Jeannette Ng, John W. Campbell, and What Should Be Said By Whom and When
In the aftermath of the Hugo Award ceremony this year, there’s been quite the harumph harumph about the fact that this year’s winner, Jeannette Ng, started her acceptance speech by offering up the opinion that John W. Campbell, the foundational science fiction editor for whom the award is named, was a fascist (you can read the actual words of her prepared speech here). Immediately there was fallout from various quarters, on the order that Ng was a) insufficiently grateful, b) should not have put politics into her speech, c) should have declined the award rather than denigrate Campbell, d) should have done pretty much anything other than what she did up there on the stage.
Unlike most of the people who are now grousing about this, I am an actual winner of the Campbell Award, so I think I am uniquely positioned to have some thoughts about this.
And what I think is: Hey, you know what? Campbell, aside from everything else he might have been, was a racist and a sexist and as time went on pretty deeply way the hell out there, and from his lofty perch he was able to shape the genre into what he thought it should be, in a way that still influences how people write science fiction — for fuck’s sake, I write science fiction in an essentially Campbellian manner, and it would be foolish for me to suggest otherwise.
Do those bigoted aspects about about Campbell make him an actual fascist? Well, I wouldn’t have characterized him as such, but then never thought to think of it in those terms, so there’s that. Now that I have been made to think of it, I know that the people and organizations I would have unhesitatingly called fascist actively incorporated the mechanisms of American racism into their worldview. It’s not exactly a secret that the actual Nazis looked to the United States’ “Jim Crow” laws for inspiration and justification for their own racism and, ultimately, genocide. American racism — the racism that Campbell both actively and passively forged into the structure of the science fiction genre — is at the very least an ur-text to fascism, and of course racism is so deeply ingrained into fascism today, and vice versa, that you couldn’t separate the one from the other without killing both, which, incidentally, is a very good idea.
So when Jeannette Ng stands up and calls Campbell a fascist, what I can say is: It’s not the argument I would have made (in no small part because, again, I literally never thought to make it), but it is an argument to be made. Nor is it a facile, unserious or utterly indefensible argument, for the reasons I note above, and for other reasons as well –seriously, go have a deep dive into some of the things Campbell believed and espoused; the Venn diagram for “Things Campbell Said” and “Things Fascists Say” is, uhhhhh, overlappy. One doesn’t have to agree (or know if one agrees) with Ng’s fundamental proposition to accept that she has a perfect right to say it, and by saying it, to force us to haul out Campbell’s track record and words to examine and interrogate.
Moreover, she has a perfect right to say it as she is up on the stage laying claim to the award that has Campbell’s name on it. Was what she said comfortable, and happy, and appropriately cheerful? No, it wasn’t, at least not the first bit of it. Certainly when I won I wouldn’t have (and didn’t) say anything of the sort, even though by that time I was well aware of who Campbell was a person, and his various imperfections. But, and quite obviously, I’m not Ng; the world of science fiction and fantasy was literally designed — by Campbell and many others! — to take me, a chummy white dude writing in the Campbellian/Heinleinian mode, to its bosom. The ease with which I slid into its good graces is pretty much a matter of record, and you can believe I was happy to slide right on in there.
The world of science fiction and fantasy wasn’t so felicitously designed for Ng and many others who are not, shall we say, chummy white dudes writing in a way Campbell would approve. She and they have spent years working to make the genre a place where they could work and build and thrive. She and they know better than I the work they had to do, where they found resistance, where they found help and from whom, and what they had to rebel against — and still have to. And she has a right to say all of those things, while claiming an award named for a person who she could argue would have been resistant to her presence in the field. Her relationship to him is not the relationship I have to him, in no small part because he would not have been to her what he would have been to me.
You can claim the John W. Campbell Award without revering John W. Campbell, or paying him lip service, and you can criticize him, based on what you see of his track record and your interpretation of it. The award is about the writing, not about John W. Campbell, and that is a solid fact. If a recipient of the Campbell Award can’t do these things, or we want to argue that they shouldn’t, then probably we should have a conversation about whether we should change the name of the award. It wouldn’t be the first time an award in the genre has been materially changed in the fallout of someone calling out the problems with the award’s imagery. The World Fantasy Award was changed in part because Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar were public (Samatar in her acceptance speech!) about the issue of having a grotesque of blatant racist HP Lovecraft as the trophy for the award. There was a lot of grousing and complaining and whining about political correctness then, too. And yet, the award survives, and the new trophy, for what it’s worth, is gorgeous. So, yes, if this means we have to consider whether it’s time to divorce Campbell from the award, let’s have that discussion.
Now, here’s a real thing: Part of the reaction to Ng’s speech is people being genuinely hurt. There are still people in our community who knew Campbell personally, and many many others one step removed, who idolize and respect the writers Campbell took under his wing. And there are people — and once again I raise my hand — who are in the field because the way Campbell shaped it as a place where they could thrive. Many if not most of these folks know about his flaws, but even so it’s hard to see someone with no allegiance to him, either personally or professionally, point them out both forcefully and unapologetically. They see Campbell and his legacy abstractly, and also as an obstacle to be overcome. That’s deeply uncomfortable.
It’s also a reality. Nearly five decades separate us today from Campbell. It’s impossible for new writers today to have the same relationship to him as their predecessors in the field did, even if the influence he had on the field works to their advantage. Moreover, and especially in the last few years, the landscape of science fiction and fantasy has changed, and Campbell and the writers and forms he championed simply don’t loom as large as they did. Nor should they — if they did, the genre would be stultifying, and, yes, sterile. Campbell and his cohort will never go away, and they still rise over the plain. But they’re the Appalachians, familiar and worn, known and explored. Meanwhile, the Rockies are bursting out of the ground and rising. Tectonically speaking, that’s where the action is. And that’s where so many of the new writers — Jeannette Ng and the other writers on the Campbell Award ballot this year, for starters — are to be found. Which is as it should be.
I’m proud of having won the Campbell Award. It was given to me by fans and it was in many ways my welcome into the fannish community, and the community of science fiction and fantasy at large. My love and honor for the award doesn’t change who John W. Campbell was, and doesn’t change because of who John W. Campbell was. I accept that the namesake of the award was foundational, and imperfect, and wrong in a number of his views. I accept that other people have the right to, and will, criticize who he was, even as they claim an award named for him, and, through the work which earned them that award, make a definitive mark in the genre. Jeannette Ng has done the work, and made her mark, and in her speech, gave me a lot to think about that I hadn’t thought about before. She gave us all lot to think about. I hope we will.
In the meantime, as a former Campbell Award winner, I congratulate Jeannette Ng on her win, and support her right to have said what she said, where she said it. I’m glad to share the field with her, and I look forward to her being in it, and shaping it, in the years to come.