Laurie and Debbie say:
Last week, fantasy writer Jeannette Ng won an award then named the John W. Campbell Award, given every year to the “best new writer” in the science-fiction and fantasy field. Her first novel, Under the Pendulum Sun, was published by Angry Robot Books in 2017.
Scrambling to write a speech on the fly, because she didn’t expect to win, Ng stood up before the audience at the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, and said, in part:
John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.
But these bones, we have grown wonderful, ramshackle genre, wilder and stranger than his mind could imagine or allow.
And I am so proud to be part of this.
She went on in her short speech to mention that she was born in Hong Kong: “Right now, in the most cyberpunk in the city in the world, protesters struggle with the masked, anonymous stormtroopers of an autocratic Empire.”
Today, Dell Magazines, which owns this particular award, changed its name to the Astounding Science Fiction award. Trevor Quachri, editor of Astounding‘s successor magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact wrote: “Campbell’s provocative editorials and opinions on race, slavery, and other matters often reflected positions that went beyond just the mores of his time and are today at odds with modern values, including those held by the award’s many nominees, winners and supporters.”
Peter Libbey, writing in the New York Times, credits not only Ng’s speech for the change, but also the opinion of Alec Nevala-Lee, whose book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction examines Campbell’s contributions to science fiction, also supported the change. According to the Times, Neva-Lee said: “It was clearly the right call. At this point, the contrast between Campbell’s racism and the diversity of the writers who have recently received the award was really just too glaring to ignore.”
John W. Campbell edited the most prestigious magazine in science fiction for almost 40 years. From that position, he was able to promulgate a fascistic, militaristic, misogynist, racist view of the world. He accepted and rejected stories based on their political content, he built and destroyed careers, he strengthened stereotypes and cut off original voices. There were other magazines, other venues, but the dominance of Campbell for decades really can’t be questioned.
Alternate history is one of the key branches of science fiction, so as lifelong SF readers, we are tempted to speculate on how fascistic, militaristic, and racist the field would have been during the tumultuous ’60s and beyond. Certainly, in 1968, three years before Campbell’s death, prominent science-fiction writers split into two camps and took out matching advertisements in another magazine, one against and one for the Vietnam war.
Although there were many important and highly talented front-runners dating back into the 19th century, women didn’t really come into their own as science fiction writers until the late 1980s or early 1990s. People of color, again after some brilliant leaders including Samuel R. Delany in the early 1960s, really took the stage after 2009, when the field erupted with unprecedented online conversations about racism. And just a few years ago, a group of radical white men tried very hard to take over the awards and dominate the field — and were crushed by a combination of public opinion within the field and some very clever organizing.
Is science fiction racist today? Of course. Does it have a substantial contemporary body of literature with fascist leanings? Absolutely. But it is also a field where African-American author N.K. Jemisin can win three consecutive Hugos for her Broken Earth trilogy, where the award nominee lists read much more like the world than like an old boys’ club, and where Jeannette Ng, in a brief speech, can be instrumental in erasing an ugly name from the future of a prestigious award.