Musings on the Campbell Awards Kerfuffle

20 Sep

As per usual, please keep disagreements (and there will be some) calm and reasonable.

I’ve got a habit of trying to avoid jumping to conclusions, posting commentary and generally taking the first reports too seriously, whatever happens, because the first reports are – at best – often lacking in context.  I find that waiting often adds context, allowing me to see a fuller picture of what actually happened and, slightly less importantly, lets me see what other people (for or against) have to say about it.  These days, you just can’t trust anyone to present a full picture in the expectations you’ll make up your own mind.  People have a nasty habit, now, of trying to serve as ‘thought leaders’ rather than trusting their readers.

In this case, events moved on more than I had anticipated, although I suppose I should have expected that.  The Campbell Awards have been renamed, with the response ranging from ‘about time’ to ‘yet another craven surrender to the social-justice bully mob.’  The idea of renaming the Hugo Award has been ruled out (for the moment).  Another award has been renamed.  And there is, as always, much bad feeling on both sides. 

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

I have never (knowingly) met Jeannette Ng.  I have never read any of her books.  I don’t have any real feelings, positive or negative, for her.  That said, I do think it’s rather cheeky to accept the award, on one hand, while bashing the award’s namesake on the other.  It would have made a much greater impression on me, I admit, if she had declined the award because she didn’t care for its namesake.  Instead, she seems to have wanted to have her cake and eat it too. 

Personally, if I knew the award’s namesake (who died eleven years before I was born and therefore couldn’t have voted for or against me) would have hated the idea of me winning the award for things beyond my control, I might have indulged in a minor gloat.  But that would have been pointless.  The people who voted for or against me (and, in the real world, for or against Jeannette Ng), were not chosen or directly influenced by Campbell.  The award has not only outlasted him, it has outgrown him.

It is a fundamental fact of history that all of the greats, men and women alike, have feet of clay.  We now know that JFK and Martin Luther King were womanisers.  We now know that Nelson Mandela flirted with communism.  We now know that Abraham Lincoln had some repressive instincts, that George Washington owned slaves, that Bonnie Prince Charlie was a drunkard and a wife-beater, that … I could go on and on.  Go back a handful of years and you’ll discover that people who were ‘woke’ for their era are nothing of the sort for us.  But does this mean that we should reject what they did?  The greatest people of history are not weighed down by their sins.  They manage to rise above them.

John Campbell was not, even in the view of some of his contemporaries, a very nice man.  He seems to have been one of those people who was either loved or hated, with very little middle ground.  (I never met him).  By modern standards (and even by some contemporary standards) he was a racist.  He was a sexist.  He may have been a fascist.  (I’m reluctant to say anything definite about that because ‘fascist’ is one of those words that has lost a great deal of meaning through overuse.)  This is not easy to deny.  I’ve read a handful of his essays and some of them made me uncomfortable.  But then, Campbell would hardly be the only writer to make me uncomfortable (and some of them are contemporary writers.) 

At the same time, John Campbell was also one of the founding fathers of science-fiction.  It was Campbell who recognised the talents of people like Heinlein, Asimov and many others.  It was Campbell who gave them a platform and a chance to make their names.  Without Campbell, would we have Heinlein, Asimov, et al?  Would we have a community that has – as I said above – outgrown its founders?  Would science-fiction as we know it today even exist? 

There seems to be an unspoken and thus unchallenged assumption amongst many of the ‘erase Campbell from history’ commenters that a community without Campbell would have embraced a golden age of ‘woke’ science-fiction, in which authors of colour and gender would have been appreciated for their talents instead of being unfairly excluded.  But is that actually true?  The history of racism and race relations in the United States is a great deal more complex than such assessments suggest.  Real-life Benny Russell characters faced more problems than just a single bigoted editor.  Campbell believed that their work wouldn’t sell and he might have been right – I say might because I don’t know.  Campbell’s job was not to purchase works merely on their merits, but purchase works that would sell.  Publishing a story that might not, for whatever reason, sell would be a misstep, one Campbell might not be able to afford.  Could he take the risk?

This was more pervasive than one might expect.  Heinlein, who was pretty much the figure in science-fiction in his later years, had to use a number of tricks to obscure his early non-white characters.  Mr. Kiku from The Star Beast is very clearly non-American, for example; Rod Walker of Tunnel in the Sky is black, but written in a way that allowed Heinlein to claim plausible deniability if this blew up in his face.  (He did this so well that his editor raised suspicions of an interracial romance (miscegenation, in the parlance of the times).  And while one may make sharp remarks about Sixth Column (written by Heinlein, following a plot heavily influenced by Campbell), it should be borne in mind that the crimes of the Pan-Asians of the novel pale in comparison to the real-life crimes of Imperial Japan.

