“Boring message fiction makes puppies sad.” With this statement, a shot was fired across the bow of science fiction awards, and a progressive conspiracy theory started.
To understand why this is important, you have to look at Gamergate, a misogynistic and hate-ridden event for video game culture that was also predicated on a conspiracy. In that instance, a woman who was producing an independent video game that played to emotional analysis instead of traditional platforming, shooting or object location received good reviews for her game.
Unwilling to accept that a marketplace may have multiple options and thus bring in a larger audience, some gamers targeted first her, then the developers of new feminist and nontraditional games, accusing them of trading sex for good reviews and trying to pollute the industry. These accusations – completely absent of any truth – spiraled into actual death threats, doxing and more.
Meanwhile, in the science fiction community, an actual takeover had occurred. In the same way that studios campaign among the voters for the Academy Awards in order to sway their Oscar chances, author groups had taken to recommending books by their friends to their fan bases prior to award voting. Reviewers for prominent journals such as the New York Review of Books had gotten involved, throwing their weight behind favored titles. The awards had gone their way.
Historically, awards such as the Hugos were popularity contests, with titles by fan favorites likely to win. That had changed, with books that were deemed to be “important” suddenly taking the prizes. It is worth noting that this did not result in a significant change in reading habits. Authors did receive a significant boost in sales if a book won an award, but other books typically fell flat, indicating that the award-winning books were being purchased but left unread. Meanwhile, the traditionally popular authors were still being read in great numbers.
The “important” books were, perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly political in tone, addressing topics such as corporations controlling populations by restricting caloric availability or the notion of gender-specific justice that would be recognized by an AI placed in a woman’s body. A sense grew among some writers that the political agenda was being placed ahead of storytelling.
That fairly apolitical Night Owl piece about Moorcock vs. Tolkien? It was being played out in the general literary world.
Eventually Larry Correia grew tired of it. As a person who was selling tens of thousands of copies of his books, he was exactly the sort of author who would historically have been racking up awards. In an effort to shift the Hugos back to their former popularity contest “glory”, he launched the “Sad Puppies” campaign, targeting books which were focused on presenting a sociopolitical message at the expense of the story.
And that’s where the conspiracy started. In the exact reverse of Gamergate, the Sad Puppies were targeted as being “alt-right” or even “alt-reich”, as in this Guardian piece from 2016. The accusation was that the attempt to wrest control of the awards away from left-wing propagandists automatically made the opposition right-wing propagandists who were against diversity. (Note: the complaints the Guardian reviewer makes about the “Puppies” work are valid; what is ignored is the turgid, sometimes unreadable prose peppering the works which garnered critical praise.)
In fact, most years that the “Sad Puppies” presented their own list of counter-recommendations, they nominated more authors and editors who were women and non-white than the “message fiction” recommendations contained. Moreover, whereas it was absolutely true that there were right-leaning authors on the Sad Puppies list, there were also left-leaning ones. Their only qualification was that the stories had to be engaging and bereft of ham-fisted messaging.
Ultimately, the “message fiction” reviewers started encouraging their readers to purchase supporting memberships for the convention and thus be able to vote for a number of books they’ve never read; simultaneously, the repeated public association with the alt-right has encouraged many authors to pull their books from award consideration if the Sad Puppies group encourages votes for their work. Thus directed, the “Sad Puppies” have been effectively diminished by a concerted effort to keep hard left sf receiving the key awards.
The result of these two events have been a pair of marketplaces which have been inappropriately skewed, and a pair of groups which have been inappropriately maligned. In both cases, conspiracies have been generated to slander those who would dare to challenge the status quo.