Rewriting the history of science fantasy fiction
Today’s authors are criticising the questionable heroes of the past. It is a reflection of what’s happening in the world
On August 18, at the Hugo Awards ceremony in Dublin, Hong Kong author Jeannette Ng became the last recipient of the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer. It was a triumphant moment for science fiction and fantasy(SFF).
The John W Campbell Award had been presented alongside the Hugos since 1973. It was named after one of the most influential editors of the 1920s’ and ’30s’ Golden Age, a mentor to such giants as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Robert Heinlein.
But “John W Campbell was a fascist” started the acceptance speech of the latest recipient of the award named after him, and the auditorium exploded in cheers. Nine days later, as online outpourings of both support and harassment still flooded Ng, Dell Magazines announced they were changing the award’s name to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. This was the fastest a change like this was implemented, but it wasn’t the first of its kind. There is a momentously changing conversation in science fiction and fantasy, including a re-examination of the history of the genre.
In 2016, a bust of HP Lovecraft was removed as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award, but the change had caused so much debate that a new trophy — a twisted tree girdling a full moon — wasn’t released till the next year. Last year, after the death of Harlan Ellison, obituaries from grieving fans were mixed with accounts of his serial sexual harassments, including of women author peers. Two months later, NK Jemisin made history by winning her third consecutive Hugo Award for the best novel. Veteran author Robert Silverberg denounced her acceptance speech as “graceless and vulgar” for having passionately spoken against the obstacles faced by black women writers in SFF, again to the thundering applause of the auditorium in San Jose, which I was present to witness. Jemisin’s speech was in more than one way a precursor to Ng’s.
The change in our genre is a reflection of the change that’s happening in the world. As a genre, SFF is fairly new — barely a century old — and, while science fiction in particular (less so fantasy and horror) has always worn a progressive veneer, the stories of progress have always belonged to a small, privileged group of people. But SFF is also a hugely popular and consumer-facing genre, which means trends are driven by those who consume the stories. Changes in SFF are a direct result of the changing reader and buyer demographic, which no longer simply constitutes white men in the West.
It’s both ironic and completely relevant that the stripping of Campbell’s name from the award happened in a year a scholarly work about his career was on the Hugo ballot, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee, nominated for Best Related Work. While Ng gave the speech onstage, Nevala-Lee’s book laid out in detail the incredible achievements as well as countless prejudices and discriminations of Campbell’s career.
The SFF scholarship — a field even younger than the genre itself — has shown up remarkably to document the narrative of a genre which, for decades, existed as informal word-of-mouth in small, cult-like and highly defensive circles. Intellectuals in SFF continue to face harassment from older “true fans”, whose only qualification for challenging evidence is that they have been around for longer. Old and frankly quite poorly written “classics” are venerated uncritically with the fervour of religious fanaticism. (It’s no surprise that L Ron Hubbard, once a member of the same Golden Age circle, did actually found his own religion, Scientology.) The “true fans” are an enduring plague, from once masquerading as progressives to now complaining that progressives are ruining SFF.
On the other hand, while the term “golden age” is ascribed to the formative years of the genre, SFF has never had a larger audience or richer offering than right now. It has only become possible in recent years to successfully criticise the questionable heroes of the past, because today’s SFF authors and their works tower over them, both in their quality and popularity. All of us together are rewriting the history of our genre, and the doors are wide open: you are welcome too.
Mimi Mondal is a speculative fiction writer and editor, and the first Hugo Award nominee from India
The views expressed are personal