Campbell was not perfect.  Far from it.  But his contribution to the field cannot be denied.  It is certainly far in excess of the contributions made by his detractors.  And yes, I feel we should not forget the good he did, as well as the bad.

A number of commenters have claimed that POC authors feel uncomfortable accepting awards named for people who would have rejected them, for publication, on the grounds of skin colour.  I don’t know if this is true.  (Jeannette Ng accepted the award.)  I do know that I don’t feel that way.  The award has outgrown its namesake. 

To put this in some context, consider this.  The Order of the Garter is among the most prestigious honours Britain can bestow.  And yet, it was established by Edward III, who believed in a number of things I find offensive.  He believed in the divine right of kings, England’s (i.e. his) right to rule France, strict social hierarchy and many other things I don’t like.  And he wouldn’t have liked me either.  A middle-class author with ideas above his station, daring to criticize the divine right of monarchs?  Off with his head! 

But you know what?  If I was offered an Order of the Garter, which isn’t likely to happen, I wouldn’t say no. 

I don’t think there’s a single person writing, these days, who will not be judged harshly in the future.  Depending on how things go, I’m sure there will be reviewers in 2100 who’ll sneer at me for being married when everyone knows marriage is an outdated social construct … or, even worse, reviewers who will accuse me of miscegenation.  Judge not, least you be judged, is not always good advice … but it is in this case.

But there’s a second major issue that should also be taken into account.

I am a nerd.  Like most nerds, I was nerd-shamed at school.  I was bullied and mocked and generally humiliated for being a nerd.  And I was, for most of my teenage years, utterly alone.  There were no other book-readers in that hellhole, the comic-readers weren’t inclined to befriend me and, while there were a couple of other Star Trek/Babylon 5 fans, they weren’t inclined to befriend me either.  (The only nerd-show that was genuinely popular was The X-Files.)  I spent longer than I want to think about being mocked for reading, as if there was something wrong with reading.  That sort of treatment – which appears to be common for nerds – leaves scars.  It makes it hard to empathise with others who have their own problems, but – to us – appear to have it all their own way.

And so we cling to our nerdy status because it is all we have.  Heinlein, Asimov and Campbell – yes, even Campbell – are part of our community.  To erase them is to erase our history.  And we see that as a direct attack on us, particularly when it is strikingly clear that the attackers have either missed the point of the story (The Cold Equations is rather more than a “parable about the foolishness of women and the role of men in guiding them to accept the cold, hard facts of life”) or taken it out of context. 

The reformers, call them whatever you like, say they are improving science-fiction, that they’re making it more inclusive.  But others – nerds like me – see it as the popular kids imposing their will on the social outcasts.  We hate and resent it, because it brings back memories of being bullied for being nerds.  And, on some level, we don’t see it as much-needed reform.  We see it as nothing more than an excuse for bullying.

To put this in some (more) context, there was – at one of my schools – something called gay-bashing.  The bullies would beat up kids they believed to be gay, on the grounds that they were gay.  I don’t believe that most of them knew what being ‘gay’ actually meant – our sex education was very poor – and, to be best of my knowledge, no one at that school was actually gay.  (And if they were, I would not have blamed them for remaining in the closet and keeping the door firmly closed.)  The gay-bashers didn’t care.  It was just an excuse to beat up on people and feel righteous while doing it.

I have the same feeling, sometimes, whenever someone pokes their head into my community and insists that something must change, immediately.  As a mature adult, I can understand that people might reasonably argue for renaming the award, but the bit of me that was traumatised by endless bullying makes it hard to believe.  People who demand an immediate response make it impossible to calm down and consider their reasoning logically.  I’ve found that anyone who pushes for immediate action does not have my best interests in mind. 

I’m not the first person to compare this to schoolyard bullying.  I will not be the last.

There may have been a case for renaming the Campbell Award.  But it should not have been done now, not when a sizable percentage of fandom would draw the wrong lesson from the kerfuffle.  From what I’ve heard, there are people who argue that pressure campaigns work; they should do more of them.  And, on the other side, there are people who are even more determined to resist next time, even if they’re dying on a hill no rational person wants to die on. 

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone … and, looking back from a (relatively) short space of time, there is no one who was perfectly innocent at the time, but – now – is a criminal beyond redemption.  Standards change, people change; can you, can anyone, look me in the eye and say they will never be accused of being ‘un-woke?’  That, ten years from now, they will be attacked for something – in or out of context – that is no longer acceptable.  It is terrifyingly easy to look at a handful of modern-day writers and craft narratives that bash them, that make them out to be things they’re not … is there anyone, realistically, who wants a world where this is a thing? 

