Here we go again. British fantasy writer Jeannette Ng was presented with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at Worldcon recently, the 47th winner. Of course, she accepted the award, and then began to rip the late John W. Campbell apart, calling him, among other things, a fascist. An edited copy of her acceptance speech is hosted at Medium.com with the profanity removed.
Last December, I wrote an article called Is SciFi Author/Editor Robert Silverberg Really Racist and Sexist (or has the internet once again lost its mind)?. Silverberg had created his own response to allegations of his own racism on File 770, a popular SciFi fanzine after, apparently, he privately said that author N.K. Jemisin‘s 2018 Hugo acceptance speech (the third consecutive Hugo she won for best novel) was “weaponized.”
I looked up Campbell, not knowing much (if anything) about him personally, and found he held a bunch of “difficult” attitudes, but then again, he was a product of his times, having been born in 1910 (he died in 1971 at the age of 61). There’s no denying that Campbell shaped much of 20th century science fiction, having discovered talents such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, so it’s certainly understandable that, based on his career, he is worthy of having a science fiction award named after him. Does he have to be a perfect person by 21st century progressive, politically correct standards to still be considered significant?
The award has been around since 1973 and people accepted it with no muss or fuss. Then suddenly in 2019, Campbell is odious and his name must be removed from the award. That’s like the American Library Association removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s book award because of “dated cultural attitudes.” in 2018. Of course she was born in 1867 and died in 1957, three years after I was born, so naturally, her attitudes dated from that era. It’s not a crime, it’s history.
So do we get to rewrite history and delete anyone from back in the day because their beliefs and attitudes don’t map 100%, not just to our modern times in general, but a very specifically skewed set of attitudes, beliefs, and politics?
Yes, I’m uncomfortable with some of Campbell’s beliefs and attitudes, but the man’s been dead for over 45 years.
Just for giggles, I looked up Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo awards are named. As it turns out, he wasn’t a perfect person either. According to Wikipedia (yes, I know):
Gernsback was noted for sharp (and sometimes shady) business practices, and for paying his writers extremely low fees or not paying them at all. H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat”.
As Barry Malzberg has said:
Gernsback’s venality and corruption, his sleaziness and his utter disregard for the financial rights of authors, have been well documented and discussed in critical and fan literature. That the founder of genre science fiction who gave his name to the field’s most prestigious award and who was the Guest of Honor at the 1952 Worldcon was pretty much a crook (and a contemptuous crook who stiffed his writers but paid himself $100K a year as President of Gernsback Publications) has been clearly established.
Jack Williamson, who had to hire an attorney associated with the American Fiction Guild to force Gernsback to pay him, summed up his importance for the genre:
At any rate, his main influence in the field was simply to start Amazing and Wonder Stories and get SF out to the public newsstands—and to name the genre he had earlier called “scientifiction.”
Maybe we should take a look at all of the awards named after people, and rename them something PC and generic so no one gets their knickers in a twist.
According to two time Campbell winner Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:
Jeannette Ng’s speech was exactly the speech our field needs to hear. And the fact that she devoted the bulk of it to solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters is especially significant, because of the growing importance of Chinese audiences and fandom in sf, which exposes writers to potential career retaliation from an important translation market. There is a group of (excellent, devoted) Chinese fans who have been making noises about a Chinese Worldcon for years, and speeches like Ng’s have to make you wonder: if that ever comes to pass, will she be able to get a visa to attend?
Back when the misogynist/white supremacist wing of SF started to publicly organize to purge the field of the wrong kind of fan and the wrong kind of writer, they were talking about people like Ng. I think that this is ample evidence that she is in exactly the right place, at the right time, saying the right thing.
When did the “the misogynist/white supremacist wing of SF started to publicly organize to purge the field of the wrong kind of fan and the wrong kind of writer?” I must have missed that one.
One person commenting on File 770’s relevant essay made a lot of sense:
Douglas Berry on August 21, 2019 at 4:35 pm said:
Dig into any person who was an adult in the pre-WWII years and you will find attitudes and opinions that we, in 2019, will find abhorrent. These lions of the “golden age” were products of an America that was isolationist, had enshrined racism into law, and was strongly patriarchal.
So do we toss them all? Damon Knight was a vicious reviewer who freely engaged in the belittling of other authors in his writings. Do we take his name off the Grand Master award for being an ass?
Where does it stop?
By the way, as an actually sterile white male, I too took exception to that part of the speech. Fascism may have been invented by white males, but one hell of a lot of white males died stopping it.
As I said, you can read both articles in detail, but it’s the same re-hashing of what’s been said before. The history of science fiction has been painted in pretty dim colors by more recent authors and award winners. No, as of 2019, I don’t think women and people of color are particularly discriminated against in the industry. Probably just the opposite. In looking for venues to which I might submit my own humble fiction, I’ve come across a plethora that are accessible only to female feminists (can a man be a feminist?), people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and other disadvantaged groups. It seems that opportunities are abundant.
And according to Wired magazine, the history of women in science fiction isn’t very grim at all, compared to what some might have us believe.
Conventional wisdom holds that science fiction was written almost exclusively by men until the advent of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s. But when Lisa Yaszek, who teaches science fiction studies at Georgia Tech, went digging through old magazines, she discovered a very different story.
“I was so surprised to see how many women there were in science fiction before women really came into the genre in the 1970s with feminist science fiction,” Yaszek says in Episode 346 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I kept uncovering these anthologies with all of these women who were clearly well-known and celebrated in their day, and who I had never heard of.”
Does Ng (and did Jemisin) have the right to deliver whatever acceptance speech she wants? Sure. I’m not sure how free speech rights works in Ireland, where WorldCon was held this year, but why the heck not? Does that mean we once again have to wheel out the argument that people like me are bad, wrong, evil, and must be purged from science fiction? I don’t think that’s particularly sustainable either.
Yes, call a person who they are, but Campbell was just one person. He doesn’t represent all white males in 2019 anymore than Donald Trump does.
All I’m saying, and I’ve said it before, is that there’s plenty of room for everyone at the table.
Science fiction, like many other western institutions, has a sketchy history based on the attitudes and values of the times. Heck, the original “Star Trek” TV series also presents themes that, at times, don’t map well to the 21st century because it was created in the mid-1960s! That doesn’t invalidate its importance, nor does it require that we “undo” the last century or so of speculative fiction just because those people don’t pass some sort of social litmus test.
We can learn from our history and move forward, realizing that in fifty or one hundred years, people might possibly look back at even Ng and Jemisin and wonder what the heck was wrong with their attitudes. I’m sure they’ll look askance at mine, assuming I don’t simply vanish into obscurity.