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At the Hugo Awards ceremony at this summer’s Dublin Worldcon, Jeannette Ng was presented with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Ng gave an outstanding and brave acceptance speech in which she called Campbell – the award’s namesake and one of the field’s most influential editors – a “fascist” and expressed solidarity with the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
I am a past recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (2000) as well as a recipient of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (2009). I believe I’m the only person to have won both of the Campbells, which, I think, gives me unique license to comment on Ng’s remarks, which have been met with a mixed reception from the field.
I think she was right – and seemly – to make her remarks. There’s plenty of evidence that Campbell’s views were odious and deplorable. It wasn’t just the story he had Heinlein expand into his terrible, racist, authoritarian, eugenics-inflected yellow peril novel Sixth Column. Nor was it Campbell’s decision to lean hard on Tom Godwin to kill the girl in “Cold Equations” in order to turn his story into a parable about the foolishness of women and the role of men in guiding them to accept the cold, hard facts of life.
It’s also that Campbell used his op-ed space in Astounding to cheer the murders of the Kent State 4. He attributed the Watts uprising to Black people’s latent desire to return to slavery. These were not artefacts of a less-englightened era. By the standards of his day, Campbell was a font of terrible ideas, from his early support of fringe religion and psychic phenomena to his views on women and racialized people.
So when Ng held Campbell “responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists,” she was factually correct.
Not just factually correct: she was also correct to be saying this now. Science fiction (like many other institutions) is having a reckoning with its past and its present. We’re trying to figure out what to do about the long reach that the terrible ideas of flawed people (mostly men) had on our fields. We’re trying to reconcile the legacies of flawed people whose good deeds and good art live alongside their cruel, damaging treatment of women. These men were not aberrations: they were following an example set from the very top and running through the industry and through fandom, to the great detriment of many of the people who came to science fiction for safety and sanctuary and community.
It’s not a coincidence that one of the first organized manifestations of white nationalism as a cultural phenomenon within fandom was in the form of a hijacking of the Hugo nominations process. While fandom came together to firmly repudiate its white nationalist wing, those people weren’t (all) entryists who showed up to stir up trouble in someone else’s community. The call (to hijack the Hugo Award) was coming from inside the house: these guys had been around forever, and we’d let them get away with it, in the name of “tolerance” even as these guys were chasing women, queer people, and racialized people out of the field.
Those same Nazis went on to join Gamergate, then became prominent voices on Reddit’s /r/The_Donald, which was the vanguard of white nationalist, authoritarian support for the Trump campaign.
The connections between the tales we tell about ourselves and our past and futures have a real, direct outcome on the future we arrive at. White supremacist folklore, including the ecofascist doctrine that says we can only avert climate change by murdering all the brown people, comes straight out of SF folklore, where it’s completely standard for every disaster to be swiftly followed by an underclass mob descending on their social betters to eat and/or rape them (never mind the actual way that disasters go down).
When Ng picked up the mic and told the truth about Campbell’s legacy, she wasn’t downplaying his importance: she was acknowledging it. Campbell’s odious ideas matter because he was important, a giant in the field who left an enduring mark on it. No one questions that. What we want to talk about today is what Campbell’s contribution was, and what it means.
After Ng’s speech, John Scalzi published a post where he pointed out that many of the people who were angry at Ng “knew Campbell personally,” or “idolize and respect the writers Campbell took under his wing… 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.”
Scalzi’s right, too: the people who counted Campbell as a friend are authentically sad to confront the full meaning of his legacy. I feel for them. It’s hard to reconcile the mensch who was there for you and treated his dog with kindness and doted on his kids with the guy who alienated and hurt people with his cruel dogma.
Here’s the thing: neither one of those facets of Campbell cancels the other one out. Just as it’s not true that any amount of good deeds done for some people can repair the harms he visited on others, it’s also true that none of those harms cancel out the kindnesses he did for the people he was kind to.
Life is not a ledger. Your sins can’t be paid off through good deeds. Your good deeds are not cancelled by your sins. Your sins and your good deeds live alongside one another. They coexist in superposition.
You (and I) can (and should) atone for our misdeeds. We can (and should) apologize for them to the people we’ve wronged. We should do those things, not because they will erase our misdeeds, but because the only thing worse than being really wrong is not learning to be better.
People are flawed vessels. The circumstances around us – our social norms and institutions – can be structured to bring out our worst natures or our best. We can invite Isaac Asimov to our cons to deliver a lecture on “The Power of Posterior Pinching” in which he would literally advise men on how to grope the women in attendance, or we can create and enforce a Code of Conduct that would bounce anyone, up to and including the con chair and the guest of honor, who tried a stunt like that.
We, collectively, through our norms and institutions, create the circumstances that favor sociopathy or generosity. Sweeping bad conduct under the rug isn’t just cruel to the people who were victimized by that conduct: it’s also a disservice to the flawed vessels who are struggling with their own contradictions and base urges. Creating an environment where it’s normal to do things that – in 10 or 20 years – will result in your expulsion from your community is not a kindness to anyone.
There are terrible men out there today whose path to being terrible got started when they watched Isaac Asimov grope women without their consent and figured that the chuckling approval of all their peers meant that whatever doubts they might have had were probably misplaced. Those men don’t get a pass because they learned from a bad example set by their community and its leaders – but they might have been diverted from their path to terribleness if they’d had better examples.
They might not have scarred and hurt countless women on their way from the larval stage of shittiness to full-blown shitlord, and they themselves might have been spared their eventual fate, of being disliked and excluded from a community they joined in search of comradeship and mutual aid. The friends of those shitty dudes might not have to wrestle with their role in enabling the harm those shitty dudes wrought.
Since her acceptance speech, Ng has been subjected to a triple-ration of abuse and vitriol, much of it with sexist and racist overtones. But Ng’s bravery hasn’t just sparked a conversation, it’s also made a change. In the weeks after Ng’s speech, both Dell Magazines (sponsors of the Campbell Award) and the James Gunn Center at the University of Kansas at Lawrence (who award the other Campbell Award at an event called “The Campbell Conference”) have dropped John W. Campbell from the names of their awards and events. They did so for the very best of reasons.
As a winner of both Campbell Awards, I’m delighted by these changes. Campbell’s impact on our field will never be truly extinguished (alas), but we don’t need to celebrate it.
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.
[Edited to correct Asimov speech reference]
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
This article and more like it in the November 2019 issue of Locus.
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