Frankly, we – the community – have far more important things to worry about.  The Hugo Voters (everyone who votes, from Sad and Rabid Puppies to SMOFs) are a tiny percentage of science-fiction and fantasy fans.  I don’t believe they’re even 1% of fandom.  The more people go on about diversity and inclusion, the more harm they do to diversity and inclusion … because the people pushing diversity and inclusion don’t really grok humans.  Conventions are becoming less friendly to fans and more commercialised, people are being hammered and blacklisted and disinvited for daring to disagree with the ‘woke’ … I think, I really think, that we shouldn’t be tearing ourselves apart and beating each other up …

After all, if there’s one lesson every nerd learns at school, it is that there is always someone else willing to do it.

19 Responses to “Musings on the Campbell Awards Kerfuffle”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 20, 2019 at 2:36 pm #

    I don’t care what their excuse is, “Dead To Bullies”. 😦

  2. ROBERT S IMUS September 20, 2019 at 4:05 pm #

    Regarding “I spent longer than I want to think about
    being mocked for reading, as if there was something wrong with reading.”

    Nicknames were popular in the USMC in 1970. I carried a couple of EE Doc Smith’s books in my backpack while in the field in VietNam. Decisions on what to carry depended upon weight, do I really need a toothbrush?

    When my peers saw me reading, my nickname appeared. Professor (I also had a year of college). They just couldn’t understand my love of reading.

    Thanks for writing Chris. You have surpassed Weber as my favorite, buy on sight, author.


  3. AshleyRPollard September 20, 2019 at 5:35 pm #

    I, like you, was rather miffed by the recent furore. I wrote a piece saying as such. The more I think about it, the less accommodating I feel myself becoming to the people who demand such changes.

    If people want a more diverse culture then one doesn’t get their by excluding those that disagree with you, but rather by including those that disagree with you.

    My feeling is that what is happening has become the equivalent of a witch hunt.

  4. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 20, 2019 at 6:03 pm #

    And as usual, the “witches” exist only in their minds. 😦

  5. Pyo September 23, 2019 at 4:11 pm #

    Schoolyard bullying background is all well and good, but is that really an argument here? You seem to like making it when somebody criticizes something you disagree with. And it usually seems to be defending people like Campbell. Maybe use some of that outrage to criticize them for a change.

    Also, your position that there should be calm debates about them would be more plausible if you’d show any interest in doing such before somebody voices the issue, thus triggering reactions … the very fact that you (like 99% of all those now suddenly concerned about Campbell’s legacy) only do so in the aftermath of a moment like Ng’s speech shows how necessary these moments are.

    Plus, criticizing something vocally is not the same as bullying. Same as wholesome rejecting women in scifi, black protagonists, or demanding Jewish writers to change their name is not something that should only bother “woke” people.

    • chrishanger November 3, 2019 at 3:36 pm #

      If someone today is picking and choosing authors to publish based on the colour of their skin, or something else beyond their control, I will be the first one to condemn it. However, Campbell is dead – so there’s no point in hammering him – and bashing his fans, and people who respect him, comes across as bullying.

      Really, I consider the debate to be pointless – Campbell is dead, the award has outgrown him, there’s nothing to be gained by digging the matter up now.


  6. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 23, 2019 at 4:25 pm #

    Unfortunately, your last paragraph is about “Straw-Men” not Reality.

    In the “Real World”, the “Woke” are launching Witch Hunts where anybody who “disagrees” with them are labeled Evil without a real trial and without any way to defend themselves.

    Once the Woke Attack begins, anybody who attempts to defend the targets are also guilty of “Bad Thought”.

    Of course, if your “feelings are hurt” by Chris’ post, so what?

    The “Woke” are doing worse than “hurting people’s feels”.

    Reputations and careers are being destroyed by “Woke Mobs”.

    • Pyo September 23, 2019 at 5:14 pm #

      I’m just surprised you aren’t using “damn liberals”.

      Where’s the evidence for any of this? Who gets hurt here? A dead man who was obviously racist and sexist and had issues with Jews? The horror …

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 23, 2019 at 5:33 pm #

        This instance?

        Campbell is dead so can’t be hurt.

        There have been other targets of the Woke who are still alive.

        The real problem with this nonsense is “definitions”.

        The Woke have attacked people who arguable aren’t “racists”, “fascists”, etc but they don’t care about that.

        In their so-called minds, if a person is accused, then the person is guilty.

      • Pyo September 23, 2019 at 5:45 pm #

        It’s just social media in action.

        Attributing this to one particular crowd (if such a thing as a “woke” crowd even exists) is obviously bound to fail – ask for example the developers of Battletech or Ion Fury*, or look at movie reviews of Captain Marvel; to pick a few. They all got targeted by the “anti-SJW crowd”.

