Liu Cixin's Big Hugo Win That Almost Wasn't

By now, almost everyone in China has heard that Liu Cixin was the big winner at the 2015 Hugo Awards, becoming the first Chinese novelist to win science fiction’s highest honor of best novel for his book “The Three-Body Problem.” What many have not heard, however, is about how Liu almost didn’t win thanks to a massive campaign by a group of people known as the Sad Puppies who actively worked inside the World Science Fiction Society to block people of color, women, and LGBT+ people from being nominated or winning the competition.

The Hugo Awards first started back in 1953 to honor writers in a genre that, at that time, was largely shunned by the literary community. The Hugo Awards are known for having honored some of the “Gods of Science Fiction,” such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and Robert A. Heinlein. However, for much of the 1900s, nominees and supporters of the Hugo Awards were largely male and white.

But as readers of science fiction became more diverse, so did the authors, and over the last 20 years, women and minorities were also being recognized with Hugos. For one set of science fiction writers and fans, though, they believed the more progressive and inclusive atmosphere of the Hugo Awards was threatening the status quo and decided to fight back. This group called themselves the Sad Puppies.

Liu’s novel “The Three-Body Problem” has been growing in popularity for years. After being originally released as a serial in China in 2006, the Chinese novel version was released in 2007 and immediately became a best seller. The English version of the novel, translated by Ken Liu, was released in 2014 to critical acclaim and was quickly nominated for a Nebula Award, another important science fiction award. Many assumed the novel would be the one to beat at the Hugo Awards, but when the Hugo nominations were announced in April 2015, “The Three-Body Problem” wasn’t on the list. What went wrong?

three-body-coverThe Sad Puppies are all sci-fi writers and Hugo nominees — though none of them has ever won a Hugo. The Puppies believe that race, gender and sexual orientation should not be a factor when it comes to Hugo nominations. However, they also believe that anytime a minority author is nominated, it is mostly because of their race or gender and not because of the quality of their work. They seem to believe that only straight, white males are capable of writing good science fiction.

So this year, the core group of Sad Puppies rallied together people who agreed with their ideology and became the majority voters for this year’s Hugo Awards. As a result, most minority authors were left off the list of nominees, including Liu Cixin.

Thankfully, not all of the nominated science fiction authors agreed with what the Sad Puppies had done. Many nominees who were supported by the Puppies were horrified by what had happened. Author Marko Kloos, who was a first-time Hugo nominee for his novel “Lines of Departure,” declined his nomination, which made room for the inclusion of Liu’s novel.

Kloos said on his blog, “I cannot in good conscience accept an award nomination that I feel I may not have earned solely with the quality of the nominated work.”

Annie Bellet, another first-time nominee who was selected by the Sad Puppies even though she is a woman, also refused her nomination. Bellet said, “I love the Hugo Awards. To be nominated was awesome. But I’m a writer. That’s what I want my public face to be. I don’t want people to think of me as some political figure, or some ball in the political game.”

The Hugo Award voters — fans of the genre — also took a stand against what the Sad Puppies had done to manipulate the awards. The World Science Fiction Society received a record number of Hugo votes this year — 65 percent more than last year. Five categories, those with only Puppy-backed nominees, did not receive enough votes to hand out awards, and Liu became the first Chinese author to take home the best novel award.

George R. R. Martin, the author behind the hit novels and HBO series “Game of Thrones,” wondered if all the new voters this year had gathered to support the integrity of the Hugos, and they clearly did. This year’s Hugo Awards have opened up a whole new world of opportunities for Chinese science fiction, but it is disheartening to realize how close “The Three-Body Problem” came to not winning.

This year’s Puppy fiasco was a game-changer not just for Chinese science fiction but for the Hugo Awards themselves. While it is a good thing that the Puppy nominees did not win in five categories, it means that many excellent science fiction authors — of all races, genders and sexual orientations — were shut out of the competition, which is a great tragedy for authors who work so hard on their craft.

There are currently several changes being considered by the World Science Fiction Society to make sure the Hugo Awards remain fair and inclusive in the future.

Kloos said of “The Three-Body Problem,” “I honestly can’t think of a novel I would have rather seen on the ballot this year than this one. It’s precisely the kind of science fiction the genre needs — hard and entertaining science fiction with great depth and scope. It’s truly deserving of an award.” At least some good came out of this year’s Hugo Awards.