The Gunn Center Makes a Change, and Further Thoughts on the Reassessment of John W. Campbell
The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas has announced that it’s changing the name of its annual conference from the Campbell Conference (named after Analog editor John W. Campbell) to the Gunn Center Conference. In the same announcement, it notes that it is discussing alternative names for its current Campbell Award, this one for best novel (yes, there were two different Campbell Awards for over 40 years; yes, this was a source of no small amusement during that time). “When a decision is made, we will announce it,” the Gunn Center said, which suggests that it’s not a question of if the name change will happen, but the timing of it.
This will no doubt start another round of anguished wailing from certain quarters about the erasure of John W. Campbell from the annals of science fiction history. The answer to this is he’s not being erased, he’s merely being reassessed. And the reassessment is: His extensive paper trail of bigotry, reactionary thought and pseudo-scientific nonsense wasn’t a great look at the time — a fact amply detailed by a number of his contemporaries in the field — and it’s even less of a great look now. As a result, his name is being taken off some things it was on before, because it staying on them means those things (and the people administering those things) would then have to carry the freight of, and answer for, his bigotry, reactionary thought and pseudo-scientific nonsense. And they would rather not.
“But why now?!?” comes the anguished cry. What is it about 2019 that suddenly makes John W. Campbell’s star fall? It’s easy for those angry to blame Jeannette Ng, who in winning what was then called the Campbell Award (the one for new writers, not the one for best novel, see, it was confusing) went up on stage and called Campbell a fascist. She wasn’t the first to say it — Michael Moorcock allegedly said it out loud and in public as far back as 1971 — but she said it while on a stage, accepting an award with his name on it.
But Ng wasn’t an errant spark that caused an unexpected explosion; she was the agitant that caused a supersaturated solution to crystallize. Generations of writers, editors, readers and fans have come up with no personal connection or allegiance eother to Campbell, or his particular vision of science fiction and fantasy. These generations include (and indeed have at their forefront) those who Campbell would have implicitly and explicitly not welcomed into the field. What was basically a long-standing whisper network about Campbell’s reputation became a shout when Ng said what she said. Ng could not have precipitated a change so suddenly if there wasn’t already something to precipitate. This was a long time coming.
Blah blah blah political correctness blah blah — Look. Campbell’s reputational demotion isn’t just because he “once said something that wasn’t nice.” Campbell was for many years the apex editor in his field. Writers aspiring to write in the field wrote to his specifications in the hopes of selling to him; writers established in the field (even Heinlein) wrote to his specifications and to his direction to continue to sell to him. If Campbell rejected a story, writers would send those stories out for submission to other places — which meant that even stories that appeared in other magazines and anthologies were written for Campbell first. Science fiction was made in Campbell’s image for decades.
Right! Which is why those awards should still have his name on them! Hold on there, chuckles. Science fiction was made in Campbell’s image for decades — and Campbell was also a bigot and a reactionary, and liked his stories just so. For some people, he was the primary market to sell to, for better and for worse. For others, he was damage to be routed around, or put up with, and an impediment to the work they could publish. Not because their writing wasn’t good or interesting or important in itself, but because they were who they were as writers and humans, and Campbell was who he was as a writer and editor.
The field of science fiction is what it is in many ways because of who Campbell was. This, however, is not an argument that science fiction was the best it could have been because Campbell was who he was. Was the field genuinely best served by having a man who was a bigot and a reactionary as its apex editor? Jeanette Ng wasn’t the first to think it wasn’t — indeed, entire branches of science fiction literature arrived at least in part as a reaction to Campbell and his editorial dictates. Today’s writers, editors, readers and fans are not inherently bound to Campbell by sentimentality, by duty, or by philosophy, editorial or otherwise. They don’t owe him deference, nor are they required to see his decades-long primacy in the field as a wholly positive thing (or indeed, positive at all).
People aren’t perfect and you take the good and the bad together — but every generation, and every person, gets to decide how to weigh the good and the bad, and to make judgments accordingly. In the early seventies, in the wake of Campbell’s passing, such was Campbell’s reputation in the field of science fiction that he could be memorialized by two separate awards in his name, and apparently nobody batted an eye (or if they did, they didn’t count). Nearly fifty years later and at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, such is Campbell’s reputation in the field of science fiction that Campbell’s name is off one award, and may be off the other soon enough. In another 50 years, Campbell’s reputation in the field may be different again, or may simply be what so many things are after a century, which is, a historical footnote.
Campbell’s current reassessment doesn’t mean he stops being a part of the history of science fiction, or an influence on the field. I’ve noted before I write science fiction in a fashion that is essentially “Campbellian” in broad subject matter and tone, and it’s done pretty well for me, and I suspect will continue to for a while to come. It would be difficult (and dishonest) for me not to acknowledge his influence on my work, or his continuing impact on the field in general. I also acknowledge that so much of the best science fiction and fantasy today is not Campbellian in subject or tone, and written by people and voices I suspect Campbell wouldn’t have deemed essential to the genre. The state of the genre today is such that it has room for all of us, and the genre has never been healthier. There’s no one editor serving as a bottleneck, either for writers or readers. This is good news.
Campbell is and will always be part of science fiction’s history. But history isn’t static, even if the facts of history stay the same. Anyone notable enough to be part of the historical record will find themselves the subject of reassessment, for however long they grace history’s record. It is, weirdly, a privilege not many people get. Campbell was never guaranteed a pedestal, or an award, or a conference in his name, even if he got them for a while. He was never guaranteed to keep them. No one is.