        *this is a particularily interesting case, since after having the homophobic content being pointed out, the review bombing by “anti-SJWs” caused the developers to be “bullied” to reverse their opinion on it yet again.

        If you can’t weed out that sort of thing from legitimate concerns (like Ng’s criticism of Campbell. Come on, it’s not even a question of whether the allegations are true; we all know they are. At worst/best you can say they shouldn’t be relevant because it was in the past, but you can only sensibly make a decision about that if you first know about them, and for people to give that a thought it needed Ng to speak out) then discussions are just pointless.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 23, 2019 at 5:54 pm #

        Yes, it’s pointless.

        It’s pointless to talk to little minds who are “offended” by the past and little things.

  7. Warren The Ape September 24, 2019 at 12:05 am #

    ” It was Campbell who recognised the talents of people like Heinlein, Asimov and many others. It was Campbell who gave them a platform and a chance to make their names. Without Campbell, would we have Heinlein, Asimov, et al? Would we have a community that has – as I said above – outgrown its founders? Would science-fiction as we know it today even exist? ”

    Fine. Then rename it after Hugo Gernsback then. He basically did the same thing as Campbell.

    Oh wait! He’s a straight white dead male too! Tsk! Tsk! No way.

    Disney name a character in Tomorrowland (2015) after Gernsback. I think that if that film were released to today, that would have been a no-no too (and the character would be a transgender to boot).

    I am sick and tired of this SJW war against white men. If there’s a problem with a particular one on an individual basis…and acknowledging the context of that time period he lived in…fine. But this Campbell thing isn’t it, despite what excuses anyone gives.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 24, 2019 at 12:10 am #

      I’m wondering when the book-burnings start? 😦

  8. dspring September 24, 2019 at 1:01 am #

    This is not about “woke” or any other real or imagined interest group with a gripe. It does not matter “who” is complaining.

    The question is simple – when is it appropriate to “purge” a historical figure from some honor, award, title, recognition, statute or whatever.

    Everybody probably agrees that a serial killer of small children should not be honored in any way. Those people are so horrible that they deserve nothing but contempt. Everybody also agrees that we should honor “some” people based on their accomplishments. There are people that are worth honoring. I doubt there is much agreement of where to draw the line in-between those two extremes.

    I would argue that the threshold to remove (or deny) a person’s honors should be very high. Either the honor was a mistake (they never did what they were supposedly honored for doing) or that person is a pretty horrible person.

    I would argue that having disagreeable attitudes is not enough. I would argue that disagreeable actions that are common enough in their time to not be unusual is not enough. The real question must be “is this person really bad for their time”. If yes, then disqualify. If not, leave alone.

    Everybody has flaws. People who have a significant impact probably have more flaws than most – or at least their flaws are a lot more visible. Those flaws do not detract from their accomplishments. Honor the accomplishment. Recognize the flawed human behind the accomplishment.

  9. Bill September 28, 2019 at 9:33 am #

    It seems convenient to many to “after judge” some of the greatest influences in our lives, throughout history. Being an American, I do hold our founding fathers in great regard. Why shouldn’t I? They were forward thinkers, and great leaders, as well as humans with faults. Today in America, there are many left-thinking progressives that want to reshape history to their favor. They focus on the faults of the great people in our history, so to lessen the impact of those people on our lives today. The framers of our constitution knew very well what they were doing and why when constructing our constitution. Many should take the time to “read” it again and again. It was written with a purpose, based on the events of the day and the knowledge of history. It is still valid today. But only those that read know this it seems. I enjoy reading, usually science fiction and techno-thrillers. I do read history from time to time. One of the best books, from my viewpoint, is Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” To each his own some say, I do get your point. It is the spirit of the award for writing…..

  10. James Jeffery November 4, 2019 at 9:06 am #

    Christopher, I have noticed that every aspect of our lives are being attacked by the history / thought police. They are not the majority, they are not the downtrodden ( nor speaking for the downtrodden ). They are the leftist bullies of our society. They have no real understanding of what they think they fight for, but their self entitlement leads them to believe they should be heard. So, they shout the loudest and randomly tar anybody who disagrees as racist/ sexist/ homophobic. Unfortunately, the press today seems to be caught up in this (supposedly) liberal agenda (though it is about as far from liberal as you can get) . It is only people like yourself, who have the ear of many, standing up to disagree with them and pointing out the failings of their narrative that holds them in check. It is only good people keeping quiet that allows this ideology to flourish.
    Kind Regards

    • chrishanger November 30, 2019 at 10:47 am #

      Thanks. (Now I just have to get more important (or a louder voice)).



  1. Musings on the Cold Equations | The Chrishanger - October 31, 2019

    […] what you like about him – and a great deal has been said, as is the wont of our woke-world, over the past few months – John Campbell was one hell of […]

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