to make the Hugo nomination process even more opaque than the final vote process.

It wasn’t much better the next year, when his spitefulness towards the fandom made him pollute the nominations with crude gay porn titles. If he couldn’t win, he was going to ruin the whole thing. It merely cemented the backlash, but it didn’t require the overkill numbers unleashed the year before to shut him out, thus those excess no-award voter accounts were released.

Skipping ahead to this year. It becomes really simple to see why he sent an acolyte to announce he was commandeering the helm of SP5. Clearly he believed that the Sad Puppies had an army of followers and if he could co-opt them to his cause, he could finally win, or at least do real damage.[1] The Kickers, on the other hand, had rigged the game even more, making it harder for any small group to dominate the nominations, but a sufficiently large one, like say, fans, with properly distributed votes, could capture a large number of nominations, and they did. And in the coming years, another fix is going in that will allow any sufficiently large cabal to de-nominate anything they don’t like[2] (They call it 3 Stage Voting, or 3SV, but it’s NOTHING like what I proposed).

I don’t think though that this is going to stop him from shoving more and more quarters into the damned machine, trying to grab that Trophy. The Sad Puppies have proven their point, and are off to chase more good fiction. The Hugos don’t interest them any more. The Rabids though, they’re out to win, no matter how much the game is rigged, and how destructive the results end up being. That’s a feature to them, not a bug.

[1] I imagine this scene playing out something like this tableau from a Magical Girl anime:

The Supreme Dark Lord gazes malevolently at his henchman. “What news of our new Allies, Major Fish?”

Major Fish, resplendent in his iridescent fish-scale cape, bows obsequiously. “They will be here within the hour, ready to obey my, er, your every command, my lord.”

“Excellent, General Fish.”

“Thank you sir.”

The Supreme Dark Lord laughs malevolently, “Muahahaha! With the combined strength of TWO puppy armies, my plan will be unstoppable! The Rocket shall be MINE!”

“Please sir, could you tone down the malevolence, it’s starting to creep me out.”

“No, I paid a consultant a great deal of money to achieve this level of malevolence, and I’m going to make the most of it. You may go, Major.”


[2] The proposal literally gives anyone with 600 votes in his pocket, or 20% of the electorate if it’s larger than 3,000, the ability to knock out any of the top 15 nominees until 5 get through the process. Why was the floor number of 600 chosen? Because that’s greater than the largest estimate of the number of Rabid Puppies voters, and well under the 1500-2500 No-Award voters that were mustered for SP3. The only good thing about this obvious fix is that it sunsets every year and has to be passed again each time. Hopefully it will fail in Helsinki. Actually, scratch that. They all deserve each other.